Exploring the Fingerlakes

I recently spent a few days in the Fingerlakes, and though I certainly had my fair share of Riesling and Cabernet Franc, I was also excited about some unexpected wines that several wineries are producing. Chardonnay, Merlot, and even Saperavi are being made with increasing success, not to mention the myriad sparkling wines (both Riesling and non) that have begun popping up. It may be a few years before these are perfected, but as the region continues to grow in technique and tradition, it’s only a matter of time.

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It wasn’t until the 1950s that vitis vinifera first made its way to the Fingerlakes region, although before that native grape varietals were being grown and made into wine for at least a century. Many places are still producing these wines, as well as some French hybrids (most notably Vignoles), and in fact only about 15% of the region is planted to vitis vinifera. Of that 15%, the most widely planted grapes are Riesling and Cabernet Franc.

Due to the extreme climate, with often very hot summers and below zero winters, sturdy, early-ripening grapes fare best. Initial planters thought Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would do well, and while there are some places where indeed this has been successful, on the whole it doesn’t work. Where it does succeed is typically in vineyards closest to the deepest of the lakes, Seneca.

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And the lakes have an interesting effect on the climate, and in particular, Seneca Lake. Due to its depth, it takes a long time to warm up in the summer (locals like to say that it warms up just in time for the weather to get cold), and conversely a long time to cool down again in the winter– it hasn’t frozen over since 1912! Because of this, vineyards located close to the lake stay warmer longer, allowing grapes to fully ripen in the fall and avoiding early spring frosts that might otherwise damage vines.

I had the opportunity to work for a few hours at the winery of Hermann J. Wiemer, and it was a pleasure to help (even in a very small way) make wine that will be on our shelves next year. Currently we have their Cabernet Franc 2014 ($24.99) and Dry Riesling 2016 ($19.99), both excellent examples of what the region has to offer.

Litaud’s Chardonnay

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Jean-Jacques Litaud’s vineyards are nestled beneath the colossal cliff of Vergisson in the tiny hamlet of Les Membrets. The soils are limestone mixed with a rich red soil. Why red? Well, they’re said to be stained red by the blood of countless animals which were driven off the cliffs by stone age hunters. And archeological digs have found lots of wooly mammoth skeletons at the base of those giant rocks. Some of the vines are almost 100 years old – old, but much younger than the Woolly Mammoth blood. 

These magnificent cliffs in the Macon region are stunning. If you’re a reader of Asterix and Obelix, you’d be interested to know that they were holy sites for the Druids. Readers of Libération may be more interested in the Socialist Party’s history of rallying there, everyone with a red rose – the French symbol of socialism. For them, at least, socialism worked: Francois Mitterand’s wife was from this area and he lavished money on the region. The roads are beautifully paved and graded, a joy to drive on.

Of course, socialism and woolly mammoths have little to do with the sheer tastiness of Litaud’s Chardonnay, the only grape that he works with. Jean-Jacques Litaud works his Chardonnay vines meticulously and entirely by hand. His holdings are small enough that he can focus his attention on every vine. In the winery, he doesn’t do much other than let the wine rest for at least 10 months – uncommonly long for Maconnais Chardonnay at this price point. He doesn’t use any new oak. His wines are delicious and crystal clear expressions of terroir and vintage. 

This region makes by far the most complex white wine you’ll find anywhere for under $20. Of course, many of the best wines have become much more than $20, especially the known “names” like St. Veran.

Domaine des Vieilles Pierres (Jean-Jacques Litaud), St. Veran “Les Pommards”, 2015 – $19.99  – the 2015 of this wine is a showstopper: intense, full of delicious fruit. Where the ’14 was a study in minerality and subtlety, ’15 is decadently delicious, with exotic sweet fruit notes verging on the tropical.

What about that cheap wine in Europe?

In New York we have a lot of European visitors. Some of them complain about our prices. Not: “Oh, I can get this same wine back home for 30% less,” which would sometimes be true (though often not). Rather, it’s more of a blanket statement like: “At home wines cost just 5 or 6 euros.”

I happen to be in Europe for a few weeks so I decided to investigate. You may remember Turin, a very sophisticated city in Northern Italy, from the Winter Olympics a few years back. But it’s more important to us a center for the wine trade just a few miles from the Langhe, one of the world’s greatest wine regions and home, not only of (expensive, age-worthy) Barolo and Barbaresco, but also of more humble wines like Barbera, Dolcetto, Freisa, Grignolino, etc.

If Europeans really have access to superior 5 or 6 euro wines, surely I’ll find them here.

I’m in a super-trendy neighborhood called San Salvario, with incredible restaurants and a great bar scene, an amazing outdoor market that opens daily, and gorgeous old cafés that serve some of the best espresso I’ve ever found. Admittedly, there are also drug dealers on the corner by my apartment—there may be better parts of town—but San Salvario is pretty good and it’s where I am, so it will have to do for this investigation.

So I set out to do some wine shopping. Naturally, I started by looking for wine stores. I checked on google and walked just about every block of the neighborhood. I quickly established that there are no wine stores in San Salvario. There are a few great butchers (a veal specialist, a pork specialist, a generalist), a fish store proudly displaying its “Slow Food” credentials, outrageously fine bakeries­—really, it’s a pretty great neighborhood—but not a single wine store.

The locals buy all their wine in grocery stores. So I went to the neighborhood grocery stores and looked for the best selection. It turns out the best selection is in a French store called Carrefour, which you’ve probably heard of, as it’s the second largest non-American retailer in the world (and bigger than Amazon!). The Carrefours I’ve been to have been suburban “hypermarkets” – massive grocery stores with endless aisles – but San Salvario’s is a Carrefour “Express,” a highly edited version.

Here are photos of the wine selections:

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Look at these photos and you can make your own observations. Here are mine.

First of all, there is some very cheap wine here. Like just a couple Euros cheap. These really cheap wines come in boxes and have legal designations like “Vino Bianco di Italia” or just “Vino Italiano”; they can come from (a factory) anywhere in Italy. I didn’t taste any—sorry, life is too short, even for the sake of science.

Second, as you know, the most famous wine of the Langhe is Barolo. Yet here we are, in a fine neighborhood just a 45 minute drive from the Langhe, and the neighborhood’s best wine selection includes only one Barolo! At under 20 euros, it’s a good price. Unfortunately, the producer is Fontanafredda, which despite a glorious past is basically an industrial concern these days. Very few of our Barolo customers would find this wine satisfactory. If you want Barolo made by artisans, you cannot buy it here. And by the way, if you want Barbaresco at all, you’re out of luck.

Third, there are indeed many wines in the 5 to 8 euro range. I’m guessing the Europeans who explain that this is how wine should be priced are thinking of wines like these. And you can kind of see where they’re coming from, to a point: there are some Dolcettos and Barberas, and perhaps a Freisa or a Grignolino, that will work in a pinch. But the best of them are, again, from Fontanafredda, and everything else is frankly schlocky. Artisanal local wine, this is not!

Now, I understand you don’t need to drink fine, artisanal wine every night. But there’s a stunning disconnect between the excellent bread, coffee and produce that you easily find in the neighborhood, and these wines.

Fourth, there is the obvious problem of range. There isn’t much selection at from anything beyond Piedmont at all. Part of Europe’s charm – and especially Italy’s charm — is its intense locality, and I would never fault a local shop for offering only local wines. But the tradeoff is you don’t get to explore the rest of the world’s great and varied wine regions.

Fifth, things are particularly brutal here if you want white wine. Piedmont actually has some pretty good white stuff, Roero Arneis for example. But none of it is at this shop. Ok, maybe that Cortese in the top right corner is passable, but I didn’t take a chance on it. In any case, my landlord gifted me a bottle of Cortese, and I drank it in the 85 degree heat. It had been yeasted (or otherwise manipulated) to taste something like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but I guess it did the job. Who needs more than that?

And that, of course, is the big question: Who needs more than that? None of us really needs to drink artisanal wine. If we lived in a universe consisting only of this Carrefour’s wine selection, how many of us would complain? Indeed, many of those European customers mentioned above probably do live in such a universe. Should they care?

I’m guilty of not caring in similar circumstances. In Brooklyn I live around the corner from a shop that pulls fresh mozzarella five times a day. It’s still warm when I eat it at home, melting over my height-of-season tomatoes from the Green Market. Surely this is as good as it gets.

It turns out no, not even close. At that open air market in San Salverio there’s a vendor with cheeses direct from Campania. I purchased a ball of Buffala from Salerno. Back at my apartment I sliced into it, expecting it to require a little seasoning and maybe a splash of olive oil. But no, all it needed was to be eaten. Another slice and then another. (Then my wife complaining that I forgot to leave some for her green bean recipe.)

All my life I had been satisfied with my Brooklyn mozzarella, only to discover in Turin that it was a pale imitation of the real thing. How many of these 5-6 euro Europeans are actually living in the Matrix, fooling themselves into contentedness, as I did for so many years with my Brooklyn Mozz?

We believe that in America you can drink delicious, real wines without spending a fortune. In New York and San Francisco we are big advocates of inexpensive European table wines and carry a wide range. They cost a little more than Carrefour’s 5-8 euros—more like 10-15 (dollars). But unlike those Carrefour wines, these are true artisanal expressions of their origin. They are like that ball of Buffala from Salerno.

Here are some examples:

Isle Saint-Pierre, Bouches-du-Rhone Rose, 2016
De Forville, Dolcetto d’Alba, 2015
Pollerhof, Gruner Veltliner, 2016 
Grand Bateau, Bordeaux, 2015
Domaine Labbe, Abymes Savoie, 2016

Ameztoi “Kirkilla”

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When you travel to Basque country and enjoy a glass of Txakoli at the bar, it feels like a truly authentic experience: you’re drinking the “real” wine of the locals. And it’s true! Txakoli’s a delicious and local treat you’re unlikely to find just one or two towns over in, say, Santander or Biarritz.

But that Txakoli is actually a modern invention made possible by mechanical farming and steel tanks. It’s different from what the locals drank even a generation or two ago. What were the wines like back then? Well, now you can find out, thanks to our friends at Ameztoi (the growers behind perennial Rosé fave, “Rubentis”).

For the first time, Ameztoi has exported a super-old-fashioned Txakoli, a true labor of love. They used their best material, Hondarribi Zuri and Hondarribi Beltza from their their highest-elevation and oldest vineyards. And they made the wine using old, pre-Franco methods: natural fermentations in 600L barrels followed by several months resting there on the lees. No manipulation. No technology.

Of course, part of Txakoli’s charm is its steely freshness. But don’t worry for a moment they gave that up. Think instead of the great Chablis that also undergo aging in neutral barrels, like Raveneau’s or Dauvissat’s, which have extra levels of richness and complexity without sacrificing any chablisien tension or fresh minerality. Likewise, the Kirkilla is a rich but incredibly acid-driven, savory, herbal wine. One point: while the other wines from Ameztoi all have some level of spritz, this is a still wine.

Again, this is the first time in the U.S. and hardly any wine came in. Indeed, we don’t see anyone else offering this wine in the United States. This is definitely one to try, and especially appropriate for warm weather during a holiday week:

Ameztoi, Getariako Txakolina “Kirkilla”, 2016 – $39.99

Ridge For The 4th

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It took the monks centuries to figure out how to make great wine in Burgundy and the Mosel. Somehow, at California’s Ridge Vineyards, they figured it out in just a few years. While fashions have come and gone, Ridge has stood fast for over 50 years, working their incredible vineyards with care and making true American masterpieces.

July 4 is as good excuse as any to open a good bottle of Zinfandel, but no excuse is really required. Zinfandel has been maligned in some crowds, but only because too many producers have made overripe, high-alcohol versions that taste more like a coca cola–based cocktail than fine wine. Ridge never succumbed to that unfortunate trend, and they continue to make true representations of the grape: rich but balanced wines with both black and red fruits, and a healthy element of spice. The best wines, like the single vineyards offered below, belong in the same class as Châteauneuf-du-Pape: big wines that nevertheless clearly express their terroir.

As famous as they are for their Zins, Ridge’s most collectible wine is the Monte Bello Cabernet, from the cool, limestone-rich vineyard of the same name high in the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s one of the world’s great wines, complex and super-ageworthy—extraordinary, though not necessarily the wine for a July 4th cookout. But Ridge makes other wines from Monte Bello that would be perfect.

The Monte Bello Chardonnay and the Estate Merlot—both from Monte Bello fruit—are more accessible when young, but still clear wines of terroir. What more could you ask for on July 4th?

Ridge, Zinfandel “Three Valleys”, 2014

Ridge, Zinfandel “Paso Robles”, 2015

Ridge, Zinfandel “Geyserville – 50th Anniversary Edition”, 2015

Ridge, Merlot Estate, 2014

Ridge, Chardonnay “Monte Bello”, 2013 One of California’s great wines, it’s an absolute steal. California fruit with an old-world feel. It’s delicious now, but if you lay it down you’re in for a real treat: it matures into something truly spectacular.

Chanterêves

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We knew it was only a matter of time before Chanterêves would be “discovered,” as in talked about and chased by U.S wine drinkers beyond us and our customers. But now they appear headed for the big leagues.

For a while, the wines from this micro-négociant husband-wife team of Tomoko Kuriyama and Guillaume Bott were available only with us. But they now have distribution here in New York thanks to the team at Grand Cru, a boutique importer/wholesaler with a legendary Burgundy portfolio in the making that includes producers like the Marquis d’Angerville, Roumier, and Comte Liger-Belair. And now Chanterêves has the honor to be sold alongside those famous names. We are very excited for them!

They’re also getting attention in the press, including in Antonio Galloni’s recent piece on “The Undiscovered Burgundy,” where he refers to what we love about Chanterêves: their “airy, minimalist style that favors freshness and aromatic nuance.”

All of this good news for Chanterêves lines up with the best of news of all: their release from the great 2015 vintage. These beautiful Bourgognes are wines that you can already start drinking to enjoy that “airy” style.

Chanterêves, Bourgogne Rouge, 2015 – $29.99
Chanterêves, Bourgogne Blanc, 2015 – $29.99

Terre Nere Rosato 2016

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“Best Rosato from Terre Nere in years” — Ian d’Agata, Vinous Media

The volcanic mountain of Etna—still active, still changing the terroir every day—has proven to be a remarkable place to make wine. Etna now lays claim to true Italian wine-region greatness, alongside Piedmont and Tuscany. It’s just that nobody figured it out until quite recently (and that includes most of the locals!)

The reds are becoming famous, as are, to a lesser extent, the whites. It turns out they can also make some magnificent rosato.

Some of Etna’s wines seem to nod towards Barolo, emphasizing structure, crushed herbs, and savory flavors. Others nod towards Burgundy, with greater focus on fruit purity, minerality, and terroir expression. Tenuta delle Terre Nere is very much in the latter camp.

The Rosato is a striking example of this elegant, terroir expression. It is made entirely from Etna’s noble grape, Nerello Mascalese, grown in the black (nere) volcanic soils that made Terre Nere famous. It’s a gorgeous salmon-colored pink and has a laser-like Burgundian focus on fruit (red berries) with the exotically mineral expressions of Mount Etna lying just beneath the surface.

Terre Nere, Etna Rosato, 2016 – $21.99

Ferrando’s Erbaluce

If you’ve traveled around Italy, you know things change fast. The ragù in one town is nothing like the ragù two towns over. The cheese in one valley is completely unknown on the other side of the hills. Perhaps only Japan can rival Italy in its incredible tapestry of hyper-local specialties. It’s what makes Italy such a fascinating place for eating, drinking, and exploring.

Today’s exploring brings us north of the Langhe, past Turin and into the mountains. We’re still in Piedmont, but only just. If we went any farther we’d be in the truly Alpine country of the Vallée d’Aoste. This is Caluso and Carema, where our friend Luigi Ferrando makes some of the most beautiful Nebbiolos of Alto Piemonte—or anywhere.

But Luigi also makes incredible mountain whites—exactly as you’d expect in the hills below Mont Blanc. He grows Erbaluce one of Italy’s hyper-local treasures. It’s virtually unknown as close as 50 miles away, but in this valley it’s the white grape—and a special one at that.

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It has a magical combination of weight and naturally high acidity, kind of like Chenin Blanc. So, like Chenin, it’s used to produce sweet and sparkling wines as well as dry.

But today we have the dry wine for you. Its rich side is almost honeyed, but the high-altitude acidity and mineral tension give it a vibrant life-force. There is stone fruit and fresh-cut flowers. It is remarkably good for such an obscure variety.

Why do such great things not spread? How did Erbaluce remain so hyper-local? For a practical reason: it’s very hard to grow. It’s susceptible to disease and it buds early, making it susceptible to frost. And even when it grows, it’s low-yielding. In short, Erbaluce is not a natural choice for anyone who needs to make a living producing wine.

But it’s a natural choice for us! Delicious and refreshing and very complex for the price, it’s also something more: a rare window into a tiny corner of Italy’s amazing wine-scape.

Ferrando, Erbaluce di Caluso “La Torrazza”, 2014

Minière Champagne

“If I hadn’t met Anselme [Selosse] I would not be making the wines I make today.” – Fred Minière

So many of today’s great Champagne growers trace their roots back to Anselme Selosse. It’s amazing that some of them still fly under the radar. But it’s likely the case that you haven’t heard of Fred Minière, who worked for Selosse in the 1990s before deciding, with his brother Rodolphe, to convert the family domaine into an all-organic grower-producer working in Selosse’s Burgundian style.

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You are not to blame for your ignorance. It was only after their father retired in 2007 that the brothers could take over and run things like they wanted. And it’s only recently that their wines have made it to America.

The quantities don’t help. They have eight hectares of vines, but they only keep the best fruit—about four hectares’ worth—for their own wines (they sell the rest to big houses). The vines, in their home village of Hermonville in the Vallée de la Marne, tend to be quite old and include a parcel of ungrafted Chardonnay.

Honestly, until just a few weeks ago we didn’t know about Minière either. But one of the perks of living (and dining) in New York, is the wine lists put together and served by knowledgeable and passionate people. And when we saw a Blanc de Blancs we didn’t recognize on Rebelle’s wine list, we knew it would be worth checking out.

Boy, was it ever! The Absolu is a single-vineyard Blanc de Blancs from Les Grands Blancs, where the domaine’s ungrafted Chardonnay is located, as well as other Chardonnay vines planted in the 1960s. It is 80% 2008 vintage and 20% 2007. And it’s delicious.

We could taste the Selosse influence in the wine’s fruit precision and white Burgundy vibe, but the structure and style seemed a little more classical, calling to mind the barrel-produced wines of traditionalist boutique houses like Krug or Jacquesson. It’s a powerful Champagne, but with enough age (six years on the lees and two more after disgorgement) that its parts have settled into a wonderfully harmonious wine.

A couple weeks later we tried the vintage 2008 Brut Zero. Here the Chardonnay is blended with Pinots Meunier and Noir. With no dosage, this veered a little more towards the Selosse end of the spectrum. It’s a less powerful Champagne with greater emphasis on crystals and minerals. Some will prefer this style; others the Absolu. Taste is like that.

Champagne Minière F & R, Cuvée Brut Zero, 2008 – $65.99
Champagne Minière F & R, Cuvée Absolu, [2008/2007] – $73.99

Santa Cruz Mountain Winery

For a while the wine world talked about New California—the wave of new producers like Arnot-Roberts, Cruse, and Donkey & Goat, that made wines of finesse and drinkability—in contrast to the point-seeking monsters of the Parker era. But critics were quick to dispute the “New” designation, because California had a long history of making elegant wines. They pointed to famous producers like Ridge, Mayacamas and Heitz.

Those names are well known. Here is one that may be new to you: Santa Cruz Mountain Winery.

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The Napa Valley is California’s most famous wine region, but many think that the greatest terroir is actually in Santa Cruz. Here you have a range of altitudes, a complex mix of soils, and a strong ocean breeze. On the western, ocean-facing side, you have particularly cool sites perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Facing the Silicon Valley, you have warmer sites that are capable—just—of ripening Bordeaux varieties. Anyone who has tasted Ridge’s Monte Bello or Rhys’s top Pinots knows the sub-region’s great potential.

Santa Cruz Mountain Winery only started distributing in New York recently, but the winery wasn’t entirely new to us. Several years ago we stumbled upon some Pinot Noirs made by the winery in the 1970s, mixed in with some better-known wines that we had acquired. We started reading and were amazed to discover tasting notes on their web site of Pinots going back to 1975 (they’re still posted there). They noted that the wines could need up to 30 years of cellaring, and that Frenchmen confused them with the great wines of Burgundy. Really?

So we tasted, and were stunned. These were 30- to 40-year-old Pinots that had aged better than 90% of Burgundies from the same era. We had questions. What happened to this winery? Did they still make wines? Why has no one heard of them? Can we get more?

It took a few years, but everything has come together. The winery, of course, is still around, and they visited our shop and we tasted some wine. The line-up was brilliant, and exactly in the style we imagined. These were Old examples of New California, elegant wines of balance and finesse that promised drinkability and pleasure in their youth, but also longevity and complexity for the patient.

There was one little surprise, and that was that the easy star of the line-up was the Cabernet Sauvignon! It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, since Monte Bello, arguably the best site in all of California for Cabernet Sauvignon, is in Santa Cruz. And Santa Cruz Mountain Winery’s 100% Cabernet is from the Luchessi Vineyard, which is just a touch northeast of Monte Bello.

The vines are almost 40 years and yield very little fruit. Alcohol levels are modest. We were lucky to taste the 2013, maybe the best vintage in recent memory. The wine is like the Cabernet version of the great Pinots we tasted from the 1970s. It’s not shy about being Cab; the fruit is front and center. But it’s fresh and drinkable (and food-friendly)—not a bottle you’ll have any trouble finishing.

But it also has a quiet sophistication to it. There are flavors—Santa Cruz Mountain earthiness, call it—that hit you here and there. It’s not a wine that tries too hard, and yet every taste tells you it will go the distance. The winery says that it will cellar easily for two or three decades. We believe them.

Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon “Luchessi Vineyard”, 2013