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Sticky fingers

[(varner) neely and foxglove wine bottles]No more than twenty seconds after exiting my car, I’ve got a glass in my hand. In it is a dense, sticky liquid straight from a rumbling crusher a few feet above my head, with a good number of uninvited floaters: bits of stems, skins, seeds, and perhaps a few dozen fruit flies. There’s also a fair amount of the sugary goop on my hand, which means it’s now on the pen I’m using to take notes. Which means it’s also on my notebook. Which means the pages are getting a little sticky.

But there’s nothing to be done about it now, so I shove my nose in the glass and take a lusty sniff. Freshly-crushed grapes, with a bit of a edge to them. I sip, ignoring the potentially complexing elements of bug protein and stem roughage. Dense fruit, very sweet, but vivacious. It’s a wine in embryonic form, just waiting to be born. And it’s delicious.

Varner is a eponymously-named winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, run by brothers Jim and Bob. Jim seems to handle the business side of things while Bob works the vines and the cellar equipment, though as with any family winery the actual practice is a little more collaborative than that. In any case, today Jim’s the one leading me around, while Bob grows increasingly spattered and spackled with the sticky residue of an ongoing crush. They’re bringing in chardonnay today, and in-between brief visits to chat, thief some barrel samples, or hand me a glass of fruit flies, Bob’s spending most of his time wheeling a forklift around the small parking lot, hoisting bins overflowing with grapes to an elevated platform, and then scampering up and down a ladder to check on his grapes’ plump befores and slurried afters.

But you wouldn’t know that there was a winery here unless you knew it. Local fiat disallows any hint of a public face, so access is only granted via appointment and the presence of someone with permission to open a forbidding gate. It’s not a matter of wanting to keep people out; Varner’s been given no choice in the matter by the civic worthies of Portola Valley. As a result, whenever the din of winemaking pauses – say for the workers’ lunch break – a peaceful isolation settles over the winery and its forested grounds.

Varner’s vineyards – which their business partner owns (see below) – were planted in stages beginning in the early eighties, and benefit from the Santa Cruz Mountains’ cooling effects, which assists in the preservation of acidity. In the Varners’ case, the stylistic intent came first and the vines came later, on a series of sites above the San Andreas Fault, though a few plots have been replanted as tastes and intents changed (for example, a block of gewürztraminer was supplanted by pinot noir). Two of the higher-elevation vineyards are on their own roots.

In the beginning, Jim & Bob spent a good deal of time selecting clones, including 115 and 777 for their pinot noirs, and a range of what Bob calls “old California clones” for the chardonnays. Subsequent plantings of the latter have been from a massale selection of those vines. And they try to take on “one creative endeavor a year,” which is sometimes a varietal exploration, and other times a speculative modification to technique, just to see what happens.

Experiments aside, Varner works very, very simply. Irrigation was gradually abandoned after the initial five years of vine growth (“our water patterns,” notes Bob, “are like natural deficit irrigation anyway”), and grapes are picked at around three tons per acre in temperatures between 50-60º. Back at the winery, each block of grapes is destemmed by hand, crushed, and pressed all in the same day. Varner’s particular vineyard sites don’t suffer from fog, but frost can be a problem…“though not this year,” notes Bob.

Yeasts and malolactic fermentations are natural rather than inoculated, barrels (a combination of medium-toast Allier and Tronçais, 1/3 new) are getting new wooden bungs for better control over oxygenation, and everything up to and including clarification is accomplished via gravity – no fining or filtration, just racking. Alcohols, which tend to hover around 14 to 14.5% (though 2008 has brought several wines under that threshold), are controlled in the vineyard, rather than with water or more technological means.

The tactile, sun-made-manifest fluid in my glass is chardonnay from the Bee Block, already nearing the end of its journey from grape to barrel, and from this site the Varners look for “peaches up front, lemon curd on the finish, and a sensation of chopped-up apples,” whereas the Amphitheater Block showcases its minerality in a package of less overt lushness. Pinot noir from the Hidden Block tends to show “perfectly ripe black cherry,” while the Picnic Block brings a crisper, yet still “perfectly ripe red apple” element into play. At least, that’s the intent. As we move into tasting, I’ll have the opportunity to judge for myself.

There are three projects here. Two, Varner and Neely, are just different names for the same range of wines; the latter is named after a third investor (who joins us midway through the tasting), though the label nomenclature differs between the two brands. The third is Foxglove, a larger, appealingly-priced label for purchased grapes that emphasize clean varietal character.

[chardonnay crush at varner]Varner 2007 Chardonnay Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Still thick and lush. Peach, apple, lees. Opaque. (9/08)

Varner 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – From a new François Frères barrel, 115 clone. Still wood-marked. Elegant. Spicy cherry (again, the wood influence). Seems lighter-styled. (9/08)

Varner 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – From a three year old François Frères barrel, still the 115 clone. Balanced fruit with light tannin. A mix of black and red cherry, strawberry, and perhaps some more exotic berries that I can’t quite put a name to. Very long. Grey soil. A persistent bit of wood influence lingers late on the finish, but it’s very minor in comparison to the new-wood sample of this cuvée. (9/08)

Varner 2008 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Hidden Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Actually, not even really a wine, as it was pressed just yesterday. Crisp apple with a touch of milk-soaked strawberry. Light. (9/08)

“This is a year to cut back on the oak,” notes Bob, in reference to the 2007s.

Neely 2006 Chardonnay Spring Ridge “Holly’s Cuvée” (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Very restrained. Apple and apricot, but not just the fruit…skins and other plant-parts as well. There’s good acidity and a lot of minerality. Medium-bodied, steady-state, pure, and fabulously balanced, but this needs more time to develop into what it’s becoming. (9/08)

Wine “can be balanced and [still] dull,” notes Bob, who looks for simultaneous “tension and equilibrium” in the end product.

Neely 2005 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge “Holly’s Cuvée” (Santa Cruz Mountains) – A blend of clones 115 and 777. Intense cherry…really more like an explosion thereof…with just a hint of tar. Vivid. Beautiful texture and huge, deep-black minerality. Starts bright and blinding, then turns structured in the middle, and finishes with supple gentility. (9/08)

“Interesting aromatics with lushness on the palate…that’s the goal of California pinot noir,” claims Bob.

Neely 2005 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Picnic Block (Santa Cruz Mountains) – 777 clones on 5C rootstock in “the poorest soil on the property.” Dark blackberry, blueberry (both with seeds intact), and broodberry. No, that’s not a word, but it applies here. Lush indeed, but very well-balanced, and frankly gorgeous. Is that a little tail of licorice? Long, vivid, and intense. Impressive. (9/08)

Neely 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Picnic Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Anise. Red fruit with black skins, or so it seems; definitely not the other way around. Beautiful acidity, long, silky, and supple. A fine particulate texture pairs with flawless structure. “We’re looking for an interplay between raspberry and dark red plum skins.” (9/08)

The chardonnays, according to both Jim and Bob, are built for around seven to ten years’ aging, but they’re less sure about an endpoint for the pinots. “Ten, fifteen years?”

Foxglove 2007 Zinfandel (Paso Robles) – 15% petite sirah, 14.6% alcohol. Big boysenberry fruit, with a nicely bitter espresso edge. A little short aromatically, but eminently drinkable. (9/08)

The Varners consider their work an always-interesting combination of art and science. And in fact, science is often paired with the duo’s occasional lapses into old-style California winemaker cant, e.g. their desire for “tannic equilibrium and some synergistic energy.” But both Varners describe their philosophy in an appropriately simple way, insisting that what they do is no more than “really paying attention to natural conditions.” Their wines – pure, complex, unadorned – reflect their sites, but they also exemplify this well-tested hypothesis.

Now if I can just get this chardonnay residue off my fingers…

Disclosures: lunch at Lavanda paid for by Jim Varner, several bottles purchased at a significant discount.

Theise me

Were it not for genius importer Terry Theise, many Americans would have no idea that there were Champagnes other than the biggest, most heavily-marketed names. He was certainly, many years ago, the majority of my introduction to the concept of grower-producer bubbly. And yet, despite his efforts, most people still don’t know these wines, and continue to slog through underperforming industrial sparklers best-known for the color of their labels or their low, low holiday pricing (though in my opinion, such wines are still grossly overpriced for what they are; someone has to pay for those flashy promotions, after all). I don’t mean to damn all major-label Champagne, because some of it is very, very good. But far too much of it isn’t, and one pays for name, reputation, and global availability rather than what’s in the bottle.

These wines – all sparkling, mostly Champagne, but with two foreign interlopers from another of Theise’s favored locales – draw plenty of critical acclaim, and are of regularly high quality, but what’s always most interesting to me is their individuality and their difference. Champagne – at least the non-vintage sort – has (as its major marketers would have us believe) long been about consistency, and the big producers, whether industrial or not, achieve this with careful blending of young and older stocks. Smaller growers can rarely afford the sources, the expense, or the storage capacity to do the same, and the result is greater site-specificity and a variation more akin to that of vintage Champagne. For those who value a wine’s ability to surprise as much as it’s ability to satisfy, for those who value terroir as much as the winemaker’s art, this is an incalculable benefit. And here’s another: by exploring such wines, you’re not only upping both the quality and value of your bubbly, but you’re supporting a wine culture more connected to its land than its advertising budget.

Schloss Gobelsburg Brut “Reserve” (Austria) – A blend of pinot noir, riesling, and grüner veltliner. Wet and sour with green pear and apple. Finely beaded, with hints of gunshot. Leafy. Powdery, ground-level dust and extremely sour watermelon come to dominate the finish, like a too-old Jolly Rancher (but dry). Fairly complex, long, and very tart. (12/08)

Bründlmayer Brut Rosé (Austria) – Pink and soft, with electrified crystal flowers that re-soften on the finish. A bit girly in its pinkish Hello Kitty-ness. Spun candy on the finish. Frothy. I’m not a fan. (12/08)

[label]Pierre Gimonnet Champagne Cuis “1er Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – Striking nose of rainforest rocks and humidity. Huge lemon brioche (sprinkled with grapefruit shavings) on the palate. There’s excellent balance between bitterness and acidity. Massively long and frankly gorgeous, with skins dominating right now, and a very trebly midpalate that I expect to mellow with a little age. (12/08)

Pierre Peters Champagne à Le Mesnil-sur-Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Heady toast and pastry, ripe lemon, and Granny Smith apple. Very powerful with a fine baring of its minerality on the finish. The nose is just a little weird…an odd mix of youthful and advanced characteristics that don’t quite gel. Perhaps in time. (12/08)

Goutorbe Champagne à Aÿ Brut “Cuvée Prestige” (Champagne) – Granadilla, crustacean cream, and paper over a chalky bedrock. Very spare and cylindrical in form, with a wall of minerality. Unfortunately, it never fills in, and never achieves any suggestion of grace. (12/08)

Jean Milan Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Spécial” (Champagne) – Delicate, with fine-grained crystals. Crisp but fullish acidity, ripe lime, and lots of molten metal…which hardens on the finish, driven through like a ramrod. Long and in need of time, despite the presence of lovely hints of maturity dancing around the aromas. (12/08)

[label]Jean Milan 2002 Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blanc “Sélection Terres de Noël” (Champagne) – Beautiful. Soft golden complexity, with a hint of curry dusting exotic flowers and heirloom apples. Very pure and gentle. Extremely long, eventually getting around to showing apples in every possible form, from flower to juice. Gorgeous. (12/08)

Gaston Chiquet Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Tradition” (Champagne) – Wind-swept and cold, with rinds and hard-edged quarts. Frothy. Unconvincing in this company, and I’m surprised, because this is a wine I usually like. (12/08)

Marc Hebrart Champagne à Mareuil-sur-Aÿ “1er Cru” Brut “Cuvée de Réserve” (Champagne) – Brioche, yeast, mixed apples, and hints of stone fruit over paper. A bit frothy. Persistent. Just OK. (12/08)

A. Margaine Champagne à Villers-Marmery “1er Cru” Brut (Champagne) – At first, a perfect blend of fresh apple, grape, and sweaty yeast, with sharper slashes of lime sorbet later on. And then, it turns into a cherry-lime rickey. Vivid to the extent that it suggests neon, but clean, strong, and exceptionally long. One for the cellar, for sure. (12/08)

A. Margaine Champagne Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Ripe red cherry and cereal. Very balanced. Laser-like purity that softens just a touch more than I’d like as the wine lingers. Long, though. Steady-state. There’s potential here, but probably not enough to reach the pinnacle. (12/08)

Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut “Cuvée Sainte-Anne” (Champagne) – Very red-influenced, with ripe strawberries, rose hips, and leaves. Simple-seeming fruit is quickly followed up by waves of complex minerality (chalk seems to be the dominant component), and the finish is abundant with jewels and glitter. Very nice. (12/08)

René Goeffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Expression” (Champagne) – Almost minty, but at least herbal. Buzzes with electrically-charged freshness and static. Full of lovely gentility. Red-tinged fruit, but sprightly rather than deep. Fun. (12/08)

[label]René Geoffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut Rosé “de Saignée” (Champagne) – Sweet-glazed biscuit, fresh red fruit (strawberry, mostly…including the seeds). Pure and complex. There’s a fine foundation of stones ground into gravel, and a lovely, drying, mineral component to the finish. Very, very good, but far from its peak. (12/08)

Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut (Champagne) – Mist-shrouded but heady, with suggestions of animalistic wildness. Sauvage, perhaps, and that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Champagne not made by Selosse. Intense lemon-loam (as opposed to lemon-lime), clementine. Turns a bit unctuous as it broadens, and the finish is a bit of a disappointment in its lack of length. (12/08)

Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Crushed strawberry and rather bodacious red cherry, leaves, and thyme. Smells fruit-sweet. Sizeable. Rolling watermelon rock candy on the finish, and then the tactile sensation of frozen metal to which one has unwisely stuck their tongue. I can’t quite figure this one out. (12/08)

Aubry Champagne à Jouy-les-Reims “Grand Cru” Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Tart cranberry somewhat overwhelms a core that leans more towards red and black cherry; this is a wine that leads with its acidity, and never takes its foot off the sour pedal. And is that hollyberry? Sharp and linear. Not really my thing; it’s more like an intermezzo that it is a beverage, though I suppose with the right accompaniment it could sing. Maybe an edgy berry dessert? (12/08)

Fraternity management

[vineyard]6σ 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Rooster (Lake County) – The stainless steel cuvée. Very dry and steely, with grass and acidity. Hard-edged and severe, even tooth-stripping on occasion. Persistent, which is promising, but I think this would benefit a great deal from some richness and additional complexity. Lees, perhaps? (6/08)

6σ 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Michael’s (Lake County) – 100% French oak, which dominates the wine despite not being all that heavily-layered. Lots of acidity, still, but with the toast and stale butter notes the wine is exceedingly awkward and ill-composed. (6/08)

6σ 2005 “Cuvée Pique-Nique” (Lake County) – Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc. Green syrup and coffee, with good structure but a rough ride through a choppy palate and an underripe finish. (6/08)

6σ 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (Lake County) – Intense cassis, cedar, graphite, and chocolate-covered fruit candies stewed with freshly-plucked herb leaves. In some ways it’s classic, in others confected, and there’s a bizarre lactic element that throbs forward on the finish. The most promising of the reds, but still with a long ways to go. (6/08)

6σ 2005 Tempranillo (Lake County) – Chocolate and black pepper with bitter tannin. Far from ripe in any aspect of fruit or structure, and pretty vile as a result. (6/08)

Il communication

Mionetto “Il” Prosecco (Veneto) – Light, mildly sweetened paper. Simple and relatively clean. (6/08)

Mionetto Prosecco Brut (Veneto) – Bright lemon, crisp ripe apple, and a drying finish. The powdery texture shatters and sparkles late on the finish. Fair. (6/08)

Mionetto “Sergio” (Veneto) – Full and rich…perhaps also sweeter than some…with lightly-spiced pear. Thick and complex, but freshness is sacrificed as a result, and there’s actually a bit of heat on the finish. (6/08)

Mionetto “Il” Rosato (Veneto) – Plum, blood orange, strawberry, and old raspberry pushed past its ideal maturity. Heavy and deep. Quite striking, and very much a light red wine more than it is a sparkler. (6/08)

Mionetto “Il” Moscato (Veneto) – Very sweet and extremely simple. (6/08)

Everyday Tariquet

[chateau]Domaine (and Château) du Tariquet is known for its brandies more than its wines, but due a worldwide slowdown in demand for Armagnac, that’s changing. The winemaking history of this estate better-known for its spirits follows directly from market difficulties for the region’s best-known product, Armagnac. In the seventies and eighties, vineyards were planted to supplement brandy production.

To maintain the crispness of the very light grapes used in these wines, trucks bearing dry ice-cooled tanks are sent to the vineyards. Machine-harvested grapes are destemmed on-site, start macerating on their skins in these tanks, and six to ten hours later are put through a gentle pressing (taking care to avoid breaking the seeds, which releases some very green tannins). A slow, cold fermentation takes place over the next few weeks, and wines are subsequently held in tanks and bottled to order. This is industrial viticulture, yes, but there is very little mucking about with the results, and the low prices reflect the process.

NB: the distinction between “domaine” on the table wines and “château” on the Armagnacs comes from AOC regulation; only appellations so designated can use the latter word on their labels, and the table wines are only entitled to vin de pays status.

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Ugni-Blanc/Colombard (Southwest France) – Very crisp green apples. Clean, sunny, and nice with drying skins on the finish. (3/08)

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Sauvignon Blanc (Southwest France) – Linear, to the point of pure two-dimensionality. Simple grass braced by acidity. Eh. (3/08)

Chenin blanc was apparently once widely planted in Gascony, but lost to phylloxera, and remains highly susceptible to disease even now.

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay (Southwest France) – Apricot and grapefruit, with good acidity and a hint of minerality. Long and balanced, and bigger than most of this lineup. A nice wine. (3/08)

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chardonnay (Southwest France) – This wine sees six months in barrique; half new, half one year old. Some cream drizzled over light, crystallized peach. Short finish. Just OK. (3/08)

The next wine was the result of an accident. Rushing to complete a harvest before oncoming rains, one tank full of grapes was unintentionally left in the vineyards. When it finally arrived the next day, there was no room in the fermentation tanks for the grapes to rejoin their brethren, and so this somewhat unusual blend was created.

Domaine du Tariquet “Côté Tariquet” 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc (Southwest France) – Intensely fruity, with some apparent residual sugar (seven to eight grams), apple, and good acidity. In the context of this appellation, a powerful wine. (3/08)

Château du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac “Classique ***” (Southwest France) – This is the entry-level Armagnac. Raw wood, leafy, and creamy. Chocolate and caramel over pecans and hazelnuts. Lush and seductive, with a long finish. It lacks the more complex and subtle characteristics of better Armagnacs, and it’s a bit dessert-like in character, but it’s quite pleasant. (3/08)

Disclosure: wines provided by and lunch paid for by importer and/or producer.

Whisky in the jar

A tutored tasting of Gordon & MacPhail Scotch, with Michael Urquhart.

The firm of Gordon & MacPhail isn’t a Scotch producer, principally (though they do produce a little), but instead buys unfinished or partially-finished spirits, then ages and bottles them to their own specifications; not unlike some of the old-guard négociants of Burgundy. One trigger for this sort of production model was – as with so many matters alcohol-related – Prohibition, from which many distilleries never recovered. Since then, even more of the famous old names have closed up shop (80 remain), but given the aging profile of single-malt Scotch, just because a distillery shutters doesn’t mean that there’s no whisky to sell. And that’s where Gordon & MacPhail comes in…though they their own versions of still-operating distilleries’ production.

One barrier to the U.S. market remains, and that’s our insistence on the 75 cl bottle; much Scotch comes in 70 cl form, which is illegal in the States for reasons that would only make sense to bureaucrats.

Urquhart prefaces the tasting with a brief rundown the characteristics of two kinds of Scotch barrels, about which much is made in modern Scotch-making circles: bourbon casks bring toffee and caramel characteristics, while Sherry casks enhance fruit.

And then, with few other preliminaries (it’s late in the day, and everyone’s tired from a full weekend of wine tasting) we’re on to the whisky. Prices are approximate.

Rosebank (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 16 Year Old (Lowland) – Refilled Sherry casks, triple-distilled, 46% alcohol, $70-80. Apple flowers, light and fuzzy, with a clean, simple nose. The palate introduces tropical fruit and apricot skin, but remains simple and clean. Just OK. (2/08)

Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Speyside) – First-refill Sherry casks, $110. Paper and old furniture turned to ash, toffee, espresso dust, and raw wood, with a finish of apple that hints at cider. Long and lingering, with hints of bitter chocolate at the very end. Complex. (2/08)

Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Highland) – Sherry casks, $110. Coconut and rough wood, baking spices (nutmeg and clove), and while it’s harsh without the mellowing effect of a little water, it eventually turns beautiful and rather supple, showing mixed chocolates, hints of fruit, and toffee cream. Very nice. (2/08)

Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 1965 (Highland) – Sherry casks, $175-200. Sour peat, humid wood, and summer leaves. Then there’s lemongrass, full-bodied spice and chocolate, followed by a finish of smooth apricot and orange. Round and full, with intensity, complexity, and passion. Stunning. (2/08)

Caol Ila (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1982 (Islay) – Sherry casks, 46% alcohol, $150. Peat smoke, iodine, dried meat and the leather that used to enclose it, with exotic flowers and confiture (mostly Mirabelle plum, but there’s Rainer cherry and peach as well). Unbelievably good, and for me the star of the tasting, though a very strong argument could be made for the Glen Grant 1965 as well. (2/08)

Lochside (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1991 (Highland) – Refilled bourbon casks, 43% alcohol, $65-70. Pastry with coffee residue, like the last dregs of a morning stop in a Parisian café, then espresso, stale toffee, almonds, hazelnut, and the drying, slightly acrid smell of flor. Flor? Yes, flor. A very dry style. Weird. (2/08)

Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) “Organic” (Speyside) – One of the first organic whiskies. $55-60, 43% alcohol. Toffee-coated apples dipped in maple syrup, pinapple, banana, and lush milk-chocolate sweetness, with orange-chocolate candies on the finish. This is too simple-minded for me. (2/08)

Grüner or later

[vineyard]A tasting of grüner veltliners from the Terry Theise portfolio, hosted by the ever-quotable importer himself. A few of his nearly-endless bons mots are interspersed amongst the tasting notes.

“It never matters how much a wine tastes, it matters how it tastes.”

Nigl 2006 Kremser Freiheit Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From loess. Showing the barest pérlance, and very pale. Celery, grass, yellow melon, bright golden summer squash, and raw green beans; this is the full vegetable garden writ drinkable, with a buzz and fizz to it. Excellent, somewhat forward fruit gets cleaner as the finish progresses, and though it ends up tasting fairly basic, it’s a fine representative for the grape, and a very nice value. (2/08)

“Flies like a Nigl.” Pause for laughter. Instead, there’s one small groan (from me). “No?”

Jamek 2005 Achleiten Grüner Veltliner Federspeil (Wachau) – Corked. (2/08)

“If it stinks up your house when you cook it, [grüner] is what you drink with it.”

Jamek 2005 Achleiten Grüner Veltliner Federspeil (Wachau) – From microschist and granite with a heavy topsoil. Theise calls this “a pensive introvert,” and he’s dead-on. The merest suggestion of a light straw color, the aromas are difficult to perceive…perhaps there’s a little salted, raw celery, but that’s about all. The palate is vegetal (that’s not a negative), dense, and sticky, with a long, dry, floral finish redolent of apple blossoms. Acid and a light, tannin-esque element emerge late, along with a grated – and slightly grating – pepper note, but this wine is slightly imbalanced in favor of fruit over structure. Better integration and form emerge with air, so perhaps all it really needs is time. Based on its current performance, however, I’m not positive that time will do it unmitigated good. (2/08)

“If sauvignon blanc and viognier had a filthy weekend, and their evil spawn was loosed upon the world, [grüner would be the result].”

Bründlmayer 2005 Loiser Berg Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From schist, microschist, and slate. A few bubbles form on the rim. Light yellow, with the color of hay and straw. The nose is particular (asparagus, zucchini, melon skin), somewhat fruity and lush, but directed, though there’s a faint petroleum note. Despite size and lushness of its own, the palate is beautifully balanced, though there’s a warm character deep into the finish, which melts like smooth liquid pear. In the wine’s immediate aftermath, this turns to clear, clean, dry water with a bit of skin tannin. Very promising, and clearly a wine equipped for its future. (2/08)

“Sometimes, [wine terminology] crosses a rickety suspension bridge between reality and metaphor.”

Schloss Gobelsburg 2005 Steinsetz Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From tertiary gravel (with large rocks) topped by loess. Colored the deepest yellow, with a tinge of greenish-gold, and smelling of grass, cactus, and white peppercorns, backlit by throbbing green and yellow light strobes. The palate is huge and slightly hot, delivering a wallop of strawberries and lentils ground into a powdery texture. Is there a bit of residual sugar? The finish is long and writhing, and bursts with yellow pepper. Weird, but good. (2/08)

“‘Great’ is reserved for riesling.”

Alzinger 2005 Steinertal Grüner Veltliner (Wachau) – From gneiss. Light gold with tinges of green. Coriander, cedar, and a vague sort of bell pepper dominate the nose, but the palate veers off in a different direction, retaining the spice but adding a good deal of freshly-cut peach. Thick and incredibly dense, with a balanced heat on the finish (it reminds me of Bas-Armagnac in the way it warms the wine), and a suggestion of long, slightly sweet melon lingering later on. I’m slightly concerned by the early impression of heat, but otherwise the wine is in fine form. (2/08)

“In 2006 everything received a two-class upgrade.”

Schloss Gobelsburg 2006 Lamm Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From a loam/sandstone/gneiss vineyard that Theise calls “the Montrachet of grüner veltliner,” carrying 14% alcohol and 3-4 grams of residual sugar. Visually solid, with a faint greenness intruding on a medium-deep yellow core. Aromatically breathtaking, bringing together creamy vanilla, smoky charcoal, and a rich, autumnal iron character. The palate is similarly creamy (both texturally and with the actual impression of fresh cream) and thick, with makrut lime and lemon curd that brace and churn all that density, yet add only complexity rather than dissension. The finish is lush and flawlessly balanced, even with the clear influence of softening residual sugar. Majestic. (2/08)

“Grüner veltliner is great…for a business with a piss-poor business sense.”

Boca, resurrected

[logo]Christoph Künzli of Le Piane doesn’t sound like an Italian winemaker. In one sense, he isn’t – he’s from Switzerland – but in the more important sense, he is. Some forty minutes north of Milan’s Malpensa airport, Künzli makes wines from an appellation only the most dedicated oenophiles have heard of (Colline Novaresi), and one that’s even less-known to anyone who doesn’t live there: Boca.

No, it’s not a retirement community in Florida.

One among a string of nearly-forgotten appellations along the northern limits of Piedmontese viticulture (the best-known of which – barely – is Gattinara, but that also includes Lessona and Bramaterra), Boca is a nebbiolo-dominated area that was both famous and one of Italy’s largest in the 19th century, but has since fallen into oblivion as the region’s workers left wine for the factories of Torino.

A chance meeting with an old local winemaker led to Künzli taking over an acre of land, which took three years to work into shape (machines doesn’t work on Boca’s difficult terrain, and many of Künzli’s older vineyards are still planted with the maggiorina training method, making hand-harvesting a necessity). Since then, other plots have been added. Some are old vineyards in need of similar resurrection, while others are new plantings on old, abandoned sites. In the end, around fifty plots (many of them small) were sold, and now form the core of Le Piane’s vineyards, though many of them are quite a few years from being able to supply grapes.

The soil is volcanic rock, over which there’s a layer of gravel, and while the subsoils abound with the sort of complex minerals that vines love, there’s no chalk (which is common elsewhere in the Piedmont, especially where nebbiolo is grown).

Commercial yeasts are used for the Colline Novaresi wines (“vespolina goes volatile with indigenous yeasts,” insists Künzli).

Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi “la maggiorina” (Piedmont) – Old vines, 50% nebbiolo, 35% croatina, uva rara, and vespolina, in stainless steel. Mineral-driven to such an extent that I feel like I’m drinking a red riesling. Very dry. Full of dark fruit dust and tart acidity. Very masculine and hard, with a long finish. A striking wine. (3/08)

Le Piane 2003 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – From 100-year old pre-phylloxera vines, and a blend of 70% croatina and 30% nebbiolo. Lush orange blossom and stone fruit, balanced except for the vintage’s signature tannin, but dried out on the finish by that same tannin. (3/08)

Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – Showing (or perhaps revealing) more dirt than the 2003, with a little bit of well-ridden horse, but not what anyone but the most averse would call bretty; the overall impression is more like that of iron-rich blood. Very interesting floral aromatics, with great balance and a longer finish finely delineated by acidity. Very promising. (3/08)

[bottles]Le Piane’s Boca wines are around 85% nebbiolo and 15% vespolina, grown between 1200 and 1500 feet (the highest nebbiolo vines in the already altitudinous Piedmont). Yeasts are indigenous, though why the volatility noted in the Colline Novaresi wines doesn’t affect the vespolina in Boca goes unexplained. Thirty days of skin maceration in open tanks, with hand punchdowns, are followed by three years in Slavonian oak (none of it new), then another eight months in bottle.

There are nine parcels under production in Boca, mostly young vines, with another ten acres on the way. Vines are propagated by a mixture of massale, selection from Künzli’s own vineyards, and some clones from the university. Künzli is hesitant about some of the older clones from his oldest vineyards (though he does get some older material from Valtellina), believing that his new vine material is superior, meaning that it’s “the qualitative equivalent” to the old vines despite a lack of maturity.

Le Piane 2000 Boca (Piedmont) – Beautifully aromatic, with flowers (rose-dominated) and a pretty finish. Just starting to soften, but there’s plenty of life ahead. (3/08)

Le Piane 2001 Boca (Piedmont) – Tighter than the 2000, with its floral aspects glimpsed through the gauze of a semi-closed stage. Tart cherries and massive minerality form the foundation and core of this wine, with graphite-textured tannin. Really terrific, and promising many, many years until maturity. (3/08)

Le Piane 2003 Boca (Piedmont) – The fruit of the ’00 and ’01 takes on a sweeter, more strawberry-like character here, with big tannin and a dense, somewhat shortened finish. I don’t think this will live up to the promise of more balanced vintages, but it might have an earlier appeal. (3/08)

For now, Künzli is pretty much a one-man show in Boca, at least in terms of non-local attention, though he expects this to change in the future. Though the vineyards employed by Sella (in Lessona and Bramaterra) never fell so out of favor as those of Boca, the projects strike me as having some similarities: one dedicated producer out to rebuild the reputation of forgotten land on the strength of their unique expressions of some of the world’s most aromatically and structurally fascinating grapes.

The wines are represented by Adonna Imports of Waltham, Massachusetts. Prices range from the low teens for “la maggiorina,” to around $40 for the Colline Novaresi and $50+ for the Boca.

Disclosure: wines provided by producer and importer, some food provided by importer (who also owns the restaurant in which this tasting occurred).

Red soil at night

[terre rouge vineyards]A tasting of and dinner with the wines of Bill Easton (Domaine de la Terre Rouge), hosted by Bill Easton himself at Oleana in Cambridge, MA. This was mostly a social event, and so the following notes will be comparatively light on the wine geekery, other than the notes.

I’m the last to arrive, thanks to Oleana’s difficult parking situation, and the rest of the attendees have started with a little Prosecco at the bar. We move to the table while I catch up.

Adami Prosecco di Valdabbione “Sur Lie” (Veneto) – Tart and papery. Segmented, and the lack of cohesion renders the wine a little flat. Unserious Prosecco is fine, even welcome, but it needs to taste alive. This tastes like it’s attempting some sort of profundity, but if so it’s a failure in that regard. It simply comes across as deadened. (5/07)

Easton 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Sierra Foothills) – Big and aromatic…is that a little creamy leesiness?…with a surplus of ripe gooseberry and some fat to the texture. The cream and its accompanying butter are deceptive, as the wine doesn’t go through malo, but the ripe greenness reasserts itself on the finish. This drinks like sauvignon blanc aromatics wedded to a viognier texture (though without the heat that so often plagues the latter). Interesting, though unmistakably New World.(5/07)

…continued here.

A bone in the nose

[clivi bottles]A tasting of and dinner with the wines of I Clivi, hosted by Mario Zanusso (from the winery) and Jeannie Rogers (the importer) at her restaurant Il Capriccio, in Waltham, MA. And a note: there is an extensive tasting at the winery, from November of 2007, that will eventually follow these notes. Stay tuned.

When I arrive, Mario is not long off the plane, and to be honest he has that telltale dazed, glassy-eyed look that inevitably follows such voyages. He’s sipping on a restorative martini, which wouldn’t necessarily be my pick-me-up of choice, but he manages to remain fairly alert until the tail-end of the evening.

For the first twenty minutes or so, it’s just me and Mario, so we chat for a while about matters various and sundry. He explains that his wines have “some similarities with Hermitage blanc,” though they’re much lighter in feel. Still, weight is an issue, and last year’s 16% tocai (despite being picked two weeks early) was a signal that warmer global temperatures aren’t going to leave Friuli unchanged. Clivi has had to modify their pruning techniques to lower ripeness, which has slowed down the grapes a bit, leading to a better balance.

In the near future are two hectares of ribolla gialla, but for now there are ten hectares of their own grapes, with some additional grapes purchased, and a total production of between 25,000 and 30,000 bottles.

Eventually, the other guests arrive, and we move to the table. With a procession of Il Capriccio’s typically excellent fare, we taste quite a lineup of wines. Here are the notes, interspersed with Mario’s commentary.

…continued here.