“Brezza remains one of Piedmont’s great undiscovered gems. The estate’s Barolos, made in a rigorously traditional style, show tons of vintage and vineyard character in the classic, mid-weight style that is the signature of traditionally- made Barolos.” –Antonio Galloni
If Brezza remains undiscovered, it’s in part because until the middle part of the last decade the wines did not live up to their potential. But then the current owner, Enzo, took over and guess where he learned to make wine? Across the street with his cousin Bartolo Mascarello!
Located in the center of the village of Barolo, since their founding in 1885 Brezza has owned and operated their winery and vineyards for four generations. The vineyards are now certified organic, but they haven’t stopped there: in many ways, their farming practices all center around the general improvement of the vineyards year after year.
All grapes are hand-harvested from up to seventy-year-old vines, they make their own composts, and they even use lightweight tractors to reduce the use of fossil fuels and avoid soil compaction. The wines are fermented naturally in large-format Slavonian oak, and are neither filtered nor refined.
With bright, fresh fruit and firm, smooth tannins, one of the best things about the 2013 vintage in Barolo is that you can drink them now or store them for awhile. The growing season in 2013 was a bit cooler, which resulted in very elegant and refined, incredibly well-balanced wines. Brezza’s, which comprises fruit from Monforte, Novello, and Barolo proper, is no exception. Winemakers themselves have compared the 2013 vintage to recent greats such as 2010, 2008, and 1999. The 2013s from Brezza are no exception, and we’re happy to carry them.
But sometimes the wine will take you on a trip through time. There are a few estates that haven’t changed for decades. But not many—López de Heredia comes to mind, and Lafarge in Volnay. When you taste their wines, you experience something ancient and beautiful. Time travel.
In the case of the Merkelbachs, that time is the 1950s. Nothing has changed since then: for all those decades the same two brothers have made wines from the same terroirs, over and over again, using the same ancient methods on their beautiful, old, ungrafted vines. They started young and are both around 80 years old today.
Like López and Lafarge, the wines are extraordinarily good. They have to be for the project to survive so long, working this way.
We say nearly timeless because, of course, the wines also reflect their vintage. And where 2015 is concerned, we don’t have to tell you how good a thing that is.
We are so happy to have two of their Auslesen, both excellent, and quite different one from another:
Merkelbach, Riesling Auslese Ürziger Würzgarten “Urglück”#9 , 2015
This is an intensely beautiful example of fruity Mosel Riesling, oozing with passionfruit and peach, but also a dizzying array of spices, smoke, and fresh herbs. Really long, elegant finish that is simply astounding for the price.
Merkelbach, Riesling Auslese Kinheimer Rosenberg #5, 2015
While the Urgluck puts its fruity foot forward, the Rosenberg is all about rocks and minerals, with a good dollop of flowers and peaches balancing things out. Again, the price is pretty crazy considering the obvious quality of this wine.
What is Sauvignon Blanc?
It is a white wine grape variety. It’s “home” is in the Loire Valley, but it is one of the French grapes, like Chardonnay, that has become a widely planted and widely consumed “international” grape variety. As many consumers decided that Chardonnay was too “oaky and buttery”, many of them moved to Sauvignon Blanc, which is typically crisper, more fruit forward, and more herbaceous.
Where is it grown?
The most famous Sauvignon Blancs continue to be produced in the Loire Valley, mostly in the AOCs of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. It also make popular varietal wines in California, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand, and to a lesser extent Austria, Northern Italy and Australia.
There are other, lesser-known pockets of Sauvignon Blanc production in various corners of the world. Burgundy has its own Sauvignon Blanc AOC in Saint Bris. The Germans (especially in the Pfalz) and the Spanish (especially in Rueda) have been known to produce examples.
The other very important wine region for Sauvignon Blanc is Bordeaux and in fact many think that it’s the grape’s original home (although more recent DNA and etymological evidence points us back towards the Loire Valley). Sauvignon Blanc occasionally makes a varietal wine in Bordeaux, but is most often blended with other varieties, usually Semillon. This includes the famous sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, which are just about the only sweet wines made from Sauvignon Blanc anywhere in the world (though we have come across other examples…) Similar blends (dry) are also produced in the Margaret River region of Western Australia.
Is it related to Cabernet Sauvignon?
Yes! The name is no coincidence. Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross (which occurred naturally) between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. That’s quite a family!
You can detect the family resemblance in the natural herbaceousness of all three grapes. All have a high level of pyrazines (short for methoxypyrazines), which is a molecule that you also find in bell peppers, and gives these wines their “green” notes. All the high-pyrazine grapes originate in and around Bordeaux (in addition to Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, you have high levels in Malbec, Carmenere and Merlot; Sauvignon Blanc is the only white wine in this group!).
What is Fume Blanc?
It’s a marketing name for Sauvignon Blanc that someone came up with in California back in the 1970s. It was popularized by Robert Mondavi’s varietal bottling.
What are the greatest examples of Sauvignon Blanc?
Although the Southern Hemisphere produces plenty of cheerful, fruity examples of Sauvignon Blanc, the world’s greatest examples still come from the grapes’ original homes in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. The greatest Sauvignon Blancs made today include Dagueneau’s Pouilly Fumes, and the top Sancerres from the likes of Vatan, Cotat, Boulay, Labaille or Vacheron. But my own personal favorite Sauvignon Blanc is actually from Bordeaux: The Pavillon Blanc du Chateaux Margaux. It’s a very unique wine, as the vast majority of the 100% Sauvignon Blancs from Bordeaux are straightforward and inexpensive, and almost all the luxury whites are blended with Semillon and often other grapes. But Chateau Margaux has been doing it this way for hundreds of years, and the wine they make with Sauvignon Blanc is extremely special (and very expensive)!
California is also trying with top examples from the likes of Araujo, Larkmead, Peter Michael and Spottswoode. I have not yet come across examples that have convinced me that these are worth the high prices, but I confess that I have not tried very many.
What about more affordable Sauvignon Blanc?
Start with Sancerre! It is really incredible how many artisanal Sancerres can be had here in the U.S. for under $30. Don’t confuse these wines with the industrial Sancerre that you find in so many bistros, both here and in France. Try the Cuvee Chavignol from Bailly-Reverdy ($23.99) or the Lucien Crochet Croix du Roy ($27.99).
You should also try a bottle of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($29.99), the wine that put New Zealand on the map. This is full-on Southern Hemisphere Sauvignon Blanc, with an emphasis on berry fruit rather than the lime and mineral flavors more common in the Loire. And then for a slightly different take, try Dipoli’s Sauvignon Blanc ($29.99) from Northern Italy, where there is actually a small but important tradition of making fairly “serious” Sauvignon Blanc with aging potential. As of this writing, the 2012 is the current release, and it is drinking great!
Handsome Nicolas Faure may be a member of the high tech wired-in digital generation but he is a farming purist of the old school. Nicolas was born in Bordeaux in 1987. His great-grandfather was a grower in Cotes de Blaye, so was his grandfather. His father worked at a cooperage and then moved to close to Nancy and opened a wine shop. Nicolas was exposed to wine at a very young age and started tasting with his father at 14. He liked the smell of red wine but not the taste, white wine was much easier to understand.
When he started at university he thought he would like to teach athletics and studied for a sports education degree from 2002 – 2003. He kept thinking about a career in wine and decided he wanted to enroll in the Lycée Viticole in Beaune. At this school he met young winemakers from across France like Aurelien Bailly of Bailly-Reverdy in Sancerre and the Champagne born Aurelien Gerbais and Maxime Cheurlin. There were many more influential young winemakers from Burgundy in his class – including his future fiancee, Amelie Berthaut.
Nicolas set out to learn as much as he could about winemaking. In 2007 he did an internship and worked for Agnes Paquet in Auxey Duresses – she taught him how to work in the vineyard, about the rhythm of the seasons and the vigor of the vine plant. He worked for two months pruning with Benjamin Leroux at Comtes Armand in Pommard and six months at Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Then he went abroad to New Zealand to work at the organic, dry farmed Fromm Winery where the owner/oenologist was passionate about wine and taught Nicolas a lot about winemaking. Then back to France to the Cave Cooperative in Languedoc-Roussillon and in Saint Emilion at Chateau Valandraud. At every stop he learned more and more – including a lot about styles of wines that he did not want to make.
Then he had the opportunity to work for 12 months for the great Jean-Louis Chave in Hermitage. Working by hand in the steep granite vineyards of Hermitage is really hard physical labor. He had the fantastic opportunity to do a lot of winemaking at Chave along with some extremely challenging vineyard work on the slope. Chave taught him about a completely different approach than what is practiced in Burgundy both in the vines and in the cellar. When he got back to Burgundy he saw the work differently. Jean-Louis Chave is the best, their wines are better than all of their neighbors. Jean-Louis had shown him another path to excellence.
Returning to Burgundy again he worked for Domaine de la Romanee Conti, this time for for five years, mostly driving a tractor. Contrary to romantic notion, only part of DRC is plowed by their famous horses. He then went to work for Frederic Roch at Domaine Prieure-Roch where he works to this day. Nicolas is always learning about the individual styles of these varying producers but doesn’t want to copy any of them.
After working at all of these different places he has some things that he believes in strongly like never use any herbicide ever. He is not convinced about no sulphur wines but seems to agree with low sulphur, a little bit at the harvest and just after malolactic fermentation. He would like to see concrete scientific proof of the principles of biodynamism. He questions the contrary practice of some strident organic or biodynamic domaines who then use 100% new oak barrels. He has a refrigerated milk tank that he uses to cool the grapes down and then covers them with CO2 inducing a semi-carbonic fermentation. He is finding his own individual path to greatness.
This is a very tough, athletic young man about to turn 30 years old. He has been planting vines on the steeply terraced Nuits Saint Georges vineyard “Coteaux du Bois” at the top of the slope. It is so named because it has been reclaimed from the woods that overgrew the ancient vineyard land. He was cutting a bent over sapling and it snapped back at him, breaking his nose. Another time he slipped with the chainsaw and ended up with 17 stitches just below his left knee. He hopes to have his first harvest from this parcel of Nuits Saint Georges in 2020. Let’s hope he will remain in one piece.
He works all day, five days a week for other people and for himself at his own domain on nights and weekends. He wants his domain to stay at the size that it is – one hectare split over 7 climats. In 2011 he bought his little parcel of Nuits Saint Georges “Les Herbues”. He owns a parcel of ancient Aligote vines in Pernand Vergelesses not far from Corton Charlemagne. He owns some Haut Cotes de Beaune that is planted to 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Gouges. (albino pinot noir) He has parcels in 2 lieu-dits in Aloxe-Corton, Caillets and Valoziere. Some Coteaux Bourguignons near Nuits Saint Georges is planted to 100% gamay noir a jus blanc, a truly noble grape. He wants to do all of the work himself on his vineyard – the farming, the winemaking – I think he will ask his friends to help with the harvest. He says that when you have very good balance in the vineyard that a plant with proper pruning in good health that you can achieve perfect ripeness and then you can do do whole cluster fermentation.
The next chapter for Nicolas Faure? He is to become the vineyard manager for his fiancee Amelie Berthaut of Fixin and Vosne Romanee. She will be the winemaker and cellar master. There will be a lot of time spent on the tractor driving between parcels. Nicolas’ tractor is from 1966 – 21 years older than he is – and it goes 17 kph. Amelie’s tractor goes 25 kph. I don’t know how old her tractor is. Considering that 4 new barrels cost him 1500 euros and how long it would take him to get to the top of Nuits Saint Georges from Fixin at 17 kph – perhaps someday a new tractor will be on order for Domaine Faure. Or maybe a nice used one.
In 2015, Germany had a good year. After a long, hot summer, the vineyards were dry and ready for the late rain that carried the ripening grapes to harvest. The result was something like a dream for winemakers in each and every growing region. Tasting notes and vintage reports have been glowing — the likes of Jancis Robinson, Dr. Loosen, Mosel Fine Wines, Theirry Theise and many others gushing over what is certain to be a vintage of note, if not one of the most lauded in decades.
As the wines come stateside, we’re no less stunned by some really incredible bottles. In turn — curiosity stoked — we’ve begun to look closely at the unique and nuanced wine regions of Germany. We’ve compiled some of our research here in a guide to German wine in general, with a focus on Riesling in this special vintage. Hopefully it will serve as a roadmap for those of you interested in a region that may have fared better than any other in 2015.
The VDP and The Prädikat System
To start, here’s a short primer on the way the wine map of Germany is split up, the legal designations and a word or two on reading the labels. For better or worse, German wines are subject to a number of taxonomies that offer a great deal of information. In particular, there are three main metrics that apply to any given bottle:
- The 1971 German Wine Law: Despite its many detractors, the system laid out by this law stands as the most general taxonomic account of wine in Germany. It grounds the distinction between German wines (Deutscher Wein) and wine made anywhere else in the world. It divides up the different Landwein (wines made exclusively in one of the 13 designated growing regions). Most uniquely, it serves as the basis for a metric that ties the quality of a wine to the character of its fruit. This begins with the designation of Qualitätswein, a wine made of fruit with an acceptable amount of naturally occurring sugar (this differs per given region). Next, and more important, is the laws’ underpinning of the Prädikat system.
- The Prädikat System: This system focuses on the quality and character of the fruit in a given wine. It is a metric that tells you about the concentration of sugar (the potential for alcohol) in the fruit. This is calculated by measuring the density of the must, or the juice resulting from the harvested fruit. These respective must densities categorize the wines they make up. In increasing order of concentration, the categories are: Qualitätswein, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Eiswein/Beerenausele and Trockenbeerenauslese. Is an Auslese wine always of better quality than a Kabinett wine? Is one necessarily sweeter than another? Not categorically, but there is a fairly strong correlation in both regards.
- The VDP (The Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter): The VDP is dedicated to the classification of wines based on terroir as opposed to quality of fruit. The best facsimile is Burgundy. Where Burgundy differentiates village wine, Premier Cru, Grand Cru and the like, we have the designation Gutswein to designate wine from a given region, Ortswein for wine from a particular village, Erste Lage that mirrors the designation of premier cru in Burgundy and finally Grosse Lage which mirrors the designation of grand cru. In other words, Erste Lage and Grosse Lage denote single vineyard sites, and the Grosse Lagerin are rated a bit more highly.
So, what does all this mean when you are looking at a German Wine label? For starters, the majority of German wine we see here in the States (the majority of German wine in general) will be at the level of Qualitätswein. That means you can expect to see the name of one of the 13 winegrowing regions on the label. These are Ahr, Baden, Franconia, Hessische Bergstraße, Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau (as seen above), Rheinhessen, Saale-Unstrut, Saxony, and Württemberg. In the next article, we will take a quick look at what makes each of these regions unique.
But this is only the start. Given that the variety (Riesling) has been given the predicate (‘Qualitätswein mit Prädikat’, or ‘Qualitätswein with a predicate’), we know a little something about the character of the fruit for this bottle.
We can also glean that this wine is probably at least an Erste Lage based on the fact that the village and vineyard site are printed (Wallufer Walkenberg). Although it is legally prohibited to put Grosse Lage on any label, you may sometimes see a ‘GG’ printed. This stands for Grosses Gewächs, a Grosse Lage vinified dry.
Beyond all this, there is one last piece of information that yields a lot, and that is the alcohol content (ABV). The ABV serves as a good rule of thumb for determining sweetness. Since sugar turns to alcohol, the lower the percentage of alcohol, the more sugar is leftover in the bottle. Once again, this is not always foolproof. For starters, there may not have been that much concentration of sugars to begin with. Secondly, residual sugar doesn’t always mean that a wine will taste sweet. This is especially the case with highly acidic Rieslings that are able to balance out this potential sweetness with their strong, tart backbone. Many wines with an ABV of 8 or 9 percent will taste much dryer than wines of 10 or 11 percent ABV when these wines lack a strong acidity.
A bottle of wine is never a sure thing, but some familiarity with cryptic looking information printed on a German wine label can help. Next, we will dig into what the region says about a given wine.
We’re getting spoiled!
We have another amazing, two-for-the-price-of-one (well, actually, it’s free) meet-the-winemaker-tasting at the New York City shop this Thursday, April 6, featuring two incredible American winemakers:
- Ben Casteel, winemaker at Oregon’s Bethel Heights Vineyard will be pouring his family’s gorgeous, sustainably-grown Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay, and
- Brian Sieve, the cellar master at Burgundy’s legendary Domaine de Montille, will be pouring a selection of de Montile (and Deux Montille) wines.
We are so thrilled to have these two, incredibly knowledgeable, passionate winemakers in the shop. It’s a rare opportunity to taste truly top-flight Burgundy and Oregon wines side by side and in the company of their makers. The fact that both winemakers are native English speakers, excited to share and discuss with other wine lovers makes this a truly unparalleled opportunity.
Bethel Heights makes quintessential Oregon Pinot Noirs. They have a lightness (especially compared with so much California Pinot Noir), delicious fruit and a complexity that makes you think of Burgundy without pretending to be anything but Oregon wine.
Their vineyards are in the Eola Hills at the southern end of the Willamette Valley, where cold ocean winds keep temperatures cool and the vines from over ripening. The volcanic soils there are stonier than in the more heavily planted parts of the Willamette closer to Portland. In wet years this drainage is an enormous boon, saving the wines in what otherwise could be dilute or disease-pressured vintages.
Bethel’s oldest vineyards are ungrafted. The vines, pushing forty and phyloxera-infested, produce very little—but very concentrated—fruit. It’s a treat to get to taste wines that express their terroir so directly from root to fruit.
Ben will pour:
Chardonnay 2014 ($33/29 $25 $21.99)
Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir Estate 2013 ($36$33 $29.99) The family’s wine blended from various sites. 2013 has beautiful, small-berry fruit balanced by herbaceous notes.
Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir Aeolian (named after cold wind; cool, lithe, more mineral)
Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir Casteel a selection of the best barrels of vines dating back to 1997 and 1994, this is the most generous of the wines we’ll be tasting:
Domaine de Montille
One of the most storied domaines in Burgundy, de Montille needs no introduction. But here’s a quick one: the historical domaine dates back to pre-Revolutionary France, but the domaine we know really began post-WWII, when Hubert de Montille started to take over and, decades ahead of the times, began focusing like crazy on the family’s terroirs, quality production and, to make all of that worthwhile, bottling and selling their wines rather than shipping them off to negociants.
Today Hubert’s kids, Etienne and Alix, are in charge at the domaine, and Brian is their right hand man. Deeply involved in overseeing everything from the pressing through the bottling, Brian works with the de Montille’s to help realize their vision of making gorgeous, aromatic, long-lived, terroir-specific Burgundies.
We will taste:
Deux Montille Soeurs et Freres, Rully Blanc La Chaponniere, 2013
Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet, Clos du Chateau, 2013
Domaine de Montille, Bourgogne Rouge 2013
Domaine de Montille, Volnay 1er Cru Les Taillepieds 2013
Here’s a great piece on Bethel Heights in World of Fine Wine
And here’s their website, which has lots of good information (and pictures!), as well as links to plenty of reviews and other press:
de Montille is, of course, a multi-page entry in any decent book on Burgundy. In fact, there really ought to be a book just about them! But in the meantime, you can browse the family’s webpage, which is full of historical, growing, winemaking and other interesting details.
“Aglianico del Vulture is potentially one of the world’s—not just Italy’s—greatest wines and no single bottling demonstrates its quality better than the Titolo” – Ian D’Agata, Vinous
If you love the great Nebbiolos of Piedmont, then you are also certain to love the red wines of Campania and Basilicata made from the Aglianico grape. Like Nebbiolo, it has naturally high acidities, good structure, and superb aromatics. In fact, many experienced blind tasters (and us!) have been known to confuse top examples with great Barolo. Xarel-lo may have been our Fall obsession; this winter we worship Aglianico.
So our ears perked up when a friend of the shop talked about how much he loved the Vultures of Elena Fucci. Around the same time, Ian d’Agata declared that Fucci’s “Titolo” is “one of Italy’s greatest wines” and wrote up a fantastic retrospective that includes the quote captioned above.
So we got a sample, opened and consumed it. Yum. This was a wine that definitely spoke to our Nebbiolo-loving hearts. And while it’s not exactly a Beaujolais or a Dolcetto, there was an appealing quality about the structure that invited drinking. Not like so many 2012 Barolos, which make you think, “pretty tasty, but can’t touch this for another 10 years.”
No, this is a wine that you really want to drink. It’s Aglianico from high-altitude sites and the tannins balance beautifully with the natural mountain freshness. It has the red fruit and the aromatics of Nebbiolo, but also a darker side, a touch of smoke, and a texture that calls to mind the vines’ volcanic soils.
Eric Asimov has his 20 under $20. What if you want to spend just a touch more? A whole new world of very interesting wines opens up. Here is my current top 5 list in the $20-$30 range:
The Central Loire, with its great Cab Francs and Chenin Blancs, is becoming super trendy these days. Happily, pricing remains remarkably reasonable. Natural wine producer Le Rocher des Violettes is very much one of the trend-setters, and the wines are gorgeous!
Here we apply two rules to finding value in Bordeaux: look to second wines, and look to over-looked vintages. This is pretty remarkable: a fully mature Claret that makes it into our price range (though only just).
Where are the $20 something bottles from California that are just fun and easy to drink? There just aren’t enough around, but this one, from primarily Valdiguie, is excellent.
It’s hard to get enough 2014 Chablis. The Savary is my go-to in virtually every vintage, and it’s especially good in 2014. Crispy, sea-shelly goodness.
Nebbiolo, Croatina and Vespolina from the Alto Piemonte, up above Barolo/Barbaresco. This wine just oozes fresh mountain minerals and light red cherries and is incredibly food friends — it’s a red wine you can even enjoy with fish!
Calabretta’s library releases of traditional, old-vine Nerello Mascalese have been one of the wine community’s favorite wines–and values– since the 2001 hit our shores a few short years ago.
But it turns out Calabretta makes another wine, one for easy-drinking everyday pleasure that’s at least as great a value. It’s a wine you can just drink, without having to think about it too hard or spend too much money. Logically, they call it “Cala Cala,” which means “Gulp Gulp.”
Normally, such wines are young-vine blends made from the most recent vintage in a very fresh style, probably made entirely in steel. But Calabretta isn’t your run of the mill winery; remember, the last Rosato they released was 10 years old at the time!
No, the Cala–drinkable as it is– takes a different approach: a blend of three vintages, the oldest being 2005 and the youngest 2009, it does have some young vines in the blend, but plenty of old vines too. There’s some steel, but also some big old botti (large wooden barrels) too.
The economics of this wine baffle us. How can anyone hand-harvest old vines and then wait a dozen years to sell the wine for just a few dollars a bottle? All we can do is shake our heads…and then take another gulp gulp.