On the Trail

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

The Sights in Sydney

David Driscoll

After my five day trip through Australia's Yarra Valley, I had a few days to spend in Sydney—a city I was interested in exploring, yet had no real connection to previously. Since I was old enough to drink, I've longed for the romanticism of Rome, the posh sensibility of Paris, and the tumult of Tokyo's nightlife, but I don't think there was even a small part of me that longed for the sights of Sydney. Frankly, I didn't know much about it and I didn't know what I would do if I were to ever get there. However, after a few days and nights of non-stop eating, drinking, walking, and snapshotting, I've really come to love Sydney. There's a completeness here; there's nothing lacking. You can do it all: swim, hike, shop, and eat—all in one place! Not only would I recommend spending a few days in Sydney on your way back from the Yarra, I'd advocate for Sydney as an international destination worthy of all our attention. In many ways it combines the best parts of Seattle, San Francisco, Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Miami all into one easy-to-navigate destination. And the food! Oh, the delicious food. Let me show you a few hot spots.

After a boat ride around the harbor, I'd suggest stopping at Bennelong near the Opera House, a spectacularly visual dining experience with some of the freshest seafood in Australia. We don't typically think of Sydney as a seafood destination, but as a few people mentioned to me during my stay, much of the produce that's brought back to Japan is harvested from just north of Queensland. 

I went all in for the scallops as well as a steamed cod, which paired beautifully with the extensive and interesting wine list. We tried to order only Australian wines at every meal and, as we all know, the country has a number of delicate and fish-friendly rieslings, chardonnays, and lighter sauvignon blancs. I'd go back here again in a heartbeat. 

For drinks in the evening, I'd suggest starting at the Baxter Inn: a fantastic cocktail with an extensive Scotch whisky list (posted behind the counter) and a secret entrance that you'd never find on your own. Make sure you ask a local to help you find the door. If you don't like whisky, there are plenty of gin-based options!

For dinner, walk a few blocks over to Hubert, a French-themed brasserie owned by the same group that does the Baxter Inn. While the food is fantastic, it's really about the atmosphere at Hubert. There's a large dining hall with a stage and live jazz music, along with beautiful decor, an attentive waitstaff, and another well-curated wine list. I felt transported to another time while eating there and now I'm itching to go back.

The real secret of Sydney, I've discovered, is the upstairs food court at the Westfield mall downtown; a spot that has a number of serious Asian-themed destinations in a city with a large Asian population due to its proximity. Dai Tin Fung was one of the first places I ate during my stay in Taiwan a few years back and I was shocked to find an outlet here. I ate there three times during my stay in Sydney, each time going back for different dumplings and cold beer. 

There's also an Ippudo here, which was a lifesaver yesterday when all I really wanted was a bowl of spicy ramen and tall glass of Asahi. You can sit at the bar and watch the shoppers scatter while slurping up your noodles. While I know I'm in the minority with the wine crowd, I love malls. This was a win-win for me. 

My favorite little gem, however, is Frankie's Pizza: an underground, super-divey, CBGB-like, rock n' roll haven that dishes out cocktails and cold beers with by-the-slice options and one of the most eclectic crowds I've ever seen in one establishment. I would probably be there every night if I lived in Sydney, playing pinball at the back with the bikers and grabbing slices from the rowdy boys manning the oven.

There's a lot to do in Sydney and the food culture offers more than enough interest and diversity. I'd put it on your short list of international destinations, especially if you love the bustle of a big city. 

-David Driscoll

The First Grand Cru Tequila

David Driscoll

The big mezcal boom that was supposed to happen at some point during 2016 never really came to fruition (at least not at K&L), but there’s one important lesson that the Oaxacan spirit has taught adventurous drinkers over the last few years: agave distillates are much more like wine than they are whiskey. It took the emergence of a second agave spirit to really elucidate that lesson to tequila drinkers. The fact that tequila must be made from only one particular species of agave—agave azul—I think is lost on many people. Imagine if all wines in the world were made only from cabernet sauvignon and you’ll begin to understand the importance of mezcal’s emergence in the spirits world. Oaxacan distillers have much more freedom than those in Jalisco and they work with a number of both cultivated and wild agave species. With the push for single varietal mezcal expressions now on the market, agave enthusiasts have become familiar with species like espadín, tobalá, cuixe, madrecuixe, arroqueño, and mexicano; to name a few. Imagine if, as a wine drinker, you’d just discovered syrah, grenache, zinfandel, and pinot noir. That’s what mezcal’s rise to fame over the last few years has offered tequila drinkers—the chance to compare and contrast. Yet, at the same time, there’s a reason that cabernet is king. There’s a reason that both Bordeaux and Napa are the two most prestigious wine capitals of the world, and that cabernet sauvignon continues to be cultivated all over the planet. After centuries of trial and error, vintners from around the globe have decided that particular varietal is one of the best tasting, and the wine-buying public has reinforced that conclusion.

“There’s a reason we’ve stuck to blue agave over the years,” tequila distiller and Jalisco landowner Enrique Fonseca told me over the phone this past week, “It makes a delicious tasting spirit.” I couldn’t argue with him. While the flavors of mezcal’s many agave varieties offer wild, complex, and intriguing characteristics, there’s no doubt in my mind that tequila’s inclusive and mild-mannered profile resonates with a larger audience. However, much like cabernet can offer a wide range of flavor profiles depending on where it’s grown and the climate in which it matures, Enrique believes the same terroir-driven elements are at play in the many blue agave fields of Jalisco and that altitude, location, and soil types have the same amount of influence on the ultimate flavor of a tequila—beyond the simple Highland or Lowland designations. The reason this isn’t a more widely-known theory is because few distillers (and few drinkers alike) have shown an interest in pursuing that level of tequila connoisseurship. However, just like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne have districts of classified vineyards and properties, each ranked by their geographical potential for greatness, wouldn’t a similar approach in Jalisco help raise the bar for an individual tequila’s standing? If a wine can be considered a grand cru based on the supreme growing conditions of its vineyard origins, couldn’t the same case be made for a single-site tequila? Enrique Foneseca thinks so, and he’s the largest single owner of agave in all of Mexico. With dozens of agave sites (or huertas) at this disposal, Enrique recently began fermenting and distilling individual parcels separately, searching for what we thought was a unique and individual style of tequila. After a few years of trial and error, he found the flavor he was looking for; from a locale known as “El Maguey,” as fate would have it. 

“It’s to the south of Atotonilco, about a mile and a half, where we have a medium-sized mountain,” Enrique continued to explain; “The other side of that mountain is well protected from the cold of Los Altos, so there’s a temperate climate throughout the year. The tequila we made from this agave is characteristic of mid-elevation agave, about 1600 meters above sea level. The soil is yellowish-brown and not very deep. The agave we used comes from the slope of this soil where the water drains downhill into a creek at the bottom of the basin.” As someone who’s worked in the wine industry for ten years at this point, I’m well-versed in the superiority of grapes grown on a mountainside. The angle not only prevents the vines from flooding during rainy seasons (and remember that agave piñas take roughly seven years to mature), but also from long exposure to sun and other elements. It only makes sense that similar conditions in Jalisco would lead to perfectly-mature blue agave piñas. “It’s also part of a small canyon that helps to protect the field from cold,” Enrique added, “so there’s a good microclimate for the development of agave. I wanted to present a different side of tequila though. People are always talking about agave from Amatitan and Los Altos, but I wanted to show tequila drinkers that there are other terroirs in Jalisco besides those two; something in the middle. That particular flavor comes from the agave grown south of Atotonilco.” 

According to Enrique, the climate in the area known as “El Maguey” is almost subtropical. In addition to blue agave, there are also banana and coffee trees growing inside of a canyon into which the slope runs. The locale provides ample sun, but also protects the produce from wind and weather. “The sugar levels in the agave there are normal, but the flavors are very balanced. They’re neither too fruity, nor too spicy. They’re not too vegetal, either. There’s a perfect mix of all those characteristics, which is why we chose it.” And what about the resulting tequila? The single estate, single huerta distillate made entirely from blue agave sourced from Enrique’s “El Maguey” property? It’s without a doubt one of the most concentrated, clean-tasting, and pure agave-laden tequilas I’ve ever tasted. It’s so fresh and packed with succulent roasted agave flavor that it took me more than a half dozen tastings before I fully understood the pleasure signals my taste buds were sending to my brain. “The key to the purity of flavor is the second distillation in a copper alembic to remove any impurities,” Enrique told me later on during our conversation. Many distilleries are still using stainless steel for their stills. That’s where that metallic or unclean flavor in tequila often comes from.” The care with which Enrique produced this batch of single-site blanco tequila is akin to the same care a Burgundian vigneron would give to chardonnay grapes from Chassagne-Montrachet, removing stems and leaves by hand to make sure the fruit was given its full ability to shine. The resulting 2013 vintage-dated Fuenteseca “El Maguey” blanco tequila is simply immaculate. It’s stunning. It’s solid evidence—proof, no less—that single-site tequilas may offer complexity, delicacy, and simple deliciousness beyond the stifling blanco, reposado, añejo paradigm. It’s a tequila that instantly redefines the category and calls into question the methodology with which the spirit is made. 

After a long rest in stainless steel tanks, Enrique is finally ready to unleash his "grand cru" expression, to our great excitement. Let’s start with the aromatics. From the minute you pop the cork and begin nosing the bottle, sweet smells of incense, roasted agave, and tropical fruit completely inundate the nose. Absent entirely are the aromas of pepper, savory spice, or vegetal notes that usually accompany the fruitier tones. It’s as hedonistic as unadulterated tequila can smell, in my experience; but the spirit is not without spice on the whole. The first sip builds on those enticing aromas, but a huge dollop of baking spices, sweet agave nectar, and candied papaya lights up the palate before they take hold. I can’t reiterate strongly enough the pure and electric nature of the roasted agave flavor. I’m not sure how many people have ever chewed on a piece of cooked blue agave, but having done so numerous times I can safely tell you that never have I tasted this literal of a translation into the spirit itself. The finish is where all of these elements come into focus. The lift of the baking spices builds with the alcohol and turns into sweet citrus. The roasted agave notes breath heavily thereafter and the combination lingers for a full minute before fading gracefully. To be honest, I felt the same way first tasting the 2013 Fuenteseca “El Maguey” as I did my first sip of Richebourg or Haut-Brion: an understanding that the quality wasn’t so much in the intensity of the flavors, but rather in the harmony and the grace of their presentation. It still tastes like blanco tequila, just on another level of sophistication.

But it’s too early to say if “El Maguey” is Jalisco’s Romanée-Contí just yet. It took the growers in Burgundy centuries of trial and error before coming to the conclusions they did. The idea of single-site tequila is still in its infancy and it will take decades of experimentation before we know which locations have the best potential for greatness. What we do know, however, is that the 2013 Fuenteseca is huge step forward for true aficionados of Jalisco’s fine spirit. It’s easily one of the best tequilas I’ve ever tasted and it’s more proof that, unlike whiskey, the spirit's most complex qualities may not necessarily develop with maturation. Moving forward, it may be that the best tequilas will be judged and designated by their origins and the specifics of their individual campos, rather than by brand and how long they were aged. What's most exciting about Enrique's approach is that it puts quality and flavor clearly into focus. The 2013 Fuenteseca Single Huerta Blanco Tequila isn't some brazen attempt to capitalize on the fashion of terroir. It's clear and indisputable proof that agave and grapes have more in common than we think.

-David Driscoll

Like Sonoma Thirty Years Ago

David Driscoll

Famous for its cool climate chardonnay and pinot noir, there are a few other things I’d like point out about the Yarra Valley to anyone who likes to drink. First off, almost all of the the wines I’ve tasted over the last few days are the perfect balance of upfront new world fruit, with old world balance and restraint. The wines are lower in alcohol and higher in acidity, but they don’t lack fruit or freshness. They’re not as sweet or as ripe as in California, but also not as tart or earthy as in Burgundy. For those of you searching for food-friendly, complex, aromatic, and terroir-driven wines that are affordable, humble, and—most importantly—drinkable in their youth (as in right now!), I don’t think I can over emphasize how dynamic the Yarra Valley selections are. Driving around over the last few days, I got the impression it’s what Sonoma might have been like twenty or thirty years ago, before the region blew up and the money began flooding in. There's not a lot of marketing here. The quality of the wines speaks for itself. Not only are the wines down-to-earth and easy to love, the people are as well. Let me introduce you to a few of them.

Allan Nalder is the owner of Helen's Hill, a producer we just began importing directly to K&L recently that specializes in single vineyard expressions. Quite frankly, it's one of the coolest wineries I've ever visited—ever. Not only is Allan a salt of the earth kind of character, he's not at all shy about sharing his passion for winemaking. "I'm not saying I don't trust anyone," he said to me when I asked him if he purchased fruit from other sites in the Yarra; "It's just that I don't trust anyone." Helen's Hill prides itself in using only estate fruit to make its absolutely fantastic pinot noir releases. "I know where every berry in each wine came from and I can take you to the exact spot in the vineyard where we picked them." To prove that very point two me, we jumped on his "gator" (and ATV with a flatbed attached to the back) and went for a drive. His wines are darker and fleshier than some of the bright and juicy pinots I tasted. They're like Pommard and Volnay wines, but more approachable and dependable. I liked both Allan and his wonderful wines immediately.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had run into Giant Steps winemaker Steve "Flamo" Flamsteed earlier in the week, but yesterday I finally went by the winery and tasted through their entire line-up with Cameron Gordon, the sales manager for the estate. Not only is the winery top notch, but their on-site restaurant is also spectacular. Stylistically, the wines of Giant Steps are sort of in-between Sonoma's Walter Hansel and Santa Cruz's Mount Eden: they have structure and heft, but also supremely pure fruit and plenty of lush textures that derive from that perfect ripeness. I was blown away by some of their expressions, particularly the Applejack Vineyard pinot noir, which you can buy for less at K&L than you can in Australia! There's something down-home, yet refined about Giant Steps that's hard to pin point. It's like a meeting someone who's really good looking, but is completely unaware of that fact. It's quite refreshing, to say the least.

One of the highlights of my trip was getting to spend an afternoon with Yarra Yering's winemaker Sarah Crowe, who was recently named "Winemaker of the Year" by famed Aussie critic James Halliday. The property is one of the Yarra's oldest with vineyards originally planted in the late sixties by one of the pioneers of Aussie winemaking, Dr. Bailey Carrodus. Since his death in 2008, Sarah has picked up the mantle and continued the estate's pristine tradition of supreme quality. If you're looking for the Château Latour of the Yarra, this is it. Not only does Yarra Yering make an outstanding Bordeaux-style cuvée, their new black label "Carrodus" editions (sold only at the winery unfortunately) are absolutely mind-blowing. The 2011 straight viognier about made my heart stop. I had to sit down on the ground at one point and close my eyes in order to take it all in. 

Then, of course, there's Oakridge: perhaps my favorite Yarra Valley producer and one that we've been directly importing for a number of years now. I don't think there's a better value in pinot noir or chardonnay at K&L currently and it was great to finally see the estate for myself. Oakridge makes a number of single vineyard and even single block wines (you can see the block 864 sign in the photo above) that really illustrate the unique and diverse terroirs in the region. I spent the morning with general manager Danny Kane tasting through the clean and crisp selections of white wines before taking a walk through the vines. 

Part of the reason the Oakridge wines pair so well with food is because food is high on the list of priorities at Oakridge. Not only do they have an organic garden growing on site, their house chef Matt Stone is a world-class superstar and you can taste his stunning dishes if you drop by the winery for lunch. That's the other thing about the Yarra Valley: they care just as much about food as we do here in California, they just don't need to jump up and down about it, or spend the entire time Instagramming each dish as it comes out. There's a quiet confidence here. You eat, you drink, you talk, and you enjoy every minute of it. All of a sudden, that fourteen hour flight from San Francisco doesn't seem nearly as daunting. If you're looking for wine country, with all the amenities of wine country, but without any of the pretense of wine country, it's here waiting for you.

-David Driscoll

Distilling Gin

David Driscoll

I'm at Four Pillars in Australia's Yarra Valley this morning distilling a batch of gin for K&L, tasting through botanicals and ironing out the final recipe for Cameron Mackenzie, the company's head distiller, to eventually scale up for a larger run. While gin has made a large comeback over the last decade, I still find that a lot of its most avid fans don't understand quite what gin is; therefore, I thought I'd take the opportunity to break it down for you step-by-step since I'm in the middle of working through each phase right now! Gin's origins date back to the 13th century when juniper berry tonics were a common remedy for various ailments like an upset stomach. With the beginning of the spice trade in the 1400s and the invention of Dutch genever (the precursor to the London style we're more familiar with today) the recipes began to include various other herbs and botanicals like cloves, cardamom, and pepper. In essence, gin is just flavored vodka. It's a neutral grain spirit macerated and distilled with a custom recipe of ingredients, which can be infused, boiled, and vaporized in various ways. All of these techniques are at the whim of the distiller, who need not even create his base material these days. Today most gin producers are purchasing the neutral spirit pre-made, then simply running that base through a still filled with their own customized botanicals. The commonality to all of these recipes is the juniper. From that point on, however, the sky's the limit.

When I arrived at the distillery this morning I found that Cam had laid out a table of various fruits, nuts, herbs, spices, and roots for me to sample. My goal was to come up with a recipe that we could distill and use for a K&L custom batch of Four Pillars gin. There were things like red and green szechuan, peppermint gum, cassia, and roasted wattle seeds to nose, along with heaps of local Aussie citrus options. I was imagining a fruity and sweetly-spiced expression that built on the distillery's house style and simply increased the intensity. I began grabbing things like Tasmanian pepperberry, and strawberry gum, along with lemon myrtle and heaps of sandalwood nuts to add an oiliness of texture.

Cam had been heating up a base of neutral grain with juniper berries, into which I began dumping my additions. For all of the seeds, nuts, and spices, we added them directly into the liquid; almost like making a soup. With the citrus and fruit, however, we put all of those into a mesh sack that we then hung at the top of the still. Rather than boil the fruit and end up with marmalade-like flavors, we wanted the freshness and zippiness of the citrus to shine through. When the alcohol in the base spirit begins to boil and separate from the water, the vapor will pass through our fruit sack, allowing us to flavor the spirit in its gas state, before it's condensed back into a liquid.

After getting our various botanicals into place, Cam and I sealed the door and began heating up the copper Carl still. At about 78.3 degrees Celsius the alcohol begins to vaporize and move through the top of the pot into a second chamber that has a series of plates creating reflux. The heavier elements are unable to move through the permeated levels and get pushed back into the pot. Those vapors that are able to rise into the condenser are the brighter, fresher, and cleaner elements we're after. 

As the spirit began coming off the still we began to get an idea of how the gin was taking shape. The initial flavors were all citrus dominated, but as time went on the heavier juniper and nutty characteristics were released and began making themselves known in the liquid. Hopefully we've got a winner on our hands! We'll know more as the afternoon goes on.

-David Driscoll

Hunting in the Yarra Valley

David Driscoll

Located about an hour to the east of Melbourne, the Yarra Valley is the Sonoma of Australia: a cool climate growing region that specializes in pinot noir and chardonnay and offers a more down-home and personal experience for wine country tourists. While winemaking in the Yarra dates back to the mid-eighteen hundreds, styles, selections, and practices have continued to evolve over the years, reinventing themselves over again even during the last two decades. I've become rather smitten with the wines over the last few years thanks to my colleague Ryan Woodhouse, who has worked tirelessly to promote the Yarra's low-alcohol, clean, fresh, and food-friendly selections since joining our staff sometime back. His passion and knowledge of the area instilled a passion in me, one based on the simple and straightforward nature of the winemaking. There's no pretense in the Yarra, and there's little tolerance for pedantry or typical wine country posturing. The producers here make wines to drink, not to collect or fawn over in the cellar, but in no way does that practicality imply a lack of depth or quality in the final product. For the past twenty years there's been a commitment to organic and biodynamic practices in the vineyard, as well as a hands-off philosophy in the winery. Whereas before a number of producers hoped to mimic the great wines of France, today they're embracing their own identity; one distinctly rooted in individualism.

While most of my appointments this week are at wineries with whom Ryan has already established relations, I decided to devote a bit of my time to exploration and community outreach; hoping to potentially add a few new direct producers to our already potent stable. My friends over at Four Pillars distillery had been raving about the wines from a somewhat new upstart called Payten & Jones, a small project started by two friends from the Yarra with experience in the industry. Behn Payten spent a number of years working as a winemaker at Punt Road, even working on some of the Dalwhinnie wines that we import to K&L, and his partner Troy Jones works in sales while managing time over at Four Pillars. I spent the afternoon with Behn tasting through a handful of his wines and touring his estate vineyards. Behn's dad Peter, a viticulturist and consultant in the Yarra Valley, also helps with the project, working to source additional fruit beyond the pinot noir and chardonnay sites on Behn's property. Having worked at Botobolar in the early eighties, Peter Payten had an early role in organic farming in the Yarra. Botobolar was the first organic vineyard in all of Australia when it was founded in the seventies, and his experience there has proved valuable to those producers who continue to move away from pesticides and other chemicals.

Located just outside of Healesville behind one of the Yarra's highest peaks, Behn's original house perished in what's referred to as "Black Saturday" in the Yarra; the horrendous wildfires that savaged the region's hillsides and killed more than 170 people back in February of 2009. Having talked with a number of folks in the area over the last few days, it's clear the tragedy is still fresh in their minds and the blackened trees that still scatter the region are a stark reminder of that carnage. "After the fire a lot of outside money came in to help rebuild," Behn told me as we gazed out over his vines. "When they rebuilt the infrastructure it was better than before. There was more awareness at that point and today we're stronger because of it. Before then we tried to make pinot noir like Burgundy and cabernet like in Bordeaux, but today we understand what Yarra is and how the fruit responds in turn."

Having spent the early afternoon tasting the Payten & Jones estate pinot noir and marveling in its pure-fruited freshness and aromatic finesse, I asked Behn if we might have a look at the vineyard site, so we took a drive up to his home on top of the ridge. We were joined by his daughter Pia, who helped us navigate beneath the tarp meant to keep out local pests and animals. "We get kangaroos here and loads of wombats," he said with a chuckle. I was dying to run into one, I told him. "We'll keep an eye out," he replied. "They'll be here by dusk." In addition to his estate selections, Behn is making a lush, yet vibrant grenache and a solera-aged, non-vintage sangiovese that about knocked my socks off. The wines are modern in their expressiveness, but classic in their restraint. In essence, they represent a style currently embraced by a number of forward-thinking Yarra producers: wines made to drink in their youth, but with complexity and elegance. The best of both worlds, if you ask me. 

As we moved to Behn's deck just behind his fantastic swimming pool, he brought out some home-cured venison sausage and a huge knife he had forged himself at a local cutlery. "That's a knife," he said without an ounce of sarcasm, harnessing his best Paul Hogan for me. I had thought the old Croc Dundee stereotype might be passé at this point, but I was secretly charmed by Behn's relaxed and laid back nature. There's not one bit of snobbery in the guy, and his wines are as humble and easy-going as he is. As we nibbled and sipped, Behn kept watch with the binoculars for some of Australia's famous wildlife. I stood by with camera in hand, re-pouring tastes of the delicious estate chardonnay that balanced the full-malo richness with a bit of bitterness from the tannins rather than acidity—a novel idea!

Sure enough, just as Behn had promised, a few curious creatures began to emerge from the hinterlands. This was about as close as they got, seeing that a strange American with a large black camera kept inching closer in search of a more detailed photo. It's not often you get to drink dynamic bottles of pinot noir and chardonnay while observing a family of kangaroos in the wild. But that's part of the Yarra's inherent charm. It's a different version of what we think of as wine country; and one that I quite prefer. There's a certain quirkiness that a number of producers once questioned, but today have come to embrace.

-David Driscoll

Live from Australia!

David Driscoll

While a number of our travel posts and winemaker profiles are written after the fact, I still think it's fun to update our customers from the road in real time. As K&L's assistant head buyer I'm on the hunt in Australia this week, visiting a number of distilleries and wineries in the Yarra Valley outside of Melbourne. This is my first time to the region and I'm loving everything so far, from the relaxed vibe, to the superb selection of wines and the warm summer weather. What's been most striking however is how eager everyone in Healesville (where I'm staying this week as a guest of Four Pillars distillery) is to participate in the culture, from the tourists who visit the region to the locals who embrace it. Within just a few minutes of dropping my bags at the hotel, I chatted with a guy on the front porch about chardonnay and how he thinks the Yarra Valley makes the perfect expression of it. As a huge fan of Yarra whites from producers like Oakridge and Giant Steps, I couldn't argue with him. 

Speaking of Giant Steps, in heading over to the Four Pillars distillery to meet up with head honcho Cameron Mackenzie (with whom I'll be making a K&L exclusive batch of gin next week), I ran into Steve Flamsteed, the head winemaker who happened to be catching a gin and tonic after work. The three of us made plans to come by the winery over the weekend to taste a few of the new releases and see the property. Steve recently won "Winemaker of the Year" from Gourmet Traveller, so the wines are definitely in the spotlight right now. Look for a number of new posts over the next ten days as I work on a new Faultline gin recipe for K&L and try to distill the essence of the Yarra Valley into some of these articles.

-David Driscoll

Our Spanish Uncle in Rioja

Joe Manekin

Having spoken with a number of Spanish wine drinkers in the store, I know many of you already know a little something about one of our favorite “personajes” in Rioja. You may have enjoyed one of his delicious Reservas, or even have had the pleasure of tasting the wines on site in his beautifully restored nineteenth century bodega. Miguel Merino, the brand, was the first in our stable of Spanish direct imports; a winery whose delicious, fairly-priced Riojas enjoy an ever-growing, loyal fan base here at K&L. Miguel Merino, the person, is simply one of the most charming, gregarious, caring and fun individuals with whom I have the pleasure of working. I think of him as something like a Spanish uncle: quick to offer a friendly word of advice or encouragement, but never critical, always emphasizing humor and the human element of the wine trade.

While Miguel is a fantastic person, it is his combination of accumulated experience and long standing relationships which have helped him to make his “retirement project" (as he is fond of calling his winery) a huge success. Miguel worked on the commercial/export side of the Spanish wine business, and along the way made a point to get to know as many vineyard owners, winemakers, and winery owners as he could. In short, the conclusions he reached were the following: the village of Briones produces some of the best grapes in all Rioja, the best vineyards are composed of chalky clay soil, ideally with gentle slopes for drainage, and great wine simply needs patience to develop its “cruising altitude” as Miguel says. This is what lead him to Briones, to purchase and rent out vineyards (these rented vineyards are always from friends), and to focus primarily on producing Reserva level (which call for a minimum ageing period of 3 years) wine. We currently have a whole range of wines from Miguel via our latest shipment, though the two wines below are his top values and a great introduction to Rioja in general.

The 2012 Miguel Merino “Viñas Jovenes” Crianza Rioja, sourced from comparably younger vines (viñas jovenes in Spanish), is still a characterful wine (no surprise to me, as the vines actually are approaching eighteen years old and are not far from their prime production period). It has a beautiful, translucent ruby color and there are deep, dark cherry aromas leading to a very concentrated, pure, intense, cherry-fruited palate. Give this wine some air, and do not be afraid to finish it up on the second or even third day; it will only taste better! The 2009 Miguel Merino “Vitola” Reserva Rioja is a perhaps the K&L staff favorite. For Vitola, Miguel uses fruit from vines (primarily Tempranillo with a bit of Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo) averaging forty years of age. He is going for a modern classic style of wine, structured but both age-worthy and drinkable upon release. This 2009 really brings the fruit! Given that the fruit comes from Briones, Rioja, however, the wine also has intensity, chalky minerality, and the authority of Rioja Alta fruit from mature vines.

The wines of Miguel Merino never disappoint. They're the foundation of our ever-expanding foray into the world of Spanish wine importation for a reason. 

-Joe Manekin

The Rise of Domaine de Chevalier

David Driscoll

In a recent reappraisal of the 2014 Bordeaux vintage, Vinous head critic Antonio Galloni said of Domaine de Chevalier: "Olivier Bernard owns one of the crown jewels of Bordeaux, as these wines clearly make evident." He finished that sentiment with a whopping 96 point score, calling the domaine's rouge one of the "don't miss" cuvées of the vintage. Of course, that wasn't news to us here at K&L. Since the day I started working for the company, Domaine de Chevalier has been one of our staff's favorite wines. In fact, I was once gifted a bottle of the 1990 vintage by my former colleague Jim Chanteloup after my first big holiday season. I had no idea what it was at the time, as I had just started learning about Bordeaux and was simply trying to get a handle on the Médoc's classified growths, but I remember him saying: "Trust me; this is a really great bottle." Back then, our senior wine guys saw the Chevalier rouge as an insider's claret; a poor man's Haut-Brion. "This property is completely underrated," I recall my colleague Ralph Sands telling me once; "The wines can live forever." The word "secret" is definitely part of the vernacular when speaking about the domaine. Known as "the secret garden" due to its location, the vineyards are planted within a clearing in the middle of a forest, the boundaries of which protect the vines from extreme weather. What's becoming less of a secret, however, is the value of the domaine's great wines—both white and red. It was clear during our visit to the estate this past Spring, tasting through the spectacular recent vintages from the domaine, that Chevalier's time in the spotlight is most definitely upon us.

The property at Chevalier dates back to the mid-1800s when the term "domaine" still had a wider connotation than today's standard château moniker, one that has today ceased to exist in the region. It's a designation that still carries an important meaning for Oliver Bernard, the current proprietor and owner of the estate. The original domaine—known then as Chivaley and named after the "chivalrous" knights that may have traveled down a nearby path in medical times—consisted of a larger agricultural operation with farm animals and vast meadows, woods, and, of course, vineyards. "The word domaine implies a notion of both terroir and wines, and the complex interaction between them," Oliver told us over dinner. The terroir at Domaine de Chevalier and its potential for greatness were recognized early on and the property's wines rose to fame quite quickly after its formation in the 17th century. When the Bernard family purchased the domaine, the lineage of stewardship traced back to only three men: Jean Ricard, his son-in-law Gabriel Beaumartin, and Claude Ricard, who led the property to its grand cru classification back in 1953. The somewhat spiritual connection that Chevalier has formed between its caretakers is apparent in the domaine's fourth steward, Olivier, who worked with Claude for five years after first purchasing the property in 1983. "He helped me to under stand Chevalier's true nature," Olivier said of that period. What exactly is the nature of Chevalier, you ask? Let me tell you.

It's clear to Olivier that the responsibility of managing Chevalier is more than just a job; it's a long-term commitment and a philosophical undertaking. The opportunity to care for one of Bordeaux's most special terroirs is a privilege, and it is one rooted in the family, which is why his sons are by his side helping to manage the estate today. There are forty-five hectares of vines at the domaine, forty of which are planted to red varietals and another five devoted to white. The vineyards are high density, meaning the struggle between each vine for nutrients in the gravelly soil produces low yields of concentrated and thick-skinned grapes. Besides the surrounding forest and lack of any neighboring sites, what makes Chevalier's terroir even more unique is that it's one single square block, rather than a winding network of vineyards or series of parcels. It's a contained and isolated ecosystem that, as Oliver stated, "is free from outside contamination." The result is an early-ripening cabernet that's often as aromatic as it is finessed, defined by mineral notes and hints of graphite—the calling card of the Graves—with light accents of pepper and spice. What may surprise a number of red Bordeaux drinkers is that the Chevalier blanc is often more prized than the rouge and often can age for just as long! With a fiercely mineral core alongside ripe and somewhat tropical fruit flavors, the white Chevalier often sells for double the price of the standard red and has become somewhat cultish over the years. I've been lucky enough to taste several fully mature vintages of the wine over my career and it's one of the most hedonistic Bordeaux experiences outside a glass of Château d'Yquem (albeit the Chevalier is a dry wine).

One of my goals while visiting the domaine this past April was to get a clear shot of the terroir; a photo that really captured the rocky, gravelly soils of Chevalier and Pessac-Léognan in general. It's one thing to write about soils and the influence they have on a particular wine's flavor, but in the case of Domaine de Chevalier it's become such a talking point that I wanted a visual component. When critics like Galloni talk about the property as one of the "crown jewels of Bordeaux," this is what they're referring to. It's that stony, highly-mineral soil, enclosed within a border of forestry, that provides the ideal conditions for top quality red and white Bordeaux winemaking; the results of which have increased in quality during each decade of Oliver Bernard's ownership. Through his careful expansion, calibration, and improvements in the cellar, the true potential and character of Chevalier has been lifted to new heights and the domaine's lore has begun to permeate the far reaches of wine culture. It wasn't always an easy path, either. In 1985, during Oliver's honeymoon with his wife, a brutal frost killed all the merlot vines on the property. The roots had to be pulled out and that part of vineyard was completely replanted (which meant for the five subsequent years the wine was made from 100% cabernet!). Throughout that learning curve perhaps the most endearing aspect of Oliver's humble stewardship has been his pricing. Considering the wines are consistently ranked alongside a lineup of properties priced between $150 to $300 per bottle, the $49.99 he's asking for the 2014 vintage suddenly seems like a steal. I often think the only thing preventing Domaine de Chevalier from reaching loftier heights is a lack of consumer awareness for Bordeaux wines beyond the left and right banks. However, with the subsequent rise of Haut-Bailly, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, and Pape-Clément over the last decade, it appears as if that hurdle has been cleared.

With the wines of Pessac-Léognan now firmly in the spotlight of the world's top critics (the 2014 Haut-Bailly also received a 96 point score from Vinous), the "secret garden" is likely a secret no more. The ascension of Domaine de Chevalier has been thirty-plus years in the making for Olivier Bernard, but if you ask him he'll tell you its merely his duty as a steward of a great terroir.

-David Driscoll

The Arrival of Powell & Son

Ryan Woodhouse

We just received our first direct import shipment from this rising star of a producer in the Barossa Valley and I couldn't be more excited. Whilst the 2014 wines are the first releases from Powell & Son, they’re no overnight, up-start sensation in the wine business. Powell & Son is a new venture from legendary winemaker David Powell of Torbreck fame (or infamy depending on what you’ve read) and it's one of our most anticipated new arrivals from the region. Many of you will have enjoyed Dave’s intense and powerful wines before under the Torbreck label. This new project is essentially a distillation of all that went before; everything he has learnt about Barossa’s vines, soil, and climate, refocused into a small scale, family operation where Dave is hand-making the wines with his son Callum. Powell & Son is about “getting back to basics” Dave says; starting with great vineyards, expressing the purity of fruit, and striking a balance of power and grace. Dave’s excitement is palpable as he talks about working with his son and he reiterates “this is not gonna be Torbreck number two; I have no interest in getting big, I just want to get back to why I fell in love with this job in the first place.” Don't we all understand that sentiment!

The Powell & Son wines are as you expect knowing Dave's style of winemaking: unmistakably Barossa in origin, powerful, saturated, dark fruits intertwined with scorched earth and a wild smoked meat note. They are richly textured and satisfying but not overdone fruit bombs. The wines already have huge critical acclaim and we’re excited to have gotten on board early on. Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW (Editor-In-Chief of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate) wrote about a recent tasting at the winery in Barossa: “incredibly exciting wines in the pipeline. David Powell is back.” While it may be a return to glory in the eyes of many wine drinkers, I'm most excited about introducing Barossa newcomers to a quintessential style of Aussie winemaking at prices that reflect our direct import value. It's a huge win for K&L.

-Ryan Woodhouse