Tag Archives: Syrah

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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60 Second Wine Review — Pedroncelli Sonoma Classico

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Pedroncelli Sonoma Classico Red Blend from the Dry Creek Valley. Note: This wine was received as a sample.

Pedroncelli Sonoma Classico

The Geekery

John Pedroncelli, Sr. started Pedroncelli Vineyards during the height of Prohibition, purchasing land in the Dry Creek Valley in 1927. He survived those years by selling grapes to home winemakers until he could legally produce wine in the 1930s.

Today, the winery remains family-owned with now the fourth generation joining the team. Many of the prominent stakeholders of Pedroncelli are women. This includes winemaker Montse Reece who joined the winery in 2007 after working at Gloria Ferrer, Rodney Strong and Ferrari-Carano.

The Sonoma Classico is a proprietary blend of Merlot, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah and Syrah sourced from throughout the Dry Creek Valley.

The Wine

Photo By VoDeTan2 - Own work, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

A gorgeous mix of spices characterizes this wine.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Mix of red and dark fruit with blackberries and red currant. Lots of spice on the nose that ranges from pepper to coriander to star anise.

On the palate, the rich dark fruits carry through the most, giving the wine medium-plus bodied weight. Medium-plus acidity accentuates the spice but also brings out a savory black olive note that reminds me of old world Syrahs. The ripe medium tannins have a slight edge that adds structure. Moderate finish lingers on the spice.

The Verdict

There were several bottles in the Pedroncelli sampler set that impressed me including their 2017 Russian River Pinot noir and 2016 Mother Clone Zinfandel. But at $18-20, the Sonoma Classico struck me as the most criminally underpriced of them all.

This wine is loaded with character and could easily be priced in the $25-30 range without anyone blinking an eye. While exquisitely food friendly, the balance of rich fruit and tangy spice also plays well as a treat to enjoy on its own.

Smart sommeliers will certainly snatch this bottle for their wine lists. If you see it at a restaurant, it will be one of the best buys on the list and worth getting.

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The Farmers Market Conundrum

This College Humor skit (2:37) about farmers markets perfectly sums up some of the struggles that small family wineries have in competing against supermarket brands.

Yes, everybody loves the idea of shopping local and buying wines from small family wineries. But, gosh darn it, why does it have to be so hard?

Why do I have to actually go to a winery or a small wine shop to find their product instead of picking it up with my toilet paper at Costco?

Why do they charge $25-35 for their few hundred case lot Pinot noir when you can get one of the 6 million-plus bottles of Meiomi made every year for $15-20?

How come these wineries don’t just sell to Olive Garden where they can pour me a sample at my table?

It’s a hard truth that the best of intentions often hit a wall when they run up against convenience and price.

Photo by Sarbjit Bahga. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0

Rain or shine, farmers tend to their produce and sell their wares.
Similarly, wine growers are in their vines come rain or shine doing their best to craft a product worth putting their name on.

Wine consumers may love the idea of shopping small but, just like the folks in the farmers market parody, they often end up eating fat, greasy McDonald’s instead.

The Supermarket (brands) advantage

As with supermarket produce, the big mass-produced brands take advantage of their near-monopoly of distribution channels. You don’t have to search the big brands out. They’re readily available not only at the grocery stores but at Costco, big-box retailers, chain-restaurant wine lists and even gas stations.

Like McDonald’s, you see them everywhere with that omnipresence giving a halo effect of reliability and consistency. I mean, these wines wouldn’t be everywhere if they weren’t good, right?

Small wineries will never have this type of visibility or convenience at their disposal. With the massive consolidation of distributors, many wineries are finding retail channels choked off. Even those that do squeeze themselves into a distributor’s book, often find their wines gathering dust in a warehouse as sales reps focus on their most prominent portfolios.

To find these small brands, consumers usually have to visit the winery (or their website) directly or shop at wine shops with curated wine selections. This requires “work” on the consumer’s part which is, unfortunately, an inherent disadvantage.

The $5 Onion versus the $5 Bottle.

Photo by Jim Heaphy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

The original Charles Shaw actually set out to make high quality, hand-crafted wine but ended up going bankrupt.
That allowed Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine Co. to scoop up his label on the cheap.

Another advantage of the big brands is that their mass-production gives them an economy of scale. When you’re sourcing from thousands of acres and cranking out millions of cases at industrial warehouse-sized wineries, you can make a $5 bottle of wine–or even a $2.49 one.

The mom and pop wineries who are hand harvesting their grapes from a few acres, fermenting them in small lots with family members handling the bottling and packing line could never come close to that scale.

The price of their wines is going to reflect the smaller-scale production value of their labor. So, yeah, they’re going to be more expensive than a whole bag of onions at the supermarket.

Can you taste the difference?

Perhaps. Sometimes the difference is dramatic like comparing farm-fresh eggs to the factory produced supermarket eggs. But other times noticing the differences only comes after you’ve been exposed to them repeatedly.

If all you regularly consume are conventionally-grown leafy greens, then you might not notice at first the big difference between those and the organic greens from the farmers market.

But spend some time eating those locally sourced, fresh greens. Then go back to the cheaper supermarket stuff. The drop in quality becomes quite apparent.

Photo by Autumn Mott autumnmott. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Seriously, fresh eggs are AMAZING. They will rock your world like a Syrah from the Rocks Districts of Walla Walla.
Try comparing that to a YellowTail Shiraz and the difference is night and day.

Likewise, if you regularly consume mass-produced supermarket wine, your palate becomes used to the sneaky sweetness of residual sugar and mega-purple or the artificially lowered acid and added oak chips. Comparing that to a small production wine made without those tricks and manipulation may provide a stark contrast at first. But it may not.

However, if these small production wines were your go-to wines, the difference would be way more noticeable when compared to the supermarket stuff.

It’s “kinda” not that bad, though.

Shopping small is hard. There is always going to be access issues and a cost difference compared to the mass-produced brands.

The joke of the College Humor skit is that people only “kinda” support farmers market when it’s easy and convenient. But you know what? “Kinda” is better than nothing.

Even an “only when it’s easy” commitment to shop small makes a difference–in many different ways.

The competition of farmers market and people being more concerned about where their food is coming from has increased the overall quality of choices at supermarkets. Successful retailers know that they can’t wholly skate by on just convenience and pricing.

And while I use the term “supermarket wine” as a catch-all for big, mass-produced brands, there are a lot of supermarkets that have upped their game–carving out a little bit of shelf-space for wines from smaller family producers.

The Moral of the Story

My best advice to consumers who want to keep their heart in the right place is to keep doing what you can. When you are at a restaurant and notice unfamiliar names on the wine list, give them a try–even if they may be a couple of dollars more than your regular choice.

I can guarantee you that the sweat, tears and passion that went into that small production wine was more than a couple of dollars worth to the family that put their heart into making it.

19 crimes

Though sometimes you should be skeptical of the “real people” behind the wine too. Especially if they’re long dead and are talking to you as part of a marketing gimmick.

If you’re at a wine shop or even a grocery store that has a wine steward, ask them about what new wines have come in and if they know the backstory of who produced it. While the big, mega-corps come up with new labels and brands virtually every week, they rarely have a backstory or real people behind them. They’re usually just fancy, colorful labels with gimmicky promotions.

A good steward will know if a wine has real people behind it.

And if they don’t, you asking questions will encourage them to learn more and improve their selection.

When you get a chance to visit the “farmers market” of wine country, skip the tourist trap locations and seek out the small family wineries along your way. You’ll be amazed at the hospitality and behind the scenes insights that you can get when its the owner, winemaker or another family member on the other side of the tasting bar.

Anything you can do, when you can do it, helps in the grand scheme of things. Even if it’s only “kinda,” small family wineries will take all the support they can get.

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60 Second Wine Review — Ergo Sum Shiraz

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Ergo Sum Shiraz from Victoria, Australia.

The Geekery

Ergo Sum Shiraz

Ergo Sum was a collaboration project between Michel Chapoutier and Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda.  The first vintage of this single-vineyard Shiraz from the Victorian Alps was released in 2008.

This was one of several projects that Chapoutier has been involved in. In addition to his own eponymous Rhône wines, Chapoutier collaborates with his longtime assistant Pierre-Henri Morel to make PH Morel.

He also has two projects in Roussillon, Domaine de Bila-Haut and Agly Brothers–the later a collaboration with the Laughton family of Jasper Hill. Chapoutier became acquainted with the Laughtons in the late 1990s when he first visited Australia.

With Ron Laughton, he planted a vineyard near Jasper Hill to produce La Pléiade (Cluster M45). Chapoutier also started Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier in Australia with his longtime importer and founded Domaine Tournon in the Victorian Pyrenees.

2012 was the last vintage of Ergo Sum with Chapoutier and Kinzbrunner. Peter Graham, Kinzbrunner’s assistant winemaker, took over the label as part of his Domenica Wines brand.

The wine was aged 18 months in 30% new French oak barrels with around 300 cases produced.

The Wine

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

Lots of smokiness in this wine but its more distracting than anything.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very smokey with herbal rosemary and black pepper. Underneath is dark fruit but it’s not very defined.

On the palate, the smoke comes through but has almost a char-y character that is a little distracting. Medium-plus acidity defines the dark fruit as black plum and blackberry with a juicy edge to balance the wine’s full-body. Medium-plus tannins are ripe. Moderate finish brings back the pepper but lingers on the smoke.

The Verdict

This wine tastes like it’s in an awkward spot at the moment. There are some hints of character and it has a solid structure. But the pieces just aren’t coming together.

At $55-65, it has the potential to live up to its price point but right now it is fairly underwhelming.

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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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60 Second Wine Review — Carlisle Bedrock Mourvèdre

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Carlisle Mourvèdre from Bedrock Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley.

The Geekery
Carlisle Bedrock Mourvedre

Mike Officer started Carlisle in 1998 with his wife, Kendall, after years of home-winemaking. Quickly growing to over 1000 cases, they hired Jay Maddox to assist as winemaker.

Specializing in old vine and field blend vineyards, Officer helped establish the Historic Vineyard Society with Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock, Tegan Passalacqua of Turley, David Gates of Ridge Vineyards and Robert Biale.

The Bedrock Vineyard was initially planted just before the Civil War in 1854 by future generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Joe Hooker. But those vines were lost to phylloxera in the 1880s with Senator George Hearst, the father William Randolph Hearst, replanting the site in 1888.

The blocks of 1888 Mourvèdre used by Carlisle and Bedrock Wine Co. for their Ode to Lulu Rosé are some of the oldest plantings of the variety in California.

The 2016 vintage is a blend of 96% Mourvèdre and 4% Syrah with the wine aged in 25% new French oak barrels. Only 109 cases were produced.

The Wine

Photo by Nick Sarro nicksarr1. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

The juicy blackberries pair well with the savory notes in this wine.

High-intensity nose. Lots of dark fruit–blackberries and cherries–with a subtle smokey quality. Like someone tossed them in a roasting pan on a grill. Black pepper and star anise spice as well.

On the palate, the full-bodied weight of the fruit carries through. The medium-plus acidity amplifies the juiciness of the fruit and accentuates the savory smokey flavors. It also brings out some herbal notes like thyme and bay leaf. The medium-plus tannins are very ripe and mouth-filling. Long finish lingers on smoke and spice.

The Verdict

I bought this from the Carlisle mailing list at $38 and am kicking myself for not buying more. It could be in the $50-60 range and would still be a steal.

This is an immensely complex and delicious wine that is in a great spot now. But it’s only going to get better as more tertiary flavors develop. Should have bought more.

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Geek Notes — New Wine Books For February

January and February are the doldrums of winter. They don’t feature the festivities of December–only snow, freezing cold and dark gray days. It just plain sucks. But eventually March and spring will be on the horizon.

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

One of the trademark clues of Gruner Veltliner in a blind tasting is the presence of white pepper. This comes from the compound rotundone that forms naturally in the grapes.

While we’re popping vitamin D supplements and counting down the days till pitchers and catchers report, let’s take a look at a few new and upcoming wine books.

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, Third Edition by Neel Burton (Paperback release February 3rd, 2019)

I own the original 2014 edition of Burton’s book that he did with James Flewellen. It is handy but, in all honesty, I’m not sure it’s correctly named.

What I had initially hoped for was a book that would teach you some of the tips and tricks to blind tasting. Like for instance, if you detect black or white pepper in a wine, you should know that is caused by the compound rotundone.

There are only a handful of grape varieties that contain this compound–most notably Syrah, Grüner Veltliner, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah and Schioppettino. Detecting this during a blind tasting flight is a huge clue. Furthermore, anecdotal and some scientific analysis has shown that cooler climates and vintages increase the concentration of rotundone and “pepperiness” of the wine. This can be another clue in nailing down wine region and vintage.

That was the kind of insight and details that I was hoping for with Burton and Flewellen’s book. You get a little but not quite to the extent I was looking for in a book marketing itself as a blind tasting guide. Instead, The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting tilts more to the “Guide to Wine” side offering a (very well done) overview of the major regions and wines of the world.

Chapter 4 does walk you through the blind tasting process and the Appendix gives a “crib sheet” of common flavors and structure which is very useful. But that’s about it.

However, I’m still buying this new edition
blind tasting crib sheets from Burton's book

Example of the blind tasting “crib sheets” in the appendix of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

That’s because it’s an excellent guide to wine that is similar to Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste: A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe. Burton’s book doesn’t list benchmark producers like Parr’s book does but they both highlight the distinction of terroir that shows up in the wines from various regions. They’re a bit like condensed versions (362 and 352 pages, respectively) of Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible (1008 pages) with a bit more focus on the taste profiles and terroir of each region.

I’ve gotten plenty of good use out of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting to make the new version a worthwhile investment. Plus, it is possible that this updated version will go more into those blind tasting details that I crave.

The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion by Janet Z. Wang (Hardcover released on January 24th, 2019)

Back in November, I highlighted Loren Mayshark’s Inside the Chinese Wine Industry which has been a great read. As I noted in that edition of Geek Notes, China is a significant player on the global wine market. While the interest of the industry has been mostly on their buying power, the large size and diverse terroir of mainland China offer exciting potential for production.

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

A bronze Gu, or ceremonial wine vessel, from the Shang Dynasty dating to the 12th or 11th century.

It is in the best interest of any wine student to start exploring Chinese wine. I recently got geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz and can’t wait to find more examples. In addition to Mayshark’s book, Suzanne Mustacich’s Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines has been highly informative as well.

But both of those were written by non-native writers. That is what make’s Janet Z. Wang’s Chinese Wine Renaissance intriguing. Wang spent her childhood in China before moving to the United Kingdom as a teenager. There she studied Chinese history and culture before developing an interest in wine while at Cambridge.

Now she runs her blog, Winepeek, and contributes to Decanter China. In between her writings, she teaches masterclasses on Chinese wine.

On her blog, she has a slideshow with wine tasting suggestions that gives a sneak peek into what her book covers. With a foreword and endorsement from Oz Clarke, I have a feeling that Wang’s book is going to become the benchmark reference for Chinese wine.

Decoding Spanish Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to the High Value, World Class Wines of Spain by Andrew Cullen and Ryan McNally (Paperback released on January 24th, 2019)

Kirkland brand Champagne

Now granted, Costco doesn’t sell many Cremants. This might explain why the Costco Wine Blog folks were so blown away by this $20 Champagne. But compared to many Cremant de Bourgogne and Alsace in the $15-20 range, it was fairly ho-hum.

Andrew Cullen is the founder of CostcoWineBlog.com that has been reviewing wines found at Costco stores for years. While I don’t always agree with their reviews (like my contrarian take on the Kirkland Champagne) I still find the site to be an enjoyable read.

Beyond the blog, Cullen has co-authored quick (around 100 pages or so) beginner wine guides to French, Italian and now Spanish wines. He also wrote the even quicker read Around the Wine World in 40 Pages: An Exploration Guide for the Beginning Wine Enthusiast.

While these books aren’t going to be helpful for Diploma students, they are great resources for folks taking WSET Level 1 and Level 2 as well as Certified Specialist of Wine exams. I particularly liked how Decoding Italian Wine went beyond just the big name Italian wine regions such as Chianti, Brunello and Barolo to get into under-the-radar areas like Carmignano, Gavi and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Plus for $9-10, the books are super cheap as well.

French Wines and Vineyards: And the Way to Find Them (Classic Reprint) by Cyrus Redding (Hardcover released on January 18th, 2019)

This is for my fellow hardcore geeks.

I am a sucker for reprints of classical texts. I especially adore ones featured in the bibliographies of seemingly every great wine history book. Such is the esteem that the British journalist Cyrus Redding holds among Masters of Wines like Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Clive Coates.

Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890, page 110 Artwork by Edward Linley Sambourne (January 4, 1844–August 3, 1910). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

Redding passed in 1870 so he didn’t get a chance to witness the full scale of devastation on French vineyards caused by phylloxera.
This cartoon is from an 1890 magazine that describes the pest as “A True Gourmet” that targetted the best vineyards.

First published in 1860, French Wines and Vineyards gives a snapshot of the French wine industry in the mid 19th-century. Written just after the 1855 Bordeaux classification and only a few years before phylloxera would make its appearance in the Languedoc in 1863, Redding documents a hugely influential time in the history of French wines.

Pairing this book with a reading of the 19th-century chapters in Hugh Johnson’s Vintage and Rod Phillips’ French Wine: A History would be a fabulous idea for wine students wanting to understand this key period.

One additional tip. Hardcover editions of classic texts look nice on the shelf. But if you’re a frequent annotator like me then you probably want to go paperback. Forgotten Books released a paperback version of Redding’s work back in 2017 that you can get a new copy of for less than $12 right now.

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Getting Geeky with Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

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

The Background

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

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

The Vineyard

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

The Yellow River Basin with provinces noted.

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

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

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

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

A Family-Owned Winery and a Growing Reputation

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

The exterior of the Grace Vineyard estate.

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

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

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

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

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

The Winemaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tasya’s Reserve Shiraz

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

Syrah grapes growing in the central coast region of California.

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

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

The Wine

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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60 Second Wine Review — Chante Cigale Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape

A few quick thoughts on the 2010 Domaine Chante Cigale Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The Geekery

Chante cigale CDP wine

The Favier family tends the 40 ha (100 acres) of Domaine Chante Cigale in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The estate was founded in 1874 by the Faviers’ ancestor, Hyppolite Jourdan.

Alexandre Favier, grandson of Noël Sobon and part of the notable Sobon clan, has been in charge of his family domaine since he was 20 years old. Harry Karis notes in The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book that Noël (Roger’s brother) ran the domaine from 1950 to 1975 when he was then succeeded by Alexandre’s father.

On the label, cicadas feature prominently in the crest and pay homage to the French translation of Chante Cigale, singing cicadas.

The domaine’s best parcels include Grenache plantings next to Chateau Rayas as well as old vine plantings in Bois Dauphin, Pignan, Les Pialons and Cabrieres.

The 2010 vintage is a blend of 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. Parcels for the Vieilles Vignes comes from vines with a minimum age of 80 years up to 100+ years. After fermentation, Favier then aged the wine in a combination of 30% oak barrels (mix of new and neutral), 30% concrete tank and 40% foudre.

Yearly, Chante Cigale produces only around 20,000 bottles with the Vielle Vignes accounting for about 500 cases.

The Wine

Photo by MarkSweep. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Roasted coffee beans compliment the savory bacon notes of this wine.

High-intensity nose–roasted coffee beans with some smokey bacon fat.  Very mouthwatering aromatics. Blackberries and pepper spice round out the bouquet.

On the palate, the roasted coffee notes come through with a little chocolatey espresso flavor of oak. Medium-plus acidity amplifies the full-bodied dark fruit, adding black currants and cherries. Medium-plus tannins have a firm grip with a chalky texture. Long finish ends on the spice and mouthwatering bacon notes.

The Verdict

This is an incredibly elegant and complex Châteauneuf that more than merits its $80-100 price tag. A bottle worth savoring.

The wine is in a good spot now with its mix of fruit and savory notes. However,  it certainly has the structure to continue aging beautifully.

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What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?

I have a confession to make. While I’m no longer in the retail game, I spent over 7 years in it working as a grocery store wine steward and an associate at a major wine retailer. In that time working the floor and talking to thousands upon thousands of customers, I never once had a customer ask me for a wine they saw reviewed on a blog.

Photo by Jami (Wiki Ed). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Not once.

Oh I’ve had numerous people come in with Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list or a copy of award winners from local competitions like the Seattle Wine Awards. Local newspaper and magazine articles such as Andy Perdue’s Top Wines Under $30 and Sean Sullivan’s 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington also brought people in hunting.

But never once did I have a customer show me their phone with a wine review from a blog. Or an Instagram pic. Or a Twitter wine chat recommendation.

Never.

I share this confession because as I settle into full-time writing, I’m wondering “What is the point in doing wine reviews?”

Do Consumers Care?

Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, recently asked if we’ve “reached the end of wine criticism?” . He highlights a 2013 Laithwaites Wines Survey that shows only 9% of wine drinkers actively used wine reviews to make a decision. In fact, rather than being helpful, the majority of the 1000 wine drinkers surveyed found reviews to be of little use.

Becca Yeamans-Irwin (The Academic Wino) created a chart showing the results of the Laithwaites’ survey for Wine Industry Insight.

Wine Industry Insight Chart on how helpful reviews are

Chart made by Becca Yeamans-Irwin for Wine Industry Insight. Published 10/26/2018

When I step back and think about how I approach reviews as a consumer, I realize that I hardly use reviews at all.

Context or Empty Text?

It’s not that I don’t read reviews. I’m reading wine stuff all the time and pay for subscriptions to Decanter, JebDunnuck.com, Vinous Media, Burghound, Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages and others.

But I’m not reading any of those for reviews. If anything, these sites are like porn mags where I am actually just reading them for the articles.

When an article includes tasting notes with descriptors about bouquet, body, fruit, etc, my eyes gloss over them. Instead, I’m looking through the review for something unique or interesting about the wine–something about its story that is worth my attention.

When I was selecting sample reviews for my 2017 Bordeaux Futures posts, the ones I picked had added details about the vintage or chateaux such as if they had frost damage or how this wine compares to the style of years past, etc. While I often found the notes of critics like James Suckling to be virtually useless, other writers like Jane Anson of Decanter gave me the context I craved.

I also regularly read numerous bloggers who do wine reviews such as Jeff Leve’s The Wine Cellar Insider, Dwight Furrow’s Edible Arts, Dave Nershi’s Vino-Sphere, Tom Lee’s Zinfandel Chronicles and Robin Renken’s Crushed Grape Chronicles.

The writers and bloggers that give me context, I follow. The ones that just spew out tasting notes and numbers, I don’t even give a second thought to.

Here’s an example of a wine blogger I follow.

https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2018/10/16/wine-review-bonny-doon-syrah-bien-nacido-x-block-santa-maria-valley-2009/

While I was familiar with the Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, I didn’t know that it was the first cool-climate US vineyard to plant Syrah. This great tidbit adds context to Dwight Furrow’s review of the Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido X-Block.

Even if Furrow didn’t like the Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Syrah, those added details about the wine intrigues me enough to want to try it.

It wasn’t his description of the wine, the “rich, smoked meat with mint highlights” or “luscious, peppery burst of fresh fruit”, that ultimately influenced me. Nor was it his 92 point score. There are many wines that have savory, meaty flavors and pepper notes. Likewise, the cliche “a dime a dozen” doesn’t even come close to expressing how many “92 point wines” there are out in the world.

But the story he shared about the wine–the uniqueness of the Bien Nacido vineyard and the framing of this as a “treasure of the past” that can be used to view Grahm’s new projects–gave me a reason to want to try this wine above all the other savory, meaty and peppery 92 pointers out there.

Why Do I Review Wines?

Being a blogger myself, these sentiments might be a bit of “biting the hand that feeds me”. I mean, shouldn’t I be banging the drum for more people to pay attention to wine reviews? I do, after all, even have a samples policy. Come on! Get with the program LeBeau!

But though I’ve been actively blogging for over a year, it’s hard for me to disengage from the mentality of a consumer and reader of blogs. Nor can I discount my experiences working in the industry. It is those experiences, and dealing with other consumers, that have made me hugely skeptical of the entire concept of “wine influencer”.

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

Lord knows that there are A LOT of stories that can be told about Randall Grahm and his wines.

However, I do think that wine writers have influence. But, as I mentioned with my example of Furrow’s review, it’s not in their tasting notes or numbers.

I might not walk into a wine shop with Furrow’s review on my phone, but the story of Bonny Doon’s Bien Nacido Syrah will resonate in my mind when I see the label or name on a wine list.

Even though I won’t remember the details of his tasting note at all, I will remember the story and context that Furrow shared about the wine.

THAT is the true influence of a wine writer.

These experiences are what shape my own 60 Second Reviews and how I expect readers to approach them.

To be brutally honest, folks could stop reading them after the Geekery section and make them 30 second reviews.

It’s that first section where I strive to give you something that either intrigues you about the wine or gives you a reason to think about it differently.

The tasting note that follows is mostly for my own edification. It’s there to force me to pay attention to what I’m tasting versus just drinking it. A lot of the language I use in those notes (like medium-plus acidity, firm tannins, etc) is language that I need to use for my blind tasting examinations. It’s not the same language that you are going to use when tasting the wine and my note is likely going to be quite different from yours in other ways as well. Wine is subjective and intensely personal.

Rating With My Wallet

The Verdict section, as I mentioned in my post Why I Don’t Use Scores, is my reconciliation of how I feel about the wine with what I paid for it.

I don’t expect to ever get many samples sent to me–and really, after the “hand biting” of this post, why would a PR firm want to? So the vast majority of wines I review will continue to be things that I bought with my own money from shops, wineries and restaurants.

Some things I’m going to feel really good about buying. Other wines are going to feel like I way overpaid for them. I’ll share that frank assessment because you’re likely not going to be getting samples sent to you either.

With every wine, it’s going to be your wallet and your taste buds that determine if it’s worth it. Not a tasting note, not a wine review and certainly not a numerical score.

That is why I don’t want to waste your time with empty text.

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