This is high-density, 100+ year nerello mascalese fruit from high altitude, ancient lava soil. A contrada is a specific lava path where magma once flowed from Mount Etna. Now cooled, several contradas leading out from the volcano have decomposed into rich, volcanic soil; these lava flows have found their way, and over time, nerello has found its way to evolve on their special soils.
Over the last few releases (2009-2012), winemaker Andrea Franchetti seems to be finding his own path, as he searches for the right way to let his wines speak. Once blended together in 2008 & previous Passopisciaro, he now releases separate bottlings from each contrada. This 'Contrada R' stands for 'Contrada Rampante,' a contrada that translates to 'prancing.'
Rampante. Was it named thusly because the lava pranced down the volcano? Or does prancing refer to the way the wine interacts with the palate? Certainly, the flavors have a dance to them. Better yet, perhaps Rampante is a foreshadowing of what the wine can inspire in its drinkers.
Passopisciaro 'Contrada R' 2010 (Sicily, Italy)
This is special stuff. Medium bodied wine, with complex aromas ranging from beef to flowers and everywhere in between. Perfect ripeness, expertly-handled tannins, delicious phenolics. But beyond hitting all the technical marks the wine is simply beautiful.
Located on the sandy soils of a bird estuary that juts out into the Atlantic ocean, Baos Quintas vineyards produce some interesting & affordable wines from Portugal. Their 'Herdade de Gambia' is a blend of 65% touriga nacional, 25% syrah, & 10% aragonez.
Normally famous for fortified Moscatel, the Setubal Peninsula is revealing some different wines that are expanding the image of the region. Located just a short drive south from Lisbon, this is a great value from Portugal.
Winemaker: Nuno Cancela de Abreu
Place: Setubal Peninsula, Portugal
Blend: 65% touriga nacional, 25% syrah, 10% aragonez
Boas Quintas 'Herdade de Gambia' 2012 (Peninsula de Setubal, Portugal)
a delicious, dark fruity wine with cherry skin aromas and a
phenolic, cravable ripeness.
The wines from Avennia are the result of winemaker Chris Peterson's craftsmanship. Chris worked for many years in Washington State at DeLille Cellars, and had inspirational moments with Rhone wines during his carer that made him want to focus on syrah and Rhone blends. Most of the vines he works with are ownrooted-- phylloxera hasn't been such a threat in Washington State.
The history of syrah in Washington State is not that long of a tale-- the first syrah vines went down in 1986 for David Lake at Columbia Winery. This 'Arnaut' syrah comes from two older plots in the Boushey vineyard, planted in 1994 and 1996.
This vineyard sits right in the middle of the Yakima Valley, and has interesting complex soils of loam and loess, deposited during the Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age.
Avennia 'Arnaut' Boushey Vineyard syrah 2011 (Yakima Valley, Washington State)
unmistakably syrah with aromas of meat, fresh herbs, and white pepper; rich and powerful on the palate, flavors of spicy braised meat, rich extraction, great acidity, and a sizzling mineral finish.
This is a blend of 19 barrels from Bodegas M. Sánchez Ayala, this manzanilla is the 6th edition from this particular solera (which also can be tasted in numbers 4,8,16,22,& 32).
Don't be afraid of the tartrates...
Sometimes a wine captures your fancy in such a unique way... This particular wine is one that entices you back and back again for another smell, another sip. Each time it is different, a paradox that is both subtle and powerful. Every time I pass this bottle in the cellar, I give it a quizzical, respectful look. It's the same look you'd give to Richard Feynman or Einstein if you were to pass them on the street-- a look of deference cloaked in confusion because you know how vitally important they are to the world, but you cannot quite comprehend the fine details of their particular contributions. It's the same with this wine: I don't understand it, but it is undoubtedly awe-inspiring.
Perhaps the mystery of this wine lies in the unique genetics of the grape variety: the país grape has an incredible history locked up its DNA. Originally from Spain in the Castilla-La Mancha area, then exported around the world in the 1500s, it found its way to Chile in the ships of Spanish conquistadores (Robinson et al 2012:550-552). It also ended up in the Canary Islands, California, and Mexico. The grape has many different synonyms, including listán prieto and mission. País was most likely the first Vitis vinifera variety to be cultivated in the Americas, and it helped many of the first colonists survive. The grape spread over vast tracts of land as priests and religious organizations planted vineyards for sacramental wine. In the uncertain landscape of sixteenth century America, these early vineyard planters wanted to work with a dependable variety that could make a wine that would not oxidize or otherwise go bad before the next harvest. País' high levels of resveratrol make it quite resistant to oxidation, and thus a perfect candidate for a wine that could be stored for long periods of time under colonial conditions (Brethaur 2012:5). It's a hearty grape, with potential for high yields and an innate resistance to drought-- thus an ideal variety for the dry farmed, high-altitude historic plots in the Maule Valley's subregion of Cauquenes.
Louis-Antoine Luyt, a Burgundian greatly influenced by the philosophies of his close friends in the Lapierre family, ended up in Chile on a brief visit to learn Spanish. He ended up staying, and a restaurant career exposed him to the local wine world. He became entranced by the tiny plots and small growers who mostly sold their fruit to larger companies (Dressner 2012). What if the special plots could be vinified alone? What could be learned about Chilean terroir? He went back to France to study winemaking, then returned to Chile to see what he could do with some of the more interesting plots he had encountered. Starting up a winemaking business wasn't easy; but Luyt is quite possibly as resilient as the país he so loves. In 2010, a great earthquake claimed 70% of his production, and yet he perseveres.
This 2011 is the second vintage of Luyt's país project. He bottles three separate plots by their parcel names: Pilen Alto, Trequilemu, and Quenehuao. The Quenehuao parcel is but one part of his país trilogy, and with a collection of the oldest rootstocks on the planet-- dating back some three centuries-- the vineyard is truly a wonder of the world. Who was the farmer that planted the cuttings here sometime around 1700? If only there were a historic register for these museum vineyards. Just a few other vineyards on our Earth can boast such age.
The grape: pa s
The parcel: Quenehuao
Age of original ungrafted rootstock: 300 years
Winemaker: Louis-Antoine Luyt
Elevage: 10 months in concrete
100% Uvahuasa 'El Pais de Quenehuao' 2011 (Chile)
aromas of pork sausages, dried means, and celery seed; a quite savory aroma. Perfectly ripe phenolics that make the acid blend right into the tannins and the entire wine is full but stealth. It sneaks up on you because not one part of it is screaming for attention. Intriguing to smell, and extremely pleasurable to drink.
Domaine aux Moines sits right on the banks of the Loire River, just a few miles southwest of Angers. Winemaking in Savennières dates back to at least 276 AD and gained a stronghold as monks propagated sacramental vines. When Savennières became an AC in 1952, two sub-appelations were granted as well: La Roche aux Moines and La Clos de la Coulée Serrant. The two small sub-appeliations sit right next to each other, and both produce extraordinary wines today.
In 1981, Monique Laroche began winemaking at Domaine aux Moines, and today she works with her daughter Tessa. The mother-daughter team works mostly with chenin blanc but has a small amount of cabernet franc. The chenin blanc is all hand harvested at low yields. Their harvest is a longer process-- a series of selections ('passes') of the vineyard that occur over several weeks. Fermented with indigenous yeasts, the wine then ages in a blend of tank and wood. This 1994 was farmed sustainably, but since 2009 they've been in conversion to organics (perhaps their neighbor Nicolas Joly has something to do with it)...
Domaine aux Moines 'Roche aux Moines' 1994 (Savennières, Loire, France)
This wine was lovely-- it was rich and just slightly off-dry, but barely noticeable because of the taught, balancing acidity. In addition to soft fruit characteristics, there are plenty of secondary aromas such as dried leaves, dried meats, and wet earth. I had this one with spicy seafood and it was delicious-- the earth aromas brought out all the umami flavors in the food, and the slight sweetness tempered the heat.
An excellent resource for Savennières (& the Loire in general) can be found here.
Renaissance Brewery in Marlborough, New Zealand, brews and bottles in one of the oldest buildings in Blenheim. Founded in 2005 by two California expats, and with a decade of track record behind them, owners Andy Deuchars and Brian Thiel have a growing brewery on their hands.
Their hops are home-grown, and their water comes from the mountain range that is the backbone of the South Island (the Southern Alps).
Renaissance 'Chocolate Oatmeal Stout' (Marlborough, New Zealand)
One of the most unique things about this beer was the texture. The bubbles didn't have a creamy foam like most stouts; instead, the bubbles were harder and they reminded me of the kind of bubbles that occur in root beer. The aromas were complex and powerful-- coffee was pretty strong, cacao came through more on the palate, and oatmeal contributed mostly to texture.
Domaine Gresser "Kritt" 2010 Pinot Blanc (Alsace, France)
Domaine Gresser is a small family winery, and Remy Gresser, the winemaker, recently switched to biodynamic farming. I'm always curious about what inspires such a high-committment switch, and when I asked him, he replied matter-of-factly, "I am the first consumer of my wine."
The imagery of the label background evokes the gravel soils of the Kritt site, and in a more imaginative way it evokes the schist soils that dominate the Andlau region of Alsace. Remy has had a bit of experience here, and probably learned a thing or two from his ancestors who have been tending vineyards in this region since 1520. A deeper interest in soil types has become an interesting trend in Alsace, with producers and consumers in the region creating a healthy dialogue about what is in the glass and what soils it comes from. Remy has been a big part of this conversation, as he has been quite active as president of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d'Alsace.
Domaine Gresser uses an innovative scale on the back label to help guide consumers that indicates the sweetness or dryness of the wine on a simple scale.
Similar scales have been picked up by a number of producers. It's similar to the IRF (International Riesling Foundation) sweetness scale.
These wines are incredible values. They are barrel matured which gives them a softer, elegant structure and ripe, drinkable acidity. The same structure also holds true for his gewurztraminer, which I have long used for a by-the-glass pour at several restaurants.
As I grow deeper and deeper into my sommelier career, I am continually amazed by wines from terra rossa soil. Call it an obsession if you must, but this soil-type has an unbelievable way of transmitting its raw flavors through to the palate. Wines from grapes grown on these iron-rich, bright red soils yield some of the densest, flavorful, and stunning wines the world has to offer. On a recent trip to Greece, I took a stroll through the lands, groves, and vineyards of Biblia Chora, and was delighted to feel my feet sink into the soil here. The remarkable terra rossa landscape that surrounds the Biblia Chora estate is the source of power in their wines.
Seas of wavy grasses lead the way to hillside vineyards, located at the foot of Mount Pageo. Jagged rocky outcroppings form a dramatic skyline in the distance, as spiders and garden snakes watch pensively as you invade their territory. The land seems to ooze a sense of mystery, as if it had a narrative of rich history to tell... if it only had the words.
And indeed there was a rich history here. Ancient documents trace winemaking back through the centuries and note a particular popular grape variety called Bibla Ambelos. Biblia Chora winery takes its name after this long-lost variety.
Two swaths of land that led from the winery to the mid-way up the mountain's foothills look a bit different, and in fact, they are scars from a recent mysterious fire. Blackened, flame-ravaged trees poked their branches out from new wild-flower growth. The trees are still in that delicate post-fire state where it isn't clear if they will continue to grow, or wither to dust.
Over a hundred vines were lost in the flames, but the main vineyards are-- thankfully-- just fine.
Just who is bold and tenacious enough to plant assyrtiko in this terrain? And to put in all the extra hours and manpower to farm it organically?
It takes teamwork. Vassilia Tsaksarlis and Vangelis Gerovassiliou first planted assyrtiko in 1998. Since 2003, assyrtiko has been an allowed grape variety in the Pangeon Area PGI.
Biblia Chora produces many wines in addition to assyrtiko, including agiorghitiko & cabernet sauvignon. But it was the assyrtiko that seemed to be stirring up conversation all over Greece.
Throughout Greece, I heard many people scoff that assyrtiko isn't suitable to northern vineyards because it cannot possibly compare to Santorini assyrtiko. And it's true that the root systems are babies compared to the 300-500 year old assyrtiko roots embedded in the Santorini pumice. But a side-by-side comparison is pointless-- like comparing the lifetime achievements of an 80 year old scholar to a talented and promising teenage student. Of course the young vines here haven't grown their roots so deep; of course they lack decades of track record; and certainly they have not had the chance to subtly adapt clones to the environment here. Of course they cannot produce fruit (yet) that can elicit the magical response of which the historic vines on Santorini are capable. These things take centuries, and more than one generation of capable stewards. The vines here are trained differently. They face different pests. The climate is different. The soils are drastically different. The vineyards here and the vineyards there produce completely different wines.
But despite their youth and the different struggles Nature tasks them with, the assyrtikos from Biblia Chora have their own sense of beauty. After tasting through about a decade of examples, it's impossible to deny that something special is happening here.
Here are a few tasting notes from a fascinating vertical tasting of Areti assyrtiko:
2004 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
mushrooms, dried cedar, an acid skeleton with little flesh left on the bones. Interesting, but at the end of it's evolution.
2005 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
a soft light lemon aroma, zesty bright texture, an interesting fresh mushroom mid-palate taste
2006 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
aromas of seaweed and green leaves, a bit faded but in a nice way. soft & supple texture
2007 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
a really stellar example of aged assyrtiko from Northern Greece. Lemon nose with hints of developing mushroom, a round & rich texture
2008 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
that classic lemon-zest aroma, but with hints of subtle floral perfume, a pithy tartness on the palate with a soft, pleasant acidity. quite elegant and stately
2009 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
aromas of lemon and peaches with just a hint of smokiness, a flavor like juicy meyer lemon juice
2010 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
aromas of peach pit and a rich, lemon zest flavor. a clean zingy finish
2011 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
talcum and butter-lemon-poundcake aromas, a soft, pure richness, an acidity that is almost chewy, like lemon candies
2012 Biblia Chora 'Areti' assyrtiko
*the first year that they began barrel fermenting 15% of the wine. the previous years are all steel.
*every Areti is aged 4 months on the lees
smokey, herbaceous aromas, hints of oak. medium bodied, very intense with a rich mid-palate
Tsaksarlis and Gerovassiliou also make a white blend called 'Ovilos' that blends 50% semillon with 50% assyrtiko with lovely results, mimicking the dialog between semillon and high-acid sauvignon blanc that you can find in great white Bordeaux.
It's pretty exciting to see what these two are culling from assyrtiko in the North.