Tag Archives: Chenin blanc

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!

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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.

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Getting Geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

I am going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out over my first ever Chinese wine–the 2012 Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz from the Shanxi province.

The Background

Mr. Chun-Keung Chan founded Grace Vineyards in 1997 with the help of his friend Sylvain Janvier, a native of Burgundy. Suzanne Mustacich notes in Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines that Chan and Janvier met during the former’s business dealings in France. At the time, Chan worked for the Chinese mineral trading and manufacturing firm Eastern Century.

When he sold his shares of Eastern Century in 1994, Chan inquired about purchasing a chateau in Bordeaux. But Janvier convinced him to explore the potential of viticulture in his home country. The two men hired French enologist Denis Boubals to scout for locations. Known as the “Apostle of Cabernet Sauvignon,” Boubals was famous for encouraging Languedoc wine producers to modernize. He promoted uprooting native cultivars in favor of the more fashionable varieties of Cab, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Merlot.

The Vineyard

Map by Shannon1. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Yellow River Basin with provinces noted.

Boubals identified 100 ha (247 acres) in the Yellow River Basin of Taigu County in the Shanxi Province as a potential vineyard site. Located on an arid loess plateau 2600 feet above sea level, the sandy loam soils near Jinzhong City provided good drainage. This allowed room for roots to burrow deep into the earth with ample tillage to bury the vines during harsh winters.

Shanxi’s inland location (nearly 600 km/373 miles from the coast) has a continental climate with cold winters and warm summers. Vineyards here experience a wide diurnal temperature variation between daytime highs and nighttime lows. This can help maintain acidity during heat spikes in the summer.

They planted 69 ha (171 acres) of eleven different grape varieties–including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Chenin blanc. Boubals sourced all the cuttings from France. The partners named their estate Yi Yuan in Chinese and Grace Vineyard in English.

By the estate’s 20th anniversary in 2017, Grace Vineyard had expanded to 200 ha (494 acres) of vines in Shanxi as well as additional parcels in neighboring Ningxia and Shaanxi provinces. The winery also works with several contract growers.

A Family-Owned Winery and a Growing Reputation

Photo by Nick Chan. Uplaoded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

The exterior of the Grace Vineyard estate.

At the time of Grace Vineyard’s founding, the majority of commercial wineries in China were government-owned entities or co-operatives. The large corporation Changyu based in the Shandong region dominated private enterprise.

In 2002, Chan passed the management of Grace Vineyard to his daughter, Judy, a 24-year-old recent graduate of the University of Michigan. She embarked on an ambitious business-plan that sidestepped the corporation controlled distribution networks in favor of direct-to-consumer sales to the growing Chinese middle class. Chan opened up several wine bars and boutique wine shops in major metropolitan areas that prominently featured Grace Vineyard wine.

Mustacich noted that Chan observed the reticence of Chinese consumers to ask questions that could potentially display ignorance. To combat these fears, she organized the wine bars and retail shops to emphasize education. Chan tailored these sites to be more intimate settings where consumers could freely explore.

As the reputation of Grace Vineyard wines grew domestically, they caught the attention of international critics such as Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. Soon major hotel groups like Peninsula and Shangri-La were featuring their wines. Cathay Pacific Airways, the flag carrier of Hong Kong, also began to promote Grace Vineyard wines on their flights.

Today, Grace Vineyard is considered the “role model” for Chinese boutique wineries as China grows in prominence on the world’s wine stage.

The Winemaking

Map by Pancrat. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Significant areas of grapevine production in China in the early 2000s. Grace Vineyard is in the Shanxi province, northeast of Ningxia, neighboring Hebei.

When the vines were nearing their first harvest, Chan and Janvier hired a Bordeaux winemaker, Gérard Colin. Before joining Grace Vineyard in 2000, Colin worked more than a decade for Chateau Teyssier in Saint-Emilion (before it bought by Jonathan Maltus in 1994). He then spent time at the Haut-Medoc estate of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Château Clarke.

Colin would make the first several vintages of Grace Vineyard, helping to pioneer serious viticulture in China. He eventually left in 2006 to join the new project of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) in the Shandong peninsula, CITIC-Lafite.

Colin was succeeded by Australian winemaker Ken Murchison who ushered in a period of exploration. He encouraged the plantings of unique varieties in China such as Aglianico, Marselan, Saperavi, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot noir and Syrah. He also helped Grace launch a sparkling wine project. A native of Victoria, with his own family vineyard in the Macedon Ranges, Murchison split time between working the northern hemisphere harvest at Grace and the southern hemisphere harvest in Australia.

When Murchison retired in 2016, he was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lee Yean Yean. Before joining Grace as a cellar hand in 2006, Yean worked in Australia at the Victoria wineries of Curly Flat and Brown Brothers.

The Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

Photo by Hahn Family Wines. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Syrah grapes growing in the central coast region of California.

Launched as an experimental batch in 2012 (along with an Aglianico and Marselan), the Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz was Grace Vineyard’s first significant departure from Bordeaux varieties. The series’ name comes from the founder’s first granddaughter, Anastasya.

The wine was aged for around one year in second-use oak barrels. Grace Vineyard’s initial release of the experimental wines was limited to 3000 bottles of each variety. Only a few dozen cases were exported.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Black pepper and red fruit like cherry and plums. There is a little noticeable oak spice such as cinnamon coupled with an undefined herbal element.

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

The black pepper spice, along with its juicy red fruits, is a defining feature of this Chinese Shiraz.

On the palate, the red-fruits carry through– mainly the cherries. Mouthwatering medium-plus acidity and soft, medium tannins balance the medium-bodied weight of the fruit. If it wasn’t for the black pepper and darker color, I could see myself wondering if this was actually a Pinot in a blind tasting. Moderate finish lingers on the mouthwatering red fruit.

The Verdict

For $25-35, you are paying a tad for the novelty of a Chinese wine. But taken on its own as a cool-climate Syrah, it does have enough character to make the price feel reasonable.

I would describe it as if a Syrah from a cool area (like the Russian River Valley or Santa Barbara County) and a regional Bourgogne Pinot noir had a baby. You can pick up some of the Syrah qualities. But the acidity and structure would lend me to treating it more like a Burgundy Pinot noir. Its best place to shine is on the table with food.

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60 Second Wine Review — Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs

A few quick thoughts on the 2014 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine from California.

The Geekery

Schramsberg blanc de blancs sparkling wine

Schramsberg began in 1965 when Jack and Jamie Davies, inspired by a long lunch with legendary vintner Martin Ray, bought the derelict winery, house and caves of 18th century German immigrant Jacob Schram on Diamond Mountain.

The Davies wanted to distinguish themselves from other Napa wineries and focused on sparkling wines. At the time, only Korbel in Sonoma and Kornell in Napa were making sparklers. Instead of using Champagne varieties, these other wineries were using grapes like Thompson Seedless, Colombard and Chenin blanc.

Their first release was a 100% Chardonnay 1965 Blancs de Blanc. James Conway notes in his book Napa: The Story of an American Eden that the Davies got the grapes for their sparkler by purchasing Riesling from Jerome Draper on Spring Mountain and then trading with the Mondavis of Charles Krug for Chardonnay.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon shared the 1969 Blanc de Blancs with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai for the historic “Toast to Peace” between the two countries during Nixon’s famous trip to China.

The Chardonnay for the 2014 vintage was sourced primarily from Napa (66%) with 31% from Sonoma and 3% from vineyards in Marin County. Primary fermentation was done in barrel with full malolactic. The wine was then aged over 2 years on the lees before being bottled with a 9.5 g/l dosage. Around 34,850 cases were made.

The Wine

Photo by Kimberly Vardeman. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

The racy citrus notes, pastry dough and baking spices remind me of key lime pie.

Medium intensity nose. Reminds me of key lime pie with the mix of citrus, pastry and baking spices.

On the palate, the key limes carry through and are amplified by the medium-plus acidity. Moderate mousse holds the lively acidity and crispness. The pastry and baking notes become more muted and fade quickly with the finish.

The Verdict

At $30-35, this an enjoyable sparkler but admittedly doesn’t wow me for the price.

It’s well made but there is not much that sets it apart from sparklers under $20.

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The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials

Wine Industry Insight has a great chart showing the growth of spirits among Millennial drinkers. Beer is still doing pretty well.

http://wineindustryinsight.com/?p=93406

From Wine Industry Insights, October 5th 2018

But look at that little straggler there towards the end. The one holding the tiny 18% preference of Millennial drinkers–after declining 4% from 2017.

We see you wine. We see you.

Though apparently we aren’t drinking you–as the “share of throat” (basically share of the beverage market) for wine is barely a fifth of what Millennials consume.

This is something that the wine industry is going to have to deal with.

Right now Baby Boomers and Generation X still spend a lot on wine but eventually the wine industry’s success is going to depend on Millennials choosing wine over other drinks.

Wineries are going to have figure out how not to bore Millennials to tears with their offerings and marketing.

This is why I harp on the foolishness of producers and wine regions focusing on “the old guard” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc.

These things have been done before, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

I get it. Those grapes certainly rule the market right now. But it’s incredibly easy to get bored of them and have your wine get lost in the crowd. Once you’ve had one Cab, it often feels like you’ve had them all.

Millennials seek variety and excitement.

And we haven’t even gotten to the Mezcal boom yet.

The diversity of the craft beer movement with all its different styles struck a great cord with millennials that likely won’t wane. Spirits are offering a world of new cocktails to explore. Even categories like whiskey up the excitement factor with different mash bills, aging regiments and cask finishing.

To catch up, the wine world is resorting to gimmicks like blue wine, bourbon & tequila barrel aging, coffee wine, silly augmented reality labels, etc.

It’s basically putting lipstick on a pig. Yeah, that will work a time or two but even the best liquid matte fades.

Yet we already have the answer to the “boredom factor” right in front of us and scattered across the globe. How about highlighting the beautiful wealth of interesting grape varieties, terroir and unique people with stories to tell?

Vermentino! Picpoul! Cabernet Franc! Chenin blanc! Valdiguié! Roussanne! Mourvèdre! Sangiovese! Pinot Gouges! Siegerrebe! Malbec! Cinsault! Counoise! Grenache!

I could go on. The point is that we don’t have to fall back on the same ole, same ole. Instead of looking back at the old guards and standbys of yesterday, we should be moving forward and exploring the promising potential of tomorrow’s wines.

Otherwise, the wine industry is going to keep losing shares of a lot throats.

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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.

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60 Second Wine Review — Bedrock Ode to Lulu Rosé

A few quick thoughts on the 2017 Bedrock Ode to Lulu Old Vine Rosé.

The Geekery

Bedrock Wine Co. was founded in 2007 by Morgan Twain-Peterson–the son of Ravenswood’s founder Joel Peterson

When Morgan was five years old, he produced his first wine called Vino Bambino–a Pinot noir. Several New York restaurants including Blue Hill, Gramercy Tavern, Delmonico’s, Mesa Grill and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole featured later vintages of Vino Bambino on their list.

Before starting Bedrock, Twain-Peterson worked harvest at Ravenswood, Noon Wine Cellars and Hardy’s Tintara winery in the McLaren Vale and the 5th growth Ch. Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux.

In 2013 Chris Cottrell joined Bedrock. The two also team up for a sparkling wine project called Under The Wire that features such unique wines as a sparkling old vine Zinfandel and an Oakville field blend from Napa Valley made from French Colombard, Chenin blanc, Malvasia bianca, Muscadelle, Semillon and Chardonnay.

In 2017, Twain-Peterson became a Master of Wine after completing a dissertation on old vine field blends.

The 2017 Ode to Lulu rosé is a blend of 75% old vine Mourvedre/Mataro from Bedrock Vineyard and Pagani Ranch in the Sonoma Valley with 25% Grenache from Gibson Ranch in McDowell Valley in Mendocino County. Around 1500 cases were produced.

The Wine

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

The white pepper spice adds gorgeous complexity to this dry rosé.

High-intensity nose–raspberry and strawberries with lots of white pepper spiciness. It almost smells like a Gruner Veltliner and Bandol had a baby.

On the palate, those reds fruits carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity. Medium-bodied weight has some phenolic texture, but that doesn’t distract from the refreshing aspect of the wine. Moderate length finish brings back the white pepper spice and adds a floral note.

The Verdict

For $18-22, this is a fantastic and very character driven rosé. This can play a jack-of-all-trade role as a  food pairing option.

I can certainly see this rosé shining on the Thanksgiving table which makes me very glad I have a few more bottles.

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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.

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Doubling Down On What’s Been Done Before

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

Andy Perdue of Wine Press Northwest says it time for Washington State wine producers to “double down” on Cabernet Sauvignon.

The state needs to focus, he says, much like how Oregon did several decades ago with Pinot noir.

Washington has proved it can grow several wine grape varieties very well, and in some ways this has hurt the industry, because the state hasn’t had a focus. Now, we can align ourselves with other Cab regions, including Bordeaux and Napa Valley. — Andy Perdue, 9/13/18

Now why in the hell would we want to do that?

Napa On My Mind — And The Minds Of Most Consumers

Yes, I know that Cab is still king and there is no doubt that Cabernet Sauvignon sales are still going strong. You can’t fault vineyards for planting Cabernet Sauvignon or wineries for producing it.

But what you can fault is the idea that we should start hoarding all our eggs into one Cab basket–especially a basket that is already dominated by one really large hen.

Look at any “Most Popular” list of American wines and you can easily see a stark theme.

Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant Wines of 2018.

I would definitely be impressed seeing a wine list with Woodward Canyon prominently featured.

Cakebread, Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Corison, Duckhorn, Faust, Frank Family, Heitz, Jordan, Justin, Louis M. Martini, Mount Veeder, Rodney Strong, Sequoia Grove, Silver Oak, St. Francis Winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Turnbull–all well known California Cabernet producers. Though, yes, Washington State does get a few nods with Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole 41 and Chateau Ste. Michelle (probably for their Riesling).

The Most Searched-For Cabernet Sauvignon on WineSearcher.com in 2017.

Screaming Eagle, Caymus, Scarecrow, Shafer, Dunn, Robert Mondavi and Silver Oak–all Napa Valley staples with only Penfolds 707 from Australia and Concha y Toro Don Melchor from Chile being outside Cabernets that cracked the list.

Vivino’s Top 20 Cabernet Sauvignon for Cab Day (which was apparently September 3rd)

Pretty much the same Napa-dominated list like the ones above with Quebrada De Macul’s Domus Aurea from Chile, Gramercy Cellars’ Lower East from Washington, Thelema Mountain Vineyards’s The Mint and Springfield Estate’s Whole Berry from South Africa sprinkled in for diversity.

This is not to say that Washington State can’t compete with California–in quality or in price. Lord knows we can and often exceedingly over deliver in both. Many years the state usually leads the pack in percentage of wines produced that receive 90+ scores from critics and often command a sizable chunk of year-end “Top 100” lists.

Photo a compilation of creative commons licensed images uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Perhaps the Washington State Wine Commission needs to get Steven Spurrier on the phone.

But to the vast majority of American wine buying consumers (particularly of Cabernet Sauvignon) that hardly makes a dent in their Napa-centric worldview. Pretty much since the 1976 Judgment of Paris, Cabernet Sauvignon in the United States has been synonymous with Napa Valley, California.

Of course, I’m not saying that Washington should stop producing its bounty of delicious and highly acclaimed Cabs but why should we double down on chasing a horse that has already left the stable?

The Lessons Of Oregon

To bolster his case, Perdue points to the example of Oregon which has built its brand (quite successfully) on the quality and notoriety of its Pinot noir. It’s no shock that on that same Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant List that Oregon has a healthy showing with Adelsheim Vineyard, Argyle Winery, Cristom Vineyards, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Elk Cove Vineyards and King Estate representing the state–doubling the amount of wineries that Washington has featured.

Perdue would, presumably, attribute that success to Oregon’s seemingly singular focus on Pinot noir instead of the jack-of-all-trades approach that Washington State has taken in a modern history that is pretty close to the same age.

But what I don’t think Perdue has really taken into consideration is that Oregon started doubling down on Pinot long before Pinot noir was cool.

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

Pinot noir in early veraison at Cristom Vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills

In his book Oregon Wine Country Stories Kenneth Friedenreich notes that many of Oregon’s early pioneers were thought to be crazy by their neighbors and bankers when they started planting Pinot noir in the Willamette Valley in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1980s when French producers like the Drouhin family of Burgundy took notice that the state began getting some attention on the world’s stage.

Even then, Oregon Pinot noir was still a tough sell in the domestic US market.

 

It’s hard to discount the impact that the 2004 film Sideways had on the perception of Pinot noir. As David Adelsheim noted “There were two great grapes of America [Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay], and after ‘Sideways,’ there were three,” with the Oregon wine industry reaping the benefit of sustained sales ever since.

In the game of life, when Oregon wine producers were least expecting it, they rolled a ‘7’. But they could have just as easily crapped out.

Oregon was initially betting on a long shot–not a 2 to 1 favorite like Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s crazy to think that Washington could every get the same kind of payout.

How About Betting On What’s Exciting?

Seriously, if you are not on the Washington Cab Franc train than you are lagging behind my friend!

Earlier this week Sean Sullivan of Seattle Met and Wine Enthusiast published a fantastic list of “The 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington”.

Now while there are certainly Cabs included on this list–several of which, like Passing Time and Quilceda Creek, I wouldn’t dispute–there are several wines included that are truly, genuinely exciting.

2013 Leonetti Cellar Aglianico Serra Pedace Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yes, an Aglianico! From Leonetti!

2015 Spring Valley Vineyard Katherine Corkrum Estate Grown Cabernet Franc Walla Walla Valley

The 2012 vintage of this wine was one of the best wines being poured at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting in Seattle earlier this year.

2017 L’Ecole No. 41 Old Vines Chenin blanc Columbia Valley

I’m no stranger to hollering into the void about the charms and deliciousness of Washington Chenin blanc. I love that L’Ecole is highlighting “Old Vines” on this bottle. It shows that their faith in this wonderful variety isn’t a fly-by-night fancy.

2015 Two Vintners Cinsault Make Haste Yakima Valley

Cinsault has been on my radar since attending the Hospice du Rhone seminar highlighting South African Cinsault. Obviously Washington doesn’t have anywhere close the vine age or experience but Morgan Lee of Two Vintners is an incredibly talented winemaker so it will be fun to see what he could do with the grape.

2016 Savage Grace Côt Malbec Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

Michael Savage makes some of my favorite Cabernet Francs from the Two Blondes Vineyard and Copeland Vineyard. The Boushey Vineyard is one of the grand crus of Washington. All perfect ingredients for what is likely a very kick ass wine.

2017 Syncline Winery Picpoul Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

If you’re not drinking Picpoul, is it really worth drinking anything?

2012 MTR Productions Memory Found Syrah Walla Walla Valley

This Syrah, made by Matt Reynvaan (of Reynvaan Family Vineyards fame),  is practically treated like a Brunello di Montalcino. It sees two years of oak aging followed by 3 years of bottle aging before release. A fascinating project.

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yeah, yeah the Rocks District is technically Oregon. But since the wine consuming public is too myopically focused on Oregon Pinot noir,  Washingtonians can take credit for the insane depth and character that comes out of wines from this area. At the Taste Washington “Washington vs The World Seminar” this was the run away winner at an event that featured heavy hitters like Joseph Phelps Insignia, Lynch-Bages, Sadie Family, Amon-Ra and Duckhorn Merlot.

Lessons of Oregon part II

Another lesson from Oregon that’s often overlooked is the lack of attention given to other grapes grown in the state. This was a takeaway I had from Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories that I noted in my review with the fascinating possibilities of the Southern Oregon AVAs like the Umpqua, Rogue and Applegate Valleys or the shared Columbia Gorge AVA up north with Washington.

There are over 50 grape varieties grown in Oregon–yet we really only hear about 1 to 3 of them. Sure the producers in prime Pinot country with blessed vineyards on Jory and Willakenzie soils, have a good gig right now. But the countless small wineries in other areas of the state trying to promote and sell their non-Pinot wines are facing an uphill battle.

Now What?

Does Washington State really want to  be associated with just one grape variety? With more than 70 different grape varieties, why limit ourselves?

As a Washington wine lover that adores the bounty and bevy of fantastic wines like Viognier that can compete with great Condrieu, geeky Siegerrebe and Pinot noir from the Puget Sound, Counoise rosé that echoes the grape’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape heritage and robust Malbecs that gets your mouth watering with their savory, spicy complexity, I vote no.

If are going to double down on anything then we should double down on what makes Washington, Washington.

We’re the Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis of the American wine industry. We can do it all and we can do it very, very well.

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Getting Geeky with Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre

We’re back after a vacation to take the nieces and nephew to the happiest place on Earth. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to play the Somm Game in between rounds of chocolate milk, lemonade and Sprit soda. Though absence does make the heart grow founder. And boy, am I ready to get back into the world of grown-up beverages!

So let’s continue our celebration of Washington Wine Month by taking more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2010 Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre from McKinley Springs Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Full disclosure: During the 2012 vintage, when this 2010 Mourvèdre was just released, I did an internship at Robert Ramsay Cellars. Here I worked under the mentorship of Kristin Scheelar who was head winemaker at the time.

The Background

Robert Ramsay Cellars was founded in 2005 as a specialist in Rhone-style wines by winemaker Bob Harris. The winery’s name is a combination of Harris’ full name “Robert” with the last name of his great-uncle Mason Ramsay who helped raised Harris’ father when his grandfather was working overseas.

Before starting his winery, Harris served as winemaker for Coeur d’Alene Cellars and was mentored by Kristina Mielke-van Löben Sels of Arbor Crest, Nicolas Quille of Pacific Rim, Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery and Ron Coleman of Tamarack Cellars.

Inspired by the great wines of Côte Rôtie, Harris’ first vintage was 125 cases of Syrah. A tasting room in Woodinville was opened in 2009. By 2014 the winery was making over 3000 cases. Among the notable vineyards that the winery was sourcing from include Red Heaven on Red Mountain, Phinny Hill and Mckinley Springs in Horse Heaven Hills, Dineen Vineyard in Yakima Valley and Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

Kristin Scheelar

In 2010, Harris hired Kristin Scheelar, a 2009 graduate of the Wine Production program of the Northwest Wine Academy (NWA) at South Seattle College. Prior to joining Robert Ramsay, Scheelar served as a harvest intern for Patterson Cellars under the tutelage of John Patterson.

My wife Beth also did an internship working with Kristin at Robert Ramsay. Here she is doing punch downs during the 2012 harvest on some Dineen Syrah.

Scheelar would stay at Robert Ramsay for four years, leaving just before the 2014 harvest to join Goose Ridge winery as an assistant winemaker. During her time at Robert Ramsay, she was an influential mentor to many female winemakers in the Woodinville wine scene including Lisa Packer of Warr-King Wines and her successor at Robert Ramsay, Casey Cobble–another NWA graduate.

Along with Packer, Cobble and Hillary Sjolund of Sonoris Cellars, Scheelar is a founding member of the Sisters of the Vinifera Revolution which aims to promote women in the wine industry. Through the years the organization has grown to include several wineries owned and headed by women winemakers including Lisa Swei of Three of Cups Winery, Pam Adkins of Adrice Wines, Lisa Callan of Callan Cellars, Mari Womack of Damsel Cellars, Toby Turlay of Ducleaux Cellars, Jody Elsom of Elsom Cellars and Kasia Kim of Kasia Winery.

Winemaking is messy work. This is me after working the sorting table near the destemmer at Robert Ramsay.

Today Kristin Scheelar is currently an assistant winemaker with Gallo at Columbia Winery.

The Vineyard

McKinley Springs Vineyard was first planted in 1980 by Robert Andrews in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Located at an elevation of around 1000 feet, the sandy loam soils over broken basalt of the vineyard are noted for producing early ripening fruit that create well-structured wines with intense aromatics.

Today the vineyard covers more than 2800 acres with over 20 different varieties of grapes planted including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chenin blanc, Viognier, Malbec, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cinsault, Roussanne, Counoise and Mourvèdre. Along with their Mourvèdre bottling, Robert Ramsay produces a varietal Cinsault and Syrah from McKinley Springs and uses some of the vineyard’s fruit for their Châteauneuf-du-Pape style blend Le Mien and Bandol-style Par La Mer wine.

In addition to Robert Ramsay, several wineries source fruit from McKinley Springs including Thurston Wolfe, Domaine Pouillon, Forsyth Brio, Maryhill Winery, Cor Cellars, Coeur d’Alene Cellars, Mercer Estates, Hestia, Robert Karl, Bunnell Family Cellars and Syncline.

In 2002, the Andrews and Roswell families of McKinley Springs established a winery that focuses on their estate fruit.

The Grape

In their book Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note that Mourvèdre origins are likely Spanish with the first written account of the grape variety being under the synonym Monastrell in a 14th century document by Catalan writer Francesc Eiximenis.

The name Monastrell is derived from the Latin monasteriellu, meaning monastery. It is likely that the grape was first propagated by the Church.

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

Mourvèdre grapes from the Columbia Valley of Washington

By 1460, the Valèncian doctor Jaume Roig noted that Monastrell was the most widely planted grape in València–particularly in the region of Camp de Morvedre where the synonym Mourvèdre emerged from. Another common synonym, Mataro, likely comes from town of Mataró in the province of Barcelona. Located north of València, it would have been along the grape’s likely route out of Spain into Southern France.

Today, Mourvèdre/Monastrell is the 5th most widely planted grape in Spain with over 150,000 acres. It’s only behind Airén, Tempranillo, Bobal and Garnacha in acreage. Most of these plantings can be found in the València, Murcia and Castilla-La Mancha regions. It is the primary red wine grape in the DOs of Jumilla, Alicante, Almansa, Valencia and Yecla.

In France, plantings of Mourvèdre rose sharply in the late 20th century. It went from around 517 ha (1,278 acres) in the 1950s to 9,363 ha (23,136 acres) by 2009. It is most commonly found in the Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence and Southern Rhone regions. In Provence, it is the primary grape of Bandol. Here it must make up 50-95% of the blend along with Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Syrah.

Mourvèdre in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Harry Karis notes in The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book that today Mourvèdre accounts for around 6.6% of all grape plantings in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Historically, the grape was known as Estrangle-Chien (“dog strangler”) due to its harsh tannins and high acidity. This thick-skinned grape thrives on warm, south-facing slopes that receive plenty of heat. This allows the vine to fully ripen the tannins and metabolize some of the hard malic acid.

photo taken by self and uploaded to wikimedia commons as user:agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mourvèdre sample and a saignee rosé sample taken after 24 hours of skin contact. The thick skins of Mourvèdre contain lots of anthocyanins that contribute deep color to blends.

However, Mourvèdre is also very susceptible to drought conditions.  Karis notes that water-retaining clay soils and drought-resistance rootstock like 41B and 110R are ideal for the variety.

In the traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend, Mourvèdre contributes structure via its high acid and tannins. It also provides ample alcohol and color. In the winery, winemakers have to balance the reductive nature of Mourvèdre with the very oxidation-prone Grenache.  To do this you need to ensure that Mourvèdre has plenty of oxygen during fermentation and élevage. Meanwhille, Grenache needs to be kept more anaerobically protected.

Varietal Mourvèdre wines are known for having meaty and spicy (particularly tobacco spice and clove) characters. They often have ample dark fruit flavors that can age into tertiary aromas of game and leather.

Mourvèdre in Washington State

photo taken by self and uploaded to wikimedia commons as user:agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The original block of Mourvèdre/Mataro planted in 1993 in Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley of Washington.

In Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide, Paul Gregutt notes that the first plantings of Mourvèdre in Washington was by Mike Sauer in 1993 at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

By 2017 there were 126 acres of the grape planted in the state where it is used as a component in both Rhone-style blends and as a varietal wine.

Vineyards with notable plantings of Mourvèdre beyond McKinley Springs and Red Willow include Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain, Alder Ridge, Coyote Canyon and Destiny Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills, Elephant Mountain in the Yakima Valley and Northridge Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope.

Gregutt describes the style of Washington Mourvèdre as “…medium-bodied, lightly spicy with pretty cherry-flavored fruit and occasionally a distinctive, gravelly minerality.”

The Wine

The 2010 Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre from McKinley Springs has medium-plus intensity aromatics. Very much in the spicy and earthy category. There are some slight red fruit notes in the red currant and raspberry range. But they are very much overshadowed by the black pepper spice and forest-floor earthiness.

On the palate, the pepper spice is still the dominant note. The medium-plus acidity gives juiciness to the red fruit flavors and keeps them hanging around. The medium-plus tannins are very present. However, they have a soft, velvety-ness to them now that holds up the full-bodied weight of the wine. The finish unfortunately fades fairly quickly. It does bring back, albeit for a short moment, some of those savory earthy notes from the nose.

The Verdict

At nearly 8 years of age, this 2010 Mourvèdre is still delivering ample pleasure in the $30-35 range. But I suspect its peak may have been 2 to 3 years earlier.

There is definitely a good amount of complexity and balance. However, there is also the sense that the wine is on the wane with the short finish and fading flavors. Still this wine is in a good spot for those who crave more savory and tertiary-driven flavors in their wines. The wine will shine with a food pairings that compliments its spicy and earthy notes.  I can see it going particularly well with roasted lamb or a savory mushroom dish.

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