Articles in Wine

Main photo: Benvenuti winery is located in the quiet Istrian village of Kaldir, where the Benvenuti family grows three grape varieties, including Malvasia. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

In northern Croatia, a younger generation of wine growers is pushing the boundaries with innovative interpretations of their indigenous variety of Malvasia, a versatile and diverse wine.

Malvasia is a highly original grape variety, but also a very confusing one, as it is also the synonym for numerous other quite unrelated grape varieties. In the index of that authorative tome, “Wine Grapes,” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, there are no less than 77 entries for Malvasia, and that is not including Malvasije, or Malvoisie! But true Malvasia, Malvazija Itarksa or Malvasia Istriana, depending on whether you are speaking Croat or Italian, really comes into its own in Istria, in northern Croatia.

Contrasting wines

Although they have been grape growers for three generations, the Benvenuti family only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

Although they have been grape growers for three generations, the Benvenuti family only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

My first introduction to Malvasia Istriana was over lunch in the attractive hilltop town of Motovun, fresh off the plane from London, and accompanying a plate of wild asparagus risotto with Istrian ham. It was a delicious combination and the wine demanded further investigation, so a few days later we tracked down Albert Benvenuti in the nearby village of Kaldir. He asserted firmly that their Malvasia is not related to any other Malvasia. His simplest wine is fermented in a stainless steel vat, with selected yeast, and given a little lees stirring, but no skin contact. It was fresh and fragrant with herbal notes, and a touch of minerality on the finish.

In contrast, Anno Domini comes from 70-year-old vines, and is only made in the best vintages, most recently 2013. The juice is given 15 days of skin contact and is fermented and then aged in large Slavonic oak barrels for two years. It was much more intense, with body and structure and an underlying richness with some dry honey, combined with some firm saline notes. The grapes are picked slightly later for this wine, with a lower yield, and fermented with indigenous yeast. The contrast was palpable, and both were delicious. Benvenuti’s family, although they have been grape growers for three generations, really only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Albert observed that bottling wine in Istria is a relatively recent development, only in the last 25 years.

A perfect climate

The wines made by Kabola Winery spend 12 to 18 months in Slavonic oak barrels, for a textured wine. Credit: Courtesy of Kabola Winery

The wines made by Kabola Winery spend 12 to 18 months in Slavonic oak barrels, for a textured wine. Credit: Courtesy of Kabola Winery

More insights into Malvasia Istriana were provided by Marino Markežič and Marko Bartovič at Kabola outside the village of Momjan. Marino talked about the climate; the sea is close by and they feel the sea breezes during the day and the mountain air at night, so the diurnal difference can be as much as 18 degrees. Annual rainfall can also vary considerably. He makes a sparkling wine that is a blend of Malvasia with 10 percent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so that it is  fresh and lightly herbal.

Markežič talked about the versatility of Malvasia with food. Malvasia is considered to be a semi-aromatic grape variety, and Markežič’s simplest Malvasia is fresh and floral, with a refreshing sapidity on the finish. Malvasia l’Unico is more serious. It is given two to three days’ skin contact before pressing and a fermentation in wood, and then spends a minimum of 12 months on the lees in Slavonic oak barrels. The oak is well integrated, and the wine is rich, textured and characterful. Finally, there is Malvasia Amfora. The grapes, with skins but no stalks, spend six months in amphora before pressing and then a further 12 to 18 months in large barrels. The color is orange amber and the flavors rich and honeyed, balanced with some tannin, and texture and considerable length. They were three highly individual wines.

Aged in acacia

At Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, wines are aged in acacia barrels. Credit: Courtesy of Kozlovic winery

At Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, wines are aged in acacia barrels. Credit: Courtesy of Kozlovic winery

At nearby Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, Antonella Koslovic added further insights. Some of their wines are given skin contact and lees stirring, depending on the vintage, and maybe aging in large wood, but they do not want their wines to be too heavy. Their oldest vines, from the Santa Lucia vineyard, were planted in 1962 and they make a special selection in the best years, with some oak aging, after five days of skin contact. The Akacia cuvée is just that, Malvasia aged in acacia for eight months, for acacia barrels are produced in Croatia. There is a long maceration, which makes for an intense amber color, and the palate is rich and buttery with dry honeyed notes, balanced with acidity.

Antonella added that her husband, Gianfranco had written his university thesis on acacia barrels. Other nuances can be achieved by blending both later and earlier picked grapes, or indeed a wholly late harvest at the end of September rather than late August. Antonella proved conclusively that Malvasia will age in bottle by showing us 2006 Santa Lucia. The wine had spent six months in wood, both 300 hectolitre barrels and 225 litres barriques. It was amber gold, with a dry honeyed nose, while the palate was an intriguing combination of herbal fruit and firm acidity, with notes of maturity and a wonderful intensity. It made a perfect finale to the discovery of Malvasia.

Main photo: Benvenuti winery is located in the quiet Istrian village of Kaldir, where the Benvenuti family grows three grape varieties, including Malvasia. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

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Burgundian Caroline Parent-Gros, whose family has spent 14 generations in the wine business, believes the family's best wines are ahead of her. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

They say you can never step into the same river twice, and I recognized the truth in this statement on a recent return to Burgundy, France.

It’s been 20 years since I first stumbled across this glorious culinary corner of the world, which sparked an enthusiasm for wine. But the current is always rushing, the banks shifting, the river changing course.

Some things seem eternal: Pommard and Volnay are still sleepy little stone walled villages, Beaune is the vibrant wine capital, and the wines and the congregation of tiny producers who make them continue to be unparalleled.

But change is afoot. On April 27 of this year, the region was hammered by a spring frost, the latest in a string of devastating weather events. Year after year, it seems that Burgundy’s notoriously capricious weather grows more volatile, and the littlest producers are hit the hardest by the changing climate. One wonders how they will survive.

The vineyards around the Château du clos de Vougeot are among the most prized in the world, but in recent years the weather has driven smaller yields. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

The vineyards around the Château du clos de Vougeot are among the most prized in the world, but in recent years the weather has driven smaller yields. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Scrappy farmers, prized wines

Burgundy is a tiny sliver of a wine region, crammed into the east-facing slope of a low-slung ridgeline running south from the city of Dijon. Burgundian wines are the world’s most prized and expensive. Yet the people who make the best of them are the smallest producers, scrappy farmers rich in precious parcels of vineyard land but poor in cash flow. These small vignerons could sell their plots for a fortune — and some of them do — and live out the rest of their lives in luxury. But thankfully most choose to work the land and farm grapes, bottling their own small allotments in the tradition of their parents and grandparents.

I explored a corner of this life in my novel “Vintage” and the last time I walked the stone walled vineyards and cobbled streets of Pommard and Volnay was in my imagination. Now I’m back in the real Burgundy, reevaluating what I imagined while interviewing winemakers for a documentary about this current difficult year.

Some of the producers have lost 90 percent of their 2016 crop. Other recent harvests have borne less fruit due to hail, storms and violent swings in weather. If you study the records, you can see a dramatic shift in harvest dates. In the past it was normal for harvest to begin in October or November. 2003 saw the first ever August harvest. More have followed.

Wine producers look into the future

In the vast network of cellars of Francois Parent beneath the street of Beaune, two years’ worth of wine fit into a space that used to hold only one.

Thierry Violot-Guillemard manages his family's estate with his son; he wonders if small producers can survive in the new normal of Burgundy's changing weather. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Thierry Violot-Guillemard manages his family’s estate with his son; he wonders if small producers can survive in the new normal of Burgundy’s changing weather. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Caroline Parent-Gros manages sales and marketing for the family estates. Her forefather, Étienne Parent, supplied wine to Thomas Jefferson; America is still their biggest export market. But now with less wine to sell, that legacy may be in jeopardy. When asked about this year’s slim harvest, she says, “I think that we can face another year … but maybe not one more.” Still, she remains optimistic. “You always expect to make the vintage. Even if you have some great and exceptional wine, you always expect something like the jackpot.” She believes her family’s best wines will still be made in the future.

Thierry Violot-Guillemard is a scrappy farmer who oozes Burgundian character, from his gnomish ruggedness to his broom of a mustache. He’s survived years of bad harvests and a crushing motorcycle accident that has required dozens of surgeries. But even that didn’t slow him down. He produces sought-after wines from his home and facility from the tiny town of Pommard. Though he expresses doubt that small producers will be able to survive another 40 years, he’s grooming his son Joannes to take the reigns of the family business. The legacy will continue.

Thiebault Hubert is a Volnay vigneron with a sunny disposition and a deep commitment to the terroir of his family’s vineyards. To preserve it, he’s turned to soft-touch biodynamic practices, eschewing chemicals and tilling the rows with horse and plow. He believes that to survive, small producers must adapt. “We know that we will actually, maybe never produce the quantities that we produced 15 years ago,” he told us. But he sees a silver lining, as the scarcity of fruit will drive a greater focus on quality.

Thiebault Hubert believes smaller yields are here to stay, but he also feels this will drive even better quality. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Thiebault Hubert believes smaller yields are here to stay, but he also feels this will drive even better quality. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Burgundy’s survival

Burgundy is not the same place I visited 20 years ago. And some day hail cannons may sound from the hillsides, disrupting a pleasant stroll through leafy vineyards. But Burgundians will survive. That’s something I learned from the Burgundian characters I wrote about in “Vintage.” And from the real people on whom they are based.

Fact and fiction may not always meet up. The Burgundy I wrote about is different from the one I see now. But somewhere in a vineyard, or in a dark, damp cellar, fact and fiction come together as they always must. Burgundy, and the spirit that drives it, is forever.

Main photo: Burgundian Caroline Parent-Gros, whose family has spent 14 generations in the wine business, believes the family’s best wines are ahead of her. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

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Samantha O’Keefe went from being a newcomer to winemaking to now having highly touted wine. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Back in 2000, Los Angeles native Samantha O’Keefe took a major chance on a winemaking career and an untested wine region when she purchased a farm in South Africa’s Overberg. Today, her Lismore Estate Vineyards wines consistently achieve 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights, and she’s considered a pioneer of a region that is making world-class wine. “It’s been an overnight success after 14 years of slogging away,” she says with dry humor.

It all started 16 years ago, when O’Keefe, whose career was in TV development, and her then-husband decided to travel in South Africa. They ended up planting roots in Cape Town, where they looked for a business they could develop. One rainy Sunday with their 5-month-old baby, they drove out to a farm on the outskirts of Greyton, a small town at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. As they stood at the bottom of the property and looked up at its dramatic slopes, her husband said: “We could make wine here.”

Pioneers in the region

Lismore Estate Vineyards sits on the outskirts of Greyton, at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Lismore Estate Vineyards sits on the outskirts of Greyton, at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Neither had made wine before and there were no vineyards on the farm, or within 40 miles of Greyton. Four days later, they made an offer on Lismore farm.

Crazy? “It was a vision,” says O’Keefe. The deal was contingent on the results of an extensive viticulturist report, which came back showing favorable cool climate terroir with shale soils. “The research showed that the terroir was similar to that of the Northern Rhone. At the time, everybody was pushing cool climate planting, but Greyton was overlooked, maybe because there was nothing out here.”

The couple spoke to a few local winemakers, including Peter Finlayson, the highly respected first winemaker in nearby Hemel-En-Aarde Valley. “Peter said that if we succeeded, we’d be pioneers. If we failed, no one would care. When all was said and done, we made an educated guess that it could be very special.” By 2004, they had planted 36,000 vines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Northern Rhone varietals Syrah and Viognier, the two that are Lismore’s most critically acclaimed today and “taste like nothing else coming out of South Africa,” she says.

They then set about building their dream house, “a cross between Cape vernacular and California ranch,” high up on the 740-acre property, and they had a second child. There were many initial shocks, including a house that was way over budget, but this was nothing compared to what happened on the eve of Lismore’s first harvest in 2008, when O’Keefe’s husband unexpectedly left. “It was a shock, but the next day I had to get up and start making wine.” A few months later, the global financial crisis hit, and things got even tougher.

“I had borrowed millions of rands that I needed to pay back, when suddenly the world ground to a complete standstill. I was desperate and tried to sell the farm but couldn’t. Finally I was able to sell 20 percent of the property, which enabled me to pay off my debt.”

Gaining notice

A worker at Lismore Estates, which consistently achieves 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

A worker at Lismore Estates, which consistently achieves 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

In 2012, friends pooled funds to buy O’Keefe a ticket to London, so that she could participate in the Beautiful South, a show featuring wines from South Africa, Argentina and Chile. At the show, she stood across from Neal Martin, who she didn’t know was a Robert Parker reviewer. After tasting her wine, Martin said: “I hope you have distribution, because when people read my report they’ll be banging down your door.” He gave her Chardonnay and Viognier 92 points. That’s when things started to change, for the better.

Today, she is most proud of her Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc, “a wine that is outside of the box by South African standards, more winemaker-driven than my others, and more style than terroir.” The list of Lismore accolades is long, with her 2014 Syrah on the Robert Parker Wine Advocate Best 50 List of 2015 and the 2013 Lismore Viognier named one of Tim Atkin’s Wines of the Year. More than half her wines are exported to the United States and Europe.

The fact that a virgin winemaker could make such a success is as captivating as her wines. O’Keefe is proud, but also grounded. “Winemaking is not rocket science. It’s chemistry, which I’ve always loved, as well as schlep. I also had the best minds in the area on speed dial.”

There are still no other commercial producers in Greyton, but O’Keefe thinks it’s only a matter of time before she has winemaking neighbors. “South Africa is a really exciting place to be in the wine industry today,” she says. “Small producers have the freedom to experiment and push boundaries, and we are benchmarking wines against the best of the world for the first time.”

The Lismore Estate wines can be bought at timelesswines.com.

Main photo: Samantha O’Keefe went from being a newcomer to winemaking to now having highly touted wine. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

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Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant

A stroll down the yogurt aisle of any grocery store will tell you that probiotics are good for the human digestive system and can promote a healthy gut. But did you know that they can also help make better wine? In Spain’s remote Priorat region, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, a winery called Morlanda is using probiotics to grow stronger, healthier grape vines.

While Priorat’s gnarly old vines produce some of Spain’s most revered wines — intense and powerful reds made from Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignane) grapes — that wasn’t always the case. The area’s vineyards suffered years of neglect during the reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, until after his death in 1975. Priorat was nearly forgotten as a wine region until the late 1980s, when a visionary band of vintners dedicated themselves to revitalizing it.

The region has made a remarkable turnaround in the last 15 years, but even so, Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents significant challenges to both grape vines and vineyard workers.

“The tortuous geography of this area means that the vineyards have to be cultivated on slopes so steep that it is necessary, in some cases, to build terraces,” said Judit Llop, Morlanda’s winemaker and vineyard manager since 2003. “Some of these terraces are so narrow that two rows of vines barely fit and mechanical access is impossible.”

What’s more, due to the rocky soil and hot, dry climate, “The vines are weak and consequently result in rather poor harvests, with very low grape yields,” she added.

Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents challenges for growers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents challenges for growers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Years of chemical treatments have further weakened the soil, leading Llop to seek out new ways to bring it back to life. “Our vineyard philosophy starts with the health of the soil, and for this reason we started to investigate how we could regenerate it,” she said. “We wanted to increase soil biodiversity and encourage microbial activity.”

Enter probiotics

In 2013, with the resources of Morlanda’s parent company, the Freixenet Group, behind her, Llop began a probiotics trial with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in nearby Tarragona, designed to improve the soil and boost the plants’ immune systems. Sprayed onto the vineyard floor and plants, the probiotics make it easier for the vines to assimilate micronutrients.

The process is done in four stages.

“Treatment of the soil in the fall is very important and is known as ‘vaccination,'” she said. “The positive microorganisms, resistant to low temperatures, will mineralize the organic waste — leaves, dry grass and branches — and prepare the soil with the micro and macro elements necessary for plant vegetation.”

Probiotics are applied again before flowering, this time to the plants themselves. “This period is the hardest in their development,” Llop said. “Vines make a huge effort to vegetate while they are maximizing exposure to attacks by diseases. Therefore, during this time, positive microflora is given to the plant for protection and to prevent the development of parasitic and harmful microflora.”

The third treatment happens after bloom, when grape clusters are formed, and the fourth is done during the grapes’ ripening phase.

Old, gnarly vines struggle in Priorat’s hot, dry climate and rocky soils. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Old, gnarly vines struggle in Priorat’s hot, dry climate and rocky soils. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

While the process isn’t cheap, as a huge amount of expensive probiotics must be applied during the first three years of treatment, Llop said the results thus far have been impressive. “After applying probiotics, the vineyard root systems have developed much better,” she explained. “The grapes produce significantly greater amounts of fiber, and that allows more intensive utilization of nutrients. Strengthening the natural immunity of the vines, they become more resistant to low temperatures, pathogens and various kinds of pests.”

Llop said she’s definitely noticed a difference in the vineyards that have not been treated. “They need more soil additions, such as sulfur and copper, in the ones where we are not using probiotics.”

Along with producing traditional wines, such as the Vi de Guarda Morlanda — a powerfully beautiful blend of Garnacha and Cariñena — Llop is experimenting with a natural wine made from probiotic Garnacha grapes and fermented in clay amphorae.

Morlanda’s flagship red is made from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes, some of which are grown with the help of probiotics. Credit: Copyright 2016, courtesy of the Freixenet Group

Morlanda’s flagship red is made from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes, some of which are grown with the help of probiotics. Credit: Copyright 2016, courtesy of the Freixenet Group

If Llop’s vineyard trials prove successful in the long term, and the use of probiotics is adopted by other wineries in the region, Priorat’s already-acclaimed wines stand to reach even greater heights in the years to come.

Main photo: Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant

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A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles

It is not often that I visit a wine region that has grape varieties I have never heard of. But that happened in Gaillac, a small appellation in southwest France, near the city of Albi, that is best known for its associations with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and its dramatic red brick cathedral that looks more like a fortified castle. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region.

A range of styles

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l'El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

The wine styles range from the firmly dry, as well as sparkling, to the intensely rich and sweet, with rosé and lighter or richer reds, according to the blend of grapes. Most red Gaillac is based on Braucol, a grape variety not found elsewhere in the southwest, where it can also be called Fer Servadou or Mansois. It has some wonderfully fragrant fruit, with perfume as well as tannin. Duras is another important variety and is rich and sturdy, and has absolutely nothing to do with the nearby Côtes de Duras. You might also encounter Syrah, Gamay and Cabernet, but completely new to me was Prunelart.

For white wines, Gaillac Mauzac is the most important variety, but there is not just one Mauzac. The Plageoles family have seven different variations in their vineyards. In addition, they have Ondenc, another old traditional variety of the appellation, as well as Len de l’El and Muscadelle. There also is Verdanel, another original variety, which they are working hard to revive.

The charms of Gaillac, for the countryside is stunningly beautifully with gentle undulating hills and little villages, has attracted outsiders. An English couple, Margaret and Jack Reckitt, were looking for a vineyard — they had tried the Languedoc and were en route to Bergerac — when they stopped in Gaillac and found Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Their first vintage was 2012 and they have quickly established a convincing range of wines. Their Mauzac Vieilles Vignes from 65-year-old vines grown on a rocky limestone plateau portrays all the character of Mauzac, with intense saline flavors and a firm sappy note. As Margaret explained, white Gaillac may be a pure varietal, but red Gaillac must always be a blend, so their reserve red comes from Syrah, Braucol and Duras, with firm peppery flavours.

Four generations of Plageoles

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

In contrast, the Plageoles have been in Gaillac for at least four generations. We met Florent; his father, Bernard, is approaching retirement and his grandfather, Robert, is generally considered to be the great pioneer of Gaillac, reviving many lost grape varieties and wine styles. The range of the Plageoles’ wines amply illustrates that. Altogether, they have 86 acres of vines in 50 different plots. Our tasting began with the wine that accounts for a quarter of their production, Mauzac Nature, which is lightly sparkling and gently sweet. The initial fermentation is stopped, leaving some residual sugar, and the wine is filtered à manches, an ancient technique. It is almost impossible to describe; Florent demonstrated it, showing us a piece of material that looked like heavy cotton baggy sleeves through which the wine is wrung. The wine is then bottled, but the fermentation starts again in the spring. The wine is not disgorged, so there is always a light sediment. And the taste is soft and honeyed.

Verdanel is an old variety, for which their first vintage was 2001, initially from half an acre, but they will have 2 ½ more acres coming into production this year. The flavors are crisp and fresh, with some herbal notes and firm minerality, wonderfully original and intriguing, and amply justifying a revival. There was also a sappy Mauzac Vert and a sweet late harvest Len de l’El made from passerillé, dried grapes; Muscadelle too was rich and honeyed. They have seven acres of Ondenc, from which they make three different wines, a dry wine, from grapes picked in mid-September; a sweet wine, from grapes that are dried on the vine until the beginning of October and a liquoreux, picked in mid-October

As for red wines, they prefer to label them by variety, despite the requirements of the appellation. We tried a Mauzac Noir, which was fresh and peppery; a perfumed Braucol , a sturdier Duras, which was firm and tannic, and Prunelart, a member of the Malbec family. Robert Plageoles saved it, taking cuttings from a vineyard that was going to be pulled up.

The Plageoles family have also maintained the tradition for Vin de Voile, from Mauzac, mainly Vert and Roux. They make a dry white wine that is put into barrels for seven years. The result is not dissimilar to an intense amontillado sherry, with dry nutty fruit and a long finish. It was a wonderful example of the vinous originality that you might encounter when you go off the beaten track in La France profonde.

Main photo: A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles

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Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

In the world of craft beer and spirits, imagination and product innovation are never in short supply. Persimmon ale? Check. Smoked bourbon? Yep. Oyster stout? You betcha. But when it comes to wine, experimentation is usually limited to combining grape varieties that don’t traditionally go together. (Tempranillo with Merlot? Crazy!)

The U.S. wine industry racks its collective brain about how to capture some of the magic of other craft beverages, but at the same time, many vintners are reluctant to try something different in the cellar. Years of tradition, combined with the lingering feeling that U.S. wines still need to prove their worth on the world stage, have led to instinctive eye rolling at the mention of any wine that dares to venture beyond the use of lesser-known grape varieties.

Would it be so unthinkable for a vintner to produce a wine infused with locally grown berries, or partner with a craft distiller to age a wine in used bourbon barrels?

It’s already starting to happen.

Prairie Berry, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, specializes in fruit-infused wines such as Blue Suede Shoes, a blend of Zinfandel grapes and blueberries.

“At the start of my wine-making career, almost everything I made was unconventional,” Prairie Berry winemaker Sandi Vojta said. “I made wild fruit wines from South Dakota! I was by nature never a follower of traditions, and learning to make wine with unconventional fruit reinforced that in me. I have had the opportunity to wear traditional wine-making shoes as well, and doing so has taught me to respect and embrace all wine styles.”

Even mainstream wineries are starting to branch out. In late 2014, Fetzer released its “1000 Stories” Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel, and in January, Robert Mondavi Private Selection launched a limited edition Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels.

According to Robert Mondavi Private Select winemaker Jason Dodge, aging in bourbon barrels is “ideal for use in Cabernet, because Cabernet has such an intensely rich fruit character. Instead of overwhelming the wine it actually integrates with (the barrels) very well.” The most exciting thing about the project, he said, is being able to combine the art of wine making with the craft of bourbon production.

And why not? There’s no reason craft distillers and brewers should have all the fun.

Adventures in wine drinking

Tired of the same old Cab? Check out these boldly unconventional wines:

Blueberries are added to Zinfandel grapes to make this South Dakota wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Blueberries are added to Zinfandel grapes to make this South Dakota wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Prairie Berry Blue Suede Shoes, South Dakota ($40): This fruit-infused wine is made with Zinfandel grapes and blueberries. It has a light ruby color, aromas and flavors of ripe blueberries and a pleasant sweetness balanced with acidity. Try it with blueberry pie or pungent blue cheese.

This creative Cab is aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

This creative Cab is aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Baker-Bird Kentucky Black Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99): This Kentucky winery ages its Cabernet for one year in used, heavy-charred bourbon barrels. The resulting wine has a spicy aroma with underlying herbal notes. It has red fruit flavors and lively acidity, along with notes of toasted oak and vanilla.

With its blue hue and festive bubbles, Blanc de Bleu is a head turner. Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

With its blue hue and festive bubbles, Blanc de Bleu is a head turner. Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Blanc de Bleu Cuvée Mousseux Brut, California ($24.95): Packaged in a crystal-clear bottle to show off the wine’s Tiffany-blue color, this is a grape-based sparkler with blueberry extract added. While you might expect it to be sweet, the wine is technically dry. It’s light and fruity on the palate, with subtle blueberry and green apple notes.

Baking spices give this Zinfandel blend a chai-like character. Copyright 2016 Spicy Vines

Baking spices give this Zinfandel blend a chai-like character. Copyright 2016 Spicy Vines

Spicy Vines Original Blend Signature Spiced Wine, California ($23): Inspired by German glühwein, this is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Grenache, infused with cinnamon, cardamom, clove and allspice. The wine has chai-like aromas, and flavors of spiced red fruit. The wine is slightly sweet and can be served at room temperature, warm (think mulled wine), chilled or mixed into cocktails.

Main photo: Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

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At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Vineyard tours were once reserved for people in the industry along with members of the media and wine clubs. Now, though, a handful of wineries in Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast are redefining the wine-tasting experience and making such tours available to visitors by appointment. Among them, Adelaida Cellars, Halter Ranch, Alta Colina and Steinbeck Vineyards will immerse visitors in the region’s terroir and wines.

Visiting the vineyards in spring catches bud break on vines, signaling the end of winter dormancy. The fields are a riot of color, with mustard flower, lupine and cover crops such as clover and barley planted between vine rows, creating a picture-perfect vineyardscape.

An opportunity to showcase the vineyards

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

At Steinbeck Vineyards, tours were initiated by fifth-generation farmer Cindy Steinbeck in 2003 to showcase the family’s ranch.

Since the 1880s and for seven generations, the Steinbeck family has been the steward of a 600-acre property, 520 acres of which are planted with 13 grape varieties sourced by such noted wineries as Eberle, Justin and J. Lohr. The Steinbecks started bottling their wine in 2006 with a small production focusing on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Viognier.

The one-hour “Crash Course” tour (named after the B26 aircraft that crashed on the property in 1956) with Steinbeck and her 3-year-old Yorkie, Cri-Cri, is a roller-coaster journey through the vineyards. Tours change with the seasons.

“In fall we encourage visitors to walk around the vineyards, give them clippers to taste the fruit,” Steinbeck said.

The winery from top to bottom, inside and out

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Bob Tillman’s two-hour Top-to-Bottom tour of Alta Colina starts in the hillside vineyards and works its way down to the tasting room, where the groups savor the Rhône blends. “This is not a produced tour, no tours are the same,” he said of the exploration of the 130-acre ranch, which has 31 acres planted with Rhône grape varieties.

Heading up to 500 feet elevation, tour groups see the exposed calcareous-rich hillside and learn about different types of trellising in the vineyards while trekking knee-deep in wildflowers dotting the organic Grenache vineyard.

“This gives you a vague idea of behind the scene of what goes in the bottle,” Tillman said.

Under an old oak tree, Tillman poured the 2012 Baja Colina, a white Rhône blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. “We are actually tasting wines in an environment where they are grown,” he said. The wine tastes delicious, laced with aromatics filling the air — and some debris from the nearby oak tree.

It’s a heady experience tasting Adelaida Cellars’s silky Pinot Noir standing amid the legendary HMR Pinot Noir vineyard. Or the minerality of Zinfandel at the foot of Michael’s Zinfandel Vineyard planted at 1,800 feet elevation, rich with rocky limestone soil.

Tailgating too

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Adelaida Cellars’ Tour, Taste & Tailgate (TT&T) takes visitors through such iconic vineyards as Viking, Anna’s and HMR. (Planted in 1964 by Beverly Hills cardiologist Stanley Hoffman, HMR is regarded as the oldest Pinot Noir-producing vineyard on the Central Coast).

Glenn Mitton, the winery’s ambassador, begins the tour at the newly remodeled winery and hospitality center, where visitors taste a white and red Rhône blend from Anna’s vineyard and the inky Syrah Reserve, among others.

Rising to 2,300 feet, the vast 1,900-acre estate is planted with 700-plus acres of organic walnut orchards and 157 acres of vineyards.

Mitton pointed to owl boxes and raptor perches used for pest control and rows of neatly tucked netting under the vines. “We pull up the net over the vines like panty hose,” Mitton said of the bird-control practice used in the summer.

Dating back to the 1880s, the 2,000-acre Halter Ranch Vineyard is nature’s haven, with a mere 280 acres planted to Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. The rest of the ranch is dotted with redwood and oak trees and home to some 52 species of birds. The ranch is lush with gardens, a 5-acre holding pond and the seasonal Las Tablas Creek, which also functions as a wildlife corridor.

At Lion’s Point, the tour includes a taste of the refreshing 2015 Rosé of red Rhône varieties and, further up the hill, the 2013 Ancestor, a rich blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  A gentle breeze blew in some debris from a massive, ancestral oak estimated to be 500 years old and known as the largest coast live oak in California.

Upon returning to the winery and its 20,000-square-foot caves, visitors finish with a tasting of Rhône and Bordeaux blends that reflect the history and terroir of the ranch.

Trekking through Paso Robles’ scenic hillside vineyards offers a wine experience well beyond the swirl-sniff-sip scene of the tasting room.

Main photo: At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

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The Chablis vineyards of 2014 have produced a wonderful vintage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

2014 is a great vintage in Chablis. Although June was hot and sunny, July and August were cooler than usual. As in so many years, things were not looking great at the beginning of September in this region of France, but once again the vintage was saved by a dry, sunny September, ensuring perfect conditions for the harvest. And the result is wine — now just being released — that has the razor-sharp acidity and flinty minerality that is the benchmark of all good Chablis, wines with a purity of fruit that will develop in bottle over a number of years.

What follows could be described as my shopping list. The premiers and grands crus of Chablis offer great value, compared to some of the more prestigious names of the Côte d’Or.

Chablis, Cuvée Chatillon, Domaine des Hâtes

Pierrick Laroche, who established his estate in 2010, already has a strong vintage in 2014. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Pierrick Laroche, who established his estate in 2010, already has a strong vintage in 2014. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

This is a relatively new estate, with a first vintage in 2010, when Pierrick Laroche took the family vines out of the cooperative. Chatillon is a new cuvée, just 2.4 acres of 45-year-old vines in the village of Maligny, with more depth and weight than his basic Chablis, with a small percentage of wine fermented in oak, and given 15 months élevage.

Chablis Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Gilbert Picq

Didier Picq now runs the family estate begun by his father. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Didier Picq now runs the family estate begun by his father. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

A wine of great concentration with balancing minerality coming from vines that are more than 60 years old. They adjoin the premier cru vineyard of Vaucoupin and the difference between the two is pretty imperceptible. This is family estate, with a first bottling by Gilbert Picq in 1981. These days, it is his son, Didier, who makes the wine, representing a shift in two generations from polyculture to viticulture and from selling wine in bulk to bottle.

Chablis 1er cru, Côte de Léchet, Domaine des Malandes

Lyne Marchive, a member of an old Chablis family, produces steely, flinty wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Lyne Marchive, a member of an old Chablis family, produces steely, flinty wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Lyne Marchive is a member of an old Chablis family, the Tremblays, and she has firm ideas about how Chablis should taste. It must have a purity of fruit, with stony minerality. And her Côte de Léchet, from the left bank of the river Serein, above the village of Milly, is just that, steely and flinty, with enough structure to sustain 5 or 10 years aging in bottle.

Chablis 1er cru l’Homme Mort, Domaine Adhémar et Francis Boudin

Francis Boudin and his father, Adhémar, are among the venerable wine growers of Chablis. Credit : Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Francis Boudin and his father, Adhémar, are among the venerable wine growers of Chablis. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Adhémar Boudin is now 95 and one of the venerable wine growers of Chablis — I always think his name befits that of a crusading knight. These days it is his son, Francis, who makes the wine, and they were the first to separate their vines of l’Homme Mort from the much larger cru of Fourchaume. Compare the two and l’Homme Mort is firmer and flintier, and almost austere, while Fourchaume is a little richer and fuller on the palate.

Chablis 1er cru Vaillons, Domaine William Fèvre

The talented winemaker Didier Seguier plays an important part at Domaine William Fèvre. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

The talented winemaker Didier Seguier plays an important part at Domaine William Fèvre. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

William Fèvre played an important part in the expansion of the vineyards of Chablis, and his estate boasts vines from virtually all the grand crus. In 1998 he sold to the champagne house of Henriot, who also own Bouchard Père et Fils, and the estate has gone on to even greater things with the talented winemaker Didier Seguier. I could have chosen virtually any of Didier’s wines in 2014, even his Petit Chablis, but have opted for the firm, flinty Vaillons with its elegant lift on the finish. Although a small proportion of the wine is fermented in old barrels, you are simply not aware of the oak impact on the palate, other than the addition of a little more weight and body.

Chablis grand cru les Clos Domaine Jean-Paul Droin

Benoit Droin, son of founder Jean-Paul, now makes the wine at an estate going back to the beginning of the 19th century. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

Benoit Droin, son of founder Jean-Paul, now makes the wine at an estate going back to the beginning of the 19th century. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand

This is another old family estate, going back to the beginning of the 19th century. These days it is Benoit, Jean-Paul’s son, who makes the wine, and on a visit to Chablis a couple of years ago, I was introduced to the 16th generation, Louis, in a stroller. Jean-Paul was enthusiastic about aging Chablis in new oak, whereas Benoit exercises a more restrained and subtle hand in the cellar, to very good effect. As for Benoit’s 2014s, I find it difficult to choose between Grenouilles, the smallest of the grands crus, with its elegant stylish fruit, and les Clos, the largest and generally richer and more powerful. Both have an underlying elegance, but Grenouilles is more ethereal, while les Clos is more substantial. Both will be delicious in about 10 years’ time.

The 2014 vintage is so good, that I could effortlessly select another six wines.

Main photo: The Chablis vineyards of 2014 have produced a wonderful vintage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand. See more of  Jon Wyand’s photographs in his latest book, “Corton.”

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