Tag Archives: Hunter Valley

The Hunt for Aussie Bubbles

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all the wines reviewed here were tried as samples during the 2019 Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley and Mudgee region.

Kangaroo crossing sign

The wine world has a wicked way of promoting FOMO–a fear of missing out.

From the luxury end, there are cult wines and trophy bottles. In years past, score hounds would scavenge the shelves looking for highly-rated gems before they sold out.

Now for wine geeks and wanderlust Millennials, the entire world of wine is a temptress. But what we fear missing out on is not what the pack is gobbling up. Instead, our minds quiver at the thought of missing out on what’s new and exciting by settling for what’s old and boring.

Why feel content with the same ole Cab and Chardonnay when you could have Touriga Nacional and Grenache blanc?

Yeah, Champagne is charming. Prosecco is perfect for patio sipping. But that’s what everyone else is drinking. It’s what you can find in every wine shop. You can’t have FOMO if there is nothing to be missed.

And that’s the dirty little secret of the human psyche.

Despite the real repercussions when we let FOMO reach anxiety levels, we still crave it. We still crave the thrill of the hunt. But how much thrill is there in shooting ducks in a basket?

No, what we crave are the unicorns out in the wild.

In the world of sparkling wine, finding premium Aussie bubbles is a tough unicorn to bag. Unless, of course, you’re one of the 25 million people who call Australia home.

Now yes, we’ll get some sparkling Shiraz exported.

Golden Gaytime ice

Actually Australia is home to many unicorns.
If only I could’ve found a way to keep these frozen for the plane ride home.

Though the ones that make their way to the US tend to be mass-produced and underwhelming. Of course, there is the ubiquitous YellowTail, which has several sparklers in their line up. However, that’s basically the “Fosters of Australian wine”–a well-known ambassador but not really a benchmark.

Occasionally, some internet sleuthing can find a merchant offering mid-size producers like Jansz from Tasmania. (Though, ugh, their website!)

But only around a fifth of Australia’s sparkling wine production gets exported. That means you need to go down under to even get a hint of what the rest of the world is missing out on. Luckily, I got such a chance this past October during the Wine Media Conference.

There, in both the Hunter Valley and neighboring Mudgee, I was able to try several sparkling wines that I could never find in the States.  But I barely scratched the surface. Even spending extra time in Sydney, I found that the highly regarded Tasmanian sparklers were surprisingly difficult to find.

I’ll share my thoughts on many of the sparklers I tasted below. But first a little geeking about Australian sparkling wine.

Australia isn’t an “emerging” sparkling wine producer.

Bubbles were produced on the island of Tasmania nearly 2 decades before Nicholas Longworth crafted the first American sparkling wine in 1842.

As Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (one of the five essential books on sparkling wine), an English immigrant, Mr. Brighton, produced Australia’s first sparkling wine in Tasmania back in 1826.

Napoleon III painting uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain

I’d imagine it was quite the scandal having a non-French sparkler served to the French emperor.

Up in the Hunter Valley, James King began producing sparkling wine around 1843. King’s wines would receive great international acclaim–doing particularly well at the 1855 Paris Exposition. Yes, that 1855 Paris Exposition. At the end of the event, King’s sparkling Australian wine was selected as one of only two wines that were served to Napoleon III at the closing banquet.

It’s hard to know exactly what these first Aussie sparklers were. King, in particular, was noted for the quality of his Shepherd’s Riesling (Semillon). However, he also had Pinot noir in his vineyard as well.

These early Australian sparklers were made using the traditional method of Champagne.

The 20th century saw more innovation in sparkling wine techniques with producers experimenting with a “twist” on the Champagne method known as the Transfer Method or transvasage. (We’ll geek out more about that down below) The exact date and who was the first to pioneer this technique in Australia is not known though Minchinbury helped popularize its use.

In 1939, Frederick Thomson started using carbonation (or the “soda method”) to make his Claretta sparkling fizz. We should note that while many cheap sparkling wines (including some so-called “California Champagnes”) are made with added carbonation, in Australia these wines can’t be labeled as “sparkling wines.” Only wines that get their effervescence through fermentation (either in a bottle or tank) can use the term.

Speaking of tanks, adoption of the Charmat method took hold in the late 1950s–beginning with Orlando’s Barossa Pearl Fizz. Today, the tank method is gaining in prominence–especially with the strong sparkling Moscato and “Prosecco” market in Australia. (More on both of those a little later too.)

The 1980s saw a spark of French interest in Australia.

Much like in California, the big Champagne houses took an interest in Australia’s growing sparkling wine industry. In 1985, both Roederer and Moët & Chandon invested in new estates.

Roederer help found Heemskerk as a joint-venture in Pipers Brook, Tasmania. But eventually Roederer moved on from the project–selling back their interest in the estate in 1994.

Chardonnay harvest in Tasmania photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Throughout Australia, sparkling wine accounts for around 6% of production. In Tasmania, that number jumps up to 30%.

Moët’s Domaine Chandon at Green Point in the Yarra Valley of Victoria, though, saw immediate success thanks to the work of the legendary Tony Jordan–who sadly passed away earlier this year.

Like Roederer, LVMH also looked to Tasmania as a potential spot for sparkling wine production. However, they wanted a location more prime for tourism and cellar door sales.

Bollinger was also briefly a player in Australia’s sparkling wine scene through their partnership with Brian Croser in Petaluma. However, the hostile takeover of that brand by the Lion Nathan corporation in 2001 seemed to have ended Bollinger’s involvement.

Today, except for Domaine Chandon (and Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek), most all of the Australian sparkling wine industry is wholly domestic. This makes me wonder if this is why Aussie sparklers are so hard to find outside of Australia?

Even the most prominent players like Treasury Wine Estates (Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Seppelt, Heemskirk, Yellowglen) and Accolade Wine (Banrock Station, Arras, Bay of Fires, Hardy’s, Croser, Yarra Burn) have their origins as Australian conglomerates before they gained an international presence.

The Transfer Method

Diagram from Wine Australia presentation

Diagram from Wine Australia’s “Australian Wine Discovered” presentation.

Understanding this is a big part of understanding Australian sparkling wine. Like the traditional method, fermentation happens in the bottle. However, it’s not happening in the bottle that you’re taking home. Instead, after secondary fermentation and aging, the wine is emptied into a pressurized tank at around 0°C where the lees are filtered out. Then the sparkler is bottled anew with its dosage.

The Champenois themselves use transvasage for 187ml airline splits and half bottles as well as large format Champagnes starting with double magnum (3L Jeroboam) in size. This is because these odd formats would be difficult to riddle without excessive breakage.

The Australians were keen to adopt the labor and cost-saving benefits of the transfer method and it’s the most widely used technique. It allows wineries to increase efficiency without sacrificing the quality character of autolysis. Ed Carr of Accolade Wines noted in Christie’s that the difference is as much as $30-40 AUD per case compared to traditional riddling. Plus, winemakers can do one last “tweaking” (such as SO2 and acidity adjustments) before final bottling.

However, many boutique producers stick to using the traditional (instead of transfer) method. These bottles are labeled stating “Methode champenoise,” “Methode traditionnelle” or simply “Fermented in this bottle.”

The sparklers that are made using the transfer method are more likely to state that they are “Bottled Fermented” or “Fermented in the bottle.”

Australian Moscato & “Prosecco”

As elsewhere in the world, Australia has had its own “Moscato Boom.”

Now usually Moscato is associated with the Moscato bianco grape of Asti (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). However, in Australia, the term is used to refer to the whole Muscat family when the wine is made in a light, sweet style with low alcohol. So a bottle of sparkling Australian Moscato can be made from Moscato bianco, Muscat of Alexandria, Orange Muscat, Moscato Giallo or a blend of multiple Muscats.

King Valley photo by Mattinbgn. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The King Valley in north-east Victoria has a strong Italian heritage. The Glera/Prosecco grape thrives in the cooler southern end of the valley with vineyards planted at higher altitudes.

Australian Prosecco is also apparently a big deal–though I didn’t personally encounter any bottles on my trip. The first Australian Prosecco was made by Otto Dal Zotto in King Valley (or “Victoria’s little Italy”) in 2004. The success of that wine and others caught the attention and ire of producers in the Veneto.

This led Italian authorities to take some dramatic steps in 2009. First, they petitioned the EU to change the grape’s name from Prosecco to Glera. Then they expanded the DOC to the province of Trieste, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where there is a village named Prosecco. This gave them the justification to claim the entire region as a protected geographical area.

Obviously Australian wine producers balked at this with the conflict between the two parties still ongoing. But while Australian Prosecco can be sold domestically, none of these wines can be exported into the EU.

A few of the Australian Sparklers I’ve enjoyed this year.

Amanda and Janet De Beaurepaire

Amanda and Janet de Beaurepaire at their family estate. Amanda’s parents, Janet and Richard, started planting their 53 hectares of vineyards in 1998.

De Beaurepaire 2018 Blanchefleur Blanc de Blancs $45 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)

I’ve got a future article planned about the intriguing story of the De Beaurepaire family and the genuinely unique terroir they’ve found in Rylstone, southeast of Mudgee. The family’s name and ancestors come from the Burgundian village of Beaurepaire-en-Bresse in the Côte Chalonnaise. So it’s no surprise that their wines have a French flair to them.

It’s also no surprise that their 2018 Blanchefleur was quite Champagne-like. Indeed, it was the best sparkling wine I had on the trip. A 100% Chardonnay with 15 months on the lees, this wine had incredible minerality. Coupled with the vibrant, pure fruit, it screamed of being something from the Cote de Blancs. I’m not kidding when I say that this bottle would stack up well to a quality NV from a grower-producer like Franck Bonville, Pierre Peters, De Sousa or Pertois-Moriset.

Peter Drayton 2018 Wildstreak sparkling Semillon-Chardonnay$30 AUD

I had this at an Around the Hermitage dinner that featured many gorgeous wines. But the folks at the Around Hermitage Association started things right with this 80% Semillon/20% Chardonnay blend that spent 18 months on the lees. Hard to say if this was transfer method of not. However, the toasty autolysis notes were quite evident with biscuit and honeycomb. Very Chenin like. In a blind tasting, I’d probably confuse it with good quality sparkling Vouvray from a producer like Francois Pinon or Huet.

BTW, the Around Hermitage folks made a fun short video about the dinner (3:20) which features an interview with me.

Logan 2016 Vintage ‘M’ Cuvee – ($40 AUD)

With a blend of 63% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot noir and 18% Pinot Meunier, this is another bottle that is following the traditional method and recipe. Sourced from the cool-climate Orange region of NSW, which uses altitude (930m above sea level) to temper the heat, this wine spent almost two years aging on the lees. Lots of toasted brioche with racy citrus notes. It feels like it has a higher Brut dosage in the 10-11 g/l range. But it’s well balanced with ample acidity to keep it fresh.

Hollydene Estate 2008 Juul Blanc de Blancs$69 AUD

Hollydene Winery

Hollydene Estate Winery in Jerrys Plains is about an hour northwest of the heart of the Hunter Valley in Pokolbin.

Made in the traditional method, this wine is 100% Chardonnay sourced from the cool maritime climate of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It spent over 60 months aging on the lees and, whoa nelly, you can tell. Hugely autolytic with yeasty, doughy notes to go with the lemon custard creaminess of the fruit.

Peterson House 2007 Sparkling Semillon – ($60 AUD)

If you love sparkling wine, make sure you book a trip to Peterson House. Each year they release more than 30 different sparklers. Beyond just the traditional varieties, they push the envelope in creating exciting bubbles. You’ll find sparklers made from Verdelho, Pinot gris and Sauvignon blanc as well as Chambourcin, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

I’m generally not a fan of overly tertiary sparklers. But this wine made a big impression on me during the conference.

Robert Stein NV Sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir$25 AUD

I raved about the Robert Stein Rieslings in my recent post, Send Roger Morris to Mudgee. But there are so many good reasons to put this winery (and the Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant) on a “Must Visit Bucket List”. The entire line up is stocked with winners–including this Charmat method sparkler.

At first taste, I had this pegged for transfer method. It wasn’t as aggressively bubbly and frothy as many tank method sparklers can be. However, the considerable apple blossom aromatics should have tipped me off. If this ever made its way to the US for less than $30, I’d recommend buying this by the case.

Gilbert 2019 Pet Nat Rose$25 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)

Gilbert Pet Nat

Gilbert’s Sangio Pet-Nat was just bloody fantastic. I wish I brought more than one bottle home.

It’s always trippy to have a wine from the same year (2019)–especially a sparkler. Gilbert harvests the Sangiovese in February and bottles before the first fermentation is completed each year. Released in July, this wine was surprisingly dry and is teetering on the Brut line with 12.5 g/l residual sugar. Very clean with no funky flavors, this wine had a beautiful purity of fruit–cherry, strawberries, watermelon and even blood orange.

Domaine Chandon 2013 Vintage Brut (purchased at a restaurant) – Around $30 AUD retail.

The Christie’s Encyclopedia notes that Domaine Chandon shot out of the gate partly because of the lessons that Tony Jordan learned at Napa’s Domaine Chandon. In particular, Jordan was well aware of the challenges of dealing with grapes from warm climates. In Australia, Domaine Chandon casts an extensive net by sourcing from cool-climate vineyards in both Victoria and Tasmania.  They have vineyards not only in the Yarra Valley but also in the King Valley, Macedon Ranges, Whitlands Plateau and Strathbogie Ranges as well as the Coal River Valley region in Tasmania.

For the fruit that comes from Tasmania, Domaine Chandon follows the tact used by many Australian sparkling wine producers. They press the fruit at local press houses in Tasmania before transporting the must in refrigerated containers to the mainland. This helps maintain freshness and ward off spoilage organisms.

The 2013 vintage Brut is 47% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir and 3% Pinot Meunier. As in Champagne, Domaine Chandon ages their vintage sparklers at least 36 months on the lees. Fully fermented in the same bottle, it tastes very similar to other Moët & Chandon sparklers with rich, creamy mouthfeel holding up the ripe apple and citrus notes. An enjoyable bottle priced in line with its peers.

Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz (tasted in London at the WSET School) – Around 15 euros
Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz

I’ll admit that the color of sparkling Shiraz is always very striking.

Admittedly I’m still on the search for a genuinely impressive sparkling Shiraz. But this Bleasdale came close. Like the Paringa I’ve reviewed previously, it’s sweeter than my ideal though I get the winemaking reasons behind that.

Sparkling red wines are notoriously tricky to pull off because you have to balance the tannins. This is why many of these wines often have more than 20 g/l sugar.

Most sparkling reds come from the same regions as premium Australian still reds. Think places like the Barossa, McLaren Vale or the Langhorne Creek (Bleasdale). Interestingly, producers will harvest these grapes at the same time as those for still reds wine. Instead of harvesting early to retain acidity, producers want the extended hang time for riper tannins.

However, these sparklers sorely need acidity to balance both the intense fruit and sweetness. While secondary fermentation does add carbonic acid, I suspect that these wines are routinely acidified.

Still, this Bleasdale had enough balance of acid to go with the dark plum and delicate oak spice. That got me wondering how well this would pair with BBQ pulled pork.

Or, if I’m brave, maybe I’d pair some of these Aussie sparkling unicorns with steak de cheval.

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Race From The Bottom — How Should Wine Regions Break Into New Markets?

This morning wine writer Jamie Goode offered some sage advice to wine regions across the globe.

I’m not sure what prompted this particular dictum but reading it reminded me of Brand Australia’s wine marketing woes. People got so use to seeing cheap, cheerful “critter wine” flooding the market from down under that the idea of Australia making premium, high-quality wine almost became a non-entity.

Which kind of puts a damper on the 2400+ Australian wineries not named Yellow Tail, Jacob’s Creek, Lindeman, Black Opal or Wolf Blass, doesn’t it?

In the huge shadow of the “Yellow Tail” effect, Australian wines today only command around 1% of the premium export market in the US. In contrast, 95% of Australian wines in the US retail for around $8 per bottle.

And both numbers may be shrinking.

While Australia is seeing some positive growth in export value to markets in Asia and Canada, it was recently announced that exports to the US has declined by $27 million in value.

It seems that Americans are getting a bit bored of the critters. The novelty of criminals has piqued some interest but that too will inevitably wane. Plus, gimmick labels like 19 Crimes certainly aren’t doing much to burnish the image of Australian wine for consumers.

Catch Up Marketing?

In response to the decline, the trade organization Wine Australia has invested $4.2 million to promote premium Australian wines.  They’re spending a good chunk of that money rehabbing the image of Australia wines abroad.

This past July, they hosted several Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine, wine buyers and media personalities at Lake Tahoe for an event called Australia Decanted. Featuring high-quality producers like Tyrrells, Penfolds, Vasse Felix, Clonakilla, Yalumba, John Duval Wines and Shaw & Smith Wines, the conference highlighted the people and terroir that often get overlooked by American consumers.

Next October, the Wine Bloggers Conference will be in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales–the first time the conference has been held outside of North America. Undoubtedly, a huge focus of that conference will be giving bloggers and other wine industry folks a chance to experience the world of Australian wines beyond Riverland and Riverina.

Are We Repeating The Same Mistake In Washington?

Here in Washington State, Jamie Goode’s warning is also pretty timely. Recently the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) published the “Top 10 Table Wine Brands” in the US by dollars.

You have the usual suspects of bulk California supermarket brands (and Yellow Tail, of course) but look at who is rounding out the top 10 with almost $177 million in sales.

Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Now being a bit of a Washington State-homer, I will be quick to point out something important. The quality of CSM wines are head and shoulders above the Barefoot, Sutter Home, Franzia and Yellow Tails of the world. While it is clear that the owners of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates are ambitious about expanding their portfolio with new labels and acquisitions, I take comfort in knowing that we’ll likely never see a bourbon barrel-age or cold brew hybrid wine coming out of Woodinville anytime soon.

In some ways, you could say that Chateau Ste. Michelle’s inclusion on this list is a good thing. Could this be a glimmer of hope that more Americans are drinking just a little bit better?

Perhaps. But there is a lot about this chart that gives reasons for pause.

Who Writes The Narrative Of “Brand Washington”?

Even if the quality of their wines are higher than entry-level wines from California, Australia and elsewhere, the overwhelming dominance of CSM wines in distribution still means that the banner of “Brand Washington” is being led by our entry-level wines.

Walk into any supermarket and look for Washington wine with multiple facings on the shelf. While Constellation’s Hogue or Gallo’s Covey Run ($5-6) might be there, chances are you will find only Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Valley ($6-10) label.

Or you may find one of CSM’s many, many, many sister brands like Columbia Crest Two Vines ($5-6), Grand Estates ($7-10), 14 Hands ($7-10), Snoqualmie ($6-8), Red Diamond ($6-8) or their 1.5L bulk brand Stimson Lane ($9-10).

Outside of Washington State, these may be the only Washington wines that consumers are exposed to–the state’s cheapest. Even within Washington, it’s near impossible to go into a grocery store or look at a wine list without being overwhelmed with “choices” of multiple different Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brands.

Again, the quality of these wines are undoubtedly higher than Apothic or Menage a Trois. However, the narrative of “Brand Washington” being told to consumers is still being written by just one company–and with its cheapest wines.

Has Trickle Up Marketing Ever Worked?

Even if the narrative is much more “impressive” and slightly less cheap than the story of Yellow Tail or other entry-level wines that Jamie Goode is warning about, there is still risk to the Washington State wine industry in letting the entire branding of the state be made by one dominant brand.

Has there ever been a wine region where “Trickle Up” marketing has worked? Has an industry that first introduced itself to consumers with their lowest, entry-level wine ever been able to successfully rise above that initial perception?

Inflation aside, was Napa Valley ever known for its $6-10 wines? Oregon? Bordeaux? Burgundy?

It’s almost like we’re expecting an upside down “halo effect”.  We’re hoping that our bottom priced wines “trickle up” and lead the way. When what we should be doing is having our top quality, premium wines dictate our narrative to consumers

Again, has that ever worked?

Maybe Washington State will be the one to break the mold. If Chateau Ste. Michelle is our “bottom”, that is certainly a step above many other regions.

But there is a lesson we should learn from the pratfalls of other wine industries.  Once the die of your brand has been cast in the minds of consumers, it’s really hard to recast.

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WBC18 Day 3 Quick Impressions

Picture of Brokenwood Semillon wine

A big selling point for next year’s WBC will be the chance to explore more Hunter Semillons.

I’m back home from the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla. Next year’s event will in the Hunter Valley in Australia and I’m very tempted!

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll get back to posting 60 Second Wine Reviews and Geek Notes as well as a new edition of Keeping Up With the Joneses of Burgundy.

I’ll also have some extended write-ups from the conference so keep your eyes open for those. Till then feel free to check out the previous posts in my WBC18 series:

WBC18 Day 2 Quick Impressions
WBC18 Day 1 Quick Impressions
Getting Ready (and a bit nervous) For WBC18!

On to Day 3!

Breakout Session — Advanced Strategies for Facebook and Instagram

My other options for the morning sessions were How to Seal the Deal with a Kick Ass Media Kit and How to Craft a Compelling Professional Pitch which seem to be heavily tilted towards seeking paid promotions from wineries. Since I have little interest in those kind of gigs, I opted for this seminar hosted by Carin Oliver of Angelsmith, Inc.

I haven’t figured out what I’m doing with Instagram yet. I like pretty pictures as much as the next person but I get bored easily with bottle porn. Tell me something about the wine or vineyard beyond just “Yum!” or “Beautiful!”.

Wine Bloggers Conference Agenda

The “How to Make Wineries Adore You” session also didn’t seem like my calling.

I was hoping that Oliver’s talk would show me the value of Instagram as well what’s the best use of Facebook. While she gave great insights on how Facebook treats blog and business pages, I quickly realized that her talk was geared towards “influencers” who want to make themselves marketable to wineries. Again, that’s not me.

Can Google Read? How your Writing Affects Your Rank in Google Search

This was an awesome session! John Cashman and Nancy Koziol (The Oethical Oenologist) of Digital Firefly Marketing gave a terrific presentation that was the most fruitful of the entire conference.

Around 2/3 of my traffic comes from search engines so I was eager to learn how that happens. Cashman and Koziol explained search engine optimization and the current understanding of how Google analyzes and ranks pages. But the best part was Koziol’s section on how to be a better writer and make your posts more readable.

You can check out the presentation yourself here!

Bubbles & Bites With Gloria Ferrer

The old adage that American wine drinkers “Talk dry but drink sweet” has a lot of truth to it. The sweet Bruts of Gloria Ferrer fit that bill very well.

It probably wasn’t the best idea to schedule this session after lunch but sommelier Sarah Tracey (The Lush Life) did a great job of pairing Gloria Ferrer sparklers with various nibbles.

I wasn’t thrilled with the wines as the Gloria Ferrers were on the sweeter side of Brut with 12.2 g/l residual sugar (2010 Anniversary Cuvee $45) to 12.8 g/l (Rose $29). While the US and EU allows up to 15 g/l under the Brut category, in Champagne the limit is 12 g/l. Believe me, you can taste the difference.

Live White & Rosé Wine Blogging

I missed the Wine and Cheese Pairing with Cheeses of Europe and the Lightening Talks so I could finish yesterday’s Day 2 recap but I made it in time for the second round of chaotic blogging.

This style of blogging is still not my cup of tea but I was introduced to some awesome wines.

Amanda Barnes presenting the Garzon Albarino from Uruguay

Amanda Barnes of Around the World in 80 Harvests presenting the Garzón Albarino.

1.) Bodega Garzón 2017 Albarino — An Albarino from Uruguay! This was a first for me and I totally geeked out over the differences between this and the Albarinos I had the day before from Rías Baixas. The Garzón was crisp but more rich in the mouthfeel with riper fruit flavors. It also didn’t have the trademark salinity of the Galcian Albarinos.

2.) Dr. Loosen 2016 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling GG Alte Rebben — A super geeky old vine Riesling sourced from 100+ yr vines that are still planted on their own rootstock. Crisp and dry with only 6.9 g/l residual sugar, it was a welcomed contrast to the Gloria Ferrer “Brut” sparklers from earlier.

3.) Troon Vineyard 2017 Riesling — I actually got a “sneak peak” taste of this before the speed blogging which I really appreciated. This complex, orange wine-style Riesling merits way more attention than what could be given in 5 minutes. Sourced from biodynamically grown grapes in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, this wine spent 2 weeks macerating with its skins before being fermented dry and aged in neutral oak barrels. Lots of interesting flavors that I don’t regularly associate with Riesling like cumin and saffron with cantaloupe rind. Great texture and mouthfeel with a long finish.

Final Dinner Sponsored by Visit Walla Walla

The Truth Teller and the Wine Lunatic, together at last!

The last event of the conference was a dinner with Washington winemakers at each table. My table got to enjoy the company of Chris Loeliger of Truth Teller Winery and Tim Armstrong of Armstrong Family Winery.

With a more intimate setting, it was great hearing behind-the-scenes anecdotes about what it’s like starting a winery and the challenges that come with it. Of course, those great stories also came with great wines with the Truth Teller Right Bank Bordeaux-style blend Satire and Armstrong’s Cabernet Franc being my favorites. Look for some upcoming 60 Second Wine Reviews on both.

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Getting Geeky with Tablas Creek Vermentino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counoise vine outside the tasting room at Tablas Creek.


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

The Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grape

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

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

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

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

Vermentino vineyards in Sardinia.


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

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

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

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

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

Rolle/Vermentino grapes growing in southern France.

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

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

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

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

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

The Wine

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

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

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


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

The Verdict

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

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

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