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Paraduxx, Napa Valley (California) Proprietary White Wine 2016

($32):  Long known for their non-traditional blends of red grapes, Paraduxx has released a white wine made from a non-traditional blend of white grapes:  Rhône varieties, Viognier (65%), Roussanne and Marsanne (7%), with Chardonnay (28%).  Floral and fruity, this mid-weight wine would be a pleasing stand-alone aperitif.  Nicely balanced, a hint of sweetness in the finish would make it a good choice for spiced Asian fare. 90 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Nickel & Nickel, Yountville (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon State Ranch 2015

($100):  Nickel & Nickel’s State Ranch Cabernet, from a vineyard just down the road from Oakville in Yountville, is similarly ripe and intense as their Sullenger.  But it’s rounder and more supple than the its brother from Oakville.   A combination of dark black fruit and mineral-like nuances makes for an appealing ying and yang of sweet and savory flavors.  At just under 15 percent stated alcohol, this full-bodied Cabernet would be a good choice for a hearty beef or lamb dish. 93 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Rodney Strong, Sonoma County (California) “Upshot” Red Wine Blend 2015

($28):  The winery’s press release describes this wine as “a non-traditional blend.”  That’s an understatement.  With Zinfandel (44%), Merlot (29%), Malbec (15%), Petit Verdot (7%), rounded out with Riesling, it is like no blend I’ve encountered.  But that’s one of the things that great about New World wine — people are not afraid to experiment.  And this blend works.  Floral and fruity, with mild tannins, this mid-weight is not overdone or over-worked. Bright and lively (is that the Riesling speaking?), it would be ideal with BBQ. 88 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Nickel & Nickel, Oakville (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon John C. Sullenger Vineyard 2015

($100):  What I love about the Nickel & Nickel Cabernets is how they are all different.  Despite the same winemaking team using the same grape variety, the wines offer different flavor profiles, which supports the concept of terroir — that somehow the soil, climate, and exposure in the vineyard determines the character of the wine.  Weighing in at a stated 14.5 percent alcohol, the Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet tastes even riper than the alcohol suggests, perhaps reflecting the vintage. Still, savory notes and elusive “not just fruit” elements keep it is balance.  This sturdy wine opens and is far more expressive as it sits in the glass for an hour or so.  Fine tannins allow you to enjoy this powerful Cabernet now, especially with a robust well-charred steak. 93 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Paraduxx, Howell Mountain (Napa Valley, California) Proprietary Red Wine 2014

($80):  Paraduxx is Duckhorn’s winery and label best known for non-traditional blends of California grapes, such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.  With the 2014 vintage, they have introduced some “foreign” grapes into the mix.  For this one, they borrow a South Australian concept of blending Cabernet Sauvignon (65%), Syrah.  (There may be a small amount of Zinfandel in the mix, according to information sent to me by the winery.)  Regardless of the specifics of the blend, it’s a powerful wine that combines tarry elements with deep ripe black fruit and spice.  The blend works, keeping the 14.9 percent stated alcohol, in check.  Robust, but not hot or particularly sweet, it would be a good choice for a hearty slow cooked lamb dish when the temperatures drop into single digits. 92 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Diebolt-Vallois, Champagne (France) Blanc de Blancs Prestige NV

($46, Petit Pois):  Diebolt-Vallois, a family domaine, is located in Cramant, a village in the heart of the Côte de Blancs, the part of the Champagne region that is best suited for Chardonnay.  Indeed, the grapes for this wine come from three villages in the Côte de Blancs that are rated Grand Cru:  Cramant, Chouilly and Le Mesnil sur Oger.  The wine, austere and elegant, is very edgy and long, showing the finesse of Chardonnay.  A lovely way to start an evening, it is also perfect with oysters. 91 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Maison Louis Latour, Viré-Clessé (Burgundy, France) 2014

($20, Louis Latour USA):  Viré-Clessé is an under-the-radar appellation in the Mâconnais that was created in the late 1990s from combining two villages, Viré and Clessé, that made distinctive wines that were previously included under the umbrella of Mâcon-Villages.  It joins St. Véran, Pouilly-Vinzelles, Pouilly-Loché, and Pouilly-Fuissé as names to remember for high quality Chardonnay-based wines from southern Burgundy.  Maison Louis Latour, the well-regarded Beaune-based négociant, produces a terrific Viré-Clessé. Latour’s 2014 Viré-Clessé, from an outstanding vintage for white wines, over delivers for the price.  This mid-weight, well-balanced wine combines Chardonnay’s floral and fruity elements with a firm stoniness characteristic of the region.  Bright acidity in the finish keeps you coming back for more.  Delightful now, I predict it will give enjoyment for years, based on the pleasure I still get from drinking their 2010 Viré-Clessé. Hence, I’d buy it by the case. 91 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Simonnet-Febvre, Chablis Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) Preuses 2014

($75, Louis Latour USA):  Simonnet-Febvre, a top-notch Chablis producer, makes classically structured Chablis — tightly wound and linear.  Their Preuses, from their own vineyards, is always one of their best wines. Preuses has the reputation of being one of the least elegant of the Chablis Grand Cru.  Not in Simonnet-Febvre’s hands and certainly not their 2014.  Their 2014 Preuses is very tight and youthful at this stage.  It actually took three days to open.  But when it did it was captivating with its paradoxical austerity and power.  This is a wine to lay down for years.  Since there’s some in my cellar, I’m betting you’ll be rewarded. 94 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Château de Fleurie, Fleurie (Beaujolais, Burgundy, France) 2015

($21, David Bowler Wine):  Sensational is the word that comes to mind when describing the 2015 vintage in Beaujolais.  Of course, we are talking about the cru of Beaujolais, the ten villages within that region whose wines stand apart from the remainder of the region, which explains why the name of the cru alone — without the word Beaujolais — appears on the label.  Fleurie is one of the top cru of Beaujolais.  The 2015 from Château de Fleurie is pure charm.  It conveys a wonderful mixture of red fruit flavors and minerality.  Unlike Beaujolais Nouveau, fruitiness or sweetness is not the focus.  It’s a perfect choice now with a roast chicken, hamburgers, or even pasta. 90 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Georges Duboeuf, Fleurie (Beaujolais, Burgundy, France) Domaine des Quatre Vents 2015

($18, Quintessential):  The reputation of Beaujolais is that of an easy-drinking fruity wine to be consumed soon after release.  That description may be accurate for most Beaujolais, but not those from ten villages, known as the cru of Beaujolais, whose wines are far more distinctive.  There is even variability with wines from a cru.  Take, for example, this Fleurie from Duboeuf.  (To be fair, the wine comes from the Domaine des Quatre Vents and is commercialized by Duboeuf.) It’s a substantial wine, exhibiting a marvelous stony character and amazing depth.  A pleasant tannic structure imparts a welcome firmness.  It needs time — a year or two, at least — unlike the Fleurie from Château de Fleurie, which is delectable to drink now.  Indeed, the Domaine des Quatre Vents was better the second night after I opened the bottle.  This is a bargain price for a serious wine from a super vintage. 93 Michael Apstein Jan 9, 2018

Wines from…Where? Striving for Excellence in Morocco

Readers might reasonably ask why I am writing about wines not available in the U.S. market from one the last places on earth you’d expect to find fine wine–Morocco, a Muslim country where alcohol is forbidden.  Why?  Because it is a fantastic story about problem solving, a learning curve, and perhaps a little bit of following your heart.

Although Charles Melia founded Val d’Argan in Morocco in 1995, the story starts much earlier.  Charles, who is, by his own description, “French and Catholic,” is, at heart, Moroccan.  His great grandfather had been part of the French contingent in Algeria in the mid-19th century and afterwards the family remained in North Africa, even after Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956.  His father, mother and uncle were all born in Morocco.  Charles spent most of his childhood in Morocco, which explains why he could instruct his Moroccan vineyard workers, in what sounded like perfect Arabic, precisely how he wanted them to prune the vines.

In 1942, Charles’ grandfather purchased Château de la Font de Loup, now a well-regarded estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, sight unseen on the recommendation of a friend.  (Given that this was wartime France, it would be two years after the purchase before he actually saw the property first-hand, according to Charles.)  In the family tradition, Charles ran Château de la Font de Loup starting in 1977, but after a decade and a half, he had other ideas.  He wanted to, as he described it, “branch out from the family estate.” He spent what he estimates as three years looking at vineyards in Chile, Argentina and finally Morocco.

Searching in Morocco took time.  He explains, “I knew what I didn’t want to do.” He didn’t want to go to an “established” Moroccan region like Meknès, Rabat, or the Atlas Mountains (though some might question his use of the word “established” in this context.).  He wanted to find a new place, so he started looking for potential areas in the south of Morocco for vineyards, but found the soil far too sandy near Agadir.  Gradually moving north and staying near the cooling influences of the Atlantic Ocean, he found his current locale, just east of the Atlantic seaside resort of Essaouira, where he spotted vineyards that produced table grapes.

To his pleasant surprise, he found limestone, which is a perfect foundation for the roots of vines, under the 1.5-foot of topsoil.  The soil itself contained what turned out to be a literal mountain of stones, fragments of the limestone bedrock.  Though different in origins, the stone-filled vineyards at Val d’Argan are reminiscent of those in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Jérôme Dourdin, a recently transplanted Frenchman who, along with his wife, has a delightful small hotel, Dar Diamar, 15 minutes away from Val d’Argan, lamented, “The thing that grows best in the garden is rocks.”  The stone is so prevalent that much of the local construction–houses and walls–are built from the ubiquitous warmly colored pale-brown stone.

Melia purchased a 12.5-acre olive grove, uprooted most of the trees, removed enough stone for the eventual construction of his house, and planted 13 different Rhône varieties–shades of Châteauneuf-du-Pape–in what he described as a viticultural laboratory. Even Melia concedes his first wines were “not so good.”

Echoing Melia, Cornelia Hendry, the co-owner of the charming hotel, Villa Maroc in Essaouira, commented that the initial wines from Val d’Argan were heavy and not very drinkable.  Now, however, they are on the hotel’s wine list and are “very popular.”

Melia explains the transition, “I started with European ideas, and now I know I needed Moroccan ideas.”  In the vineyards, which have been farmed organically since their inception, Melia has added cover crops and has engaged in what he refers to as “progressive replanting,” expanding to his current 125-acres. He has planted more Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Marselan, a genetic cross of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier and Roussanne, because he finds that those are the varieties that do best here. He is especially pleased with Marselan.  When replanting, he trained the vines to be very low to the ground and closer together, not to compete with each other to limit growth, but rather so the leaves from one vine shade other vines to prevent the grapes from being sunburnt.  Pruning to keep the grape-containing canes close to the ground keeps the grapes cooler. These techniques are critical because of the heat.  This year, on the 23rd of June, the temperature reached 124º F, according to Melia.  As a result, he lost his entire crop of Mourvèdre to sunburn and desiccation.   He refers to his method of planting as the “Moroccan gobelet.” Melia notes that even with irrigation–he has three wells–his yields are small, averaging only 25 hectoliters/hectare.

The winery, built over three years from 1995 to 1998, is traditionally low-tech French and very efficient.  Small crates of hand-harvested grapes arrive on the second floor of the winery, where Melia has placed a small de-stemmer.  The grapes are destemmed and then drop directly–no use of pumps–into a press for the whites or cement fermentation tanks for the reds.  He proudly reports that the time between picking the grapes and pressing them is about 30 minutes. He uses only natural yeast and relies on very little aging in oak barrels–those he uses are large and older–preferring to highlight the wine’s fruitiness.

Melia admits that in the beginning his wines were “too big.  I was trying to make them like I did in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”  He points out that the most important change in his red winemaking since he started twenty years ago has been limiting extraction, which has made the wines lighter, fruitier and more elegant.
He credits the addition of an expensive system of circulating cold water to keep fermentation temperature constant and low.  His harvest occurs in July or August when sugar levels are appropriate to achieve wines with between 13 and 14 percent alcohol.  However, at that point, the tannins are still unripe and firm.  Gentle extraction at low temperature helps him to minimize the harshness of the tannins in the finished wine.

The most surprising element of Melia’s Moroccan wines–both red and white–is their refinement.  I was expecting robust wines with high alcohols, great density and power, characteristic of wines made in hot climates. After all, that’s frequently the character of California wine.  But in California the temperature might climb “only” to the lows 100º F for a few days–not 120º F. In warm areas when tannin ripeness lags behind sugar ripeness, winemakers are faced with the decision of whether to wait for the tannins to ripen, knowing that the higher sugar levels will translate to higher alcohol wines, or to harvest when the tannins are still green leading to wines with firmness in their youth.  Melia seems to have achieved an extraordinary balance in his wines given the climate by getting them to the winery quickly, through gentle handing of the grapes in the winery, and via low temperature extraction.

Even youthful barrel samples of wines from the 2017 vintage were refined.  The Syrah, lighter with less spice compared to those from the Rhône, had finesse.  Marselan from barrel showed more tannin and structure, but without a trace of heaviness.  It had surprisingly good acidity and balance. A sample of Viognier-Grenache blend from the tank was perfumed, clean, fresh and filled with nuances of stone fruit.  It was hard to believe it came from a desert-like locale.

Bottled wines–he has four levels–were equally impressive.   At every level, the hallmark was freshness, vivacity and finesse.  The flavors of a 2011 Val d’Argan Reserve red, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, had transformed from firm fruitiness apparent in the 2014 of the same wine to a suave succulence, while the 2014 Orian, a blend of Mourvèdre and Marselan and Val d’Argan’s flagship, was denser with an even a more refined texture.  The whites were refreshing, clean and crisp and a perfect complement to the region’s seafood.  All weighed in at 14 percent or less stated alcohol.

Since Val d’Argan’s wines are not (yet) imported into the U.S., it is impossible to know what prices they might fetch here.  In Moroccan restaurants, Orian, Val d’Argan’s top tier red or white, at about $50, was always the most or second most expensive Moroccan wine on the list, while their excellent Perle Noir or Perle Blanche, which represents their second from the bottom tier, was about $30, pretty much in line with many other Moroccan wines.

Until 2003, Melia supervised production at both Val d’Argan and Château de la Font de Loup.  It was a quick flight from Marrakech to Marseille and he could oversee the critical harvest period at both estates since they were separated by two months.  But since 2003, he turned over the winemaking at Château de la Font de Loup to his daughter and son-in-law, while devoting all his energy to his Morocco estate.  The wines at Val d’Argan show it.

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Email me your thoughts about Moroccan wines—or anything else—at  Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

January 3, 2018

Spottswoode, California (United States) Sauvignon Blanc 2016

($36):  It’s no secret that Spottswoode makes sensational Cabernet Sauvignon.  This excellent and stylish Sauvignon Blanc shows they are not a one-horse show.  The wine also reminds us to trust the producer rather than relying solely on the AVA (appellation).  Since 85 percent of the grapes did not come from one area (Sonoma County 60 percent with the remainder from Napa County), they were obligated to use the broader — and less prestigious — appellation, California.  Using estate (their own) and purchased fruit, they have fashioned a racy and full-bodied Bordeaux-like sophisticated white wine. Beautifully balanced, it has good density and a pleasing pungency.  You could savor its complexity by drinking it as an aperitif, but frankly its stature shows best with chicken breasts in a light cream sauce. Don’t miss this sensational wine.  It redefines California Sauvignon Blanc. 96 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Far Niente, Oakville (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

($158):  Consumers can count on Far Niente, a leader in Napa Valley Cabernet, to produce a bold, yet refined, Cabernet Sauvignon.  The 2015, fruitier than usual while still combining savory and dark earthy flavors, fits that mold.  Fine tannins impart a supple texture that allows for immediate enjoyment.  Long and complex, it’s a wonderful combination of sweet fruit and savory notes.  It’s ideal now with a steak. 91 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Miljenko’s Selection” 2013

($90):  This generous Cabernet Sauvignon is more evidence — not that it was needed — that Grgich Hills is a fabulously talented producer and that Napa Valley is a great place for Cabernet.  The 2013 Grgich Hills’ Cabernet is muscular, but more impressively, it has finesse.  Like a well-honed gymnast, it dazzles with power and grace.  Fine, youthful tannins support dark fruit and tar-like minerality.  Despite all of that, it’s the elegance and its length that you remember.  Enjoyable now, especially with a hearty steak, it should develop beautifully with a decade of bottle age, judging from its balance and my experience with Grgich Hills’ previous vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon. 95 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Spottswoode, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

($185):  Spottswoode, one of the oldest producers of the “modern” Napa Valley era, was founded in 1972.  They started bottling and selling under their own label a decade later.  Far ahead of their time, they have been farming organically since 1985 and was certified organic in 1992, according to their website.  Best known for their consistently sensational Cabernet Sauvignon, they also make outstanding Sauvignon Blanc (also reviewed this week).  The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, a typical left-bank Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (86%), Cabernet Franc (10%) and Petit Verdot, is an outstanding wine.  The first impression, after the impressively floral nose, is a velvety texture.  It’s glossy, yet still structured.  Flavors — black fruits, olives, herbs — are restrained, almost needing to be coaxed out of the glass.  Then, with time and seemingly out of nowhere, they caress the palate.  This is not a flamboyant or bombastic wine, yet it is packed with flavor.  The finish is long and graceful, without a trace of heaviness.  This is a great, youthful Cabernet that will blossom even more over the next few years.
97 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Jordan, Alexander Valley (Sonoma County, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

($55):  I have always admired the wines from Jordan — and still do.  They never succumbed to fad of boisterous “big” California Cabernets.  They have held to their original philosophy of making restrained and elegant wines that deliver incredible flavor and finesse.  Weighing in at just 13.8 percent stated alcohol, Jordan’s 2013 Cabernet fits that mold perfectly.  Perfectly balanced between fruity and savory notes, it has plush tannins and a suave texture, which makes it easy to enjoy now.  Fresh and vibrant, it invigorates the palate throughout the meal.  You don’t want just a sip, you want to drink it over an hour or two and enjoy how it expands in the glass.  Having had many older Cabernets from Jordan, I can attest to their wonderful evolution with a decade or two of bottle age.  Though $55 is a lot for most people to spend on a bottle of wine, Jordan’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is a bargain compared to many other upper-end California Cabs.
94 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Luca Bosio Vineyards, Gavi DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) 2016

($19, Quintessential):  Although Piedmont is best known for its stellar red wines, it is home to excellent whites, such as this one.  The Cortese grape, from which Gavi is made, is naturally high in acidity, so the wines need enough body to balance it or they come across and tart and thin.  Luca Bosio’s checks that box. With good density, even a hint of creaminess, it has ample weight on the palate despite its modest 12.4 percent stated alcohol.  It would be a good choice for linguine and clam sauce, prosciutto or other antipasti or even tomato-based seafood dishes.
90 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Villa Huesgen, Mosel (Germany) Riesling “1735” 2016

($20, Quintessential):  The problem with Riesling is the “S” word — sweet.  I can’t remember the times people have told me they’d never order a Riesling because it’s sweet.  Well, some are and some aren’t.  Sadly, it’s hard to tell just from looking at the label because even some labeled “dry” aren’t.  This one is dry, with attractive simultaneous fruity and stony components.  Fresh and clean, it mineral-like austerity is not enamel-cleansing, which makes it a fine choice as an aperitif or with smoked salmon, for example, as a first course. 88 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Gustave Lorentz, Alsace (France) Gewurztraminer 2016

($25, Quintessential):  Gewurztraminer is an idiosyncratic wine — people seem either to love or hate it. Complicating its popularity is an undisclosed level of sweetness, not unlike an impediment to enjoying Riesling.  Gustave Lorentz, a classic name in Alsace, makes impeccable wines.  This Gewurztraminer is one of them.  Dry, aromatic, and spicy, its slightly bitter finish makes it a great companion to Asian or any full-flavored food.
93 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Frankland Estate, Western Australia (Australia) Riesling Poison Hill Vineyard 2015

($40, Quintessential):   I still remember my low expectations were the first time I tasted an Australian Riesling decades ago.  How could a hot climate produce a racy Riesling?  Well, it most certainly can.  Firstly, the whole continent is not hot, especially if the vineyards are planted in the hills or near ocean influences.  Now, my expectations are that Australian Riesling, like this one, should be racy.  Dry, cutting and long, there’s an alluring floral aspect to the wine.  This edgy wine has good weight, despite only a 12% stated alcohol, and is perfect for flavorful Asian fare, sushi, or coq au Riesling.
91 Michael Apstein Jan 2, 2018

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay Olivet Lane Vineyard 2014

($60):  Although Merry Edwards is known best for her sensational Pinot Noir, she also produces exceptional Chardonnay.  That should come as no surprise given her history.  In the mid 1980s one of her ventures, Merry Vintners, was dedicated solely to Chardonnay production, according to her website. Similar to her Pinot Noir, she is not trying to recreate Burgundy with her Chardonnay.  The opulence of her 2014 is testimony to the warmth of the Russian River Valley.  Though rich, this Chardonnay is paradoxically restrained and vibrant. Not overdone, the lemony elements are refreshing and prevent the wine from tiring throughout the meal.  It’s the ying and yang — rich, yet racy — that is captivating and memorable.
94 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Tongue Dancer, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Chardonnay Bacigalupi Vineyard 2015

($50):  Here is a full-bodied, “roasty-toasty” California Chardonnay that will appeal to those who love that style.  Plenty ripe, weighing in at a stated 14.5 percent alcohol, this big bold wine has bracing, palate-awakening acidity.  Oak influences and a seductive creaminess amplify its richness.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Simonsig Wine Estate, Western Cape (South Africa) “Kaapse Vonkel” Brut Rosé 2015

($25, Quintessential):  Winemakers can have difficulty taming Pinotage, a grape created by a genetic crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, when transforming it into red wine.  Simonsig has done a fabulous job using the grape in this rosé sparkling wine.  A blend Pinot Noir (63%), Pinotage (35%) and Pinot Meunier, this bubbly delivers subtle red fruit notes with exotic accents — which seem attributable to Pinotage’s contributions.  Its light pink color makes it easy on the eyes and its stiff spine keeps it all in balance.  It’s a good choice for a holiday sparkler and sturdy enough to match a first course of smoked salmon.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Brancaia, Toscana Rosso IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “TRE” 2014

($23):  The three-grape blend, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, give rise to the name, TRE.  This mid-weight wine (13.5% stated alcohol) delivers an array of red and black fruit notes surrounded by mild tannins. Bright and lively, it has good density and surprising complexity and polish for the price.  Its lively acidity makes it a good choice for hearty pasta dishes or a beef ragu this winter.
88 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Caiarossa, Toscana Rosso IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Pergolaia” 2013

($23):  Though technically, the “third” wine from Caiarossa, the Pergolaia would finish first in a line-up of similarly priced Tuscan wines.  Of the seven red grape varieties planted at Caiarossa, the Pergolaia relies on the three most usually found in Super Tuscans: Sangiovese (88%), Cabernet Sauvignon (8%) and Merlot.  But it’s not really a “Super Tuscan” either in price or in character.  Caiarossa uses no new oak for this wine, which allows the engaging cherry-like fruitiness to shine.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot provide structure and fleshiness without dominating.  A subtle and attractive bitter finish adds stature not usually found at this price.  Clean and fresh, with suave tannins, it’s perfect for drinking now.  It over delivers for the price.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Brancaia, Toscana Rosso IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Ilatraia” 2012

($70):  Brancaia has fashioned a “bigger” more modern style of Super Tuscan by blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.  Although these are grapes known as Bordeaux varieties, Brancaia’s Ilatraia has clear roots in Tuscany as manifested by its terrific enlivening and refreshing acidity.  In contrast to its TRE, Ilatraia conveys riper, more black fruit flavors seasoned with the luxuriousness of oak.  Remarkably approachable now, it’s not a sipping wine, rather one that would be at home at a Florentine steak house.  Its 14.5% stated alcohol is noticeable as a slightly hot finish, but is hardly an impediment if a rare strip steak is on your plate.
90 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Caiarossa, Toscana Rosso IGT (Tuscany, Italy) “Aria di Caiarossa” 2013

($40):  With an unusual blend, this “second” wine from Caiarossa is an outstanding value.  The team uses five of the seven red varieties planted on the estate, Syrah (28%), Cabernet Franc (22%), Merlot (21%), Cabernet Sauvignon (15%), and Alicante, for this robust, yet balanced wine.  There’s a Margaux-like suaveness and Tuscan acidity that keeps it fresh and lively.  So, despite its power, it doesn’t tire on the palate.  Though there’s spice and minerality, it’s a fruitier wine than the estate’s standard bearer.  It’s a treat to drink now.
92 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Caiarossa, Toscana Rosso IGT (Tuscany, Italy) 2013

($51):  Caiarossa, a relatively new entry into the Super Tuscan world (2004 was their first vintage), is headed towards the top of that illustrious group.  In addition to four of the traditional Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot), they planted and use in this, their flagship wine, Syrah, Sangiovese, and Alicante.  Although it’s a concentrated wine with great depth and an exciting edginess, it displays finesse and sophistication.  Nothing is overdone, nor out of place.  Owned by the same family who owns Château Giscours and Château du Tertre in Margaux and with the same general manager, Alexander Van Beek, it is not surprising that Caiarossa has a velvety Margaux-like texture.  Indeed, it’s the cashmere-like texture of the wine as much as its layers of flavor that captures your attention.  This wine has more youthful, but still silky, tannins compared to Aria di Caiarossa and Pergolaia and is best left in the cellar for several years, while you drink their other ones.  But put some in your cellar — it’s a legend in the making and an extraordinary value.
96 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Donnafugata, Terre Siciliane Rosso IGT (Sicily, Italy) “Tancredi” 2012

($40, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  It’s hard to go wrong with any wine from Donnafugata, one of Sicily’s — and Italy’s — iconic producers.  With Tancredi, Donnafugata has married Nero d’Avola, an indigenous Sicilian grape, with Cabernet Sauvignon and a pinch of Tannat to produce a dense and concentrated, but balanced, wine.  Weighing in at about 14 percent stated alcohol, it has an alluring hint of bitterness in the finish.  That, along with the youthful tannins, make this muscular wine cry out for beef or lamb this winter. 90 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

Donnafugata, Terre Siciliane Rosso IGT (Sicily, Italy) “Mille e una Notte” 2012

($80, Folio Fine Wine Partners):  Mille e una Notte, Donnafugata’s flagship wine, is a tribute to Sicilian grape growing and winemaking.  The 2012 is simply gorgeous.  A masterful blend of Old World (Nero d’Avola) and New (Petit Verdot and Syrah) it conveys power and sophistication.  It’s a collection of paradoxes: intense, without being heavy; plush, but not soft.  There are no sharp edges, but the wine is edgy and exciting to drink.  A hint of tarriness and minerality merges seamlessly with dark fruit notes.  Gloriously long, it’s a joy to savor now with robust, but simple fare, which allows the complexity of the wine to shine.  That said, I suspect consumers who cellar it for a few years will be amply rewarded.
96 Michael Apstein Dec 19, 2017

The Mother of All Wine Auctions

The Napa Valley Wine Auction (officially known as Auction Napa Valley), which started in 1981, bills itself as “the world’s most celebrated charity wine event.”  To its credit, it raises a lot of money–roughly $10 million last year.  Bidders at Auction Napa Valley and other charity wine auctions pay thousands of dollars to attend high-end dinners and mingle with winemakers, winery owners and other “personalities.”  When the auction actually starts, they compete for luxury vacations, dinners with famous chefs, fancy cars, and, yes, wine.  The wines are frequently “one-offs”–large formats or vertical tastings—donated by wineries or other deep pockets.  Baseball great and Burgundy afficiando Rusty Staub donated a 54-bottle collection of top Burgundies to Emeril Lagasse’s Foundation Carnivale du Vin, which brought in $55,000, according to a report by Wine Spectator.

Yet this hoopla pales in comparison to the century-old mother of all charity wine auctions, the Vente des Vins des Hospices de Beaune, usually just known as either Hospices de Beaune–if you are an outsider–or La Vente des Vins, if you are from Burgundy.  In its present form, the Hospices de Beaune auction started in 1859, which makes the recently completed auction—always on the 3rd Sunday of November—its 157th.  The sale raised $13.2 million (11.2 million euros), an all-time record with the proceeds going to the hospitals of Beaune and various other charities.

The unique aspect of this auction is that only newly made wine is sold and only by the pièce–a traditional Burgundy barrel that contains 228 liters of wine.  (The price of the barrel, roughly $720, not counting tax, is added to the hammer price.)  Although there is a gala dinner at the 12th century Clos Vougeot the night prior to the auction (as well as what’s been called the world’s longest lunch, the Paulée de Meursault, the day after the auction), at the auction itself there are no fancy cars, elaborate dinners, or luxury vacations available–just newly made, and not even ready to be bottled, wine.

The Hospices de Beaune actually owns vineyards, a lot of them, just under 150 acres, which makes them one of Burgundy’s largest landowners.  (By comparison, Domaine Louis Latour, one of Burgundy’s top négociants, owns about 120 acres of vineyards in the Côte d’Or.)  This all started in the 15th century.  Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, established, in 1443, the Hôtel Dieu (hospital) to care for the poor.  Benefactors, starting with Guillotte le Verrier in 1457, have been donating vineyards to the Hospices ever since.  The wines from those vineyards are labeled by appellation and then given a Cuvée name honoring the donor or benefactor.

For example, William (Bill) Friedberg, a prominent Boston wine merchant, donated 1.5 acres of vineyards in Santenay in 2010 in honor of his recently deceased wife, Christine.  The wine is labeled Santenay, Cuvée Christine Friedberg. In total, there were 50 different Cuvées (33 reds and 17 whites) offered at this year’s auction, up from 48 last year, with the addition of Chablis, Premier Cru Côte de Léchet, Cuvée Jean-Marc Brocard, and Puligny-Montrachet, Cuvée Bernard Clerc.  The vast majority of the vineyards owned by the Hospices are Premier Cru plots from the Côte de Beaune, though there are 4 Grand Cru vineyards from the Côte de Nuits and even one from Pouilly-Fuissé in the Mâconnais.

Starting with the 2015, the winemaking at the Hospices has been under the direction of Ludivine Griveau, the first woman ever to hold that post.  Prior to assuming that responsibility, she worked as a viticulturist with super-star winemaker Nadine Gublin of Domaine Jacques Prieur and Maison Antonin Rodet and then as winemaker for Maison Corton-André.  In addition to making the wines, she supervises 23 individual wine growers who tend the vineyards.

Up until 2005, only the Burgundy wine trade could buy at the auction, but starting that year, Christie’s, the famed auction house, entered the picture and brought the auction into the 21st century.  Now, in addition to bidding live, individuals or a group can bid via telephone or the internet and compete to buy a single barrel.  (Previously, individuals in the trade had to buy multiple barrels of the same wine.)  An incentive for individuals to bid is that winning bidders are entitled to add their name on the label of the finished wine.

The mechanics of bidding from outside of the auction hall are quite simple:  Individuals can go to Christie’s.com and bid via Christie’s Live, or by telephoning Christie’s Client Services [+33 (0)1.40.76.85.85] at least one day prior to the auction.  A Christie’s representative will call you during the auction and pass your bids on directly during the sale.

In addition to the hammer price, the buyer is responsible for a 7 percent buyer’s premium, the aforementioned price of the barrel, and cost of élévage, paying a négociant in Beaune to “raise” and bottle the wine for you.

Elévage is rarely discussed because it is almost impossible to separate it from the winemaking since they always go hand-in-hand–except with wines from the Hospices, which are made by one person, and raised by another.  But, indeed, élévage helps determine the character of the wine.  This was brought home to me several years ago when I purchased the same Hospices de Beaune wine, 1988 Beaune, Cuvée Nicolas Rolin, raised by two different, but equally outstanding, négociants, Maison Louis Latour and Maison Louis Jadot.  Both Latour and Jadot purchased several barrels of the wine at the auction, brought them back to their respective cellars, transferred the wine into their own barrels, cellared the wine for the next 18 or so months, and then bottled it.  When tasted the wines side by side, both wines were excellent, but reflected the respective négociants’ style:  Jadot’s was more muscular while Latour’s was more taut.

Let’s run some numbers to get an estimate of what the 288 bottles (one pièce) will cost you or your group of Burgundy lovers.  The prices at the 2017 sale ranged from 6,400€ for a barrel of Pouilly-Fuissé, Cuvée Françoise Poisard to 118,000€ for a barrel of Bâtard-Montrachet, Cuvée Dames de Flanders.   Assume the hammer price of the barrel was 10,000€, which was the price of a barrel of Beaune 1er Cru, Cuvée Dames Hospitalières this year.  Add to that 700€ Buyer’s Premium, 600€ for the barrel and 3,000€ for élévage, which gives a final price of 14,300€ or about 50€ a bottle ($59 at current exchange rates).  Adding about $10 a bottle for shipping, customs clearance and duty gets a final estimated price of about $69 a bottle.

Remember, the minimum purchase is 288 bottles of the same wine, so you might want to start getting your group together in time for next year’s Hospices des Beaune auction.

 

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Email me your thoughts about Hospices de Beaune or Burgundy in general at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

December 6, 2017

Canvasback, Red Mountain (Washington) Cabernet Sauvignon “Grand Passage” 2014

($80):  Canvasback, Duckhorn’s outpost in Washington State, has turned out a masterful Cabernet from the 2014 vintage.  It’s a “big” Cabernet, to be sure, but not overblown, hot, or out of balance.  Indeed, it is precisely the combination of expressiveness and elegance with its density that is so awesome.  Plush tannins provide structure without being aggressive.  Fresh acidity amplifies the gorgeous black fruit qualities complemented by mineral notes and prevents palate fatigue.  You want to return for another sip.  Engaging now, especially with a holiday roast, its balance suggests cellaring for a decade or so will be rewarding. 95 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Dry Creek Vineyard, Sonoma County (California) Sauvignon Blanc “Fumé Blanc” 2016

($15):  The vision of David Stare, founder of Dry Creek Vineyard in the early 1970s, was to make world-class Sauvignon Blanc just as the French did in the Loire Valley.  Well, he and now his family, have continued that effort even after making headline with their other excellent varietal and blended wines.  Their 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, labeled Fumé Blanc to remind consumers of its kinship to the Loire’s Pouilly Fumé, is herbaceous and racy.  A perky wine with bright palate-cleansing acidity and an edgy character makes it perfect for sushi, highly flavored Asian food, or frankly, just steamed clams.  It’s a bargain. 88 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Sauvignon Blanc 2016

($36):  Merry Edwards is a genius of a winemaker.  She makes fabulous Pinot Noir as well as this under-the-radar Sauvignon Blanc.  Well, it won’t be under the radar for long because she’s been excelling at this variety for years — and the 2016 continues her streak, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s a fabulous combination:  A hint of pungency, some herbal minty notes and lively freshness in the finish.  Then you notice a creamy element — where did that come from?  Her Sauvignon Blanc is more in the complex layered tradition of fine white Bordeaux than the straightforward Sancerre rendition.  I don’t often think $36 for Sauvignon Blanc is a bargain, but this one is. 93 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley (California) Chardonnay Estate Grown 2014

($43):  Grgich Hills Estate is a master at Chardonnay, continuing “Mike” Grgich’s tradition.  He made a truly world-stunning Chardonnay for another Napa producer, Château Montelena, which shocked the world when, in 1976, it came in first in a blind tasting that included top French white Burgundies.  Grgich Hills’ 2014 Chardonnay has more ripeness and is more forward than usual, but has the signature palate-cleansing acidity and verve that keeps it together. 92 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Alexandre Relvas, Alentejano (Portugal) Herdade de São Miguel “Art.Terra Amphora” 2016

($23, Quintessential):  Consumers should not be put off by the incredibly confusing label because the wine is, in a word, delicious.  (The name of the producer, perhaps the single most important piece of information, is relegated to small type on the back label.)  A blend of autochthonous grapes (Aragonez, Trincadeira and Moreto), it delivers an engaging and exotic combination of dark fruit and herbal flavors with a charming rustic edge.  A ripe and dense wine, it’s not overdone and indeed, weighs in at less than 14 percent stated alcohol.  Tannins are smooth, which makes the wine an excellent choice for robust fare this winter. 90 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

La Mannella, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (Tuscany, Italy) 2013

($72, Quintessential):  Though the wines are bottled and in distribution to wholesalers, the official release date of the 2013 Brunello di Montalcino is the beginning of 2018.  The growing season was cooler than 2012, which suggests the wines might be more elegant than powerful, but generalizations can’t be made, if at all, until tasting a full range of them.  As with many Brunello producers, La Manella blends wines made from Sangiovese grown in vineyards in two parts of the DOCG, north and southeast of the village itself, to achieve a balanced and complex finished wine.  They have achieved that with their traditionally framed 2013.  It has impressive combination of density and suaveness with luxuriously silky tannins.  A refined wine, it’s long, with bright acidity that imparts an uplifting freshness. There’s the barest hint of attractive bitterness in the finish that reminds you this a serious wine. 93 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Luca Bosio Vineyards, Barbera d’Asti DOCG (Piedmont, Italy) 2013

($15, Quintessential):  Though the Piemontese speak of Barolo and Barbaresco with reverence, they all drink Barbera d’Asti with gusto.  And this wine shows why.  Its bright red fruit flavors mingle nicely with a spiced herb component.  The naturally high acidity balances good concentration, making it energetic and lively.  It delivers more than the prices suggests, so it’s a perfect choice for pasta with a tomato sauce or even take-out pizza any night of the week. 90 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Laudun Chusclan Vignerons, Côtes du Rhône (Rhône Valley, France) “Esprit du Rhône” 2015

($17, Quintessential):  Laudun and Chusclan are two villages, practically adjacent to one another, on the right bank of the Rhône, across the river from Orange and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Although both villages are included in the umbrella appellation of Côte du Rhône-Villages, the members of the very good co-operative there, Laudun Chusclan Vignerons, also make straight Côtes du Rhône from vineyards that lie outside the strict borders of the two villages.  Comprised of the usual Mediterranean blend of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Cinsault, it has good density and an herbal, peppery component that gives it an appealing “not just fruit” character.  This mid-weight wine is satisfying now and goes right into my “wine with roast chicken” category. 89 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Maison Joseph Drouhin, Pouilly-Vinzelles (Mâconnais, Burgundy, France) 2015

($20, Dreyfus Ashby):  The 2015 vintage in Burgundy delivered outstanding reds and whites.  It’s a rare vintage that is successful for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but 2015 was.  The reds, for the most part, though engaging now, are best put in the cellar.  The whites are hard to resist now, especially those from the Mâconnais.  Pouilly-Vinzelles, a microscopic appellation compared to its more famous neighbor, Pouilly-Fuissé, can deliver equally enjoyable wines.  Usually less ripe and robust compared to Pouilly-Fuissé, the wines from Pouilly-Vinzelles often have an attractive taut and racy quality.  Drouhin’s 2015 Pouilly-Vinzelles marries that raciness with ripeness characteristic of the vintage.  Exceptionally long, this is a great bargain.  My advice?  Buy it by the case. 90 Michael Apstein Dec 5, 2017

Mercer Wine Estates, Horse Heaven Hills (Columbia Valley) “Sharp Sisters” 2015

($25):  This red blend, comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon (29%), Syrah (27%), Merlot (18%), Petit Verdot (14%), Grenache (10%) and Carignan, has the power you’d expect from those varieties.  This big, bold, New World-styled wine shows a hint of “not just fruit” elements in the finish. Soft-ish tannins and bright acidity provide structure without dampening the wines underlying ripeness.  Those preferring opulence over subtlety and nuance in their wines, will embrace this one.  It would be ideal for a hearty beef dish this winter. 90 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Cadaretta, Columbia Valley (Washington) “Windthrow” 2014

($50):  This Rhône blend — Syrah (76%), Mourvèdre (15%), and Grenache — delivers both power and elegance.  Layers of flavors emerge with each sip, which harmonize and complement each other.  The earthy, almost animal-like nuances, offset the ripe black fruit qualities.  This is a wine to ponder because much is revealed in its long finish.  Its stature and complexity would show best against simple food, such as pan-seared steak. 93 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Macari, North Fork, Long Island (New York) Sauvignon Blanc “Katherine’s Field” 2015

($24):  It’s a delight to taste Sauvignon Blanc with this kind of balance.  Bright and clean, it delivers a pleasant pungency.  It has energy without a teeth-rattling aggressiveness common to many producers’ Sauvignon Blanc.  There’s a refreshing grapefruit-like bitterness in the finish.  Certainly an excellent wine for steamed clams, it has sufficient “oomph” to hold up to a tomato-based seafood dish. 89 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Lyndenhurst, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

($80):  Grapes for Lyndenhurst, an alternate label from Spottswoode Estate Vineyard and Winery, come from Spottswoode’s vineyards supplemental by fruit from a handful of other growers.  Weighing in at a stated 13.9 percent alcohol, it’s a gorgeous Napa Valley Cabernet, displaying concentration and elegance.  Paradoxically powerful and restrained, it combines herbal notes — black olives, maybe —  with dark fruit flavors.  Tannins are very suave, while abundant acidity keeps it fresh and lively — and keep you coming back for another sip.  Nothing is out of place here.  This is just one more example of why Napa Valley is the place for Cabernet.  I don’t mean to beat the same drum — Okay, I do — winemakers take note:  Plenty of enjoyment, flavor and complexity at less than 14 percent stated alcohol. 94 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Feudi di San Gregorio, Greco di Tufo DOCG (Campania, Italy) 2015

($18, Terlato Wines International):  Feudi di San Gregorio’s Greco di Tufo is less floral and more mineral-tinged than their Fiano d’Avellino (also reviewed this week), but has a similar refreshing edginess to it.  A more “serious” wine, it has an engaging firmness and more of a presence on the table.  It cuts a wider swath without being opulent.  Indeed, its charm rests in its austerity and reserve.  Whereas the Fiano makes a fine aperitif, this Greco cries for food because of its more rigid spine.  This wine and Feudi di San Gregorio’s Fiano reminds us how Campania remains an underappreciated treasure trove region for whites. 91 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Feudi di San Gregorio, Fiano d’Avellino DOCG (Campania, Italy) 2016

($18, Terlato Wines International):  Floral and clean, like fresh fruit blossoms, Feudi di San Gregorio’s 2016 Fiano conveys a lacey delicacy.  Combine that with its lip-smacking acidity and you have a refreshing choice for simply sautéed — or if your grill is still functioning — grilled fish.  Not an opulent wine, it’s easy going and would be equally at home as a stand-alone aperitif. 90 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Domaine Long-Depaquit, Chablis (Burgundy, France) 2014

($20):  Domaine Long-Depaquit, owned by the top-notch Beaune-based négociant, Albert Bichot, is one of the best estates in Chablis.  Domaine Long-Depaquit is the sole owner of an icon of Chablis, La Moutonne, a unique Grand Cru that encompasses vines in both the vineyards of Vaudésir and Les Preuses.  Equally notable — for what it is — is their village Chablis.  Grand Cru it is not, nor is the price.  It is an exceptional village wine, reflecting the unique flinty mineral aspect of the appellation.  With good concentration, depth, and an enlivening freshness, it’s a fine expression of Chablis.  It shows you need not drink Grand Cru to appreciate the wonders of Chablis. 90 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017

Maison Joseph Drouhin, Santenay (Burgundy, France) 2015

($29, Dreyfus Ashby):  Drouhin’s elegant and lacey style is a perfect fit for the ripe red wines of 2015.  The reds from Santenay, a low-keyed village at the southern end of the Côte de Beaune bordering Chassagne-Montrachet, can have a rustic edge to them.  Taming this rusticity — making it charming — without eviscerating the signature of the village’s wine is a difficult line to walk, one that Drouhin does marvelously with its 2015 Santenay. Glossy, but not too elegant, the rustic charm of Santenay is apparent and appealing.  Very long, especially for a village wine, this mid-weight wine is a beauty to drink now, with a roast chicken and sautéed mushrooms.  Yum! 91 Michael Apstein Nov 21, 2017