Articles in Wine

The hilly terrain of Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

 It is quiet at Cain Vineyards. The hillside estate at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain is far removed from the hustle of the valley floor. The air is crisp, days are short, winter has arrived and there has been rain. Just enough, says Cain winemaker Chris Howell, to ignite new life in the desiccated vineyards.

Napa Valley winemakers, or at least enough of them to signify the start of a trend, are rethinking the region’s excessive tendencies. Lost for decades in a soulless race to please a handful of critics with dubious taste, these evolving winemakers are trying to reconnect with the soil and climate of America’s most celebrated wine region. While their wines still reflect the strength of the valley’s sunny climate, they are striving for lower alcohol levels and more restrained fruit flavors.

Howell doesn’t have to change. He has been making terroir-driven wines for decades. And paid a price for that unfashionable decision. Overlooked by critics, his wines have been relative bargains, and most bottles are priced $75 or below. Still, you could say that the newly chastened winemakers are playing catch up with him. And none too soon.

California’s drought has Napa Valley on a razor’s edge. Howell says rain is now a “miracle,” a spiritual event. On Spring Mountain where the only water for the vineyards falls from the sky, those two inches will carry the vineyard through to spring.

“It reminds me that wine is about gardening, nature and the earth,” says Howell. “Those of us on Napa’s hillsides and completely disconnected from the water grid think about these things now.”

There was almost no rain in 2013. By the spring of 2014, there had been 14 months with nothing beyond a few sprinkles. “It was a shock, a big wake-up. I didn’t think we would have any grapes. None.” Rain, not much, but enough, came at the perfect time in February and March of 2014 to save the vintage.

The recent rain falls far short of guaranteeing next year’s vintage. “But the vines loved it. The soil came to life.”

Cain’s 90 acres of vineyards are scattered across the estate’s 550 acres of some of the most rugged hillsides in Napa. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have a complex herbal quality that sets them apart from other Napa Cabs. His intense, dark wines have a lightness that allows them a seat at the dinner table. They have always been softer, less tannic and more nuanced, even lilting, than the heavier fruit-forward wines most often associated with Napa.

Cain Vineyard's 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit:  Janis Miglavs

Cain Vineyard’s 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

His old-school wines are the result of Howell’s belief that the best wines reflect what is happening in the vineyard. Over the decades Howell has managed Cain’s vineyards, he’s dialed back the irrigation, dry farming the plots where the soils are deep enough. He has farmed organically for 15 years and now is bringing biodynamic — an extreme organic, somewhat metaphysical farming discipline advanced by Rudolf Steiner early in the 20th century — to Cain’s vineyards.

“The more people pay attention to the whole ecosystem of the vineyard, the healthier the vineyard. And, in general, biodynamic vineyards are healthier everywhere I’ve visited them around the world,” says Howell.

That’s given Cain a bit of protection against the ravages of the drought. “We live year to year now,” he says. “I always took the winter rains for granted. They always came. I didn’t think about it. Now I know we can take nothing for granted. I feel closer to the reality of nature, to the vineyards.”

Howell delights in making wines that vary year to year. The drought will be but another marker. So soon in the winemaking process for the 2014 vintage, it’s too early to know how it will change the wines.

How the drought affects his wines doesn’t concern Howell. Using only the wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment his grapes, Howell has given control of his wines back to nature. These days, that is an act of supreme faith. “We think about the spiritual part of things more often these days,” he says.

Other Napa winemakers may never catch up with such radical thinking.

Main photo: Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

* * *

 Cain Vineyards makes just three wines:

Cain Five ($125)

Cain Five comes is 100% from the Cain Vineyard, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.

Cain Concept ($75)

Cain Concept comes from alluvial soils in the Benchland areas of the Napa Valley. It is a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot.

Cain Cuvee ($34)
NV10, is a blend of two vintages (51% 2010 and 49% 2009) and is a blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. Sourced from Rutherford, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Atlas Pea.

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Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary Gregory

Wine production in Puglia has undergone an extraordinary transformation in the last decade or so. The original focus of the region was to provide wines for blending, to mask the deficiencies of more famous names from further north (Chianti and Valpolicella come to mind). Once the DOC laws were tightened up, however, that market was lost and farsighted winegrowers saw that something had to be done if the region was to have a future.

They began to appreciate that they had grape varieties with an original and distinctive character of their own. The first time I went to Puglia, about 20 years ago, it was almost impossible to find a bottle of Primitivo, one of the most important grape varieties of the heel of Italy. People were only just beginning to realize that Primitivo was the same thing as Zinfandel; Carole Meredith had not yet completed her research linking it with Croatia, across the Adriatic sea. Now, it is firmly established that Tribidrag is the parent of Primitivo and Zinfandel.

But Puglia is not just Primitivo, which is its most expressive in the hills of Manduria and Colle di Gioia. There is also Negroamaro, a rich red variety with intense black fruit, and ripe flavors, grown extensively in vineyards around Salento in the central part of the heel of Italy. Further north, adjoining the Abruzzi, where I recently spent a couple of days, you find Nero di Troia, also called Uva di Troia (named for the village of Troia, not the Troy of Greek legend).

The key DOC for Nero di Troia is Castel del Monte, which takes its name from the 13th century castle built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, not to defend anything, but to assert his authority. It is dramatic and awe-inspiring, even on a rather grey autumnal day, with the white stone fading into the grey sky. It was often used as a hunting lodge and for that reason, falcons feature in the local iconography.

Il Falcone is the name of a groundbreaking blend of Nero di Troia with Montepulciano, which has been made by Rivera since 1971. They were one of the first to bottle their wine in the region when the prime focus was bulk wine. The estate of Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli was another pioneer, again first bottling their wine in the early 1970s. Today they produce Il Rinzacco, a finely crafted Nero di Troia that is fermented and aged in oak. A vertical tasting of five vintages showed wines with elegance and fine tannins, and none of the heady alcohol levels that you can find further south.

Cefalicchio's vineyard in Puglia. Credit: Courtesy of Cefalicchio

Cefalicchio’s vineyard in Puglia. Credit: Courtesy of Cefalicchio

Puglia wines are relative newcomers

The other two estates that I visited are relative newcomers to the market and classic examples of just how much Puglia has developed over the last few decades. They may be old families with a history of farming olives and vines for several generations, but only as the demand for bulk wine has disappeared have they put their wine in bottle. Torrevento started bottling in 1989, and Cefalicchio decided to build a cellar in 2001.

Nero di Troia is quite unlike any of the other red grape varieties of Puglia, in that it is refreshingly low in alcohol. Primitivo, on the other hand, is characterized by a high level of alcohol. Geography explains the difference. Puglia is 400 kilometers long but only 50 kilometers wide (about 240 by 30 miles), so that most of the vineyards are relatively close to the sea. The relatively shallow Adriatic has little effect on temperatures, but it does bring wind that cools in summer and brings snow in winter. Winters are much cooler in northern Puglia than at the bottom of the heel. And Nero di Troia ripens much later than Primitivo and Negroamaro, withstanding well the searing heat of August. It has big berries and is a tannic variety with a lot of juice, but may lack acidity. The best wines have some appealing fruit, violets and red berries.

Torrevento’s cellar, where French oak barriques sit opposite modern concrete vats. Credit: Courtesy of Torrevento

Torrevento’s cellar, where French oak barriques sit opposite modern concrete vats. Credit: Courtesy of Torrevento

Since 2011, Castel del Monte boasts a DOCG for wines made from Nero di Troia alone, that are riserva and therefore can only be bottled after two harvests. These include Torrevento’s Vignale Pedale, which comes from one large plot of vines, and Ottagono, which is another smaller individual vineyard. Both have the benchmark characteristics of fine Nero di Troia, with a firm tannic structure balanced by elegant fruit.

Inevitably, Puglia has not avoided the temptation to plant the so-called international varieties, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, even though their suitability to the warm southern climate is highly questionable. You only have to compare Cefalicchio’s Totila, made from Nero di Troia blended with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, with its pure Nero di Troia Romanica, which is so much more satisfying and Italian in flavor. Of course, there are parallels to be drawn with the success of the so-called super-Tuscans, but happily Puglia is coming to value its own indigenous varieties, as Tuscany has done. As Puglia comes of age, it will realize that Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Negroamaro can stand alone. Do go and try and them. You will be richly rewarded.

Main photo: Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George

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Main photo: Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, at Magill Estate. Credit: Courtesy of Penfolds

One often hears it said that place is the most important factor in a wine’s identity. Or, to echo a silly cliché, that wine is made in the vineyard. But the quality and the character of the top wines from Penfolds, Australia’s iconic wine company, suggest something else. Multi-vineyard and in some cases multi-regional blends, they are true to a vision, not to a place.

A meeting a few weeks ago with Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker, brought home the importance of stylistic vision in the production of truly distinctive wines. The occasion was the release of new vintages of some of Penfolds’ most renowned wines, including Grange, St. Henri Shiraz, and Yattarna Chardonnay. Though suffering a bit from jet lag, Gago was his usual gregarious self, an equal mix of witty cheer and insightful wisdom. The topic dominating our conversation was the significance of style.

Penfolds, founded in 1844, is one of the oldest wine companies Down Under. It began to rise to its current place in the Australian pantheon in the 1960s, when the national market for fortified wines slowed down and interest in table wines increased. The winemaker at the time was the now legendary Max Schubert, who inaugurated the style that his successors, including Gago, have emulated and refined over the years.

That style marries exuberance with finesse — a paradoxical but, when successful, enthralling combination. It came in part from the natural growing conditions in South Australia, and in part from Schubert’s desire to make wines inspired by a European, especially a Bordeaux, model. Since South Australia tends to be hotter and drier than Bordeaux, the grapes grown there will ripen more fully, yielding wines with more flamboyance and power. To fashion the sort of wines he wanted, Schubert thus needed not only to respect the vineyards he used in his blends, but also to tame the fruit that grew there.

In the subsequent decades, this style became what Schubert and the winemakers who followed him strived to achieve. It is, Gago freely acknowledges today, the company’s “house style,” and he thinks of himself as its custodian.

Good grapes are just the beginning

This emphasis on style does not mean that vineyard sites are unimportant. “You can’t make good wine without good grapes,” he told me, “and good grapes come from good vineyards.” That, however, is just the beginning. Being true to a style means being able to blend wines from various barrels, lots and cuvées in order to achieve the desired result. The more options the winemaker has to choose from, the better his or her chance of success. Thus Gago uses grapes from separate sites, vineyards and even broad geographic areas to craft the wines he wants. Due to different weather conditions in different years, the sources vary from vintage to vintage. That’s because Gago’s goal remains “consistency above all.”

Penfolds has had its house style for nearly half a century. Given the myriad of advances in grape growing and winemaking over that period, as well as the many shifts in consumer preference, it has evolved subtly with the times. The changes have been gradual, but the result has been a stylistic vision that testifies to the value of a living tradition.

Many of world’s best wines are blends

This emphasis on style and the winemaker’s vision may contradict what many vintners (and critics) say about wine today, but it actually is in accord with what happens with many, if not most, of the world’s finest wines. These too are blends, often of different grape varieties and different vineyard plots. Bordeaux and Champagne are obvious Old World examples, but even in Burgundy, where vineyard holdings tend to be quite small and single varieties are the norm, many producers blend barrels or lots to create their best wines. And what defines their best if not an awareness of style?

Of course, such awareness depends upon a knowledge of past vintages of the wine in question as well as many other wines (and not just those made nearby). That knowledge is something that far too many contemporary winemakers lack. It is not something taught in schools of oenology, and it cannot be acquired through scientific analysis. Ironically, its absence helps explain why so many winemakers contend that their wines reflect the character of their vineyards rather than decisions made in the winery.

Great wine clearly begins in great vineyards. It achieves true distinction, however, in the winery, where the skills of talented men and women transform nature’s gifts into human art. And one of the winemaker’s most important skills is identifying the style that he or she wants to realize. As Gago insists, he and by extension any winemaker who aims to craft wines of true distinction have a responsibility “to build upon the legacy of winemakers past.” Put another way, regardless of where the grapes come from, great wine is rare if not virtually impossible without a stylistic vision that has its source in the winemaker’s own awareness of the value of tradition and style.

Main photo: Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, at Magill Estate. Credit: Courtesy of Penfolds

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Adi Badenhorst checks vines at his South African winery. Credit: Badenhorst Family Wines

South African wine has arrived. Smart wine buyers seeking good values and wine geeks looking for exciting discoveries are making their way to the rapidly expanding South African section of their wine store.

For the first time in, well, forever, delicious, distinctive South African Chenin Blancs, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs are showing up in U.S. wine stores at prices that are as surprising as the wines: $10 to $18 a bottle. Even South African Pinotage is making a comeback, this time without its notorious barnyard-in-a-bad-way funk.

What’s changed in South Africa? Everything. The new wines represent a massive transformation of the country’s insular, low-quality, high-volume wine industry that began two decades ago after the end of apartheid.

Young winemakers working with ancient, abandoned vineyards kicked off the revival. Devoted to organic, dry-farmed vineyard management, their wines showcased the potential buried in South Africa’s arid coastal climate and varied soils.

New generation of winemakers emerge

Following their lead, a new generation took the helm of the large, established wine houses and rose to the challenge of meeting international standards for wine quality. The combination is enabling the oldest non-European wine region in the world to rise above its plonky past.

“A lot of things have come together for us,” says Eben Sadie, a leading winemaker working to revive the coastal Swartland region north of Cape Town. With 15 vintages under his belt, Sadie Family Wines is producing some of the most celebrated wines in South Africa’s 400 years of winemaking. Even though he limits his production to 4,000 cases a year, many of his wines are priced close to $60 a bottle, near the top of the market for South African wine.

“We don’t want to push prices up too high,” Sadie says. “South Africa has a place of its own on the wine shelf now. Even our most commercial bottlers — wine companies producing 500,000 cases — are making much better wine. There are great South African wines, amazing wines, for $20.”

Although wine writers are applauding the new South African wines — Financial Times’ Jancis Robinson christened them a “new era” for the country — few of them made it to the U.S. In 2014, South African wine exports to the U.S. surged 37% and are still climbing.

“There is a ton of good stuff here now,” says Ryan Woodhouse, the South African wine buyer for San Francisco-based K&L Wine Merchants. “The wines from South Africa’s old vineyards are liquid gold.”

Ginny Povall from Botanica wines in her “Skurfberg” Chenin Blanc Vineyard. Credit: Pascal Schildt

Ginny Povall from Botanica wines in her “Skurfberg” Chenin Blanc Vineyard. Credit: Pascal Schildt

Selling it, however, is an uphill battle. Many producers, including DGB of South Africa, one of the country’s largest wine companies with an extensive collection of properties, are entering the U.S. market for the first time. They have to build awareness of their brands from scratch. “It a big challenge,” says Niël Groenewald, chief winemaker at DGB’s Bellingham Collection. No one in the U.S. has ever heard of his wines. Still, Groenewald says, the company is “grabbing the opportunity.”

This is a pivotal moment, says Pascal Schildt, a U.S. importer specializing in the new South African wines. As a whole, South Africa hasn’t expanded its overall vineyard acreage, he says, with most vintners focusing instead on improving their farming and winemaking. If wine drinkers are disappointed this time around, they may not give South Africa another chance. “No one wants South Africa to just be a flavor of the month,” Schildt says.

Sadie isn’t worried. “We aren’t going backward from here.”

Shopping for new South African wines

Good value South African wines are easy to find if you shop at a trusted wine shop where the people behind the cash register understand the wines they sell. But beware of discount bins. Junk South African wines haven’t disappeared.

Top regions. Swartland is the hot spot; the wines of Western Cape, Paarl, Hermanus, Citrusdal Mountain, Stellenbosch and Walker Bay are also gaining acclaim.

Rising stars. South Africa’s best producers have made a decision to over-deliver, to produce wines that exceed expectations for the price. Look for Sadie Family Wines, Badenhorst Family Wines, Mullineux Family Wines, The Three Foxes, Fram Wines, Hederberg Winery and Botanica Wines.

Leading importers. Two companies stand out for their selection of top quality producers. Look for wines imported by Pascal Schildt and Broadbent Selections Inc. Also retailer K&L Wine Merchants is directly importing some choice South African wines available only in its stores.

I recently picked up a 2013 Secateurs Chenin Blanc from Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland. The initial fresh, light fruit flavors quickly dissolved into a rich complexity that lingered far longer than I had any right to expect for $13.

Another gem was a 2012 False Bay Pinotage from a region slightly south of Swartland on the West Cape. It also was a fresh tasting, balanced wine. The bonus this time was a sophisticated earthiness that made it a steal at $15.

Main photo: Adi Badenhorst, one of the new generation of winemakers at Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland, South Africa.  Credit: Badenhorst Family Wines

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The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver's BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

No, Byrrh isn’t some murky variant spelling of beer; in fact, it’s wine. More precisely, Byrrh Grand Quinquina — to use its full name — is a French aperitif that’s been showing up in bars around the United States after gathering dust in obscurity for decades. Based on the red wines of Roussillon, France, as well as fortified grape juice, it’s flavored with a blend of botanicals, primarily cinchona bark (which contains quinine — hence the name), to strike a refreshing balance between fruitiness and bitterness.

Thanks to Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz — the cool kids’ importer these days — Byrrh is now available in nearly all 50 states. The more I began to spot it on cocktail menus around Denver, where I live, the more curious I grew as to its allure and applications. Three local bartenders were gracious enough to explain it all for me.

The patio pounder

For Alexandra Geppert, who handles operations at The BSide — a funky, free-wheeling new hangout in Denver’s Uptown — Byrrh’s raspberry and nutty flavors lend themselves to easy-breezy libations such as the Humboldt Highball, which also contains simple syrup, lemon juice and club soda.

Featured on the late-summer drink list, it drank like a zippy pop that, she joked, “You could have 40 of in one sitting.” But for cooler weather, Geppert suggests deepening the flavor with a distinctly herbal liqueur. Here is BSide bartender Daniel Bewley’s recipe:

Humboldt Hibyrrhnation

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

A Byrrh cocktail from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

The Byrrh Martini, left, and Black Spring from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

2 ounces Byrrh

¾ ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur

½ ounce lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup

Club soda

Directions

1. Shake the first four ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Strain over ice into a Collins glass. Top with club soda.

Geppert also loves to fancify the tavern tradition of a shot and a beer chaser by offering a more cultivated pairing: “a craft beer and a taster.” To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness.”

To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness,” say a blonde ale or a pilsner.

The neo-martini

At Bistro Vendôme, a beloved French fixture in downtown Denver, bartender Jason Morden has been having a field day with Byrrh for the past few months. He recommends drinking it over ice with lemon zest before dinner, because “citrus really makes it pop”; afterward, he might pair it with a bit of milk chocolate.

And because to his palate “it’s reminiscent of Vermouth Rouge,” he also considers it “an amazing counterpart to gin.” Here’s his “hot and boozy” twist on a martini:

Byrrh Martini

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

2 ounces dry rye gin

1 ounce Byrrh

½ ounce lemon juice, plus peel for garnish twist

Directions

1. Shake gin, Byrrh and lemon juice together in a cocktail shaker. Pour into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

The rye sidekick

You’ll notice that the gin in the previous cocktail is made with rye, the spiciness of which nicely balances the sweetness of Byrrh. Morden uses that to his advantage in another cocktail, this one based on rye whiskey:

Black Spring

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

1½ ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce Byrrh

1 ounce amaro-style bitter

2½ to 3 ounces ginger beer

Luxardo cherries

Directions

1. Over ice in a Collins glass, stir the first four ingredients together. Garnish with Luxardo cherries on a toothpick.

Meanwhile, Kevin Burke — beverage director at sibling hot spots Colt & Gray and Ste. Ellie — compares Byrrh favorably to another fortified wine, Dubonnet Rouge. “With a lot of products, some cocktail types get up in arms that the European version is different than the American one,” he said. (Take absinthe as a prime example.) “Unfortunately, Dubonnet falls into this category for me. So when I see Dubonnet called for in a recipe, I have found great success in substituting Byrrh.” For example, “it shines in a Deshler Cocktail, which is great when you’re in the mood for a Manhattan but also want something new.”

Word to the lightweight: Burke likes a high-proof rye in the following recipe. Sure, “Rittenhouse 100 or Wild Turkey 101 will do in a pinch — but Willett 110 Proof or Thomas H. Handy Sazerac is worth the splurge.”

Deshler Cocktail

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 3 minutes

Ingredients

1¼ ounces high-proof rye

1¼ ounces Byrrh

¼ ounce Peychaud’s Bitters

1 teaspoon Cointreau

Orange twist for garnish

Directions

1. Chill a small cocktail glass.

2. Add cracked ice to a mixing glass, then add all ingredients except the orange twist and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

3. Pinch the orange twist over the drink to express oils, then add and enjoy.

Main photo: The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver’s BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

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In London Cru's urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

The way to make a small fortune in wine, they say, is to start with a large one. The phrase comes to mind as I taste the first vintage at London Cru, the eccentric, possibly uneconomic, but very serious urban winery in southwest London: the first in the UK capital.

London Cru follows a pattern of urban wineries such as 8th Estate in Hong Kong and New York’s City Winery, buying in grapes and vinifying them in the city. It is the brainchild of the keen young team that surrounds Cliff Roberson, a 74-year-old wine merchant of considerable renown.

He started the importer Buckingham Vintners in 1974, and in 1991 opened his flagship shop, Roberson Wine, in London’s Kensington district. By 2004, he’d sold all of his shares in Buckingham (by then one of the UK’s biggest wine companies, selling 40 million bottles a year) to the European wine group Schenk, to focus on the retail side of the business.

A couple of years ago, Roberson “got itchy” as he put it. When his right-hand man, Adam Green, suggested they set up a winery, he was interested.

“Ninety-nine out of a hundred businessmen would have run a mile,” Green says. “Cliff is that one in a hundred who saw the possibilities.”

From warehouse to urban winery

They enlisted as a partner an itinerant entrepreneur, Will Tomlinson. With a million-pound start-up fund, they equipped a former gin distillery in Fulham that served as Roberson’s warehouse with five open-topped stainless steel fermenters and a barrel cellar. The capacity: 2,500 cases, They hired Australian winemaker Gavin Monery, whose résumé  includes premium wineries such as Cullen and Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, Chave in Hermitage, and Remoissenet and Alex Gambal in Burgundy.

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Roberson, a company with annual wine sales of 10 to 12 million pounds through retail and the restaurant trade, and with a fine wine broking arm, has access to premium producers in every wine region of the world.

“Most of the guys we are buying grapes from, we import their wines anyway,” Monery says.

So he can control harvest dates (they pick early for freshness), and quality. To ensure they get exactly what they want, they pay handsomely —  more than double the going rate, in some cases.

The first vintage, the 2013, consists of four wines: a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah from Roussillon, and a Barbera from Piedmont. Monery has sourced three more for 2014, a Syrah and a Garnacha from Calatayud in northeastern Spain, and a white English grape Bacchus, from Sandhurst Vineyards in Kent. Labels are minimalist: the wines are called SW6 (London Cru’s postcode) White Wine No. 1, Red Wine No. 1, and so forth. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, the UK’s Byzantine food laws forbid the mention of vintage or grape variety on the label.

A long journey by refrigerated truck

When the grapes are picked, they are transferred immediately to refrigerated trucks, which then make the 36-hour journey through mainland Europe, over the English Channel and into the winery. The trucks are key to the operation, Monery says. A fleet of such vehicles buzzing back and forth through Europe can’t come cheap. Is this a viable business model?

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

“Well,” Green says with a smile, “it’s not the safest or the most rational business plan you could come up with, but, equally, it’s one that we all thought was interesting. We are thoroughly aiming to offer our investors a good return, and they see the aesthetic pleasure of being involved, and of bringing something genuinely new to London.”

Indeed, it is aesthetically pleasing to be in a fully functioning winery — complete with pungent aromas of oak and fermentation — in the middle of London. And the wines themselves? I don’t know what I was expecting from French and Italian varietals vinified in Fulham by an Australian, but I found them fresh, bright, charming, and loaded with varietal character.

It’s a pity that the 2013 is made in such tiny quantities — far fewer than 1,000 cases in all, and they are down to their last bottles. There’s a small fortune to be made here.

London Cru wines

All about $24 (£15) , available from the winery’s website.

SW6 White Wine 1 – Chardonnay: Bright, fresh, rather exotic nose with nice creamy roundness, this mitigated on the palate by brisk and precise acidity cutting through crunchy apple and some high tropical notes. Charming.

SW6 Red Wine 1 – Syrah: Picked early at 12 degrees alcohol. Delicate white pepper nose followed by a savory palate with dark fruit topped with ripe black cherry. Soft tannins with grip dissolve into lovely mouth-watering juice. Excellent.

SW6 Red Wine 2 – Barbera: Ruby red hue, bitter cherries on the nose, dancing acidity, tannins that are dry, even dusty, quickly releasing gouts of mouth-watering juice leaving a memory of ripe fallen damsons. Fresh, wild and utterly beguiling.

SW6 Red Wine 3 – Cabernet Sauvignon: Aromas of leaf and nettle that swirl out of the glass like a genie from a lamp. Classic blackcurrant leaf palate, tannins with grip and heft, scent of menthol alongside the hedgerow fruit, lots of juice on the finish. The best of a very strong quartet of wines. Bravo.

Main photo: In London Cru’s urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

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Small independent wine merchants, such as Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines, in McMinnville, Ore., are a great way to educate yourself and learn about harder-to-find, small production wines. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

It’s a moment that happens often in the life of a wine lover. You taste a bottle of Pinot Noir that might be called life-changing, and you decide to set out on a new path: seeking out nano-wineries, those smaller, harder-to-access producers who are making something truly exceptional.

In Oregon, that’s where you encounter your first problem. Of the 545 registered wineries in the state, roughly half of those could be considered nano-wineries, or wineries producing fewer than 350 to 400 cases annually. Where do you even start?

“It’s not that small batches of wine are better,” says Jeff Woodard, a wine consultant for the industry and proprietor of Woodard Wines, an independent wine boutique in McMinnville. “It’s more about the people making these wines, the ones who are doing it out of passion.”

Indeed, people make wine in small batches for different reasons. For some, the limitations are financial. For many, it’s time constraints — they have full-time jobs, families and other commitments. But the wine bug doesn’t let up when you have a vision. Here, we’re talking about the winemaker as an artist, not necessarily tailoring a wine to fit a market but adjusting the inputs to wine-making based on what is interesting to them. For this subsection of winemakers, it’s more helpful to seek out the higher-level winemakers who are doing wines as a side project, developing their own labels alongside their careers in the industry, or who are small-batch by choice, because it’s the best way to oversee the process.

“There’s not any money in wine at this level,” Woodard says. “These people are doing it out of sheer passion for wine.”

Smaller producers face a number of challenges in finding you. For one, the finances are not always there to advertise. Access to customers is difficult. Very few have tasting rooms. And then there are the numbers. Distributors often won’t touch them —  it’s generally not worth the time to put smaller productions on their list.

So the answer is to go to them. Here are seven Oregon nano-wineries that are making dynamite wine, especially Pinot Noir. These are wine-makers well worth tracking down.

Antiquum Farm

If there is anything such as Slow Wine, Antiquum Farm is it. Farmed in Junction City by Stephen Hagen, who uses old-school farming methods, the vineyard’s grapes are processed by Drew Voit, an associate winemaker at Domaine Serene. The result is a Pinot Noir that is rigidly lively and intense, with a character that is completely its own thing, neither of California nor Oregon.

Matzinger Davies

Matzinger Davies is a wine about a marriage of two great winemakers: Anna Matzinger, the longtime winemaker and co-manager who helped bring Archery Summit’s Pinot Noirs to the top of every wine list, and her husband Michael Davies, the winemaker for A to Z Wineworks and for Rex Hill. Seeking to make wines with vibrancy, authenticity and integrity, the couple sources exceptional fruit from the Eola Hills to make an outstanding Pinot Noir.

Éleveé Winegrowers

Éleveé Winegrowers brings place-driven wines from a handful of micro-sites in the Willamette Valley. Married team Tom and France Fitzpatrick epitomize the ideals of the artist winemaker, growing grapes and embracing many of the unknowns of a changing climate in winemaking to create Pinot Noir known for its exceptional expression of terroir.

Thomas Bachelder

Thomas Bachelder is perhaps unique in the industry — a winemaker with his fingerprint in three grape-growing regions: Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara. In Oregon, where he worked for both Ponzi Wines and Lemelson Vineyards, Bachelder makes a lacy, densely textured Chardonnay with great minerality and tang.

Retour

Founded in 2005, Retour, a project of Lindsay Woodard, has been winning accolades through its hands-on approach to working with 40-year-old vines, with winemakers taking a meticulous approach, often choosing exact times of day to the minute to pluck grape clusters, sometimes with tweezers. The result is a Pinot Noir of the highest echelon, hailed for its explosive palate and succulent mouth-feel.

1789

Isabelle Dutarte had a career in the French wine industry before she started commuting between Oregon and France in 1993. She released her first wines under her 1789 label, a nod to the French Revolution, in 2007. Her Pinot Noir vintages frequently score high for their expressive red berries and delicately perfumed noses, as well as their ability to evoke a feminine harmony in terroir.

Copper Belt Wines

Originally called MotherLode Cellars, Copper Belt Wines, is a rare eastern Oregon winery based in Baker City, one that sources its much of its estate grapes from the highest elevated vineyard in Oregon, Keating Valley Vineyards. Its winemaker, Travis Cook, who works for Advanced Vineyard Systems, a vineyard management company in the Willamette Valley, makes standout big, bold reds.

Main photo: Small independent wine merchants, such as Jeff Woodard of Woodard Wines, in McMinnville, Ore., offer small batches of high-quality wine. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Visitors enjoy the outdoor Sculpture Garden at the Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery

On a recent visit to Northern California, I wanted to see how art and wine mix in Sonoma County’s famed wine country. My sister, who works in public relations for the wine industry, took me to visit one of her clients, Paradise Ridge Winery. The Santa Rosa vineyard has a view of many appellations in Sonoma County. The fog, responsible for the deep flavor that imbues the Paradise Ridge Winery wines with their distinctive tastes, was just rolling in. There was a crescent moon. And as a complement to the divine Sauvignon Blanc I was drinking, the evening’s festivities included a tour of the winery’s sculpture gardens that change annually.

Marking the winery’s 20th year, the new exhibit in this natural outdoor gallery — the 20@20 Sculpture Exhibition —  is inspiring, with many pieces created by Burning Man artists. (Burning Man is a weeklong annual event that began in San Francisco’s Baker Beach and migrated to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.) The food we enjoyed was from Rosso Pizzeria, cooked on site in a state-of-the-art pizza oven, and made with homegrown tomatoes, herbs and Sonoma County cheeses.

Sonoma theater production

The night also included the first presentation in the newly built “Field of Dreams” amphitheater, which had been created for Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC), a nonprofit theater company in Sonoma that brings Broadway stars to wine country to entertain in open-air venues. This year’s, “Oh What a Beautiful Mash-Up,” starring Stephan Stubbins and Leah Sprecher, both well known to “Broadway Under the Stars” concerts, was a funny, touching and uplifting evening and a great beginning for Walter Byck, a founder of the winery and the man behind the amphitheater, who intends to have the artists perform at the winery each summer.

Recently Transcendence was named Theater of the Year by Broadway World San Francisco for its 2013 Season. The company is made up of musical theater artists with Broadway, national and international tour, and film and television credits.
TTC’s summer season includes the “Broadway Under The Stars in Jack London State Park” and the “Transcendence Artist Series” concerts, as well as the Broadway Kids Camp, “Skits Under The Stars” community nights, and community service, engagement and education programs throughout the entire Sonoma Valley.

Through an innovative arts and parks partnership, TTC is partnering with a nonprofit park operator, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Assn., to bring live theater and cultural education programming into Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Calif.

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The entrance to Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery

Paradise Ridge’s beginning

Paradise Ridge is a 156-acre estate owned by the Byck family, and established in 1978. The estate’s integrity was initially maintained by planting only 17 acres of vines in and around the majestic oaks and the other established trees, none of which were cut down.

With the severe drought currently affecting California, Paradise Ridge Winery and other vineyards across the state have put in place conservation measures to preserve their aquifer. Dan Barwick, Paradise Ridge’s winemaker and a member of the Byck family, says “the most important concern for the vineyard this year is maximizing water efficiency while maintaining healthy soils and vines.”

“One of the great fortunes of our paradise is that we are self-sufficient with the water for our vineyard, winery and all our hospitality efforts. Our water is completely independent and we use it mindfully, appreciating the scarcity of this natural resource,” Barwick says. “In the vineyard during drought years, we deeply soak the vines in the winter to allow the route system to deepen and spread so that when vines awaken in the spring they will be strong and vibrant. Our access to estate lake water allowed us do this in December and January, ensuring healthy vines as we moved into the 2014 vintage.”

“During the rest of the year, we water our vineyards in response to the needs of each vine, as opposed to a set regime of irrigation. We have recently overhauled our irrigation to pinpoint specific zones. We now have the ability to water only those areas as needed, as opposed to irrigating the entire block,” Barwick says. “These changes allow us to irrigate far more efficiently and save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per year.”

Winery’s water conservation methods

Paradise Ridge Winery also had plans to cultivate a sustainable vegetable garden in 2014 to supply their winery, weddings and special events with produce, but because of the water shortage, they are delaying that venture.

The Herb Garden & Wine Sensory Experience established at the Tasting Room in Kenwood, Calif., by Annette McDonnell is a natural attraction for the winery. The idea of matching Paradise Ridge wines with various herbs is innovative. “Herbs like lemon basil, known to have citrus aromas often associated with Sauvignon Blanc, are also found in Chardonnays and Rieslings. The citrus will bring out the bright qualities in white wines while helping highlight fruit characters,” says McDonnell.

The sensory experience was created to showcase the chemistry of the wines and their relationship with herbs as well as cuisine. The garden has been divided into four areas and wine can also be broken down into similar groups:

Bitter – High acid, low to no sugar

Bright – High acid, low sugar

Savor – Moderate acid, moderate sugar

Sweet – Low acid, high sugar

The herb-and-wine experience encourages you to trust your palate when pairing wine and food.

Paradise Ridge Winery was a good way to begin my fun and educational trip through Sonoma wine country. The vineyard offered a complete wine-country experience: tasting superb Russian River Valley wines that had been paired with thin-crust pizza made with fresh herbs, taking in the magnificent view of the vineyard while strolling among world-class art in the outdoor gallery, and being entertained by Broadway stars performing under a crescent moon.

Main photo: Visitors enjoy the outdoor sculpture garden at the Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery 

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