Grapelive Quickies: Exploring the Rhone Valley & Learning the Basics

The Rhone Valley
One of France’s main wine regions, the Rhone Valley is mostly divided into two areas the Northern and Southern zones, but also including the Ventoux, Nimes and the Luberon in the southern area and Lyonnaise in the most northern end. This vast region has many varietals including native grapes which include Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Picpoul to name a few, plus grapes that came from Spain like Grenache (Garnacha) and Mourvedre (Monastrell) that have taken hold since the late 1,800’s and have been allowed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape since it became France’s first AOC. It’s key to remember that in the Northern Rhone, a terroir that mostly consists of granite schist with loam, clay and gravel, the red wine is 100% Syrah, with the exception of Coteaux de Lyonnaise where there is in fact Gamay, this area sits just north of Cote-Rotie, while the white grapes include only Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne with Viognier only allowed in Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, while Roussanne and Marsanne can be used together in Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Peray, with no white grapes allowed in Cornas. In the Southern zone things get much more complicated and grape choices much more varied, but this is primarily Grenache territory and it usually leads the way with the sandy and rocky soils that has some limestone or marl underpinning. The most famous areas of the South include the mentioned Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the “new castle of the Pope” for the time of the Popes of Avignon and where the wines were rightly honored by the church and are still enjoyed in the Vatican today, but also includes the huge generic Cotes-du-Rhone, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages as well as smaller high end Villages (towns) of Gigondas, Vaqueyras, Sablet and Cairanne being the main AOC’s, but one must not forget sweet wine areas like Banyuls a red dessert wine made from Grenache and Baumes de Venise white dessert wine made from Muscat. Please note that in 2009 the Chateauneuf-du-Pape rules were clarified to include 18 varietals (from the original 13) and it includes: Cinsaut, Counoise, Grenache noir, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Piquepoul noir, Syrah, Terret noir, and Vaccarèse (Brun Argenté). White and pink varieties are Bourboulenc, Clairette blanche, Clairette rose, Grenache blanc, Grenache gris, Picardan, Piquepoul blanc, Piquepoul gris, and Roussanne. As you can see Marsanne and Viognier are forbidden, but still allowed in the South and feature in many Cotes-du-Rhone whiles. Also in Chateauneuf-du-Pape you can use all 18 different grapes in the reds, or use a single varietal, confused yet? Happy drinking!

Rhone Wines to look for: Chateau de Saint Cosme, Vieux Telegraphe, Guillaume Gilles, Beranred Levet, Clusel Roch, JL Chave, A. Clape, Pegau, Rayas, Montmirail, Delas Freres, Jamet, Beaucastel, Perret and Faury.

American Versions to look for: Alban, Bonny Doon, P’Tit Paysan, Drew, Halcon, Skylark, Samsara, Piedrasassi, Cayuse, Gamercy, Lagier-Merideth, Sheldon, Favia, Tribute to Grace, Jaffurs, Ridge Vineyards, Saxum, Epoch and Big Basin.

Grapelive: Wine of the Day August 31, 2017

2014 Bodega Veronica Ortega “Quite” Mencia, Valtuille, Bierzo, Spain.
The 2014 Quite Mencia by the talented Veronica Ortega is deeply hued and textured with earthy richness as well as having beautiful delicate floral tones making for a savvy and terroir driven wine. Seeing Ortega’s CV is pretty impressive, she has been mentored by the legendary Raul Perez and her wines seem connected at the hip with his, but the list of places she’s put in time at is also mind-blowing, Veronica has made wine at Burn Cottage in New Zealand with Littorai’s Ted Lemon as well as Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and Comte Armand in Burgundy, Alvaro Palacios and Daphne Glorian in the Priorat, plus Domaine Combier in Crozes-Hermitage and with Niepoort in Oporto! This pedigree while so young is absolutely amazing, especially for a girl from sleepy Cadiz, not far from Spain’s Sherry region, now she is carving out her own niche in Bierzo, settled in Valtuille de Abajo where she farms 80 year old Mencia vines for her own Bodega Veronica Ortega ROC and Quite labels. These organic wines are simply gorgeous offerings, with this 2014 Quite Mencia coming from sandy plots with clay and slate soils, it is different from her top cuvee ROC, because she wanted a more flowery and lighter version that highlighted the nature of some of the individual plots, she uses native yeasts and tank ferments here and ages a short time, about 8 months, in both neutral oak cask as well as big 800L amphorae. This Quite Mencia 2014 is performing wonderfully right now, it has a tiny amount of other native varietals co-fermented in including white grapes Godello, Valenciana and Palomino Fino as well as red Alicante Bouchet and the rare Merenzao, adding to the detail and complexity, it starts with light violets, black olive and flinty mineral along with black currant and faint cinnamon in a medium bodied red that lingers with black cherry, saline, minty licorice, porcini/earthy notes and bramble berry. This is a stylish cuvee that reminds me a little of Foradori’s Teroldego and Andre Perret’s Saint-Joseph, this is really a killer wine, imported by Eric Solomon’s European Cellars, it’s a sleeper and a great value, Veronica Ortega is a winemaker to follow!
($25 Est.) 92 Points, grapelive

Grapelive: Wine of the Day August 30, 2017

2014 Alfaro Family Vineyards, Syrah, Ryan Spencer Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains.
The 2014 Alfaro Ryan Spencer Syrah is amazingly youthful and fresh considering it spent over 20 months in barrel, in fact it’s downright grapey with a full mouth feel and vibrant acidity, this might be a wine to wait another 3 to 5 years on! If you have this one and feel the need to open now, be sure to have seriously robust cuisine and decant to get the best out of it, but certainly there’s a lot to like here, especially the deep fruit core and concentration. The tightly wound nature gives this wine a very un-evolved/primary character at first with concord grape puree notes, spring flowers and loganberry leading the way, but given time and air more complexity and length comes through. Surprisingly the wood is subtle with just a hint of mocha, cherry cola and cedar, it stays way in the background perfectly framing the layers of blueberry compote, wild plum, raspberry fruit along with sweet tannins, a faint peppery spice, dried currants, violette and kirsch in an opulent full bodied, but vibrant wine. Richard Alfaro’s 2014’s have all been glorious wines and there’s likely much more to come here in his Syrah, it has real potential and looks set for a long life, it’s well balanced coming in at 14% alcohol, it manages to feel ripe and sexy/round, but still bursting with verve and energy, it reminds me of Guigal’s basic Cote-Rotie from the late nineties or early 2000’s. A more silky refined wine came out in 18 hours after opening, so again, I suggest putting a few bottles away, best from 2019 to 2024, in the meantime do not miss Alfaro’s awesome estate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, as well as his thrilling Albarino and Gruner Veltliner!
($35 Est.) 91 Points, grapelive

Grapelive: Wine of the Day August 29, 2017

2016 Schlossgut Diel, Riesling Feinherb, Von der Nahe, Nahe Germany.
The beautifully detailed Schlossgut Diel Von der Nahe Riesling is crisply dry feeling, but with a hint of generous fruitiness and fleshiness that gives a juicy openness to this lightly sweet wine. Following the house style, this special cuvee made exclusively for Terry Theise and the US market, is classy and well crafted highlighting Caroline Diel’s talent and sensibilities, this wine was not an after thought or enter level in anyway, this is a brilliant wine with complex layers, inner energy, mineral driven and elegant in fruit. This category of Riesling, between the serve Trockens and lush Kabinett, these Feinherb Riesling have a more serious concentration than QbA’s of the past and are amazingly refreshing and food friendly. The Diel is one of my favorites, along with Leitz’s Dragonstone, but other Feinherbs to check out include Loewen, A.J. Adam and Spreitzer, all of which taste dry and have loads of individual qualities, intensity and flare, this is exciting times for Riesling and these Feinherbs are not to be missed! This Schlossgut Diel Von der Nahe shines in glass with tangy focus, it’s gifted with liquid mineral and spice to go with the zesty tangerine, lime, white peach and bitter melon with just a touch of dried pineapple, verbena, chamomile tea, wet flinty/shale stones and unripe apricot. This has a sweet and sour tone, but amazingly refined and perfectly balances all the natural elements together in sublime fashion. If you’ve never had Diel, this is a great way to start, the 2016 is bright, dynamic and should age well for a decade, wow, what a great value.
($20 Est.) 91 Points, grapelive

Grapelive: Wine of the Day August 28, 2017

2012 Spring, Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast.
Natural and garagista winemaker Mark Bunter’s lovely and vibrant 2012 Spring Sonoma Coast is a very limited, four barrel cuvee, offering that delivers a lot for the money, it’s a wine with intriguing earthy tones and with a savory edge to go with delightfully soft red fruits. Bunter’s family owns a small vineyard in Combsville, Napa Valley, and he makes his wines there, but since he lives in Carmel Valley, he has his Bunter Spring tasting room there in Carmel Valley Village, he goes in for organic grapes as much as possible and he employs real old school natural winemaking, with no additions and ultra low or no sulfur and native ferments, as well as using mostly neutral/seasoned barrels. Of his latest set, I really like the no sulfur Bunter “Natur” Syrah 2014 that comes from his family’s estate organic vines as well as this polished 2012 Spring Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, which comes in at 13.6% alcohol, making for a wine that has unfolded into a mature and elegant wine that might be at it’s best right now. A nice ruby/garnet hue in the glass, this 2012 Spring Pinot starts with liquid mineral, dried roses, saline and racy cherry fruit along with a hint of tea spices, candied orange peel, poached plum and autumn leafy/wild mushroom notes. A lingering kirsch, peppery cinnamon and a subtle vanilla shading add to whole in this medium weight Pinot Noir, and as low sulfur wine it was surprisingly good if not better with 2 or 3 days of air, this is a fun wine with nice acidity, that feels soft and plush in the mouth, but with crisp detail and loamy/umami.
($25 Est.) 88-90 Points, grapelive

Grapelive: Wine of the Day August 27, 2017

2013 Drew, Syrah, Perli Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge.
Drew’s 2014’s are some of the best wines in California, both Syrah and Pinot, so it was fun to go back a vintage and see what was different of if they’ve made gains with a another year or so in bottle, and I can tell you, without a question they have greatly improved and filled out, especially drinking great is Jason and Molly Drew’s Perli Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Syrah. Set on a steep slope of shale, sandstone, sandy loam and rhyolite soils at 2,200 feet up on Mendocino Ridge, the Perli shows a Cote-Rotie or Saint-Joseph like cool climate prettiness and complexity, Drew co-fermented about 5% Viognier in this single vineyard Syrah as well as employing native yeast and just 30% whole cluster, making for a floral and spicy wine with medium weight. The tannins feel quite firm still, but there is much to love here with crushed violets and lilac along with vivid peppercorns and loads of kirsch and tangy plum to start before a core of blueberry and boysenberry fruit, as well as cinnamon, pepper, black olive, minty anise, cedar and warm stones. This Syrah shows good vigor and intensity gaining presence with air in the glass and the purple/black/garnet color highlights the seriousness on display, very impressive with each added minute and brilliant with cuisine, in fact with an hour open and food it really turned on the charm adding lavender, iron/meaty elements and cassis to the mix of layers. I’m thrilled with everything on offer here and in case you’ve not discovered Drew’s wines, you need to asap, in particular get every single 2014 you can find and look for the 2015’s that are also looking good, and of which I will be reviewing soon. I’m glad I got this 2013 Perli, it will be drinking great for many years to come, and it’s a wonderful value, best from 2018 to 2024.
($38 Est.) 93+ Points, grapelive

Grapelive: Wine of the Day August 26, 2017

2015 Ken Wright Cellars, Pinot Noir, Guadalupe Vineyard, Willamette Valley, Oregon.
A classic Dundee vineyard founded back in 1989 the Guadalupe Vineyard is planted to Wadenswil “Swiss Clone” and Dijon 115 on Willakenzie and siltstone soils makes for a pure expression of Oregon Pinot Noir, especially when done by Pinot legend Ken Wright, and this 2015 vintage is just as good as you’d imagine in such a wonderful year, full of flavor, depth and structure. Pretty floral tones lead the way with just a faint trace of sweet/smoky oak and lots of intense dark Pinot fruit, this is a dense wine with Premier Cru presence and charm in the glass with black cherry, ripe currant, racy/thick raspberry and tree picked plum as well as hints of iron/mineral, red peach and anise tea, dusty Asian spices, cola bean and liquid roses. Wonderfully judged with fine detail and form the 2015 Ken Wright Cellars Guadalupe Pinot has supple rich mouth feel with ultra plush tannins, muted acidity, youthful fruity roundness and lots of length making for one of best early drinking Ken Wright wines I can remember, though once it loses it’s baby fat flamboyance I’m certain it will be even more rewarding, with air a more delicate earthy side can be detected in the background with faint red spice savory elements giving a peep show of complexity. Of the three 2015’s I tasted with Ken Wright earlier this summer, it was hard to pick a winner, though the Shea, normally a favorite was maybe just a touch too ripe, while Ken’s Savoya was a blockbuster, close to perfection and a cellar selection, but this Guadalupe is not far off and really grew on me after the fact. Oregon has had a set of fantastic vintages back to back to back with 2014, 2015 and 2016, be sure to grab the 2014’s before they disappear and while the 2015’s are showy, they look set to be classics and savvy choices for your mid term collection, with this Ken Wright Guadalupe 2015, I think a ten to fifteen year window is not a stretch, best from 2019 to 2026.
($59 Est.) 93+ Points, grapelive

Grapelive: Wine of the Day August 25, 2017

2014 Piedrasassi, Syrah & Mourvedre, Harrison Clarke Vineyard, Ballard Canyon.
Sashi Moorman’s deeply hued and brooding Harrison Clarke Vineyard red, his first Mourvedre based red under his own Piedrasassi label is a unique and wonderfully textured wine that has a Crozes-Hermitage meets Bandol like feel and powerful intensity. The warm clay and limestone of the terroir allows ripe tannins and lush character to the de-stemmed Mourvedre to the earthy/spicy Syrah in this new bottling from Piedrasassi, it delivers an opulent fruit core, but with savory contrasts with a light iron/meaty edge showing dark cherry, blackberry, blueberry and damson plum fruits with snappy anise, camphor/embers, mineral notes and peppery cedar along with tobacco and loam. This wine builds up excitement in the glass and lingers with crushed violets, cassis and chalky saline rich stones. This is a big and full bodied effort that will certainly gain detail and finesse with a few more years in bottle, though not as edgy/racy as Sashi’s pure whole cluster Syrah wines, like his gorgeous Rim Rock, but it’s one that should reward the patient Rhone/Bandol lovers, I also want to note it offers plenty of thrills for the price, especially as there were only 180 cases made. This wine has oodles of potential and is loaded with density and vigor, this 2014 is quite remarkable, with tremendous presence and mouth feel, it’s a wine to search out, drink from 2018 to 2028.
($36 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive

Grapelive: Wine of the Day August 24, 2017

2016 Weingut Goldatzel, Riesling Spatlese Trocken, Geisenheimer Kläuserweg, Rheingau Germany.
One of the surprises in the Terry Theise lineup at Skurnik’s SF tasting was the thoughtful and austere laser sharp Riesling offering from Johannes Gross, these are a subtle set of wines that need a few tastes to truly appraise their inner beauty and beautiful form. It was a pleasure to taste with Johannes and fully experience his wines, I was thrilled especially with his dry wines that showed an electric sense of excitement with elegant structures and vibrant fruit, in particular I was personally intrigued by Goldatzel’s Geisenheimer Trockens, these were some of the best I’ve tried from this part of the Rheingau and reminded me somewhat of Kunstler, which is high praise! The 2016 Geisenheimer Kläuserweg Spatlese Trocken is a brilliant effort with a wonderful sense of terroir, fine detail and nervy tension showing a light perfume, saline and a never ending force of citrus along with spice and lovely cool mineral tones. Working without a strict dogma Gross uses mostly organic practices and ferments in most cases with native yeasts, but always allowing an approach for each wine, being flexible to change to it’s own needs, which seems practical for this small estate winery to craft unique individual wines. The Geisenheim site is close to the Rhein and sits on loam, marl and clay, and this wine highlights it’s place nicely with traces of earthiness and crystalline transparency, with this 2016 giving fresh verve and layers of lemon/lime, tangy peach/stone fruit, green apple and lingering chalky wet stone. There’s solid extract and the must weight delivers a sense of body and depth in this zesty young dry Riesling, but as mentioned, you’ll want to give this wine time to reveal it’s true nature, it’s a slow and teasing seduction, give it time and reap the rewards, impressive.
($28 Est.) 92+ Points, grapelive

Grapelive: Wine of the Day August 23, 2017

2015 Halcon Vineyards, Esquisto, Rhone Style Blend, Yorkville Highlands.
Halcon’s Chateauneuf du Pape inspired red Esquisto 2015 is extremely tightly wound, with staggering concentration and power, but still reveals gorgeous layering and pretty details, this beauty needs time to fully unfold and express itself, it is seething beneath surface with explosive fruit, spice and provincial herbs. This year worked out to be about 60% Grenache, 35% Mourvedre, both co-fermented and 5% Syrah blended in closer to bottling, making for California version of Rhone wine that has a nod to old school Chateau de Beaucastel or Vieux Telegraphe, though maybe with it’s more cool climate character it is more similar to Domaine Gramenon or the Gigondas wines of either Saint-Cosme or Domaine du Grand Montmirail, the Halcon Esquisto’s 30% whole cluster gives plenty of intensity of wild herbs, peppery spice and exotic tones of dark fruit. Scott Shapley, who also works with Roar, has done a fantastic job guiding these latest releases, as well as continuing to make nervy and exciting wines from selected stony terroir driven Mendocino and Anderson Valley sites, along with their original consultant, Copain’s Wells Gutherie, who gets Syrah fruit from Halcon’s estate vineyard. The 2015 was a tiny crop do to poor set and shatter, only 1.27 tons were picked for 3 acres, making for only 80 cases for this Halcon Esquisto to be available, so don’t wait long to find this wine! Vibrant and edgy with a deep purple/black and garnet edged color the Esquisto starts with a mix of violets, lavender, peppercorns, flinty/rocky spice and black currants before reluctantly releasing it’s grip to show blueberry, black plum, loganberry and fresh briar laced vine picked boysenberry fruits with a whisper of dusty pepper, iron/mineral, a touch of tangy sage, celery seed and anise. Aged in neutral French Puncheons this dark fruited wine has ripe tannins, crisp acidity and feels a bit lighter than it’s 14.5% alcohol would suggest, it will certainly fill out with time in the bottle, if you want to open this wine now, a decanter is a must, as is rustic or robust cuisine, I, in fact, found this wonderful wine much better after a full 24 hours after opening, as suggested by Halcon’s Paul Gordon, confirming my impression that this is going to be a legendary wine in 5 to 10 years! The Grenache really comes alive with air and delightful creme de cassis, cinnamon, strawberry compote and kirsch lingers on and on, this is absolutely thrilling stuff.
($32 Est.) 92-94 Points, grapelive