It is quite a special experience to taste every single vintage of a wine, but that is what I did the other day, when I was invited to a vertical tasting in London of AD The Aviator from Alpha Domus, one of the leading estates of Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.
Alpha Domus was founded by the Ham family, which originally came from the Netherlands. Alpha includes the initials of the five members of the family — the parents and three sons — who established the estate, and domus means home in Latin. They bought land in Hawke’s Bay, in an area that is now recognized as a sub-region, the Bridge Pa triangle, and planted the grape varieties that do best in Hawke’s Bay: the Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. The soil is red metal, alluvial soil, on an old riverbed, over gravel, a variation on the much better known Gimblett Gravels of Hawke’s Bay. It is warm and free draining but with sufficient water holding capacity not to need irrigation.
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They made their first wine in 1996. AD The Aviator, their flagship wine, is a blend of the year’s best Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. Its proportions varying from year to year, and some years it is not even made. The unpredictable aspect is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can sometimes be difficult to ripen in Hawke’s Bay. Merlot is easier, but it is the Cabernet Sauvignon that provides the backbone and aging potential. The producers want a long ripening period, and aim for low yields, paying great attention to canopy management. Nor do they pick too early. As Paul Ham observed, “It is a battle of nerves over the potential rain at harvest time.”
The name The Aviator is a tribute to the many pilots who played their part in New Zealand’s aviation history and trained on de Havilland Tiger Moth planes from the Bridge Pa airfield. So, appropriately, the London tasting took place in the Royal Air Force Club on Piccadilly. And the Tigermoth biplane features as a logo on most of their labels.
Over the years Alpha Domus has employed three winemakers. Grant Edmonds, who now makes the wine at Sileni, and his own wine at Redmetal Vineyards, was their first; he was followed by a Dutchman, Evert Nijink; and now Kate Galloway makes the wine, building on the work of Grant and Evert, benefiting from older vines and fine-tuning the winemaking process.
The winemaking process for AD The Aviator has become established over the years. There is an initial cold soak for the grapes, followed by some hand-plunging and pigeage during fermentation, and then a period of aging in new and used French oak barrels. Finally, the very best of the individual barrels is selected for blending, with the winemaker looking “for perfume and aroma, with soft tannins,” Paul Ham says. “And it must be food-friendly.” At its best, this is a wine that can rival Bordeaux.
We tasted from young to old, beginning with:
2010: 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 26% Merlot, 10% Malbec
Deep young color; ripe rounded cassis nose, with some vanilla and fruit. Paul Ham explained that they want New World fruit, with Old World complexity, and that is what they have achieved in this wine. The palate was still quite firm and youthful, but with underlying elegance balancing some ripe fruit, with a rounded finish.
2009: 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 18% Malbec, 18% Cabernet Franc
Medium color. A light, rather restrained nose. Closed and understated on the palate, with a little sweet cassis and vanilla. Quite elegant fruit on the finish. And generally less expressive than 2010.
2007: 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot, 13% Malbec
Medium color. An elegant smoky cedary nose. A medium weight palate, with some acidity and also some tannin. A youthful edge to the wine, with some lovely fruit. An elegant concentration of flavor, and still plenty of aging potential.
2002: Kate’s first vintage. 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec
Quite a deep color. Rounded ripe and smoky on the nose. Quite a tight palate, with a firm finish. Still youthful with some cedary minty notes. Some length.
2000: Made by Evert. 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 12% Malbec
Medium color. Elegant smoky nose. Quite a firm cedary palate. An edge of tannin with some acidity. A satisfying glass of wine, with balanced fruit and concentration, with length and elegance.
1999: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec
A lighter year; they very nearly didn’t make it. Medium color, with a little age. Soft cedary vanilla nose. Quite an elegant dry palate, with some supple tannins. Elegant cedary notes. And a long finish.
1998: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec.
A hot dry year, which posed difficulties for some winemakers in Hawke’s Bay. Medium color, and still quite youthful. An elegant nose, with some cedary fruit, and on the palate, quite structured, with elegant fruit, structure and depth. Nicely intense, with a hint of menthol from the Cabernet Sauvignon. Did the gum trees nearby have an impact? Satisfying length and depth.
1996: This first vintage was made by Grant Edmonds and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Cabernet Franc and Malbec were not yet in production. Medium colour. Soft cedary notes on the nose and palate. A softer palate than the others, with some elegant cedary fruit. Maybe just beginning to slither off its plateau, or maybe not? Whatever, it was soft and sweet and still very elegant. A great note on which to finish a tasting of New Zealand’s history, with a wine that also amply illustrates Hawke’s Bay’s ability to rival Bordeaux.
Top photo: From left, Darren Chatterton, vineyard manager; Paul Ham, managing director; and Kate Galloway, winemaker. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus
Marilyn Monroe has a legacy of talent, pathos and passion (along with interesting taste in men). Her enduring popularity extends to a wine made in her honor: Marilyn Merlot.
“Every vintage sells out in just a few months,” said Robert Holder of Nova Wines, which makes Marilyn Merlot. “A new ‘celebrity’ wine seems to pop up every day, but there is only one Marilyn, and we’ve enjoyed years of growing demand.”
Robert and his wife Donna came up with the idea for the destined-to-be-cult wine one night in St. Helena over a bottle of homemade Merlot. One of their friends enjoying the wine suggested they call it Marilyn Merlot.
They did, initially passing around bottles casually as Christmas gifts or for use in local charity auctions.
Demand transforms hobby into thriving Nova Wines
That was in the early 1980s. Soon, the Holders realized the wine had legs and officially made Marilyn Merlot a business. They called the new venture Nova Wines and worked out an exclusive agreement with Monroe’s estate for the use of her name and a number of famous photographs.
The Holders, along with winemaker John McKay, a veteran of Hanzell, Charles Krug, Monticello and Napa Wine Co., source grapes for Marilyn Merlot from throughout the Napa Valley, including vineyards in Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford.
The wine is released every year on June 1, Monroe’s birthday. The current vintage, 2008, is, a blend of 84 percent merlot and 16 percent cabernet sauvignon from vineyards in Oakville and Yountville. It is distributed nationwide and costs $29.
For the first time ever, there will also be a Sauvignon Blonde, 2009 vintage, a 100 percent sauvignon blanc from the Yount Mill Vineyard, also available nationally for $16.
Marilyn fans are ardent supporters of the wine
While critics have given their blessings to the wines, vouching for their quality, the real frenzy comes from Monroe fans, who clamor each year to add a new label to their lineup.
The shopping area of Nova’s website, http://www.marilynwines.com/, provides a glimpse into how much past vintages can go for these days. One bottle of 1985 Marilyn Merlot, for example, is listed at $3,800. Collectors are very, very particular about the condition of the label and foil atop the cork, which has featured a pair of ruby red lips since the 1991 vintage.
Nova also makes “Norma Jeane,” a merlot released each year in November, Beaujolais-style; the 2009 is out now for a modest $10.50. A Marilyn Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) was also made from 1993 through 2002. The Holders chose instead to focus on making “Blonde de Noirs” sparkling wine. The 2001 vintage is a blend of mostly pinot noir (76 percent) with chardonnay (24 percent), sourced from Russian River Valley and Mendocino vineyards.
These bottlings feature label art derived from a single photo of Marilyn Monroe: From 1993 through 1997, the photo is a headshot; from 1998 on, it has been a classic full-body pose of the star.
And then there’s the Marilyn Velvet Collection, a magnum (1.5 liters, the equivalent of two standard bottles) Bordeaux blend draped in a red velvet box with Monroe’s racy 1953 Playboy centerfold shot. The picture — which depicts her reclining nude on red velvet — is known officially as “Pose 8,” and it’s the first time the photo has been available on a product. One bottle will set you back $200.
“We’ve seen Marilyn Merlot and its sisters appreciate in value more dramatically than other wines,” said Holder. “Twelve-bottle sets of the 1985 through 1996 vintages sell for as much as $7,500, appreciating well beyond the levels of many first-growth Bordeaux.”
Funny that Marilyn herself was once famous for saying, “I am not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.”
Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.
Photo: The Marilyn label from blonde de noirs.
An attractively priced, screw-topped proprietary red from one of New Zealand’s top producers, the 2009 Craggy Range Te Kahu hits all the right notes. Bright and balanced, with mouthfilling black fruit flavors, yet lively acidity, it’s an extremely versatile food wine. As you might expect from a merlot-dominant bordeaux-style blend, ripe plumpness comes wrapped in soft, textured tannins that check the fattiness of meat dishes, but its tartness complements those with a tomato base too. Additional spicy nuances — cedar and smoke — emerged when I sipped the final glass with a plate of hard cheeses: gruyere, Canadian cheddar, Wensleydale.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
2009 Craggy Range Te Kahu
Region: Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Grape: 80 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent malbec
Too often, producers of high-end, pricey wines adopt a heavy hand with their modest wines. The results can be crude, overweight cousins to their better bottles. Craggy Range specializes in expensive single vineyard vino, but this wine shows they know how to make a solid-value example too. The beauty of the Te Kahu is that it’s not overdone — just done right.
To most wine lovers, New Zealand is best known for its fresh, zingy sauvignon blancs. But the country also produces a range of stylish reds. Craggy Range, founded in 1997, sources grapes from a variety of key regions, including the Gimblett Gravels area in Hawkes Bay. This grape-growing valley, with its distinctive soil types and warm, sunny conditions tempered by cloudy mists, is known for plantings of bordeaux varieties and syrah. Craggy Range has 100 hectares (247 acres) in the region, much of it merlot.
Te Kahu means ‘the cloak’ in Te Reo Maori, a reference to the mist used to protect a mythical Maori maiden from the sun as she visited her lover. It’s hard to know what the actual mists in the valley do for the grapes. The winery thinks this wine could age for 10 years, but I’d enjoy it in its lusty prime.
Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”
I’ll leap at any excuse for a trip to Tuscany. This time it was an invitation to a vertical tasting. As you may have realised from previous articles, I do enjoy vertical tastings because there’s something so satisfying about tasting the history of a wine and seeing its development over the years. This time the theme was Salamartano, a wine that has been made at Fattoria Montellori, the family estate of Alessandro Nieri, for the last 20 years. The very first vintage was 1992. chianti
Montellori does not really fit into the mainstream of Tuscan viticulture. It stands outside the somewhat unprepossessing town of Fucecchio in the Arno valley — an elegant 18th-century villa with formal gardens that are the passion of Eva, Alessandro’s wife. The picturesque hill town of San Miniato dominates the skyline in one direction, and in the other is the Monte Albano, which gives its name to a sub-zone of Chianti. The vineyards in the hills outside Fucecchio do not fit into any of the Chianti subzones — there was talk of the creation of Cerreto Guidi but that never came to anything — and so, in true Tuscan tradition, Nieri’s flagship wine has nothing at all to do with Chianti, or indeed Sangiovese.
The blend for Salamartano, which means Champs de Mars, or Field of Mars, is essentially Bordelais, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and later some Cabernet Franc was added. Essentially the differences stems from vintage variations. There has also been some replanting of vineyards with an improvement in viticultural techniques, and the oenologist, an all-important figure in Tuscan viticulture, has changed. From 1992 to 2000, it was Niccolò d’Afflitto, and then Andrea Paoletti and Danny Schuster from New Zealand worked together until 2006. Luca D’Attoma had a say in 2007, and in 2008 Alessandro felt confident enough not to need an oenologist.
2010: A blend of 65 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 27 percent Cabernet Franc and 8 percent Merlot. The wine is aged in barriques for 14 months and blended after the malo-lactic fermentation. Sixty percent of the barrels are new. This was a barrel sample that will be bottled in 2012. Deep young color. Quite a firm, oaky nose; quite tight with some dry cassis. And on the palate, quite oaky with firm acidity as well as tannins, and a touch of cherry spice. Still very youthful and adolescent, but with potential. 2010 was quite tricky year in Tuscany, with wetter than average weather.
2009: Deep young color. Riper sweeter nose, with some cassis fruit, and one the palate more rounded fleshier fruit. Medium weight with a youthful tannic streak. It was bottled in April 2011. 2009 was a hot year, with an early spring.
2008: This vintage was described as a classic, normal year. Young color. Quite an elegant cedary nose. And one the palate some cedary fruit was just beginning to develop. Medium weight. Quite a long elegant finish, but maybe just a hint hollow in the middle.
2007: The blend changed for this vintage, with the introduction of the first Cabernet Franc, 25 percent, with 70 percent Cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent Merlot. Deep young color. Quite a firm, youthful sturdy nose, developing some cedary notes. Quite a refreshing palate, with some cassis fruit. Medium weight. Good balance of tannins and cedary fruit. Alessandro considers that the Cabernet Franc adds some freshness to the blend, which certainly seemed the case with this vintage.
No Salamartano was made in 2006, nor for that matter in 2002 or 2000.
2004: A blend of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 40 percent Merlot. Deep color. Quite rich concentrated cassis nose. Again quite ripe cassis and cedary notes on the palate. Some solid tannins and a substantial mouthful of wine. Still very youthful.
2001: A normal year. This is half-and-half Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The color is beginning to develop a little. A rounded nose, with some cedary notes, but quite restrained on the palate. Initially quite a fleshy palate with quite firm tannins, that develops in the glass. Nicely balanced with a long cedary finish, and a touch of cassis. One of my favorites in the lineup.
1998: Another cooler year, with more rain than usual. The color was beginning to develop a brick rim. Some elegant cedary notes on the nose, and also on the palate, with a hint of sweet cassis. Medium weight. Nicely harmonious with a streak of tannin and a long finish.
1997: In contrast, a hot year. And it shows. The nose is quite solid and dense, still with a touch of oak. The palate is ripe, with firm tannins and some cassis fruit. It is all quite sturdy and dense, and a touch raisiny on the finish, and fuller bodied than the 1998.
1996: Back to a cooler vintage. Some color development. A light cedary nose. And quite an elegant palate, again with notes of cedar wood, some quite firm tannins and a certain concentration of flavour. Quite an elegant finish.
1994: Described as a classic year. Hints of brick on the rim. A discreet cedarwood nose. Quite an elegantly smoky cedary palate. A lovely balance of fruit and tannins. Elegantly harmonious with a satisfying depth of flavor. Another favorite in the lineup.
1992: We tasted the very last remaining bottle. A cold year, with more rain than usual. Quite a deep color so that it looked younger than the ’94. Maturing cedary fruit on the nose. Quite discreet and elegant. And on the palate rounded mature fruit, and elegant tannins balancing a sweet cedary hint of fruit. Nicely complete and satisfying. And a grand finale to a historic tasting.
Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.
Photo: San Miniato, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George
Ever heard of Gorgollasa? Prensal, perhaps? Try Callet? Or maybe Manto Negro? Welcome to the distinctive native grapes of Mallorca, the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands, which basks out in the Mediterranean some ways south of Barcelona.
Wine-growing started here with the Romans and continued at a steady pace until the end of the 19th century, when the vine-destroying phylloxera louse laid waste to Europe’s vineyards. Viticulture on Mallorca succumbed too and lay stunned, licking its wounds, for the better part of half a century. In the 1970s, when Spain embarked on its dismaying sellout to mass tourism, the island’s vineyards flickered back to life. Mass tourism requires — along with oceans of beer — mass-produced wines. Mallorca’s wineries obeyed the dictates of the market, confining themselves (with a few notable exceptions) to producing undistinguished plonk.
Mallorca transforms to tourist destination rich in wine culture
Hordes of northern Europeans continue to land on the beaches by the millions each summer, for sure. But in the past 20 years, an alternative touristic offering has developed, aimed at a different kind of traveler. In the once seedy, down-at-the-heels streets of Palma, the island’s capital, exquisite patrician palacios have evolved from dilapidated family homes to chic town hotels. Inland, deliciously well-appointed casas rurales (country hotels) have sprung up amidst the silvery olive groves and almond and apricot orchards. Hikers and bikers relish the challenges of the mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. And as upmarket tourism has taken root, so too has the demand for better-quality wines, most of them grown in the foothills of the Tramuntana range, with peaks that rear up like jagged vertebrae from southwest to northeast.
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If you are up for a vinous adventure and enjoy straying off the usual well-worn paths to taste the fruits of unusual local grapes, you’re going to love exploring Mallorcan wines.
The island has about 40 working bodegas (wineries) today. Here are a half-dozen whose wines grabbed my attention on a recent visit. Check Wine Searcher for suppliers near you, or contact locally based Cellers Artesans d’Europa (firstname.lastname@example.org), which ships worldwide.
Bodegas Ribas in Consell is the oldest winery on Mallorca, established in 1711 and still owned and run by members of the Ribas family. The 13th generation is represented by brother-and-sister team Xavier and Araceli, whose wine studies took them first to Priorat, Spain (Catalunya), followed by New Zealand, California, France and Argentina. The family is famous for championing indigenous vine varieties, including the almost extinct Gorgollasa, and the 40-hectare (99-acre) vineyard boasts some impressively gnarled old Prensal and Manto Negro root stocks. Their fresh, mouth-filling, no-barrique blanc (white), made from Prensal plus a little Viognier, slips down as a treat at the beach with a plate of grilled sardines, while red Sió partners the lightly pigmented Manto Negro grape with Syrah and Merlot, bolstered by a discreet hint of oak.
Close by in Santa Maria del Camí is Macià Batle, one of the largest bodegas, with about 100 hectares (250 acres). It was founded in 1856 and has seen impressive modernization and investment in the past five years. If I lived on the island, my go-to white would be the entry-level blanc de blanc, a golden, aromatic, crunchy combo of Prensal, Chardonnay and a little Moscatel. Their wide range of reds (sporting lurid labels, including one designed by artists Gilbert and George) successfully combine Manto Negro with international varieties like Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot in varying proportions.
Vinyes Mortitx is situated on the dramatic, winding road up to Pollensa in a tiny, sheltered valley, which was formerly planted with kiwis and avocados. In 2002, these were uprooted in favor of 15 hectares (37 acres) of vines, both island and mainland varieties. Flaires, a pretty, blush-pink, low-alcohol rosé from Monastrell, Merlot and Cabernet, makes a fine summer aperitif. Come fall, look out for Rodal Pla, a robust but discreetly oaked Syrah/Cabernet/Merlot blend.
Tiny Son Prim (8.5 hectares, 21 acres), owned and run by the Llabrés family and situated between Inca and Sencelles, gets my vote for some of the island’s most original, keenly priced, Mediterranean-inflected wines. The bodega majors on Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, with a little input from Manto Negro. Of their wines (they do both single varietals and blends), I particularly favored the Merlots: firstly a fragrant, gently blushing white and then an alluring, curvaceous, characterful red.
Mesquida Mora is a new winery set up by Barbara Mesquida, one of the few female wine makers on the island. She recently struck out on her own with 20 hectares (50 acres) of local and international varieties, which she farms biodynamically with minimal intervention in the vineyard and little or no sulfur added in the cellar. Look for Acrollam (Mallorca, spelt backwards), a deep golden mouthful of Prensal with Chardonnay, or Trispol, a dense ruby-red combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and the rare, rustic Callet.
At Bodegas Can Majoral in Algaida, brothers Biel and Andreu started as hobby winemakers in 1979, gradually increasing their holding to its current tally of 17 hectares (42 acres) and converting to organics along the way. They combine an acute sense of terroir with an unshakeable belief in the indigenous Mallorcan varieties and their potential to produce quality wines. The tongue-twisting Butibalausí comes in white and red versions, the former a sprightly, easy-drinking drop made from low-acid Prensal boosted by Chardonnay and Parellada, one of the grapes traditionally used for cava. If you rejoice in the resurrection of threatened indigenous rarities, try to track down a bottle of their Gorgollasa, a distinctive, highly aromatic red wine which they produce in tiny quantities from just 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of their vineyards.
Main photo: Colorful labels from Macia Batle. Credit: Sue Style
On a warm summer day, I am lost on the winding roads of Canon-Fronsac, an appellation on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. When I finally turn up more than an hour late at Château Moulin-Pey-Labrie, owner Grégoire Hubau makes a few witty digs about wine critics rarely finding their way to this little-known region. We head for his cellar (hung with amusing portraits painted by an artist friend), where I taste my way through a lineup of a half dozen surprisingly delicious, savory, plush vintages from his two chateaux. Their prices? A mere $20 to $30.
His 2006 Chateau Haut Lariveau is everything merlot should be — darkly fruity, soft and round — while the 1988, 2003 and 2008 Moulin-Pey-Labrie (merlot with a dash of malbec) are bigger, richer, more concentrated. I’d happily drink all with dinner.
As we wander out to a grassy area dotted with sculptures overlooking his hillside vineyard, Hubau says, “Here in Bordeaux, you have big-business wine and pleasure wine. I want to make pleasure wine.”
That’s the story of the Other Bordeaux, a world of family-owned properties I explored for two weeks, frequently losing my way when my rental car’s GPS system failed.
Affordable choices under the radar
People moan about the prices of the region’s 40-plus investment-grade labels from famous appellations. The futures price for Château Lafite-Rothschild is now $1,650 a bottle, and it’s still in the barrel. But most ignore wines from under-the-radar spots like Canon-Fronsac, whose small châteaux produce delicious reds with elegance, balance and classic character that cost a tiny fraction of that.
Sadly, too often convinced that Bordeaux means greedy château owners making wines for billionaires, wine lovers now often bypass the region altogether, chasing value in Argentina’s Malbec. The CIVB, the Bordeaux trade organization, admits the region is losing market share in the U.S.
But my recent tour reminded me why people shouldn’t give up on the world’s largest fine wine region. Bordeaux is still the benchmark for stylish, complex cabernet and merlot, with 8,500 growers in more than 60 appellations making more than 600 million bottles. In the past decade, the best producers, aiming for quality, have embraced winemaking improvements, and warmer weather (thanks to climate change) and better vineyard practices help grapes ripen more fully. Many, like Moulin-Pey-Labrie, now farm their vineyards organically.
Wines grounded in history
Fronsac and tinier Canon-Fronsac have a long and illustrious history making ageworthy reds; Hubau tells me one of the first fans was Louis XIV. Its soil, a bedrock of limestone and chalk, are similar to more celebrated Saint-Emilion, and excellent for merlot and cabernet franc, the main grape varieties. Names to look for include Château de la Rivière, Château La Vieille Cure, Château La Fleur Cailleau.
In Lussac Saint-Emilion, one of the so-called “satellites” of Saint-Emilion, André Chatenoud of Château de Bellevue insists: “Organic is the future for Bordeaux’s small producers.” After we explore part of his acres of underground limestone caves, where World War II American GI’s carved their names, we taste his fresh, fruity white made from sauvignon gris — the 2010 tastes of minerals, citrus and pear. His 2007 Les Griottes red is a light, easy-drinking quaffer ($20) while the 2008 Château de Bellevue is elegant and structured, the not-yet-bottled 2009 super plummy and rich.
To the north, in the hilly Côtes de Bourg, dotted with medieval fort ruins and grand views over the Gironde River, I find wonderfully fruity reds at châteaux practicing biodynamic viticulture. After his family bought Chateau La Grôlet in 1997, Jean-Luc Hubert tells me as we watch dwarf goats eat vineyard weeds, “a catastrophic storm inspired me to begin.” He adds, “Now, we no longer have bad vintages.” We’re tasting barrel samples of a certain great vintage, 2009, so it’s hard to disagree; both the Classique and the more serious Tête de Cuvée are concentrated and rich, with layers of cassis and raspberry fruit.
It’s almost dark when I arrive at pretty Château Fougas, one of the appellation’s oldest properties. “Half the Côtes de Bourg is for sale, because the prices for wines are so low,” owner Jean Yves Bechet tells me over dinner. Certified organic, they turned to biodynamics in 2010.
Both their 2006 and 2008 Maldoror ($25), with aromas of violets and notes of roasted coffee and chocolate, seem bargains to me, but the 2009 ($17 as futures) is even better.
Perhaps the most fashionable Saint-Emilion satellite is Côtes de Castillon, where I catch up at Clos Puy Arnaud with owner Thierry Valette, who’s wearing Bordeaux-colored Nikes. A former saxophone player, singer and dancer, he reminds me that this appellation is part of the same limestone plateau as its famous neighbor. Politics separated the two. Valette, too, has turned to biodynamics to lift the quality of his fruity, plummy, savory merlot-cabernet franc blend.
These are just a few of my trip’s highlights. If you’ve given up Bordeaux, just try one.
Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”
Photo: A vineyard in Bourdeaux. Credit: Anyka / istockphoto
This spring, as they do every year, the most prestigious Bordeaux Grand Cru châteaux gave wine buyers and critics the chance to sample the new season’s wines en primeur, ahead of being finished. The wines — from famous areas such as Médoc, Saint-Émilion, Graves and Sauternes — are not yet bottled; many require at least one year of aging before they’ll be released. But in Bordeaux, top wines — from legendary châteaux like Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux and Cheval Blanc — are in a special category. They’re traded like futures, for their aging and investment potential.
The primeurs give experts a way to taste and pre-order the wines while still in the barrel, and to assess the vintage. All they have to do is turn up. But this spring many stayed away. The 2013 vintage was notoriously troublesome: heavy rainfall in spring and autumn, and an erratic summer caused the red grapes to ripen slowly and, in many areas, suffer from rot. Some of the most influential critics, whose scores are important for selling and pricing the wines, didn’t bother to make the trip to Bordeaux to sample the wines. They gave up on it without even a taste. (Dry white wines from Graves and Pessac-Léognan fared better than the region’s reds, while sweet Sauternes had a very good year.)
For those who did travel to southwest France for the week, there was a surprisingly upbeat atmosphere.
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“If you’re not expecting much, you can be pleasantly surprised,” said Fabian Cobb, editor of Fine Wine Magazine, an online publication focusing on wine investment. “The châteaux who had the means and the best terroirs, who were not hit by hail or too many downpours have produced some terrific wines. They may not be wines to keep for decades, but they’ll make for wonderful drinking in the next five to 10 years.”
Generally, the Left Bank of the Gironde Estuary (Médoc, Graves and Sauternes) fared better than the Right (Pomerol and Saint-Émilion), where the Merlot was hard hit and harder still to harvest in perfect condition. Botrytis (the “noble” rot that is generally undesirable in red grapes) struck many vineyards, and it was difficult to separate the good berries from the bad after the bunches had been picked.
The price of adapting in Bordeaux
Bordeaux châteaux have so much at stake, they spend fortunes each year selecting the best berries. In good vintages, discolored or unripe berries are manually eliminated on sorting tables. This year, even optical sorting machines developed for separating recycled waste and successfully adapted to berry selection were unable to spot the difference between heavy, ripe berries and light, under-mature or rotten berries. Those who could afford it used the Tribaie, a density-measuring machine that submerges the berries for a few seconds in a mixture of water and sugar, discarding any that float.
“The good berries are then quickly shaken dry before being turned into the vinification tanks,” explained Alain Vauthier of Château Ausone. “That’s what helped us make a decent wine this year.”
In 2013, vineyard location also made a crucial difference. Pomerol, the exclusive appellation next to Saint-Émilion, produced some outstanding wines from small but prestigious properties like Vieux Château Certan and Château Lafleur. At Lafleur, winemaker and owner Julie Grésiak talked of her confidence in the 70-year-old Cabernet Franc vines that make up part of her family’s 4.5-hectare (11-acre) estate.
“These individuals have found their balance in this terrain; we were confident they would ripen well, so we waited patiently for them,” she says. The wine, of 55% Cabernet Franc and the rest Merlot, is aged in second-year barriques (unlike almost every other top estate, Lafleur uses no new barrels for its premium wine). Lafleur 2013 was my favorite wine of the vintage: it has elegance, verve and emotion.
By comparison, many Saint-Émilion wines seemed unbalanced: New barrels couldn’t mask the lack of healthy, well-structured Merlot. Château Tertre Roteboeuf was an exception. Indeed, this year a number of small, organic estates that have long focused on helping their old vines maintain an equilibrium with the soil showed that even in difficult years these vines can produce fine fruit.
“We practice an ancient method of pruning that enables our vines to produce well-spaced, aerated bunches, and that helped defend them against the vagaries of this year’s weather,” says François Mitjavile, the estates’ owner. His 2013 was pure, long and elegant, with the characteristic “fraicheur” — or freshness — that makes Merlot in Bordeaux so attractive.
In the Médoc, the flat ear of land north of Bordeaux city, terroir also made a difference. Château Palmer is next door to Château Margaux, but whereas Margaux’s Merlots — grown on clay — were devastated by the wet weather, Palmer’s — planted on deep gravel — fared better.
“We run 60% of Palmer’s 55 hectares [135 acres] of vineyards biodynamically,” says Thomas Duroux, the estates’ winemaker. “This most challenging vintage has made us determined to convert the rest to biodynamic methods too. It has shown us how, when the soils are alive and the vines well-adapted, they can produce characterful fruit in all seasons.”
Further north, another of the vintage’s best wines was made at Château Montrose, in Saint-Estèphe. Like the other top Médoc wines this year — including Cos d’Estournel, Mouton-Rothschild, and Pontet-Canet — Château Montrose has not pushed for too much tannic extraction or depth of colour.
“What counts is finesse, with the purity of aromas and flavour that will guarantee the pleasure of those who will drink them,” says Hervé Berland, who recently joined Montrose as CEO after 35 years running Château Mouton-Rothschild. “We were spared the devastating downpour of Oct. 4 that hit so many châteaux during the harvest,” Berland says. “Vintages such as 2013 are always very interesting. Nature has thrown everything at us, but I’m convinced that with experience — but without panic — we can always make fine wines from these great terroirs.”
Main photo: Horses plough the vineyards at Château Lafleur in Pomerol. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Gone are the days when Greek wine was synonymous with the pine resin-flavoured retsina. Today, Greece is in the process of developing its true potential. In the course of a whirlwind week in Greece with 19 other Masters of wine, we found an enormous amount to explore and discover.
Greece has over 500 indigenous grape varieties, so a day did not go past without meeting a new one. International varieties such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have a much greater hold in the north of the country, whereas on the islands they only represent 5% of the production.
While most of the indigenous grapes will never gain international recognition, there are a few that are worth remembering, such as Moschofilero, with its lightly muscaty flavours, and Robola from Cephalonia, with delicate sappy flavours.
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We tasted some 390 wines from 92 estates, and Alpha Estate really stood out for its excellence and innovative work. In some ways, Alpha is very typical of something that is happening all over Greece, one man with a broader vision developing his own estate.
Angelos Iatrides bought his first vineyards in 1995. He had studied in Bordeaux and worked in Madiran, and then back in Greece he helped create Ampelooiniki, a highly successful research station and consultancy business.
But Angelos really wanted to do his own thing, and with two other partners, chose a region that he felt was ripe for regeneration. This was the appellation of Amyndeon, not too far from the city of Thessaloniki. The Vitsi and Voros mountains are close by, and Bulgaria is in the near distance. Amyndeon, which has had vineyards since 300 B.C., is quite a small appellation, with seven producers, of whom Boutari and the cooperative are the biggest. Altogether, Angelos has 65 hectares of vineyards, including four hectares of old bush vines, which were planted in 1921. The vineyards lie on a plateau, between 570 and 700 meters (1,870 to 2,296 feet) to in altitude and the soil is sandy with limestone bedrock. The summers are so dry that irrigation is essential in August.
Angelos presented his wines with fluency and perception. As the tasting demonstrated, his methods encapsulate the best of modern Greek wine making, representing a break with the traditional and, it has to be said, the pretty primitive methods of the past. Work in the vineyard is paramount to quality and in the cellar oak aging is vital to the quality of the wines and meticulous attention is paid to detail.
2009 Axia Red is 50% Syrah and 50% Xinomavro, so a blend of Greece and the international world, with 12 months aging in oak. The bordelais influence is inevitably strong in Angelos’ winemaking. Quite a smoky peppery nose, with rounded ripe fruit, balanced by both tannin and acidity. The Syrah was planted in 1995, an experimental vineyard in conjunction with the university of Suze la Rousse in the Rhone Valley. Angelos considers that it goes well with Xinomavro, and I couldn’t disagree.
2008 Xinomavro, PDO Amyndeon, from a single vineyard called Hedgehog
Medium colour. Hints of aniseed on the nose. Quite firm dry fruit with a touch of sweetness on the finish, demonstrating the suggestion that Xinomavro is a cross of flavours between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. Medium weight. 2008 was a riper vintage than 2009.
2009 Xinomavro, PDO Amynteon single vineyard Hedgehog
Quite a deep young colour. A smoky, chocolaty nose, and again with a hint of aniseed. Some dry fruit, with the elegance of a fine Nebbiolo. Quite smoky with intriguing nuances and textured layers. A lovely glass of wine.
2006 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines
From the vineyard planted in 1921. Deep colour, showing very little age. Quite ripe chocolate notes on the nose and a supple rounded, ripe palate, with a balancing tannic streak. Good depth of flavour and finely crafted. Angelos explained that there is no risk of phylloxera as the soil is predominantly sandy. He uses horizontal fermenters which avoid extracting phenolics from the grape pips, and he observed that canopy management is important for ripening the grapes, saying, “You can’t just assume that with a warm climate, the grapes will ripen automatically.”
2007 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines
“Reserve” for Angelos usually implies two years aging in wood, but this was only given 12 months. It depends on the vintage. And he uses steamed rather than toasted barrels. The colour was beginning to evolve. Rounded nose with a hint of aniseed. An elegant palate with supple tannins and ripe perfumed fruit. A lovely balance and a long finish.
2008 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines
Medium colour, but not showing any age. Quite a firm dry palate, with some fruit. Still very youthful, with a certain freshness and some acidity on the finish, as well as tannin.
2006 Alpha Estate Red Blend
60% Syrah, 20% Merlot and 20% Xinomavro. Deep young colour, not showing any signs of age. Quite a dense ripe chocolaty nose, and on the palate, ripe and rounded, with some dense fruit, youthful tannin and an edge of acidity. Syrah provides the structure; Xinomavro the power and the aromatic complexity, and Merlot rounds out the palate. Angelos has Syrah, “because I like it” and Merlot is the link between Syrah and Xinomavro.
2007 Alpha Estate Red Blend
Deep colour. Quite a rounded smoky nose, and on the palate rounded, dense and ripe with some firm tannins. Youthful with plenty of potential. Yields are pretty low, with 28-35 hl/ha for red grapes and 42-45 hl/ha for whites.
2008 Alpha Estate Red Blend
The same blend Syrah, Merlot and Xinomavro. Deep colour. A certain earthy smokiness; a slightly sweet palate, with an earthy note and some cassis and a tannic streak. Not as harmonious as the two previous vintages, but probably needs some bottle age. One third was aged in new barrels.
2009 Utopia 95% Tannat, 5% Xinomavro. PGI Florina
It was a surprise to find Tannat in northern Greece, but there is a very simple explanation. After studying in Bordeaux, Angelos spent a vintage with Alain Brumont, at Château Montus, the leading Madiran estate, where Tannat is at its most typical. Deep young colour. The nose and palate were firm and structured, with some black fruit. Very characteristic of the grape variety.
2006 Alpha One, PGI Florina
A pure Tannat. Angelos was evidently very impressed by his stay in Madiran. Very deep young colour. Smokey chocolaty nose. Quite youthful, dense and intense. Firm black fruit on the palate, with a tannic edge. Youthful with plenty of potential to develop.
And we finished our tasting with a couple of white wines:
2012 Sauvignon blanc
Angelos wrote his thesis on the aromatic profile of Sauvignon and has worked with Denis Dubordieu, one of the leading proponents of the grape variety in Bordeaux. This wine had some lovely varietal character, with pithy notes on the nose, and mineral fruit with some texture and weight on the palate.
2012 Axia, PGI Florina Malagouzia
Light colour; quite delicate nose, with rounded fruit, acidity and balance. Elegant with some texture, and some intriguing nuances. It was a lovely glass of wine to finish a tasting that really illustrated the enormous potential of Greece for both indigenous and international grape varieties and showed just what can be achieved with a combination of energy and talent.
Top photo: A small fortress on an islet in the city of Nafplio. Credit: Rosemary George