Tagged with 'willamettevalley'

An American Epic

I was having lunch with some Wine Friends (like normal friends except you can open a 15-year-old Brunello for them without crying on the inside), one of whom is a prominent Napa winemaker, when the topic turned to the disastrous 2020 vintage. The normally gregarious winemaker became diminutive and hushed, so much that I could barely make out his answer when I asked what kind of harvest he could produce, given the thick smoke that blanketed the region for months. “Did you say Fifty percent?” I asked, unsure of what he said. “Fifteen percent”, he replied. “If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to make 15% of what we usually produce”. 

Fifteen percent. The chronic fires aren’t the only threat: the same forces that gave Napa a golden run of stunning vintages (2012-2016, then 2018-2019) are now making it nearly impossible for them to make the wines that the world expects. While grape farming is way less water intensive than most other forms of agriculture (especially almonds, omg those thirsty cretins) you can’t really dry farm in Napa, and they are nearly out of water. The reservoirs are dry. Conditions are getting so bad that many wineries can’t even get insured anymore. In every way, the Californian climate has changed, the only constant that remains is demand. 

This winter could still see lots of badly needed, aquifer-filling rain to the region (unlikely, though, due to the expected La Niña), and the few wineries that do plan on releasing their 2020 vintages could be sitting on something amazing. I sincerely hope so. No one wants their Wine Guy to turn bummer – this is not what they teach you in Wine Guy School - but speaking frankly there is a reasonable chance that the 2018 and 2019 Napa/Sonoma vintages – both amazing years – will be the last ones that reflect the region as we now know it. Equally as likely is the prospect of greatly reduced quantities (of incredible quality, that’s the trade off) and prices soaring well past their current levels. If we look at the near-exponential price increases that inclement weather and its ensuing insurance pressures caused in Burgundy over the last decade, we glimpse a troubling scenario that could unfold in the coming decade; as high as the current Napa prices are, they could be adorable compared to a projected 2027 vintage. 

Oregon’s Willamette Valley, much more northern and temperate in a Maritime climate, won’t soon suffer the same climatic pressures as California – this year’s La Niña should actually bring more precipitation to that area (and to us) – but they felt the full effect of wildfire smoke in 2020. At one point surrounded by fires, the Willamette spent many weeks stewing in smoke, which was particularly harmful to the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape. Many wineries I’ve talked to won’t be releasing their prestigious single-vineyard Pinots, they’ll opt instead to produce sparkling wines (no skin contact, thus no smoke taint) or declassify the fruit that’s untainted into their entry-level reds. 

And now, the awkward pivot. 

I’ve spent the last couple of months gathering some incredible wines from the American west coast (with a surprise bonus region at the end, no peeking!), and I’m proud to offer some houses that have never been here before now. Join me on this very American adventure: 

 

CALIFORNIA 

Nickel & Nickel. First time in BC, and topping the list of wines-people-always-ask-for-that-I-can’t-get, at least until now. Far Niente’s venture exploring the different characters of Napa’s best vineyards has now been copied by so many wineries, we forget how radical of an idea it was when they started Nickel & Nickel in the ‘90s. I brought in my two faves: 

Nickel & Nickel John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Oakville, Napa. This wine is proof that Cab loves us and wants us to be happy. Plums, chocolate and blackberry knew it was your birthday and they baked a cake for you and there’s money in the cake. The Sullenger vineyard, full of sandy clay, is Nickel’s home vineyard, adjacent to the winery in the middle of Oakville, maximizing sun exposure but retaining the typical Oakville tannins, which would integrate better in a few years. Lovely baking spices on the finish with menthol hues hanging on for a minute. Everything you love about Oakville loves you back, turns out. 95 points Wine Enthusiast, 4 6-packs available, $206.98 +tax 

Nickel & Nickel Bear Track Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Napa. The first vintage from Nickel’s recently acquired Bear Track vineyard, just outside the Howell Mountain AVA, is singing its own song right out of the gate, distinguishing itself as clearly the most refined, elegant Cab in the stable. Quite a floral nose with rosewater lifting the soft blueberry notes and rosemary out of the glass, before a sleek palate pulls up in a limousine to take you to the Prince’s Ball. A far more refined structure suggests an easy 20 years cellaring time, but I wouldn’t want to lose the fruit, everything going on here is capital “P” Pretty. Not yet rated. 2 6-packs available, $206.98 +tax 

Hourglass Blueline Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Calistoga, Napa. Someone seems to have been drinking a lot of Bordeaux, and that someone is Robert Foley. Bob’s winemaking at Hourglass, a project he runs with its owner Jeff Smith, has always emphasized concentration overall, but this single-vineyard Cab from the recently acquired Blueline Estate blends that thickness with a bright streak of gorgeous acidity and a very French restraint. Cassis, graphite, cedar and tomato leaf on the nose, with a good deal of earth and tension stretching a ross the palate to the finish. Pure class. 96 points Vinous, 94 points Robert Parker, 1 6-pack available, $202.98 +tax 

Joseph Phelps Insignia 2018, Napa. The top cuvée of Phelps’ best sites from all over the valley, Insignia has always been an honest broker, presenting the vintage from all sides with full disclosure: possible rainy harvests, warm summers or drought-inflected heft will show up somewhere in the wine, depending on the year. Since the mild, drama-free 2018 was the viticultural equivalent of listening to Enya for several months – especially in the long, warm autumn - an honest cross section of the vintage is music to our mouths: Crème de Cassis lifts the chocolate blackberries and pencil shavings over the deep pools of mocha, caramel and pepper, leaving a mineral, cocoa-nibs spell in its wake. An excellent Insignia. 99 points James Suckling, 97+ points Robert Parker, 2 6-packs available, $505.98 +tax 

Macauley Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Oakville, Napa. Although the Macauley name is now synonymous with elite Cabernet Sauvignon, the first wine that Ann Macauley made when she bought the winery straight out of college in 1984 was a Sauternes-style Sauvignon Blanc. Tragically, Ann never got to try the finished wines as she died in a 1986 car accident, but years later her son Mac returned to Napa to revive his mom’s label, this time with a focus on reds. With access to what could reasonably considered America’s First Growth, the contemporary Macauley winery uses their wee allocation of To Kalon fruit to make a Cab that matches otherworldly fruit intensity and power with the sleek structure and gravel frame of more French-inflected wines like Opus One (which is itself largely built out of To Kalon fruit). Currant and blackberry notes over crushed rocks and tilled earth. Stunning. 98-100 points Jeb Dunnuck, 6 bottles available, $364.98 +tax 

Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Howell Mountain, Napa. Perched high above Napa Valley with nearly 360 degrees of exposure, there isn’t a lot of sun that Dancing Bear doesn’t get (maybe the bear is dancing because he’s way sunburned and it hurts to sit down), but the altitude is what spared this site from the smoke and heat spikes of 2017 (history will treat 2017 way better than the wine press did). The big diurnal shift keeps a measure of balance, building a svelte medium-full body underneath a decadent fruit pie of boysenberry, plum and cherry on the nose. Front of house is for pleasure but the back of house is all business. 97 points Jeb Dunnuck, 95+ points Robert Parker, 1 6-pack available, $231.98 +tax 

Diamond Creek Mixed Pack 2017, Diamond Mountain, Napa. Al and Boots Brounstein’s unassuming, unlikely cult wine became so sought after that when they wanted to retire, Champagne house Louis Roederer snapped up the house immediately. Sold only by the 6-pack (I can’t break it up, sorry), the wines focus on 3 adjacent terroirs on Diamond Mountain with different soils and temperatures: Gravelly Meadow (95 Suckling) is coolest, Red Rock Terrace (97 Suckling) is warmer, and Volcanic Hill (96 Suckling) is hotter than, well, a Volcano. The 3 Cabs are quite wildly different from each other but these is a smoky, sleek through line of minerality and Pauillac-like frame. Precious little is made and even less comes to Vancouver. 1 6-pack available, Case Price (again, can’t split it but I’m still a good person) $2,500.00 +tax 

Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Mt Veeder, Napa. As old as them there hills, Mayacamas was part of the US team that beat the French in the 1976 Paris Tasting, besting Mouton Rothschild and Leoville las Cases, among others. Other Napa wineries from the contest have since changed their style along with the times, but Mayacamas stays up in the hills, never botherin’ nobody, doin’ the same thing they done for years. A reserved, mountain Cab made with almost zero new oak, this 2014 reveals layers of dark fruit and earthy notes, with currants, cigar box and graphite underpinning the whole show. #1 – Vine Pair’s Top 50 of 2018, 97 points James Suckling, 96+ points Vinous, 2 6-packs available, $242.98 +tax 

Collina Dalla Valle 2018, Oakville, Napa. Although Dalla Valle makes stratospherically high-end wines at the top end, I’ve always been drawn to this complex, multi-faceted, ultimately drinkable blend of Cab Sauv and Cab Franc from their eastern Oakville property. Equal parts rich and racy, the fresh blackberries balance the dark chocolate, just like the pencil shavings balance the fragrant sage vibes on the long finish. Deep dark and delicious with a round body that flows over the fine-grained tannins. First time I’ve been able to offer this! 94+ points Jeb Dunnuck, 2 6-packs available, $208.98 +tax 

Matthiasson Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Napa. There are two ways to make a full-throated Napa Cab with 13% abv: 1) find a time machine, or 2) get Steve and Jill Matthiasson to make it. Pulling from 6 vineyards across the valley, they practice a nearly month-long ferment followed by 2 years in (mostly) old barrels, and this finished 2017 reminds me more of those rare, unblended Tuscan cabs from around Chianti and the coast: dusty currants (likely from the Rutherford component in the mix) and bright red fruit like cherry and cranberry, with a cedary mineral component closing off after a full, brisk palate. It has the bones to go 20 years, but the charismatic approachability that we’ve come to expect from a founding member of the Ashes + Diamonds group project. Not submitted for review. 24 bottles available, $114.98 +tax 

Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Howell Mountain, Napa. I’m not sure what happened behind the scenes during the decades where Randy Dunn helped put Caymus on the map, all I know is that in 1978 he headed for the hills, bought some vines on a mountain and vowed never to make a wine above 14% abv ever again. If this whole project was some sort of atonement then atonement is delicious. Sourced from his Howell Mountain vineyards, Dunn’s Cabs are neither fat nor lean, they’re athletic: power houses of energy and concentration, aged for almost 3 years in all new French oak, but medium-bodied at best. Mediterranean vibes play around the savoury herbs, but the intense blueberry and lavender notes bleed into a dream of spice and graphite. Statuesque. 97 points Decanter, 95 points Wine Spectator, 12 bottles available, $289.98 +tax 

Bevan Cellars “Ontogeny” 2018, Napa. Waves of deep fruit tumble endlessly from this Cab-dominated blend of 2 of Bevan’s best sites, the Sugarloaf Mountain vineyard and Tench, Screaming Eagle’s neighbour. Fine tannins try to restrain the finish but they never had a chance: it’s all fruit, all the way down, always and forever. Neither a bruiser nor a blanket, Ontogeny’s raison d’être is Luxury and its tools are cassis, lavender and garrigue. Blue fruits rule the finish. Will age by sheer concentration but is singing now. 99 points Jeb Dunnuck, 95+ points Robert Parker, 18 bottles available, $166.98 +tax 

Jonata “Todos” 2017, Ballard Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley. If I were the sister winery to Screaming Eagle, I’d make a bigger deal about it. Oh, they talk a lot about their special microclimate in Ballard Canyon, and how the sandy soils challenge the vines to root deeper and provide concentration, and omg they won’t stop about how the 2017 Todos (Syrah with Cab and Petit Sirah) is teeming with blueberry, game, black pepper, fig and jasmine, or how it’s massive body and smooth delivery fill you with happiness and change your life for the better and blah blah blah. Nowhere do they say “hey FYI we are owned by Screaming Eagle” and then drop a microphone on the floor. Oh well, one day they’ll let me write their blurbs for them. 94+ points Jeb Dunnuck, 12 bottles available, $88.98 +tax 

Eisele Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Calistoga, Napa. Chateau Latour always did want to make a white wine. The Eisele vineyard has been a home to grape vines since 1880, and even kept growing through Prohibition (but only for juice, wink, wink). Through Napa’s renaissance in the 60s and 70s, Cabernet Sauvignon from Eisele showed up in Ridge Vineyards wines, Conn Creek, and several early vintages of Phelps’ Insignia. Now owned by Chateau Latour, their love affair with Bordelais-style Cab continues, but the eastern sliver of the vineyard is planted to a particularly aromatic clone of Sauvignon Blanc called “Musqué”. Kim Crawford this is not. Crafted like a timeless White Bordeaux, the Musqué is blended with a small portion of regular Sauv Blanc and then aged in concrete and oak, making a viscous, layered brew of citrus and sunshine, with peach, pear, yuzu lime, beeswax and hazelnut surrounding the nose. Commanding and potent on the front but luscious and disarming on the finish. Wow. 97 points James Suckling, 96 points Vinous, 9 bottles available, $180.98 +tax 

Littorai Block E Wendling Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019, Anderson Valley. Littorai’s Ted Lemon was the first American winemaker to ever be trusted with the reins of a Burgundy house when he took over operations at Domaine Roulot in the early ‘80s, after stints at Dujac and Villaine. After returning home to make wine with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, he and his equally talented partner Heidi started Littorai, an immediately cult-ish Pinot and Chard house that nabbed Ted a Winemaker of the Year award (SF Cronicle) in 2010. The most northern and most coastal vineyard of the Anderson Valley AVA, the Wendling vineyard was planted with Ted and Heidi’s help so they got firsties in plot selection, and chose the steepest Block E for this amazing Pinot. Mineral chalk and white pepper notes undergird the classic candied blackberry and blueberry notes, with rose petals and mint riding a fountain of strawberry juice to a fresh, vibrant finish. 96+ points Vinous, 12 bottles available, $137.98 +tax 

Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs 2017, Dry Creek, Sonoma. The party wine for the well-informed, this blend of ¾ Zinfandel and ¼ Petit Sirah/Carignan harkens back to the freewheeling early days of California’s Wine Renaissance, when balance and poise was favoured over raw power. Cinnamon, violets and eucalypt surround the gorgeous red fruits and velvet delivery, medium-full bodied with a gently rustic vibe on mid-palate, finishing fresh and spicy with an elegant lift that Zin can’t always pull off. Tastes like more. 95 points The Tasting Panel, 24 bottles available, $80.98 +tax 

 

OREGON 

We talk a lot about Oregon Pinot Noir and rightly so: decades ago a bunch of hippies placed all of their chips on a fussy, invalid, thin-skinned grape that mutates if you look at it wrong and is susceptible to all kinds of environmental pressures, up to and including coarse language. It was a crazy, uninformed bet – and it worked. Oregon is Pinot and Pinot is Oregon, but the revelation that I’ve experienced this year is just how far the Chardonnay has come, even in just the last few years. Certain houses in the Willamette are making stunning, world class Chards with depth, power and tension, they are fresh and energetic completely on their own terms, nobody on the west coast is making Chards quite like these. Look, I’ll show you: 

Brittan Vineyards Chardonnay 2017, McMinnville. When I got the invitation to attend the Oregon/Washington Trade Tasting last week, I had an anxiety attack: do I remember how to go to these? There hasn’t been a tasting in almost 2 years, would I remember how to properly dress myself and open my eyes and speak English? Turns out yes, and despite getting lost in the Vancouver Club (I swear that place is Hogwarts – all the halls scramble every night) I had a delightful time and tried many great wines, but this Chardonnay from the esteemed Robert Brittan stole the whole show. Generous and mineral with lemon oil and pear strudel on the nose, leading towards the reactor core where its unexplained power and presence lights up the sky. Gorgeous 1-second bursts of mint, pear, jasmine and white pepper compete for attention; this complexity and depth is usually seen in modern Meursault or Chablis, often for at least twice the price. 95 points Wine Enthusiast, 24 bottles available, $61.98 +tax 

Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Chardonnay 2016, Dundee Hills. If I told you how I got this, we would both have to go into hiding. Despite making their reputation on Pinot (I can’t get any, sorry) many years ago, Ken and Grace Evenstad have contemporarily become just as lauded for this iconic, striking Chardonnay, even though it accounts for a tiny sliver of their total production. A smoky, nutty vibe permeates the melon and peach notes on the nose, and the citrus elements continue through the palate, which is a perfect balance of both heft and zing. Slight tertiary notes of ginger and honey persist on the finish – we are in the optimal drinking window now, and will be for the next 6 years. Unless a local agency decides to import Serene again (no one does, currently), I don’t expect to see this again. 96 points Decanter, 95 points Wine Enthusiast, 5 6-packs arriving next week, $107.98 +tax 

Bethel Heights Casteel Estate Chardonnay 2017, Eola-Amity Hills. A regal, timeless Chardonnay, liquid evidence that oak and elegance are not enemies. Always a cuvee of the top barrels from their estate in Eola-Amity (one of a handful of Oregon’s pioneering vineyards), this full-malolactic rich feast still displays remarkable tension and lift, a result of being just east of the Van Duzer Corridor, which brings cooling Pacific breeze to this hotter, southern AVA. Baked apples and quince notes with whizz-bang menthol and apricot notes, a full body and a crisp finish that pops like a much lighter wine. 95 points Robert Parker, 94 points Wine Enthusiast, 94 points Jeb Dunnuck, 6 bottles available, $127.98 +tax 

Kelley Fox “Tir” Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016, McMinnville. One of the many apprentices of Eyrie Vineyards David Lett (the winery and wizard that put Oregon on the world’s Wine Map), Kelley Fox went and got a doctorate in biochemistry before returning to the Willamette to start this tiny winery with her dad Gus. From vineyard to bottling, Kelley does everything herself, but she won’t be doing it with fruit from Momtazi going forward as her lease ran out, making this 2016 the second last vintage of this outstanding, ethereal Pinot (only two cases came in, I took ‘em both). McMinnville can be a somber, dominating AVA (it often takes over any blend it’s in) but Kelley’s use of neutral barrels (4 of them) and 100% whole cluster pressing softens the attack, leaving bare the raw intensities of black raspberry, violet, tilled earth, rust and cocoa. Velvety layers of fine, integrated tannins deploy on palate and after, super seductive and complex. A rare find, mysterious and sexy. Not submitted for review. 2 6-packs available, $107.98 +tax 

Elk Cove La Bohème Pinot Noir 2018, Yamhill-Carlton. Arguably the highest vineyard in the Willamette and one of my very favourite Oregon wines, which made things awkward at that Oregon/Washington tasting when everyone tried it and fell in love with it but nobody could buy it because (pointing at me) that guy bought everything that came into BC. The Bohème Pinot is always a capital “P” Pretty wine, one of the most floral bouquets in the state, showing roses and violets over cherry cola and nutty vibes. The finish – surprisingly structured – acts more like Nebbiolo than Oregon Pinot, but altitude can increase the skin-to-juice ratio, and since this vineyard is higher than Snoop Dogg in the late afternoon, it makes sense. Fabulously delicious. Exclusive to Everything Wine River District. 18 bottles available, $76.98 +tax 

 

WASHINGTON 

Force Majeure. With Red Mountain fruit and Bryant’s winemaker on board, there was little doubt as to what kind of stuff this micro-winery in Walla Walla would make. With a production so small that it’s only gettable by way of mailing list down south, Todd Alexander was the first to plant in the rocky, steep upper slopes of Red Mountain and his wines are accordingly born battle-hardened. These are deep and timeless wines of purpose, with Napa intensity and French structure. During the first months of the pandemic their BC importer trimmed off this winery from their portfolio to be cautious, but at my insistence the following wines were brought in again just for me: 

Force Majeure Estate Syrah 2018, Red Mountain. A feast for the nose, tongue and, almost, teeth. The small Viognier co-ferment brings out the blue hues and blue fruits that become black fruits as you swirl. A tryst of flowers, blackberries and meat, this glorious 2018 makes its peppery way from nose to palate almost begging you to chew on it but the rich, generous delivery sheds both bite and bark and gives way to layers of lavender and gravel, with present but restrained tannins. Exclusive to Everything Wine River District. 100 points Jeb Dunnuck, 95 points Wine Spectator, 12 bottles available, $162.98 +tax 

Force Majeure Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Red Mountain. The emblematic, dusty signature of Red Mountain Cab opens the door to a tight, Saint-Julien-ish minerality (“Liquid Rock” was how one reviewer put it) with plum and cassis stepping into baking spice and cedar notes over a man-camp-drum-circle of brawn and bravado. Wondrous but young, needs time. Exclusive to Everything Wine River District. 97 points Jeb Dunnuck, 95 points Wine Spectator, 6 bottles available, $215.98 +tax 

Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Columbia Valley. Washington’s most iconic Cabernet celebrated it’s 40th anniversary like I celebrate my birthdays now – by not telling anyone. Seriously, dudes, you put Washington on the map for premium Cab, drove credibility and investment into the state and cranked out the most stunning wine every year for 40 years… and you didn’t put any of that on the bottle? Were you worried about tarnishing your dinky Chateau de Strip-Mall label? Well, packaging aside, this 2018 carries the torch admirably: always a bit more expressive than most WA Cabs, boasting a cigar box full of both black and red fruits, with incense, gravel and lilac. The wine’s signature layers start at the front of the palate and continue back to forever. Impressive now, unstoppable in 10 years. Of of the Great American Wines. 100 points Decanter, 98 points Robert Parker, 98 points Jeb Dunnuck, 98 points Wine Enthusiast, 98 points James Suckling, 9 bottles available, $337.98 +tax 

 

And now for our surprise state: 

 

ARIZONA 

Caduceus Cellars / Merkin Vineyards. Returning to BC for the first time in 8 years (and perhaps the last - the winery’s pre-Covid policy was to never export). The fact that there is indeed a vibrant, if nascent, premium wine industry in Arizona is due in no small part to the continuing  efforts of Maynard James Keenan, whose work in the cellar and vineyards (documented in the film Blood Into Wine), not to mention his celebrity (he is the Grammy-winning singer of Tool and A Perfect Circle) brought attention and interest to the desert state, although grape vines had already been there for over a hundred years, in a certain form. 

Spanish Missionaries, needing wine for Sacrament, planted vines wherever they went and Arizona was no exception, but they planted vineyards in the hot, dry south near Tucson, where the wines could have a cooked quality. Keenan sought and planted vineyards in the higher-altitude northern area, just south of Sedona, where the diurnal shift was much more pronounced and vital acidity could be retained. He had moved to nearby Cornville so that his kids wouldn’t grow up in L.A. and was drawn to winemaking by the discovery of his own ancestry, descended as he was from a long line of northern Italian winemakers. He started out cautiously by blending Californian juice with Arizona grapes when he found the local supply wanting, but over 15+ years he made the requisite changes in the vineyards to allow him to present 100% Arizonian terroir. 

Look, I’m like you, and the idea of celebrity gimmick wines (Wayne Gretzky/Dan Aykroyd/Some Golfer Guy?!? That sounds delicious!) or athlete tax write-offs (Yao Ming’s Napa venture, although those wines were actually not bad) sends me running away in disgust. Caduceus Cellars is not one of those. It’s not a brand. M.J. Keenan is the winemaker and devotes his life to it – Tool went 13 years between 10,000 Days and Fear Innoculum, winemaking is pretty much all this guy does now, and his restless creativity – using grapes and methods largely unseen in Cali, Oregon or Washington – is consumed by viticulture and vinification. Caduceus gives us another legit square in the American Wine Quilt, which is why I’m excited to finally offer the following: 

Caduceus Cellars “Sancha” Tempranillo 2017, Yavapai County. The Sancha Tempranillo, modelled after wines from the Rioja Alta, is sourced from the Buhl Memorial vineyard, a south-facing bed of clay and limestone that sits at 4300ft, with a diurnal swing that can reach up to 50 degrees. The harsh conditions manage to wrest elegance out of Tempranillo, and the structured finish lifts everything up, like the red cherry, licorice, cinnamon and vanilla notes that float above the stones and tilled earth. Robustly bodied with a long, bracing coda, this Spanish grape is right at home in the desert. Wicked stuff. Not submitted for review, 3 cases available, $82.98 +tax 

Caduceus Cellars “Nagual de la Naga” Sangiovese 2017, Yavapai County. Unlike more restrained Tuscan wines, the Sangiovese from Keenan’s Eliphante block is a giant shining beam of red fruit with a body to match. Oaky cherry notes, tobacco and dried tomato pour forth with abandon, as the generous, plummy frame deploys new coats every few steps on the palate. Good acidity with green herbs on the finish. Not submitted for review, 12 bottles available, $82.98 

Caduceus Cellars “Primer Paso” 2017, Yavapai County. One of Keenan’s earliest bottlings (he used to add Cali Juice to this), Primer Paso has evolved to show the terroir of the Eliphante block and the 2017 is the first vintage entirely sourced from there. 80% Syrah with Garnacha and Petit Sirah rounding off, co-fermented with a smidge of Malvasia for colour stability and fresh vibes. Desert climes give the Syrah some smoky notes with orange peel and blackberry holding firm. This is the biggest beast in Keenan’s stable, corpulent and smooth with a dusty, herbal ending. Not submitted for review, 12 bottles available, $82.98 +tax 

Merkin Vineyards “Shinola” 2020, Yavapai County. Treating the Merkin label as his entry tier, Keenan does a rustic Italian blend of Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Dolcetto and Barbera with a smidge of Primitivo, all from the Buhl site. Aged in minimal neutral oak, this reminds me of the Tuscan table wines in every restaurant there, where you didn’t ask what it was because it was just good. Medium bodied with a fresh, citrusy acidity and mineral elements, with bright cherry, black pepper and a lot more complexity on palate than the nose suggests. Not submitted for review, 3 cases available, $44.98 +tax 

Merkin Vineyards “Shinola Orancia” 2020, Yavapai County. The Italian white grape Malvasia Bianca done with a measure of skin contact, but despite the name it’s not really all that orange, more of a deep gold. From the Buhl Memorial  vineyard, the grapes are fermented on skins for 10 days in stainless steel, and that process adds a complex, layered shape with a bit of astringency on the finish. Honeyed melon, honeysuckle and orange peel with citrus oil and lilac. Gorgeous and substantial. Not submitted for review, 3 cases available, $41.98 +tax 

That’s it! Thanks kindly for your time and attention. Rhône and Piedmont collections in the near future! 

Until next time, Happy Drinking! 

 

Postscript: If you’re feeling too amazing today and want to take things down a peg, I can send you the New York Times article about Napa upon which I based my preamble. Just ask. 

Small Batch Series: Pinot Noir

Today I’ve got a tasty curation of Pinots from all over the world, but after having an otherwise illuminating conversation with a fantastic Pinot producer from down south, I have to get something off my chest first: 

I love Oregon completely. I’ve been to the Willamette a few times, had amazing experiences and would very much like to be allowed back in someday. I love the natural, non-elite wine culture there, it’s refreshing and welcoming, absolutely. 

But Oregon, dear Oregon, my one complaint involves how many of you pronounce your leading grape variety: in an attempt to resemble the original French pronunciation more closely, you’re inadvertently using an existing French word that doesn’t actually mean “wine”. 

The problem is Pinot Noir, specifically the word Noir. Certain languages contain sounds that other languages do not: the dental fricative “th” sound (/θ/) so prominent in English doesn’t exist in French, so native French mouths are unaccustomed to making it, leading French speakers to sub in other sounds that their mouths are more familiar with: “theatre” may be pronounced as “tee-atre”, “dee-atre” or “zee-atre” depending on where the French speaker is from (Quebec favours the “d”, France the “z”, that’s how you can spot them in the wild – saves you turning them over and looking at their bellies). 

The French pronunciation of “Noir” contains a brief uvular trill, sort of like a “rolled R” (R) at the end (“Nwah-rrr”), a sound that seldom appears in English. In North America our natural tendency is to read the “r” at the end of a word as a rhotic consonant: when we say “Noir” it rhymes with “Gwar” (or “Drakkar” if you nasty). It’s a perfectly normal way to approach those words in Anglophone Canada or the US – heck, even the name of the Oregonian valley where the Pinot is grown is properly Americanized: we rhyme “Willamette” with “dammit”, not “vinaigrette”. 

And yet the tendency in Oregon is to pronounce “Noir” like the French, but without the trill that closes the word: I kept hearing “would you like to try some Pinot Nwaahh?”. I understand the desire to try and respect the original name, but to French speakers it’s actually a shade creepy, however inadvertently:  

You see, “Nwaahh” isn’t just a swing and a miss, it’s an actual French word, and that word is “Noix”, which means “Nuts”. Pronounced this way, you are saying “would you like to try some Pinot Nuts”, and no thank you I would not. 

It’s ok to speak English. It’s ok to speak non-English words with English sounds, you were born with them and those are your tools. By saying “Nwaahh”, you’re not approaching France, you’re not even missing the turn-off, you’re taking an entirely different turn-off to Nut Town, and it’s weird. 

Please please let me back in I love your wine. 

Let’s start in Oregon and move outwards from there: 

USA 

Ken Wright Cellars Canary Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017, Eola-Amity Hills. It’s been too long since I could get any of Ken Wright’s wondrous juice; a living legend in Oregon, he was a founder of the seminal Panther Creek and one of the original prophets of single-vineyard winemaking on the west coast. There’s no overarching style to Ken’s wines (other than, like, “good”), he lets the ground speak in his stead, and the Canary Hill has a lot to chirp about (I’m sorry). Bright red fruit and tropical notes with ferrous tinges, burnt orange, a fairly voluptuous mouthfeel, this is good to go, majestic and magnificent. Welcome back, Mr. Wright, you got, like, hotter while you were gone. 94 points Wine Spectator, 2 6-packs available, $100.98 +tax 

Elk Cove La Bohème Vineyard 2017, Yamhill Carlton. Willamette’s highest vineyard (800ft) is also one of its most expressive and floral – you can practically smell it as you walk through there – with violets and lavender taking centre stage in front of a chorus of singing cherries, closing off with vanilla, black pepper and garrigue. One of the first families to plant vines in Oregon (way back in 1974, which gives them Elder Scrolls status), the Campbells practice a fairly severe green harvest in the La Bohème vineyard, and the reduced yields bring piercing concentration and energy to this 2017, counterbalancing the capital “P” Prettiness on the nose. 6 bottles available, $74.98 +tax 

Resonance Pinot Noir 2017, Willamette Valley. Although French families like Chapoutier and Barons de Rothschild pursue projects all over the globe, Burgundian fixture Maison Louis Jadot has only this one remote winery, a surprising measure of restraint considering who their winemaker is. Jacques Lardière was chief winemaker at Jadot for decades until 2012, when he left Burgundy to help start this Willamette project called Resonance. If you can picture a hyper-caffeinated Albert Einstein with a French accent, speaking only in poems and visiting multiple dimensions of time and space while in mid-sentence, you begin to get what it was like attending his seminar back in 2011. I speak English and French but Jacques continually existed in the middle, weaving historical anecdotes with visual analogies for tasting notes straight out of Yellow Submarine – it was an amazing, untethered experience, although I did at times wonder if I should have instead taken the Blue Pill. Resonance is every bit a Lardière wine, blending Yamhill-Carlton and Dundee fruit into an éclair of bright red fruit surrounded by a savoury, herb-informed frame. Pomegranate, rhubarb and tobacco lead into an earthly palate of cherry and roses. Bright and tannic, it’s safe and fun to drink now but should gain Elegance Points® as this decade unfolds. #19, Wine Spectator Top 100 of 2020, 93 points Wine Spectator, 3 6-packs available, $61.98 +tax

Citation Pinot Noir 2005, Oregon. Although the creation of new AVAs is an arduous, political affair, it is widely expected than one of Willamette’s next additions will be the Mount Pisgah region, at the southern end of the Willamette AVA, south-east of Eugene. Here the Willamette’s oldest volcanic rocks are covered by a thin veneer of marine sediment, the combination of which adds elevated acidity and longevity to Pinot Noir. Witness this 2005 Pinot from Citation, sourced from Pisgah and further south, with broad shoulders and deep wells of mushroom, cinnamon, ripe cherries, orange peel and earth. Leather and tea surround the fruit, and the tannins have softened to more of a vibe than a sensation. It isn’t often that we’re able to try aged Oregon Pinot that isn’t the fruit of our own patience, this is a real treat. 2 6-packs available, $110.98 +tax 

WALT “La Brisa” Pinot Noir 2016, Sonoma Coast. Who is WALT and what does WALT want? While the sad news is that there’s no actual dude-named-Walt involved, the awesome news is that this is Napa star Kathryn Hall’s sister winery – “Walt” was her maiden name – not sure why it’s in all-caps except maybe her mom and dad used to shout a lot. Judging from how ripe this Sonoma Coast Pinot is, what WALT wants is two things: lots of root beer and for us to be happy. Violets and minty notes permeate the chocolate-covered black cherries and sarsaparilla, the nose and body are generous, but the finish lifts nicely and just makes the runway of Elegant-town. Since many of Kathryn’s offerings clock in at well over $200 per bottle, WALT is an opportune way to experience her wines within a certain sphere of reason. 2 cases available, $62.98 +tax 

GERMANY 

Thörle Hölle Spätburgunder 2018, Rheinhessen. This is one of the two top rated 2018 Pinots in Germany, a grand statement from a country whose talent for ripe, generous, timelessly structured Pinot is rivalled only by their skill in putting dots on top of letters. Called Spätburgunder locally because “Pinot Noir” is much too short and easy, the variety is only 5-10% of the Rheinhessen’s output, but it often finds its way into some of the best, limestone-rich plots like the hills around Saulheim (Riesling tends to favour the red slate soils), where young brothers Christoph and Johannes Thörle have helped give rise to a New Wave of German Pinot: Burgundian in build (thanks, limestone!) but more Oregonian in fruit profile – decidedly non-rustic. The 2018 Hölle (loosely means “Heart of Hell”; a different Hölle than the famous Mosel Hölle vineyard, for all you Hölle-Monitors out there) is brilliantly bursting with dark cherries, garrigue and an almost tangible minerality. Freaking gorgeous now, I imagine that it’ll be stunning in 3-4 years; tightly allocated by the winery, I only got these 2 cases. 99 points James Suckling, 2 cases available, $80.98 +tax 

ITALY 

Giulia Negri La Tartufaia Pinot Nero 2017, Langhe. Riding a wave of buzz since she took over her family’s 150-year-old La Morra winery (boasting the highest altitude in Barolo) at the age of 24, Giulia Negri has carved out a nice side hustle by releasing non-Barolo wines made of Chard and Pinot, grown on the north-facing slopes where Nebbiolo is forbidden. Violets and roses surround the tart red cherries, the tannins are considerable and may take a couple of years to stop obscuring the gentler cinnamon and white pepper vibes on the finish. Like a Nuit-St-Georges in build, but less ferrous and more floral. 6 bottles available, $50.98 +tax 

FRANCE 

Confuron-Cotetidot Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Suchots 2007, Burgundy. A wondrous find from 3 Presidents ago, sourced from a Premier Cru surrounded on nearly all sides by the Grand Cru vineyards of Richebourg, Romanée-St-Vivant and Echézeaux. Brothers Yves and Jack run the cellar now (their parents choose to work the vines cuz vines don’t talk), but their lineage traces back to the 1600s, when the Confuron family was primarily known for vine propagation (they even have their own Pinot clone called Pinot Confuron). This celestial 2007 is in partial hibernation but can be reawakened with a couple hours in a decanter, whereby a heady brew of flowers, mushrooms and black-hearted berries shall swirl and resurrect, jarred by licorice, thyme, game and the desperate angst of a love forlorn. ARISE, young Suchots! Arise and greet this new world! Someday you may die but today is not that day…..    that got away from me, apologies. Um this wine is really good. 6 bottles available, $315.98 +tax 

Robert Groffier Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Sentiers 2017, Burgundy. One of the reasons I’m so stoked to do what I do right now is the quality and breadth of producers and categories available to me that were a mere dream just a couple years ago. Case in point: Robert Groffier, a cult Burgundy producer that collectors have been asking about for years, available to offer for the first time. Now run by grandson Serge, Groffier runs some of the best plots in Burgundy’s exclusive crus (Amoureuses, Bonnes Mares), and has scaled down new wood aging in favour of sensuous, more emotional wines (everyone says “we let the vineyards speak through the wine” but it’s in Burgundy where this phrase is most literal). Their 2017 Sentiers offers a mineral, slightly smoky take on the cru, boosting the raspberry and nutmeg notes nicely. 5 years out from Drinktown, the stony finish should integrate with the fruit beautifully by then. 5 bottles available, $370.98 +tax 

NON-STOP CLASSIC HITS 

What follows is a brief listing of some wines that fit this theme and have previously been written about, but featured again for the benefit of those who’ve recently joined my Collectors List and may have missed ‘em the first time. If anyone requires more info, I’m happy to send over the original blurb to you. 

Kosta Browne Pinot Noir 2018, Sonoma Coast. 94 points Jeb Dunnuck, 6 bottles available, $194.98 +tax 

Sea Smoke Southing Pinot Noir 2018. Sta. Rita Hills. Not yet rated, 6 bottles available, $154.98 +tax 

L’Usine Pinot Noir 2017, Sta. Rita Hills, 93 points Robert Parker, 93 points Wine Spectator 12 bottles available, $99.99 +tax 

Until next time, Happy Drinking! 

POSTSCRIPT 

The world of wine would look very different indeed if it weren’t for Steven Spurrier, the British wine writer and educator who sadly passed a couple days ago. Besides organizing the seminal Judgement Of Paris in 1976, which changed the planet’s perception of New World winemaking when French judges blindly favoured Californian wines over French labels, he also founded Decanter Magazine, a distinct voice in the sphere of wine reviewing providing a distinctly Euro take on wines (whilst still using impeccable English) in a sea of American-centric publications (Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, Wine Enthusiast and James Suckling are all based in the U.S.). His understated and humble tone, which masked his vast depth of knowledge, will indeed be missed. R.I.P., Steven, and say hi to Alan Rickman. 

Get to know the grape: Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is loved by many wine enthusiasts for its light to medium body, red fruit flavours and hints of spice and often makes an appearance around festive holiday dinners as it’s known for being turkeys’ wine pairing of choice. Beyond its ability to play nice with rich and flavourful meals, the French native is one of the most romanticized red wines in the world with festivals thrown every year in the grape’s honour and even an Oscar winning film dedicated to it, check out “Sideways”, set in California wine country.

Originating in France’s Burgundy region, Pinot Noir is now produced in many wine regions around the world; however, many wine buffs still view Burgundy as the mecca for Pinot Noir. Burgundian style Pinot Noir is acclaimed for its ripe red berries, sweet dark cherries and hints of mushroom with forest floor while other popular varieties from Sonoma, California and Willamette Valley, Oregon varieties typically show raspberry, allspice and Darjeeling tea.

Despite its expressive characteristics and worldwide fandom, Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to grow and is susceptible to rot and uneven ripening to do its thin skin and tightly packed grape clusters. To avoid sunburn, delicate Pinot Noir grapes enjoy long, cool growing seasons in protected valleys and near large bodies of water—Willamette Valley lies on the same latitude as Burgundy and experiences a similar climate while Sonoma is cooler and more foggy than other wine regions in its state.

Pinot Noir is also one of the few red wine grapes that’s commonly made into red, rosé, white and sparkling wine! In Champagne, it’s one of the regions’ seven permitted varieties and adds structure to brut blends, it is the only red grape permitted in Alsace and is also becoming increasingly popular as rosé with its delicate character and crisp flavours.

Thanks to its light body, complex structure, and elegant tannins, Pinot Noir is an ideal pairing for a variety of dishes—even disproving the claim that red wine cannot be paired with fish. Fruit forward styles actually make for an excellent partner to fatty fish and seafood including scallops and lobster. More earthy renditions pair beautifully with heirloom vegetables, hearty beef Bourguignon or traditional coq au vin. So whether you’re preparing a special anniversary dinner or an easy mid-week meal, Pinot Noir is always a great choice.

If you’re new to Pinot Noir or are looking to discover your new favourite, you can shop by grape here or visit us in store to talk to one of our passionate consultants.

Not sure where to start? Check out a few of our favourite picks below:

Decoded Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

Penner-Ash Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

The Path Pinot Noir

Meiomi Pinot Noir

Mission Hill Family Estate Reserve Pinot Noir

Le Jardin Pinot Noir