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Nov
24

Alto Piemonte–Day 4 Gattinara

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One could easily say Gattinara is the most well known wine appellation of the Alto Piemonte.  150 years or so ago, there were apparently roughly 1600 acres planted to vine in Gattinara.  Today, I am told there is but only 230 or so acres still planted.  Undoubtedly the most revered estate of Gattinara (& some would say in all of Alto Piemonte, as well) is Antoniolo.  The estate was founded in 1948 & Gattinara was granted DOCG status in 1990.

This venerable estate is run by 3rd generation brother/sister–Alberto Antoniolo/Lorella Zoppis.  Alberto seems to be very quiet & reserved.  Lorella is quite outgoing, charismatic in a no nonsense kind of way, knowledgeable & VERY articulate.  She is a force & clearly has a vision & the tenacity to fulfill the promise.  Yup, this is some kind of wunderkind estate, much deserved of their highly revered status & their wines really impress & totally back up their reputation fully.

It was a crazy time, being harvest & winemaking & all.  We were so thankful for her time AND even her showing us their vineyards, despite the winemaking craziness & the onslaught of rain.

Today they own 18 hectares, 14 of which are working vineyards–focused on 5 parcels–(the soils are still very volcanic in origin, but mixed with many combinations of matter which vary from location to location)–

Osso San Grato–5 hectares, south facing, replanted in the 1974–very rocky, reddish soils with 1 foot topsoil–resulting in a more austere rendition with serious mojo & structure.  Typically in aged for 36 months in large 2500 liter barrels & 1 year in bottle.

San Francesco–3.5 hectares replanted in the 1974–more sand & rock, west facing–resulting in a more feminine, floral, pretty, ethereal rendition.  This wine is typically aged for 3 years in wood–16 months in OLD 350 liter & 500 liter barrels & then further aged in large 2500 liter barrels for 20 months.

Castelle–1 hectare–more of a west facing hilltop with deeper soils, less rocks & more sand to the mix, which was replanted in the 1985.  Typically the resulting wines have more color, more power, more forward & immediately pleasing & higher alcohol levels).  Typically 24 months in barrique & 1 year in 2500 liter barrel.

Each of these 3 parcels are bottled as single vineyards when warranted as well as used for their Gattinara normale bottling (36 months in large 2500 liter barrels).   These wines definitely have something to say AND profoundly so.

The fruit from their Borelle & Valferana vineyards is used more for their Nebbiolo “Juvenia” & the Bricco Lorella rose bottlings. 

 

Our next stop was to Franchino Mauro, also of Gattinara.  Franchino was one of Alto Piemonte’s true winemaking vignioli/icons, & passionately worked his vineyards *& made his wines, mostly by himself.  The estate is now run by nephew, Alberto Raviciotti.  They own roughly 3 hectares of vines (the core planted in 1967, the same year Gattinara was first granted DOC status) in Gattinara, roughly at 1350 feet elevation, southwest facing, on the banks of the Sesia River.  The soils are rocky granite intermixed with clay, iron, potassium & other minerals.  His Gattinara & his Nebbiolo “Coste della Sesia” are Nebbiolo made in the a traditional style in an old, stone cellar near the center of town.  A true garagiste.  The Gattinara spends 18 days on the skins, fermented without skins in concrete & spend 3 years in large, old botti (barrels) & at least 1 year in bottle before release.  While there is a new generation of winemaking helping to resurrect the wines of Alto Piemonte with a very different thought on what Nebbiolo can be, this is, in comparison, a more classical, wildly rustic, burly, robust, hearty, somewhat leaner style of Gattinara.  The 2015, in fact, was a throwback for me of how I remember Piemontese Nebbiolo to be–lighter in pigmentation with a dusty, dead leaves/humus, roasted chestnut, slight cocoa character with good acidity & drying tannins, which is proudly Gattinara.  

Nov
23

Alto Piemonte Day 3 Ghemme

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Ghemme is another of the denominations of the Alto Piemonte.  It too is quite small in size with roughly only 210 acres planted to vine, all scattered throughout the undulating hills throughout the region.  While porphyric/granite soils are a large influence in Ghemme, there are also vineyards which seem to have a little more clay to the mix, especially on the plateaus.

We were very fortunate to be recommended to visit & walk vineyards at 2 very respected estates from this appellation.

The first was at Mazzoni.  I should say, this estate came highly recommended to us, pre-trip, by Gilberto Boniperti & we are so thankful he opened this door.  We really loved this estate, the people & the wines.  Gilles & Agnese Mazzoni are now the 3rd generation of the family to run this small, 5 hectare estate.  Their youngest vines are only 10 years in age & his oldest more in the 35 to 40 year range.  One can readily see there is more clay to the soils than others in the appellation.  These are grassroots people & one can sense that immediately.  Though their winery is very small & actually located in at least 2 spots down an alley, I got strong sense of how organized & aware they are in both the vineyard & the winery.  One can tell when someone totally works a project completely from top to bottom & these are those kind of people.  I could also sense a real tenderness when they spoke about the first wine we tasted–Vino Bianco “Iris”–as it was named after their daughter.  It is 100% Erbaluce, from a just an acre or so, which is fermented in stainless steel using native yeast, after just 1 night on the skins, no malolactic done & then aged on the fine lees for 6 months.  The resulting wine had a stony minerality (reminiscent of a wine grown in quartz soils  I once tasted); was pure, rounded & a piquant, almond bitterness to the finish at 13% alcohol.  The 2018 Vespolina il Ricetto “Colline Novaresi” we tasted next was full of spice, somewhat peppery, with a lightness in the middle & very savory, minerally & very enjoyable.  The Vino Rosso “Elia” poured next was quite a surprise.  100% Barbera, 10 days on the skins then fermented & aged for 20 months in 3 year tonneaux barrels.  This was a rambunctious, masculine, hearty red wine that had obvious mojo & virility..  The 2017 “Colline Novaresi” is 100% Nebbiolo, which is fermented 1/2 in stainless & 1/2 in barrels with 18 months further aging in barrel.  Still quite masculine & savory AND so pure & honest qualities which made it compelling.  The 2015 Ghemme is 100% Nebbiolo & sees 24 months in barrels & 6 months in bottle before release.  This red has a lot more depth & mojo to its core & even more resoundingly earthy, roasty, savory & compelling.  We actually had this wine 3 times on this short trip & was quite taken each time.  Really solid wines & great people.  Yes, I would readily buy some for VINO.

The next stop was to Francesco Brigatti, another Ghemme producer, again highly recommended by Gilberto Boniperti & again that did NOT disappoint.  As a warm up, we savored a bottle of his 2016 Colline Novaresi “Mötfrei” at a small, husband & wife eatery one night at dinner.  We were entranced & the wine completely confirmed Boniperti’s high praise.  As far I could gather, Francesco is the 3rd generation & currently own 9 hectares of vineyards (6 hectares to Nebbiolo & 3 hectares mixed of Barbera, Vespolina, Uva Rara & Erbaluce) PLUS 1 hectare which they rent.  Their vineyards stretch over 3 hills–mostly moraine soils.  The Mötziflon is south-west facing with a predominance of a clay component; the Mötfrei has a southern exposure with a red sandy-loamed soil & the Campazzi is more westerly exposed and lies on a looser soil as it contains a higher percentage of sand.  Mötziflon & Mötfrei is the home turf for Nebbiolo.  When we arrived, Francesco was knee deep in unloading arriving grapes & having them crushed & destemmed.  He kindly stopped to take time for us.  Walking the vineyards & even tasting some of the grapes still on the vine clearly showed & confirmed how different the results were.   It also gave me time to better under the man behind the name.  He is a kind man, very thoughtful & respectful.  I later understood that even more, when I went to his parents’ home (adjacent to the winery) to help him carry some cheese, salumi, bread & water he graciously offered us while tasting his wines.  He was kind, gentle & so caring with his elderly parents & his mother beamed with such gratitude towards her son.  I was truly touched by the mutual respect & care they shared.  True family values.  Plus, we were so thankful for the morsels of food, as it had truly been a very long day of driving here & there, walking vineyards & tasting so many grapes & later wines.  Yes, we tasted a whole slew of his wines.  2018 Colline Novaresi “Montbello”–is his one white wine bottling–100% Erbaluce (35 year old vines), grown in more sandy soils.  After 1 night on the skins, the wine is wild yeast fermented for 2 weeks in stainless steel, pressed & then aged on fine lees for 3 months.  No ML.  Bottled in April.  I am not yet so hip on the Erbaluce grape variety, but, I do appreciate the white fruit, mineral thing with good frame & acidity….& therefore how vivacious, fresh & alive it is.  The 2018 Colline Novaresi “Selvalunga”–is uniquely 100% Uva Rara, done in stainless steel for 6 months & NO stems.  It has really pretty, enticing aromatics with prominent strawberry, cranberry, cherry fruit–very light, ethereal, minerally & upbeat.  In comparison, the 2018 Colline Novaresi “Maria”–is 100% Vespolina & therefore has more apparent acidity, tannins, alcohol & spice–clove, cinnamon & light pepper.  In comparison, the 2018 Colline Novaresi “Campazzi”–is 100% Barbera, aged for 6 months in old 500 liter tonneaux barrels to help round out & frame the Barbera’s wild side.  More browning in color to the edge, the core is more fruity, juicy, delicious & much more charming in personality.  We then tried the 2016 Colline Novaresi “Mötziflon”–85% Nebbiolo (20 to 35 year old vines grown in more clay soils), 10% Vespolina & 5% Uva Rara which is aged for 20 months in old, 3600 liter Slavonian oak.  It certainly had more pedigree & way more bravado–quite masculine, acidic, tannic with lots of tar & savory notes.  In comparison the 2016 Colline Novaresi “Mötfrei” is 100% Nebbiolo (30 year old vines planted in more sandy soils) & was therefore more gentle, though still very masculine, virile & structured.  The 2013 Ghemme is 100% Nebbiolo grown in more clay soils, fermented & aged on the skins for 3 months in concrete & then after ML, aged for 24 months in 2000 liter barrels.  This wine certainly had much more grandeur & class, although still quite macho & vehemently structured. 

At the end of the day, we paid a visit to Antichi Vignetti di Cantalupo, also in Ghemme.  While historically the roots can be traced back to the late 1500’s, the vines & winery really started in 1969, the same year Ghemme was granted DOC.  This is certainly one of the larger wineries we visited on this trip in physical size, owning 35 hectares of vineyards & producing roughly 15,000 cases spread out through 12 different wines/bottlings.  The majority of their plantings is Nebbiolo (90%), grown in moraine-clay soils (the core planted in 1977).  Sadly it was way too rainy to visit vineyards, but we were so fortunate to taste many different wines.  The Nebbiolo is aged only in barrels–a combination of 3000 liters, 6000 liters (Slavonian, 40 years in age) & some in 228 liter barrique.  The standout of their current releases was the 2011 Cantalupo Ghemme “‘Collis Breclemae”, a single, steep, very rocky vineyard–100% Nebbiolo raised in those large Slavonian oak barrels for 36 months.  Imagine being 8 years old & their current release!  The wine was surprisingly harmonious, especially in comparison to most of what we had been previously tasting.  We loved its savoriness, texture & harmony.  Being more pure & “clean” in style, this will win over lots of new wine friends.

Nov
20

Alto Piemonte–Day 2 Fara & Boca

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Our next stop was at Boniperti in the town of Barengo.  As we planned our trip, Gilberto Boniperti, was one of the first to confirm a visit.  He was also very helpful in introducing us to Cristiano Garella, who also consults for this winery AND also helped open the door to a few other producers–Mazzoni & Francesco Brigatti (more on each later) to name 2.  Gilberto owns but 4 hectares of vines–2 1/2 hectares of Nebbiolo (6 different “clones”), 1 hectare of Vespolina & 1/2 a hectare of Barbera.  His centerpiece wine is Fara, a village along the “tongue” shaped hills of Fara, Sizzano & Ghemme with similar soils & growing conditions.  Fara, he says has but 5 producers today, is warmer than Boca or Gattinara.  His soils have a strong iron component which creates the “blood” character of his wine.  During a dinner we had one night with Cristiano & Gilberto, I found him to be a warm, thoughtful, sensitive man who was so straightforward in a very kind, gracious manner.  He had wisdom & a depth of knowledge way beyond his years & approached it all in a very humble, almost unassuming style.  When walking his vineyard, one could see he tended his vines with care.  I was thrilled to hear, his Fara just received a Tres Bicchieri award from Gambero Rosso–a HUGE achievement.  Imagine being highlighted in the Nebbiolo world ahead of many, many of the biggest, most prestigious names of Barolo & Barbaresco producers by the TOP Italian wine & food magazine.  HUGE….& I would wholeheartedly say deservedly so.  During our stay in the area, we had previously tasted his 2016 Barblin “Colline Novaresi”–100% Barbera, fermented in stainless steel with NO stems.  We loved its polish, transparency, refinement, balance & seamless texture.  Yes, I would definitely buy some for VINO.  In addition, with him, he graciously let us taste his 2017 Barblin, 2017 “Favolalunga” 100% Vespolina)–spicy, easy, softer, more gentle red; his NV Rosadisera Rose (100% Nebbiolo)–very pale pink in hue, NO ML–pure, stony (charcoal), tangy with a pungent bitter almond to the finish; his 2017 “Carlin”–(100% Nebbiolo Colline Novaresi)–with its characteristic rose petal, stony, savory nuances done with a much gentler, masterful touch. His Fara is undeniably standout & deftly shows why he is one of the chosen, New Age winemaking stars of northern Piemonte.  Gilberto certainly has a great touch & feel for his vineyards, grapes & his wines & is one to keep an eye out for.   PLUS, he is a really nice guy!

Our next visit was at Carlone, located in the Boca municipality.  Davide Carlone has quite a commanding personality & presence.  He is a strong leader & has the fire & perseverance to get his vision done.  He is a warrior.  This was very evident on our visit, as he orchestrated the last of his harvest (solely done by family & friends) at the last day, before the forecasted, looming

 

 

 

 

thunderstorms to hit the next morning.  While all of that going on, the grapes were being unloaded at the winery down the hill & fermentations already happening with grapes picked earlier.  Yes, it was very busy time.  We were so thankful that he stopped & made time for us both in the vineyard & insisting that we try his wines.  (This is yet another Cristiano Garella consulting project & Cristiano did make another appearance for us there–walking the vineyard, tasting grapes & spot  inspecting the grape selection process & the winemaking tasks).  Davide currently has roughly 10 hectares of vineyards, (& is also planning to plant the 2.5 hecatres above his current vineyard–on a much steeper & rockier terrain).  His main sites are at higher, cooler elevation–1350 feet–a combination of porphyric sand & porphyry rock (more tannins).  He prefers those east AND southeast facing.  As far as I could tell, Carlone has at least 7 different Nebbiolo vine selections, each having very different & unique character, as we munched on the grapes still on the vine ready to be picked.  (clone #71–1970’s from Langhe–had really good fruit & acid balance; #423–higher acidity, more refinement & more aromatics; #66–Lampia from the 70’s–higher yields, bigger bunches, less intensity in the skins; #185–Chiavennasca, Valtellina–juicy, higher acidity & lovely aromatics; #308–medium small grapes, savory & aromatic & #142–Altare/La Spinetta 1990’s–sweeter, more viscous, earthy aromatics).    Of all of the wineries we visited, he certainly was the last to harvest, which at least partially explains why his resulting wines are more forward, generous & textural.  We were also quite taken with all of his Slavonian oak barrels of different sizes.    His wines were quite stunning, classy, quite polished, seamless & well worth seeking out. Yes siree, his style of Boca is one that will attract much attention, win many accolades & therefore create droves of followers from the sommelier community without being overdone or blatant.  I should also add, that several of the “barrel samples” Davide let us taste from 2017 & 2018 featured the #423 “clone of Nebbiolo with some Vespolina added & will be aged for at least 24 months in 2540 liter barrels.  I don’t think that was by coincidence.

Another Boca winery we were able to visit (though on a different day) was Poderi ai Valloni.  I list it here for geographic convenience for the reader, since they too are located in Boca.  There are but 5 towns in the municipality of Boca & only 12 producers.  Poderi ai Valloni sits at the highest elevation (1650 feet)  with but 3.5 hectares of vineyards, mostly hillside. southeast to southwest facing.  These are also the oldest plantings in Boca–the majority planted in the 1960’s.  This area was once part of an ancient volcano which imploded & therefore has volcanic porphyric soils, some yellow-ish & some reddish & is actually inside a national park–Mount Fenera (2014 UNESCO–geopark).  Although I had previously heard of this estate, I would quite candidly say it was not on anyone’s TOP, “must see” visits whether in print or with the people I spoke with…..EXCEPT Marina Olwen Fogarty of Vallana wines, also based in Boca.  She insisted that I should visit Poderi ai Valloni & in hindsight I am so thankful she insisted.  It was with such an extreme pleasure to drive to the secluded hilltop estate to meet with Anna Sertorio, the current matriarch that runs their family estate.  I am in total awe of her & I have even much more espect for her after this visit.  She is so gracious, articulate charming & kind with quiet patience to my many questions.  She is totally the heart & soul of the estate, visionarily & culturally AND all with a very reverent respect for the land & her family’s legacy.  It was all so resoundingly heartfelt for me & I was so thankful to be in her presence, hear her words first hand & feel her passion & sincerity at the same time.  OMG!  What an aaamazing experience.  The estate is breathtaking in its panoramic location & view.  The vineyards have a sense of solemn serenity & in a “time stand still” setting, undulating around the curve of the hilltop it sits on…..like a perfect sculpture.  I could feel a very warm aura from the site as we walked up, down & around.  It was certified organic in 2011.  The winery itself also had quite a feel that was not scientific or laboratory like.  It was stylishly kept & yet seemed so practical.  Old concrete vats, large barrels–2000 liters, 2500 liters & 3000 liters with a stash of 3 year old, used Gaja barrique & some 300 liter & 500 liter tonneaux.  The wines were really quite charming, classy & well made.  It came as a big surprise when we found out that her winemaker is Matteo Baldin, who joined the team in 2017.  (My cousin had earlier noted his name was on the entrance gate, as we drove up).  This was the same winemaker I had tried to track down & secure an appointment with, during my pre-trip planning!  I have been told by several he is a relatively undiscovered New Age winemaking phenom I should keep an eye out on.  I really think this estate has all of the pieces in place, especially with Anna Sertorio at the helm, to be one of the real “IT” wineries of northern Piemonte.  This was such a serendipitous, truly & unexpectedly memorable visit I will treasure forever.

Our next stop was to Vallana, also well renown for their Boca wines. In the late 1950’s, I have been told this venerable, iconic Nebbiolo driven Alto Piemontese estate used to stand alongside such highly revered Barolo standouts as Giacomo Conterno & Bartolo Mascarello for producing prodigious, glorious Nebbiolo based red wines.  Antonio Vallana’s great grandchildren–Marina Olwen Fogarty & her brother Francis Bernardo Fogarty have now taken over the estate–the vineyards & the winery–& are looking to resurrect this sleeping giant.  During the pre-trip planning, this was actually the first winery I contacted because of a sampling of a bottle of 2007 Vallana Gattinara I had purchased while on a trip to the mainland U.S..  I loved its masculinity & inherent savoriness & complexities, done in a very civil, intriguing, stylish manner.  It wasn’t grand cru-esque by any means, but it was very interesting, masculine without being hard & quite stirring.  A prompt, enthusiastic & welcoming reply came back from Marina Olwen Fogarty.  Despite this would be harvest time & all of its hectic work hours, she not only welcomed us to visit their vineyards & estate, she also helped open doors to other producers, most notably Poderi ai Valloni of Boca & Antoniolo & Franchino Mauro, both of Gattinara.  Marina was a super dynamic, charismatic force of passion & Master of Wine quality knowledge.  She was so articulate & patiently & thoroughly presented all of the details in a way that we all got it……..a rare combination.  Curiously she spoke with a heavy British accent, despite being born & raised in the area.  (Her father was British, her mother was a Vallana–which explained it all).  This estate was founded in 1937 & currently has 3 hectares in Boca (several small, high elevation parcels of super rocky soils with very little topsoil, planted in 1970’s), & 1 hectare in Gattinara (replanted in the 1960’s/1970’s).  (She also took us to see a small museum display which showed how a super volcano imploded resulting in a myriad of soils–granite, kinzigite, gabro foliate, peridotite & milonite–one of the few spots on earth with so many different soils.  In addition over the years there were also quite amount of seabed influence as well).  All quite interesting & telltale.  As we walked one of their Boca crus, one could readily see how thin the topsoil was & how incredibly rocky the site was.  Because it had rained hard the night before & during the morning, the sand mix was also quite evident & prevalent, because of how well & quickly it drained.  I was sad to hear that they lost 50% of their crop this year due to foraging by the wild animals, a malady that was true in all of the Alto Piemontese regions (& also Liguria), which has sharply risen over the past 4 to 5 years.  Because of this atrocity & the fact that these animals are protected by the government, many are looking at fencing (& electrical fencing for those that can afford it) to help curtail the problem.  Marina pointed to one of her other prized, high elevation rocky parcels across the way, noting they lost nearly everything in that parcel this year.  OMG.  The wild deer, also will not only eat the grapes but may strip the vine of leaves, bark & all.  BIG challenge!  We then first tasted their 2007 Boca (70% Nebbiolo & 30% Vespolina)–18 months in large barrel, 1 year in concrete & 4 years in bottle before release.  It still was quite the untamed beast full of spice, stems, savory notes–roasted chestnuts, forest floor–& still quite tannic.  We then tried THREE of their Gattinara–2015, 2008 & 2002.  Each were quite masculine, rustic, leanly built, though hearty & savory to the core with lots of structure & forest floor nuances.  Through all of the challenges this sister-brother dynamic duo have their sights on moving this iconic estate to new stages.  Already 90% of their production is exported, which is a huge accomplishment.   The legacy continues at this estate & it seems like a new birth is underway.

Nov
17

Alto Piemonte–the introduction

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I had dreamt of visiting Alto Piemonte since my first glass of Gattinara back in the late 1970’s.  It was a old crusty bottle, which had only a partial label with no apparent vintage date to be seen.  The cork was also old school looking & was as weathered as the bottle.  The wine poured was very brick-ish/orange hued & one could easily see through it & read a written page.  The perfume was glorious, majestic & VERY haunting, which is why I remember it still today so vividly.  Yes, it was an aha moment.

It has taken almost 40 years, but I finally was able to go & visit the area. 

Alto Piemonte is today a relatively “under the radar screen” wine growing area, roughly 100 miles from the Alba, the epi-town of Barolo, Barbaresco & the more famous Piemontese wines.

One of the benefits of being 100 miles northeast of Barolo country, means a closer proximity to the Alps & specifically Mount Rosa, the second highest mountain in Europe. This of course can at least partially explain the myriad of volcanic type soils, BUT, one should also consider the overall much cooler microclimates. (If you believe the regional old adage–closer to the mountains, generally, the cooler the temperatures).

Historically, Alto Piemonte was more famous than Barolo for their red wines back in the old days.  At its peak there were roughly 40,000 hectares planted.  Today, there is maybe only 1,000 hectares of vines & the wines have since fallen into the shadow of both Barolo & Barbaresco.

One of the reasons for the sharp decline of planted acreage was the catastrophic phylloxera devastation in the mid to late 1800’s, which wiped out the vineyards.  Many chose not to continue because of the extremely high costs & intense effort it would take to replant the steep hillsides.  Adding to the decline was the departure of many who chose to instead work in the growing industrial industry, especially in the nearby city of Milan, where the work was less back breaking/strenuous & paid much more.

I was so interested & ready to delve into this very different & unique Nebbiolo world.  (I would have loved to also have explored Valtellina, but will save that for a different trip).  The grape mixings are different, as are the soils & microclimates–all generating a VERY different perspective on what Nebbiolo can be AND at much lower pricing than most Barolo or Barbaresco.

There are 7 main denominations of Alto Piemonte–Lessona, Bramaterra, Boca, Sizzano, Fara, Ghemme & Gattinara.  Each have undulating, rolling hills, the highest being around 1650 feet in elevation.  The base of the soils is volcanic with a plentitude of varying porphyric soils. 

The crown jewel native grape variety is Nebbiolo to which there is also lesser amounts of Vespolina, Croatina & Uva Rara planted.  Historically, it was the Nebbiolo of Alto Piemonte which shined, even over the southern neighbors of Barolo & Barbaresco.

Each denomination has by law a different % mix of the permitted grape varieties.

So, off we went, in search of adventure & new wine “finds”.

We left Alba originally wanting to take a slight detour to Carema, an hour & a half or so out of the way hoping to visit Ferrando, but could not get an appointment there.  It was harvest for goodness sake, so totally understandable.  (We had a bottle of their wine later & I was sorry to have missed this opportunity).  Maybe next time.

Though I was somewhat disappointed, nixing Carema off of our travel list meant we could drive directly to Alto Piemonte & thereby saving ourselves at least 3 hours.

Cheryle decided, after much digging around, to make our base in the town of Cureggio at an agriturismo named La Cappucina.  Located in a small field, it seemed more like a farm in locale, with all of the animals & the remote setting.  It was so peaceful, tranquil & it was truly a GREAT place to stay & enjoy the countryside serenity.  Interestingly, it also had, as we soon found out, the finest restaurant of the whole area by chef/owner Gianluca Zanetta & his lovely gracious wife Raffaella (who was the front of the house person).  Such incredible gracious service & attention to detail.  In addition, as we soon found out, Gianluca is also one of the foremost wine experts of the region & its wines.  He kindly gave us hours of insight & advice AND his wine selection was all of the notable wines of the area.  It really turned out to be the perfect place to stay.

I should thank my cousin Mike for his gracious, good fun company, his doing all of the driving & researching & selecting dining experiences.  And, to my wife Cheryle for her incredible searching out & plotting all of the travel courses, hotel reservations & directions.  I am so thankful also because they both have passion for seeing these kinds of vineyards, visiting & talking story with such incredible wine people & braving the vast amount of miles we drive every day in our search.

In Alto Piemonte, I also need to thank–Gianluca & Raffaella Zanetta of La Cappucina; superstar winemaking consultant Cristiano Garella & Marina Olwen Fogarty & Gilberto Boniperti for responding so quickly to our pleas & helping us open the doors to so many fantastic wine artists.  And, to all of the wineries who wholeheartedly welcomed us & took the time, at harvest, to tell us their story & share all of their insights & wisdoms.

It was a truly a most memorable trip.

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Nov
15

Alto Piemonte–Day 1 Bramaterra

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Alto Piemonte can be subdivided into 7 main denominations–a cluster of Lessona, Bramaterra, Boca, Gattinara, Ghemme, Sizzano & Fara–roughly 2 hours drive northeast of Langhe. Pre-trip, I had little idea of how compact Alto Piemonte really is.  Thankfully each destination is only about 15 to 30 minutes or less from each other.

In its hey day way back when, I read Alto Piemonte had roughly 40,000 hectares of vineyards at its height.  Today, there may be 1,000 or so hectares.  I was also told there are only about 40, maybe 50 at the most producers today within the region.  Pre-trip, I had no idea.  Still, researching & finding which vineyards & which wineries to try & visit was the challenge, as there is not a whole lot of objective information & insight out there.

One of the serendipitous breakthroughs to our pre-trip planning, however, was “hooking” up with Cristiano Garella, who happens to be the top winemaking consultant of the whole region (at least 21 projects).  I believe it was partly because of star winemaker/Tres Bicchieri awardee Gilberto Boniperti of Fara & partly because of Oliver McCrum, a prominent Berkeley based Italian wine importer.  How it really came to be, I am not sure, BUT, Cristiano paid so much attention to us & opened up so many doors & opportunities for us & we are forever thankful.

Looking back, I wonder if our trip would have been nearly as insightful & fulfilling without Cristiano & Gianluca?

As our planned visit to a producer in Lessona fell through at the last moment, we started our first day in Bramaterra.

Bramaterra is the largest denomination of the cluster with at least 7 municipalities/towns within.  The aspects, microclimates & soils therefore can differ greatly.  Our first stop was Colombera & Garella, located in Masserone, & a joint project between Giacomo Colombera & Cristiano Garella.   This estate has 2 hectares in Masserano, 1 hectare in Lessona & 5 hectares in Roasio.  What immediately caught our attention was the dark, reddish, iron rich soils of their Masserano vineyard–1 hectare of 70 year old vines & the other 1 hectare was more like 25 year old vines, at our first stop.  This is quite different from many of the other Bramaterra vineyards & their porphyry-sand mixed soils we saw & walked.  The Colombera & Garella 2016 Bramaterra (80% Nebbiolo, 10% each of Vespolina & Croatina) therefore has more dark, base notes with a “blood” like nuance to its core & aroma.  Their wines were very impressive–more civil, balanced, well textured & sultry.  I would also say, this estate will only be getting better & better moving forward with the inclusion of Cristiano Garella’s expertise.  Their special soil is a GREAT start.   

Cristiano made a quick stop, still in Bramaterra, to show us how different the soils can be in the DOC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our next stop was to Le Pianelle, yet another Cristiano Garella project.  There are actually 5 partners–Dieter Heuskel, Peter Dipoli, working partners–Fabio, Andrea & Cristiano.  They vineyards are mostly in Bramaterra, one in the town of Brusnengo–porphyry-sand soils, replanted in 2007 & one in Roasio–50 year old vines in the vertically remote hills (closer to the mountains & therefore much cooler) at 1600 feet in elevation & red porphyry & gravel soils, some sand & virtually no clay.  Their 2016 Bramaterra red (80% Nebbiolo, 10% each of Vespolina & Croatina) was so intriguingly savory–more base notes of earth, roasted chestnuts, worn saddle leather, with a light touch of smoke & musk.  It was very masculine, virile yet still so well balanced & surprisingly polished.  This is certainly another estate on the rise & worth keeping an eye out for.  It was a terrific, memorable opportunity to be there at harvest, so we could try grapes still on the vine, different grape juice as they were fermenting & some from other vintages.

 

Our next stop, thanks again in kind, to Cristiano, was at Antoniotti, also in Bramaterra.  It was not originally on our pre-trip radar screen, but with HUGE endorsements from Cristiano Garella & Gianluca Zanetta at La Cappucina, we were so thankful Cristiano made a visit possible, eventhough it was harvest.  This truly iconic estate was founded in 1861 & is currently run by Odilio (father), & his son Mattia who has recently joined his father full time..  They own but 5.5 hectares of vines, including Martinazzi Cru” a breathtaking, steep, rocky (volcanic porphyry–low organic matter) Bramaterra hillside plus 1 hectare of another steep hillside of 70 year old vines across the way.  (His latest vineyard addition is 1 hectare planted above on the steepest, rockiest site.  The vines are only 2 years old & I am really anxious to taste what this parcel will produce).  Odilio, now 77 years young in age, is undeniably from the old school of the region–its grass roots thoughts, philosophies & traditional minded ways, both in the vineyard & the winery.  I was totally taken by this wise, very thoughtful wine “yoda” & his young, energetic, uplifting son Mattia.  (It thankfully seems, we always seem to run across such a wine maestro/vigneron like this in every Old World wine region we visit).  Although he prudently uses stainless steel in his winemaking, he seems to prefer old concrete (1901) totally underground & older, large oak (1250 liters, & 1700 liters) for his aging.  (His Bramaterra, for instance, is typically 70% Nebbiolo, 7% Vespolina, 20% Croatina & 3% Uva Rara, aged for 30 months in such vessels!).  Odilio Antoniotti produces glorious Bramaterra–something truly special, personal & soulful.  Stylistically, this wine reminds me of those from but a small handful of Barolo-meisters back in the 1960’s & 1970’s.  This is definitely a wine to search out!  I left Odilio with a most touching memory.  While I asked Mattia all of these questions about the vineyards, the vines, the winemaking, while we were in the vineyard, Odilio was off to the side, trying to break open one of the rocks in his vineyard.  He finally succeeded after 20 minutes or so of working it.  He then proudly showed us the core of the rock, which showed some kind of red quartz & smatterings of limestone, which was unlike anything else I saw in Alto Piemonte.  He beamed as a father would when showing his newborn baby.  I will always remember this special moment, as it will remind me how it was this soil, HIS soil, which this 77 year old true wine master treasured & proudly showed us.  Incredible!

Yes, what an incredible day this really was.

In the planning of our latest trip to Italy we set our sights on two specific & unique winegrowing niches of the country’s western coast–Dolceacqua on the northwestern extreme of Liguria & Alto Piemonte to the northeast of Alba.  Just a short time previously, I was really taken, bordering entranced with several of the Rossese di Dolceacqua wines I tasted from this DOC (officially recognized in 1972), including the Tenuta Anfosso single parcel designated bottlings–Poggio Pini & Luvaira AND the single parcel bottlings–Beragna & Galeae–from Ka’ Manciné.  They were a far cry from Rossese based red wines I had had from other parts of Liguria AND VERY different from the Tibouren (supposedly the same grape variety or somehow related) from Provence, right around the corner in southern France.  In short, they were like NO other red wine I had previously encountered.

I then started researching more into this appellation & its wines.  Dolceacqua is located in the far reaches of northwest Liguria, only 10 to 15 kilometers or so away from Monaco & a bit farther from southern France.  It is tucked away in the hills & valleys 15 kilometers or so away from the coastline, but is still greatly influenced by the cool ocean winds, because of the channeling running hills configuration.  I read once there were roughly 3000 hectares planted pre-phylloxera, but today only 70 to 90 hectares remain.  The steep, labor intensive hillsides, the vertically remote locations, the imposing lack of water & the shocking, increasing plight of wild animal issues (eating of plants, vine leaves & grapes), bordering maniacal, have made many give up on their parcels.  Who, after all, would want to work so hard with so little return in the end.  Still, pictures of the almost mythically steep vineyards, then convinced me that this is where we needed to go, in lieu of our originally thought of Bierzo & Ribera Sacre of northwestern Spain.

 

Off we went on our next wine adventure with my cousin Mike & my wife Cheryle. 

The first stop was to Ka’ Manciné & his Beragna vineyard.  We met in one of the small towns located down below in a parking lot.  As we soon discovered, there was NO way, we would ever find these remote vineyards up in the mountains ourselves.  It was a pleasure to finally shake hands with Ka’ Manciné owner/winemaker Maurizio Anfosso.  Joining him, in an effort to make our Dolceacqua visit more convenient for us, was his cousin Alessandro Anfosso of Tenuta Anfosso, our next scheduled visit.

Maurizio is the 3rd generation of his family to run this small 3 hectare estate.  His 1.5 hectare, single parcel, Beragna was planted in 1864 & many of the vines still on their own roots.  Breathtakingly steep, this venerable site is unusually north facing.   While so many of other sites we could see were south to southwest facing to capture a more full sun exposure, I think Beragna’s north facing seems better suited for today’s increasing sun warming & allows a more necessary, longer hang time. Seeing the flysch/schist influenced soils & feeling the continual cooling coastal breezes at the 400 meter elevation AND tasting the grapes as we walked the site gave us a much more complete understanding of the resulting wines AND what its takes to grow & produce these wines. 

The 1 1/2 hectare Galeae parcel, on the other hand, was planted in 1905, with significant replanting done in 1998.  Equally high in elevation, southeast facing & with some limestone to the flysch soil mix resulted in wines more ethereal in the nose & more structure & masculinity on the palate.

With my first taste, I was really taken with the Ka’ Manciné wines, especially their Beragna & Galeae single parcel wines.  Each were so wonderfully & intoxicatingly savory in their core with a faintly similar kind of earthy pungency one experiences with porcini mushrooms & even truffle, at least to a certain degree.  On this visit, interestingly, I discovered that Ka’ Manciné, in comparison to the others, stylistically produces red wines (roughly 20% whole cluster) with more transparency, refinement & delicate nuance than the others we visited & tasted during the 2 days, as well as the wines we purchased at the local restaurants & town wine store.

We were also quite taken with Maurizio Anfosso.  He was jovial, good fun & had a very outgoing, welcoming charm & was very & seemingly unassumingly passionate about his vineyards & his wines. One could also readily see the respect that both his cousin Alessandro Anfosso & later Erica of Perrino Testa Longa reverently had for him.  It was a great & truly memorable visit! 

The next stop was the at Tenuta Anfosso.  This 6 generation run estate is currently operated by Alessandro Anfosso.  Alessandro is much more reserved than Maurizio but quite charming & welcoming nonetheless.  He was the straight man & Maurizio the character of the duo.  He owns & farms 5.5 hectares of incredible, steep, hillside parcels–Luvaira–2.5 hectares planted in 1905 & some in 2004, Poggio Pini–2 hectares planted in 1888 & Fulavin–1 hectare planted in 1977 & 1998.  The vineyards also feature flysch soils (“flysch is a sedimentary rock consisting of alternating strata of marl and sandstone; proportions of clay and sand vary between each vineyard, and within each vineyard“).  The common practice here is roughly 50% whole cluster with fermentation & aging in stainless steel & bottle–Fulavin–12 to 13 months in stainless & 4 to 5 months in bottle & for Poggio Pini & Luvaira–more like 17 to 18 months in stainless steel & 7 to 8 months in bottle before release.   The wines in comparison to Ka’ Manciné are much more masculine with more “flesh on the bone” & more vehement structure.  The Poggio Pini was wonderfully savory & gloriously vinous–impressive to say the least.  The Luvaira bottling was much more showy–Burgundian/compost like funk, mega savory, rounder, fuller with a pillowy middle.  Alessandro also produces a small amount of Rossese Blanc (150 to 170 years old, own rooted, intermittently scattered throughout the Poggio Pini vineyard).  He insists that the Blanc is not directly related to the red Rossese–showing us how the leaves, stems & grapes differ in sight & taste. 

We were so thankful for all of the time these two generously gave us & patiently they explained & shared all of their knowledge.  It was so immediately evident they are entirely all about the vineyard & how they cultivate what these special, unique vineyards want to say.

 

Both of these vignerons highly recommended that we go to visit Perrino Testa Longa, another standout producer of the DOC founded in 1961.  Run by (uncle) Nino & (niece) Erica, this is a truly garagiste with 2 hectares of vineyards (60% Rossese & 40% Vermentino) & a typical production of 300 cases of wine.  The soils are also flysch with every small parcel having some slightly different.  The vines are grouped–70 to 75 years; 40 to 45 years; 20 years & the newest parcel, but 3 years in age.  They produce but 2 wines–a Rossese di Dolceacqua & a Vermentino–foot pressed, 100% whole clusters for the red, fermented & aged in 6 to 7 year old barrels using native yeasts, with NO temperature control & fermented dry.  There is a small amount of SO2 used from November to June to stabilize the wines AND none used at harvest or bottling.  Upon first whiff, one can immediately identify, these are done in the more natural minded genre, really growing in popularity amongst the world’s sommelier community. 

Their one white wine was quite “orange” in style–full of orange character but still quite standout in quality.  The 2018 Rossese di Dolceacqua red was quite macho/masculine, wild & wooly reminiscent in style of Giovanni Montisci of Sardegna (quite the compliment) though with more funk & VA.  We were really taken.  The 2011 was more about roasted/savory character with chocolate, humus & spice nuances.  At 8 years old, it was still so youthful in the core, along with the remarkable development in the nose.  The 1983 was quite the adventure–still VERY fresh & alive in the core with a resounding savory, stony base–lean in the fruit department ( as opposed to juicy in the younger versions), a firm acid structure & moderate, intricate tannins in the finish.  I loved the wine & was quite surprised it was 36 years in age.

During our 2 day visit to the area, we were able to taste several “other” wines from the area as well.  One, which we purchased from a small, very good wine store in the newer part of town, had a production was but roughly 360 bottles (30 cases) & yet another which we thought was quite delicious & charming Terre Bianche (at a restaurant in the old medieval, hillside town of Aprecale) was very delightful.  It was undeniable however, to me that Ka’ Manciné, Tenuta Anfosso & Perrino Testa Longa were the real standouts.

Our visit to Dolceacqua though brief, provided us with much more insight than I could have ever wished.  The wines were solid, so very unique, interesting, savory & truly unlike anything else I have experienced.  I was really taken with their grass roots authenticity & character. The vineyards & vertically remote countryside, as well as the people is something I will treasure remembering forever.

What a visit!!!!!!

Varigotti is a small town located in a niche of Liguria, not far from Finale Liguria.  It essentially has one main thoroughfare which runs through with narrow streets which turn off now & then & head towards the hills away from the picturesque beach which fronts the ocean there.  The sea air fills the air.

Punta Crena is a small family owned & operated winery just a few hundred feet off of the main road as one heads towards the hills.  This is where the family dwelling AND the winery is located.  Four siblings now run this venerable 500 year old estate–the eldest as winemaker ((Tommaso); one in charge of sales (Paolo), a sister in charge of admin (Anna) & one who helps all of the above (Nicola).  I found this family & their values as being seemingly timeless in how they go about their business.   It is truly a family run endeavor. 

We first took a short walk down the road fronting their winery complex.  Paolo showed us the 4 distinct soils which permeate their vineyards–quartzite, dolomitic limestone,a dark gray soil with a greenish edge & red clay.

Being they were harvesting & load after load of fruit continuously started rolling in, Paolo’s son, Filippo took us up into the hills to walk their vertically remote vineyards.  The vineyards were truly breathtaking & at high altitudes with some having incredible panoramic views of the coastline & others hidden in various nooks & crannies high up.  In each case, I felt like I was in a time warp & day dreamed of this family doing many of their tasks just as their forefathers had. 

I was also quite taken by the scents of the plethora of wild herbs & shrub which surround each of the small parcels of vines scattered here & there. 

The soils varied with each site as did the selected grape vines that were planted.  I was amazed at their plantings of different heritage grapes–Mataòssu, Lumassina (a cousin to Mataòssu); Vermentino & Pigato (which are somehow directly related to each other) for white wines.  On the red side, their focus on 3 indigenous grape varieties–Crovino, Rossese & a small amount of Barbarossa, each planted in various nooks & crannies scattered here & there in the hills directly above the winery & home.  During this family’s 500 year tenure here, they acquired various parcels as they became available, which at least partially explains how spread out their plantings are throughout the hillside.  I am & have been an avid fan of their Mataòssu bottlings, something they specialize in.  It combines the minerality from the soils with a perk of salinity, I imagine comes from the sea down below & merely 1200 meters away.

Visually, the Pigato grape variety is quite striking in its coloring.  They say the name derives from the word pighe, which means freckles in their dialect.  Tasting the ripen grape provided me with much insight into their finished wine.  The juice itself has very assertive flavors, a thicker viscosity & very pungent, piquant bitterness to the finish.  In comparison, Vermentino seems much rounder & juicy—somewhat more tame.  Lumassina seems almost neutral in comparison.  I find the finished wine to be the most pliable in terms of its affinity to foods, especially creating magic with the deep fried seafood fritti of the area. The spumante (sparkling) rendition is especially lively, completely refreshing for warm weather sipping & the lunch dining table.  Fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel, these wines are so tasty & vivacious right out of gates.  I would add to that, however, with 2 or 3 years of bottle age, the wines seem rounder & the terroir shines through more clearly.

On the red wine side, interestingly in the vineyards, the Crovino grape tasted the most structured, unyielding & tannic, in comparison to the Rossese & Barbarossa grapes.  Paolo was kind enough to open & share a magnum of his 2011 Cruvin “Colline Savonesi” (produced from the Corvino grape variety) at dinner on the first night.  I was quite taken with it, that’s for sure.  It was masculine,, earth laden, musky, with wild character of its wild birthplace  & so intriguingly savory in its core.   It certainly was a totally unexpected treat & gave me a completely new perspective on what this grape AND this wine could be.  Plus, I couldn’t believe this wine was fermented & aged in stainless (on its lees). 

This a great, truly memorable visit, one I had dreamed about for a long time.  Having said that, it turned out to be way more inspirational & invigorating than I could ever have imagined or hope for.  It really is about a family, their 500 year old home turf, their appreciation & respect for their land (we could readily see the disdain on Filippo’s face to bikers traversing the hills AND the homes of wealthier people starting to invade the area & build more elaborately) & how the family all jump in to do their “chores” in the running of this estate.  I love how they do so with such pride, appreciation & respect, even the young children.  It was something special to experience.  Thank you all.

Oct
05

Not all Italian Wines are Created Equal

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The other night a guest in VINO, asked if I would recommend and serve a bottle of Italian white wine for their dinner and I had to think about it for some time.   Italy offers very diverse soils, vineyard aspects and micro climates from the north down to Sicily AND with each region having their own selection of indigenous vines. As you can imagine, this can create quite a comprehensive matrix of potential selections to choose from. So, to start you down the road of discovering and better understanding the diversity of Italian white wines, we will serve TWO sets of white wines—one from an island in south Italy just above Sicily and the other set from the high altitudes of the mountainous northeast corner of Italy. Yes, this will be quite the contrast AND quite the learning opportunity. 

Salina is part of the Aeolian Islands, just north of Sicily. As with Sicily, the climate is warm, which is thankfully cooled by the strong sea breezes. The soils are volcanic in origin and the sea very nearby, which influence the smell and taste of each wine significantly.

2017 Virgona Salina Bianco–Mostly produced from the Inzolia and Cataratto grape varieties (indigenous to Sicily).  I would also say, there is a dollop of Malvasia, too.  This rendition is really about minerality, salinity & more delicate aromatics. 

2016 Caravaglio Malvasia Secco “Salina Bianco”–This Salina Bianco is produced mainly from the Malvasia grape variety & showcases a much more aromatic, uplifting character, alongside the innate stoniness and salinity with a bitter almond finish.

 

Alto Adige is located in the northeast mountains of Italy, bordered by Switzerland and Austria, with Germany just north. There are all kinds of vineyard aspects/altitudes to be found within this winegrowing region, but the finest white wines seem to come from the heart of Bolzano. The high altitudes and crazy collection of volcanic and glacieral soils, which is then compounded by the wide diversity of different vines planted, potentially create a myriad of very different, dazzling, riveting white wines. 

2017 Cantina Terlan Pinot BiancoAlto Adige–An absolutely riveting, uplifting white wine, which provides an unforgettable wine experience. Once you have a sip, you will remember it forever.

2017 Valle Isarco Kerner “Eisacktal Südtirol–Kerner is a more aromatic grape variety which is a much more aromatic white wine, uplifting because of its perfume/minerality collaboration.

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After a quick lunch at El Palmar restaurant in Lompoc (highly recommended by several winemakers), we jumped in our cars & headed back north to the Santa Maria Valley.  I just wanted to make sure the Hawaii gang had a chance to see first hand & walk the iconic Bien Nacido Vineyard.

We met long time Au Bon Climat associate winemaker Jim Adelman at their winemaking facility, which is located in the Bien Nacido vineyard.   (By the way, I was happy to hear that Frank Ostini & Gray Hartley of Hitching Post have moved their winemaking operation back to this winemaking facility).  Who better to show us?  I believe this can give a very & different perspective on the hows & whys of a wine, especially if you do so with the right kind of winemaker.

After tasting a few wines just to whet the palate (note: their wines truly are some of the very finest out of California AND the winemaking has never been better.  They are in the zone!), we jumped in the cars & headed to different parts of this nearly 900 acre vineyard. 

The first stop was the iconic K Block, which has been the source to Au Bon Climat’s Bien Nacido Chardonnay for decades.  The vines were planted in 1973 & are still on their own roots.  The resulting wine has mesmerizing minerality & dazzling dynamics in its youth with incredible, though seemingly effortlessly focused intensity, concentration & vivid, riveting acidity.  I am not sure how many people really understand what an outstanding a wine this bottling typically is, especially since it is frequently only rated 88 to 92 points by the wine media.  I would however say to that, we had a bottle of the 1991 BLIND recently & most of the tasters thought it to be French white Burgundy of Cru quality.  While many Californian wines may age, this one definitely gets better with age & is truly worth the wait.  (I should mention here that the Au Bon Climat Chardonnay from the Sanford Benedict vineyard is also one of the very top Chardonnays out of California too & well worth seeking out!)

We jumped back in the car to check out the world renown Q & N Pinot Noir Blocks (mostly planted in 1973 & own rooted; although the inter-row plantings were planted in the mid 90’s with Dijon clones).  Slightly & gradually ascending from the floor vineyards reminiscent to the Crus of Burgundy, there is a VERY long waiting list of winemakers who can only up to this point dream of getting grapes from these two parcels.  I was absolutely shocked to see that roughly 5 acres of each parcel had been uprooted & now lay fallow.  What?  How can this be?  My questions were answered when seeing the large amounts of red/orange colored vine leaves, caused by the malady known as Red Blotch, spreading in the blocks below.  Sadly, in the next few years these 2 truly historic, iconic parcels & its old, own rooted, noteworthy vines, will all have to be replanted.  I was totally shocked at this thought & greatly saddened.  I have had many REALLY terrific wines from these old vines & I felt like I was saying goodbye to them for the last time.  Tragic to say the least.  (sorry, my pictures for these didn’t turn out so good).

Lying right above Q & N Blocks across the dirt vineyard road is Block 2, a parcel planted for Au Bon Climat in the mid-1990’s.  Slightly more elevated & more naked to the coastal winds, this parcel has a bunch of different Pinot vines planted, including a small amount of Pinot Meunier.  The wines I have tasted from Au Bon Climat using these grapes are also very intriguing & even more beguiling than those from Q & N Block, though certainly not as rich & vinous.  With the fading of N & Q, however, I am sure there will be a long waiting list for these grapes too.

Off in the distance, we could see W Block, another one of the very noteworthy vineyard sources of California for Chardonnay.  In fact, many more winemakers today are clamoring for this fruit over all of the others to produce Chardonnay.  The vines were also planted in 1973 on its own roots, in soils that once was a river bed–therefore much more gravelly/shale than the sandy loam commonly found in the other renown Chardonnay parcels of Bien Nacido. 

We then took a trek to the newer (late 90’s early to mid 2000’s) plantings on top of the hill–most notably X & Z Blocks, the Nebbiolo block & Block 11.  This is a really different grape growing zone & it normally shows in the quality of the fruit they bear.  Quite dramatic to say the least.  Tasting the ripening grapes was a terrific learning opportunity, especially in contrast to what we tasted up in Paso Robles.

In ALL cases, the ambient temperatures were MUCH cooler (higher 70’s to mid 80’s, not considering the wind chill factor) during the day than what we experienced anywhere else during this trip.  Coupled with the various soils, this made for a lot of insight into what can be in the wines.

Thank you Jim Adelman for a terrific visit & vineyard tour. 

Before driving back to our hotel in Buellton (45 minutes south), on the way out & back to catch the highway, I just had to show the Hawaii gang, the Gold Coast Vineyard, a 5 minute drive from Bien Nacido & closer to the ocean.  (one can clearly see Bien Nacido Vineyard in the distance in the picture to the right).  This is the home vineyard for the Costa de Oro wines AND the CF Pinot Noir.  The soils are also quite sandy loam there.  The main core of vines (old California heritage clone 4 for Chardonnay & the Martini heritage vine for Pinot Noir), were planted in 1989, 90 & 91.  Located up on a mesa, the vines get continually pounded by the cool ocean winds which, along with the more meager soils, greatly affects the vigor of the vines.  I really love how transparent, elegant, well textured, pretty AND personal the resulting wines can be.  I also wanted to reiterate what truly remarkable values they are given their reasonable pricing.

 

We then made a dinner stop at Industrial Eats in Buellton, a restaurant highly recommended to us by many people.

 

 

After dinner, since it was still light outside, I took the gang for a drive to see the other side of the Santa Rita Hills “horseshoe configuration”, which included driving by Melville, Babcock, Clos Pepe, Huber, Hapgood (we had seen wine renown winemaker Greg Brewer earlier as we were leaving lunch.  Wish we had the time to stop by for a quick taste.), Zotovich, Ampelos & Hilliard Bruce in the distance.  We stopped a couple of times, so everyone could see the soils & feel the gusting wind, both integral influences to the vine of this area. 

We then took a drive out so everyone could see Happy Canyon farther east just to get a feel of that region too.

The next morning, as we headed down to LA, we made one last stop down in Ojai, home to winemaking maestro Adam Tolmach & his Ojai wines.  Here was a chance for all to spend some time listening to one of the legendary wine “yodas” of all time, while tasting some of his wines out of barrel.  Adam was one of the 2 founding winemakers/owners of Au Bon Climat, whom both Gary Burk of Costa de Oro & Jim Adelman worked for, along with equally legendary Jim Clendenen.  When they decided to split up, Clendenen kept Au Bon Climat & Tolmach concentrated on his Ojai label.  How often does one get to talk story with an icon like this?  Plus, to view our Santa Barbara trip from another perspective, we tasted a bunch of barrel samples, including wines from the Puerta del Mar AND various blocks of Bien Nacido, Adam has been working with since the early to mid 1990’s–I Block for Chardonnay (planted in 1973 & own rooted); Q Block for Pinot Noir (also planted in 1973 & own rooted) & the Syrah from Z Block (planted in the mid 90’s) up on the top of the hill, which we had walked & tasted the grapes off the vine.  Amazing wines!!!!!!!  I really would say it was very clear to me that Adam Tolmach is making better wines than ever before AND they are still some of the very best out of California .  Kudos young man & thank you!  Also much mahalo to Fabien Castel too!

A group of us from Hawaii were in Paso Robles attending the 4 day, SOMM Camp, put on by The SOMM Journal.  This truly was some kind of event.

On our way south, eventually headed to Los Angeles to catch a plane back to Hawaii, we made a one day stop down in the Santa Barbara appellation, so I could show the visiting Hawaii based younger wine turks some of what I consider to be standout vineyards.  For at least a couple of them, it was their first trip to both Paso Robles & now Santa Barbara.  Because I believe the old adage a picture is worth a 1,000 words, I am hoping each will remember these vineyard sites, the differing climate & their soils well into the future.  It was a start. 

We actually left Paso Robles the night before after having a wonderful dinner with Karl Wittstrom, Amanda Wittstrom Higgins, Stewart Cameron (all from Ancient Peaks winery) & visiting Neyers/Camino winemaker Tadeo Borchardt at The Range, a very well known restaurant down in the town of Santa Margarita.  (FYI–We had asked this chef, Cheyne Jackson, to do a “Taste of Paso Robles” luncheon at the January 2019 Wine Speak event along with noted wine journalist/long time,  highly respected wine professional Randy Caparoso & legendary Master Sommelier Fred Dame.  We were therefore somewhat familiar with his style of cooking which peaked our interest plus we just wanted to stop by to say hello).  It was a wonderful evening with some really cool wines, which Tadeo & Amanda had brought along, PLUS some steaks Karl had brought from his own ranch.  Amazing!

We travel at night to our next destination like this so we don’t have to fight any traffic or encounter any unforeseen circumstances, which might make us late.  So, we spent the night in Buellton, right in the core of the Santa Barbara appellation.  When we got there, it was like 65 to 68 degrees.  And this is still August!  It had been a long 4 days, so we planned to get a really good night’s sleep, as the next day would also be long & arduous.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, which included a young man pouring his hamburger gravy into the waffle maker–I didn’t know what that was about–but it sure created some fervor, we headed out to the Ballard Canyon, to meet up with winemaking phenom Matt Dees (Jonata/The Hilt/The Paring).  Even though they were already harvesting some grapes & at the same time building a new winery, he graciously still made the time for us.  I asked Matt because he has the knowledge/insights of the Jonata, Sanford & Benedict, Radian, Bentrock & Puerta del Mar vineyards.  PLUS, he is undoubtedly one of the top winemakers out of California.

Our first stop was Jonata, which is located in the Ballard Canyon with neighboring sites–Beckman & Stolpman on 2 sides. 

Ballard Canyon is generally warmer than either the Santa Rita Hills to the west AND the Santa Maria Valley to the north (& slightly west).  To date, it has been very hospitable to grape varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet (both Franc & Sauvignon) & surprisingly Sangiovese.  Sadly, it has inexplicably been surprisingly slow to gain the full media attention & notoriety it so deserves. 

While touring the area back in perhaps the late 90’s, I remember seeing them clearing the land which was to be Jonata.  What I found intriguing was in contrast to the limestone one sees at the neighboring Stolpman, Jonata is really inundated with sand.  Lots of sand.

With the interest perked, I started contacting everyone I knew in the Santa Barbara region, to see if they could open the door to this project.  I just wanted to see who was behind it & what the vision was.  NO answers.  I soon found out, Jonata was the sister project of Screaming Eagle of the Napa Valley up north.  So, I started blindly writing to Screaming Eagle.  NO luck.  Dead silence.

Then one year when I was a speaker at the Hospice de Rhone festival in Paso Robles, the person helping the event with their PR, Dan Friedman, stopped by our table at the pre-event shindig for media & winemakers with some bottles in hand.  They were all from Jonata.  I was shell shocked.  After all of the efforts on trying to contact someone on these wines, they were now serendipitously sitting in front of me.  I asked Dan how he got them.  He said Robert Parker had been there earlier in the morning to taste them.  OMG.  After tasting through them, I knew they would receive favorable, high scores.  I then thought now that Parker had tasted them, I had a 6 to 8 week window to try & get them before he published his reviews.

As it turned out, I recall, Parker actually wrote about them & published his review in only a 3 or 4 week turn around.  While I had had a little bit of success with someone connected with Screaming Eagle in the Napa Valley (sister project to Jonata), once the reviews & high praise was published, I thought there was no way, we would get some of the miniscule amounts of wines they produced in 2004.

Well, as it turned out we in fact were able to a couple of cases of this & a couple more cases of that & were so thankful.

After, we were also able to get some 2006 wines too, albeit miniscule amounts.  It was years in between before we were able to get any more to the islands.  Because of the awards & accolades just kept rolling in, I figured the demand far exceeded the supply.

Interestingly, along the way, they also started producing Pinot Noir (& I believe some Chardonnay), from grapes they purchased from the Fiddlestix vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, located just below the iconic Sanford & Benedict vineyard, closer to the river.  I thought the wines were good, BUT not on the same level of quality as those from Jonata.

Subsequently, they  created 2 other labels–The Hilt for Chardonnay & Pinot Noir AND The Paring (a more value oriented label, whose core was essentially declassified juice from Jonata & later The Hilt & their top notch vineyard sources).  I was so interested in BOTH.  The quality of The Hilt wines was so much more interesting & intriguing than what I had tasted before.  AND, the inaugural vintage of The Paring Red offered exceptional quality (all 200 cases worth) given the price.   I knew I had to check out this project on my next visit to California. 

As it turned out, after 7 to 9 days touring vineyards & tasting wines up & down California, we stopped by Jonata on the tail end of a trip, specifically to learn more about The Hilt project.  In short, they were some of the most compelling, memorable wines we had encountered on the entire trip.  Amazing!!!!!

A great part of their success I would say starts in the vineyards.  And, what a line up of sources they had–old vine Bien Nacido, Dijon clones from Solomon Hills AND, they leased the front 30 acres on the right side of Sanford & Benedict (planted in 1971/1973, still own rooted), which they now organically farm.  To that bevy of iconic, top notch  grape sources, they also had purchased the Salsipuedes parcel out on the extreme western Santa Rita Hills appellation.  Of this large holding, there are currently 3 planted parcels–Radian (roughly 96 acres, planted in 2007); Bentrock (roughly 100 acres, planted in 2007) & Puerta del Mar (roughly 5 1/2 acres, planted in 2007).  I must say, Radian & Bentrock were as extreme of a vineyard site as I can recall seeing–remote, powdery marine soils & desolate, semi arid surrounding countryside with a relentless pounding ocean wind.  (Whether that translates into noteworthy wine is yet to be seen).

In any regards, I walked away from visiting BOTH Jonata (Ballard Canyon) AND their Santa Rita Hills plantings of Chardonnay & Pinot Noir in awe, especially after tasting through their line up of respective wines.  Wow!  I was jazzed.

So that being the background, we now headed to meet Matt Dees at the entrance to Ballard Canyon.  We were elated to see Matt once again & most thankful that he made the time, given the new winery construction & them already starting to harvest grapes. 

We started off at Jonata.  The gang included–from HAWAII–Ivy Nagayama (DK Restaurants); Micah Suderman (Royal Hawaiian Hotel); Justin Sugita (Lucky Belly/Livestock Tavern/ Tchin Tchin), Michael Winterbottom (SENIA) & my wife Cheryle.  Also joining us were Amanda Wittstrom Higgins & Stewart Cameron (Ancient Peaks) & Tadeo Borchardt (Neyers/Camino).

The first thing I would say is their animal populations has greatly increased over the years–the goats, chickens, pigs, sheep,–OMG.  Can’t talk about that too much though, as they are part of the working team that farm & keep the vineyard in shape.

The Jonata estate is roughly 600 acres in size, of which the vineyards actually are only a small part.  Located 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, it is so remarkable that the vineyard is really all about sand.  This is one of the obvious & discerning differences that separates it from the neighboring Stolpman & Beckman estates.  The vineyard was planted in 2000 & their first release was the 2004. 

While showing us the soils, Matt popped open a few bottles for us to try–2013 Flor (70% Sauvignon Blanc & 30% Semillon–1 year in 1/3 old oak, 1/3 new, 1/3 stainless steel).  It was definitely noteworthy with lots of mojo & structure without gaudiness or any ostentatious attitude.  He then served his 2006 Sangre (100% Syrah)–done with NO stems & 22 months in oak, 30% new.  I was really taken by how this wine has greatly opened up & was strutting its grandeur in comparison to the last time I had tasted it.  It was really starting to resolve its “baby fat” & show its peacock tail  of gloriousness.  VERY impressive.  WOWZA!

There is also a new planting–all own rooted (reminder–sand), which I look forward to seeing what becomes of that. 

We then head off to the Santa Rita Hills.  First stop–Sanford & Benedict vineyard.  Not to sound repetitive, but from my point of view over the years this is the consistently finest single vineyard for Chardonnay & Pinot Noir out of California.  It has something extra to its mojo.  AND, it has quite a long history (first planted in 1971 or 1973, depends on who you speak to) at being at the top.

 

Our next stop was the Radian Vineyard out on the western border of the Santa Rita Hills appellation.  It truly is breathtaking in its remote, semi arid,

looking from the top ridge of Radian Vineyard

The “Pinot Bowl” of Radian Vineyard

the remote, semi arid, wild countryside surrounding Radian vineyard (on the western side of the bordering fence (hence officially Santa Barbara designated)

pretty extreme

fish fossil–part of the soils

rugged terrain & location, as is their Bentrock Vineyard right next door.  I can’t wait to see what the future holds for these two extreme sites.  Tasting a couple of soon to be releases shows there is tremendous potential starting to surface, that’s for sure.  The 2017’s tasted spot on & excitingly good!

Bentrock vineyard in the distance

By the way, while in the Radian Vineyard, Matt also popped open The Hilt “Pet Nat”–100% Bentrock Pinot Noir done in the ancestrale method.  We loved it!.  I just hope we can get some. 

 

Finally, I was really taken back by seeing Puerta del Mar again, having sampled some of the Ojai bottlings from this vineyard over the past 5 or so years.  I wonder if it is the vineyard and/or the intuitive winemaking genius of Ojai’s Adam Tolmach which makes it so interesting.

The BIG news is, The Hilt team is right in the midst of building an incredibly well thought out, state of the art winery there for their wines.  Should be interesting.

Thank you Matt Dees for a wonderful visit, vineyard tours & tasting some wine.

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