On the Trail

Straightforward Sonoma

Mari Keilman

Sonoma County has and will always continue to have a special place in my heart. This bucolic region of narrow valleys and rolling hills has always resonated with a sense of home for me—a sense of family, a sense of feeling secure and being welcomed into a community full of camaraderie, brotherly (and sisterly) love and mutual support. I could never pinpoint why Sonoma elicited this feeling of home until I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with the Bilbro brothers, and that feeling manifested itself over an afternoon spent with some food on the grill, great wine in our glass and stories being shared. Spending the day meeting the Bilbro brothers, Jake, Scot, and Sam, felt like an afternoon of hanging out with old friends I had known for ages. There was no pretense, no sibling rivalry, no one-upping each other. Each one of the brothers will tell you that they’re the best of friends and it shows; not only in their friendship and love for one another, but in their support and respect for each others’ wines.

The foundation of the Bilbro Bros growing empire is Marietta Cellars. Started in 1978 by their father Chris Bilbro, Marietta Cellars is the nucleus of all the family endeavors. While all of the brothers have had their hands in making wines there at one time or another, Marietta is currently Scot’s winery to lead. Scot has his hands full, however, because not only does Marietta Cellars do everything in house, from farming over 300 estate acre to producing and bottling all their own wine, Scot must also oversee the extensive blending process. Marietta Cellars produces non-vintage red blends, meaning that they chose a non-conventional approach to focus on a consistent style, and while non-vintage wines have sometimes become synonymous with lower quality, that is exactly the opposite with the Marietta wines. Scot and the Bilbro boys have been able to keep their wines pure, honest and unadulterated. While the non-vintage Marietta Cellars “Old Vine Red Lot #65” California Red Blend is their trademark wine, the real highlight of their blending skills is the non-vintage Marietta “Armé Lot #3” Sonoma-Mendocino Counties Bordeaux Blend. The Armé Lot #3 is classically aromatic with notes of licorice, black currant, cherry, violet, sweet earth and savory herb. The multi-vintage influence is evident in the full-body, crowd pleasing palate and the multi-dimensional finish that is chock full of cocoa spice. Don’t be fooled by the price, this wine over-delivers and then some!

Sam’s venture, Idlewild Wines, may appear to be the most alternative out of the three, but don’t call it hipster. Idlewild focuses primarily on Italian varietals from high-elevation vineyards in Mendocino County. While Sam has a grassroots, natural approach to his wines, there are no gimmicks or trends here; his wines are a pure, honest expression of Italian varietals that resonate with a sense of place. His straightforward, old world approach results in wines with both balance and beauty. The 2016 Idlewild “The Flower - Flora & Fauna” Mendocino County Rosé is mind-blowing. Dolcetto, Nebbiolo and Barbera are all co-fermented for this savory, yet vibrant rosé that has that fresh wild berry and sweet tangerine palate that is essential in every rosé, while finishing with an astonishing savory spice element that elevates it from a simple porch pounder, to one that requires a whole meal made around it.  

Limerick Lane is home to the eldest brother Jake Bilbro and his world class Zinfandel and Rhone Blends. Jake has an honest, down home sensibility to him and it shows through in his wines. There is no pretense in his wines and how he chooses to make them. What you see is what you get—and what you get is great wine. He makes small production, estate, single appellation wines that just happen to be highly rated, but that is not why he does what he does. The 2014 Limerick Lane Russian River Valley Syrah-Grenache is an ode to Jake’s laid-back approach. The Syrah-Grenache blend isn’t obscured with fancy winemaking or obnoxious use of new oak. Instead, this Rhone Blend is indicative of the historic, yet unique terroir that this vineyard embodies. Expressive aromatics of cedar, pink peppercorn, black cherries, and blackberries along with a vibrant lift on the palate are a direct response to the cold foggy mornings, but the luscious, seamless texture is a nod to the warm Healdsburg afternoons. A bottle of this is definitely getting tucked away in my cellar!

While all three brothers have their own distinct wineries and how they choose to make their wines, they all end up at the same place. Inspired from their Dad, yet achieved through different practices, the Bilbro brothers pursue to create wines that reverberate a sense of family and place; thoughtful, straightforward, and honest wines.

-Mari Keilman

Beyond Cultism on the Right Bank

David Driscoll

Conversations about Bordeaux at K&L—both on the phone and sales floor—will more than ninety percent of the time center around the wines of the Mèdoc; maybe the Graves as well if we're looking outside the holy trinity of Pauillac, Margaux, and St. Julien. We're a Left Bank store by focus. We always have been. We love the classified growths with their cabernet base and their long-lived potential. The Right Bank, however? Yeah...we dabble a bit there, too; but over the years it's generally been with nowhere near the level of enthusiasm or passion we show for the other side of the river. The reason for that disproportion is pretty simple: the merlot-based wines of St. Émilion and Pomerol have been cultivated by a rather cultish crowd over the last two decades and the prices have soared as a result. The top names like Ausone, Petrus, and Cheval Blanc are consistently priced between $500 to $1500 a bottle, making a trip across the Dordogne quite steep for those interested in learning more about the region. We've largely stayed out of that game. That's not to say there aren't other interesting wines on the Right Bank, it's just that historically they haven't carried the same reputation or prestige as some of the Mèdoc's second and third growth properties. That perception is starting to change, however, as is the conversation at K&L. We're learning that a renewed focus on vineyard management over the last twenty years has retooled some of the Right Bank's formerly mid-tier châteaux into serious contenders. Properties like Canon, Vieux Château Certan, Pavie, and La Mondotte have upped their game over the last few vintages (even outscoring their higher-priced neighbors), creating a new group of what we typically call "super seconds" on the Left Bank (second-growth properties that come close to first-growth quality for a much more reasonable price), albeit without the official ranking. Dig a bit deeper, and you'll find that the commitment to great winemaking extends far beyond the region's cult producers and into the realm of overlooked value. It's an exciting time to explore the Right Bank, if you ask me.

To be honest, I had never even heard of Château Fonplégade until we drove by it last year on our trip through St. Émilion, but when I saw that it neighbored Ausone and Belair-Monange on the famed south slope—the Côte Sud—I was curious to see how it compared. Given the terroir and the potential for greatness in its vineyards, we all thought the wine could be spectacular, but few of us had ever tasted it (Ralph and Clyde hadn't tasted a bottle since the nineties). Sure enough, once we got back home and popped a few bottles of the newly-arrived 2014 vintage, that assumption was confirmed. I was immediately taken in by this wine, both by the deep-fruited aromatics on the nose and the concentrated palate of rich fruit that lasted for over a minute on the finish. There's a lot of stuffing here, not just plump merlot like some people assume is always the case with St. Émilion wines. Everything about Fonplégade make it a total sleeper on the Right Bank: it's storied history, location, recent commitment to organics, and—of course—the price! It's exactly the type of wine that I'm interested in discovering right now: an under-the-radar value with typicity. I want affordable St. Emilion that helps me better understand what's happening in the region. As a comparison, I checked out the 2014 Dassault, another sleeper we only found because the Vinous publication literally described it as a sleeper value. I had to look it up in my old, beat-up Parker book where I was surprised to find the famed critic describing the producer as one of the most dependable in the region. He claimed that while Dassault wines were primarily made to drink in their youth, you would rarely come across a bad bottle. Simple, but typically damn tasty was his summary. I concurred. It has rich and robust fruit, a supple mouthfeel, and plenty of structure on the finish. This isn't merlot as we've come to think of it in the post-Sideways era.

We discovered what is perhaps the best value in St. Émilion—Tour St. Christophe—after a lunch meeting with Hélène Garcin at Barde-Haut where we noticed the terraced vineyards across the way from her patio. After doing a little research, we learned the property had been recently purchased by the Kwok group who had put a ton of money into reviving those gorgeous slopes. The property was the first to release its pricing during the 2015 en primeur campaign (a more-than-reasonable $22.99), but we went back and grabbed a gang load of their 2014 release: a fleshy, mouth-filling wine that wowed our entire staff for the same price. I think what's most exciting about these wines is that many of them are entirely new adventures for our Left Bank palates here at K&L. We've become accustomed to staying in the Mèdoc over the last two decades, to the extent that we're perhaps a bit late to the party here. Better late than never, however! Those feeling priced-out or off-put by the rising prices of Bordeaux would be well served by giving the Right Bank another look. For me personally, the process has been invigorating, rewarding, and delicious.

-David Driscoll

Mezcal City

Olivia Ragni

I recently returned from a trip to Mexico City, where I discovered a city full of mezcal lovers with mezcal lists at every restaurant and mezcal bars all over their trendy neighborhoods. As I drank my way (and body weight) through these experiences, I couldn’t help but think that this is the future of Los Angeles. All over our urban city, you'll find mezcal replacing tequila behind the bar and ever-expanding lists for those who want to experiment. Even in retail stores you will find the number of mezcals now available increasing day by day. Angelenos are embracing mezcal in a major way, so could LA be witnessing a mezcal revolution? Every day customers ask me about the Oaxacan spirit with a curiosity about its new popularity and how it compares to the beverage that has long overshadowed it: tequila.  

The simple answer is that tequila is a type of agave spirit that must be made from blue agave and in the Mexican state of Jalisco, while mezcal can be made from over 250 different types of agave usually within the state of Oaxaca. But the answer is much more complicated than that. In the past, mezcal has suffered from a poor reputation due to the lack of regulation of the term ‘mezcal.’  Saying mezcal was like saying vodka—you could make it anywhere, from anything.  People of the baby-boomer generation have memories of poorly made mezcal—often with worms in the bottle—causing epic hangovers. With that being said, I did drink one mezcal with the worm in it (and I was the lucky one apparently) and one with a scorpion; both not bad. Regardless, it was the lack of regulation of the term that destroyed its reputation internationally, not the worm. While mezcal was suffering from poorly produced mezcals in other regions of Mexico, tequila was enjoying a luxury reputation from having an ultra smooth, and cleanly-distilled product; the exact opposite of bad mezcal. This led to a generation of tequila drinkers and simultaneously the disintegration of mezcal's following.  Mezcal, however, has begin to cultivate a new reputation by creating tight regulations with the consejo regulador de mezcal. With hip millennials looking for the next cool thing, and currently outdrinking the baby boomer and gen X generations, mezcal has its chance at revival. Mezcal has no unfortunate connotation with millennials like me—we had never heard of it until now. Thus, it is easier to introduce and indoctrinate us to an entirely new experience.  

As a generation, we millennials tend to be against the idea of large production operations. But mezcal is still made very traditionally, while there are only a handful of distilleries making tequila with such care. We're also in search of new and interesting experiences. Tequila can only be made from one type of agave: blue agave. On the other hand, mezcal can be made from hundreds of different types of agave such as cultivated agave varieties like espadin, or from wild agave varietals like tobala. Depending on the type of agave, or the area the agave is grown, it will affect the overall taste and character of the mezcal. It’s a bit like wine in this respect, where you have to take into consideration terroir and different grape varieties or in this case agave varietals. In just this, we can already see the intricacies that make mezcal special, and each bottle unique. There's a romanticism there that speaks to me. 

The traditional process of making mezcal is also charming. At the tiny, rustic distilleries called palenques, the piñas from the agave are chopped up—via machete of course, not shredding machines—and thrown into a stone lined pit, a top coals and covered with spent agave fibers to roast and breakdown sugars. Then either a donkey, horse, or sometimes an oxe attached to a tahona (a large stone) is used to crush the agave in order to obtain the juice which is then put through copper or clay pot stills. Typically, these are small, family-owned operations making mezcal the way they have been taught to make mezcal for years—romantic and rustic stories. No wonder everyone is interested in mezcal right now! Try going to a mezcal bar in Mexico and not falling in love with it! Two friends of mine that joined me in Mexico City entered as mezcal haters and left as passionate aficionados. The key? Tajin and naranja. I’ve always loved mezcal, but I had never had it served like this in the US. Orange slices with tajin, a mexican seasoning made with chili peppers, lime, salt and typically grasshoppers or worms. Mezcal with tajin and orange slices is the best kept secret this side of the border. At mezcalerias all over Mexico City this is exactly how mezcal is served (see the initial photo).  This combination can convert anyone apprehensive of mezcal into a mezcal lover. So next time you reach for a bottle of tequila, maybe consider its cooler, hipper, more authentic cousin.

-Olivia Ragni

Les Maisons de Chanel

David Driscoll

When the word leaked out last year that two major critics had rated Château Canon's 2015 vintage a perfect 100 point score, murmurs of shock and awe began to resonate throughout the industry. Typically that kind of hype on Bordeaux's Right Bank was reserved for the grand properties like Petrus, Cheval Blanc, and Ausone—wines that sell for many hundreds if not thousands of dollars a bottle. Yet, somehow a little property in St. Emilion that typically sells for around a hundred bucks or less (a price that most collectors wouldn't bat an eye at in the realm of today's trophy bottles) managed to steal the show. We stopped by the estate right after the scores had been released and there was definitely a buzz in the air. Our team was chomping at the bit to get a taste of the new release. Sure enough, we were all taken aback by the quality, but for the team at Canon the achievement was no real surprise; this exciting development was no fluke accident. Since the fashion house Chanel first purchased the château back in the mid-nineties, along with Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux, there has been serious investment in the both the vineyard and the winery. The property's twenty year road to success began under the stewardship of a man named John Kolasa, who came over from Château Latour in 1994 to manage Rauzan-Ségla and who eventually took over duties at Canon in 1996 as well. What was his secret to success, you ask? It's simple: he wasn't in a hurry. 

There's little argument in today's wine industry that the best wines come from great terroir. Unfortunately, not every great vineyard in this world is planted to its fullest potential or farmed in accordance with its character. Rather than attempt an easy fix—a knee-jerk reaction to the results-driven expectations of our modern age—Kolasa took a slow pace and decided to use the investment money from Chanel to re-establish the foundation of any great wine: it's vineyards. "I tried to valorize the job of the vigneron," he said in a 2012 interview. Year by year, vintage by vintage, that focus on viticulture became palpable in the wine itself, one slow step at a time—not just at Château Canon, mind you, but at Rauzan-Segla as well. The properties expanded, replanted, and revitalized their vineyards, even adding new plots dedicated exclusively to organic farming. It wasn't without irony that a man employed by the world's most iconic fashion brand was bringing glamor back to a hard day's work in the field, yet the value of quality and timelessness was not lost on Chanel's own illustrious figurehead Karl Lagerfeld, who personally came out to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Rauzan-Segla and pay tribute Kolasa's accomplishments. In 2014, after twenty years working for the company, John Kolasa retired and made way for Nicolas Audebert, a precocious winemaker who had previously worked at Krug and Cheval des Andes and specialized in vineyard management. "He comes with a strong technical background in agronomy and engineering, which is what is needed today. The next twenty years in classified Bordeaux is going to be all about improvements in the vineyards, how to read the soil and give it what it needs," Kolasa told Decanter of Audebert in January of 2015. It would only take the young winemaker one full vintage to prove his worth.

Audebert's debut vintage netted Château Canon its first real masterpiece and he credits the relationship with Chanel for aiding his efforts. "We share the same philosophy, the same values, the same obsession for quality," he told Le Pan Magazine this past December, echoing many of the same sentiments shared by his predecessor; "Chanel is not a house that wants to make something fast for tomorrow; they take the time to do things, so they understand that we do that. To create great wines takes money and time. Chanel No. 5 and some handbag designs have remained the same for many years, they don't change with trends. We are like that; we produce wine as it was done fifty or even one hundred years ago." While it didn't get nearly the attention that Canon did, his 2015 Rauzan-Segla was no slouch either and our entire team agreed it was one of the top wines from Margaux that vintage (and we all thought Margaux showed best of the various Bordeaux communes). Netting a monster 98 point score from the Wine Advocate, the publication called it "a benchmark wine for the estate" and, to be honest, I thought it was better than the Canon. In conversations, however, Audebert revealed that he's still learning what makes each property tick and how best to service the many vines at his behest. If that's true, then the foundational work of Kolasa will continue to be refined by Audebert, slowly and methodically improved upon with a firm commitment to quality

It took Chanel two decades to get both Canon and Rauzan-Segla to this point, but nearly a century after Coco first opened her boutique on the Rue Cambon, they've clearly learned that great things take time. That time for greatness from both these properties is thankfully just getting started and for finicky Bordeaux drinkers there's never been a better time to buy in. Don't just limit yourself to the Audebert's 2015 releases, however. Go back and taste the evolution of Kosala's work with top values like the 2006 or 2012 Canon that both offer supreme concentration of fruit, and the 2001 Rauzan-Segla, which to me showcases the soft and velvety texture that makes the Margaux property one of the great second growths within reach. 

Of course, if you really want a history lesson you can check out the 2005 Rauzan-Segla that received a second heaping of praise twelve years after the vintage from a tasting group of the world's top critics. Sometimes the best things take time in the bottle as well. 

-David Driscoll

Redemption in the Barossa Valley

David Driscoll

In 2013, a bitter dispute between Torbreck winemaker Dave Powell and the winery's owner Pete Kight resulted in a separation of church and state. Powell, the winery's original founder had preached the virtue of Barossa shiraz and cabernet since the inception of Torbreck in 1994, but Kight had apparently decided that the administration was headed in a new direction. The move came as a surprise to many of us in the industry who considered Powell the face of the brand, having built the company from scratch over the previous two decades and acted as its ambassador. In a quote to the press, however, Kight stated: "It's a classic example of a business that has outgrown its original founder." Yet, those of us in the business had seen this scenario play out before. Powell had been forced to sell his majority stake in Torbreck in 2003 due to financial constraints and a series of power plays behind the scenes had essentially ousted him from his own company. Powell was incensed, but not defeated. "They can take the company I built," Powell responded, "but they can't take my passion. The future holds better things." Only a few years later that future is here, and it's better than any of us ever expected. Dave Powell has started a new label with his son Callum called Powell & Son that has set a new bar for Barossa. Perhaps even more exciting is that our Aussie buyer Ryan Woodhouse has established a relationship with Powell that allows us to buy the wines directly.

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While Powell made his name with Torbreck, his experience dates back well beyond that project. He had spent time at Rockford before that (one of Australia's iconic shiraz labels) and along with his wife had worked vintages throughout Italy and France's Rhone Valley, gaining a classical perspective that later would be applied back home. The Barossa Valley is planted with dry-grown Rhone varietals and understanding the way in which they interact with the soil is paramount. In 2014, after leaving Torbreck, Powell and Callum chose six vineyard sites where they believed the story of Barossa could be best told, while also planting their own shiraz, grenache, and mataro (the Aussie name for mouvedre, just like shiraz is their name for syrah). The boys took a minimalist approach to the vineyard work, letting the honest expression of each site shine through in the wines, and the result was a series of incredibly pure and dynamic wines that were fresh in their flavor. Some of those releases were bottled as single vineyard expressions, whereas others were regional blends of various parcels. The critics went wild for the initial offerings and Ryan made sure to lock down everything he could get from Dave and Callum when they met. After a quick trip across the ocean, the first batch of wines from Powell & Son have arrived at K&L.

Having tasted through the wines with Ryan, I can tell you that we have something very special on our hands. But—as LaVar Burton always said on Reading Rainbow—you don't have to take my word for it. The 2014 "Loechel" single vineyard shiraz got a whopping 97 point review from Parker's Wine Advocate that praised the concentration of fruit from the fifty year old vines in the Eden Valley site. The publication also scored the standard shiraz and GSM expressions in the nineties, adding instant credibility to the project and a buzz within the industry as to the quality of the wines. Ryan and I have been sipping on these babies for the past two weeks, practically drooling at the opportunity to unleash them onto the public. Just this week, however, we got the word that the Wine Advocate has scored the upcoming 2015 vintage, handing out a stunning 99 point score to the single Kraehe vineyard Marananga shiraz, and setting the stage for increased market hype. At the moment we're working with very small allocations so supplies are limited, but we're also introducing an entirely new brand to the American market. The label is currently under-the-radar with most domestic drinkers and, even with the rave reviews, there are precious few are know the back story with Powell and Torbreck in the states. I'd advise anyone who routinely enjoys Barossa Valley wines to get in early; especially given our direct import pricing. 

The legendary Dave Powell is back making great wine once again—on his terms and his dime—and this time it's a family affair. We're thrilled to be a part of that extended network.

-David Driscoll

Tuscan on His Own Terms

David Driscoll

You would think that an ancient Tuscan property located in the heart of Chianti (with vineyards that can trace their origins back to the 15th century) would be 100% dedicated to growing world-class sangiovese, but that isn't the case at La Massa. Giampaolo Motta, who first purchased the land back in 1991, was trained as a winemaker in Bordeaux, so he's partial to the French varietals as well. I spoke with our Italian buyer Greg St. Clair via the phone this week as he romped through Tuscany in search of more deals; he had just spent the evening hanging with Giampaolo and said, "This guy only drinks three things: his wine, Bordeaux, and Champagne. His winemaking team is French. His mindset is French. He's pretty much a Frenchman at heart." That's part of the reason a portion of his roughly thirty hectare property is planted to cabernet, merlot, and petit verdot as well as the local sangiovese varietal. The other part has to do with the terroir. After a few vintages of Chianti Classico, Giampaolo realized that a portion of his land wasn't all that suited to growing sangiovese, so he ripped out all the vines, dug down more than eight feet into the earth, and made a detailed map of the soil types located on his property. He then replanted those vineyards with what he felt were the more appropriate varietals based on the make-up of each particular section. The soils that were best suited for sangiovese remained sangiovese, but the other locations became dedicated to Bordeaux grapes. Giampaolo was empassioned by the property's transformation to terroir-focused production, utilizing the lessons he had learned from his enology education abroad.

Of course, it's one thing to decide you're going to start making Chianti wines made from Bordeaux varietals and another to present that forward-thinking agenda to the consorzio vino Chianti Classico that oversees the laws and regulations of the appellation. In order to legally classify a wine as Chianti Classico, the requirement states that the wine must be composed of at least 80% sangiovese. Given his new vineyard DNA, however, and the breakdown of varietal by percentage planted, Giampaolo didn't think he could make that work. Therefore, he presented his case to the consorzio that the regulations be changed so that new and improved versions of Chianti (like his own) could be released with the appellation name. Not known for their modernity or affinity to new ideas, the consorzio soundly rejected Giampaolo's plan and decided that Chianti Classico was to remain sangiovese-dominated. Not one to be stifled, however, an angry Giampaolo moved forward with his Super Tuscan version La Massa in 2002, declassifying the label and releasing it under a more general IGT designation, with a depiction of a dead rooster hanging by its neck on the label—an attempt at black humor using the region's historic symbol as a commentary on how bureaucratic regulations would signal the death of the appellation's growth. From that point forward, he would make wines using the varietals he wanted in the percentages he felt appropriate and never look back. In his mind, Chianti could remain stale and stagnant if it wanted to. He would move forward with his La Massa and Giorgio Primo labels on his own terms. 

While it may seem like a simple act to disassociate oneself from the confines of wine bureaucracy, garnering attention as a Tuscan IGT is a lot like a cabernet from Pauillac or Margaux trying to market itself as a simple AOC Bordeaux rouge. There's a certain amount of prestige that comes from an association with the Chianti appellation, but Giampaolo was certain the quality of his wines would trump that advantage. Sure enough, when the ratings came out and the critics had their say, the wines were scored as high as they ever were and sales for La Massa and Giorgio Primo didn't skip a beat. Given the freedom to operate with his own standards and practices, Giampaolo was able to express a truer sense of place with his expressions. We've carried the La Massa wines for more than a decade, but when the opportunity to work directly and bring the wines in ourselves came about, it was a no brainer. Giampaolo approached Greg about four years about working exclusively with K&L and the relationship continued from there. What has changed, however, is the pricing to the consumer. Whereas our retail price for the La Massa before ranged somewhere between $27-$32 a bottle, we're now able to offer the wine for a more attractive $19.99. A few other changes have occurred at the property since then as well. Giampaolo has hired his friend Stéphane Derenoncourt, who has worked at Canon-la-Gaffelière and Pavie-Macquin, to help in the cellar and work with sustainable methods in the vineyards. Their first vintage together was the 2009 release. Four harvests later, the wines are even more pure, expressive, and terroir-driven than previously. The 2013 release is a revelation in my experience with Super Tuscans, full of deeply-concentrated dark fruits, violets, mineral notes, and subtle notes of oak on the finish. For wine drinkers like myself who enjoy both Bordeaux and Chianti, the La Massa is like the best of both worlds; it has the structure and the drive of a fine French claret, but the juiciness and supple ripeness of a great sangiovese. 

With our direct import pricing, the La Massa is a can't-lose scenario. It's a world-class wine made by a forward-thinking master for a price that's lower than ever. In the same way Giampaolo has bucked the system in Chianti, he's done it with the three-tiered American distribution system going directly to the public via K&L for a more affordable price. Simply put: don't try and tell this guy what to do. 

-David Driscoll

Three Bordeaux Châteaux You Need to Own

Alex Pross

One of the best perks of my job is my annual trip over to Bordeaux; there’s a timeless feel that intoxicates you when you’re there. We're living in the modern era, but as you walk the grounds, stroll the vineyards, and peruse through the châteaux gazing at the paintings that adorn the walls, these antiques tastefully make you feel that the châteaux have changed little since 1855. It is easy to fall under the nostalgic mood that these majestic estates evoke and forget that while seemingly unchanged there are still changes afoot in Bordeaux. The classification of 1855 attempted to codify and rank the properties along the left bank from the five communes (Margaux, Pauillac, St.Estephe, St,Julien & Pessac Leognan) by price and quality. Since 1855 many châteaux have clung to their ranking status—some justifying their lofty positions, some falling off the map qualitatively, and others now outperforming their original ranking. Few if any of the producers can assert that their quality has remained consistently high from 1855 on, but in general the rankings from 1855 do serve as a good guideline. If you’re like me you have pretty much been priced out of the first and second growths since the 2000 vintage, don’t despair since there are plenty of fantastic values to still be found amongst both the classified growths as well as the non-classified growths. There are three producers that you would be wise to purchase whom I think are making exceptional wines that provide the very best bang for your buck. They are: Grand Puy Lacoste in Pauillac, Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac Leognan, and Château Cantemerle in the Haut Medoc.

Grand Puy Lacoste sits in the Pauillac region, easily Bordeaux’s high-rent district with three of the five first growths and eighteen of the sixty-one classified growths residing here. As a fifth growth, Grand Puy Lacoste easily punches above its status and in top vintages it can rival the best wines made in Pauillac. Purchased by Jean-Eugene Borie in 1978 this Château has been run by his son Xavier Borie since the sale. A fabulous location, Grand Puy Lacoste sits directly behind another great fifth growth producer Lynch Bages. Xavier has been tirelessly working to elevate the wines and with a newly renovated cellar the wines coming out of Grand Puy Lacoste have never been better. While many (almost all) of Pauillac’s growth producers sell for at least $100, Grand Puy Lacoste will generally be in the high $40 to $80s on pre-arrival, depending on the vintage. Since the famed 2000 vintage Grand Puy Lacoste has been on a roll and has really stepped up the quality from 2008 on. Those of us in-the-know now recognize Grand Puy Lacoste as the greatest bargain in all of Pauillac. The style of Grand Puy Lacoste highlights many of the changes happening in Bordeaux. It's still classically Bordeaux with those gravelly cabernet sauvignon notes, but the wine has great purity and depth of fruit with a distinctive feel for their terroir while being clean and precise. You can grab the 2014 on futures for $69.99 (97pts JS, 95pts VN & 93-95WA) or the 2015 Grand Puy Lacoste $66.99 (94-96pts WA, 94-96pts JS & 92-95pts VN). I recently drunk both the 2012 and 2014 with friends and they all remarked that these were some of the best Bordeaux they had tasted. They couldn’t believe these wines were both available for under $70. If you want a quintessential Bordeaux experience then Grand Puy Lacoste is for you. A string of great wines 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014 and of course 2015 have firmly convinced me of that.

If you head due south from Pauillac along the D2 you’ll eventually hit Pessac Leognan where our second property is situated. Domaine de Chevalier is located in Pessac-Leognan and like many of its neighbors they make not only a stellar red wine, but also a great white and in the case of Domaine de Chevalier the white has actually been their calling card now for years. Domaine de Chevalier has been called a secret garden thanks to its location which is a whittled out area amongst a forest. This ideal location provides protection for extreme temperatures and allows the grapes to slowly ripen and attain the best possible maturation. If you love white Bordeaux then you would be wise to snatch up Domaine de Chevalier Blanc which is one of the best white Bordeaux in the region at a fraction of the cost of its neighbors La Mission Haut Brion Blanc and Haut Brion Blanc. One of the longest lived whites to come out of Bordeaux, many Burgundy enthusiasts buy Domaine de Chevalier Blanc because of its intensity of fruit, mineral notes and balance which is quite reminiscent of Grand Cru white Burgundy. Not to be outdone, the Domaine de Chevalier Rouge has had a remarkable renaissance and clearly challenges the white as to which wine is truly the greatest from the estate on a vintage-to-vintage basis. Loaded with red fruits and intense mineral notes this perfect expression of the Pessac Leognan commune usually sells for between $50-$90 and is amongst the handful of top producers in Pessac Leognan. 

If you’re truly looking for a great Bordeaux value and you’re determined to pay under $50 (and hopefully more like the $20s-$30s) then Château Cantemerle in the Haut-Medoc is for you. A fifth growth just like Grand Puy Lacoste, Château Cantemerle is one of the least expensive of the classified growths. The Haut-Medoc is nestled between Margaux to the north and Pessac-Leognan to the south. A beautiful property, Cantermerle boasts some of the greatest wines to come out of Bordeaux in the 1940s and recent vintages from 2000 on have proven to be some of the greatest values in all of Bordeaux. Classically-styled, Cantemerle offers red fruits, rose petals, and intense mineral notes dominate this traditional wine. Thanks to its close proximity to both Margaux and Pessac-Leognan, Cantermerle shares some of the best qualities of both of these communes. One of the best qualities of Château Cantemerle is its consistency, vintage-to-vintage they seemingly always make a strong offering and they consistently outperform in reagrds to the overall quality of the vintage. Both the stunning 2009 and momumental 2010 sold for the high $30 to low $40s and were some of the best wines I have ever tasted in those price points. Cantemerle offers an incredible Bordeaux experience and an amazingly affordable price.

While prices have gone up over the years in Bordeaux (so far that they are now beyond your comfort level price-wise), don’t despair. With producers like Grand Puy Lacoste, Domaine de Chevalier, and Cantemerle you can still drink great Bordeaux and not ruin your budget.

-Alex Pross

Burgundy Down Under

David Driscoll

As a fan of the lighter, more aromatic and finessed expression of pinot noir typically found in Burgundy, I have to admit I've been having that itch scratched more often lately by our exclusive Australian and New Zealand selections rather than the standard Marsannay or Beaune offerings in stock. A string of cooler vintages in the Côte d'Or has streamlined much of our current inventory into an individual style; namely, crunchier cranberries rather than soft cherries, and tightly-wound acidity rather than refreshing and relaxed drinkability. The wines are still top notch, but they'll need some time to soften up before they're ready to show their true character. In the meantime, however, there's a slew of pinot noir from Marlborough, Central Otago, and the Yarra Valley that—in my opinion—tastes more Burgundian than some of the actual Burgundy wines we have on the shelf. They offer fresh raspberries on the palate with hints of forest and baking spices on the nose, at amazing prices that reflect our direct importation and make the value proposition unbeatable. Of course, Burgundy is a complex and complicated vicinity. Not all of its red wines are as lithe and feminine as I described above. What about Pommard with its bolder fruit and firm tannic structure? What about Corton with its power and drive? I've got a few bottles of Pommard and Corton sitting in my cellar at the moment. I'm waiting another decade for them to evolve before drinking them. In the meantime, I've recently discovered an Aussie alternative to that style of Burgundian pinot, made by a guy named Allan Nalder. I visited his winery in Australia's Yarra Valley last week and I left in utter awe. His Helen's Hill expressions are some of the most complex and dark-fruited Burgundian-style pinot noirs I've ever tasted outside of the Côte d'Or and now they're available in the states at K&L.

The discovery wasn't mine initially, however. My colleague Ryan Woodhouse—who had already tasted the wines and purchased them—called me while I was visiting the Yarra and said to me distinctly: "Make sure you stop by Helen's Hill and see the vineyards." I did as I was told. I pulled up to find Allan and his team pressing pinot noir for a batch of sparkling wines, tasting the unfermented juice out of the underlying tank and extending a glass in my direction. I liked Allan immediately upon our introduction. He was outgoing, passionate, and straightforward about his winemaking and his intentions in the vineyard. "We specialize in single vineyard pinot noir," he told me right off the bat. "All of our wines are made with our own estate fruit and I know every row of vines like the back of my hand." Many winemakers in the Yarra purchase pinot noir from a number of different growers around the region, but Allan is very particular about his produce. He wants complete control over the process from beginning to end so that he can ensure the purest possible expression of fruit. "I'm not saying I don't trust anyone," he added before we walked into the barrel room; "It's just that I don't trust anyone."  Then he smirked and gave me a wink. "Come on, let's hop in the gator. I'll show you what I mean," he added. 

The "gator" it turns out was an ATV with a flatbed attached to the back. We propped a pillow on the surface so that I could kneel and snap photos as we drove through the vineyards. Like any good Burgundian vigneron, Allan believes in an intimate relationship between the land and the people who look after it. There are a number of different soil types and microclimates (or terroirs) across the property, so the pinot clones vary between Pommard and MV6—the latter of which was grafted from cuttings originally taken from Clos Vougeot, one of the most famous grand cru vineyard sites in all of Burgundy. The Old Block Reserve vineyard, originally planted back in 1980, is where those MV6 vines sit today—old and gnarly—penetrating deep into the hillside and yielding small crops of concentrated fruit. The Range View site is planted with the Pommard clone across a loamy clay soil with a limestone base. The eastward-facing slope produces pinot noir grapes with meatier flavors and earthier undertones, much like I would expect in Pommard itself. We spent a good half hour touring the various locales and examining the unique conditions of each. I was utterly invigorated by Allan's passion for farming.

Much like I've come to understand about winemaking in Burgundy, Allan believes in a more hands-off approach in the cellar. "We subscribe to the whole less-is-more philosophy" he said to me as I snapped a few photos of his gorgeous pinot clusters. There's a reason a winemaker in Burgundy is known as a vigneron—one who tends to vines. It's because they believe ninety-percent of a wine's flavor and character comes from the character it develops on the vine, not from clever techniques in the lab. Once the wines are fermented and put into barrel, Allan continues to taste that development and ultimately selects only the best and most characteristic casks for the Helen's Hill single-site expressions. It's paramount to Allan that the wines reflect the place in which they're grown, and it's clear that Allan takes pride in making that reflection one of quality and complexity. After an inspiring and breathtaking introduction to the property, I was very excited to open a few bottles in the tasting room to see if Allan's descriptions matched up with the wines themselves. It's one thing to talk about the significance of place, but it's another thing to actually taste it and link that unique character with complexity and quality. We're working in a market where many producers are taking a nod to the French idea of terroir and talking about the importance of origins, but it's rare to see that idea translate clearly and distinctly. I had a hunch, however, that Allan's wines were going to deliver the goods—and I was right.

Tasting the 2013 Helen's Hill "Old Block Reserve" with Allan back at the winery was a memorable experience because I have to admit—I thought he may have been pulling my leg by doing a little switcharoo with a bottle of Burgundy. I couldn't believe how Burgundian the wine tasted. It wasn't the bright or juicy style of pinot noir I had been tasting throughout my other appointments in the Yarra. It tasted much more like Volnay with subdued fruit, hints of earth and forest floor, with grittier tannins on the finish. I honestly couldn't believe it was Australian—not because I didn't think Australian pinot noir could be that delicious, but because I didn't think these types of wines existed outside the Côte d'Or. The 2013 "Range View" was just as revelatory with blackberry fruit, dusty tannins, and a darker, more brooding profile. I was speechless, to say the least. Not only did the wines show beautifully, they matched exactly the descriptions that Allan had provided earlier in the vineyards based on the clone being used, the growing conditions, and the microclimates in each site. In the case of Helen's Hill, not only are they following the philosophies of Burgundy, they're actually achieving the same results, yet in a much more approachable style that drinks well right out of the bottle. 

Before we pulled back into the winery, I spotted a couple of kangaroos sitting between a row of vines in the Old Block site. "Do they add anything to the flavor of the wines?" I asked jokingly, hopping off the flat bed to snap a quick photo. 

"That's marketing," he laughed, "Put that up on your blog and tell 'em it's roo terroir!"

Were it not for the kangaroos, I might have forgotten where I was. Helen's Hill is as close as I've come to Burgundy outside of France, but in many ways Allan has improved upon the old world style. The wines are pure, yet unrestrained. They're fleshy, yet elegant. They're charming, yet simultaneously rustic. With our direct import pricing, they're also likely to sell out fast. I'm sure I'll be emailing Allan within the next few weeks asking how long it's going to take before the 14s are ready. Helen's Hill is one of the most exciting producers we've discovered at K&L since I've worked here and the wines are further proof that the Yarra Valley is making wines of serious distinction and quality.

-David Driscoll

The Star of the Sézanne

Gary Westby

For more than a decade, I had my eyes open for a good producer from the Sézanne in Champagne, but had no luck in finding one. This sub-region of Champagne is an isolated valley on chalk soil cut out of a plain in the middle of nowhere. Although just thirty miles south of Epernay, the empty, even desolate land between the two places makes it seem like another planet. I never suspected that I would eventually strike gold with a cooperative in the Sézanne (or for that matter anywhere). I am a partisan for independent grower producers, and wrongly thought that all co-ops only produced basic to low-quality wine in order to hit a low price point. Le Brun de Neuville disproved my prejudice with their obsession for quality, especially with their “Authentique”.

Le Brun de Neuville is located in Bethon, right in the heart of the Sézanne. They have 370 acres total from the 168 members of the cooperative, but they only make Champagne from the best third of that land. Although their vineyard spreads across seven villages, the Authentique is only made from the best plots in Bethon. The wines are pressed in a combination of computer controlled, modern coquard diagonal presses and Pera bladder presses. When I visited, Amandine Vouhleur wowed me with their capacity—they have room for ten years of stocks, allowing for very long ageing of the wines. The “Authentique” profits from that capacity as it's aged for five years on the lees on a cork rather than a cap (so the cork in the bottle is its second).

Aging on a cork like this is a pain—none of the disgorgement lines will accommodate bottles like this, and they must all be disgorged by hand. The benefit is a better exchange with, and a bit of immunization from, oxygen. The five years on the lees give this wine a nutty creaminess, while the pure chalk soil gives the wine zip and minerality. The bead on this wine is tiny and shows the long time on the lees. I love the Le Brun de Neuville "Authentique Assemblage" on its own as an aperitif, and I have also had great luck pairing it with oysters. I think it might be the best bottle we have in the store for pairing with caviar, which is saying something given the great direct import price. This producer is a star in the Sézanne and a new star in our direct import program. I hope that you'll give the wine a try.

-Gary Westby

2014 Bordeaux Revisions

David Driscoll

I wrote an article here about a year ago breaking down the early misperceptions of the 2012 Bordeaux vintage, how the cold conditions led to cautious and calculated scores, and how the prices were therefore much lower than the quality of the wines would later suggest. When you're in the Bordeaux wine reviewing business, your credibility is everything. Thus, it's better to under-promise and over-deliver than it is vice versa. If you know that about the business, however, and you're able to read between the lines of what's being said (and what's not being said as well), then it's easy to know when there's a deal to be had. Scoring Bordeaux en primeur is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It's still cold in April, the wines are tannic and just barely beginning to show fruit, and you're expected to make an assessment about their potential from which customers all over the world will ultimately make their purchasing decisions. I went last year to evaluate the 2015 vintage and that was a rather ripe harvest. I can only imagine what it must have been like to go the year before with the 2014 wines; a classic Bordeaux vintage that likely did not yield much early on beyond acidity and tightly-wound fruit.

Yes, "tightly-wound" is exactly how the wines start out, before they slowly come unraveled and begin to show you what they're truly made of. That's why most Bordeaux critics go back each year after the harvest to retaste the wines and see how they're developing. As you can probably guess, the wines typically get better scores the second and third time around. As I'm sure you can also conclude, the better the scores, the higher the prices. It's exactly for that reason that my colleague Alex Pross and I have been jumping up and down, waving our hands, and trying to convince our best Bordeaux customers to buy into the 2014 vintage while we still have the original pricing—the costs attributed to the wines after that initial and cautious first round of scoring. You may have seen my post from a few weeks back about the 2014 Domaine de Chevalier, a wine that started out between 90-92 points from most of the main critics, before leaping up to a whopping 96. All of a sudden people began uttering phrases like "wine value of the vintage" and other such accolades, which only increases demand and encourages the vendors to up their price tags. As I was rounding up final allocations from our negotiant partners in the region, I noticed the prices had already gone up significantly once the new round of scores began to break. Luckily, we had committed early and still held our original costs. Many of the wines that had long been available in large quantities were now on the verge of selling out. In the end, we're no different than the pre-arrival consumer in this game: the more research we can do early on, the better the price we're able to buy for. If you're a savvy shopper, you know it's better to get in first.

Antonio Galloni from Vinous came out a few weeks back with this summary, one that follows everything we've been harping about for the last year here at K&L:

Most importantly, 2014 is a very consumer friendly year. The market for Bordeaux tends to divide between those vintages that are considered ‘great’ and are therefore subject to massive price speculation, and those that are ‘average’, which are seen as much less desirable by many marker constituents. This market dynamic creates a significant opportunity for savvy consumers to pick up any number of gorgeous wines at fair prices. Two thousand fourteen is an ideal vintage for consumers who buy wines to actually drink them (because prices should mostly be favorable) and members of the wine trade who have a commitment to serving those consumers. The 2015s, and most likely also the 2016s, will be surrounded by much more market hype. Some of that enthusiasm will be warranted, some not, but what is almost certain is that both vintages will be more expensive in bottle than the 2014s.

Yep. And how about this recent statement from James Sucking:

What makes the 2014s even more appealing is their prices. This may be the best value in Bordeaux since the 2008 vintage.

That sounds about right! Of course, the real value comes with pre-arrival ordering, as in paying upfront now and getting the wines later when they're finally released in bottle. I'd expect the 2014 Chevalier to jump from $49.99 to $59.99 by the time we actually get it in stock. 

-David Driscoll