Love Among the Rootstock: Castell d’Encus and the Art of the Backstory

I asked my buddy Elie for winemaker with a decent backstory, and he gave me Castell D’Encus and Mireia Taribó, who turns out to have a back-magnum opus, which is better than a backstory, better than a backrub, and lasts longer than either one.

Mireia Taribó

Mireia Taribó

Imagine a winemaker from Barcelona falling in love with the only Native American winemaker in the United States (who also happens to be a woman), flying to California to marry her, then getting stuck in a Twilight Zone of visa FUBARs and missing the next couple vintages in Spain.

That would be the introductory paragraph—the front-story grows from there.

I wedged myself in next to Mireia at a dinner she hosted at the hoary, venerable, stuffy old Birmingham Country Club, the precise kind of joint that Groucho wouldn’t join if they’d have him for a member.

Those of us from Detroit often manage to bounce between urban robberies to suburban snobberies with such dizzying frequency that it’s a wonder we don’t all have pneumonia from the climate change.

Anyway, Mireia was in town—when she should have been at Castell d’Encus schlepping grape crates—because of some ongoing difficulty with emigration, which I’d share in detail if I understood it.  Since she can’t be back in Catalan making wine, she is now the  Brand Ambassador for the estate owned by the remarkably eccentric Pyrenean enologist Raül Bobet.

Some words on Bobet before returning to the imposing, decaying majesty of the BCC:



Formerly the wine boss at Torres, Raül Bobet had a bucket list filled with passions, philosophies and personal perfectionism that he’d been exploring in a number of outside projects.  This includes Ferrer Bobet in the slat-filled soils of the Priorat, and a high-altitude experiment on a mountaintop above Tremp in the central Pyrenees.  There, on the grounds of an Eleventh Century monastery, he discovered outdoor, fully-exposed rock fermenters, essentially chambers gouged from living stone.  They are called ‘lagars’ and are cut primarily from silica, which is key because they do not change the pH of the grape must. Turns out that the fact that Bobet could ferment a portion of the harvest outside in rock only added to his obsession with ecology, his commitment for the natural and his penchant for the peculiar.

It figured prominently in his decision, in 2002, to purchase the estate.

There's cold in them that hills...

There’s cold in them that hills…

Castell D’Encus is in God’s country—literally.  His ninety-five acres of vineyards, planted in 2004,  are among the highest in Spain, at elevations averaging more than three thousand feet.  Bobet has a fascination with cool climate grapes, especially Riesling, which most growers in Spain wouldn’t even consider let alone focus upon.  Bobet’s respect for indigenous grapes is clear, but hardly overstated: He grows Albariño and Garnacha, but his main focus is on Riesling and Pinot Noir, with acres of Bordeaux grapes, white and red, and, surprisingly, Syrah.

Why I express surprise at the Syrah will be revealed directly, but meanwhile, the soils of Castell D’Encus are calcareous and clay-loam with low organic content, and beneath a continental climate, the vineyards enjoy extreme temperatures between day and night, which would generally result in shivery acids and ripe fruit.  Ideal Riesling conditions, in other words.

Raul Bobet and his fermenters

Raul Bobet and his fermenters

With the nose of chemist (Bobet is a UC Davis grad with a doctorate in enology) and the tongue of a poet, he claims, “I consider the triangle formed by the climate, soil and grape variety as a matrix that includes many other parameters we desire to discover; it has been the engine that has brought us where we are, in a sort of challenge, to fit the different variables that can go into the style of freshness that we seek in our wines , but with complexity and a stamp of personality.”—which is pretty much what every winemaker says, only in fewer words.

It means ‘We work with what we’ve got, but we make what we’ve got into what it is.’

Mireia Taribó came into the picture at Castell D’Encus in 2008, fresh from Escola Mercè Rossell i Domènech where she’d earned her Master’s degree in viticulture and enology.   She took full responsibility for at least two vintages as Dr. Bobet had his logs in many fires, including work for a biotech company; she’d completed apprenticeships at J. Lohr in Paso Robles and Raïmat in Lleida, but she had not worked at ground level (pun intended) with vines so young.  These, she learned, require the dedication of a wet nurse:

“When they are young, vines grow like children—they need constant attention.”

As a result, she found that 90% of her time as a winemaker was spent in the vineyards, employing the various Bobet-learned techniques for plant density, pruning, foliage management and the thousand incidentals that combine with terroir to accentuate the positives in  Castell D’Encus’ wine.

kitaHer life changed trajectory when she met Tara Gomez at J. Lohr, although she didn’t know it yet.  Gomez is now at Kitá, owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians—the tribe to which she belongs.  By all accounts, beside being the only Native American winemaker of any gender, she’s a phenomenal one:  In January of this year, she took home two Double Gold medals at the 2015 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition: 2012 Pinot Noir, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Camp 4 Vineyard.  Not only did Kitá not have a national profile before this, 2012 was the first vintage the tribe even produced wine.  I can imagine the synergy these two might tap into should they decide to work on a wine project together: All’s fair in love and enology.

Thank God I’m a Country Club

Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, amid the undulating greenness of the greens and the blustery blueness of the blood, Mireia Taribó poured a number of wines, which I will pepper with accompanying notes.

taleia2013 Taleia ($21): This is a traditional Bordelaise blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, but would not be mistaken for one.  The wine is fat, but sharp on the palate, imbued with cold-climate acids that probably could use another year to settle in.  But that’s fine: The wine has sufficient structure to gain complexity over that span.  Light stone fruit notes interplay with leesy richness and a mineral backbone.

2012 Ekam ($26) : Groundbreaking wine, no doubt.  It is clearly Riesling, with Mosel-like clarity and an undertow of citrus, lemon especially, and nascent notes that are often described as ‘petrol’, but the wine does not show a lot of depth of complexity yet, which I would attribute to the relative youth of the vines.  Riesling is one of those grapes that improves immeasurably as the plant itself matures.

acusp2012 Acusp ($38):  A cool climate and well-drained soil are table stakes for good Pinot Noir, after which, proper canopy management and cellar technique separate the good from the great.  Acusp is a beautiful Pinot, very fragrant with a nose of wild raspberry and red cherry, moderately rich and quite tart.  There is barrel spice and vanilla in the background, but the crisp red fruit notes dominate.  A wine I’d like to try again in a decade, then try one from vines that have had that additional decade to evolve.

2012 Quest ($32) :   Cool climate Cabernet resonates a bit differently; this one showcases some of a red fruits that a typical Bordeaux blend might display as blacker and sweeter.  This wine displays pomegranate and cherry on the nose, backed by a palate filled with white pepper and perhaps some cola, tea leaves and menthol.  It is a vibrant and expressive wine with a fine tannic structure.

2011 Thalarn ($33):  This was the wonder wine in my book—a book that suggests that Syrah will not truly speak its mind at this elevation.  Even the relatively cool, mistral-influenced vineyards of Côte-Rôtie sit, for the most part, at under a thousand feet—these vines are three times that.  And the wine has a distinct amount of meat on the bones, with near soulful density to the fruit; the wine shows dark cassis, bright acid, rich and silken tannins.

weddingThalarn would have stolen the show if it wasn’t for witty, charming, self-confident and fascinating Mireia Taribó, who, in the dusty, stuffy confines of the Birmingham Country Club finds herself equidistant from her two loves, Catalunya and Tara Gomez, but manages to pull off the

I’m probably a bit of a prick for secretly hoping that the visa snafu draggles out for a while longer, because I’d love to see her stick around long enough to play with some Santa Ynez fruit.

Posted in Calatayud, SPAIN | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Swashbuckle Up: It’s Gonna Be a Bourdy Ride

Before you discuss Chardonnay with Jean-François Bourdy, take a moment to stand back, exhale, and simply admire the visage.

Jean-François Bourdy

Jean-François Bourdy

He is an imposing and potent-looking gentleman whose shirt is open a button or two lower than necessary; his eyes are blue as river ice and they dart like dragonflies.  His hair is blond and curly (not permed—I asked) and his yellow moustache curls up into points like Dali’s.  He looks, for all the world, like one of the Musketeers in comfortable repose, a working man who retains the nobility of his race.

He is Athos in Twenty Years After, or I’m a monkey’s  uncle.

800px-Leloir_Musketeers2The family Bourdy has been a fixture in the French Jura for as long as the Jura has had fixtures; within seconds of moving the conversation from wonder to wine, he informs me that the his people have been vignerons in the region since 1475, when Columbus was still sailing toy boats in the bathtub.

When I ask him if he was born in the Jura, he says, in his rolling French brogue, “Son, I am the Jura.”

And so, to end up with an even rudimentary understanding of this fascinating hinterland in Franc’s multi-faced wine regions, you have to start with people like Jean-François Bourdy—people who are so confident of the superiority of what they produce that any question about technique, terroir-interpretation and subsequent expression is as often as not dismissed with a summary: “Because we have been doing so for five hundred years,”—as though the question is so incontestably rhetorical that the response defies further exploration.

And, much as I appreciate those who experiment, those who seek to improve, those who are open to new ideas, equally must I respect those who remain true to their function.  And if the wines I tasted are not always my ideal, they are (I believe) a true portrait of the Jurassian mindset, and hence, wineset.

No Country for Young Men

Paalen, 'Hidden Land'

Paalen, ‘Hidden Land’

In his classic satire on modern art The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe postulates that without a concept, some art would not exist.

Or, verbatim: “Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”

He was joking, of course.  Or was he?  In fact, to blind-taste one of Jean-François Bourdy’s Chardonnays, you would not guess the varietal—it is done in classic Jura fashion, spending five years in a neutral barrel with very little topping-off, allowing a certain amount of air contact.  This is the goal, and it produces a white wine quite unlike the Chardonnays  from Burgundy, two hours to the west.  If you are expecting a steely, apple-rich or buttery Chardonnay, you will be disappointed.  This is Jura white wine, and that is theory you need to buy into in order to genuinely appreciate it.  Like the works of Wolfgang Robert Paalen, you may have to understand ‘viewer-dependant possibility space’ before you can like them.

white logoCaves Jean Bourdy Côtes du Jura ‘Blanc’, 2009, (around $30):  The wine is soft and rich, showing mature notes of roasted almonds, citrus peel, butterscotch and a slight tinge of pleasant oxidation, but most of the typical pineapple and green apple flavors one finds in Burgundian Chardonnay have been sopped up by the wood.  Bourdy insists that the wine requires hours to fully open up after it’s long wood nap, and indeed, a bit of melony freshness emerged after that, but if it is not love at first sight, it is very much a wine to grasp.

redLikewise the red. Unlike most white-to-red wine progressions,  Jean Caves Bourdy Côtes du Jura ‘Rouge’, 2010, (around $30), is served at a tasting before the white (and five degrees cooler); it is a blend of the local grape Poulsard along with equal parts Trousseau and Pinot Noir and, like the Chardonnay, is aged for around four years in old oak.  But the fruit itself seems to have had less intensity going in, and more acidity, and as such, produces a sharp but delicate wine that focuses on a trail-mix of earthy flavors—dried apricots, walnuts and dried cranberries, with some rhubarb and cherry emerging as the wine aerates.

Both white and reds from Jean Bourdy are, as he explains it, “Essential food wines.  We enjoy cuisine and wine together, and both are made for pleasure: You enjoy them, but you do not necessarily need always  to speak about them.”

Which is why I expressly avoid recommending a plate of Jurassic pork.

Vin Jaune—Now That You Talk About

abcLike any self respecting Jurassian, Jean-François introduces his Blanc and Rouge as curtain raisers, along with a lovely, if essentially neutral Crémant du Jura made from slightly under ripe Chardonnay and a strange Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée known as ‘Macvin’.  Since it is a blend of late-harvest grape juice and the local liquor known as marc, it makes no sense that they don’t call it ‘Marcvin’, since Macvin sounds like something that requires Golden Arches and a McPlayground.  But nobody was asking for my two cents when they were naming stuff, so I report only that, although my on-site notes suggest that it tastes like a blend of cinnamon, prune juice and mercurochrome, I assure you that it is a delightfully blend of the three, a sweet apéritif that Bourdy assures me is exemplary alongside Le Bleu, the local blue cheese.  Incidentally, Le Blue also has its own AOC.

Viole atop Vin Jaune

Viole atop Vin Jaune

It is, of course, Le Yellow that produces Jura’s most prominent waves—it is the quintessential Jurassian answer to fino Sherry.

Like Sherry, it is a product of white wine that is aged in barrels for many years, beneath a protective layer of protective mold, know in Spain as flor and in Jura as voile.

But here, the similarity ends.  Unlike Sherry, there is no solera system (Google that if you don’t know what it means):  Vin Jaune sits in its lone cask for six years, and three months minimum, during which it develops deep, resonant flavors that resemble—in some strange, nearly indefinable way—the scent of curry powder.  I say ‘nearly’, because the odor is the result of the appearance of  sotolon, a lactone compound that appears in developing Vin Jaune.  That chemical can also be found in curry powder.



Also, in Sherry, there are a number of allowable grape varieties, whereas in Jura, there is only one: Savagnin.  It’s a grape that grows nowhere else in France to any measurable extent, but in the Jura, it thrives on the blue marl solid, and is used exclusively in the most famous Vin Jaunes, those of of Château-Chalon and L’Étoile.  In a table wine, it is somewhat ‘meh’, but it ripens late, which concentrates sugars, and is resistant to rot.

And in Vin Jaune, Savagnin becomes one of those incredible personalities within the wine pantheon that sears an indelible mark on your memory.

Even the bottle is unique—a stubby, 620 ml ‘clavelin’, sized to account for the wine that evaporates from each liter during aging.

bott'eCaves Jean Bourdy ‘Vin Jaune’, Château-Chalon, 2005 (around $110) is a wine so striking on the nose that it defies comparison; it has qualities that resemble Fino, no doubt—the sort of elegant, burnished walnut earthiness that liquefies autumn and slips it into a glass.  But the core runs far deeper.  Curry notes are there if you look for them, and requisite hints of oxidization, but luscious citrus peel, toasted nuts, fresh yeast, fresh mushroom, dried fruit.  More remarkable than the nuance, though, is Vin Jaune’s ability to spread them out like a smorgasbord, then shuffle the deck so that flavors emerge, recede, change, then emerge once again.  Sound unlikely?  Among the most startling of Vin Jaune’s many faces is its palate length.  Whereas most wines, even those superbly made, peter out within sixty seconds or so, Vin Jaune does not fade entirely for two or three minutes.

And that isn’t even the diva of the performance.  That spotlight is reserved the Bourdy ‘Vin Jaune’ 1947, which if you could find it (you probably can’t) would set you back around $700.  I’m doled out a thimbleful, and even at that Lilliputian lick, it proves its point.  It is every bit as lively as the 2005 with additional layers of silken spice, most notably a dusty saffron note that suits the color of the wine and the wine’s name, which is, of course, ‘Yellow Wine’.

This gem is the living embodiment of the concept—so unusual in its depth and breadth that the wine never becomes an afterthought.

Nor in the realm of the physical, should it: Jean-François assures me that within the library of wines a Caves Bourdy, there are Vin Jaunes that are still feisty and developing after two centuries.

Demeter-certified: Tous pour un et un pour tous

Demeter-certified: Tous pour un et un pour tous

He holds to the notion that there are three wines in the world that rank so highly that the others are, in their own way, the true afterthoughts:  Pétrus, Romanée-Conti and Vin Jaune.

Far be it from me to argue about the Franco-centric-ness of this declaration; I don’t have the stuff to challenge a Musketeer.

That said, however, the genuine Athos hailed from Pyrénées-Atlantiques, a long way from Jura, and was named Armand de Sillègue d’Athos d’Autevielle.

There is more Demeter than Dumas about Jean-François Bourdy, so I guess you can call me Uncle Grape Ape after all.

Posted in FRANCE | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Gevrey-Chambertin and the Hangover of Guy Accad

A bat and a ball cost a dollar and ten cents in total. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

batOn the surface, the question seems easy.  That’s the way our brains are wired—the information is there, we just need to collate it, fill in the one bit of information that’s missing: The cost of the ball.

If you got the answer right, and quickly, congrats.  You’re smarter than half of the Princeton and U of M grads who did not.

Writing about Burgundy takes on a similar aura.  On the surface, there are only two grapes to worry about: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both with recognizable benchmarks in, say, Chambertin and Montrachet.  It isn’t large—far smaller than Bordeaux or Napa, and it is filled with with interlocking, but very coherent details.

On the surface, writing about Burgundy seems easy.  Then you actually try to do it.

Accad is My Witness…

I bring this up because yesterday I tasted an interesting Gevrey-Chambertin: Dominque Gallois ‘Combe Aux Moines’ 2012.

Dominque Gallois

Dominque Gallois

The wine hails from the northernmost commune in the great Côte de Nuits, which contains 26 Premiers Cru climats (Combe Aux Moines is one of them) and eight Grands Crus—the highest level of classification of AOC wines from Burgundy.

Combe aux Moines is situated just north of Combe de Lavaux, next to Les Cazetiers, giving you an idea of how quickly terroirs can change in the region.  The soils of Combe au Moine are rocky, with a layer of marl offering scant fertility; this makes the vines relatively weak and leads to the production of tiny, but intensely-concentrated grapes.  This, in part, lays the foundation of the characteristic ‘masculinity’; Gevrey-Chambering is said to be among muscular reds in Burgundy.

Indeed, the wine I tried was full of dark fruits—blackberry and cassis shored up with a bit of licorice and smoke.  Oddly, although the wine was somewhat shallow in the mouth, the palate persisted for a remarkable period—minutes long, leaving a certain touch of appealing bitterness behind.

This profile is, apparently, something of a hallmark of the breed, to which I claim no expertise.  Still, there was something about the weight and texture that struck me as distinctly ‘un-Burgundian’.

I can't find a photo of Guy Accad, so here's one of Rasputin

I can’t find a photo of Guy Accad, so here’s one of Rasputin

That’s when the name of Guy Accad came up.  And with the sort of baffled mix of disgust and respect with which a student of the House of Romanov might bring up Grigori Rasputin.   The wine’s character, it was suggested, might be the residual effect of vinification techniques that Accad left in his wake.

In the Cliff’s Notes version, Guy Accad was a Lebanese/Burgundian enologist/ wine consultant who introduced such controversial techniques to the industry that Burgundy from the mid 1980s through the early 1990s is often said to come from the ‘Accad Era’.  Among his early disciples were Comte Senard and the Chateau du Clos Vougeot and Jean Grivot.

According to Etienne Grivot, Jean’s son:  “Accad was incompetent as a communicator, rude and ungainly as an individual, but a genius when it came to soil analysis and what was needed to regenerate the life therein: How to persuade the vines to get the maximum out of their environment.”

Accad also also had definite views on vinification—most prominent  was his advocacy of long periods of cold-maceration, with sulfite added to the must to prevent the onset of spontaneous fermentation.  In the early days of Burgundy, when the harvest was not completed until mid-October, cold weather often served the same effect, and the maceration period prior to vinification allowed maximum extraction of color and flavor from the grape skins.

cold soakThe science behind the cold-soak is the belief that anthocyanins extracted from the skins will form color stabilizing bonds with other phenolic compounds before more bitter tannic compounds are extracted; the risk, other than the fact that some contamination yeasts may sulphur resistent and take over, is that these wines adopt a winemaker’s  personality and do not adequately reflect terroir.

And in Burgundy, of course, terroir is the towering tycoon—any man who tries to usurp terroir’s defining role in the region may be viewed as an interloper to God’s ordination and ultimately be denounced.  That’s what happened to Rasputin, and also to Accad—he was famously fired from a number of consultancy positions after his initial brush with notoriety, and I can’t find many references as to what he is up to these days—or even if he’s alive.  Like the Mad Monk of Moscow, he may—for all I know—have wound up in some river.

Can't find one of Stuart Niemtzow either, so here's another Rasputin

Can’t find one of Stuart Niemtzow either, so here’s another Rasputin

But he has a few lasting fans, including Stuart Niemtzow of WineBerzerkers, who claims that Accad-method Grivots and Senards, especially Senard Corton ‘Clos du Roi’ 1988, are still drinking sensationally well.

He hints at ‘xenophobic motivations’ behind the Lebanese Accad exile from Burgundy.

How much actual maceration time was allowed pre-fermentation in the Dominque Gallois ‘Combe Aux Moines’ I have been unable to determine, but the rich, almost Cabernet-color and dark-fruit nose makes me suspect that there is some lingering Accad influence in the vinification.

In any case, the wine retails for around $90.

And the baseball, if I’ve held your interest this long, costs a nickel.


Posted in Burgundy | Leave a comment

Aurelio’s Goose Lays Golden Eggs

Finding balmy, extracted South America in shivery, high acid Finger Lakes is a treat; getting a dose of genuine insight into this sprawling and largely misunderstood wine continent?  Priceless.

Jen O'Flanagan

Jen O’Flanagan

Wouldn’t have happened without an Irish lass from Brooklyn, either—Jen O’Flanagan of Feast Public Relations, who introduced me to Aurelio Montes—along with his export manager Matias Barros—in the lounge at the Corning Radisson.

As it happens, I was in Finger Lakes trying to avoid the Wine Blogger Conference, but I was at the Radisson to listen to a WBC presentation that (gratefully) had nothing to do with wine blogging.  Rather, it was a overview of Montes’ juggernaut wine experiences in both Chile and Argentina.  In Santiago, of course, the Montes family perches upon a rarified Andean peak of preeminence, Viña Montes being the brainchild of his winemaker father Aurelio Sr.  In 1987, along with a trio of investors, the elder Montes is credited with laying the foundations for the country’s high-quality wine industry.  Prior to then, the country’s output had been pretty much limited to mediocre juice produced from massive plantings of Pais and Muscatel—the latter described by wine writing pioneer André Jullien as ‘a potion of rhubarb and senna’.

Nonetheless, among its many remarkable geographical realities, Chile managed to dodge the phylloxera bullet and allows vines to be planted on their original rootstocks, something that Montes claims shows ‘a truer expression of the grape.’

The elements for growing superb wine in Chile were there all along: Isolated from the rest of the world by natural barriers, there are neither insects nor mildew to affect the vines, and the desert-dry climate, adjusted via  meltwater irrigation, sees almost 330 sunny days each year.

Viña Montes

Viña Montes

It just required a visionary like Montes first to recognize it, then to prove it.  Without a family fortune to back him up, and having landed with partners that brought everything to the party but a cash flow (Douglas Murray was the exporting whiz, Alfredo Vidaurre knew accounting while Pedro Grand was the agriculture and equipment guru), Montes had to rely on the superiority of his product.

And indeed, Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon, the first premium product that flowed from his winery (under the Discover Wines label) was every bit of that.  It not only put the Montes name on the eno-map, but essentially the entire country, whose bar was thus appropriately raised.

Like any son worth his grape-stained stompers, Aurelio Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps; he is the winemaker at Kaiken Wines, which aspires to equal every drop of quality that Viña Montes has squeezed from the Chilean terroir with one important difference:

It’s not in Chile.

“My father came to Mendoza in 2001, and shortly became convinced of the Argentinian potential.  Not by the climate alone, but by the people—the viticulture, the traditions, the passions.”

No Tears for Argentina

mapIf you imagine Atlas astride the Andes, he’d have one foot in Santiago and the other in Mendoza, with a hundred miles of mountain tickling his taint.  From a winemakers perspective, you’d think that the growing regions adjacent to these cities would be flip sides of a coin, and in some ways, you’d be right.

Mendozan wine country lies in the eastern shadow of the Andes, specifically, Mount Aconcagua, and is semi-arid, receiving around eight inches of rain annually—on par with Phoenix.  Most vineyards are planted at high elevations—3500 feet is not unheard of—and for the most part, the focus is on red wines: Sumptuous Malbec, of course, has dominated the world market for Argentinian wines so effectively that the grape’s original home in Southwest France has alter red its PR accordingly—the parent learning from the child.

But, there are differences as well, and that’s where the true intrigue begins.

_DSC8826If I was prone to stereotype, I could say that where Chile looks to tradition and elegance in the bottle, Argentina tends toward youthful exuberance.  Were it no more complicated than that, I could easily draw the requisite parallels in which young Aurelio Montes came to Argentina to ply his trade while the elder Montes, now 66, remained in Chile.

Of course, the world doesn’t tie itself up in so neat a bow for us journalists, and the wines of Chile can display the vigor of youth as readily as Mendoza’s, while Argentina wine takes the rough and tumble signature grape of Cahors and offers it breeding and the title of an aristocrat.

Aurelio himself remains, like Atlas, with a foot in each country.

Aurelio Montes

Aurelio Montes

“The pace of life in Mendoza took some getting used to,” he smiles.  “In Chile, we tend to be very precise, very punctual people.  We operate on clocks.  Chile is like Switzerland—very organized; the people work very hard, they pay their taxes, but can be a bit boring. In Argentina, people are far more relaxed, and perhaps more passionate in daily life.”

If that shows in their wine, it may be in the way that Chile—spearheaded by the Montes family and several foreign investors, including the Rothschild (Viña Los Vascos)—built up a reputation by calculated degrees, and how Argentina did not.  In fact, the single varietal that today studs the crown was an afterthought a generation ago.  Less than an afterthought, in fact—at one point during the 1990’s, in an attempt to address a faltering economy, growers ripped out thousands of acres of Malbec in order to plant more profitable jug wine grapes like Criolla and Cereza, or more fashionable varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.

But, according to Aurelio, whereas Chile’s terroir is ideal for Cab, Argentina’s is really better suited for Malbec—far better, perhaps, than Cahors, where Malbec can be somewhat crude and angular, especially when young.   “In Argentina,” he says,  “Our soil is mainly sand and rocks, often very poor. This is important because Malbec and Torrontés are very vigorous varieties, so with poor soil they  produce smaller clusters and smaller berries, and that means higher quality.”

In contrast, he adds, “In Chile, the soil has more clay and the weather is colder, so Merlot and Cabernet feel very comfortable.”

torrotntes lebaelI was able to take the theory on a road test with the lineup Montes presented: In fact, the Kaiken Torrontés 2014 ($15) outpaces its price while easily living up to its name— Torrontés is a derivation of the Spanish word for ‘torrent’.  A gush of fresh peach, orange and ripe cantaloupe pours from the glass; the wine is miles deep and gobs luscious with brilliant acidity.  This is a grape which shares Malbec’s affinity for an Argentinian clime—outside of the country, it is virtually unknown, and where planted in Chile, often forms a foundation for Pisco (Chilean brandy), not wine.

kaken malbecKaiken ‘Ultra’ Malbec 2012 ($25) is a beautiful example of the richness, power and elegance this grape achieves in the foothills of the Eastern Andes; the wine is layered with blackberry, plum, mocha and an appealing herbalness—not green flavors, but savory notes of rosemary and white pepper.  Acids are in line, and so are tannins: The wine’s balance is as much the result of technique as terroir.

When Aurelio turns his hand to Cabernet, the result almost makes him drink his words.  The varietal which he claims prefers the heavier, more fertile soils on the far side of the mountain range shows sensational structure and complexity in Kaiken ‘Ultra’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($25).  Underpinnings of oak make this a somewhat more austere presentation than the Malbec, but the fruit/spice foundation is nicely reminiscent of Pomerol, with earth, smoke and tobacco notes behind the cassis and black cherry.

Double Gold: Aurelios, Sr. and Jr.

Double Gold: Aurelios, Sr. and Jr.

A contrast of these unique, wonderful flavors with wines produced by his father in Chile will have to await another column.  As a name, ‘Viña Montes’ is self-explanatory, but ‘Kaiken’ may not be:  It is a Mapuche Indian word for a species of South American goose said to be the only bird capable of flying across the Andes, able to crest mountains more than four miles high on a six-foot wingspan.

goose-golden-eggFair to say that Aurelio Jr. has made his mark in laid-back Argentina with all the fire and fury of his native land while finding expression in grapes that have flourished under his watch. Where plenty of other investors have either cooked their own geese or laid an egg,  Aurelio’s Mendozan output has, so far, been pure gold.

No wonder that the first two letters of his name are ‘Au’.

Posted in ARGENTINA, CHILE | Leave a comment

I’m Butch, The HoseMaster is Alfalfa and You’re Darla

A note was passed to me yesterday during wine class—it was from Barbara, that pretty girl in the back with the Category Merchandiser nameplate on her pinafore.

The note said:

“I may not always get what you and The HoseMaster write (big words and satire and all that) but you both make me laugh.”

The Master of Hoses

The Master of Hoses

I must say, once the chicks start noticing the size of your words, you are that much  closer to performing an act of coitus satirarium, which is non-physical union with an already-married note-passer, which Barbara happens to be.

As such,  to a healthy, horny man-child, coitus satirarium is something of a floccinaucinihilipilification.  Even so, my response to Barbara is simple:

“My words are bigger than Hosemaster’s.” *

“Check out the size of my dic…

* Incidentally, guys who use small words are always relieved when babes who aren’t Babs assure them that ‘size doesn’t matter’, but as we well-endowed glossologists, lexicographists and philologing phoneticians know, it certainly does.  There are places in the female psyche that can only be truly satisfied by a throbbing, thrusting unit of language nicely hung with letters; if it’s ribbed with diacritical marks or lubricated with hyphens, so much the better.

If from time to time Brain Vaseline is required, I believe Daniel Webster makes a popular brand.


As for satire, the way to a woman’s heart is through her funny bone, and by heart, of course I mean something warm and squishy and deep inside and by satire I mean taking a generally stultifying subject and reducing it to a churning urn of self-important goo.


Not kiddie porn

In this endeavor, me and The HoseMaster of Wine—who has a much more phallic name than me, I admit—have been vying for the attention of the prettiest perusers and the sexiest savants for quite a while now.

We are the Butch and Alfalfa of wine writing, eternally fighting over Darla in her tiny skirt and perky, turned-up nose.

We are Eric Clapton and George Harrison—you, the perpetually fickle Pattie Boyd.

tumblr_m6e0io3Ueq1rp4uy8o1_250We are John and Bobby Kennedy, and you, the irresistible Marilyn Monroe forever breathing in our eager ears, “Happy birthday, Mr. Wine Writer, happy birthday to you…”

Of course, along the way, we have puckered plumes and snuggled ‘neath the skins of scores of skivey skunks; HoseMaster Ron Washam most recently when he was threatened with a lawsuit from Riedel for daring to make merry over their major domo and his anal insistence that plonk actually tastes tastier in his overpriced hunks of potash and lead than in somebody else’s.

Kiddie porn

Kiddie porn

Impressive as that bit of notoriety is, I will nonetheless claim the prize for having confronted the most pin-dicked dickhead in all of Dickdom when I was accused of producing kiddie porn for having published the photo to the immediate right.  >

When the offended cock-smooch actually called the cops, my local police department paid me a visit (hand before God); we wound up top-popping one my illegal Mason jars of moonshine and blowing up a few neighborhood mailboxes.

And of course, there’s Sphincterina—a.k.a. Sarah May Glöckenspiel—who loudly proclaimed that she wouldn’t go to bed with one of my wine books if I was the last sleepy-time author on earth.


Although, dear readers, we are eternal rivals for your affections, I think the Mission Statement of both Ron and me has been pretty consistent from the gitty up:  If you take this stuff too seriously, you aren’t doing it right.

And by ‘stuff’, of course, I don’t paint a bull’s-eye on wine; I mean everyday everything that is rammed down our gullets hour after week after year.  We’re here for the short haul, kids and sometimes, our only defense against the shitstorm—as it is against jizz socks like Georg Riedel, Sarah Clark Griswold, the penile-pencil who called the cops on me and Butch himself when he became a bully in later episodes of Little Rascals—is to reduce them to drudges of derision.

Take that, Riedel.

Take that, Riedel.

Satire is the literary equivalent of the cock o’ the walk displaying puffed throat feathers and talon blades—satirists are the alpha and omega, and as Ron Washam and I jockey for those positions, we’re happy to let the other wine-scribbling Slim Shadys fill up the in-between spots.

As young Barbara learned early in life, any act of consensual text—with mutual respect between reader and writer—is blessed by both nature and Numen.

In the meantime, those impotent dinky-donged wankers we offend;  those super-fragile Cali dipshit ♥-Cialis douchebags?

I’ll have to think of a really big word to describe them.

Posted in GENERAL | Leave a comment

Left Coast Cellars: Mea Culpa Wine

When somebody says ‘Europe’ I don’t think of Russia.  When they mention the Eastern seaboard, my mind does not conjure up an image of Boca Raton.
Me, I’m from the Midwest.  The ‘mid’ part I get, but not the ‘west’: Detroit is five hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean and twenty-five hundred miles from the Pacific.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the only reason they didn’t call us the Mideast is that it was already taken.

Luke McCollom

Luke McCollom

So, when I was asked to join Luke McCollom of Left Coast Cellars for a wine tasting, I presupposed (wrongly) that the Left Coast referred to California (and in particular, to liberal-leaning leftist locales therein) and experienced abject confusion when I read that Left Coast Cellars was in Willamette Valley, Oregon.

‘Willamette’ also confuses us Midwesterners when we learn that to correctly say it, you rhyme it with ‘damn it’, not ‘cigarette’.

But enough of that; that’s not  what my mea culpa was about anyway.  My  formal acknowledgment of personal fault involved a synaptical malfunction on the cellular level in my  hippocampus:

In short, I forgot about the tasting.

gents prefer blondesFortunately, the winery was accommodating enough to send me a trio of wines to review anyway—two representing Willamette’s Wonder Twins, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and the third, the Carol ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ Channing of wine stylings, White Pinot Noir.

Now, that wine winds up being intriguing as Channing’s 2002 revelation that her grandfather was African American, although she was under no obligation—in 2002 or 1953—either to make the information known or keep it to herself.   As a matter of fact, neither was Left Coast Cellars—they could have easily called this wine something Latiny and poetic like Relicto Litore and no one would have been the wiser.

Because frankly, in a blind tasting, you wouldn’t have figured out this wine’s parentage in a billion flights.

Truth in Advertising

“White Pinot is our fasted growing SKU,” Luke McCollom said when I actually showed up for our next date—over the phone.  His use of the inventory management acronym betrays that he is the winery’s general manager as well as the chief bottle filler.  “As a wine style, it’s definitely trending.”

Pinot Gouges

Pinot Gouges

Some credit goes to Burgundian Henri Gouges, perhaps the most famous domaine in Nuits St. Georges, who had some Pinot Noir vines that actually mutated into white grapes.  Renamed Pinot Gouges, it winds up in the premier cru ‘Les Perrières’, which even the  Gouges web site describes as ‘disconcerting’.

In Willamette, the handful of producers now labeling a proprietary White Pinot Noir actually use red grapes and employ variety of techniques to eliminate any trace of pink from the juice—most involve speed, of course, since all the color in Pinot Noir (and in most red cultivars) is in the skins, so the quicker the flesh can be  separated from them, the whiter the juice ends up being.

Pinot Noir vines in Willamette

Pinot Noir vines in Willamette

As for the wine, not only was vintage 2014 sensational, it bore not the slightest resemblance to Pinot Noir in any permutation, leading me to conclude that not only is the color all in the skins, so is the very essence of the flavors we consider Pinot Noiry—cherry, cola, earth, truffle—all of which show up in some capacity in McCollom’s Cali’s Cuvée (red) Pinot Noir.

The white is full, rich, resplendent with tropical fruit notes and peach jam—I tasted undercurrents of mandarin orange and a steely acidity that binds it all together.

Had I not seen the label, I might have guessed that I was tasting Grenache Blanc, unoaked and grown in a cool climate.  Or I might have said Pinot Blanc.

I wouldn’t have said Pinot Gris, which, over the past half century, has become the principal white wine of Oregon; it excels in Willamette, and produces a flavor profile that is unique unto itself.

pinot grisLeft Coast Cellars ‘The Orchards’ Pinot Gris, 2014 (about $18) is a showcase of that style:  Clean and crisp from scent to swallow, it shows clear pear notes—ripe, juicy and from the tree.  Behind that is ripe kiwi fruit, flinty minerality and acids like shattering ice.

“We never treat our Gris as  secondary project,” McCollum told me.  “Same labor, same trellising system, everything fermented in small lots—often with different yeasts.  We prefer a ripe style meant to be at optimum about five years after bottling; thus, the alcohol may be a bit higher than some [14.2%], but the wine only adds layers of texture and complexity as it ages.”

Bob Pfaff

Bob Pfaff

I found McCollom’s Pinot Noir to be equally compelling, a reference standard for Willamette Valley Pinots in the mid-twenty dollar range.  Cali’s Cuvée was named after the daughter of Left Coast Cellar’s owner Bob Pfaff—even harder to pronounce that Willamette. It is  made from lots of Pinot drawn from several clones grown in various estate locations.  It’s both bright and brooding, filled with deep scents of mulberry, pomegranate and dusty chocolate; it opens fully on the palate with rich, spicy notes and pithy tannins that are assertive without overpowering.

By the way, my phoned-in tasting-missing grovel caught McCollom in the field, mid-harvest, which he claims is the best one he has seen in years.  As such, he was in fine spirits, and more than happy to bestow absolution upon yours truly—especially when I assured him, after my pathetic mea culpa, that I had enjoyed his wines to the maxima.

Posted in OREGON | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Foillard Morgon 2013—Lesson Learned: Renounce Tasting Notes Forever

Andy 'n' Bianca, sittin in a tree, t-a-s-t-i-n-g

Andy ‘n’ Bianca, sittin in a tree, t-a-s-t-i-n-g

A week ago, Decanter Magazine’s Andrew Jefford published a good column on tasting notes.  It shadowed Bianca Bosker’s July New Yorker article referring to the ‘state of modern winespeak’.  Hers was, in turn, a reaction to James Suckling’s stylistic evaluation evolution (if you can call it that) over twenty years of note taking.

Last year, Madeline Puckette broke down the art of taking wine notes into four steps, Look; Smell; Taste; Conclude—which was almost as remarkable as her two-step tutorial on ‘How To Produce a Literary Masterpiece’:  Think of a Really Complicated Story Involving a Whale; Write it.

Robert Parker’s notes have always seemed to me to be delightfully sensual and scholarly—brief when required and effusive otherwise, while Jancis Robinson ranks high among this peck of pickled poets for the sheer originality of her imagery.

However, praise,  introspection and lampoonery aside, an important point was overlooked in each of these wine-note-taking editorials:

Everybody Else is Wrong and I’m Right.

bottleI came to that requisite conclusion over a tumbler of Saturday afternoon Beaujolais—specifically, Jean Foillard Morgon from the Côte du Py vineyard, vintage 2013.  Morgon is a sturdy, Gamay-based wine, often compared to—and sometimes confused with—a Pinot Noir from nearby Burgundy.  Foillard is a legitimate luminary in Morgon, rounding out Kermit Lynch’s heralded ‘Gang of Four’ with Jean-Paul Thevenet, Marcel Lapierre and Guy Breton.

These wines, grown predominantly on granitic soils, can bring Gamay to strikingly full-bodied heights. In warm vintages like the exuberant 2009, the wine develops vibrant plum and cherry notes, displaying a meatiness and depth that is the dimensional opposite of typical non-Cru Beaujolais, which tend to be light, fruity and lyrical, but not particularly serious.

Côte du Py, a volcanic outcrop composed of blue slate—similar to the soils of the Middle Mosel—traditionally accentuates these ponderous positives, making a wine from this region, in a vintage like ’09 (or 2010; nearly as good) a remarkable experience.  These wines showcase a concentration that has been described as ‘Calvados-like’ and a spine of acidity and tannin that make them cellar gems for at least another few years.

Gamay pride

Gamay pride

The age-factor is often enhanced by Beaujolasians vinifying like the Burgundians do—avoiding the whole-cluster, semi-carbonic maceration techniques that produce simple, early-drinking Gamays.  The intention in treating the Gamay grape with the respect it is here due is to flip the fun and frolic for fortitude.

In lesser vintages, bets are off.  Gamay has been grown in Beaujolais since Black Plague days, and six centuries of practice may not have made perfect, but the varietal certainly shows better here than anywhere  else in the world.  When sun and rain cooperate, Cru vintages manage to salvage the region’s reputation from ravages wrought by Beaujolais Nouveau.

Gamay is thin-skinned like Pinot Noir, but unlike its apparent parent, it produces copiously while showing more resistance to botrytis.  That said, although Gamay has a tendency to ripen early, it still requires the basics to produce a top-drinking wine.

Côte du Py

Côte du Py

Beaujolais’  2013 season got off to a late start and suffered a couple of devastating later storms, including a ‘mini-tornado’ in August; overall, the weather was cool but sunny.  How these myriad factors combined on the south slop of Mt. Py to create Foillard’s submission to the year’s vintage valise I’ll leave to the experts, but what I tasted in the glass was less than blue-ribbon material.  It struck me as a thin, tired-out, leathery fluid with some earthy complexity on the nose, but no fruit, while on the palate it was simple, equally fruit-free and tainted with unripe grape tannins that produced an unpleasantly bitter finale.

Aftertasting Notes:

Which brings us around to the subject of el dia’s droning drivel:

Tasting notes.

Above are mine; nothing was technically flawed in the wine, but neither was there anything I considered the least bit ‘beguiling’.  I would add only that Foillard Morgon 2013 did not display the sort of essential structure, either in body or flavor, that I think could survive much time in the cellar—in fact, if anything, it was already a bit past its sell-by.

That’s merely my opinion, of course.  Yet, apparently, it is an opinion so inconsistent with other opinions that I—and you by default—must conclude that either me or they are batshite wackadoodle or desperately out of our tasting-skills element.

'Open your eyes, Joe. This is a red wine tasting.'

‘Open your eyes, Joe. This is a red wine tasting.’

For example, Joe Salamone of Crush calls Foillard 2013 a ‘magical Morgon’, gilding that silly lily with:  “…the snap and fresh transparency of vintages like 2010 and 2007, carrying Côte du Py’s wild cherry, mineral, and floral-tinged quality.”

SAQ says, “This dry and purplish red coloured red showcases a complex nose releasing spicy, floral, fruity, mineral and vegetal scents, revealing a slender texture, smooth tannins and a long finish.”

the grape storeJohn Lees of The Grape Store—who has a distinguished AIWS from the Institute of Wines and Spirits after his name but still can’t manage to spell ‘Morgon’—agrees:  “This is a fabulously pure, unfiltered and majestic example of Morgan at it’s very best. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied and wonderfully complex, with great structure, a rock solid core, ripe tannins and outstanding grip and focus on the very long and pure finish. This wine has a fine future ahead of it, but is equally beguiling now!”

Finally, Jamie Goode of wine anorak gushes, “I’m finding myself reaching for descriptors such as elegant and expressive; the soft texture is the best thing about this wine. It is fantastically drinkable.”

François-Marie Arouet,

François-Marie Arouet

Well, there’s a confounding conundrum, huh?  A fine kettle of fish; a pretty pot of poachable pollock.  Who you gonna trust?  An award-winning, frequently brilliant, occasionally acerbic, generally pristinely accurate wine critic?

Or me?

For my part, I will leave the summation to Monsieur Voltaire, who I believe is first credited with the phrase, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death my right to go on an international internet forum and say that you don’t know what in the fcuk you’re talking about.”

Amen.  Upward and onward, droogies.

Posted in Beaujolais, FRANCE, Gamay | Tagged , , | 5 Comments