Tag Archives: Sauvignon 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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The Sleeping Giant of Italian Wine

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

Mauro Sebaste Roero Arneis

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

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

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

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

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

Luigi Pira's Dolcetto d'Alba

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

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

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

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

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

Seven exciting Italian wine grapes to try.

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

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

Aleatico

Fubbiano Aleatico

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

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

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

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

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

Arneis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbera

Mauro Veglio Barbera d'Alba

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dolcetto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falanghina

Donnachaira Falanghina

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

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

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

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

A great choice for: White Bordeaux fans!

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

Friulano

Schioppettino Friulano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dry Lambrusco

Dry Lambrusco

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Whipple’s SIPPING LAMBRUSCO IN STRAWBERRY SEASON

A great choice for: Pizza lovers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Start-ups and Sangio

Being in love with a techie, you’re never far from the siren song of start-ups. In her long career, my wife is 0 for 3 following that tune. Still, the excitement of building things from the ground up and being part of something innovative keeps luring her back. That’s why we found ourselves uprooting our lives and moving 5000 miles away from her cozy job at Google to a new start-up in France.

Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese

It takes a lot of nerve to set aside the doubts in your head to pursue what ignites your heart. That is a sentiment that Michaela Rodeno of Villa Ragazzi knows very well. As I learned more of Rodeno’s story, I began to understand the fire that drives people like my wife and Michaela. These are folks that don’t want to settle but, instead, want to see what more is possible.

Rather than take the easy road, the easy life, they embrace the challenges that come with forging your own path. Whether it’s building three (!) wineries from scratch or being on the cutting edge of technology, it takes a lot of gumption to do what they do. And that’s certainly worth raising a glass.

From Bubbles to Boardrooms

From Bubbles to Boardrooms book

If you’re in the mood for a fun summer-time read, I highly recommend Michaela Rodeno’s memoir.

From Bubbles to Boardrooms is the title of Rodeno’s book that is part biography and part primer for the fortitude that one needs to make their own opportunities happen. Rodeno gifted us a copy, but I very enthusiastically recommend the book to any wine lover–as well as lovers of books about kick-ass women.

Not only is it a great read full of fun stories about the early days of Domaine Chandon and St. Supéry, but Rodeno sprinkles throughout compelling tidbits about what it means to be a leader and trusting your own abilities.

The First of Many Firsts

A UC-Davis grad, Michaela Kane Rodeno moved to Napa Valley with her husband, Greg, in 1972. A lawyer, Greg followed the advice of friends that there was lots of legal work to be had in the burgeoning valley. Michaela found a job at Beaulieu Vineyard, becoming the first woman to serve as a tour guide at the historic winery.

A short time later, she noticed a newspaper article about a new California project by Moët & Chandon. This was the first significant investment in California by a major French winery and Michaela was intrigued. Armed with nothing but her French language degree and a whole lot of moxie, she drove up to the Mt. Veeder home of John Wright, the man tasked by Moët to head the project, offering her services. That day Michaela Rodeno became employee number two at what would become Domaine Chandon.

Changing the Game At Chandon

Domaine Chandon

The owners of Moët & Chandon were very hands-off in the early years of Domaine Chandon, giving Wright and Rodeno almost free reign to build the brand as they saw fit.

While building Domaine Chandon from the ground-up with John Wright, Rodeno had to tackle many winery start-up problems. Her solutions, which she developed over a 15-year career at Chandon, introduced many innovations to Napa Valley.

Back then, wineries often viewed restaurants and retailers as their main customers. Rodeno and Domaine Chandon steered the focus back to regular consumers with an emphasis on the tasting room experience, a direct-to-consumer newsletter and establishing the first wine club in the US, Club Chandon. To counter the higher excise tax on sparkling wine, Chandon also was the first to introduce tasting fees to winery visitors.

Noticing the lack of fine dining options in the valley, Rodeno worked with the Napa County council to get the zoning and permits to open up Étoile, which many give credit with launching the Napa Valley food-scene. That restaurant would go on to earn Michelin stars and global recognition before closing in 2014.

Taking the Next Step at St. Supéry

The author and Michaela Rodeno

The author with Michaela Rodeno at her Oakville estate.

After rising to the position of Vice-President of Marketing at Domaine Chandon, the Skalli family tapped Michaela Rodeno in 1988 to be the first CEO of their new start-up in Rutherford, St. Supéry. The very first female CEO in Napa Valley, Rodeno would build another winery from scratch during a period of explosive growth in Napa.

In her 20+ yr tenure as CEO, Rodeno help developed the winery’s vineyards in Rutherford and Pope Valley. A little unusual for Napa, St. Supéry focused heavily on Sauvignon blanc as a means of distinguishing itself from its numerous neighbors. She also made education a key component of the consumer experience at St. Supéry–introducing things like ampelography master classes, sensory tastings and blending events featuring all five red Bordeaux varieties.

Rodeno’s efforts help grow St. Supéry into a 150,000 cases-per-year estate winery that was recognized by Wine & Spirits magazine as their Winery of the Year. Rodeno retired in 2009 to focus on her family’s estate winery in Oakville, Villa Ragazzi.

Sangiovese in the Heart of Cab Country

Photo by Anthonysthwd - Own work, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Pope Valley in the eastern part of Napa Valley.

Inspired by a visit with Piero Antinori in Tuscany, the Rodenos started Villa Ragazzi in 1985, planting a small vineyard in the sandy soils of the Pope Valley. Their planting of Sangiovese is believed to be the first commercial planting of Sangiovese in Napa Valley. The budwood came from an old Sonoma vineyard of mixed varieties that a family friend of the Rodenos introduced them to.

Villa Ragazzi’s wine quickly distinguished itself from other domestic examples of Sangiovese with Jeff Cox describing it in his book, Cellaring Wine, as the “…one notable example [in California] that has the stuffing and structure of an Italian wine.”

At the last State Dinner hosted by the Obamas, the 2012 Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese was served at the event honoring the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and his wife.

In 1998, phylloxera attacked the Pope Valley vineyard. The Rodenos were able to save some of the original budwood and commenced a long replanting program. They sold the Pope Valley vineyard (under the condition that they could still source fruit from there) in 2010 to focus on their Oakville estate plantings of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Rodeno Clone

Photo taken by of Sangiovese cluster. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the user name Agne27.

A large-berried Sangiovese cluster from a Chianti clone grown in Washington State. These vines generally produce a higher output than the small-berried and low-yielding Rodeno clone.

The Sangiovese in the Pope Valley and estate vineyard in Oakville adapted to its terroir, developing distinct characteristics. It is now recognized as its own clone with budwood being propagated by UC-Davis.

Among the unique characteristics of the Rodeno clone is its natural propensity for low yields of small clusters with tiny berries. Most vintages, the harvest is around 1 to 2 tons an acre with a typical output being about 50 to 75 cases. Usually winemakers expect 1 to 2 tons of grapes to produce around 63 to 126 cases.

Over the years, other winemakers and wineries have experimented with the Rodeno (also spelled Rodino) clone including Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Silverado Vineyards at their Soda Creek Ranch vineyard, Araujo, Long Meadow Ranch, Krupp Brothers, Fess Parker, Foxen and Gargiulo Vineyard.

Villa Ragazzi’s Oakville Estate

Villa Ragazzi’s 22 acres of sustainably farmed grapes is in an envious spot in Oakville. Just east of Opus One, their next-door neighbors are Groth and Saddleback. A stone’s throw away is the vines of Swanson, Flora Springs and O’Shaughnessy.

Coming full circle from the Rodenos’ original inspiration, Villa Ragazzi’s wines are made at Piero Antinori’s Atlas Peak property, Antica.

Villa Ragazzi rosé of Sangiovese.

You don’t see many rosés made from Oakville fruit. But this one is worth every penny.

The current winemaker is the legendary Robert Pepi who follows an excellent list of predecessors including Charles Thomas (Opus One, Cardinale, Rudd, Lokoya), Celia Welch (Scarecrow, Staglin, Corra), Nate Weiss (Antica, Silver Oak) and Melissa Apter (Antica, Metzker).

The Wines

Note: These wines were received as samples.

2018 Rosato di Sangiovese, Oakville (47 cases made) Suggested Retail $28

High-intensity nose. Fresh strawberries and red floral notes with a little blood orange citrus aromatics.

On the palate, the strawberries and blood orange notes carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity. Bone-dry with medium body fruit. Very well-balanced given its low 11.4% alcohol. The moderate finish lingers on the strawberries but also introduces a subtle floral herbal note like rosemary. Very scrumptious and the best rosé that I’ve had so far this year.

2014 Sangiovese, Napa Valley (195 cases) Suggested Retail $42

Medium intensity nose. A mix of red fruits (cherries and cranberries) with savory herbal and spice notes.

On the palate, the high acidity amplifies the red fruit and defines the herbs and spice as being clove and thyme. The full-bodied weight is more significant than what I usually associate with Tuscan Sangiovese, but the balance of acidity keeps it from being jammy. Medium-plus tannins have a velvet edge that contributes to the balance. The long finish is mouthwatering with the fruit and adds some pepper spice. Would go exceptionally well with a lot of different food dishes.

2014 Faraona, Napa Valley (55 cases) Suggested Retail $54. A blend of 75% Sangiovese and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dark fruits–black currants and black plums. Moderate oak notes like vanilla and cedar. Overall this smells very Cab-like.

On the palate, those full-bodied Cab-dominant fruits carry through, but a little cherry emerges. Firm, high tannins give this wine a lot of grip and, with the medium-plus acidity, suggest that it has a fair amount of aging still ahead. Long finish plays up the Cab notes with some tobacco joining the black fruits.

2015 Faraona, Napa Valley (42 cases) Suggested Retail $54. A blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium-plus intensity nose. Much more red fruit character than the 2014 Faraona–cherries and red plums. A subtle smokiness adds a savory element to the herbal notes–like roasted thyme and rosemary.

On the palate, the youthful red fruit take center stage. Medium-plus acidity and ripe, medium-plus tannins hold the full-bodied weight of the fruit very well. Some oak flavors of vanilla and allspice emerge but are less pronounced than the 2014. Moderate finish is lip-smacking with savory herbs returning — definitely my favorite of the two vintages of Faraona.

The Verdict

Villa Ragazzi super tuscan Faraona.

While the 2015 Faraona had a lot of character now, this wine is only going to get more complex and layered with age.

In many ways, Villa Ragazzi feels like an “Insider’s Wine” that is actually attainable in price. With their minuscule production of fewer than 300 cases a year, so few people will get a chance to try these wines. Even less get a chance to try these wines at their peak.

Some of that scarcity does play into the pricing. In the US, it is easy to walk into any decent wine shop and find tons of Italian Sangiovese and Super Tuscan blends for less. But let’s put this into context.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare Villa Ragazzi’s wines to massed produced Chiantis like Ruffino’s Ducale Oro ($41 with 32,500 cases made) or Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva ($22 with 13,900 cases made).

A fairer comparison would be wines made in a more age-worthy style like Isole e Olena’s Cepparello ($90 with 3700 cases made), Felsina’s Fontalloro ($65 with 2500 cases made), Tenuta Sette Ponti’s Crognolo ($40 with 7500 cases made) and Terrabianca’s Campaccio ($36 with 8000 cases made).

Some of these wines are less in price than Villa Ragazzi’s Sangiovese and Faraona. However, none of these come close to such a tiny production. You are also not finding them coming from Napa’s pricey terroir. With their prime Oakville real estate, the Rodenos could turn their entire property over to Cabernet Sauvignon that would certainly fetch much higher prices–especially for a 300 case micro-cuvee.

The fact that they don’t is a testament to Michaela Rodeno’s long history of forging her own path.

The Rodenos could have taken the easy way, selling their land or cranking out more $100+ Napa Cabs. Instead, they followed their passions to innovate and do something different.

It’s that same passion that leads so many people, like my wife, to leave the comforts of a cozy job to dive headfirst into the uncertain, but exciting, world of start-ups. It is also the passion that makes the best stories in wine.

As well as in life.

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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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Cannonball Run and Review

The 1981 Burt Reynolds film Cannonball Run is a classic campy action film. But it’s also one of those films that can get a little cringe-worthy watching it in a modern light.

CannonBall Run posted. Uploaded to Wikipedia under Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11146898

Based around a fabled cross-country race, the film has an all-star cast that includes Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Jackie Chan, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Fonda, Mel Tillis and Terry Bradshaw as well as a heap of “good ole boy” bawdiness.

Fawcett’s character gets kidnapped to be a fake patient in Reynolds’ souped up ambulance. She’s drugged by a creepy doctor (played by Jack Elam) when it’s convenient for Reynolds to use her unconscious body to avoid speeding tickets.

When she comes to, she sleepily smiles and asks if any of the men laid a finger on her while she was out. The joke was that the only thing they did was give her “a little prick” (of a needle, har, har). But, of course, everything is okay because she eventually falls for her captor. Never mind that he didn’t care to even want to learn her name at the beginning and just called her “Beauty”.

Then there was the Vixen Team played by Marcie Thatcher and Jill Rivers who responded to every obstacle in their path by unzipping their racing suits to show more cleavage.

Yet as problematic as Cannonball Run is by today’s standards, it’s hard to judge it too harshly. It was certainly a different time 37 years ago and Cannonball Run was never meant to be taken as a serious film. It was always just a silly, popcorn muncher.

Why am I waxing philosophically about an old Burt Reynolds film?

You could blame a late night Netflix binge. But really why we’re here is because of my recent experience with the Cannonball Eleven wines from Share a Splash Wine Co.

While the Cannonball brand was built on value oriented supermarket wines in the $10-15 range (the popcorn munchers of the wine world), the Cannonball Eleven series is marketed as a more elevated and terroir driven offering.

It’s more Academy Award nominated Boogie Nights Burt Reynolds than Cannonball Run Reynolds–with certainly less “Captain Chaos”.

Intrigued by Cannonball’s all-star cast of Dennis Hill (formerly of Seghesio, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Martin Ray and founding winemaker of Blackstone) and Ondine Chattan (formerly of Ridge, Cline and Geyser Peak), I decided to give these new wines a try.

Full Disclosure: These wines were sent to me as samples.

The Background

Cannonball Wine Company was founded in 2006 in Healdsburg, Sonoma by Yoav Gilat and Dennis Hill.

Focusing on under $20 wines blended from a variety of California regions, the company eventually grew to include a portfolio of brands like Angels & Cowboys Wines, High Dive (a collaboration with Napa Valley winemakers Scott Palazzo of Palazzo Wines and Peter Heitz of Turnbull Wine Cellars) and the Marlborough winery Astrolabe.

In 2017, Cannonball Wine Company relaunched itself as Share a Splash Wine Co.

The Wines

2017 Cannonball Eleven Sauvignon blanc Dry Creek Valley ($24.99)
Cannonball Sauvignon blanc

I’m not a big fan of grassy and green New Zealand Sauvignon blancs so this tropical but elegant Cannonball Eleven Sauvignon blanc hit a lot of pleasure notes.

A 100% Sauvignon blanc, the wine was primarily fermented in stainless steel with a small portion fermented in (presumably neutral) French oak barrels. Around 14,000 bottles were made.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very tropical with lots of citrus starfruit and melon notes. What’s interesting is that you can get both the zest and pulp aromatics from the fruit. No sign of oak on the nose.

On the palate, the medium-plus acidity makes the tropical fruit tastes very fresh and juicy. Still no oak flavors but the medium body weight of the fruit is balanced by a creamy texture that isn’t that dissimilar to a white Bordeaux. The moderate finish keeps with the fresh tropical flavors but tilts more towards the zestier aspects of the fruit.

2017 Cannonball Eleven Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($34.99)
Cannonball Chardonnay

I gave these wines nearly a month from when I received them to settle down from travel shock.
I suspect the awkwardness of this Chard is due to its youth,

A 100% Chardonnay, this wine was fermented in a combination of stainless steel and French oak barrels (20% new and 15% second fill). After fermentation, 40% of the wine was aged 8 months in neutral French oak barrels sur lie. Around 15,000 bottles were produced.

Medium-minus intensity nose. Tree fruits like apple with some pastry tart elements. A little vanilla and baking spice from the oak. Rather muted even as the wine warms in the glass.

On the palate, the apple notes carry through and also spice d’Anjou pear with them. There is still some of the pastry baking elements but the presence of oak is much more toned down. Medium-plus acidity gives balance to the medium-plus body fruit. There’s texture to the mouthfeel but it isn’t very malo driven. Unfortunately everything just quickly fades on the mid-palate ending on a practically non-existent finish.

2016 Cannonball Eleven Merlot Sonoma County ($34.99)

A blend of 94% Merlot with 6% Petite Sirah sourced from the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. The wine received a cold soak prior to fermentation in stainless steel before being aged in French oak barrels for 6 to 20 months. I suspect that probably the Petite Sirah was aged closer to the 6 month mark while most of the Merlot lots in the blend were aged longer.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of oak with noticeable vanilla as well as chocolate latte aromatics. It’s a very toasty latte like the burnt coffee base of Starbucks. Underneath the oak and chocolate is some dark fruit but it’s hard to make out at this point.

On the palate, the chocolate definitely carries through and so does the dark fruit which become more defined as cherries. But also here is where a distinct streak of pyrazines, particularly jalapeno, emerges. Medium acidity adds a soft lushness to the medium-plus tannins. It’s just enough to hold up the full-bodied fruit. The moderate finish unfortunately lingers on the chocolate-covered jalapenos.

The Verdict

The Dry Creek Sauvignon blanc is by far the strongest of the three Cannonball Eleven wines I tried. It’s clearly California with the warm climate fruit but it has an elegant structure and mouthfeel that you don’t often find in California Sauvignon blancs. It’s versatile as an easy drinking sipper but has the depth to be a solid food pairing wine.

Compared to its peers, I would put the Cannonball Eleven above the similarly priced Emmolo and Duckhorn and not that far off from the $30-35 Cakebread Sauvignon blanc.

I suspect that the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is in an awkward phase. It tastes a bit disjointed with some of the baby-fat of oak on the nose and the fruit quickly fading on the palate.
It seems to have decent structure and probably will improve with at least 6 months more bottle age. With its acidity and balance I can see this improving even for another 2 to 3 years.

But right now it reminds me more of the $13-16 Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve than it does other Sonoma Coast Chardonnays like Amici and Paul Hobbs’ Crossbarn which can often be had in the $23-26 range. With a price in the realm of Ramey, Failia and Patz & Hall’s Sonoma Coast bottlings, it’s hard to say the Cannonball Eleven Chardonnay is justifying that at the moment.

Oh but that Merlot…
Cannonball Merlot

Yeah, not my thing.

The only Cannonball Eleven wine that wouldn’t personally buy is the Merlot. The combination of overt oak, chocolate and pyrazines just isn’t my style. The best way I can describe this wine is as a bowl of chocolate covered cherries and jalapenos.

Maybe we did have some “Captain Chaos” after all.

I can possibly see this wine working for folks who aren’t as sensitive to pyrazines. If you can look past the green notes, it does have jammy, chocolately fruit with a lush mouthfeel. However, you can find wines in that style (particularly California red blends) for far less than $35.

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Viva La Vida New Zealand — The Coldplay of the wine world?

At a recent panel on New Zealand wine held in London, Richard Siddle, a long time editor of several UK wine business publications, called the Land of the Long White Cloud “The Coldplay of the wine world”.

Photo by Zach Klein. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.5

Ouch.

Ostensibly, it was meant to be a compliment with Siddle noting that Kiwi wines are “consistent, popular and in everyone’s collection”.

But liking a country’s wines to a band that has just as much ink devoted to wondering why they’re so loathed as they do positive press, doesn’t exactly scream “Highly Recommended!”.

With compliments like that, who needs insults?

Dad Music and Mom’s Wine

Nylon columnist Anne T. Donahue aptly summed up the criticism of Coldplay following their 2016 Super Bowl performance as a chafing against “dad music”.

I mean, it’s not that Coldplay was incompetent or bad—they were fine. But “fine” isn’t enough, especially when compared to Beyoncé’s “Formation” battle cry, and her dance-off with Bruno Mars. To appear alongside both artists on stage served only to highlight Coldplay’s normality; to draw attention to the overt safeness of a band we once felt so strongly for, which then reminds us of who we used to be. Ultimately, Coldplay has become the musical equivalent of a friend we had in high school: okay, I guess, but someone you don’t have anything in common with anymore. — Anne T. Donahue, 2/12/2016

I have to admit, that “okay, I guess” sentiment really does encapsulate my thoughts on New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. Maybe Siddle is onto something?

Now don’t get me wrong. New Zealand Sauvignon blanc does have many charms. They’re always exceptionally well made and consistent. Virtually regardless of producer or vintage, you can order a Kiwi Sauvignon blanc and know exactly what you’re going to get.

Grapefruit, passion fruit, gooseberry and guava. Check. Lemongrass, green bean and jalapeno. Check. Crisp, lively mouthfeel. Check.

For students taking blind tasting examinations, you pray that a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is included in your flight. In a world of so many exceptions, a classic Marlborough Sauvignon blanc is as much of a sure thing as you can get.

Which makes it boring as hell.

When you get what you want but not what you need

There’s no doubt that since Montana Wines/Brancott Estate introduced to the world Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough in the 1970s, it’s been a raging success for the New Zealand wine industry. In 1985, it status was elevated even further when David Hohnen established Cloudy Bay as the first dedicated premium Sauvignon blanc producer in New Zealand.

Soon supermarket shelves and restaurant wine lists were awash with the wine of choice for suburban moms everywhere. Led by labels like Kim Crawford, Nobilo, Villa Maria and Oyster Bay, around 86% of all the wine exported out New Zealand in 2017 was Sauvignon blanc.

The flood of grapefruit and gooseberries to the US alone generated around $571 million in sales. Those figures, coupled with still healthy sales in the United Kingdom, pushed the value of New Zealand exports over $1.66 billion NZ dollars in 2017.

Yet the overwhelming dominance of the industry by one grape variety has given many folks, such as Master of Wine Tim Atkin, reason to question if this is “…too much of a good thing?

Arguably the biggest problem with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the influence it has had outside the country. It’s not just the idiotically named Kiwi Cuvée, produced in the Loire Valley by the French company Lacheteau, it’s also the me-too styles that are produced in countries like Chile, South Africa and Australia. Yes, I know that there are different interpretations of New Zealand’s signature grape, but the most successful is the one that someone described as a “bungee jump into a gooseberry bush”. With some residual sweetness, of course. — Tim Atkin, 3/7/2018

The bounty of options of not only authentic New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but also a parade of facsimiles is like skipping over “Clocks” on Spotify only to have the next song be a cover band version.

Is It All Yellow?

Really fantastic Pinot gris from Martinborough. It had some of the zippy acidity and even gooseberry of a NZ Sauvignon blanc with the tree fruits and weight of an Oregon Pinot gris.

Even New Zealand producers are starting to fret about the risks of having all their eggs in one grapefruit basket.

Lucy Shaw of The Drinks Business quotes Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, at that London panel with Siddle “The challenge now is to broaden the story beyond Sauvignon Blanc. We’re a New World country so we need to be open minded, think differently and come up with fresh ideas in order to keep our wines exciting and relevant.”

Google “New Zealand wines beyond Sauvignon blanc” and you’ll get a laundry list of wine writers and bloggers craving something different.

Will those cravings eventually extend to consumers who are still driving the thirst for tankers of Sauvignon blanc?

Perhaps.

While right now Pinot noir has a head start in crafting its own identity in New Zealand, it could be the sirens of Chardonnay and Pinot gris that tempt bored Millennials back to the islands.

Tell me your secrets, And ask me your questions

The last chapter of Gibb’s book gives tips about visiting the wine regions of New Zealand. This will be extremely handy next year when the wife & I visit the country either before or after the Wine Media Conference in Australia.

If you’re interested in learning more about New Zealand wine–both Sauvignon blanc and the vast diversity beyond that grape–here are a few of my favorite resources.

The Wines of New Zealand by Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb.

I highlighted this book back in a July edition of Geek Notes and it has certainly lived up to its billing. By far this is the most comprehensive and in-depth coverage of the New Zealand wine industry that I’ve come across. While a lot of the producers and wine recommendations that Gibb make may be hard to find in the US market, she definitely spends considerable time highlighting the diversity of New Zealand wines beyond Sauvignon blanc.

UK Wine Show with Chris Scott

Chris Scott is a New Zealand native and wine educator in the UK. Sprinkled among the show’s 570+ episodes are numerous interviews with New Zealand wine producers and experts. A few of my favorites are below.

Harpers Podcast 1 New Zealand wine growers (58:23) — A bit unique compared to the usual UK Wine Show format with Chris interviewing Philip Gregan and 3 growers from different parts of New Zealand.

Allan Johnson on Palliser Estate, Martinborough (30:22) — Palliser is making some fantastic wines including Pinot gris (mentioned above) and Pinot noir that are distributed in the United States.

Martinborough Vineyards with Paul Mason (34:12) — Really great insights about the terroir of the Martinborough region on the North Island and the style of Pinot noir grown here.

Steve Smith Craggy Range on Terroir (20:27) — Steve Smith is a Master of Wine and here he touches on a lot of the unique aspects of New Zealand terroir–including why not every area is suitable for Sauvignon blanc.

Dr John Forrest of Forrest Estate on Riesling (24:12) — While I haven’t had an opportunity yet to try a New Zealand Riesling, it’s clear that there are some special areas in New Zealand (like the Waitaki Valley in the Central Otago) for the grape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast Interviews with Ian D’Agata

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Fun Things I Learned/Enjoyed From This Podcast

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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