On the Trail

Lanson Serves Up Aces at our Hollywood Tasting Bar on Thursday

champagne, hollywoodKate Soto

Lanson might not be the biggest brand out there in Champagne, but they’re not trying to be, especially in the U.S. Though they’re one of the oldest Champagne houses in existence (founded in 1760), and they’ve been purveyors to the British Royal Court since Queen Victoria, they’re newly back on the U.S. market after a very long hiatus. And this fact, according to owner Enguerrand Baijot, has allowed them to enter the U.S. on their own terms, working face to face with independent retailers and distributors who are passionate about Champagne. So, you won’t find them on the shelves of chain stores, and that’s just how they like it. They consider themselves an alternative to the huge brands, “in terms of taste, style, profile, and price,” according to Baijot.

This careful, attention-to-detail approach is evident in their wine. Their characteristic crisp, fresh, clean style is achieved by blocking malolactic fermentation—a part of the winemaking process that converts tart acids to creamier acids and imparts a certain roundness in texture. These are sleek, linear sparklers—and have been since the beginning of the company. The wines are also Pinot Noir-driven, aged much longer than the minimum requirement, and comprise 50-60 percent premier and grand cru wines, even in their nonvintage labels. They say you can judge the quality of a Champagne house by its NV wines since it’s easier to make excellent vintage wines in excellent years than to make NV blends consistently outstanding each year. Baijot stands behind their NV Black Label and encourages newcomers to start there to get a sense of house style.

You may also start with their NV Brut rosé, as it’s the same initial blend as the Black Label, with a bit of red wine added for color and depth. It has more of a medium body but holds on tightly to that refreshing characteristic. Says Baijot: “Southern California is sunny all year long. There’s a magical thing that happens with sunshine—people think rosé. Rosé has tremendous food pairing possibilities especially with shellfish and sushi.” It’s a by-the-glass pour in all of the Nobu restaurants, so he recommends heading to Malibu and pairing the Lanson rosé with the awesome view.

For a different direction, there’s their NV White Label Sec. It’s drier than a demi-sec wine (and more rare), but sweeter than a brut. The extra soupçon of residual sugar provides a rounder, softer texture. Instead of the green apple notes you get in the Black Label, you’ll find baking spices, pastry, cinnamon, and honey notes. Baijot recommends pairing it with with spicy food such as Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai. Or try it with a soft cheese and foie gras instead of Sauternes. It’d be great with a summery dessert, and, since it’s not that sweet, it’d be a lovely counterpoint, especially on a hot day.

Though newer to U.S. drinkers, Lanson has been beloved by the British for a long time, thanks to their long-standing place at the Royal Palace. They have also been proudly (and exclusively) sponsoring Wimbledon since 1971. Baijot broke it down for this sports neophyte: “Wimbledon is magical. It’s the most magical tennis grand slam in the world, I’ve been to the U.S. Open and the French Open. But at Wimbledon, time has stopped. Everyone is so elegant, the players all wearing plain whites. You may even see the Queen in the royal box. It’s the kind of place that was probably just the same 100 years ago. And everyone drinks Champagne—only Lanson. It’s the only tournament in the world where you are allowed to drink courtside. Wimbledon is all about authenticity, tradition. And we are not a shiny, modern brand. We are all about taste, tradition, what’s inside the bottle. That dedication to quality and truth really appeals to Wimbledon and the people behind it. That’s the reason we’ve been together so long.”

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That sounds expensive, right? It could be, but to Baijot it is important that Champagne is an affordable luxury, so you can grab several of their bottlings for about $35 at K&L. His motto is “everyone should be able to get a bottle of Champagne whenever you want, not just special occasions.” He says, “Champagne is a perfect palate cleanser and prepares you for food, puts you in the right mindset. Start any meal with Champagne—lunch, brunch, dinner—and your experience is better… Enjoy a bit of water, a lot of Champagne!”

In 2011, Baijot moved to the U.S. so that he could hand-curate where he placed Lanson. He says: “I love it here! I love the challenge. It’s definitely a challenge. No one was waiting for us, we came back at a difficult time. We didn’t have the big money for marketing of other brands, but we are meeting people face to face and creating a good network of partners who believe in us. We are boutique, family owned, we don’t do business with chains in the U.S.—just with the independent retailers, with retailers who appreciate that behind every label there’s a story. We are very proud of our dedication to quality and making Champagne the same way since 1760. Always family owned, always been made the same way. We’re excited to be back on the shelf at K&L.”

Stay tuned for an upcoming collaboration between Lanson and K&L in the fall, when we’ll be launching a Clos Lanson bottling made exclusively made for K&L customers. Until then, join us in Hollywood as we pour through the Lanson lineup, including their 2002 Gold Label, on Thursday, June 21, 5:30 to 7PM. $5 in our tasting bar. There may be some Wimbledon swag if you play your cards right.

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- Kate Soto

On the Trail of Becoming a Winemaker: K&L Alumna Olivia Ragni Talks Oenology Student Life

Kate Soto

There are some people who are lifers at K&L. It’s a great place to work! For others, it’s the launching point for the next phase, be it wine selling, wine growing, or wine making. We have one recent alumna, Olivia Ragni, who got bitten so hard by the wine bug that she left K&L to start a masters in oenology program in Montpellier. I think that people make the wine industry as fascinating as the juice itself, so I wanted to hear her story. She and I caught up to talk about the student-of-wine life (the formal student, that is—any lover of wine has the good fortune of being a perpetual student). It’s exciting to hear what’s going on at the ground level of the next generation of winemakers.

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KS: How did you get interested in wine in the first place?
OR: I kind of fell into the industry unexpectedly at a very young age and became enamored with it almost immediately. I got hired at a wine, beer, and cheese bar in Philadelphia when I was 19 years old called Tria Cafe. I almost didn't take the job because it required me to attend classes and pass exams about wine, beer, and cheese; having been in my third year of university, I wasn't exactly interested in attending any more classes then I had to. But it doesn't take long to convince a 19-year-old to take a job at an establishment that teaches you about drinking alcohol, so I gave it a go and ended up falling head over heels with it all.

At our weekly training, we would learn about different wine regions and I was always in awe of how you could learn about a country's history, culture, and cuisine through wine. At every tasting, I felt like I was traveling somewhere new with each smell and sip of wine. This will come as no surprise to the people who know me, but the moment I knew I wanted to turn wine into my career was when I attended my first sherry tasting. Our sommelier gave us four different dry sherries and I was blown away by the distinct differences coming from the terroir of the different bodegas.

KS: Can you tell me about the program you're doing?
OR: Currently, I am finishing up my first year of the Vinifera Master program at Montpellier SupAgro, where I am getting my Masters in Viticulture and Oenology. I never imagined I would get my masters, let alone get my masters in science, so it has been a challenging experience but never the less incredible. It is an international program with 35 students from about 22 different countries, so it has been eye-opening to learn about winemaking all over the world, from Brazil to Thailand.

KS: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far?
OR:
The production side of wine is a whole new world of personalities. I would have never imaged how different the two sides of the industry are, but, at the end of the day, it is an industry filled with amazing people. The one common factor that holds the two worlds together is that they are both filled with professional drinkers. I mean: hard workers who love wine so much that they decided to make it their career. People who don't take themselves too seriously, yet love their jobs and equally love to let loose and share stories over a few bottles of wine on a regular basis.  

One thing I love about my program is that we are just about 50 percent women. Women are beginning to dominate a previously male-dominated industry, and I love being surrounded by so much female intelligence. There is still a lot of work to do to make the industry equal, but programs like this will help begin to level the playing field. I think knowledge and education for women is power. I’ve dealt with a lot of sexism working in the wine industry, and knowing my shit typically stopped sexism in its tracks.

KS: Is it harder or easier than you’d imagined?
OR: Way harder, for sure. I knew it would be challenging but I had no idea what I was in for. The number one thing I've learned is that I know nothing. What I have always loved about the wine industry is that you are constantly learning something new. Switching from sales to production, however, you have to flip your perspective completely. You look at things from angles you never knew existed. At first, it was a bit disenchanting. Everything romantic that I had learned and loved about the wine industry—all of these notions of sense of place, terroir, tradition, etc.—seemed to be shattered by understanding the science behind wine. That is, until I realized these ideas were not actually getting shattered, but rather just turned around and looked at from another perspective. For example, the notion of terroir exists, just not in the charming way we learn about it in sales. It is the structure and make-up of the soil that affects factors like water retention and nutrient uptake, which influences the vine—it’s not the soil itself directly influencing the wine. Looking at these ideas from a different angle, it made them romantic to me again. It's like all the bullshit has been torn away to see the raw beauty inside. I think before, I was in lust with the facade, but now I am falling in love with the truth.

After visiting many wineries and tasting a lot of wine this year, I realize knowledge is power in terms of being able to make good wine, but passion is key to making great wines. The best wines I've tried this year were made by intelligent winemakers and viticulturalists who understand the fundamental science, but who are passionate about the industry. Some companies try to make wine with a recipe, without heart and without passion, which translates into the glass.  

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KS: What’s next?
OR: I've only just figured out where I'm living for the summer so I'm not thinking too far into the future. But I will be working on a vineyard in Menorca, Spain, this summer. It is an up-and-coming wine region in Spain with very distinct terroir and climate conditions, so I think that will be interesting. Later, I will finish my last year of the masters in Madrid and then hopefully travel and work A LOT of harvests in both hemispheres. At this point, I have a lot of theoretical knowledge that I need to put into practice, so actually making wine is a very long ways away. I love being in the vineyards and understanding how the vine functions and how its environment affects the fruit. My hopes are to become a viticulturalist, but this is just what I think today, who knows what I'll think tomorrow. Like everyone who enters the industry, the dream is to own my own vineyards and make my own wine. I hope one day I can make wine with knowledge, but always from the heart and surrounded by intelligent, kick-ass women of the industry.

- Kate Soto

A Bordeaux Legend in SF - Dinner with Jean-Michel Cazes

Ryan Moses

"Don't expect me to describe all the words and flavors...who ever eats pencil shavings?  What matters is balance, texture, elegance." - Jean-Michel Cazes

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I adore this quote from last night's event.  Not only does it contain a lost-in-translation gentle humor of a brilliant, sharp, 83 year-old icon, but it also seems to epitomize an ethic that I've heard on multiple occasions from Jean-Michel Cazes.  He isn't one for scores, flavors, or technicalities.  Sure, he has a few favorite overall vintages and plenty of stories to tell.  But when he addresses a wine, he speaks of specific bottles and does so in a way that seems almost elemental.  He is certainly a luminary and one of Bordeaux's most prominent figures over the past four decades.  For all this and more, we were incredibly fortunate to be able to host him and his wife for what ended up being an impactful and dynamic event at San Francisco’s Mathilde.

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The evening started with the 2016 Lynch Bages Blanc - a wine that's passionate following and limited nature would imply a stratospheric price, but remains one of the most reasonably priced wines you'll find in Bordeaux.  We take all we can get every year, but that usually amounts to a handful of cases.  Cazes mused that back in the day the white was a friends-and-family off-the-books bottling that amounted to about 300 bottles a year.  One year an inspector from the French government came by and asked for an accounting of those bottles, asserting that everything produced needed to be on record.  After absorbing a steep fine for this infraction, Cazes declared that he would embrace the wine and sold it commercially for the first time in 1990.  Last night we started with the 2016  and it showed lovely texture and depth.  We also just received our allocation of the 2017 which is a bit richer and rounded due to a higher component of Semillon. 

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One of the big surprises of the night was the 2014 (sold out, but we will be getting more soon).  The last time I tasted it was about two-and-a-half years ago and found a charming Lynch Bages that was solid for the vintage.  Last night?  It was quintessential Pauillac - deep, layered, and accessible without surrendering anything for it.  It was pure Cabernet to the core.  While the 2015 next to it was terrific, many folks had a strong preference and adoration for the 2014...even as the night went on.  The 2015 just landed and seemed loaded with potential, but there is no denying that the 2014 had so much on offer, even at this young stage.

The dinner started off with a lovely 2001 Ormes de Pez from Cazes' St-Estephe property, drinking perfectly at the moment with years to go.  A charming claret if there ever was one, and great with the meal.  The next pairing brought to light how terrific the wines were with the food.  2010 Echo needed a bit of time to open up, and 2006 Lynch Bages was open from the get-go.  But both changed dynamically with a quail dish and people started admiring the wines for different reasons altogether.

The heavyweights came out after that, starting with a pairing of the 2005 and 2009 vintages.  Again, these were experienced in stages – the 2005 was initially adored for its classic profile.  But as the duck confit was served and everybody had a chance to get to know the 2009, its caliber was undeniable.  At the end of the night, there were certainly some strong votes for 2009 being a favorite of the entire event.  That’s some tough competition, especially considering the 2000  from magnum and the 1996 from 750ml that followed.  The 2000 tasted extremely young in large format and seemed to have so much depth and so many layers in reserve that might not unravel for years to come.  The 1996, however, was in a gorgeous spot – on the early side of maturity with extremely complex aromatics and a luxurious palate.  While other 1996 Bordeaux we’ve tasted have been tough, and 2000s tend to be more giving, the opposite seemed true for Lynch Bages on this night.

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It is clear to see why Lynch Bages is so universally adored – the perfect Pauillac poster child for one of the world’s most cherished regions, and a price that often defies the first-growth caliber of what is in the bottle.  Very few complete Bordeaux collections are without a significant portion of Lynch Bages, and any lucky collector from anywhere would be lucky to have squirrelled away a few bottles.  It is also one of the most dependable wines of the modern era of Bordeaux.  All of this is encapsulated in the humility, generosity, and kindness of Jean-Michel Cazes.  As his longtime friend and co-owner at K&L Clyde Beffa likes to say, “no one has done more for Bordeaux in the U.S.”  With the enthusiasm and appreciation that was showed at this tremendous event, that kind of high regard is not too far from the truth.

- Ryan Moses

 

Revelry and Revelations

Kate Soto

There are two things swirling around in my head right now, and they seem connected somehow. One is a truly delightful night that I had on Wednesday with employees and friends of K&L. Hosted by Caroline Debbane’, we gathered by a rooftop pool (which sounds so LA) overlooking the city as the sun was setting. We opened bottle after bottle—me getting to know the wines and the people—then ate an absolutely perfect meal. I want to write about this dinner because of the wonderful wines and the wonderful food. But mostly because this is why people fall in love with wine. It opens you up. It brings open people to you.

We started with Champagne by some of our direct-import producers who are making under-the-radar, exquisite bubbles. We tasted Launois—elegant and aromatic, distinctive in style from the next wine, Franck Bonneville’s NV Blanc de Blancs, which was mineral-driven and racy as hell. Great counterpoints to one another, and to the tapenade, grilled bread, and roasted stuffed peppers. Greg St. Clair poured us the Marisa Cuomo "Furore Bianco Fiorduva" from the Amalfi Coast, and I tried to practice my rusty Italian.

Keith grilled the meats, which had all been thoughtfully sourced from McCall’s Meat and Fish and prepared by Caroline, served alongside a chicory salad and fingerling potatoes. Once our meal was out, we opened a panoply of reds, and they all were drinking so well that night. The 2015 Montfaucon Chateauneuf-de-Pape was spot on with the pork loin from Snake River Farm—bright, red fruited with deep inflections of spice, beautifully balanced. Santamaria Patrimonio is a red from Corisca, a medium-bodied, lively, wine based on Niellicciu, Corsica’s version (maybe clone?) of Sangiovese. It was awesome alongside the various sausages from Cook’s Farm. We opened a Bourgogne rouge from Charles Audoin—sexy, sumptuous, deep with hints of baking spice—and a Morgon from Lucien Lardy, which was crunchy, bright, berried. Both excellent with the cumin-orange-marinated chicken. Lastly I tried the Frontón de Oro from the Canary Islands, and it was a festival of black pepper and red cherries. For dessert, Caroline made a mixed berry-almond tart and a lemon tart (one of my favorite things on the planet). We drank nearly 50-year-old Port from Fonseca’s Finest (1970), because of course! It was a night of revelry. All of this with a beautiful view of a sparkling city and old half-lit neon signs from the last century. We listened to Jazz, and Keith did an impressive lip trumpeting. We talked about our next outing.

The night reminded me of why all this matters—food and drink. Wine is a damn fine way to make a human connection. To share in the pleasures of life. A lot of hard work goes into making it, but then it’s uncorked, and you forget about your own hard work among the pleasures in your mouth and the pleasure among people. I admit I am a hedonist, but enjoying a night like this does feel meaningful.

And then.
Two days later, Anthony Bourdain. My husband brought me coffee on Friday and news of his passing. I can’t say how much it has affected me. He is one of the people who taught me about voice in food writing. And his irreverent, personal, iconoclastic voice was so strong. He wrote from the inside of whatever subject he was addressing; not as an outsider looking in, but as someone who’d been in the trenches of the kitchen, or who had best friends and knew all the secret, local spots in every far-flung corner of the world. He seemed sardonic and cynical, but he showed the joy in encounters with people and places over a meal—that work that food and drink does of connecting us to other cultures/times/people. He was suspicious about celebrity chefs opening pantheons to fame in Vegas. He was looking for authenticity. He made that search into an adventure. Maybe I loved him because he seemed like a hedonist too.

What we were doing on Wednesday, at Caroline’s beautiful roof deck, felt akin to what Bourdain often did. He sat down and broke bread with people. He found the pleasure in sharing a meal with people and the process of creating a connection. Once these connections are there, that’s something out of nothing—something that now exists in the world, between two people. The world gets a little deeper and more interesting the more you uncover who’s in it.

I won’t analyze why it happened. I just want to say that I’m sorry to lose that voice and his vision. And I’m thankful for the joy of food and drink and travel that he offered to the world. This shocking and sad thing has left me grateful for the happy moments between good people. So, thank you Caroline, Greg, and all the friends who joined together at the table that night. It made me very happy.

- Kate Soto

Farming Liquid Gold in the Sta. Rita Hills

domesticKate Soto

Before Liquid Farm was a wine, it was an idea—a few words in Jeff Nelson’s head that evoked his connection to the grape, to the land, to the wines he loved. He’d been in the wine business for years, mostly on the Champagne side of things, and he knew what he liked to drink: high-acid, terroir-driven white Burgundies and Champagne. He also loved eating locally, but he was drinking French wines, coming up empty handed when he tried to find this style from wines made nearby.

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He teamed up with Brandon Sparks-Gills from Dragonette Cellars and set about making the kind of wine that got him excited—namely, Chardonnay. He chose the Sta. Rita Hills appellation for its cool climate and amazing soils, even though, at the time, only 10 percent of Sta. Rita Hills was planted to Chardonnay (Pinot reigns to this day, which Nelson attributes to the Sideways effect). It’s way closer to the Equator than Burgundy or Champagne—should be too close for cool-climate varietals. But its unique east to west positioning in fact makes it much cooler than you’d expect: the Purisima hills to the north and Sta. Rita Hills to the south create a funnel for cool ocean air and fog from the Pacific to the vines. Plus, the hills have some of the world’s largest and purest deposits of diatomaceous soil--a chalky, fossilized hard-shelled algae, layered into the hillsides by earthquakes and volcanoes. It drains well. It’s the same stuff as in the white cliffs of Dover. It makes killer wines.

This was back in 2009, and he started with four barrels. Two of the barrels expressed a more Chablis style--this blend would become the White Hill bottling, a racy, lean wine with citrus-driven aromatics. The other two presented more of a Meursault style, and these became the Golden Slope blend. Golden Slope is a richer, fuller style with golden honey and beeswax tones. It’s sumptuous stuff, but still well structured and serious. According to Jeff, “Everyone said to put them together but I said to listen to the barrels.” Now, nearly ten years later, those two bottlings are still the foundation of Liquid Farm, though he’s added Mourvèdre-based rosé and two Pinot Noirs. But it’s still his Chardonnay that really defines the label. He’s had the same winemaker, Brandon’s brother-in-law James, since the beginning. They use a low-interventionist style, and don’t add sugar or acid. They pick early to maintain acidity. Together they’ve crafted a reputation for serious, nuanced wines.

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After years in the biz, Nelson’s now kind of living the dream: he moved from Los Angeles to six acres in Santa Ynez, with rescue dogs and chickens and a tasting room in Lompoc with a ping pong table in his upstairs office. He has a good, small team. His wines are in 30 states and seven countries. He has a geeky website that shows how passionate he is about soils and somms and everything to do with wine. He has plans for the future that involve making wine in Champagne and possibly gin—but Chardonnay will always be the focus. They make about 5000 cases total, and that’s where they want to be, to keep the quality and the focus of the project. “We’re not trying to blow it up, just stay focused.”

We’re lucky enough to get a chance to meet Jeff and enjoy a lovely dinner at Barbrix paired up with his wines. Join us!

Thursday, June 28 7:00 PM
Barbrix
2442 Hyperion Avenue
Los Angeles 90027

4 courses
$85 ALL INCLUSIVE
http://www.klwines.com/p/i?i=1363650

Featured wines include: 2017 "Vogelzang Vineyard" Happy Canyon Rose 2016 "La Hermana" Chardonnay 2016 Santa Barbara Pinot Noir PLUS a few surprises from the winemaker!

- Kate Soto

 Jeff Nelson joined Mari in Hollywood to pour through an awesome lineup.

Jeff Nelson joined Mari in Hollywood to pour through an awesome lineup.

On the Mountain Trail at Mindego Ridge

domesticStephanie Vidales
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A few weeks ago a couple of colleagues and I decided to pay a visit to our friends at Mindego Ridge Vineyard up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Before our visit we took a hike in beautiful Pescadero Creek Park, filled with some of the largest redwood trees in California and, of course, many banana slugs. If you’re ever in this neck of the woods, I highly recommend taking the time to hike around. After our hike we continued up windy Alpine Road to Mindego Ridge. At the front gate of the property you’d never even guess that there were grapevines there, as the vineyard is quite hidden, especially with the socked-in fog that was present that day. We were greeted at the main house by David Gollnick, the owner of the vineyard along with his wife Stacey, who together are the only full-time workers on the property.

Mindego Ridge consists of 40 total acres with only 10 acres planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapevines. The vineyard is surrounded by redwoods and is very close to the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, creating a cool vineyard mesoclimate that makes for expressive, elegant, vibrant wines. The vines are dry farmed, a practice David implemented two years ago. Their wines are made from 100% estate fruit and made off-site by renowned winemaker Ehren Jordan, who has had a handful of winemaking gigs—most notably Turley Cellars and Failla—and now consults with Mindego Ridge for their Pinots and Chardonnays.
 
After a vineyard tour we made our way to the Gollnick’s newly built outdoor bar were we tasted both the 2015 and 2016 vintage. The 2015 vintage suffered a cool May which led to less than half of the vineyard’s normal yields. Nonetheless, the Mindego wines that came out of that year are fantastic, with a lot of concentrated flavors, bright acidity and fine structure. The Chardonnay was creamy in texture with concentrated flavors of honey, citrus and spice. The 2015 Pinot was one of the favorites in the lineup with high-toned red fruit and great minerality on the mid-palate. Unfortunately there will not be a ton of 2015 to go around, so once these are released, you’ll have to act fast! 

 
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The 2016 vintage was back up to normal yields and as good as ever. The Chardonnay was a bit brighter and crisper than the previous year and had a great expression of its site. The 2016 Pinot was very expressive with red cherry, raspberry compote, cola and that great acidity that is a constant with all their wines.

Currently, we have Mindego’s 2014 vintage available. The 2014 Mindego Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($44.99) is fantastic, with aromatics of pineapple, melon, mint and minerality with a full, rich body. It was aged in 75% neutral oak, 15% new oak and 10% stainless steel. The 2014 Mindego Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir ($44.99) is just as great with classic Santa Cruz Mountain dark fruit flavors accompanied by spice and herb notes. This drinks really well now and can be enjoyed over the next five years or so. From tasting all these vintages it is clear to see that Mindego Ridge is a special site that should certainly be on everyone’s radar.

It was an absolute pleasure meeting the Gollnicks with their sweet dogs Larry and Bunny, and getting to know the faces behind the brand we sell here at K&L. Pick up a bottle for yourself in our shop or online. If you’re in the area, stop by their tasting room in Saratoga, California.

 

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Kloof Street Wines Shine from the Up-and-Coming Swartland Region

Kate Soto

The most surprising wines of this week’s Australia/New Zealand/South Africa staff tasting for me came from South Africa. They were fresh, focused, with steely nerve and expressive aromatics.  I left inspired to learn more. And what do I really know about South Africa anyway? Not much. My experience with it has often been bacony/smoky overproduced Pinotage, because for quite awhile, that was what was widely available on the U.S. market. But this is a new era. Folks, it’s a great time to be a wine geek. Across the vinous landscape, there is a wave of energy and experimentation. So why hadn’t I anticipated it from South Africa?

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South African wines have a long, varied history, dating back to 1655 when Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town and its first vineyard. As you might expect, SA wine has always been intertwined with colonialism and politics. Under British colonial rule, the wines gained popularity in Europe, but then fell out after a series of setbacks--phylloxera in the late 19th century, changing tariffs, and long ocean voyages all made SA wine more expensive than their French counterparts. South Africa began a long period of overproduction and low-quality grapes, often made just for distilling into fortified wines. The end of Apartheid in 1994 was a turning point, opening export markets and ending international sanctions and boycotts. Since then, there’s been a concerted effort by industry organizations to focus on quality. Several decades in, the momentum and enthusiasm are definitely hitting their stride.

The region is well situated for a renaissance. With a largely Mediterranean climate, there’s a long, warm growing season tempered by a few unique factors: the chilly Benguela Current from Antarctica cools the western Atlantic coast; a strong wind called Cape Doctor inhibits fungus and disease. It also beats up the vines pretty well, but the best growing areas are cradled by mountain ranges for protection. What’s more, the Cape boasts the oldest geology in the wine-growing world--ancient soils based on granite, sandstone, or shale--and the richest floral biodiversity on the planet. It’s apparently quite stunning to visit.

I was intrigued by the wines from the Kloof Street label, a project by husband-and-wife team Chris and Andrea Mullineux, who seek out abandoned old, bush-vine vineyards to create wines that showcase soil and terroir. They’ve received a lot of recognition for their single-terroir Syrahs, each one grown on an isolated soil of granite, schist, quartz, or iron. They farm sustainably and without irrigation. Andrea, the winemaker, was awarded International Winemaker of the Year in 2016 by Wine Enthusiast. They’re in Swartland, north of Cape Town, in the town of Riebeek-Kasteel, which has become something of an unofficial wine capital. It’s a hotbed for a lot of the creative energy that is influencing the South African wine scene currently.

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The Kloof Street label is their ode to fresh, drinkable, affordable wines. When I revisited the wines today, they were were showing even better than I’d remembered, especially the 2017 Kloof Street Chenin Blanc. It is absolutely enchanting. Green apple and ripe golden pears on the nose, making way to bright, mineraly notes on the palate with an underlying hint of cantaloupe. Finishes with lipsmacking acidity that nearly vibrates. It’s pure, fresh Chenin, and if it weren’t noon, I’d have another glass.

The 2016 Kloof Street Red Rhône Blend is also lovely--it’s a pinnacle of balance, everything in its right place. The blend is mostly Syrah with 4% Cinsault and 2% Carignan. It’s pretty and expressive, with deep plums and blackberries and hints of black pepper, finishing on firm tannins and balanced acids. There’s a bright lift to it, most likely from the Cinsault and Carignan. With a medium-bodied fluidness, it ripples over your palate--not at all bulky, but lively, with a just-right grip on the end like a reassurance you’ll see each other again. It’s five o’clock somewhere, right?

These wines will be poured at each of our three stores today, but even if you don’t make it, pick up a bottle! They are each $19.99, which isn’t steep at all for this much vinous pleasure.

- Kate Soto

Krug "Grande Cuvée" 166 Ème Édition Sets the Bar High

champagneKate Soto

We just received our first little allocation of the Krug "Grande Cuvée" 166 Ème Édition Brut Champagne, and I wasted no time in trying one. I had it my favorite way, at home with Cinnamon and her good cooking. In the spirit of Krug’s pairing initiative this year “Krug X Fish,” she prepared some lovely sole with capers and fresh local asparagus with eggs from colleagues’ chickens.

The 166th edition of Krug Grande Cuvée is made up of wines from 1998 to 2010, ten vintages in all were selected, and 140 lots. The Krug ID on my bottle was 117006, and it was disgorged in winter of 2017, so it was truly a fresh bottle, as Krug does not sell anything until at least six months after disgorgement. The 166 is composed of 45% Pinot Noir, 39% Chardonnay, and 16% Meunier. Only 58% of the blend is 2010; the rest are reserves, and counterintuitively, chef de cave Eric Lebel found high-acid Meunier to be key to bringing this wine the freshness it needed.

I think this is the most concentrated Grand Cuvée that I have drunk young. My suspicion is that little, and perhaps no vintage wine will be made at Krug in 2010, allowing them to use lots that would normally go into more expensive wines. This is the conundrum of multi-vintage blends. The market scrambles for lots like the 164—which had a majority of the great 2008 in it. But, we know that there will almost certainly be not only Krug vintage 2008, but also Clos du Mesnil and Clos Ambonnay, meaning those wines were not available for the Grande Cuvée. Many at Krug say that the best Grande Cuvée that they have drunk is the 157—which is mostly from the miserable 2001 vintage. They put all the best stuff in it—that is something to think about.

The wine was loaded with limey, Puligny-like drive and a ton of chalky minerality, and I would have guessed that it had even more than the 39% Chardonnay that they did use in it. It cut the fish like a razor blade, and had fantastic structure and chalky length. I think this is a great one to put down for a few years. It is brimming with power.

I don’t know how much of this we will get over the coming months, and I suspect it will only arrive in dribs and drabs. We received only one-third the amount of 165 as 164, and although I hope that is an aberration, I am worried that worldwide demand will see this Champagne become more and more tightly allocated. Get it while you can—Krug Grande Cuvée is truly one of the great wines of the world, and at home on the table with $1000+ bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

A toast to you!

- Gary Westby

Summer Wine, and the Livin’ Is Easy

Kate Soto

It’s no secret: canned wine is everywhere, and it is skyrocketing in popularity. Like rosé, it once had its skeptics, but today it’s poised to be this summer’s tour de force. And what’s not to love? It’s eco-friendly, air-tight, and perfect for keeping wine fresh and young. What’s more, it’s an easy accompaniment to outdoor summertime living--cans are portable, unfussy, and discrete. Cans also provide a very stable environment--no light or oxygen can penetrate it, so your wine stays fresh. We’ll never see first-growth Bordeaux in a can (I feel like I can say that pretty confidently), but for early drinkers like rosé, it’s a remarkably competent vessel. Here’s the rub: it’s cheaper too.

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Clearly I’m no soothsayer on the canned wine front--the numbers prove it: Canned wine sales surged 125 percent during 2016, then another 54 percent in 2017. Today it stands as a $28 million industry (figures from Market Watch Magazine). Producers are drawn to cans because they are much less expensive to purchase, fill, and ship. Because they are lighter and more compact for shipping, they have a smaller carbon footprint than their glass bottle counterparts. They’re less fragile, too, so don’t require as much thick cardboard to keep them safe in transit. According to Slate, transporting a can emits 20 percent less greenhouse gases than a bottle. Glass is actually more environmentally friendly to make than aluminium, but all told, after adjusting for transport and recyclability, the can is the greener option.

As few as five years ago, there was nary a can of wine to be found aside from Sofia Coppola’s bubbly--sparkly pink, complete with straw. Though Baroke’s of Australia first started canning their Shiraz and Semillon/Chardonnay back in 1996, it took nearly two decades for it to catch on in any meaningful way in the U.S. market. Among the first producers to popularize the can was Union Wine Company, an operation out of Oregon whose motto is “drink with your pinkies down.” Ryan Harm started the company in 2006 with a mission to prove that Oregon wine doesn’t have to be expensive for it to be good. He built his business around producing high-quality wine efficiently and affordably. Their Underwood line of canned wine, first released in 2014, is a testament to that. 

Around the same time, winemaker Andrew Jones of Field Recordings Wine began tinkering with cans. He first released his juicy, delicious Fiction red blend in a tall boy, and it was so popular that brought it back. He now has a separate line called Alloy Wine Works, devoted to varietal wines in tall boys.

The Jackhammer/Jillhammer project started in 2011 when old friends Stephen Dooley (owner/winemaker at Stephen Ross Winery) and Sandy Garber (owner/founder of Garber & Co. Wine) set out to make excellent, affordable Pinot--that actually tasted like Pinot. They both had been in the wine biz a long time, and had great contacts who helped them source high-quality fruit at a good price. Also in tall boys, they produce the Jackhammer unoaked Chardonnay and the Jillhammer rose.

Oro Bello is a Napa-based project from the team at Atlas Wine Company. Their goal with Oro Bello is to make wine from high-quality fruit from hidden-gem vineyards. Single-serve (187ml) cans of blanc de blancs hit the spot. Wine Enthusiast dubbed them a Best Buy.

One thing to keep in mind with wine in a can is that you can’t really get your nose in there to smell it before drinking. So, pour into a glass for best results--or, better yet, for ultimate summer refreshment, pour them into a Govino. These have been a staple on my shelves for years. They are made of inert plastic, meaning you can actually smell the wine in the glass. Also meaning you can't break them, as I'm wont to do. Summer solved. You’re welcome!

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- Kate Soto

Rioja, Act I

Joe Manekin

Rioja, more than any other Spanish D.O., is in a position of relative strength. The wines have a strong presence in national markets, an even stronger presence in export markets (more than one-third of our sales of Spanish wines are Rioja) and due to what a BMGT 101 text may refer to as “first mover advantages,” the region has a well established, recognizable brand. Part and parcel of that brand is the notion that Rioja wineries patiently age wine for the consumer, and then classify it according to the amount of time ageing at the winery (crianza - one year each in barrel and bottle, reserva - a total of 3 years between barrel and bottle, gran reserva - 2 year minimum in barrel, 3 year minimum in bottle).

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How then, that these highest category, gran reserva wines can be found in Spanish supermarkets for as little as five euros? And what’s up with a winery not being able to mention on the front label the village where a particular cuvee’s fruit is grown? And isn’t there some well regarded winery in Rioja Alavesa that, fed up with all of the rules and regulations, simply decided to abandon Rioja and bottle their entire range, including their single vineyard bottlings, without classification, as simple table wines?

These issues are of significant concern to enough observers, smaller producers, and even to the Rioja consejo itself that there are a few rule changes going into effect. Single vineyard wines can now mention the name of the vineyard where they come from (how crazy is it that in the past, this was not possible?) If a winery is located in a particular village where it has vines and produces a wine exclusively from that fruit, it can now become a “vino de municipio” and state the village on the front label. While it may be an improvement on past label restrictions, under this system a winery based in Labastida who wanted to bottle a Briones village wine still could not do so. For context, imagine if a Burgundy negociant or producer based in Nuits St George, were to be unable to legally bottle a Gevrey Chambertin since their winery is not located in Gevrey.

These are the types of restrictions which have often weighed on my mind while drinking Rioja wines, visiting the region and chatting with its producers. Well, that along with the idea that so many wineries age the wines in a similar way - sure they have their own mix of preferred cooperage, new vs 1 year-old, 2 year-old, or in the case of Lopez de Heredia, 20 year-old barrels. I always wondered what could be possible if people simply did things differently. What would be if someone would start using more 500l or 600l, used barrels in their winery. Or if someone decided that everyone was harvesting too late and wanted to harvest fruit based more on the idea of high acidity and fruit that was just ripe enough. I specifically remember asking one of our friends in Rioja several years ago, wouldn’t it be cool if I set up shop in Rioja, only produced white wines, and had two cuvees, one done as an old fashioned Rioja white, aged at least several years in well used barrels, and another made like a Sherry, aged under flor and in a solera system? Well, it turns out that Miguel Merino (and many others) have been using 500l barrels for their upcoming single vineyard wine, as has Bryan MacRobert at Laventura (who also picks early for acidity). And as far as crazy white wine specialists, Honorío Rubio does the solera thing in Rioja, and also throws in a separate orange wine for good measure (though we’ll discuss his project in another post, since this entry is already shaping up to be a long one!)

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Before we get into our guys Merino and MacRobert, we’re going to start off in the cradle of Rioja Alta, in the historic city of Haro, in the Barrio de Estación de Trenes, at one of the oldest and most consistently respected producers of Rioja. Cune (Compania de Viticultores del Norte de Espana, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) makes something approaching 500,000 cases of wine. While you can find their Cune Crianza splits in any number of highway rest stops in Spain, Cune still makes a relatively small number of Reserva and Gran Reserva Imperial bottlings from their own vineyards.  Beginning in 2017, they will also be making a village wine or “Vino de Municipio” from their own vineyards in Haro.

Before we go further, I must thank technical director María Larrea for making time to taste with me, and in fact for spending extra time as I was traveling from Bierzo, arrived late, and still was treated to a barrel tasting and quick tour of the barrel ageing and fermentation rooms for Imperial. I learned that 2017, as it was elsewhere in Rioja, was also a severely frost impacted year at Cune (production was down 50%). We tasted 2017 Imperial (whether it will become Reserva or Gran Reserva is yet to be determined, depending upon the development of the wine in barrel) and 2017 Vino de Municipio de Haro out of both a new French and new American oak barrel. Both intensely dark fruited, both obviously oaky (young wine in a new barrel will taste that way), but the American oak showing more sweetly spiced, while the French oak components feel toastier and show a roasted coffee bean quality.

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Not quite a 15 minute drive southeast from Haro, Briones is the Rioja Alta village where our first direct import Rioja property, Miguel Merino, is based. Two Miguel’s (Miguel “padre”  or Sr. and Miguel “hijo,” or Jr.) are at the helm, though in the past year Miguel Jr. has assumed increased responsibility at the winery. While it’s not a cut and dry changing of the guard, there are some subtle but noteworthy changes that have been taking place. To name just a couple, Miguel hijo has lowered the fermentation temperatures by a few degrees centigrade, across the board. The new single vineyard wine, La Loma, from a vineyard originally planted in 1946, used to be blended with an even older vineyard and aged in exclusively French 225l barrels, at least half of them new. Beginning in 2015, La Loma will stand alone, and will feature a combination of 500l and 225l barrel ageing, and not nearly as much of it will be in first use oak. 2016 marks the first time there will be a (delicious, intense and mineral) white wine from a blend of Viura and Garnacha Blanca. As I mentioned earlier, it may not be a formal and complete succession, but it certainly is the first time I have had the opportunity to observe the early stages of a winery being handed down to the next generation. In this case, the baton appears to be confidently handed off and the exchange made without a hitch.

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Laventura is the trademark of first generation Rioja vigneron Bryan MacRobert. He may be young, but he knows his Rioja history and has some clearly defined ideas regarding what makes Rioja special. To summarize, these would include the importance of older vineyards, organically farmed whenever possible, and picked just at the point of ripeness as opposed to past that point. While Bryan knows how to manage a vineyard, and will often offer to pay well above the premium rate for grapes per kilo while also committing to farming a parcel as he would like it farmed, he does have some fairly particular views on winemaking as it relates to Tempranillo. He shares the observation that Tempranillo is very tannic and needs time to mellow out, though in his mind this does not come from twice to 3x yearly racking in 225l barrel, but rather from patient ageing in used, larger format barrels, followed by bottle ageing. As a result, Bryan’s wines can be firmer when young, but also more marked by minerality and edgy fruit as opposed to more showy, open knit fruit and barrel notes. Even his Lanave bottling, a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha which we sell for $15, is surprisingly structured, and Bryan mentioned that perhaps for some of his clients, it is too structured. I countered that it is precisely this individuality of style and singular focus that drew us to the wines. Quick tip: while the reds are delicious and great values, the barrel aged Viura and cement egg aged Malvasia (featuring a “light orange” 3 week maceration on the skins) are both delicious, capable of improving for a while in bottle, and perhaps represent the best values at the winery.

- Joe Manekin

Up next: Barrel tasting with Jesús Puelles and the Wizard of White Wines, Honorío Rubio.