Category Archives: Wine grapes

Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

Even if it’s was just a marketing farce of Horace Chase, I still like the story of how Stags’ Leap Winery (and the area) got its name. Jancis Robinson recounts it in her book, American Wine, with the legend of Wappo tribal hunters chasing a stag. The hunt was close until the cunning beast secured its freedom by leaping across a vast chasm among the craggy palisades.

Stags Leap Palisades

The “Leap” of the Stags Leap District behind Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Kirk Grace, director of vineyard operations for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pointed those fabled peaks out to me when I visited the district on a recent press tour. I thought about those hunters often while tasting through a stellar line-up of Stags Leap District wines.

There’s a lot of great wine here, no doubt. Trophies and treasures abound with a close-knit community of growers and producers. It’s hard to find a bad bottle because they all hold each other accountable for maintaining the area’s reputation.

But even with the bounty of treasures, there is still the urge to hunt.

As I noted in my post, Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?, there’s a dichotomy brewing in the valley. It’s between what the Boomers (and, to some degree, Gen Xers) want to buy against the boredom that Millennials have with seeing the same ole, same ole everywhere. It’s this boredom that pushes us away from Napa in a hunt for something different.

However, from a business point of view, the current Napa recipe is working spectacularly well right now. Folks are making outstanding Cabs and Chardonnays which Boomers and Gen Xers are gobbling up. Of course, the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon grows really well in Napa Valley helps a lot.

Shafer Cabernets.

You can’t discount how delicious these Cabs can be. They are, indeed, “dialed in.”

As Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards noted, the valley has spent the last 40 years or so dialing things in. They have virtually perfected the art of making exquisite Cabernet. I can’t argue against that. The proof was loud and clear in the many sinfully delicious wines that I had on that trip. It has also been solidified over the years by several bottles that I’ve purchased and enjoyed on my own.

But even with all that velvet-glove gluttony, my Millennial heart was still tempted by another sin.

Lust

A craving for something different. Something exciting. Something worth stringing a bow and sharpening arrows for.

While the stag has gotten fat and easy to cull, I was excited to discover other beasts in the Stags Leap District that would have given the Wappos a good fight. These wines are often made in meager quantities and rarely see the light of retail or restaurant wine lists. Instead, these are the gems hidden in the tasting rooms and wine club offerings. But they are absolutely worth hunting down.

Steltzner Sangiovese

The Steltzner Stags Leap District Sangiovese was so good that a member of our tasting party bought another vintage (2015) to take to dinner.

What was even more remarkable–beyond their existence–is that each of these wines was quintessentially Stags Leap. The family resemblance you see in SLD Cabs of bright, juicy fruit with powerful, yet ripe and forgiving tannins echoes fiercely throughout these wines. Likewise, you can see the same care and “dialed in” attention that Stags Leap producers are known for in each bottle.

Of course, with all that care and the SLD banner comes a hefty price tag. With the average price of land in Napa over $300,000 an acre (and hitting over $400,000 an acre in the Stags Leap District), nothing here is going to be cheap.

Undoubtedly, this is always going to be an area where the Millennial Math is a struggle. However, one of the things that enhances value is excitement and uniqueness.

And you can’t get much more exciting and unique than hunting unicorns.

So let me share with you some of the unicorns I discovered in the Stags Leap District.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the region’s flagship Cabernets. But trumpets have been heralding their triumphs for decades. If you’re like me, sometimes your ears get enchanted by a different tune. I think each of these wines offers notes worth singing about.

Note: the wines tasted below were samples provided on the press tour.

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

I’m going to be writing a dedicated piece on Dick Steltzner in the not too distant future. It’s fascinating how someone who is so ingrained into Stags Leap District history would step out of the parade so many times to do his own thing.

Even though Steltzner’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been prominently featured in iconic bottlings like the inaugural vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon (of Judgement of Paris fame), he’s never been afraid to try new things.

Steltzner Sangio

The 2016 Steltzner Sangio. Probably my favorite of the two vintages but they were both excellent.

The initial plantings of Steltzner Vineyards in the mid-1960s included Riesling which had been a favorite of Dick Steltzner since he tried Stony Hill’s version. The Riesling didn’t work out, but that didn’t discourage him from experimenting again in the 1980s with adding Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinotage and Sangiovese.

Over the years, Dick Steltzner has gradually parcelled and sold off his vineyard–first in 1990 and most recently in 2012 to the PlumpJack Group. However, he’s kept many of his oldest and favorite plantings including the absolutely delicious Sangiovese as well as some Malbec vines which will occasionally be made as a varietal ($55).

Today, the vineyards are managed by Jim Barbour with the wines made by Mike Smith and Robert Pepi.

The Wine and Verdict

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of black cherries and plums. Not as herbal as an Italian example. Instead, there is an intense blue floral component.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through and are quite juicy with medium-plus acidity. Full-Bodied but not overbearing with ripe medium-plus tannins. As with the Stags Leap District Cabs, the texture and mouthfeel are outstanding. The fruit wraps around your tongue, having a tug of war with the mouthwatering acidity. It makes you want to both hold the wine in your mouth to savor and swallow so you can enjoy another sip. Long finish brings back the floral notes and adds a little oak spice.

Like Villa Ragazzi’s Pope Valley/Oakville Sangioveses, you’re not going to mistake this for a Tuscan wine. But this wine has more than enough character to stand on its own compared to similarly priced Brunellos.

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

Not long after Nathan Fay pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District, Robert Mondavi suggested to Ernest Ilsley in 1964 that he try his hand at the variety. The Ilsley Vineyard was already selling their Carignan and Zinfandel to Charles Krug winery. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery a couple of years later, a good chunk of the fruit for his very first Cab came from the young Ilsley vines.

The Ilsleys continue to sell fruit to wineries even after starting their own label in 2000–most notably to Shafer Vineyards where David Ilsley is the vineyard manager. David also manages the family vineyard with brother Ernie running operations and sister Janice handling hospitality and sales. Since 2009, Heather Pyle-Lucas has been making the wines after starting at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Ilsley Seis Primas

Such a delicious bottle. I’m kicking myself for not figuring out a way to bring a few bottles back to Paris.

The 2015 Seis Primas is a blend of 62% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc with only 183 cases made. The name pays homage to the six girl cousins that make up the 4th generation of the Ilsley family. The wine is sourced from six separate vineyard blocks including a 1996 planting of Malbec that the girls’ grandfather, Ed Ilsley, added to the family estate.

The Wine and Verdict

High-intensity nose. Rich dark blackberry fruit and plum. Lots of blue floral notes of violet and irises. There is also some noticeable oak spice, but it’s not dominating at all.

On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with a chocolate component added to the dark fruit. But still not overwhelming with black pepper spice emerging that compliments the allspice and cinnamon. Full-bodied with high-tannins, the wine is balanced well with medium-plus acidity that keeps the fruit tasting fresh. Long finish lingers on the spices.

I know that I said that it’s hard to find value in the Stags Leap District, but this wine proves me wrong. I’m stunned that this bottle is less than $100. It was easily one of the Top 5 wines that I had that entire week in the Stags Leap District after visiting 15 wineries and trying lots of heavy-hitters.

Honestly, if this wine had the magical “C-word” on the label, it probably could fetch closer to $130. All the Ilsley wines are sold direct-to-consumer. If you want any chance of bagging this trophy, you need to visit this family winery.

Clos du Val Cabernet Franc ($100)
Clos du Val Cab Franc

The 2016 Clos du Val Cabernet Franc. Still young but impressive already.

Even among Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons, Clos du Val is a unicorn. From founding winemaker Bernard Portet to current winemaker Ted Henry and assistant Mabel Ojeda, tasting a Clos du Val Cab stands out from the pack. While the use of new French oak has steadily increased over the years (100% for their 2015 Hirondelle estate), it’s never been as overt as it is with many of their Napa brethren.

With lively acid and more moderate alcohols, these are always wines that sing in harmony with food. Think Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Yeah, Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers are great–just like a big, bold, luscious Napa Cab is at times. But, damn, if there’s not something magical about tension and style.

These are also wines built for aging. That’s why it wasn’t shocking that when the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting was recreated in 1986, it saw the 1972 Clos du Val Cab nab first place.

The Cabernet Franc comes from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard that surrounds the winery. It’s named after the French word for “swallows” and references the birds that build their nests on the northwest side of the winery every spring. The 2016 vintage was 99% Cabernet Franc with 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos du Val’s winemaking team aged the wine 20 months in a mix of 80% new French and Hungarian oak.

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

Some of the swallows and nests that give the Hirondelle Vineyard its name.

High-intensity nose. Very floral but also an earthy, leather component. Underneath there is some dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries, but they’re secondary notes in this very evocative bouquet.

On the palate, the fruit makes its presence more known and are amplified by high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The earthy, leathery notes are still here but add a truffle component. It’s not like a Rhone, but it’s almost meaty. Firm, medium-plus tannins have solid structure but are still approachable. Moderate length finish brings backs the floral notes.

This is definitely a completely different Cabernet Franc than anything you would see in the Loire. It’s also not as “Cab Sauv-like” as many new world examples of Cabernet Franc can be (especially in Napa and Washington). The wine is certainly its own beast and is bursting with character. I can only imagine how much more depth and complexity this wine will get with age.

At $100 a bottle, you’re paying top-shelf Cab prices for it. But I guarantee this wine is going to have you scribbling a lot more tasting notes and descriptors than your typical $100+ Napa Cab.

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

Or step into the shower they have in the visitor’s bathroom at the Quixote tasting room.

Quixote is pretty much the Narnia of Napa Valley. If you want to find unicorns, all you need to do is enter through the Friedensreich Hundertwasser-designed wardrobe and there you are.

Carl Doumani founded Quixote in 1996 not long before he sold Stags’ Leap Winery to Beringer (now Treasury Wine Estates). At Stags’ Leap, Doumani built a reputation for the high quality of his Petite Sirah.  When he sold the property,  he kept many of the choice parcels for his new venture. The current owners, the Chinese private firm Le Melange, which acquired Quixote in 2014, continues to make Petite Sirah a significant focus.

They make three tiers of Petite Sirah. The prices range from the red label Panza ($50) up to their premier black label Helmet of Mambrino ($105-125 depending on the vintage). Quixote also makes a very charming rose of Petite Sirah ($35). All of those are well worth trying. However, the one wine that really knocked my socks off was their Stags Leap Malbec.

Doumani fell in love with the grape after a trip to Argentina in the 2000s. He had a little less than an acre planted with the first vintage released in 2011. Only around 100-150 cases of this wine are produced each year.

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Blackberries clearly dominate the show with some noticeable chocolatey oak undertones. With a little air comes black pepper spice, anise and savory leather notes.

On the palate, this was one of the most quintessential Stags Leap wines I tasted. Totally “iron fist in a velvet glove” all the way. Very full-bodied with ripe, medium-plus tannins. The plush texture is accentuated by the creamy vanilla of the oak. Medium acidity gives enough balance to add juiciness to the blackberries and also highlight a red plum component. Moderate finish brings back the spice notes with the black licorice note lingering the most.

In many ways, I can see regular consumers (as opposed to blind tasters) thinking this was a Napa Cab. There’s the rich dark fruit with noticeable oak. Coupled with the full-bodied structure and mouthfeel, it hits all those hedonistic notes that many consumers seek out in top-shelf Napa wines. But I love what the Malbec-y spice brings to the table. It helps the wine stand apart as a unicorn worth seeking out.

It’s definitely different than Malbecs grown elsewhere in the world (and a lot pricier too). However, this is truly a unique expression of the grape that reflects the Stags Leap District exceedingly well.

Other Stags Leap District Unicorns that I haven’t had yet but am on the hunt for.

In 2014, Decanter magazine noted that the Stags Leap District was planted to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% other. I honestly don’t think the numbers have changed much in the last five years. If anything, Cab has probably gained more ground and relegated Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah to the One-Percenter Club.

So, yeah, these wines are going to be hard to fine.  But my experiences with the unicorns that I’ve already encountered has me feeling that these are going to be worth the hunt.

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc ($85)
Author with Elizabeth Vianna.

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

I fully admit that I’m an Elizabeth Vianna fangirl. I adore her work at Chimney Rock and she also has a great twitter account worth following.  Another upcoming post in the works will see me getting geeky over Chimney Rock’s crazy delicious Elevage Blanc.

From a solely Stags Leap perspective, this Cabernet Franc from their estate vineyard intrigues me. Even though Chimney Rock’s vineyards essentially encircles Clos du Val’s Hirondelle vineyard, I suspect that this will be a very different expression of Cabernet Franc. That’s partly why it would be so cool to try.

Chimney Rock also occasionally releases a rose of Cabernet Franc as well as a varietal Sauvignon gris– when the latter is not being used up in their Elevage blanc.

Update: Oh and there’s now this to look forward to!

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

While founded and based in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge sources fruit from many places and has estate vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 and now owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Pine Ridge was also a big player in getting the Stags Leap District established as an AVA. While the winery is well-known for its Chenin blanc-Viognier blend (sourced mostly from the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties), the bread and butter of Pine Ridge’s Stags Leap estate is, of course, their Cab.

That’s what makes trying this Petit Verdot so intriguing even though a small amount comes from their Oakville property. Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety that is seeing increased interest across the globe. It’s being planted more to help offset the toll that climate change is having on overripe Cab & Merlot. Of course, it can be a finicky grape to make as a varietal. However, when it’s done well, it’s a spicy delight!

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

If you want to listen to a great podcast, check out Doug Shafer’s interview with Jim Regusci.

The Regusci family has a tremendous history in Napa Valley beginning with the site of the very first dedicated winery built in the Stags Leap District. The stone building, constructed by Terrill Grigsby in 1878, was known as the Occidental Winery for many years.

In 1932, Gaetano Regusci acquired the property and planted Zinfandel with many of those vines still producing fruit today. The family would sell grapes and maintain a dairy ranch on the property for several decades. In 1996, Gaetano’s son and grandson, Angelo and Jim Regusci, started the Regusci Winery.

While Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, its numbers are slowly dwindling. That’s a shame because Zinfandel is the “Craft Beer” of American Wine and a grape that is poised to capture Millennials’ attention. I don’t think anyone else in the Stags Leap District is still growing the grape which certainly makes this a fun unicorn to find.

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($150)

I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery Winemaker Joanne Wing.

Sourced from a tiny Prohibition-era block of vines, Ne Cede Malis is a field blend.  Mostly Petite Sirah with up to 15 other different grapes including Sauvignon blanc, an unknown Muscat variety, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Cinsault, Malbec and Syrah. The grapes are all harvested together and co-fermented.

Coming from the Latin family motto of Horace Chase, Ne Cede Malis means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” But with the last vintage of Ne Cede Malis on Wine-Searcher being 2015 (Ave price $86), I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment. (UPDATE BELOW)

Of course, that is the risk that comes with all unicorns. One day they may simply cease to exist. But that is also part of the thrill of the hunt.

Sometimes you bag your prize. Other times you’re standing on the edge of a cliff watching it leap away.

UPDATE: The Ne Cede Malis lives on! I was very excited to get an email from Stags’ Leap Winery letting me know that these old vines are still going strong with the 2016 vintage slated to be released in the fall for a suggested retail of $150.  Only around 500 cases were produced so this is still a unicorn worth hunting!

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Introducing the Mystery Grape Game

A lot of my writings the past few months have been focusing on wine business and marketing topics. That’s always been an interest of mine that I’ve enjoyed exploring. But it’s also an area that I need to stay up on as part of my WSET Diploma studies and eventual attempt towards getting a Master of Wine.

IG Mystery Grape clue James Busby

All the images used in this post will come from a recent Mystery Grape. Can you figure out the grape?

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust and the Institute of Masters of Wine were both founded by figures in the wine trade and while their certifications require a broad depth of knowledge on grape varieties, wine styles, regions, winemaking and viticulture–the nature of the business of wine is always in the backdrop.

In fact, it is this inclusion of the global business of wine that most separates WSET and MW certifications from those of the Court of Master Sommeliers–which focuses instead on service topics.

I’ll still be doing regular Geek Notes and other general wine features on the blog. But I’ve started to focus a lot of my geekiness over on the SpitBucket Instagram account where I’ve launched a Mystery Grape game using the IG story feature.

So what is it?

There’s really not much online in a game format to help high-level wine students. A lot of wine games are tailored more towards newbie wine lovers. For myself, I was looking for a game to help with both blind tasting as well as deep-level wine knowledge of grape varieties.

I didn’t find what I was looking for, so I created it.

IG Mystery grape straw bears

Be sure to look for secondary & tertiary aroma clues as well as primary notes.

Using photos featured on IG, I’ll post up to 10 clues relating to the identity of a particular wine grape. Players can answer by replying to the IG story or on a specific IG post that I do when the second batch of clues are live.

The next day I’ll highlight who got the correct answer first as well as other folks who got it right. I’ll also explain in the congratulation post many of the clues and often highlight a particular wine that exhibits a lot of the notable traits of the Mystery Grape.

It’s meant to be challenging.  For the first batch of clues, I’m aiming for WSET Diploma/Advance Sommelier level knowledge with easier WSET 2 & 3/Certified Sommelier clues coming towards the end.

If you don’t get it, that’s alright. A lot of folks won’t. But I guarantee that you will learn something regardless.

Below I’ll give you some tips as I explain the game.

Here’s How It Goes.

Monday through Friday I’ll launch the game with the first clue being a wine map. This is going to be our starting base and is often an area that folks will encounter blind tasting examples from.

I’m going to feature plenty of grapes that aren’t included in blind tastings, but I do regularly reference the Court of Master Sommeliers’ list of Probable Red Grape Varieties and Probable White Grape Varieties. If you’re a wine student and don’t already have those pages bookmarked, you should bookmark them now.

The next 3 to 4 clues will be aroma and flavor clues.
IG Mystery grape clue apple

It’s crazy how many white grape varieties have apples as a primary flavor.

Here is where I’m often going to get a little tricky because I’m not going to give you the dead-giveaway notes right away. I’m not going to post pictures of black currant, tobacco leaf, anise and cedar off the bat if I’m talking about Cabernet Sauvignon. Nor am I going to show you a map of Piedmont and then post pics of cherry, roses and tar for Nebbiolo.

Those items might come later on when I get to the WSET 2/3 level clues. But here I’m going to focus on some of the important but less obvious notes including young primary and secondary flavors as well as tertiary notes that come with age. I might also skip around the globe a bit. Many of these grapes are grown in multiple places and Diploma/Advance Sommelier candidates need to know those different notes.

However, the majority of the clues will pertain to the map region with other flavor notes being connected to regions that get brought up in subsequent clues.

Most of these clues will come from my own tasting notes of these grape varieties, but I will sometimes reference Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, Rajat Parr’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste and the Oxford Companion to Wine.

The last clue (#6) of the first batch is usually a context clue.
IG mystery grape honey wax clue

This pic actually contained two clues that were fairly specific to a particular white Australian wine grape. It referenced both the nature of the grape and an unique aging note.

Many grapes within a wine region will have similar flavor profiles. I can have a map of France with notes of red plum, blackberry, tobacco, pepper and chocolate and it could refer to dozens of grapes. So I need to narrow the focus a bit. I’ll do that by tossing in a clue that is relatively specific to the Mystery Grape–such as that this grape can also be found in the Veneto, Abruzzo and Puglia regions as well. (If you have an idea of what grape I’m talking about, post it in the comments).

Almost all these context clues are going to come from Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes. For Italian wines, I also like using Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy. Both books are must haves for wine students.

Now sometimes from this first batch, there will still be multiple contenders even with the context clue. Folks can take a stab at it, trying to be first. It depends on how generous I’m feeling with what kind of feedback I’ll give you if you’re wrong. Sometimes you might just have to wait for the next batch of clues.

Second Batch of Clues

Clues 7-10 will be more context clues hitting on history, wine styles and additional regions that our Mystery Grape is associated with. These often will tie back to the first batch of clues in some way.

And these clues will be easier–including more WSET 3 knowledge with at least clue 10 going down to WSET 2/Certified Sommelier/Certified Specialist of Wine level.

IG Mystery Grape Israeli wine.

Admittedly this was a little hard for a Clue 9, but it was something that googling would give the answer away to.

At the launch of the second batch of clues, I will do a separate Instagram post that will also go out on the SpitBucket Twitter account highlighting a particular clue and letting folks know if someone has already guessed correctly.

Timing

I’ve been testing this game over the last month and found that I have players in the US, Europe and Australia.  That pretty much makes a perfect time impossible. So I’m going to err on the sake of my sanity and go with the timing that works best for my schedule.

I’m in Paris so I will launch the game with the first batch of clues between 11 am to Noon CET. That will be 5-6am New York, 2-3am Seattle and 7-8 pm Sydney.

I know that kind of sucks for the Americans. But take solace in knowing that the first batch of clues is usually difficult enough that the Mystery Grape is often not solved until the second batch is posted.

The second batch will be released between 6-9 pm Paris time. That will be Noon-3 pm New York, 9 am to Noon Seattle and 2-5 am Sydney. Here is where it kind of sucks for the Australians but there have been some savvy Australians who have gotten the Mystery Grape with the first batch.

Again, my apologies that outside of Europeans, there is always going to be time zone issues for someone. But, hey, in the end, it’s all about having fun and learning something. The IG stories last up to 24 hours before they’re deleted so anyone can play at any time.

The best way to approach it is to set a personal goal of trying to guess the grape with as few clues as possible. Then try to beat your best the next day.

A Few More Tips

IG Mystery Grape saffron

At first blush you might think this is a clue for a blue floral note. But the other clues are referencing a white grape.
However, look at the user name from the image @saffron.tabuma. That and clicking on the image to look at the tags, should help you realize that this is saffron. This note come out in certain white wines that have been “influenced” by something.

If you don’t understand a clue, it’s always a good idea to click on the picture and go to the original image page. Often the caption and #hashtags will give more context. I’m very deliberate in which image I choose and usually I will select images with specific hashtags.

Plus, sometimes the image I select is from an album of pictures taken by the Instagram user. I don’t consider those other album photos when I choose the clue image. But I have seen many times where they provide insight into wine regions that the Mystery Grape is associated with. Plus, they are usually cool images to look at too.

It’s okay to Google. Especially with the second batch, there is almost always a google-able detail that will lead you to the Mystery Grape. It’s not cheating if it helps you learn something.

Don’t expect the obvious, but also don’t overthink it. Yes, this game is meant to be challenging. But sometimes your gut from the first batch of clues turns out to be right. The same thing often happens with blind tasting. You never want to lock yourself in on one answer too early before you’ve fully evaluated the wine. However, you should always take note of what your gut instinct was.

Intrigued?

You can head over to Instagram now to take a look at today’s game. There you will also see posts from several of the last few games featuring grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malvasia, Grolleau, Zinfandel, Pinot blanc, Rondo, Petit Verdot, Pinotage, Albarino and more.

You will see both “clue posts” as well as bottle pic congratulation posts. Those latter posts will explain many of the clues along with a featured wine made of the Mystery Grape.

BTW, how did you do?

Could you guess the French grape with some Italian flirting that I used as an example in the “Clue 6” section? Or how about the previous Mystery Grape referenced in the article’s images? Let me know in the comments below.

Happy Geeking!

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

The Sleeping Giant of Italian Wine

A couple of days ago, Harper’s UK posted an article about the dominance of Old World wine in the Chinese on-trade sector (restaurants, bars, etc.). While New World regions like Australia are making an active play, France still rules the roost with a 36.7% market share.

Mauro Sebaste Roero Arneis

But the French have been focusing on China for a few decades now–starting not long after France and China formally established diplomatic relations in 1974. Interest was strongly led by Bordeaux estates, which still make up a sizable chunk of the French-Chinese market today.

However, the most eye-raising stat from Harper’s report was the very solid share of Italian wines at 17.9%. Though, as the article noted, Italian wines still only account for 6.3% of total Chinese imports–which includes grocery and retail sales.

But considering that you don’t hear much about marketing Italian wines in China, there is plenty of room for optimism if I’m an Italian wine producer.

And it’s not just China that is seeing growth in Italian wine sales.

Italian wine sales in the US have been steadily growing as well–and, no, it’s not your grandma’s straw basket Chianti or cheap Pinot grigio that’s fueling that growth.

Luigi Pira's Dolcetto d'Alba

Luigi Pira’s Dolcetto d’Alba is a screaming good deal in the $12-16 range retail and is rarely seen above $35-40 at restaurants.

Instead, backed by a huge marketing push, Americans are discovering the vast diversity of Italian wines. With its bounty of unique and exciting grape varieties, as well as thousands of small producers, Italian wines are particularly enticing to Millennials who desperately seek something different from the same ole, same ole.

Even better, because Italian wines are still lingering in the straw basket shadow of fiascos past, many of these wines are crazily underpriced. Especially in the $10-20 range, you can often find bottles that way overdeliver on the price. Simply put, Italian wines are nailing the Millennial Math.

In the race to capture the hearts of the elusive Millennial market, Italian wine producers have a great head start. Wineries across the globe are well advised to pay attention to a sleeping giant that is poised to take more of their market share.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go check out your local wine shop and meander over to the Italian section.  Look for examples of these grapes below and see for yourself what the hype is all about.

Seven exciting Italian wine grapes to try.

Below are varieties that most good wine shops should carry at least one, if not multiple, examples of. All of the pictured and referenced wines are ones that I’ve personally found in the United States, though a few of them I did first try on producer visits to Italy. But, while they were all excellent, you don’t need to look for these particular producers. It’s more about just trying the grape.

BTW, if you want to geek out more about Italian grapes, I very highly recommend getting Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy as well as Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch’s Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. That last recommendation currently has many used paperback options available on Amazon for less than $10 bucks. Great buy for wine students.

Aleatico

Fubbiano Aleatico

This Aleatico with dark chocolate covered raspberries was a heavenly pairing.

One of the oldest grapes in Italy, Aleatico can be found as far north as Elba and Tuscany and as far south as Sicily and Puglia. DNA evidence has shown that it has some parent-offspring relationship with Moscato bianco, but it is not yet known which grape is the parent and which is the child. Still, a good comparison of Aleatico is to think of a black Muscat with more racy acidity and spicy aromas of cinnamon.

Made in the passito style (with dried grape), this Fattoria di Fubbiano Aleatico reminded me of a richer and spicer ruby port. This wine was beautifully balanced with sweetness and deep dark fruit but still lively and fresh tasting. For around $25-30 for a 500ml bottle, it’s an excellent choice for that bedeviling pairing of red wine and chocolate.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers who want balance and complexity in their sweet dessert wines.

One of the biggest things that separate wine geeks from wine snobs is that geeks can appreciate good sweet wines. After dinner, many sweet wines are perfect as dessert themselves or as pairing partners. If you have a snob friend who always turns their nose up at sweet wine or who thinks Port is too alcoholic, challenge them with a great bottle of Aleatico.

Arneis

Photo by Virginia Scarsi. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The same fog conditions that are so valuable for maintaining freshness in Nebbiolo can help Arneis retain its acidity in the right locations.

In the 1980s, Arneis was one of Italy’s most popular white wines, but this Piemontese grape eventually took a back seat to the global thirst for Italian Pinot grigio (and later Moscato). Still, quality minded producers like Mauro Sebaste never lost faith in this fresh and aromatically floral grape.

In the Piemontese dialect, the name “Arneis” is derived from the word for “rascally individuals,” and the grape can be a bit of a rascal in the vineyard. Producers have to pay attention to the vine throughout the growing season and make sure that it is planted in the right locations to thrive. The sandy, chalky soils of the Roero on the left bank of the Tanaro has shown itself to be particularly well-suited for Arneis.

Before DOC/G laws were tightened, the low acid Arneis was often blended into the higher acid Barbera and even Nebbiolo of Barolo to help soften those wines and add aromatic lift. It was a practice not that dissimilar to the co-fermenting of Viognier with Syrah in Cote Rotie. The best examples of varietal Arneis attest to the wisdom of that old practice with gorgeous white floral notes, subtle herbalness and creamy mouthfeel.

A great choice for: Fans of white Rhones like Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.

But also red Rhone drinkers for that matter too. The combination of lovely floral notes with a mouth-filling body makes this another great white wine option for red wine drinkers.

Barbera

Mauro Veglio Barbera d'Alba

Pro tip: Producers who make really good Barolo and Barbaresco (like Mauro Veglio) will usually make a very kickass Barbera.
If you’re at a restaurant and don’t want to pay a fortune, compare the Barbera and Barolo/Barbaresco sections for producers.
I can guarantee that the Barbera will be a great buy.

One of the biggest surprises for me in visiting Piedmont was how much Barbera dominates the wine lists of local Piemontese restaurants. While Barolo and Barbaresco are the region’s pride and joy, Barbera is what they drink most regularly. And it makes sense because the grape produces immensely delicious wines that are very approachable young.

It’s also no shocker that Barbera is one of top 5 most planted grapes in Italy.  What is a little more surprising is that it is one of the 15 most widely planted red grapes in the world.

Unoaked examples are going to show lively acidity and be redolent of red fruits. Meanwhile, some oak will introduce more vibrant chocolate notes. In general, the wines from Barbara d’Alba tend to be more full-bodied with more prominent tannins.  While I find those from Barbara d’Asti to be more floral and velvety.

A great choice for: Folks getting knee deep and geeky into the Cru Beaujolais trend.

There are rocking bottles coming out of Beaujolais, but people are catching on and the prices are starting to rise. I actually find Barbera to be a little more consistent than Gamay. Plus, with it still being under the radar, amazing bottles can be easily found for less than $20.

Dolcetto

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as user:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The “red stemmed” version of the Dolcetto has even made its way to the US. This cluster pic was taken at a vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA of Washington in mid-October just before harvest.

The “little sweet one” that is never sweet and rarely a little, light bodied wine. The name likely came from Dolcetto’s favoring as a table grape. I haven’t had the privilege of trying Dolcetto grapes off the vine. But I’ve heard from producers that they are quite a treat. Apparently, you can taste the bright red berry and plum flavors of Dolcetto as well as a subtle saline note that the best Piemontese examples exhibit.

While we don’t talk about clones as much for Dolcetto as we do for Sangiovese or Pinot noir, Dolcetto has quite a bit of clonal variation. In the vineyard, these can be readily apparent by looking at the cluster stalk. Most have a greenish stem, but one particular clone (or biotype as Ian d’Agata prefers) known as Dolcetto dal Peduncolo Rosso has a fiery red colored stem. It is a specialty of the Tassarolo area near Alessandria. However, it can be found in many vineyards in the Dolcetto d’Alba zone as well.

The Dolcetto d’Alba area tends to produce the biggest, most full-bodied Dolcettos with a mix of red and dark fruit. While not as tannic as the Nebbiolo of great Barolo and Barbaresco, these wines will have some heft. In the Dolcetto di Dogliani area, the wines tend to exhibit more floral notes. This is also the area where I pick up that saline minerality the most.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers wanting something between a Pinot noir and a Merlot.

While, undoubtedly, more tannic and bigger bodied, I get a lot of Pinot quality in some Dolcetto. Particularly with the floral and minerally nature of Dolcetto di Dogliani. However, those from the Dolcetto d’Alba area can have more opulent dark fruit. With oak influence, even some chocolate notes can come out. You wouldn’t ever confuse a Dolcetto for a plush, hedonistic Napa Merlot. However, the lively acidity and freshness can hit a lot of pleasure spots for Washington Merlot fans.

Falanghina

Donnachaira Falanghina

A great white wine option in the $14-16 range for pairing with medium to heavy body food dishes.

This is another ancient Italian wine grape with likely Roman origins. However, the association of Falanghina with the famous Roman wine Falernian is probably misplaced.

Part of this is because there are so many different types of Falanghinas out there. Ampelographers are not yet sure how many are different clones/biotypes or if they’re distinct grape varieties. For the most part, what you’ll see in the US is Falanghina from the Benevento IGP in Campania.

In the rich clay and volcanic tufa soils of Campania, Falanghina produces heady, full-bodied wines with tree fruits and floral notes. Some examples can also have a subtle leafy greenness. It’s not quite New Zealand Sauvignon blanc green but more reminiscent of an excellent white Bordeaux.

A great choice for: White Bordeaux fans!

But as with the Arneis above, I can also see Falanghina capturing the attention of white Rhone drinkers as well. It definitely has the body and structure to appeal to many wine lovers. Likewise, drinkers of unoaked or lightly oaked (but not buttery) Chards can find this wine to be a charming change of pace as well. It will pair with many of the same food dishes.

Friulano

Schioppettino Friulano

I had to hunt for online retailers that offered this Schioppettino Friulano but, even paying a premium, this was still an absolute steal of a wine for under $25.

When I had my big cellar-clean out parties before moving to France, this Schioppettino Friulano rocked my world. I was pretty much dragging this bottle to everyone at the tasting and telling them that they had to try this wine. If you ever wanted a textbook example of minerality, this was it.

Formerly known as Tocai Friulano, legend has it that Italians shared this grapevine with the 13th century Hungarian King Bela IV where it was once used for that country’s famous Tokay wines. Ampelographers and wine historians now believe that there is little truth to those tales. But the racy acidity, green apples, nutty almonds notes and flinty minerality of Friulano is not that far off from a dry Hungarian Furmint.

A great choice for: Fans of exciting, minerally whites.

Dry Riesling, Chablis, Sancerre. You’re probably not going to confuse Friulano with any of those. However, there is a kinship in the electric way that all these wines dance on your tongue. There’s a nerviness about them that is just absolutely intoxicating once you find a great example.

Another tell-tale distinction between wine geeks and wine snobs is the cyclic journey that geeks take in appreciation of great whites. Both snobs and geeks often start out drinking white wines. Maybe sweet Rieslings before moving on to the Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Pinot grigios of the world. Then comes the dabbling in red wines. Here most snobs get stuck with the occasional allowance for the “appetizer” white wines of Great Burgundies and what not. All before you get down to the seriousness of red wines, of course.

But wine geeks eventually circle back to the wonderful world of whites. They can appreciate the seriousness and winemaking skill that making great white wines entails. Without a doubt, Friulano is a wine geek’s wine.

Dry Lambrusco

Dry Lambrusco

While it’s great with my wife’s homemade Margherita pizza, dry Lambrusco would elevate even Totino’s Party Pizza.

Yes, dry Lambrusco. We’re not talking about the Riunite or Cella Lambruscos that your Aunt has hidden under the cupboard. If you want the surest sign that you’re shopping in a good wine shop, it will most definitely be the presence of dry or Secco Lambrusco. Often with a slight effervescence, this is one of the most perfect pizza wines that you can find.

June’s #ItalianFWT Twitter chat–which I recently profiled– focused on Lambrusco with a lot of great write-ups and reviews of different wines (almost all of which can be found in the US). I highly recommend checking out the #ItalianFWT hashtag which featured links to many great blog posts. A few of my favs were:

The Wine Predator’s Bugno Martino’s Organic Lambrusco Defy Expectations.

The Asian Test Kitchen’s TOP 5 FAST FOODS PAIRINGS WITH LAMBRUSCO.

Linda Whipple’s SIPPING LAMBRUSCO IN STRAWBERRY SEASON

A great choice for: Pizza lovers.

While the blogs listed above gave other great pairing ideas, my heart still goes to pairing dry Lambrusco with pizza. The tang and sweetness of the tomato sauce pairs gorgeously with the bite and rambunctious berry fruitiness of Lambrusco. Plus the saltiness of the cheese and toppings is the perfect foil for the tannins and subtle earthiness.

This really is one of those magical pairings that everyone should try. You can see how vividly the wine and food change when you have them separate compared to having them together.

Want more? Check out these 60 Second Reviews of a few more Italian wine favorites

60 Second Wine Review — Lanzavecchia Essentia . A crazy delicious Nebbiolo, Barbera and Merlot blend that I’m still smarting over not buying more bottles of.

60 Second Wine Review — 2008 Ferrari Perlé. A $30-35 traditional method sparkler that blows most mass-produced negociant Champagnes in the $40-50 range out of the water.

60 Second Wine Review — Armani Colle Ara Pinot Grigio. Think all Italian Pinot grigios are cheap and watery? Think again.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Zweifel Zürcher Stadtwein Räuschling

I am going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about Zweifel’s 2014 Zürcher Stadtwein Räuschling from the Chillesteig vineyard in Höngg-Zurich.

Zweifel Swiss Rauchling wine

The Background

The Zweifel family founded their eponymous company in Höngg in 1898. Previously, the family were viticulturists who were growing vines since at least 1440. But hard economic times, as well as the devastation of phylloxera, encouraged Emil and Paul Zweifel to move into the wine and fruit juice trade.

In the 1960s, the family returned to viticulture with the planting of several vineyards. Today, in addition to selling wine from across the globe at their various wine shops, Zweifel makes private-label Swiss wine. The fruit for these wines is sourced from vineyards throughout northeast Switzerland–including several urban sites in Zurich.

In one such vineyard, Lattenberg along Lake Zurich, Zweifel help pioneer the plantings of Syrah and Sauvignon blanc in Switzerland.

Other varieties of Swiss wine that Zweifel produces include Pinot noir, Regent, Maréchal Foch, Léon Millot, Johanniter, Malbec, Cabernet Cubin, Scheurebe, Chardonnay, Garanoir and Riesling.

An Urban Vineyard in Zurich
Photo by Roland zh. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

A vineyard in Höngg snuck between housing development and the local church overlooking the Limmat river.

The Höngg quarter in the 10th district of Zurich has had a long history of viticulture with vines planted during the time of the Reformation. The most renown vineyard was Chillesteig planted on a sloping hillside along the Limmat river.

In the 1880s, problems took their toll on viticulture in the area with downy mildew and phylloxera devasting the vines. Aided by the industrialization and urban growth of Zurich, the last vines were grubbed up in 1942.

In 1968, Heinrich Zweifel, whose family has been in Höngg since the 14th century, started replanting the Chillesteig vineyard. His goal was to produce wine for his family’s wine shop. Today the 3.2 ha (8 acres) vineyard is planted to several varieties including Pinot noir/Clevner, Pinot gris, Cabernet Dorsa (a Cabernet Sauvignon x Dornfelder crossing), Prior, Riesling x Silvaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Räuschling.

Zweifel farms the vineyard sustainably under Suisse-Garantie ecological performance certification (ÖLN). Nando Oberli tends to the vines while Paul Gasser makes the wines at Zweifel’s Ellikon an der Thur winery in the Winterthur District.

The Grape

Photo from www.antiquariat-kunsthandel.de. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

The 1546 edition of Bock’s Kreutterbuch was one of the first documents to mention the cultivation of Räuschling.

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the origins of Räuschling date back to at least the Middle Ages.

Likely originating in the Rhine Valley, the first mention of the grape (under the synonym Drutsch) was in Hieronymus Bock‘s 1546 edition of Kreutterbuch (“plant book”). Here Bock describes it growing in the town of Landau in Rhineland-Palatinate.

By 1614, it was in the Franken region under the name of Reuschling. Local records in the area showed that producers were pulling up vines of Gouais blanc (Weißer Heunisch) in favor of Reuschling and another variety, Elbling.

The modern spelling of Räuschling emerges in the mid-18th century along with the synonym Zürirebe, meaning “grape of Zurich.” Over the next couple of centuries, plantings of Räuschling would gradually become more centralized around Zurich as vines disappeared from Germany and Alsace. Even in its stronghold of Northern Switzerland, the grape fell out of favor in the 20th century as more productive varieties like Müller-Thurgau took over.

By 2009, there was only 23 ha (57 acres) of Räuschling growing in Switzerland.  Most of these plantings are in the canton of Zurich.

Parentage and relationship to other grapes
Photo by Dr. Joachim Schmid, FG RZ, FA Geisenheim. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Gouais blanc is a parent vine of many varieties including Räuschling.

DNA analysis has suggested that Räuschling is a natural cross of Gouais blanc and Savagnin (Traminer). This would make it a full sibling of Aubin blanc and Petit Meslier as well as a half-sibling to Chardonnay, Gamay, Auxerrois, Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Elbling, Aligoté, Chenin blanc, Colombard, Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkisch, Melon de Bourgogne, Knipperlé and Sacy.

Two of these half-siblings, Riesling and Knipperlé, are vines that plantings of Räuschling is sometimes confused for in old vineyards in Germany and Alsace.

The Wine

Note: This tasting note is from my June 2017 visit to Zurich.

Photo by Debra Roby - originally posted to Flickr as Meyer Lemon, CC BY 2.0,

Lots of citrus Meyer lemon notes in this wine.

Medium intensity nose. Meyer lemons with some white floral notes that aren’t very defined.

On the palate, those citrus lemon notes come through and are amplified by the high acidity. The medium body of the fruit helps balance the acid, keeping the wine tasting dry and crisp. There is a phenolic texture to the mouthfeel that reminds me a bit of a Muscadet from Melon de Bourgogne. However, there are no aromatic signs of lees contact. Nor is there any trace of oak. Moderate finish continues with the mouthwatering lemony notes.

The Verdict

This wine tasted like what you would get if a Muscadet and lighter French Sauvignon blanc (like a Saint-Bris) had a baby. The texture and mouthfeel make me think of Muscadet but the citrus and high acidity remind me of Sauvignon blanc.

However, it doesn’t have the minerality of a good Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine or a Loire Sauvignon blanc. But I can see this pairing with a lot of the same dishes (particularly shellfish). I can also see it being a nice change of pace from New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. It would especially appeal to folks who want less green notes or pungent tropical fruit.

For around $18-23 USD, I would still be quite interested in trying a new vintage of the Zweifel Räuschling. You are paying a bit of a premium for the novelty of the grape variety and small urban production. But you are paying a premium on virtually every wine in Zurich.

Still, if you happen to be in the area and want a taste of local flavor, it’s well worth exploring.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2016 Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch from Dauenhauer Farms in the Willamette Valley.

Full Disclosure: This wine was received as a sample. I also went to winemaking school with Dan Welsh of Welsh Family Wines at the Northwest Wine Academy.

The Background

Welsh Family Blaufränkisch wine

Dan Welsh and his wife, Wendy Davis, started Welsh Family Wines in 2014. A protege of Peter Bos from the Northwest Wine Academy, Welsh utilizes native yeast fermentation and minimalist winemaking to produce food-friendly wines.

Sourcing fruit from dry-farmed vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley, Welsh makes single vineyard designate wines from Armstrong Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Bjornson Vineyard and Eola Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills, Dell’Uccello Vineyard near Eugene as well as Dauenhauer Farms in Yamhill County.

The wines are made at the SE Wine Collective in Portland. Here Welsh Family Wines shares space and a tasting room with several other urban wineries such as Esper Cellars, Laelaps Wines, Stedt Winegrowers and Statera Cellars. Alumni wineries like Fullerton Wines, Vincent Wine Company and Bow & Arrow started out as part of the SE Wine Collective before moving on to their own facilities.

The 2016 vintage was the first release of Welsh’s Blaufränkisch from 30+ year old vines planted at Dauenhauer Farms. Multi-generation farmers, the Dauenhauers also produce a Lemberger/Blaufränkisch under their Hauer of the Dauen (Hour of the Dawn) label.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that several grape varieties have been known as “Fränkisch” since the Middle Ages. Distinct from Heunisch grapes believed to have originated from Hungary, these Fränkisch varieties were thought to be more noble grapes associated with wines of the Franconia region.

Photo by Ulrich Prokop. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Blaufränkisch grapes growing in Germany.

The first written record of the name Blaufränkisch dates back to 1862 when the grape was presented at a exposition in Vienna. Later that century, the grape appeared in Germany under the synonyms Lemberger and Limberger. Both names seem to have Austrian origins and may indicate the villages where the grape was commonly associated with–Sankt Magdalena am Lemberg in Styria and Limburg (now part of Maissau) in Lower Austria.

DNA evidence has shown that Blaufränkisch has a parent-offspring relationship with the Heunisch grape Gouais blanc. It also crossed with Gouais blanc to produce Gamay noir. This suggests that the grape may have originated somewhere between Austria and Hungary though Dalmatia (in modern-day Croatia) is also a possibility. Here the grape is known as Borgonja (meaning Bourgogne) and Frankovka. However, the identification of these Croatian plantings with Blaufränkisch was only recently discovered so the grape’s history in this region is not fully known.

Beyond Gamay noir, Blaufränkisch has also sired several other varieties such as Zweigelt (with St. Laurent), Blauburger and Heroldrebe (with Blauer Portugieser), Cabernet Cubin and Cabernet Mitos (with Cabernet Sauvignon) and Acolon (with Dornfelder).

Blaufränkisch in Europe.
Photo by qwesy qwesy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Lemberger vines growing in Württemberg, Germany.

In Austria, Blaufränkisch is the second most widely planted red grape variety after its offspring Zweigelt with 3,340 ha (8,250 acres) as of 2008. Covering 6% of Austria’s vineyards, most of these plantings are found in the Burgenland region.

Most German examples of Lemberger/Limberger are found in Württemberg (part of the historic Franconia region). There were 1,729 ha (4,272 acres) of the grape planted in Germany as of 2009.

The 8000 ha (19,770 acres) of Hungarian Kékfrankos, the local translation of “Blue Frank”, are scattered throughout the country. Sopron, bordering Austria, is particularly well known for the grape as well as Kunság. In Eger, Kékfrankos is a primary grape in the region’s famous “Bull’s Blood” wine of Egri Bikavér.

Prior to the discovery of Borgonja as Blaufränkisch, Croatian plantings of Frankovka accounted for 2.7% of the country’s vineyard.

Blaufränkisch in the US.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that Dr. Walter Clore pioneered planting of Lemberger in Washington State in the 1960s and 1970s. Sourced from cuttings in British Columbia, Clore thought the grape had the potential to be Washington’s answer to California Zinfandel.

Photo source https://cahnrs.wsu.edu/blog/2007/04/a-brief-history-of-washington-wine-walter-clore-washington-wine-history-part-1/

Dr. Walter Clore, the “Father of Washington Wine” and pioneer of Lemberger in the state. Photo courtesy of WSU’s A Brief History of Washington Wine.

In those early years, the grape was mostly used in blends and port-style wines. Kiona Vineyards released the first commercial example of Lemberger in the United States in 1980. Under Clore’s influence, Thomas Pinney notes in “A History of Wine in America, Volume 2”, the grape became something of a “Washington specialty”.

While consulting for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ Columbia Crest winery, California winemaker Jed Steele discovered Washington Lemberger. He eventually partnered with the winery to make his Shooting Star Blue Franc.

Lemberger hit a high point of popularity with 230 acres in 2002. But in recent years the variety has seen a steep decline with only 54 acres in production as of 2017. Today, some of the oldest plantings are found on Red Mountain at Kiona and Ciel du Cheval.

In Oregon, there is not enough plantings of Lemberger/Blaufränkisch to merit inclusion on the state’s acreage report. Outside of the Pacific Northwest there are some plantings in Lodi, New Mexico, New York, Michigan and Ohio.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. A mix of red fruits–cherries and raspberry–with floral notes like carnations. With air some forest floor earthiness comes out. Little to no oak influence except for maybe some slight allspice baking notes.

On the palate, those red fruits carry through and are amplified with high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The acidity also brings out black pepper spice and makes the forest floor earthiness seem more fresh. Soft medium tannins balance the medium-minus body weight of the wine very well. The moderate finish lingers on the red fruit.

The Verdict

Photo by Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lots of juicy red cherry notes in this wine.

This is a very Pinot noir-like Blaufränkisch that is very different from the Washington Lembergers I’m familiar with from Kiona and Alexandria Nicole. Those wines tend to have a much bigger body with dark blackberry fruit and more noticeable oak influences.

The lightness of the body, ample acidity and spice notes are certainly closer to Austrian examples of the grape. Though the fruit in Austrian Blaufränkisch tends to be more on the black fruit side of the spectrum than this very red-fruited Oregon wine.

As this was my very first Oregon Blaufränkisch, I can’t say if this is typical of how the grape responds to Oregon terroir. My gut is that it is because the Pinot comparisons are inescapable.

The best way to describe this wine would be if an “old school” Oregon Pinot noir (like Rollin Soles’ ROCO) and a Cru Beaujolais (like a Côte de Brouilly) had a baby.

While it is enjoyable on its own (especially if served slightly chilled on a warm day), the best place for this wine is on the table with food. Here its mouthwatering acidity and interplay of fruit & spice can shine with a wide assortment of dishes. At $20, this would be a terrific bottle to think about for Thanksgiving.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot from Paso Robles.

The Background

Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot

Erich Russell founded Rabbit Ridge winery in 1981 in Healdsburg, Sonoma. Originally a home winemaker in San Diego, Russell’s wines caught the attention of the winemaking team at Chateau St. Jean who offered him a position. From there he spent time at Simi and Belvedere Winery before starting out on his own.

Over the years, Rabbit Ridge has earned numerous accolades and acclaim. They’ve had 3 wines featured on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list. Connoisseur’s Guide named Russell it’s “Winemaker of the Year” in 1998. Wine writer Jay McInerney noted in his 2002 work Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar that if you wanted to guarantee yourself a good bottle of Zinfandel, seek out the “R wineries” of Rafanelli, Ravenswood, Ridge, Rosenbloom, Renwood and Rabbit Ridge.

In 2001, the winery moved to the central coast of California. Here, the Russell family planted 200 acres on the west side of Paso Robles. Today the winery produces around 10,000 cases from their sustainably farmed fruit.

Rabbit Ridge is a family operation from top to bottom with Erich and Joanne Russell running the estate with their daughter, Sarah Fleming Garrett, and her husband Brice. In addition to working at Rabbit Ridge, the Garretts also have their own label, Serrano Wine, that was launched in 2018 in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles. According to Barnivore, all the Rabbit Ridge wines are “vegan friendly” with only bentonite and yeast fining used.

The 2011 Petit Verdot is sourced from estate fruit with a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon blended in.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Petit Verdot was in Bordeaux in 1736. However, the grape may not have originated there. Ampelograhical evidence of similar varieties suggest that Petit Verdot may have been a domesticated wild vine that originated somewhere in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department south of Bordeaux on the border with Spain.

Photo by Eric 先魁 Hwang. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Petit Verdot grapes growing in Portugal.

The name Petit Verdot references the small berries with thick skins that produce green (French vert) and acidic flavors if the grape doesn’t ripen fully. A very late-ripening variety, Petit Verdot is often harvested several days or even a couple weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite contributing deep color and spiciness to blends, the risk of not fully ripening caused Petit Verdot’s plantings in Bordeaux to sharply decline in the 20th century to around 338 ha (835 acres) in 1988. However, global warming has sparked renewed interest with a jump to 526 ha (1300 acres) by 2009. Mostly grown on the Left Bank, classified estates that have notable plantings of Petit Verdot include Ch. Margaux and Palmer in Margaux, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, Léoville Poyferré in St. Julien and La Lagune in the Haut-Medoc.

Petit Verdot in the US

Varietal versions of Petit Verdot have always commanded a premium in the United States. The reason has been because of limited supply and planting compared to other varieties. Matt Kramer notes in his 2004 book New California Wine that while a ton of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon would average around $3,921 and Pinot noir $2,191, Petit Verdot usually cost around $4,915 a ton to harvest.

Today, there are 2,897 acres of Petit Verdot planted throughout California with Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles being the home for a majority of those plantings.

Outside of California, the grape can be found in Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania and Washington State. In Canada, it is also grown in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Petit Verdot leaf growing at the Hedges Vineyard on Red Mountain.

Red Willow Vineyard pioneered Petit Verdot in Washington State in the mid-1980s. Here Master of Wine David Lake encouraged Mike Sauer to plant UCD clone-1 Petit Verdot in his Yakima Valley vineyard. However, as Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines, those early plantings failed and the blocks had to replanted with new clones in 1991.

In Walla Walla, the Figgins family of Leonetti planted Petit Verdot at the Spring Valley Vineyard.  Today Petit Verdot is still a significant component of their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Other early plantings of Petit Verdot in the 1990s took place at the Mill Creek Upland vineyard in Walla Walla, Destiny Ridge in Horse Heaven Hills and Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain. As of 2017, there were 254 acres of Petit Verdot in Washington State.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Brambly fruit like elderberry and boysenberry with some blue floral notes and forest floor earthiness. With a little air some tobacco spice and a distinct streak of graphite pencil lead emerges. The nose reminds me a bit of Cabernet Franc.

On the palate those dark brambly fruits carry through. The wine has full-bodied weight but I wouldn’t have guessed a 14.8% alcohol. There is no back-end heat or jammy fruit. Moderate oak contributes some baking spice but doesn’t play much of a role. Medium-plus acidity gives the fruit freshness and balances well with the ripe, high tannins. This wine is mouth-filling and mouthwatering. Moderate length finish brings back the spice and minerally graphite notes.

Some Personal Thoughts

I have to confess a bias of sorts. Stories like that of the Russells and Rabbit Ridge fuel and sustain my love for the world of wine. It’s so easy to get lost in the doldrums of supermarket shelves dominated by portfolio of brands owned by a handful of mega-corps that you lose sight of what wine is really supposed to be about. Wines like this remind me of why I geek out about wine.

The 2014 Rabbit Ridge sparkling Pinot noir Brut was also really tasty as well. Look for a 60 Second Review of this wine in December.

I’ve been following Rabbit Ridge Winery on Twitter and highlighted them in my article The Winery Twitter Dance as one the best winery Twitter account worth following. While I don’t know the Russells personally, it’s hard not to feel like I do because of all the great behind the scene tidbits that they share about the hard work and joys that comes with managing a small family winery. Likewise with the Serrano Wine Twitter, you feel like you are with the Garretts on their journey in launching a new winery from the ground up.

For folks like the Russells, the wine that you open up to share on your table with family and friends isn’t just a brand. It’s their life work and the result of hours upon hours of toil, and gallons upon gallons of sweat, spent over every step of the process. From first putting the vines into the ground to finally the cork in the bottle, they’re putting a part of themselves into each wine.

When you share their wines, you’re not sharing something thought up during a marketing department’s brainstorming session and tested on focus groups. Instead, you’re sharing something that was dreamed up by person who looked out at a vineyard or into a great glass of wine and thought “I could do this. I should do this.” and tested that dream over and over again on their own table–with their own family and friends.

The Verdict

I opened this bottle of 2011 Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot with higher expectations than I do for a commodity brand.  And I certainly savored that it lived up to those expectations. At $20 (yes, $20 for a varietal Petit Verdot!), this wine has character and complexity that opens up even more in a decanter over the course of dinner.

No, it’s not a jammy, hedonistic red like many Paso wines can be. Its best role is definitely on the table where its acidity and structure can shine with food. But it is a bottle way over delivers for the price and worth trying.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Lang & Reed Chenin blanc

This post was inspired by Outwines’ Noelle Harman’s great post on the Loire and South African Chenins made by the husband-wife team of Vincent & Tania Carême. That post and her reviews are well worth a look along with her super geeky and super useful study outline on the Chenin blanc grape (part of a continuing series she does).

With this still being California Wine Month, I’m going to add my advocacy for the overlooked and underappreciated Chenin by highlighting Lang & Reed’s 2015 example from Napa Valley.

The Background

Lang & Reed was founded in 1995 by Tracey & John Skupny. After previous stints at Caymus, Clos Du Val and Niebaum-Coppola, John and his wife Tracey (previously of Spottswoode) wanted to work with their favorite grape varieties from the Loire Valley–Cabernet Franc and Chenin blanc.

Named after their children, Reed & Jerzy Lang, Lang & Reed Wine Company work with fruit primarily from the Anderson Valley of Mendocino and Napa Valley.

The 2015 Chenin blanc is sourced 100% from the cooler Oak Knoll District of the Napa Valley from a vineyard near the Napa River. The grapes were whole cluster pressed with the wine fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels. The Chenin was then transferred completely to barrel where it was aged 4 months with weekly batonnage stirring of the lees. Around 185 cases were produced.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Chenin blanc, under the synonym Plant d’Anjou, dates back to 1496 in the Loire Valley. Here the wine was grown at Chateau Chenonceau owned by Thomas Bohier. It is believed that Bohier then propogated the variety which eventually took on the name Chenin from Chenonceau.

Photo by Simon Bonaventure. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Chenin blanc grapes with botrytis growing in Saint Cyr en Bourg in the Anjou-Saumur region of the Loire Valley.

The name “Chenin” itself first appears in François Rabelais’ 1534 work Gargantua. A native of Touraine, Rabelais describes both a Chenin wine and a Vin Pineau with Gros Pineau being a common synonym of Chenin blanc in Touraine for many centuries.

It is possible that the name Chenin came from the monastery of Montchenin in Touraine. Another theory is that the name is derived from the French word chien, meaning dog, and could refer to the affinity of dogs to eat the the grapes off the vine.

Recent DNA analysis has shown a parent-offspring relationship between Savagnin and Chenin blanc with Savagnin being the likely parent. This would make Chenin blanc a half or full sibling of Sauvignon blanc, Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Grüner Veltliner, Verdelho, Siegerrebe and the Trousseau varieties.

Through its relationship with Sauvignon blanc, Chenin is then an aunt/uncle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

At some point, Chenin blanc naturally crossed with Gouais blanc (mother vine of Chardonnay) to produce several varieties like Colombard, Meslier-Saint-François and Balzac.

In South Africa, the grape was crossed with Trebbiano Toscano/Ugni blanc to produce Chenel.

Chenin Blanc Today

Photo by 	JPS68. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Chenin blanc is also grown in the French colony of Réunion off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Here is a harvest of Chenin blanc grapes in the town of Cilaos.

From a high point of 16,594 ha (41,005 acres) of vines in 1958, plantings of Chenin blanc in France have sharply declined over the years to just 9,828 ha (24,286 acres) in 2008–representing around 1.2% of France’s vineyards.

It is mostly found in the Anjou-Touraine region of the Loire Valley where it is used in the sparkling wines of Cremant de Loire and Vouvray. Also in Vouvray it can be used to produce dry to demi-sec still wines while in the AOC of Bonnezeaux, Montlouis and Quarts de Chaume it is used exclusively for late harvest sweet examples that may have some botrytis influence. In Savennières it is used exclusively for minerally dry wines with notable ageability.

Outside of the Loire it can also be found in the Languedoc where it can make up to 40% of the blend for Cremant de Limoux with Mauzac blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot noir.

Chenin blanc has been historically known as “Steen” in South Africa where it has accounted for as much as a third of all white wine produced in the country. By 2008 there were 18,852 ha (46,584 acres) of the vine representing 18.6% of all South African plantings. It is grown throughout South Africa but is more widely found in Paarl, Malmesbury and Olifants River. In recent years the variety has seen a renaissance of high quality production by producers in the Swartland and Stellenbosch.

From an area so blessed to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, the Chappellet Molly’s Cuvee Chenin blanc from Pritchard Hill is jaw-droppingly good.


In California there is 4,790 acres of Chenin blanc planted throughout the state as of 2017–nearly 2/3 of the acreage that was in production in 2010 (7,223 acres). Notable plantings can be found in the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, Chappellet Vineyard on Pritchard Hill in Napa, Santa Maria Valley, Lodi, Paso Robles, Alexander Valley and Mendocino County.

Like California, Washington State has also seen a notable drop in plantings of Chenin blanc in recent years going from 600 acres in 1993 to just 67 acres by 2017.

The Wine

High intensity nose–yellow peach and white flowers. There is also some honeycomb and fresh straw notes that come out more as the wine warms in the glass.

On the palate the peach notes come through and adds a spiced pear element. There is noticeable texture and weight on the mouthfeel but I would still place the body as just medium. Medium-plus acidity adds a mouthwatering element and a little saline minerality as well. Long finish still carries the fruit but brings back some of the straw notes from the nose.

The Verdict

The 2015 Lang & Reed Chenin blanc from Napa Valley is, hands down, one of the most delicious domestic Chenin blancs that I’ve had the opportunity to try–second only to Chappellet’s example. While not quite Savennières level, at $25-30 it still delivers plenty of complexity that outshines many California Chardonnays and other white wines in that price range.

At nearly 3 years, it is still quite youthful and I can see this wine continuing to give pleasure for at least another 3-4 years.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Celebrating International Grenache Day With The Grenachista

Today is International Grenache Day–according to someone.

I honestly have no idea who comes up with these things and googling around it looks Grenache Day hops all over the calendar a bit like Thanksgiving and Easter.

Which is kind of fitting since Grenache goes so well with turkey and rabbit. (Sorry kids)

But hey, I don’t need much of an excuse to geek out about something so that makes today the perfect opportunity to take a flashback to this spring’s Hospice du Rhône event and revisit the highly impressive wines of CR Graybehl aka The Grenachista.

The Background

CR Graybehl was founded in 2013 and is named after founder and winemaker Casey Graybehl’s grandfather, Cliff R. Graybehl, who inspired Casey to get into winemaking. The small operation is essentially a two person show with just Graybehl and his wife.

Graybehl studied Fruit Sciences at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo when the school hadn’t yet developed a viticulture program. He spent time working at wineries in the Central Coast and Bay Area before starting his winery in Sonoma.

In addition to his own wine project, Graybehl is a production manager for Obsidian Wine Co.–a custom crush facility and makers of Obsidian Ridge and Poseidon Vineyard.

The Grape – A Little Geeky History

While it is generally agreed that Grenache is a very old grape variety, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the origins of the grape is debated by ampelographers.

Photo by Fabio bartolomei. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Old vine Garnacha growing near the the Sierra de Gredos mountain range in Central Spain.

The stronger argument favors a Spanish origin where it believed that the grape was first documented growing in Madrid under the synonym Aragones in 1513 by Gabriel Alonso de Herrea in his work Argicultura general. The name Garnacha seems to have been established by the late 1600s when Estevan de Corbera describes the grape growing in Tarragona in his 1678 work Cataluña illustrada.

A competing theory argues that the grape is a native of Sardinia where it is known as Cannonau. Here the first mentioned appears in Caligari in 1549. The name Garnacha also shows up in Miguel de Cervantes’ 1613 work El licenciado vidriera referencing an Italian white wine that was being served in Genoa. The theory of a Sardinian orgin involves assuming that the Aragones grape of Madrid was not actually Grenache and that the grape was brought to Spain sometime after 1479 when Sardinia became part of the Spanish empire.

While Aragones is still a synonym used today for Garnacha it has also been used as a synonym for other grape varieties like Tempranillo.

Italian ampelographer Gianni Lovicu also argues that the Spanish name Garnacha is closely related to the Italian name Vernaccia that is derived from the Latin vernaculum meaning local. Documents in Catalunya dating back to 1348 describe a Vernaça grape that appears to have been introduced to the area from somewhere else. This would predate Sardinia’s Spanish colonization and suggest perhaps a different Italian region as the grape’s origins.

Photo by www.zoqy.net. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Grenache blanc vines growing in the Rivesaltes AOC of the Roussillon region that borders Spain. Here the grape is used to produce the sweet Vin Doux Naturel dessert wines.


However, even today Spain remains the loci of the greatest mutation and clonal diversity of Grenache–strongly suggesting a far longer presence in the area than anywhere else. While Sardinia and the Colli Berici DOC of the Veneto have significant plantings of the dark skin Grenache noir, only Spain and southern France have a notable presence of the other color mutations (white and gris) as well as the downy leaved Garnacha Peluda.

Grenache in Modern Times

Today Grenache is the second most widely planted grape in France, after Merlot, with 94,240 ha (232,872 acres) planted as of 2009. The grape forms the backbone of many Southern Rhone blends such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape (around 70% of plantings), Gigondas and Vacqueryas as well as the rosé wines of Tavel and Lirac.

In Italy, it is the most widely planted grape on Sardinia–accounting for around 20% of the island’s wine production–with 6288 ha (15,538 acres) planted by 2000.

After Tempranillo and Bobal, Garnacha is the third most widely planted red grape in Spain with 75,399 ha (186,315 acres) of vines covering 7% of the country’s vineyards. The grape is most widely planted in the Aragon region of northeastern Spain where it accounts for 45% of production. It is also a popular planting in Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, Catalunya, Priorat and the Rioja Baja region. In Navarra, it is an important component in the region’s rosé.

CR Graybehl’s Grenache from the Mounts Family Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma.


Grenache noir is believed to have been introduced to California in the 1850s by a Santa Clara wine grower named Charles Lefranc. The grape became a significant planting in the Central Valley after Prohibition where it was used to make dessert wines and lightly sweetly rosés. Today, along with Grenache blanc, it is used to make dry varietal wines and Rhone-style blends.

In 2017, there were 306 acres of Grenache blanc and 4,287 acres of Grenache noir growing throughout the state from the Sierra Foothills and Sonoma down to Paso Robles and Santa Barbara.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines that Grenache was the first vinifera wine to earn critical acclaim in Washington when wine writer Leon Adams praised a dry Grenache rosé made by a home winemaker in the Yakima Valley in his 1966 book Wines of America.

As Gramercy Cellars’ winemaker Greg Harrington noted in his interview on Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink to That! podcast, severe freezes in Washington in the late 20th century nearly killed off all Grenache in the state.

However, the grape has seen a renaissance of interest in recent years thanks in part to winemakers like Master of Wine Bob Betz and the Rhone Rangers movement pioneered in Washington by Doug McCrea. As of 2017, there were 212 acres of Grenache noir in Washington.

Over the years, growers have used Grenache to breed several new grape varieties such as Caladoc (with Malbec), Carnelian (with F2-7, a Carignan/Cabernet Sauvignon crossing), Emerald Riesling (Grenache blanc with Muscadelle) and Marselan (with Cabernet Sauvignon).

The Wines

Below are my notes on the CR Graybehl’s Grenache wines I tasted during the April Hospice du Rhône event updated with some production and winemaking details.

2017 Grenache Rosé Sonoma Valley ($24-25) — Sourced from Mathis Vineyard. Around 190 cases made. Medium intensity nose. Bright red fruits of cherry and strawberry mixed with some blood orange. Medium-minus body weight and juicy medium-plus acidity. Good patio sipper but not a great value compared to Grenache-based Rhone and Spanish Navarra rosés in the $10-15 range.

2016 Grenache blanc Dry Creek Valley ($19-24) — From the Mounts Family Vineyard. Around 245 cases made. Medium intensity nose. Tree fruits–pear and apples with noticeable baking spices of clove and nutmeg. Subtle herbalness. Medium body weight and medium acidity. Long finish ends on the tree fruits. Reminds me of a more refreshing Chardonnay.

2016 The Grenachista Alder Springs Mendocino County ($34) — High intensity nose. Dark fruits with wild berries like huckleberry, blackberry and boysenberry. Lots of blue floral notes and herbs de Provence giving this wine a lovely bouquet. Very full bodied but very ripe medium-plus tannins that are balanced by medium-plus acidity which highlights a peppery spice. Long finish.

The very full-bodied and fruit forward Mathis Vineyard Grenache from Sonoma Valley would go toe to toe with much more expensive old vine Grenache from Australia.


2015 Grenache Mathis Vineyard Sonoma Valley ($34) –Around 273 cases made. Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dark fruit–blackberries and black cherries. By far the most fruit forward nose of the bunch. Some spices come out on the palate with medium-plus acidity giving the fruit a lip-smacking juiciness. Ripe medium-plus tannins and full body bodied fruit. Kind of feels like an old vine Aussie Grenache.

2015 Grenache Mounts Family Vineyard Dry Creek ($34) — Made from clones 362 and 513 sourced from the Southern Rhone and Languedoc. Wild fermented with 100% whole cluster. Around 273 cases made. High intensity with a lot of savory black pepper spice that has a smoked BBQ element. Mix of red and dark fruit flavors on the palate. Medium-plus body and medium-plus acidity with ripe medium tannins. Long mouthwatering finish ends on the savory notes.

The Verdict

Across the board I was enjoyed all of CR Graybehl’s wines though I definitely think the best values lie with their reds. These wines shinned at a tasting that featured many more expensive bottlings. The whites are certainly well made and tasty but you are paying a little bit of a premium for their small production.

The vineyard designated Grenache noirs, however, could be priced closer to $45 and would still offer very compelling value. Each one has their own distinctive personality and character that more than merit exploring further.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Conundrum Rose

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2016 Conundrum Rosé.

The Background

Conundrum is made by the Wagner family who founded Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley in 1971.

Along with Caymus and Conundrum, the Wagners have developed a portfolio of wine brands made by Chuck Wagner and his kids, Charlie and Jenny, including Mer Soleil, Old Cannery Row, Red Schooner, 1858 Wines and Emmolo.

Chuck’s other son, Joe Wagner, also makes several wines with Copper Cane Wine & Provisions including Belle Glos, Elouan, Tuli, Beran, Torial, Carne Humana, The Willametter, Napa Quilt and BÖEN.

With the Caymus Special Selection, the Wagners hold the distinction of being the only winery to produce a wine that has twice been named the number one wine on Wine Spectator’s yearly Top 100 list for the 1984 and 1990 vintages.

The Conundrum series of wines were introduced in 1989. That first wine was a white blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, Viognier and Muscat Canelli/Moscato. Over the years the brand has expanded to include a red blend (primarily Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon), a sparkling wine (Pinot gris, Viognier, Muscat Canelli and Chenin blanc) and, since 2016, a rosé.

Vineyards and Production

The fruit for Conundrum are sourced throughout California. Vineyard sources over the years have included the North Coast wine regions of Napa and Solano County, the central coast areas of Monterey, San Benito and Santa Barbara County as well as the inland vineyards of Tulare County south of Fresno.

My Conundrum hat autographed by Chuck Wagner.

The wines are made in Monterey County by Chuck’s son Charlie with Jon Bolta assisting and overseeing the white wine production.

The 2016 Conundrum rosé is made from the Valdiguié grape sourced from Paso Robles.

It is not widely published how many cases of the rosé are produced but previous vintages of the Conundrum Red have topped 120,000 cases and nearly 90,000 cases for the white.

The Grape

The Valdiguié grape originated in Southwest France, likely in either the Tarn-et-Garonne or Lot-et-Garonne departments. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first documented mention of the grape, under the name of Valdiguier, appeared only in 1884 which leads to a few theories about Valdiguié’s origins.

One theory involves a landowner from the late 18th century in the village of Puylaroque in the Tarn-et-Garonne named Valdéguier who propagated different grape varieties in his courtyard garden. Another theory centers around a grower named Jean-Baptiste Valdiguié. In 1845, he had a vineyard in the hamlet of Tressens near Puylaroque where he may have propagated the grape.

Around this same time, in the neighboring department of Lot-et-Garonne, there was a vineyard worker named Guillaume Valdiguier who may have propagated Valdiguié from an abandon vineyard once owned by the Templiers monastery in Aujols.

Map created by קרלוס הגדול . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Garonne river (highlighted in box) flows through Southwest France and eventually meets up with the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux. It is likely that the Valdiguié grape originated somewhere in this area.

A parent-offspring relationship between Valdiguié and the nearly extinct Fronton grape Mérille of the Lot-et-Garonne has been suggested by ampelographers but so far has not been confirmed by DNA analysis. Prevalent in Southwest France in the 19th century until phylloxera, Mérille was once one of the minor blending grapes of Bordeaux.

In the early 20th century, Valdiguié’s tolerance to powdery mildew and reliable yields saw its plantings greatly expand. It reached a peak of 4,908 ha (12,128 acres) in 1958. But the grape eventually lost ground to other more popular plantings. By 2008, there were only 145 ha (358 acres) planted in Southwest France, Provence and the Languedoc.

Valdiguié in California

In California, growers misidentified Valdiguié as the Gamay grape of Beaujolais (Gamay noir). It’s productivity help the grape became a popular planting in the decades following Prohibition. Over 6000 acres of “Napa Gamay”  was planted by 1977. The grape was often fermented using the carbonic maceration method commonly used for Beaujolais Nouveau to produce fruity, easy drinking wines with moderate alcohol.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

While Valdiguié is grown in several places in California, the fruit for the 2016 vintage of the Conundrum rosé was sourced from Paso Robles. Pictured is a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard from the region.

In 1980, the French ampelographer Pierre Galet noted that Napa Gamay was actually Valdiguié.  Napa Gamay is still officially recognized as a synonym for the variety. However, most producers today label their wines as Valdiguié.

As in France, acreage of Valdiguié began steadily dropping as other varieties earned greater focus and market share. As of 2017 there was 251 acres of the grape. Significant plantings can be found in Napa Valley, Suisan Valley, Solano County, Lodi, Redwood Valley, Paso Robles, Mendocino County, Monterey and the Madera AVA.

In the Calistoga AVA of Napa, the Frediani vineyard has old vine Valdiguié that were planted as early as 1935.

Beyond Conundrum, other notable producers of Valdiguié include Forlorn Hope and Driscoll Wine Co.’s vineyard designated wines from Frediani Vineyard, J. Lohr and the pétillant naturel (Pet-Nat) Valdiguié made by Cruse Wine Co. and Broc Cellars.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of cantaloupe fruit and subtle rind-like earthiness. There is also red fruit that isn’t as defined or dominant as that melon and rind note.

On the palate, the cantaloupe comes through with medium-plus acidity adding freshness. It is actually quite vibrant for a 2 year old rosé. The rind notes also carry through with a pithy, phenolic texture. Those phenols adds medium-minus bodied weight to this dry rosé but doesn’t stray to bitterness. The red fruit becomes a little more pronounced as strawberries but fades quickly with the finish.

The Verdict

At $18-22, you are paying a tad bit of a premium for the geeky variety. But it is not that out of line for the uniqueness and quality of the wine. I was expecting this wine to follow suit with the Conundrum White and Red and have noticeable residual sugar. Instead this rosé was distinctly dry and well made.

While many mass-produced rosés decline in quality after a year in bottle, the Conundrum rosé still has freshness and vibrancy. However, the short finish and nondescript red fruit does give away its age. If you have a bottle, I would recommend drinking it soon or look for a newer vintage.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Tablas Creek Vermentino

Back in January I wrote a post called Wine Clubs Done Right which detailed my discovery of Tablas Creek’s Wine Club program and ultimate decision to join it. As I noted in that post, I don’t join many wineries’ wine clubs because they rarely offer (to me) compelling value and I don’t like being committed to buying quantities of wine that may eventually shift in style due to changing winemakers/ownership, etc.

However, while exploring the Tablas Creek story and all they had to offer I found many compelling reasons to pull the trigger and join. Much to my surprise, the folks at Tablas Creek were actually interested in my tale and offered on their blog some cool behind the scene insights into their own thought processes in how they set up their wine club programs.

You usually don’t see that kind of receptivity and transparency with many wineries but, as I’ve found out in the nearly 8 months since I’ve been a member of Tablas Creek’s wine club, that is just par for the course with them. It’s not marketing or show, these folks are really just wine geeks through and through who clearly love what they are doing and sharing that passion with others.

If you are wine geek yourself, I honestly can’t recommend a more exciting winery to discover.

Beyond their hugely informative blog with harvest and business details, the Tablas Creek website also offers a fantastic vintage chart of their wines that is updated regularly and an encyclopedic listing of grape varieties they farm complete with geeky history, winemaking and viticulture details.

Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes is still my holy writ (and I really like Harry Karis’ The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book chapter on grapes) but when I’m away from my books and want to check up on a Rhone variety there is no better online source than the Tablas Creek site. Plus, the particular winemaking details they cover in the entries is often stuff that you won’t find in many wine books because it comes from their decades of hands-on experience working with these grapes between themselves and the Perrins’ Ch. Beaucastel estate.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Counoise vine outside the tasting room at Tablas Creek.


But enough with the effusive gushing and let’s get down to some hardcore geeking over the 2017 Tablas Creek Vermentino from the Adelaida District of Paso Robles.

The Background

Tablas Creek Vineyards was founded in 1989 as a partnership between the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel and Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands. As I noted in my 60 Second Review of the 2000 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Perrins have been in charge of the legendary Rhone property since 1909.

Robert Haas established Vineyard Brands in 1973 as part of a long wine importing career that began in the 1950s working for his father’s Manhattan retail shop M. Lehmann (which was eventually bought by Sherry Wine and Spirits Co. to become Sherry-Lehmann). After World War II, he was the first American importer to bring Chateau Petrus to the United States. Haas also helped popularize the idea of selling Bordeaux futures to American consumers.

In addition to Beaucastel, Haas represented the importing interests of the Burgundian estates Domaine Ponsot, Henri Gouges, Thibault Liger-Belair, Jean-Marc Boillot, Etienne Sauzet, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine de Courcel, Thomas Morey, Vincent & Sophie Morey, Vincent Girardin and Vincent Dauvissat as well as the Champagne houses Salon and Delamotte. Haas would go on to sell Vineyard Brands to the firm’s employees in 1997 with his son, Daniel, managing the company today.

Aaron Romano of Wine Spectator noted that Haas also helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer and promoted on a national stage the prestigious California wines of Chappellet, Joseph Phelps, Hanzell, Kistler and Freemark Abbey. In 1980, he co-found the distribution firm Winebow Group.

Photo by Deb Harkness, Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

The vineyards of Tablas Creek with some of the rocky limestone soil visible.

The similarity in the maritime climate and limestone soils of the Adelaida District, west of the city of Paso Robles, inspired Haas and the Perrins to purchase 120 acres and establish Tablas Creek. Planting of their estate vineyard began in 1994 and today the winery has 115 acres of vines that are biodynamically farmed–producing around 30,000 cases a year.

Utilizing its close connection to the Chateauneuf estate, Tablas Creek would go on to become an influential figure in the Rhone Ranger movement in the United States. Doing the heavy lifting of getting cuttings from Beaucastel through quarantine and TTB label approval, Tablas Creek would help pioneer in the US numerous varieties like Counoise, Terret noir, Grenache blanc, Picpoul and more. Additionally the high quality “Tablas Creek clones” of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre have populated the vineyards of highly acclaimed producers across California, Oregon and Washington.

In the mid-2000s, Robert’s son Jason joined the winery and is the now the general manager as well as the main contributor to Tablas Creek’s award winning blog.

Photo provided by NYPL Digital Gallery. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark with an author that died more than 100 years ago.

Vermentino from Giorgio Gallesio’s ampelography catalog published between 1817 and 1839.

In March 2018, Robert Haas passed away at the age of 90 leaving a lasting legacy on the world of wine.

The Grape

The origins and synonyms of Vermentino are hotly debated. Some ampelographers claim that the grape came from Spain via Corsica and Sardinia sometime between the 14th and 17th centuries with modern DNA evidence suggesting that the Vermentino vine of Tuscany, Corsica and Sardinia is the same grape as the Ligurian Pigato and the Piemontese Favorita.

However Ian D’Agata, in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy, notes that these conclusions are vigorously disputed by Italian growers, particularly in Liguria, who point out that different wine is produced by Pigato compared to other Vermentinos. D’Agata, himself, relays that he usually finds Pigato to produce “bigger, fatter wines” that have a creamier texture than most Vermentinos. The name “Pigato” is believed to have been derived from the word pigau in the Ligurian dialect, meaning spotted, and could be a reference to the freckled spots that appear on the berries after veraison.

The absence of Vementino being mentioned in the 1877 Bollettino Ampelografico listing of Sardinian varieties suggest that it could be a more recent grape to the island (though it was later included in the 1887 edition). Today the grape plays a prominent roll in Sardinia’s only DOCG wine–Vermentino di Gallura.

Photo by 	trolvag. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vermentino vineyards in Sardinia.


The connection to Favorita seems to be less disputed though Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that historically the grape was believed to have been brought to Piedmont originally as a gift from Ligurian oil merchants. The first documentation of the grape was in the Roero region in 1676 where it was reported to be a “favorite” for consumption as a table grape.

Almost two decades earlier, in the Piemontese province of Alessandria, a grape named “Fermentino” was described growing in vineyards along with Cortese and Nebbiolo with this, perhaps, being the earliest recorded mentioning of Vermentino.

Historically, as Favorita, the grape has a long history of being blended with Nebbiolo as a softening agent to smooth out the later grape’s harsh tannins and acid in a manner not too dissimilar to the use of white grape varieties like Trebbiano and Malvasia being blended with Sangiovese in the historic recipe for Chianti.

While once the primary grape of Roero, in recent decades Favorita has fallen out of favor as Arneis and Chardonnay have gained in popularity.

Photo by Magnetto. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Rolle/Vermentino grapes growing in southern France.

Outside of Italy and Corsica, Vermentino can also be found in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France where it is known as Rolle. Beyond Europe the grape is grown in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and has become one of the fastest growing “alternative grape varieties” in Australia with nearly 300 acres planted in 2016 in areas like Victoria, the Hunter Valley, King Valley, the Barossa and Murray Darling.

While Tablas Creek mostly focuses on Châteauneuf-du-Pape grapes, they were one of the first domestic producers of Vermentino in the United States when they planted the vine in 1993 based upon the recommendation of the Perrin family’s nurseryman who thought the vine would do well in the soils and climate of the Adelaida District. While originally used as a blending component, the winery has been making a varietal Vermentino since the 2002 vintage.

In 2008, there were around 20 acres of the Vermentino planted in California when there was some speculation that the grape could have appeal to Sauvignon blanc drinkers. By 2017 that number had jump to 91 acres as producers like Tablas Creek, Seghesio in the Russian River Valley, Mahoney Vineyards, Fleur Las Brisas and Saddleback in Carneros, Unti Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, Gros Ventre Cellars in El Dorado, Brick Barn in Santa Ynez, Twisted Oak in the Sierra Foothills and others began receiving acclaim for their bottlings.

Outside of California, notable plantings of Vermentino can be found in the Applegate Valley of Oregon (Troon Vineyard and Minimus Wines), the Texas High Plains (Duchman Family Winery) and the Monticello AVA of Virginia (Barboursville Vineyards).

In 2017, Tablas Creek produced 1430 cases of Vermentino. While some producers age their Vermentino in neutral oak, Tablas Creek fermented the wine with native yeast and aged it in stainless steel tanks.

The Wine

High intensity nose. Very citrus driven with kiffir lime, pink grapefruit and pummelo–both the zest and the fruit. There is also a tree fruit element that seems a bit peachy but I would put it more in the less sweet yellow peach category than white peach.

Photo by David Adam Kess. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The mix of citrus and yellow peach notes are very intriguing with this wine.


On the palate, those citrus notes carry through and have an almost pithy element to them. Not bitter at all but it definitely adds weight and texture to the medium body of the wine. The medium-plus acid is mouthwatering and lively but well balanced with the acid highlighting the yellow peach note. The palate also introduces some racy minerality with a very distinctive streak of salinity that lingers long throughout the finish.

The Verdict

The best way I can describe this 2017 Tablas Creek Vermentino is if a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, a sur lie Muscadet from the Loire and an Italian Pinot grigio had a threesome and produced a baby, this would be it.

This is a fascinatingly unique and character driven wine that combines multiple layers of tropical and tree fruit with acidity, minerality, weight and texture. Well worth its $27 price.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!