Tag Archives: Brunello di Montalcino

Geek Notes — UK Wine Show Episode 111 with Ian D’Agata

I have a new vino crush and man have I been crushing hard.

How can you not to get all tingly and giddy over sweet talk about biotypes, Pigato vs Vermentino, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and the battle for the soul of Pecorino?

Well at least it is hard for me not to get tingly, especially when that sweet talk is coming from a wine writer with over 25 years of experience living and breathing the wines of Italy. Thankfully for us, and my geeky fan-girling heart, Ian D’Agata has drilled down all of those years of walking the vineyards and tasting wines with producers into the magnum opus of Italian wine grapes with his 640 page tome–Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

Frequent readers know that one of my favorite resources is Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes written with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. That gorgeous hunk of geekdom devoted 1280 pages to covering 1,368 grape varieties grown across the globe.

But with an estimated 2500 different varieties (many of which likely biotypes/clones of other grapes) growing in Italy alone, you need a dedicated source to help untangle the messy weave of regionalization, synonyms and just downright weirdness that can be found with Italian grapes.

D’Agata’s book is like a scalpel to that tangled mess. While he is upfront about not having all the answers–especially with conflicting DNA analysis and contrary first person observations–it is impossible to pick up Native Wine Grapes of Italy and not come away learning mountains of new information about Italian grapes.

Photo by Megan Mallen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Did you know that the Moscato bianco grape of Piedmont was once one of the most widely planted wine grapes in the Tuscan village of Montalcino? In fact, it is still grown there today and used to make the DOC wine Moscadello di Montalcino.
Those are just a few of the hundreds of fun tidbits I learned from D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

The work is exceptionally well organized (mostly alphabetical though several varieties which belong to groups or families of grapes like the many Greco, Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes get their own chapter) making it a fantastic and easy to use reference anytime you want to dive deeper.

I seriously can’t recommend Native Wine Grapes of Italy enough for wine geeks and students. A definite must have that is less than a third of the price of Wine Grapes and can often be found used for around $25.

But you don’t need to take my word on it. As I’ve discovered while prepping for my upcoming class on Italian wine, Ian D’Agata has been a frequent guest on several of my favorite podcasts discussing Italian grapes and wine regions. These podcasts, plus his writings on Vinous, give you a great sneak peak into the content of Native Grapes as well as an upcoming book he’s working on about the crus of Barolo and Barbaresco.

They are all well worth a listen–after which I’m sure you’ll be vino-crushing on Ian too.

Podcast Interviews with Ian D’Agata

In The Drink Episode 206 w/ Ian D’Agata (43:57)

Monty Waldin’s Italian Wine Podcast Episodes 20 through 22 on the Aglianico, Glera and Sangiovese grapes respectively. (About 10 to 15 minutes each)

Really wished I had listened to the IDTT episode with D’Agata before I visited Piedmont last June. I probably would have appreciated even more how cool this map and viewpoint from La Morra was.

I’ll Drink to That! Episode 354 w/ Ian D’Agata (1:37:49) — In this podcast, Levi Dalton and D’Agata spend a lot of time talking about Barolo, Barbaresco and his upcoming book on those regions. Really fascinating stuff.

My only slight negative with D’Agata’s interviews is that he does speak very quickly. While his enunciation and articulation–especially of Italian names and words–is great I do find myself having to slow down the podcast or go back sometimes to re-listen to things that D’Agata breezes through.

For this edition of Geek Notes, I’m going to go back to a June 2008 interview that Ian D’Agata did with Chris Scott of the UK Wine Show (37:28).

Some Fun Things I Learned/Enjoyed From This Podcast

The format of the UK Wine Show starts with Chris and his wife Jane going over recent wine and beverage industry news. Even with older podcasts, I always find this segment very interesting as a “window in time” look at what was big and newsworthy in the world of wine at the time. I also often end up learning something as well.

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

I know now if I pick up a strong oaky flavor in a DOC wine under $10-15 that perhaps I should be suspicious.


For instance, the first news story in this 2008 podcast (1:07) was on a controversy in the Tuscan wine region of San Gimignano where 4000 bottles of red wine were confiscated because of the use of oak chips in production of the DOC wine. I honestly didn’t know that San Gimignano produced red wine (much less a DOC wine) because I was only familiar with the white Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

While it makes sense that oak chips wouldn’t be acceptable in DOC/G wine, I didn’t realize how strictly regulated that was in Italy or that oak chips were permitted for IGT wines.

It was also fun listening to early thoughts on the 2007 Bordeaux vintage with Chris and Jane (5:36) especially considering the woeful reputation that vintage has now (though, in hindsight, good cellar defenders can still be found from 2007).

The interview with Ian D’Agata begins at the 10:35 mark.

(11:47) Of the 2500+ grape varieties grown in Italy, only around 1000 of them have been genetically identified. Of that 1000, around 600 are used for wine production.

(13:55) Chris asks if the Sangiovese of Brunello di Montalcino is a specific clone. Ian D’Agata debunks quite a bit of common misconceptions about Sangiovese and clones that is incredibly eye opening (and also well worth reading about in his book). Simply put, a lot of the stuff that we’ve learned in wine books of the past have been very incomplete and imprecise.

(18:45) D’Agata describes the Umbrian variety Sagrantino which I haven’t had the privilege of tasting yet but am very intrigued by.

(19:20) A prediction that Aglianico is the next big thing from Italy. This has definitely held true with even producers in the US like Leonetti releasing an Aglianico. I know at my local wine shops I’ve seen the selection of Italian Aglianico in the last 5 years go from maybe one bottle of Taurasi ($50+) to now featuring more than a half dozen options from Basilicata, Marche and Campania. As many of these can be found in the $13-25 range, there is some awesome value here that is well worth exploring. In my January 2018 post In a rut? Try these new grapes!, I describe Aglianico as a fantastic wine for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah drinkers to branch out with.

Fun fact: When you Google pics of Nero d’Avola, one of the results is a picture of the Muscat of Norway grape instead. I know this because that is my hand in the pic holding a cluster of Muscat of Norway I harvested from Cloud Mountain Vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA.


(20:40) Chris notes that he always found Nero d’Avola to be very Merlot-like. D’Agata highlights the similarities (and that Merlot is apparently often blended with Nero d’Avola) but also the relationship with Syrah and Teroldego and what good Nero d’Avola should taste like.

(21:40) A great discussion about the unheralded gems of Southern Italian whites like Mt. Etna’s Carricante (a distant relative of Riesling), Grillo, Inzolia, Vermentino and Grechetto. However, D’Agata notes that the Grechetto used in Orvieto is not always the best Grechetto.

(24:52) Apparently Italy makes really good dry Kerner, Silvaner and Gewurztraminer on par with Alsace up in the Alto Adige region.

Photo by Puntin1969. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The Valadige (pictured), Alto Adige and Friuli regions can be more labor intensive than the Veneto or some parts of New Zealand which can make producing value priced Sauvignon blanc a bit difficult.


(26:16) While Italy doesn’t do well with Chardonnay (over-oaked), D’Agata feels that they excel with Sauvignon blanc with a style between Sancerre and Marlborough. This definitely caught the attention of New Zealand native Chris Scott. Considering how hot Sauvignon blanc has been in the UK market, I’m kind of surprised that we don’t hear more about Italian Sauvignon blanc. The higher cost of bottles from Italy compared to bulk NZ Sauvignon blanc probably is a significant reason.

(29:06) A lot of Pinot grigio that is/was imported to the United States might not actually be Pinot grigio with D’Agata noting that a fair amount of Trebbiano is likely used.

Photo by Giovanni. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

D’Agata does notes that just because there might be Syrah, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon growing in a vineyard of Montalcino that doesn’t mean it is being used in a producer’s Brunello di Montalcino. However, the color of the wine could be a tip off.


(30:26) Very interesting discussion about the Brunellopoli scandal that was just starting to hit the news at the time of the interview. D’Agata notes that the dark purple/black color of Brunello di Montalcino is often a clue that something might be up with a wine that is supposed to be 100% of the moderately pigmented Sangiovese. The new clones of Sangiovese that produce darker colors can only give you a deeper ruby, not black color.

(34:23) Even though Italians invented screw caps, apparently they can only be used for IGT wines and not DOC/G? (At least back in 2008) D’Agata pointed out that it is more expensive to bottle wines with screw caps as opposed to corks which can be a financial burden for small producers.

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Geek Notes — Wine For Normal People Episode 84 Featuring Tuscan Wine Regions

Screenshot from the Wine For Normal People podcast

Outside of blog land, I frequently teach wine classes. As part of my usual prep routine whenever I have a class to write, I’ll fill my Overcast queue with wine podcasts relating to the class. I find that listening to podcasts while cleaning the house, working out at the gym and driving helps submerse me into the topic and compliments my book studies really well.

My usual sources for hardcore geekdom are Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink To That! (whose episode with Gramercy owner and Master Sommmelier Greg Harrington I featured in a previous Geek Notes) and the GuildSomm podcast hosted by Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth.

However, I’ll also frequently listen to Chris Scott’s The UK Wine Show, Heritage Radio Network’s In the Drink, Jim Duane’s podcast Inside Winemaking and the very first wine podcast that I started with–Grape Radio.

Two newly launched podcasts that are also in my rotation are Wine Enthusiast’s What We’re Tasting and James Halliday’s Wine Companion podcast.

But I’m always on the lookout for more options so if you know of any other great wine podcasts worth checking out, post them in the comments below!

It was while working on an upcoming Italian wine class that I stumbled upon what is definitely going to be a new go-to resource for me–Elizabeth Schneider’s Wine for Normal People podcast.

A Little Background and Why You Should Listen Too

Anyone who shares a disheartening sigh while looking at wine displays virtually dominated by the same 3 big mega-corps is fighting the good fight in my book.

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Sommelier who hosts the podcasts with her husband, M.C. Ice. I’m sure there is a story behind the hubby’s stage name but I haven’t came across it yet while listening.

Outside of the podcast, she does speaking engagements, online classes and has an upcoming book Wine for Normal People: A Guide for Real People Who Like Wine, but Not the Snobbery That Goes with It slated for release in early 2019.

Her website also has a super user-friendly list of brands owned by big mega-corps that is worth book marking. As I found in compiling my own list of supermarket wines, this is no easy task to stay on top of so I wholeheartedly support Schneider’s efforts in promoting more knowledge and transparency in this area.

I must confess that when I first read the description of the Wine For Normal People podcast, I thought this would be a bit too beginner for me. It could still be a great podcast that benefits a lot of people who want to dip their toes into the world of wine but I was expecting it to be something more like an updated version of William Wilson’s Wine for Newbies podcast.

But what I quickly found after listening through a few episodes is that Schneider has a fantastic teaching style and approach to wine that serves up ample geeky goodness but balances it by presenting the topic in a digestible manner.

Even for folks like me who have fell down the rabbit hole of wine geekiness, listening to the podcast and paying attention to how she presents her topics is of huge benefit. When we live in a world with a billion+ wine drinkers, one thing that us hardcore wine geeks have to realize is that we really are the minority here. Not every wine drinker aspires to be a Master of Wine or Master Sommelier or even a wine geek. The passion and enthusiasm that drives us to learn more–and to share what we’ve learned–can often be a bit much for many wine drinkers and ends up driving them away back to the comforts of the same ole, same ole.

In the end it is all about balance which, like a good wine, I find well exhibited in the Wine For Normal People podcast.

Plus, there is still plenty of geeky nuggets in each episode like these things I noted in Episode 084 on Tuscan Wine Regions (35 minutes).

Photo by Rob & Lisa Meehan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Vineyards in Montalcino

Some Fun Things I Learned/Enjoyed From This Podcast

(3:36) I really liked Schneider’s answer to the question of if the French should feel threatened at all by the rise of Super Tuscans using Bordeaux varieties. She talks about the difference in French culture of “closing ranks” versus the in-fighting that you often see among Italian winemakers.

(7:06) Brunello is a relatively recent wine on the Italian wine scene with the particular Sangiovese Grosso clone isolated only in 1888. However, Schneider notes that winemakers as early as the 14th century were aware of the superior quality of wines in the Montalcino region.

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

The estate of Biondi-Santi pioneered the modern concept of Brunello di Montalcino.


(8:44) Very surprised to hear that only 4 vintages of Brunello were declared during the first 57 years of production after 1888. I definitely want to read more about this and why.

(11:55) This starts a really great discussion on the two zones of the Montalcino region–the northern and southern–with some very useful insights on the different wines produced in the different soil types. Nice tidbit on the winemaking approach of Silvio Nardi who own vineyards in both zones.

(15:24) The uniqueness of the Sangiovese based wines of Carmignano compared to Chianti. Often called “The Original Super Tuscan” due to its historical tradition of using Cabernet Sauvignon but Schneider also notes that Carmignano is distinct for growing Sangiovese on flatter lands whereas the grape usually thrives on higher elevation hillsides. Also of interest is that some Carmignano estates, like in Bolgheri, have Cabernet Sauvignon vines that were grafted from cuttings taken from Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux.

(21:20) Going to have a slight disagreement with the podcast here. After talking about some of the reasons why Chianti has historically been “a hot mess” (quite true!), Schneider encourages people to not really bother taking a chance on Chianti and instead look for wines from the Chianti Classico zone. This isn’t bad advice per se, but it is one of the Magic Beans of Wine that I’ve never been a fan of promoting.

Photo by Arnaud 25. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

I won’t deny that Chianti’s bad rap is well earned but sometimes there is a needle of a gem within the haystack of fiascos. You have to trust that a good quality producer is not going to put their name on crap.


Yeah, there is lots of crappy Chianti out there. But there is also a lot of crappy Chianti Classico out there as well. Instead of focusing on the region (Chianti vs Chianti Classico), it really should be about the producer–which, to be fair, is a common theme that Schneider makes repeatedly in this podcast. Yet, for some reason, she seems to ignore that a good quality producer of Chianti Classico can also make a good quality Chianti. This Chianti may even be made from grapes grown in the Chianti Classico zone but declassified down to Chianti for various reasons–younger vines, less aging, wanting to have a more approachable and easy drinking bottle at a lower price point, etc.

Sure, the Chianti Classico from that same producer will be the superior bottle but that doesn’t discount the potential value in a bottle of well made Chianti from a reputable producer.

(22:59) Canaiolo nero use to be the main grape of Chianti until the 1870s. Very interesting! I would love to try a varietal Canaiolo.

(24:22) Oooh I love Schneider’s use of different varieties of roses as a vehicle for explaining the differences in Sangiovese’s clones. It’s not easy to explain clones but this metaphor is a good start.

(24:55) This starts a very useful overview of the different sub-areas within the Chianti Classico zone.

Photo by Viking59. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

While it’s not impossible to envision the Gamay of Beaujolais (pictured) growing in Tuscany, I would probably wager on this being a case of a weird Italian synonym for another variety,


(29:02) Very interesting to hear that some producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano have been grafting over to the Chianti Classico clone of Sangiovese–though Prugnolo Gentile still dominates. Also apparently Gamay can be blended in (29:23)!?! I wasn’t aware of Tuscan Gamay so I’m wondering if this is a synonym for another grape like Alicante? Will need to do some more research here.

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Getting Geeky with Davenport Cellars Ciel du Cheval Rosé of Sangiovese

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about Davenport Cellars’ 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese from the legendary Red Mountain vineyard of Ciel du Cheval.

The Background

Davenport Cellars was founded in 2006 by Jeff and Sheila Jirka. Alumni of the Northwest Wine Academy at South Seattle College, the Jirkas were members of the very first Wine Production class–helping to pioneer a program that would go on to educate such award winning winemakers as Michael Savage of Savage Grace Wines, William Grassie of William Grassie Wine Estates, Charlie Lybecker of Cairdeas Winery, Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton Cellars, Tom Stangeland of Cloudlift Cellars, Jason Morin of Ancestry Cellars, Scott Greenberg of Convergence Zone Cellars, John Patterson of Patterson Cellars and Louis Skinner of Betz Family Winery among many others.

In addition to their studies at NWA, Jeff studied winemaking through the University of California-Davis Extension winemaking program while Sheila studied viticulture through Washington State University’s certificate program.

Located in the Woodinville Warehouse District, Davenport Cellars makes around 1000 cases a year from fruit sourced from some of the top vineyards in Washington State such as Les Collines, Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla, Boushey and Sheridan Vineyard in the Yakima Valley as well as Ciel du Cheval and Kiona Vineyard on Red Mountain.

The 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese is 100% Sangiovese sourced from Ciel du Cheval. Around 25 cases were made.

The Vineyard

In his book Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide, Paul Gregutt list Ciel du Cheval as among the Grand Cru vineyards of Washington along with Boushey Vineyard, Cayuse Vineyard in Walla Walla, Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills and Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain.

The author with John and Ann Williams of Kiona Vineyards who help plant Ciel du Cheval Vineyard with Jim Holmes.

Along with Kiona Vineyard, Ciel du Cheval was first planted in 1975 by Jim Holmes and John Williams, two engineers from the nearby Hanford nuclear site. The two were inspired to plant on the relatively barren scrubland near Benton City after reading Dr. Walter Clore’s report from Washington State University on the viability of grape growing in the area.

After purchasing 80 acres from Williams’ father-in-law in 1972 for $200 an acre, the men invested in bringing electricity to Red Mountain for the first time, constructed roads and drilled in search of an underground aquifer. Their funding was close to running out by the time the drillers finally hit pay dirt with a water source located 560 feet beneath the surface.

Those first acres of plantings would become what is today known as Kiona Vineyard. Soon after its establishment, Holmes and Williams began planting another 80 acres across Sunset Road with a group of investors that included David and Patricia Gelles (who would later establish Klipsun Vineyard). This second vineyard was called Ciel du Cheval, a rough French translation for the Horse Heaven Hills that were visible from Red Mountain across Highway I-82.

The early vintages of the new vineyard were sold to local wineries like Preston Winery and Quilceda Creek as well as Amity Vineyards from Oregon. In the 1980s, Andrew Will began sourcing Ciel du Cheval fruit and DeLille Cellars started a long term relationship with the vineyard in 1990.

The Horse Heaven Hills from which Ciel du Cheval gets its name as seen from Col Solare on Red Mountain.
Just behind the vineyards of Col Solare in the foreground are the vineyards of Kiona’s Heart of the Hill, Ciel du Cheval and Galitzine.

In 1994, Holmes and Williams amicably split up their partnership with Williams taking complete control and ownership over the original Kiona Vineyard while Holmes took over Ciel du Cheval. In the early 2000s, Holmes started planting adjacent plots next to Ciel du Cheval as part of joint ventures with Quilceda Creek (Galitzine Vineyard) and DeLille (Grand Ciel Vineyard).

Today there are 103 acres of vines planted at Ciel du Cheval broken up into 36 plots of Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cunoise, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvédre, Nebbiolo, Petit Verdot, Pinot gris, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Syrah and Viognier. The vineyard is farmed sustainably with no herbicides used on the vines and low impact viticulture practiced for soil conservation and dust control.

In 2012, the Holmes family started Côtes de Ciel winery but still sell the majority of their vineyard’s fruit to an all star roster of Washington wineries such as Andrew Will, Betz, Cadence, DeLille, Fidelitas, Force Majeure, Januik, Mark Ryan, McCrea, Quilceda Creek and Seven Hills.

What Makes Ciel du Cheval Fruit So Highly Sought After?

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

A sample of the sandy loam and rocky soils of Ciel du Cheval featured at Betz Family Winery which uses fruit from Ciel du Cheval for several of their wines including their La Côte Rousse Syrah and Clos de Betz Merlot-based blend.

The soils on Red Mountain were formed through a series of cataclysmic floods and glaciation during the Ice Ages which left an uneven dispersal of soils and cobblestones across the vineyards and even rerouted the ancient Columbia River around the contours of Red Mountain.

The soils that were deposited on what is now Ciel du Cheval are different from neighboring vineyards with more than 12 feet of sandy loam on top of a layer rich in calcium carbonate. The very high pH levels of the soils due to the calcium carbonate keeps a lot of the nutrients in the soil insoluble and inaccessible to the vines. This encourages the vines to struggle and dig their roots even deeper in search of nutrients.

This results in much smaller canopies and berry sizes compared to vines grown elsewhere. In Washington Wines, Holmes notes that while a typical grape berry grown in Napa Valley will weigh around 1.3 grams, from Ciel du Cheval the average weight is 0.88 grams.

These smaller berries develop fully ripe and intense flavors from the 2950 average heat units that the vineyard receives each year but maintain fresh acidity due to the wide diurnal temperature variation that can drop as much as 40-50 degrees from the day time highs in the 90s.

The balance of fresh acidity with intense flavors and ripe tannins is a trademark style of fruit from Ciel du Cheval.

The Grape

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

A cluster of Sangiovese from Alder Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Widely known as the dominant grape of Tuscany, one of the earliest commercial plantings of Sangiovese in Washington State was at Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley in the 1990s though it is likely that Italian immigrants to Walla Walla in the late 1800s brought cuttings from their native land for personal cultivation.

By 1999, there were around 100 acres of Sangiovese planted in Washington. After jumping to 220 acres in 2002, plantings dropped to around 134 acres in production as of 2017.

As a red wine, the style of Washington Sangiovese is noted for its combination of red fruit flavors like cherry, currant and cranberry paired with spicy anise and herbal tobacco leaf notes. As a rosé, those cherry and cranberry notes are often complimented with strawberry aromatics. The grape’s trademark high acidity lends itself well to rosé production with a good portion of Washington’s approximate 75,000 cases of Sangiovese based wines being rosés.

One of the distinctions of Sangiovese is its propensity to develop clonal mutations when it is grown in different environments.

At Ciel du Cheval there are two clones of Sangiovese planted, VCR 6 and VCR 23, that were cultivated and studied at the Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of north east Italy.

Photo by Francesco Sgroi. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Sangiovese grapes growing in the village of Certaldo outside of Florence in the Chianti zone.


The VCR 6 clone was sourced from vineyards in the Brunello di Montalcino region of Tuscany while VCR 23 was sourced from Vecchiazzano in Romagna.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of strawberry and cherry notes with a little subtle spice that almost seems black pepper like.

On the palate this rosé has a lot of weight–more so than the WT Vintners Pinot noir rosé sampled the same night. Some noticeable residual sugar but amply balanced by the high acidity that gives the fruit a mouthwatering juiciness. Moderate length finish brings back the subtle pepper spice from nose and adds an intriguing savory/sweet element.

The Verdict

While no one would would confuse this for a bone-dry and minerally Provençal rosé, at around $18, the Davenport 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese is a refreshing and easy to drink rosé that is very crowd-pleasing and food friendly.

Quite enjoyable on its own, the bold flavor and touch of sweetness in this rosé would particularly shine with foods that have a hint of spiciness like ethnic Thai or Indian.

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Geeking Out About Grape Variety Clones

As part of the Wine Production Program at South Seattle College our instructor, Peter Bos, arranged for a private tour of the famed Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley with Mike and Jonathan Sauer back in 2012.

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

Mike and Jonathan Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard

In Washington State, few vineyards are as legendary and influential as Red Willow. Working with both Dr. Walter Clore and Master of Wine David Lake at Columbia Winery, the Sauers and Red Willow helped pioneer the commercial plantings of numerous grape varieties in the state. This include Viognier, Malbec, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Syrah among others.

On the trip, a question was posed to Mike Sauer about what the future focus should be for the wine industry–not just in Washington, but globally.

Without missing a beat he replied with one word–Clones.

What The Heck Are Clones?

Essentially clones are examples of grape varieties with a slight genetic mutation. These mutation could allow the vine to ripen a tad earlier, bloom a bit later, have tinier berries or thicker skin, absorb nutrients better, etc.

To best understand this, let’s take a step back to look at how grapevines are propagated in the nursery and vineyard.

Rather than plant seeds (which will produce a completely different grape variety), new vines of particular grape varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc are most often propagated via cuttings from an original mother vine. Here a branch with fruiting buds is removed from an active vine and then either planted to develop its own roots or, more commonly, grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock and planted. In theory, this new cutting is genetically identical to its mother vine.

But sometimes growers observe differences in the vineyard or the nursery among these seemingly identical vines. The clonal mutations with the most beneficial traits are selected for future propagation and eventual commercial use.

What Does This Mean For Winemakers?

Photo by scrumpyboy (Mark Shirley). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Grapevine cuttings

Clones add another shade of color to the winemaker’s palette. Instead of just having one shade of blue (Syrah), you can plant multiple clones of Syrahs in similar terroir and end up with a multitude of shades. With these colors (Cerulean, Azure, Cobalt, etc), you can paint a deeper picture and potentially make a more complex wine.

They also allow viticulturists and winemakers to narrow in on exactly which clones perform best on different kinds of terrior, essentially following the path of the natural self-selection that we’ve seen in varieties like Sangiovese. Over centuries of time, this grape has adapted and developed its own unique clones. In the galestro clay soils of the Chianti Classico region, we have Sangioveto.  In the more limestone and schist based soils mixed with galestro in Brunello di Montalcino  produced Sangiovese Grosso. Meanwhile, the Pliocene-era sand and clay based soils of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano brought about Prugnolo Gentile.

Take one of these unique clones, plant them in different soils, and you will end up with different wines. Such is the magic and possibilities of clones.

A Few of My Favorite Resources On Clones

*Pl@ntGrape Project (yes, it is spelled with that silly ‘@’) — a joint project between several French agencies to catalog all the different grape varieties and their clones in France. When you search for a particular grape variety, at the bottom of the page is a listing of popular clones. The site also notes where they originated and their characteristics.

For example, Syrah has over 600 clones studied with 12 approved for commercial propagation. These include clones 100, 174, 300, 470, 471, 524, 525, 747, 877, 1140, 1141 and 1188

Photo by Stephan Ridgway. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Syrah grapes growing in the Hunter Valley of Australia.

Chenin blanc has over 200 clones studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation. These include clones 220, 278, 416, 417, 624, 880, 982 and 1018.

Riesling has nearly 190 clones that have been studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation. These include clones 49, 1089, 1090, 1091, 1092, 1094, 1096 and 1097.

Malbec (Cot) has around 220 clones that have been studied with 16 approved for commercial propagation. These include clones 42, 46, 180, 279, 353, 419, 592, 593, 594, 595, 596, 597, 598, 1061, 1127 and 1128.

*UC Davis Foundation Plant Services page on Pinot noir probably has the most extensive listing (in English) and description of Pinot noir clones I’ve found. This is pretty impressive since Pinot noir is known to have over a 1000 different clones.

*The Science of Grapevines: Anatomy and Physiology by Markus Keller. There is some hardcore geeking here with this viticulture textbook. It not only covers clones but also the science behind how the mutations happened. It also goes into the broad spectrum of grapevine anatomy and physiology. These factors, like disease resistance, nutrient utilization, etc. plays into the decisions of how different clones are selected.

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Product Review — SommSelect Blind Six

Master Sommelier Ian Cauble (of the movie Somm fame) has a unique subscription program designed to teach people how to blind taste better–the SommSelect Blind Six.

Each month for $199 you receive 6 bottles (3 whites and 3 reds) that are individually wrapped in black tissue paper. I decided to give the subscription a go. Below is my experience with my first month’s box (Spoiler alert if you haven’t done April’s wines) and my thoughts on if the subscription (and wines) are worth the cost.

What You Get

In the box, you’ll find 6 individually wrapped bottles numbered 1-6 as well as an envelop containing both instructions and an answer packet to reference after you’ve tasted the wines. The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was that they didn’t indicate on each bottle if they were red or white nor was there any info in the Blind Tasting Instruction Packet. The numbered stickers on each bottle are different colors but not with a consistent pattern to distinguish white versus red. I took a wager on the most logical set up being trying the 3 whites first so I went with trying bottles #1-3 which, happily, were all white.

In the instruction packet, Cauble gives tips on what to look for in each stage of the evaluation as well as what common “clues” often mean. These tips range from things that are fairly well known–like under Sight the tips about looking at the meniscus and how the color varies from the intensity of the core to the rim is a sign of age–to more interesting observations like his note under Nose & Palate that the aroma of dry bay leaf is common in Cabernet Sauvignon from moderately warm climate regions like Napa. While the former can often be found in discussions about blind tasting, the later is the kind of insight you usually only get first hand from someone with experience in blind tasting.

Likewise, the answer packet (which I’ll discuss below) also gives numerous precise details about things to look for in evaluating color and structure that you don’t readily find from other resources.

Tasting the White Flight

Using the Coravin on the white wine flight.

Cauble recommends having a neutral third party person open the wines and pour them into a decanter. While I clearly see the benefit of this approach–not the least of which is that splash decanting is probably the most underutilized tool in wine appreciation–I went a different route for three reasons.

1.) Neither my wife nor I wanted to miss out on the fun so we didn’t have a “neutral third party”
2.) I didn’t want to open up and waste 3 bottles of wine. [Note: Cauble does recommend doing the tastings as part of a multi-course dinner and with friends]
3.) I didn’t have 3 decanters of the same size and shape–which does make a difference
3.5) I also didn’t want to clean 3 decanters along with 6 wine glasses to be brutally honest

So we decided to break out the foil cutter and as carefully as possible use scissors to cut off the tip of the black tissue paper and remove the top of the capsule without seeing any identifying markings. Wine #3 was a screwcap so I just closed my eyes and twist. It felt like I was kid back at home trying to get something out of my parent’s closet while deliberately avoiding the corner where they kept the presents. Then we Coravin each bottle to pour out 2 samples of the cork-sealed wines.

Now other people might take the approach of just blind tasting one bottle a night and enjoying the wine with dinner or what not. It’s certainly an easier and less wasteful approach. However, we really wanted to compare the 3 together because we felt that it allowed us to go back and forth with contrasting color and aroma. It is also more conducive to the blind tasting format of formal examinations. The beauty of the Coravin is that it allows us to only pour two samples of each without pulling the cork and wasting the wine.

Wine #1

The most noticeable thing about this wine was the “onion peel” color with pink hues.

Medium intensity nose with apple and citrus notes along with a white floral element that wasn’t very defined. There was also a subtle doughy element that made me think of raw pastry dough as opposed to something toasty like oak or Champagne.

On the palate the apple fruits came through much more than the citrus with a lot of weight and depth for a medium-plus bodied white wine. This wine had texture that filled the mouth which started my brain going towards Oregon Pinot gris. Medium acidity was enough to keep it fresh but not racy or citrusy like I associate with Italian Pinot grigio. No signs of new oak but that doughy element from the nose could have been from partial neutral oak. Moderate length finish ends with the lingering white flower notes that I still couldn’t quite pin point.

My guess: An Oregon Pinot gris in the $18-20 range. At this point in my practice I’m not going to focus on guessing age.
Turned out to be: 2016 Scarbolo Pinot grigio, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave: $14)

Wine #1 — Should have paid more attention to the color.

In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the color that comes from a practice of skin contact that is far more common in Italy than Oregon. I let the stereotype of “light, citrusy” supermarket Italian Pinot grigio sway me into thinking that this wine was too good and too weighty to come from Italy. Granted, living in the Pacific Northwest I’m naturally bias due to my greater familiarity with Oregon Pinot gris.

Also, (thanks to Cauble’s notes in the Answer Packet) I realized that I should have paid more attention to that “subtle doughy element” from the nose. In Cauble’s notes he describes “hints of peanut shells, stale beer” which plays along those lines of what I was picking up. It wasn’t Champagne biscuity or Muscadet leesy but there was something there that I now know I should look out for–particularly in higher end Italian Pinot grigio from regions like Friuli.

Wine #2

Light yellow color, almost watery with some green specks.

High intensity nose. Wow! This wine is screaming out the glass with lemon citrus (both fruit and zest) and the smell of concrete after rain.

On the palate, those citrus notes comes through but so does the stoniness. This wine is screaming minerality–like liquid stones in your mouth. There is also a sense of salinity in the wine that amplifies the minerality. Clearly I’m thinking Old World here but which grape? Medium-plus acid tilts me away from thinking Sauvignon blanc/Sancerre and more to Chardonnay/Chablis. Medium body with a long finish that lingers on those stoney notes. Very fantastic wine and my favorite of the flight.

Crazy good Petit Chablis. Minerality for days.

My guess: A village-level Chablis in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Agnes et Didier Dauvissat Petit Chablis, Burgundy, France (Wine Searcher Ave $17)

Outstanding wine and a scorcher of a deal for a Petit Chablis. I was even tempted into thinking this could be a Premier Cru instead of a village-level Chablis because of how vibrant it was. Ultimately I defaulted back to village level because, while it did jump out of the glass, my notes on the wine were still rather short. You expect more layers and complexity with a higher level Chablis. But still, an outstanding bottle and way above what a Petit Chablis typically delivers.

Wine #3

Moderate yellow. Definitely darker than #2 but not golden or anything that would hint at oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Spiced d’Anjou pear with LOTS of white pepper. I tried really hard not to jump to conclusions but this was screaming Gruner Veltliner right from the get-go.

On the palate the spiced pear carries through and is joined by some ripe apple notes. The ripeness of the apple and the pear had me wondering if this was maybe a warmer climate Gruner like from California or (Northwest bias again) Oregon. Medium-plus acidity and a sense of stoney river rocks ultimately brought me back to Old World and Austria. No signs of oak. Light bodied with a moderate finish that lingers on the white pepper spice.

My guess: An Austrian Gruner Veltliner in the $14-17 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Weingut Bauerl Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, Wachau, Austria (Wine Searcher Average $9)

Another crazy good value. Would be a killer glass pour at a restaurant.

While not “New Zealand Sauv. blanc easy”, this was definitely the easiest one in the entire Blind Six. Cauble promises to pick classic examples of each wine style and I don’t think he could have picked a more classic Gruner Veltliner than this.

Tasting the Red Flight

I had a bit of a ego boost with the white flight getting 3/3 grape varieties right and 1.5/3 with the regions–going to do a half point for that way over-performing Petit Chablis. However with the red flight my ego got thoroughly deflated.

My wife and I did the red flight tasting before a meal and decided to make a game of it. After we sampled and evaluated the wines, we compared each to our meal to see what was the best pairing. The “winning bottle” got the cork pulled to be finished with the rest of the meal. We really liked this game and think we’ll make it a staple moving forward with doing the Blind Six.

Wine #4

Light ruby color. Can read through it. Some fuschia hues.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very ripe Rainier cherries, cranberries with herbal notes–mint and fennel.

Those red fruits and herbal notes carry through but the cherries taste more richer on the palate than they smelled on the nose. Almost candied even. High acidity balances that richness and still keeps the fruit more red than black. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the wine feeling a little thin. Rather short finish ends on some spice notes that aren’t very defined though hint at being in the baking spice family (cinnamon, clove) suggesting partial new oak? Definitely thinking Old World Pinot with this.

Should have paid more attention to the fuschia hues and candied cherry notes.

My guess: A basic Bourgogne rouge (maybe Cote de Beaune-Villages?) in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorees Morgon, Beaujolais, France (Wine Searcher Ave $18)

My wife briefly suggested Gamay as a possibility but we dismissed it because the acids were too high–though in his notes Cauble rates the acidity of this wine as medium-plus. In hindsight, the “candied cherry” and the fuschia hues should have registered more.

Yeah, this was a total miss for me.

Wine #5

Moderate ruby. Can still read through it but much darker than #1. Slight blue hues.

Medium intensity nose. Noticeable oak spice and vanilla. Black cherries and black berries.

On the palate, the oak still dominate with the dark fruit. Medium-plus acidity keeps it from being syrupy with medium tannins holding the structure well. Moderate length finish ends on the oak. This is screaming California Pinot.

While you probably wouldn’t suspect Syrah being blended in, it would be hard not to peg this as anything but a Cali Pinot.

My guess: A California Pinot noir in the $33-38 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Tyler Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, USA (Wine Searcher Ave $36)

This was, by far, the easiest one of the red flight and I was seriously close to taking a stab that it was Central Coast as well. It was very oak driven and didn’t have any of the elegance I associate with Sonoma Coast, Russian River or Carneros Pinot noir. It wasn’t bad at all (and it certainly not a huge Kosta Browne wannabe) but it definitely was as stereotypical “Post-Sideway Cali Pinot” as you can get.

Wine #6

Medium garnet with some rim variation that has an orange huge. Can’t read through the core.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dried roses and tarry tobacco spice. Some red fruits–cherries, pomegranate and cranberries. Also a little animal earthiness.

The red fruits carry through but aren’t as defined on the palate as they were on the nose. It’s the tarry tobacco and high tannins that dominate. Still just medium-plus body though with the alcohol weight. High acidity makes your mouth water and highlights tobacco spice notes and helps keep the floral rose petals from the nose alive. The animal earthiness become more defined and linger on the moderate finish.

This isn’t your “modernist” style Gaja, Antinori, Renieri or Banfi style Brunello. Tasting this made me realize that I need to look into more “old school” style producers.

My guess: A basic Barolo in the $40-45 range.
Turned out to be: 2012 Padelletti Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave $48)

Once again my wife had the suggestion that maybe this was Sangiovese–which we evaluated more critically this time. The orange hue and the cherry notes played along. But ultimately we thought that the high tannins and high acidity fit the profile of Nebbiolo/Barolo much more than Sangiovese. Turns out, our scale of “high” is apparently Ian Cauble’s medium-plus.

In hindsight, and after reading Cauble’s notes, I realize that I have vastly more experience with “modern” style Brunello producers than I do with some of the classic, old school style of Brunello that Cauble describes in the Padelletti. A big takeaway from this experience is that I need to branch out more in this area.

For dinner we were having Italian sausage with penne and red sauce so this was the “winning bottle” from a food pairing point of view though the Morgon with the fennel notes was a close second.

Ian’s Notes — aka Where You Went Wrong

It’s incredibly enlightening (and humbling) to read a Master Sommelier’s notes on a wine you just tasted. For each wine there are numerous “clues” in color, aroma and structure that Cauble points out that make perfect sense when you go back and revisit the wine.

Like how did I miss the crushed raspberries with the Morgon Beaujolais–one of the tell tale signs of Gamay? How did I not notice the fennel and orange peel from the Brunello?

Tasting a Pinot grigio and Gruner in a flight together really highlighted the similarities and differences between the two.

While there are going to be subjective differences (like the high/medium-plus ratings), overall there is immense insight to be gained in reviewing Cauble’s notes. Beyond just laying out all the clues that you may or may not have gotten, Cauble chimes in with tips about other “lateral wines” that blind tasters often confuse with each other.

For instance, Pinot grigio, Albarino and Gruner Veltliner are part of a trio of “neutral bitter varieties” that often trouble blind tasters. Cauble encourages you to look for a subtle sensation of “over-steeped green tea” at the back of the palate and front of the lips and then try to differentiate from there. Gruner will have the distinctive white pepper (and apparently daikon-raddish which I need to look for) while Albarino will have more canned peaches and Pinot grigio will have that “stale beer” and “peanut shell” element that I also need to start looking more for.

With the Morgon Beaujolais that I completely whiffed on, Cauble goes into brief detail about how different Cru Beaujolais are from the popular associations with Gamay and describes how they are commonly confused for Northern Rhone Syrahs and Loire Cabernet Franc from Chinon. While I, personally, didn’t confuse the Morgon for either of those two–I have a motivation now to actively compare good quality Cru Beaujolais with each.

In fact this is a suggestion that Cauble makes repeatedly throughout the tasting packet–if you have trouble with something then do comparison tastings (non-blind) with what you tasted and what you thought it was. This is another area where the Coravin becomes a valuable tool. The next night after we did the red flight, my wife and I grabbed a Beaune Montrevenots (a tad higher than Cote de Beaune-Village level) and compared it side by side to the Morgon. That was immensely educational (the candied cherry of the Beaujolais was even more pronounced compared to the tart cherry of the Beaune) and we plan to do the same with getting a Barolo to compare side by side with an old school Brunello.

Is it Worth it?

Depends.

If you are looking at it from a straight dollar value of the wine, then maybe not. At $199 for 6 bottles you expect an average wine value of around $33 a bottle. I don’t know how close this month’s box is to the norm but going off of Wine Searcher’s average prices (which is based on retail and not the wholesale that SommSelect is likely getting), I received $142 worth of wine for an average of $24 a bottle. Assuming that SommSelect is already making a healthy retail mark up, it’s fair to see how some subscribers might chaff at the hard numbers.

That said, these were exceptionally well curated wines that in nearly each case drank at a higher price point. If I went with the upper end of my price ranges for each wine (which, like how I score wines with my 60 Second Reviews, is mostly based on what price I feel would be a good value for this wine) that would be $180 for an average of $30 a bottle. Not ideal but not feeling like I’m getting ripped off either.

But the bigger value in the SommSelect Blind Six is truly with Cauble’s notes. For students seeking higher level certifications with WSET and the Court of Master Sommeliers, there is a dearth of material out there when it comes to learning more about blind tasting. There are some online resources (and great podcasts) from GuildSomm and each program includes some material when you pay for courses. When it comes to wine books, Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting is pretty much the only game in town.

Truthfully, for the most part, budding wine geeks are on their own in this arena.

If you are serious about wanting to be a good blind taster and are already investing thousands into seeking higher level certifications–this will probably be well worth it to you.

The benefit of the SommSelect Blind Six is that you can easily structure your own self-study program for blind tasting with essentially a Master Sommelier as your personal tutor. The examples that Cauble pick are truly classic and while you might disagree with some of his assessments, you can’t fault the logic and soundness of his conclusions.

But, most importantly, along with the individual wines you taste in the Blind Six, Cauble’s notes helps you pinpoint the strengths and weakness in your approach. With his suggestions of other things to taste and insight into his own personal approach, you can craft a game plan to tackle those weaknesses so you can become a better blind taster.

After one round of the Blind Six, I feel that, yes, it is undoubtedly worth it. Maybe not for the casual wine drinker but most definitely for the wine geek or ambitious wine professional who truly wants to get better at blind tasting.

I’ll continue to review each month’s box to not only track my own progress in blind tasting but to also see how the value/price per bottle ratio trends.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/5/18 — Zinfandel, World of Syrah and Washington Wine

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

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

The Week in Zinfandel (2/26/18) by Tom Lee (@NWTomLee)

This is a frequent series by Lee on the Zinfandel Chronicles that highlights reviews and articles that discuss Zin. He was gracious enough to include my recent review of the 2014 Two Vintner’s Zinfandel in his recent round-up but I was most excited to explore several of the other links he posted. Below were two of my favorites.

Have We Taken the “Less Is More” Wine Aesthetic Too Far? by Jon Bonné (@jbonne) for Punch (@punch_drink)

With Bonné being one of the big proponents for lighter, lower alcohol wines (pretty much the anti-thesis of “Parkerized”), this was not an essay I expected to read from him. But he does make a lot of great points about the value of diversity as he bemoans the lack of interest in what he terms “Ferdinand wines”–big wines that have beauty even at high alcohol levels–such as California Zinfandel, Amarone, Brunello di Montalcino, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat.

Heart of Zinfandel: Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley (Paywall) by Stephen Brook (@StephenPBrook) for Decanter (@Decanter)

As I described in my post Zin-ful Thoughts, my opinions of Zinfandel are evolving and I’m eagerly looking for new areas to explore. Brook gives a nice overview of Dry Creek Zins and has me particularly intrigued by the offerings of Joel Peterson’s Once & Future from the Tedeschi Vineyard, Fritz Underground Winery and Passalacqua’s PQZ.

Cayuse manages to be weird in both taste and marketing. Though, IMO, their Cailloux and En Chamberlain Syrahs–with their boring orange labels–are the best.


World of Syrah Kick-off at Celebrate Walla Walla by Bean Fairbanks of Wine Beer Washington (@winebeerWA)

Part 1 of a series from the World of Syrah presentation given by writer Patrick Comiskey (@patcisco) and Master Sommelier/Master of Wine Doug Frost (@winedogboy). Nice overview of the distinction between the regions where Syrah is used as the primary grape versus more of a blending variety but my favorite quote is the one Bean highlights from Comiskey “The Syrah taste needs to be weird NOT the marketing”.

The beauty of Syrah, especially from the Rocks District in Oregon, is the funky weirdness. But gimmicky marketing is just….gimmicky marketing. If the wine can’t stand out on its own without the gimmicks than that should be a red flag.

Taste Washington Wine Month Links

March is Taste Washington Wine Month which at SpitBucket means that I’ll be nose deep in studying more about the history of the vineyards, wineries and people that make the Washington wine industry so exciting.

The women of wine are taking their rightful place (Jan 2015) by David LeClaire (@SeattleUncorked) for Seattle Dining (@SeattleDINING1)

March is also Women’s History Month and I loved this article from LeClaire highlighting kick-ass women who are not only winemakers (like Kay Simon of Chinook and Cheryl Barber-Jones of Chateau Ste. Michelle) but also sommeliers, writers (Braiden Rex-Johnson of Northwest Wining and Dining), chefs, and educators (Joan Davenport of WSU and DavenLore Winery).

Purple Gold: The influence of Husky alums can be tasted throughout the Northwest wine industry (December 2012) by David Volk for the Columns alumni magazine of the University of Washington.

I stumbled across this link while researching for the The Mastery of Bob Betz post. Every Apple Cup, I want to do a tasting of Husky wines vs Coug wines but, while it is easy to find wines made by WSU grads, until I came across this link I didn’t have an easy resource for wines with UW connections.

Washington’s great vineyards: Upland Vineyard (August 2013) by Andy Perdue (@GreatNWWine) for Great Northwest Wine.

Inspired by Peter Blecha’s essay on the history of Associated Vintners that I highlighted in my 3/3/18 Geek Notes, I wanted to research more about the role that William B. Bridgman played in the history of Washington wine.

That research brought me to Perdue’s article on the history of Upland Vineyard that Bridgman first planted in 1917 with Vitis vinifera varieties like Zinfandel and Sauvignon blanc. Today the vineyard is owned by the Newhouse family who continue to farm old blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin blanc, Merlot and Riesling that were planted in the 1970s. There is also a block of old vine Black Muscat that the date of planting is not quite known but it is possible that these vines are approaching the century mark.

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Top Ten Wines from 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour

As we wrap up Spitbucket’s 3 part series on the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tour in Las Vegas, we come to our grand finale–my Top Ten Wines of the event. Of course this list is entirely limited and subjective. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, it is virtually impossible to try all 244 wines available in just 3 hours. While I thoroughly enjoyed the 68 wines that I did get to try, I undoubtedly missed out on several gems that may have found their way to this list.

Among the wines that I regrettably missed out on:

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso 2010 (94 pts. Wine Searcher average price $75)
Graham’s Vintage Port 2000 (98 pts. Wine Searcher average price $98)
Marques de Grinon Domino de Valdepusa Petit Verdot 2011 (93 pts. Wine Spectator list price $40)
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque 2007 (93 pts. Wine Searcher average price $143)
Recanti Judean Hills Wild Carignan Reserve 2014 (91 pts. Wine Searcher average price $48)
Anthonij Rupert Cabernet Franc 2009 (92 pts. Wine Searcher average price $77)
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 2012 (93 pts. Wine Searcher average price $227)

Now as for my Top 10 list, as frequent readers know I do have a bit of bias towards Bordeaux wines. While the geek in me seeks out tasty treats from across the globe, Bordeaux will always be my most enduring love in the world of wine. So it should not be a surprised that Bordeaux wines account for almost a third of this list with many of the other wines capturing my attention for their “Bordeaux-like” elegance and qualities. Again, this list is completely subjective.

My Top 10 wines of the night:

 

Adobe Road 2013 Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points. Wine Spectator list price $175)

Still the undoubted wine of the event. Even glancing over my list of missed opportunities, I don’t think any of them would have knocked this 228 case limited release from Adobe Road off the pedestal.

My top wine at the 2017 Wine Spectator Grand Tasting was this Adobe Road Cabernet Sauvignon from the Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III in Rutherford.

As I described in part 2, this wine was classic Napa but what set it far above its peers that I tasted was the fresh, lively acidity that gave sparks to tongue while the velvety soft and rich fruit was wrapping it up in a kiss. When you are “power-tasting” through a lot of great wine, you find that they start to meld together, making it hard to stand out. Especially in Napa where the check-list seems to be [x] Ripe dark fruit [x] Full-bodied [x] Soft but noticeable tannins and [x] Noticeable oak. It’s easy to check all those boxes and make a wine that will give immense pleasure when being enjoyed by itself.

But for a wine to stand out when it is being tasted along such illustrious wines as the 2009 Caymus Special Selection, 2012 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow, 2013 Alpha Omega Era, 2013 Beringer Private Reserve, 2012 Chimney Rock Elevage, 2013 Vine Cliff 16 Rows Oakville, 2005 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and 2013 Trinchero Mario’s Vineyard, it is going to be that freshness that hits you like a finger snap in front of your face, commanding your attention. None of the aforementioned wines were bad and, indeed, two of those wines also ended up making my Top 10 list. The 2013 Adobe Road Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III A1-Block Cabernet Sauvignon was just better.

Altesino 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli (93 points. Wine Spectator list price $110)

Outside of Burgundy and the Mosel, we usually don’t talk about individual vineyards in Europe the same way we do with American wines. There are certainly legendary vineyards in Europe, and single bottlings from those vineyards, but the names don’t easily roll off our tongues quite like To Kalon, Ciel du Cheval, Shea, Monte Bello, Red Willow, Sangiacomo, etc. However, you can make a fair argument (as James Suckling does here [subscription]) that the Montosoli vineyard owned by Altesino is one of the top vineyards in all of Montalcino. In fact, it was the very first vineyard to be bottled as a single cru of Brunello di Montalcino.

Despite being a very young Brunello (even for a warm vintage), this wine lived up to its lofty pedigree with an intoxicating bouquet of tobacco spice, orange peel, black cherry and savory leather. It had me picturing myself drinking an old-fashioned at a Victorian Explorer’s Club gathering. The palate brought more richness to the cherry notes with enough acidity to keep it juicy without being “bitey”. The tannins are still quite firm, again confessing its youth, but a silkiness emerges as you roll the wine around your tongue that holds much promise.

Emilio Moro 2011 Malleolus de Valderramiro Ribera del Duero (90 points. Wine Searcher Average price $85)

I am still a bit dumbfounded how this wine only got a mere 90 points from Wine Spectator. (As I was with several wines like this that I reviewed in the first part of the series.) While I can appreciate the palates and scores of critics like Thomas Matthews, its always important to formulate our own opinions on wine. While I try to avoid using the 100 point scale myself, with pegging wines down to just a number, I will say that this delicious wine from Emilio Moro far surpassed many 93-94 rated wines.

Heitz 2005 Martha’s Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (93 points. Wine Searcher average price $181)

Like the Adobe Road Beckstoffer Georges III, Martha’s Vineyard located in Oakville is a legendary site for Cabernet Sauvignon. My adoration of this wine will again reveal my “Bordeaux-bias” a it had, by far, the most Bordeaux-like nose of all the Napa Cabs. Lots of savory herbal elements of what I like to call the “Chicken herbs” used for roasting–sage, thyme and particularly rosemary. The classic Martha’s Vineyard eucalyptus was also there but I was surprised with how much St.-Julien like cedar box and tobacco spice was also present.

The mouthfeel though was tried and true Napa with rich, almost Port-like dark fruit and Belgium dark chocolate undertones. The medium-plus acidity added enough freshness to balance the weight. The tannins were mostly velvety but they had a firm grip along the edge which hinted at how much more time this already 12-year old wine could go. While some of the eucalyptus and tobacco spice carried through to the palate, most of the savory Bordeaux-like notes on the nose were gone. In many ways it felt like I was drinking two different wines and that kept my interest.

Ramos Pinto 30 year Tawny Port (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $85)

You can find my full review here. Again, simply a fabulous Port that is among the best I’ve ever had. If you can find it, its definitely worth grabbing and if you find it priced under a $100, grab two.

Ch. Pichon Longueville Lalande 2011 Pauillac (91 points. Wine Searcher average price $116)

You can’t sugar-coat over how rough of a vintage that 2011 was. Spring was too hot and fraught with drought while summer was too cold with rains happening at the most inopportune times (if they happened at at all). Still, the blessings of modern viticulture and winemaking knowledge means that even in the roughest of vintages, wineries still have the skills and the tools to produce delicious wine.

Does this 2011 Pichon Lalande stack up to the 2010, 2009 or even the absolutely scrumptious 2005 (one of my all-time favs among all wines)? No. But neither does the 2011’s price tag of around $116 stack up to the price tags of those vintages–Wine Searcher average of $229, $204 and $152, respectively. That is the landscape of Bordeaux with every bottle and every vintage needing to be evaluate both on a curve and within the big picture.

So judging this 2011 among its vintage-peers, I was exceedingly impressed with how well it was drinking this evening. With 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Merlot and 2% Petite Verdot, this wine had far more Cab than typical Pichon Lalande and with the characteristics of the vintage, I was expecting something that needed far more time.

But this wine was ready to dance with a mix of black currant and red cherry fruit framed with the typical savory tobacco and cedar cigar box notes of a good Pauillac. The mouthfeel had a lot more noticeable vanilla oak notes than I would expect. Much as the vanilla works to coax early drinking approach-ability with New World wines, so here it was smoothing out the rough edges of youthful tannins. With a little dark chocolate and Christmas fruitcake spiciness on the finish, you end up with a delightful wine that has character and personality.

Marchesi Fumanelli 2009 Octavius Riserva Amarone (94 points. Wine Searcher average price $173)

Another wine that took me by surprised as I reviewed in part 2. This wine may be more difficult to find in the United States but it is well worth the hunt for any wine lover of bold, brooding reds with layers of complexity.

Diamond Creek 2012 Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points. Wine Searcher average price $216)

This was only my second encounter with Diamond Creek after previously trying a 2009 Volcanic Hill. That one experience coupled with reading Cellar Tracker reviews of their wines helped form my expectation that this was going to be similar to other Diamond Mountain Cabernets that I’ve had in the past (Wallis Family, Lokoya, Martin Ray and Von Strasser)–powerful, rich but with a lot of structure and firm tannins that need time to mellow.

While this 2012 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow certainly had the power and richness, I was taken back by how soft the tannins where. In a blind tasting, I would be completely fooled that this wasn’t something from Rutherford or Oakville. It was downright velvety with the opulent black fruit. On the nose there was some earthiness, like dusty crushed rocks with a tinge of smokiness, but it was no where near as herbal as I would have expected. This was another wine that I found myself excited at the thought of what enjoyment savoring a full bottle of this wine would bring.

Ch. Calon Segur 2003 (95 points. Wine Searcher average price $117)

As I wrote in part 2, it is easy for Bordeaux lovers to dismiss the 2003 “heat wave” vintage (especially on the Left Bank) but wines like the 2003 Calon Segur shows that there were still many great wines made that year.

Ch. Lascombes 2010 Margaux (91 points. Wine Searcher average price $118)

Oh you didn’t think I could get through this list without slipping in a 2010 Bordeaux, did you? Of course not. I especially couldn’t pass up tasting again and falling back in love with this wine from the 2nd Growth estate in Margaux. Since Dominique Befve took over in the early 2000s (after stints at l’Evangile in Pomerol and 10 years as Technical Director of Chateau Lafite), Chateau Lascombes has been going from strength to strength.

Lascombes is a little unique in that the fair amount of clay in the soils of their vineyards around the communes of Cantenac, Soussans and Margaux, allows them to grow more Merlot than you would expect for a highly classified Medoc estate. In 2010 that translated to a blend that was dominated by Merlot with 55% followed by 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot. While many of its 2010 Cab-dominated Left Bank peers still need ample time in the cellar, this Lascombes is following the path of Angelus, Canon-La-Gaffelière, Pavie-Macquin and Le Dome in being one of the best drinking 2010s right now on the market.

The nose has swirls of black licorice spice with smokey espresso that give way to black currant and Turkish figs. The tannins on the mouthfeel are silky with the same black fruits on the nose being wrapped with even more smoke and now chocolate espresso flavors. The finish is long and lingering, giving ample pleasure but making you soon crave another sip. While most 2009/2010 prices are in the stratosphere, this is still an absolute steal for how much this wine over-delivers.

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