Articles in Winemaker

Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, Alsace

Once upon a time, Alsace wines were relatively simple to understand. Alsace is virtually the only French appellation that allows the mention of a grape variety on the label, and with a couple of easily identifiable exceptions, the wines tended to be dry. But things seem to have changed in recent years. Am I alone in feeling disappointed that a wine I thought would be dry from the label turns out to be rich with a sweet, even cloying, finish? And then matters are complicated further with all the grands crus names. There are 50 altogether, but I can only ever remember a handful. Happily, a recent visit to Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé has served to restore my faith in the region.

The first thing you see when you walk into Trimbach’s tasting room is a sign: “Say No to oak. Help put the fruit back in wine.” This augured well, as did the appearance of my guide, Anne Trimbach. There have been Trimbachs in Ribeauvillé since 1626, and she is a member of the 13st generation. Bright and vivacious, she is the daughter of Pierre, the winemaker, and helps her uncle, Jean, on the export market.

Trimbach makes the full range of Alsace grape varieties, with elegantly leafy Pinot Blanc, some rounded Pinot Gris and some deliciously understated Gewürztraminer — we joked about whether a restrained Gewürztraminer really exists. But it is really with Riesling that the Trimbach style comes into its own, emphasizing the slatey minerality of the grape variety.

A full range of Riesling

Trimbach makes seven qualities of Riesling, beginning with the simple Riesling based on grapes purchased from some 30 growers, picked and pressed by hand. The vinification is very simple, usually entailing a malolactic fermentation and certainly no oak. Freshness and minerality are the key characteristics. The wine has a fresh slatey note, with very good acidity, and a firm dry finish — just as Alsace Riesling should be.

Next up the scale is the Riesling Réserve, a selection of grapes, mainly from Trimbach’s own vineyards around Ribeauvillé. The vinification is the same, but the grapes come from vineyards with a higher limestone content. The result is a wine that has citrus notes and is very mineral, with wonderful freshness and great length. There is a certain austerity on the palate, making for a very pure example of Riesling.

The cuvée of Vieilles Vignes comes from vines that are 35 to 40 years old. They first made this cuvée in 2009, from two foudres of particularly good wine. The flavors are rich and intense, but not sweet. The wine may be a little more gourmand than the Réserve, but the fruit is always balanced with steely acidity, making a wine that is dry and honeyed, with an elegant finish.

The Cuvée Frédéric Emile is one of the flagship wines of Trimbach, whose grapes are grown in marl and limestone soil. We tasted the 2007, which Anne described as a miraculous year — full of scares about the next climatic hazard, but everything turned out well in the end. The nose was rich and honeyed, very intense with an underlying austerity.  On the palate, the wine was firm and slatey with very good acidity and razor-sharp clarity. I could almost describe it as the Chablis of Alsace.

The Trimbachs, from left: Jean, Pierre, Anne and Hubert. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach

The Trimbachs, from left: Jean, Pierre, Anne and Hubert. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach

The other flagship Riesling is the Clos Ste Hune, from a vineyard the Trimbachs have owned for 200 years. The soil is pure limestone, and the vines are an average of 80 years old. The wine is made the same way as Frédéric Emile, but here you taste the effect of terroir: They are quite different. The Clos Ste Hune is very slatey, very mineral, very powerful, with very good acidity and still very youthful, with wonderful length.

And then we were given a treat: 1985 Clos Ste Hune. The colour was golden, with an elegant nose that was dry and slatey, but with an underlying richness. On the palate, there were lots of nuances, with some very intriguing dry honey and some lovely notes of maturity. It was rich and elegant, but not heavy or sweet, with a lingering finish. A fabulous glass of wine that demonstrated just how beautifully Alsace Riesling ages.

The Vendanges Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, traditionally sweeter and richer, are only made in the very best years. The 2002 Vendange Tardive Riesling was light golden in color, and on the nose, rich with a maturing nutty nose. On the palate it was very elegant, with very good acidity — there was a little noble rot in 2002, but that is not essential. The palate was beautifully balanced with rich honeyed fruit, combining fresh acidity with some sweetness. It was subtle and nuanced.

Our tasting finished with 2001 Sélection de Grains Nobles Frédéric Emile. The grapes were picked in mid-November, with some noble rot. The color was golden and the nose maturing beautifully, as only fine Riesling can. On the palate there were nuances of dry but honeyed, nutty fruit, with some slatey characteristics and a touch of minerality, with a smooth rich finish. It was a powerful example of the heights that Riesling can achieve.

Top photo: Trimbach vineyards in Alsace. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach

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Winemaker Rosemary Cakebread in her vineyard. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Sometimes, when you taste a wine, it’s so sublime it’s evocative of liquid poetry in a bottle. I came across such an experience on my recent visit to California’s Napa Valley when I discovered Gallica’s lyrical wines.

Before I even tasted the wine, I could tell from winemaker Rosemary Cakebread’s email that I was going to meet an artist. The directions to her house were a graphic, hand-drawn map with winding roads, trees, farmhouses and vineyards.

Winemaker includes an artist’s touch in her work

Under Cakebread’s Gallica label, a minuscule production of 600 cases annually, she handcrafts Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache wines that are elegant and poetic, wines that show restraint and finesse.

“Wine should be seamless,” says the winemaker. “I want the wood to be integrated with wine.” Therefore, these wines can best be described as lyrical and beautifully knit. The artistry in her winemaking is also reflected in the name Gallica, a botanical term for a type of rose used in perfumes.

Cakebread is not new to the valley. She has been crafting wine in Napa for 33 years. However, she claims she got introduced to viticulture by accident. “Stars were in alignment,” she says with a laugh.

During the summer between high school and college, she got a job on the bottling line at Sebastiani Vineyards. “It piqued my interest. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I was curious,” she remembers.

Rosemary Cakebread with a Cabernet Sauvignon and a wine from her Suzuri Series. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Rosemary Cakebread with a Cabernet Sauvignon and a wine from her Suzuri Series. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

She enrolled at the University of California, Davis, and received a degree in oenology. Her first job was in the laboratory at Inglenook Winery. From there she went to Cakebread Cellars for a short period and met Bruce Cakebread. The two have been married for more than 25 years.

Soon she moved on to Mumm Napa Valley. “I’ve always separated my career from marriage,” says the veteran winemaker.

Cakebread entered the world of sparkling wine and worked at Mumm when it was first established in Napa, operating out of Sterling Winery. In 1997, she took over as winemaker at Spottswoode Winery, a position she held till 2007. She maintained a consulting winemaker position at Spottswoode till 2012.

We met at Cakebread’s farmhouse in St. Helena (just off the Highway 29), which serves as her office. The recently purchased house just happens to be next door to her residence. The house/office comes with a patch of old Petite Sirah vine, which she plans to pull out and replant.

“Cabernet is what I know and love making,” she acknowledges. It’s this passion that led her to create the Gallica label with a 2007 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yet the winemaker is also drawn to Rhône varietals, so she added Grenache to her portfolio in 2010. Napa Valley is not known for growing Rhône varietals, but Cakebread found a good source in the Shake Ridge Ranch vineyard in Amador County, Calif., in the Sierra Foothills.

We taste the 2011 Grenache, which is blended with Syrah, Mourvèdre and a touch of Viognier. This is an exceptionally elegant, well-rounded wine with balanced fruit and soft tannins.

The Rhône red wine production falls under the Suzuri Series, a collection that will feature different blends each vintage. Cakebread chose the name “Suzuri,” which is a stone plate used for calligraphy, because of her love for Japanese art.

Gallica’s Cabernet Sauvignon bottling generally consists of 80% to 85% of this varietal blended with Cabernet Franc — to add an herbaceous quality — and Petit Verdot, which lends notes of fruits and violets. The 2010 Cabernet is superbly balanced and elegant.

There’s no overabundance of fruit here. “That’s what I like to drink,” Cakebread says.

“I tend to pick my fruit earlier. Some people say I pick under-ripe, but late picking adds too much alcohol to the wine,” she explains.

Besides the fruit that comes from the 1-acre vineyard behind the Cakebread residence, she purchases grapes from Oakville Ranch for her Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

“I’ll always make Cabernet — that’s the engine that drives everything.” However, the winemaker will soon be releasing her 2012 and 2013 Syrahs from Pisoni Vineyards in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands.

How about white wine? I ask.

“Not that I don’t like whites, but it’s a big ocean to swim in,” she muses. She doesn’t want to produce yet another Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

“I am looking for other whites like Chenin Blanc. It’s hard to find old-vine Chenin Blancs, but I’ll keep looking. I’d like to make a Vouvray style,” says the creative winemaker ever in search of a new artistic achievement.

Top photo: Winemaker Rosemary Cakebread in her vineyard. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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New growth on an old vine from

California wine is finally getting interesting, and wine lovers can dare to hope that America’s premier wine region will produce more wines of higher quality.

What? Those $200 Napa Valley Cabernets aren’t great wines? Sorry to say, most are not. The good news is a group of winemakers is stepping away from California’s pack mentality to produce wines that reflect both an appreciation of the place the grapes are grown as well as an understanding that bigger is rarely better when it comes to wine.

And, be still my heart, they aren’t afraid to say it. Out loud. In print. San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné has captured their voices and given early support to this movement in his recently released “The New California Wine: A guide to the producers and wines behind a revolution in taste” (Ten Speed Press).

During the past half-dozen years, I’ve met with established winemakers who talk about dialing back the alcohol levels on their wines. They claim a deep longing to produce “European” style wines with greater finesse and character. Then they beg, “Please, don’t quote me!” Inexplicably, they seem to think they can accomplish this transformation so slowly that their public — and the critics — will barely notice the change.

Documenting the historic shift

Shifting directions is risky. Timid American baby boomers learned about wine by leaning heavily on critical scores, buying what they were told they “ought” to drink. So when the two overlords of California wine criticism — Robert M. Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube — championed high-alcohol fruit bombs, America’s first generation of wine drinkers eagerly fell in line behind them.

The rare winemaker willing to be quoted declaring a dramatic shift in style away from that norm has crumbled when facing angry consumers wondering why they had been paying top dollar for wines that the winemaker suddenly says are not what they ought to be.

From his perch at the Chronicle, Bonné was able to dig deep into California’s wine culture to find the winemakers who never compromised. Years of walking vineyards in every corner of the state paid off in the discovery of Steve Matthiasson, Tegan Passalacqua, Ted Lemon and dozens of other pioneers making wine to suit their personal taste rather than to score critical points. “Just three or four years ago, these guys were really out in the wilderness,” Bonné says.

Their stories of reviving abandoned vineyards in marginal growing areas, cobbling together wineries in deserted warehouses, and striking crazy work-for-free deals with vineyard owners sound more like the do-it-yourself culture that is transforming the American food scene than the big-money mentality that dominates California wine.

More than one kind of California wine

Bonné is a wine geek who delights in highly nuanced details of grape farming and cellar work. And, while that can result in a slow read at times, it’s an important plus. These are the distinctions that make a difference and separate the pioneers from more established vintners. Bonné empowers his readers by carefully explaining these specifics. And, bless him, he spares us the poetic hyperbole that hobbles so many wine books.

“This story was totally evolving as I was writing it,” says Bonné. “It was terrifying and exhilarating.” The first wine writer to make a strong statement about the promise of these emerging winemakers, and by comparison drive home the problems with California’s established wine industry, Bonné takes a risk. The nascent movement is so small it could easily dissipate.

The established “cult Cabernets” will not go away, Bonné says. Rather, support for these new wines will grow. “The people who had given up on California will turn around,” he predicts.  In the future, there will be more than one kind of California wine.

Eventually, “there will be a transfer of power” in the American wine industry, he says. “This emerging generation is drinking with a level of curiosity that is very different from their parents.”

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Judging by a recent crowd of young wine lovers eagerly tasting through a selection of California wines championed by Bonné, he’s calling it right. At domaineLA, a Los Angeles wine shop with a reputation for promoting an international selection of well-priced, high quality wines, Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr. was joined by leading Santa Barbara small-production vintners Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr, partners in Sandhi Wines, and Napa Valley-based winemaker Steve Matthiasson. This year, Bonné named Matthiasson the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Winemaker of the Year.”

The wines had bold, pronounced flavors, yet they retained the lift of natural acidity. All but a couple of the dozen wines on offer were priced below $40 a bottle. And the alcohol levels were all under 14%, a mark of a classic European-style wine.

Questioning the dominance of Napa Valley’s over-extracted and over-priced bruisers will soon go from taboo to “told you so.”

Top image: The beginning of growth on an old vine. Credit: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, publisher of “The New California Wine” by Jon Bonné

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Peter Mondavi Sr. blows out the candles on his birthday cake at a party celebrating his 99th birthday. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Peter Mondavi Sr., the patriarch of Charles Krug Winery, turned 99 on Nov. 8. Over the years, I’ve attended many outstanding events in Napa Valley, but this birthday dinner aced them all. It was a memorable and historic celebration.

Looking youthful (for 99), Mondavi blew out a handful of candles topping the lemon cake baked by his granddaughter, Lia Mondavi.

“I’ve been in this business for 70 years, a business that has its ups and downs,” the Napa Valley legend said moments later. “I’m looking forward to a great future.”

Spoken like a man with no intention of ever growing old. Indeed, now that he is on to his 100th year, major celebrations are planned for his centenary during the 2014 Auction Napa Valley weekend, to be held June 5 to 7.

Wine and work the secrets to Mondavi’s longevity

When I met Peter Sr. last summer, he told me that wine accompanies every lunch and dinner. And he takes the staircase to access his office. He has little choice: There is no elevator in that part of the building.

“His youthfulness is not only because of the glass of wine but he comes to the office every day,” Peter Mondavi Jr. said as he welcomed party guests to the newly designed hospitality center at Charles Krug Winery.

For 67 years, Peter Sr. has been involved in every aspect of the winery’s operations, even though he admits his sons Peter Jr. and Mark now do most of the work. The patriarch’s spirit and legacy are very much a part of Charles Krug, Napa Valley’s oldest winery, founded in 1861.

The Mondavi family’s “farm-to-table” dinner was orchestrated by chef Larry Forgione, culinary director of the Conservatory for American Food Studies at the Culinary Institute of America at Napa Valley’s Greystone campus.

A 2005 Limited Release Dr. Galante Vineyard Pinot Noir. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

A 2005 Limited Release Dr. Galante Vineyard Pinot Noir. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Forgione conducts a 15-week culinary program for CIA students at the Charles Krug 3-acre organic farm. On weekends, food prepared by students is offered at a pop-up restaurant at the CIA.

The four-course birthday dinner started with a salad of frisee, arugula, fresh burrata cheese and shaved Conservatory duck prosciutto made from the CIA Conservatory & Charles Krug farm. This was paired with a delicious 2012 Chardonnay from Carneros.

“Dad bought the Carneros vineyard in the late 1960s with an intention to make sparkling wine,” Peter Jr. said. “He bought it for $2,000 an acre.” You can add a few zeros to the going price of an acre in Carneros these days.

Peter added that the Charles Krug olive oil on the table was another of his dad’s endeavors. His older brother, Mark, had planted some olive trees, he said. “Dad did not like to see the fruit go to waste,” Peter Jr. said. The resulting olive oil is for private consumption only.

The second course of sweet potato gnocchi with braised Napa Valley heritage rabbit and black truffle ragout was superb with the 2005 Limited Release Dr. Galante Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Russian River region of Sonoma. This is the only vineyard outside Napa from which the Mondavi family sources fruit.

Two Napa Cabernets, a 1983 Vintage Selection (decanted from a 12-liter bottle) and a 2010 Vintage Selection, were superb served with wood-grilled California pastured veal loin served atop Bale Grist Mill polenta, chanterelles, wild black trumpet mushrooms, goosefoot spinach and cipollini onions.

A fragrant quince tart with goat’s milk caramel paired with Lot XVI Limited Release Zinfandel Port added a perfect final touch to this remarkable evening.

The birthday party was a joint celebration because it coincided with the opening of Charles Krug’s newly restored Redwood Cellar, which has been transformed into a hospitality center.

Peter Mondavi Sr. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Peter Mondavi Sr. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

In the cavernous room filled with flowers and candles, some 100 Napa luminaries gathered for the celebration, including Barbara and John Shafer, Molly Chappelet, Bob and Evelyn Trinchero, Liz Martini, Dan and Nancy Duckhorn, nephews Tim and Michael Mondavi with wife Isabel and Napa’s grande dame herself, Margrit Mondavi, widow of Peter Sr.’s brother Robert.

One of Napa’s National Historic Landmarks, the 1862 Redwood Cellar housed 173 large redwood tanks in the not-too-distant past. The legacy of this historic tank room has been maintained as you see its aged redwood recycled on exposed walls. The tank room has been transformed into a swanky, contemporary-style tasting lounge/bar and hospitality center designed by the team of noted Napa architect Howard Backen.

I asked Peter Sr. what he thought of the recycled wood on the walls. “I was a bit leery about it, but it worked out very well,” he said with a smile.

The $25 million improvements to the family’s eight Napa Valley estate vineyards and historic winery began a decade ago and ended with completion of the hospitality center. Of this final renovation, son Mark ruefully remarked: “You can only do so much with $8 million.”

Top photo: Peter Mondavi Sr. blows out the candles on his birthday cake at a party celebrating his 99th birthday. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Grapes growing at the Marisa Cuomo winery in Furore, Italy. Credit: Cantine Marisa Cuomo

You’ve heard of Positano, of course; Amalfi and Ravello, too, no doubt. How about Furore? Maybe not. Don’t worry; you’re not alone. Furore, Italy, is a just a little bit of a place, a random collection of houses, vineyards and lemon groves strung out across a series of near-vertical terraced slopes perched precariously above the shimmering Amalfi Coast.

Even residents describe it as “un paese che non c’è” — a village that’s not really a village. So why mention it? Because Furore is home to the Marisa Cuomo boutique winery, which, as Carla Capalbo observes in her vade mecumFood and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania,” has become “synonymous with the rise in quality of — and interest in — the Costa d’Amalfi DOC wines.”

Wine has been made for centuries up in this rugged hinterland of the Amalfi Coast, but it was of inferior quality, sold in bulk and never destined to stray far from its homeland. Marisa Cuomo and her husband, Andrea Ferraioli, both from local winegrowing families, recognized the potential of the terroir and also of the indigenous grape varieties planted here, some of them unique to the area. About 20 years ago they resolved to take the village’s winegrowing in a new direction. “They put Furore on the map,” confirms their daughter Dorotea Ferraioli, who is responsible for marketing and also for tours and tastings. “They wanted our little paese to be known worldwide.”

 Why it works in Furore

Realizing that the only way to go was up, they decided to focus relentlessly on quality. They improved practices in the vineyard, invested steadily in the winery, carved a breathtaking cellar straight out of the rock face behind the house and hired an enologist to oversee winemaking. They began to bottle all their own wines and to age some of them in small oak barrels and proceeded to market them with flair to an eager public — Italians first, swiftly followed by an international audience thirsty for wines from the much-loved, much-visited Amalfi Coast.

Today the winery works with 20 hectares (50 acres) of vines, planted on vertiginous slopes all the way from Furore round to Vietri. The vineyards in and around Furore are wholly owned; the rest are worked by the winery in a cooperative arrangement.

You need to see the vineyards above Furore to understand the extreme challenges involved in working this terrain. The vines, almost all pre-phylloxera and ungrafted, are planted at the foot of the walls that prop up the steeply stacked terraces, at altitudes ranging from 100 to 750 meters (328 to 2,460 feet) above sea level. Their branches sprawl out horizontally along pergolas made from long, tapering poles, which are cut from the chestnut trees that proliferate high in the Monte Lattari way above the village.

An overview of the Marisa Cuomo winery. Credit: Cantine Marisa Cuomo

An overview of the Marisa Cuomo winery. Credit: Cantine Marisa Cuomo

Training the vines along pergolas in this way, explains Dorotea, is not just a picturesque regional tradition; it’s also the most convenient solution, perfectly suited to the rigors of the terrain while making the most of the limited space available. The branches provide a dense canopy of leaves beneath which the grapes dangle, protected from the relentless sun. On the ground below, zucchini, pumpkins and other vegetables flourish gratefully in the shade. Two crops are thus grown in one tiny, precious, precarious space.

The winery makes white, rosé and red wine from a whole bunch of little-known, indigenous vine varieties that are still part of Italy’s precious heritage. Top of the white range is the barrel-fermented Fiorduva (“flower of the grape”), a fragrant blend of Fenile, Ginestra and Ripoli, three varieties unique to the Amalfi Coast. Furore Bianco, described by the sommelier at the Casa Angelina restaurant in nearby Praiano as “semplice ma non banale” (“simple but by no means ordinary”), comes from Falanghina and Biancolella grapes, both typical of Campania. Rosé and reds are made from Piedirosso (“red-foot”) and Aglianico in varying proportions.

Next time you’re on vacation in Positano or Amalfi, look out for Marisa Cuomo wines. They’re are widely available in restaurants, bars and shops along the coast. Best of all, find your way up the winding road to Furore and pay the winery a visit (from January to August only). Then look out for the wines when you get back home. (Wines are exported to the U.S., Canada, Japan and Switzerland). When you’ve tracked down a bottle of Fiorduva or Furore Rosso Riserva, uncork it, close your eyes, picture those dizzying slopes and sun-baked terraces, take a gentle sniff, breathe in the scents of the Amalfi Coast and remember the sheer back-breaking labor of love that has gone into the bottle.

Top photo: Grapes growing at the Marisa Cuomo winery in Furore, Italy. Credit: Cantine Marisa Cuomo

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A small fortress on an islet in the city of Nafplio. Credit: Rosemary George

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.

The terroir of Greece is largely determined by mountains and the sea, which define its dramatic landscape. The mountains, in particular, have a significant impact on rainfall, which can vary from 250 mm to 1,100 mm. The diversity of flavours is just as extraordinary, ranging from rich, full-bodied reds to sweet reds to dry, delicate whites.

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.

Angelos Iatrides of Alpha Estate. Credit: Rosemary George

Angelos Iatrides of Alpha Estate.
Credit: Rosemary George

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.

Tasting notes

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

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Wine table at Grape to Glass festival.

The Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, California, is turning 30 this year, and there’s going to be a big party to celebrate. Although that seems like a major milestone, its grape-growing tradition is older than it seems.

Russian River gets its name from the colony of Russians who built Fort Ross. The river’s mouth is about 12 miles south of that, in the tiny beach town of Jenner. Although the valley was named an American Viticulture Area, or AVA, in 1983 (a designation first given to Augusta, Mo., in 1980), grapes for wine have been cultivated there since the 1840s, making it closer to 170 years old. It was in the early ’70s, though, that winemakers took note of the cool climate, plus the daily flooding of fog, and started planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Nowadays, the Russian River region is synonymous with Burgundian varietals. Trailblazers such as Joseph Swan, Dutton Goldfield and a handful of others are now sharing their region with some 120 other wineries.

It’s not only the wines that make the region so famous: The sheer beauty of the rugged, almost wild land is a draw as well. There’s even a redwood forest in the middle (redwoods love damp weather).

Grape to Glass is the annual celebration of this region and its wines, timed before the harvest of the year’s grape bounty. This year’s event is dubbed Back to Our Roots and will celebrate the founding members, many of whom will be in attendance.

It all starts at 4 p.m. Aug. 17 when 50 wineries will be pouring some of the region’s most sought-after wines. These will be paired with treats and amuse-bouches made by local eateries. Soon thereafter, you might want to stuff a napkin in the top of your shirt and prepare for a full-on barbecue. There’s going to be live music as well.

Festival highlights

If you plan to attend, here are five wineries to checkout:

Joseph Swan is now run by Rod Berglund, Swan’s son-in-law (Swan passed away in 1989). Well known for its excellent Pinot Noir, the winery also makes a pretty impressive Zinfandel. Their vines are some of the oldest in the region.

Two Sheperds owner-winemaker and ex-blogger, William Allen, is the black-sheep Rhône grape producer amongst the Burgundians. He makes some excellent red Grenache blends and a rightfully popular Grenache Blanc.

I haven’t yet tried Thomas George Estates, but the winery is receiving some very impressive accolades from loads of wine folk. It’s a relatively new winery that is making a lot of different Pinots, as well Viognier.

I’ve always been a fan of DeLoach Vineyards; they use a lot of biodynamic procedures in the vineyard and winery. In fact, I am quite sure they have chickens running around among the vines, eating bugs. They make a few different styles of wine, but it’s really all about the Pinot.

Williams Selyem is so famous now; it’s quite a treat to see their wines being poured at an event. Started in the late ’70s by Ed Selyem and Burt Williams, they sold it in the late ’90s after winning just about every wine award known to humanity. Although now made in a different style, by Bob Cabral, the wines are still as popular.

Tickets for Grape to Glass start at $85. For more information, go to the Grape to Glass website.

Top photo: Wine table at Grape to Glass festival. Credit: Derrick Story

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Chile-based French winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt.

Whenever I hear people say that a bottle of wine “tells a story” or shares some sort of “message,” it sounds to me like a pretentious cliché. It’s not like you pop the cork and out pours some rhapsodic treatise on the rolling hillsides of Tuscany. And yet, after all that sipping and swirling, what I ultimately hope to find in wine is something more than just “a medium-bodied effort with subtle notes of blackberry and leather.” Of course, how a wine tastes is obviously a huge part of the equation. But what’s in the glass is also a question of context (geographical, cultural, historical), and I’m most engaged when a bottle speaks of the place from which it came.

For that reason, I don’t drink a lot of South American wine. I tend to view most bottles from this part of the world as conforming to a certain oversaturated modern style, weighed down with alcohol, oak, and extraction. So I did a double take when I learned that Louis/Dressner Selections — the iconic importer of handcrafted wines from Europe — recently had made its first foray south of the equator, adding a Chilean winery to its portfolio. Even more curiously, the young winemaker in question, Louis-Antoine Luyt, is a native Burgundian trained in the “natural” style of winemaking.

But although he uses grapes from local Chilean farmers, Luyt’s wines are reminiscent of many French natural wines, raising interesting questions about the relationship between terroir and technique.

Having arrived in Chile at age 22, Luyt first found work washing dishes at a local restaurant, climbed his way up to beverage director, and eventually enrolled in sommelier school in Santiago. This exposed him to a wide selection of Chilean wine, most of which, he admits in an interview on the Louis/Dressner website, he found too homogenous and industrial. So he decided to do what any self-respecting Frenchman would do: Make his own.

Winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt took his French vision for winemaking to Chile. Credit: Courtesy of Louis-Antoine Luyt

Winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt took his French vision for winemaking to Chile. Credit: Courtesy of Louis-Antoine Luyt

Luyt returned to France to study enology in Beaune. He soon befriended Matthieu Lapierre, son of the late Beaujolais legend Marcel, whose family domaine in the town of Villié-Morgon invokes a religious reverence among natural wine acolytes. The five harvests Luyt worked Chez Lapierre amounted to an exhaustive apprenticeship in the art of natural viticulture: organic farming; no chemicals, sprays, commercial yeasts or additives of any kind; and a minimalist aproach in the cellar.

Luyt took this philosophy back to Chile, where he sources organic fruit from several parcels of extremely old vines rented from independent growers throughout the Maule Valley. Although he crafts fascinating examples using southern French grapes such as Carignan and Cinsault, to my mind his most compelling wines result from his efforts to reclaim the humble, light-skinned Pais variety, historically a ubiquitious ingredient in Chilean jug wine. Luyt currently produces three separate bottlings of Pais, each highlighting a specific parcel of vines. His “Huasa de Trequilemu” and “El Paìs de Quenehuao,” for example, are bright, slightly spicy, Beaujolais-inspired wines that taste unlike anything I’ve encountered from Chile.

In fact, as much as I enjoyed both efforts, they reminded me of some natural wines I’ve had from France. As critics have started to point out, many natural wines — even those from completely different regions —  can taste quite similar to one another.

Natural wine’s signature style

The culprit is a technique called carbonic maceration, which involves fermenting whole bunches of grapes before crushing. Traditionally used in Beaujolais, it has since spread throughout France as a common feature of natural winemaking. If you’ve ever had a wine made this way, you’ll immediately recognize its signature, almost trademark style: Bright and effortlessly fresh, with low alcohol, glug-able berry-ish fruit and occasionally a light prick of spritz.

Writer Alice Feiring deftly sums up this paradox: “These wines are often just what I want. But terroir? No, it’s a style. It’s a beverage, but a great one.”

It’s worth clarifying that not all natural wines use carbonic maceration, and many that do utterly transcend the category. The practice is best understood as one of many options available to a winemaker, like the use of oak, which can either sharpen or dilute a wine’s message.

So do Luyt’s efforts meticulously articulate their respective Maule Valley terroirs? Or do they simply export a style originally developed in France? It’s hard to say. For one, it’s difficult to find Pais bottled as a single varietal, so a standard of comparison is elusive. That said, having recently tried one of Luyt’s zesty carbonic Carignans, I’m not entirely convinced I’d be able to distinguish it from an identically made example from the South of France, although I did find myself detecting a bit more bold Southern Hemisphere fruit, as well as some peppery herbs.

It’s far too easy to let these big, abstract questions distract from what’s in the glass. This is a shame, because the wines are truly tasty — after all, I happen to like that whole natural carbonic thing, certainly more than the oaky, overripe alternatives. So even if Luyt’s lineup might seem fashioned after many of the  familiar natural-styled bottles you’d find in any hip Parisian (or Brooklyn) wine bar, his work represents a bold development for Chile. That should be enough for anyone, even curmudgeons like me.

Top photo composite:

Winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt. Credit: Courtesy of Louis-Antoine Luyt

One of Louis-Antoine Luyt’s Carignan wines. Credit: Zachary Sussman

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