Our Fall Focus: Bring on the Balkans

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Love obscure, indigenous varietals? Archaic-yet-weirdly-hip production methods? Hate vowels? Then boy-howdy is this the seasonal focus for you!

We get excited whenever we kick off a new seasonal focus, but spotlighting the Balkans right now feels legitimately thrilling. It’s a region of enormous enological importance, yet it still feels a little bit mysterious, remote, even dangerous: Croatia, for instance — arguably the most important wine-producing nation and certainly the top tourist destination among the former Yugoslavian states — only confirmed in 2015 that all its vineyards are landmine-free. Despite claiming some of the most stunning landscapes and vineyard sites in the world, there’s a pall of tragedy and strife and hardship that hangs over the region, so much so that one of its most famous exports is its own name as a byword — balkanize, balkanization — for the state of being hopelessly, irreconcilably fragmented. The scars here run centuries deep and have barely begun to heal from the atrocities of the 1990s.

 

Dingac Vineyard on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. Sometimes you can just look at a vineyard site and know that great wine is made there.

Dingac Vineyard on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. Sometimes you can just look at a vineyard site and know that great wine is made there.

Yet, led by Slovenia and Croatia, the region is starting to shake off its torturous history and draw serious attention for its wines for the first time in nearly a century. For Slovenia, the challenge has been escaping the shadow of neighboring Friuli and Austria and establishing its own identity. It found its moment in the sudden spike in interest among wine hipsters in orange wines, an ancient production method that’s never quite gone out of style in Slovenia. And there’s been a buzz about Croatia ever since it was discovered that Zinfandel and it’s long-presumed Puglian twin, Primitivo, are actually a rare Dalmatian varietal known as Tribidrag. (In true Balkan fashion, Montenegro now claims that Tribidrag, known locally as Kratosija, originated there.) But it’s Croatia’s savory, saline coastal whites that are the nation’s real rock stars.

Success tends to have a ripple effect, especially in a region this compact and entangled, and now we’re starting to see wines of quality and interest coming from Serbia and Bosnia and Montenegro as well. Even the most closed-off, cryptic nation of them all, Albania, is starting to make a showing for itself, as evidenced by Kantina Arbëri’s juicy, peppery Kallmet, currently a favorite on our list.

This will be a challenging but rewarding focus. The availability of wines from these countries in the U.S. is limited, and in Pennsylvania even moreso. The native varietals are virtual unknowns, often with tongue-breaking, consonant-heavy names like Grk and Skrlet. Sometimes information on the winemaker or the grape can be spotty or, worse, the victim of Google translate.  And quality, while on the definite upswing, can be somewhat hit-or-miss, especially as you move inland from the Adriatic coast. Many Pittsburghers can proudly claim Balkan ancestry, and we’re nothing if not eager learners, so if you have any suggestions, corrections, or general advice (or want to offer us your cousin’s villa in Dubrovnik for a week), we’re all ears. Zivjeli!

Vasaria will not be part of our Balkan focus because it does not exist.

Note: for the purposes of this focus, we’re defining the Balkans as the former Yugoslavian nations of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro; plus Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. Due to proximity and the political and cultural influence they’ve exerted over the region, Hungary and Turkey will also be included. Greece, while inarguably Balkan, has a tremendously important, thriving and independent wine culture that merits its own focus — look for it in the upcoming year.  

Chillin Reds in the Summatime

"When does Summer of Rosé kick off?"

We've fielded this question dozens of times over the past month or so. You may not like the answer. We're not doing Summer of Rosé this year.

Take a moment. Freak out. Punch your pillow. Compose yourself. Fall to pieces again.

Rest easy: there will still be plenty of pink options on our menu this summer. But our particular brand of rosévangelism has always been built on the belief that rosé deserves a year-round place in our hearts and palates — it's no post-summer faux pas like white shoes after Labor Day. So as a dedicated seasonal focus, we're moving on. That said:

Long live the Reds of Summer.

Because there's nothing like inky, heavy, tannic AF Cahors in blast-furnace weather, amirite? Come on, you know that's not what we mean. What we mean are lighter-bodied, lower-alcohol, higher-acid reds that bring serious deliciousness, especially when you throw them in a cooler for 20 or 30 minutes. What we mean are Frappato from Sicily, Schiava from Alto Adige, Gamay from Beaujolais (and elsewhere), Xinomavro from Greece, Blaufränkisch from Austria, and old-vine País from Chile's Maule Valley. And on the bubbly end of the spectrum, don't forget Lambrusco! The Chillin Reds, we call them — and you'll find they're just as refreshing as (and probably a lot more complex than) any rosé you put up against them.

On a non-chill note, we'll round out our Summer Red list with some stone-cold BBQ classics like Zinfandel and Tempranillo, just in case you have a pig picking or bull roast to attend.

Look for our list to start changing over next week. First, we need you to help us drink through a glut of Loire wines from our spring focus! 

 

 

 

Another Spring, Another Loire Frost

We should never forget that, first, foremost, and above any sort of aesthetic or philosophical significance we attach to it, wine is an agricultural product. Sometimes we get reminded of that in the most brutal of ways.

Vineyard fires to ward off frost in the Loire, April 2017

Vineyard fires to ward off frost in the Loire, April 2017

Over a period of 10 days in late April, early morning temperatures in the Loire — indeed throughout much of France and Germany, and even pockets of Italy and Spain — plunged below freezing. Growers have a trick bag they can reach into to guard against frost — fires, turbines, even turning on the sprinklers —  but they’re not foolproof. This year's frosts presented something of a moving target, hitting vineyard areas not normally susceptible one night, then bouncing to another parcel the next. The old methods were largely ineffective.

The aftermath in Saumur.

The aftermath in Saumur.

Coming, as they did, several weeks after an early and vigorous budburst, the fallout was catastrophic. From the coastal Pays Nantais inland to Touraine, Anjou and the Center, the loss estimates were staggering: up to 80% in Pouilly. Terrible by any measure, but even worse in the Loire, where late frosts decimated vines last spring as well.

Our thoughts go out to the growers and winemakers whose livelihoods have been so grievously impacted. The Loire is a special region whose wines we hold dear. It’s going to take a few years for it to get back on its feet.

In the meantime, while you're sipping a glass with us or anywhere else, it's good to bear in mind how much outside the winemaker's control needs to go right for your enjoyment. Great wine is never a given. Cherish it.

Zut A'Loire!

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When we were wee-uns first learning about wine around the turn of the millennium, we asked the owner of our favorite wine shop in Richmond, VA, to recommend a single-volume introduction — just the essentials. Rather than pointing us toward Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World or the Oxford Companion, she pressed upon us a pocket-sized, binge-in-one-sitting manifesto called The Wine Avenger by importer Willie Gluckstern. "Read this," she said. I think it cost all of $8.

Keep in mind: this was circa 1999, at the crest of the Parkerized international fruitbomb wave. To say that Gluckstern was out of step with prevailing tastes at the time is an understatement worthy of Wes Anderson. As the righteous Wine Avenger, our hero railed against over-ripe, over-oaked, high alcohol wines, Napa Chards in particular. Five years before Sideways, he dismissed Merlot and its fans with a drop-dead three-word kiss-off: "Get a life." Then he set about making a case for leaner, higher acid, terroir-driven wines that reads like a phantom transmission from 15 years in the future.

He laid out the concept of grower champagne without ever using the term "grower champagne" because it hadn't been coined yet. He anointed Riesling as the world's greatest white wine a decade and a half before Stuart Martin Pigott reached the same conclusion. And, perhaps most surprising of all, he went all weak-kneed for "unknown, unloved, [and] unbeatable with food" Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. We'd cut our teeth on enough just OK-ish Virginia Cab Franc to be skeptical, but curious. We picked up a bottle of Charles Joguet Chinon and never looked back.

Yes, the Loire really looks like that.

Yes, the Loire really looks like that.

It sounds ass-backwards, but thanks to Willie Gluckstern, before Burgundy or Bordeaux or the Rhône or Alsace, our introduction to French wine was the Loire: "unloved" Cab Franc from Chinon and Bourgeuil, versatile Chenin Blanc from Vouvray and Savenierres, sleek, chiseled Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, and briny sur lie Muscadet which back then was widely available for single-digit prices. The wines were vibrant, supple, distinctive, and food friendly, and didn't carry the heavy philosophical freight (or the price tags) of France's more renowned regions — and even a novice could taste the difference between a light, breezy Saumur Cab Franc and a richer, more floral Bourgeuil. It sounds ass-backwards, but the Loire was actually a great place to start. Gluckstern knew it, and before him, Kermit Lynch. Thankfully, our shop owner knew it, and now so did we.

It's no big secret these days. Now the Loire is a pet stomping ground for many younger sommeliers and wine writers, especially those who evangelize for the biodynamic and natural wine movements, both of which have deep roots in the Valley. But the region is still close to our hearts, too — and coming out of our winter focus on natural wine, it just seems right to ease into the Loire, whose wines have always made us think spring thoughts.

Our menu will start changing over this week. We're looking forward to spending the next few months in the Loire Valley!

To SO2 or Not to SO2, That is the Question

What exactly makes a natural wine "natural"?

It’s a good question with no definitive answer. There are no set criteria for natural wines, nor is there a sanctioning body that puts its seal of approval on every funky, unfined, unfiltered bottle.

There is something approaching a consensus, though, as to best practices — a sort of unspoken code — that most natural winemakers follow:

  • the fewer manipulations or additions, the better
  • grapes should come from organic or biodynamic vineyards
  • fermentations should come from indigenous or ambient yeasts rather than commercial strains
  • sulfur dioxide additions should be minimized or eliminated

This last point is a bit contentious, and marks a flashpoint for “more natural than thou” arguments to begin. Making quality wine without sulfur dioxide's antioxidant properties is no easy feat. It keeps grapes from spoiling between the vineyard and the press. It keeps must from turning to hydrogen peroxide during fermentation. It keeps bacteria from taking over that give off aromas reminiscent of a barnyard on a hot day. A small shot at bottling gives it a fighting chance of making it from the winery to you in decent shape. It's not a newfangled invention like reverse osmosis: winemakers have been using sulfur candles to sterilize wine vessels for at least a couple millennia. Nor is it even inorganic: trace amounts of SO2 are a natural byproduct of fermentation. (That’s why there's no such thing as a 100% sulfite-free wine.)

So why in the world would you want to get rid of it?

Besides the fact that in high concentrations — much, much higher than what occurs in the winemaking process — it can be toxic, there is a sense among naturalistas that perhaps SO2 does its job too well. It could inhibit native yeasts from doing their idiosyncratic thing, forcing the winemaker to use a cultivated strain to kick off fermentation. It might kill off bacteria that, in limited amounts, could add interest or complexity (or, depending on your palate, make it taste like the aforementioned barnyard). For some, the reward of a characterful, authentic, one-of-a-kind wine outstrips the risk of a spoiled vintage.

This vibrant grenache/cinsault blend from the Sierra Foothills only sees a tiny dose of SO2 at bottling.

This vibrant grenache/cinsault blend from the Sierra Foothills only sees a tiny dose of SO2 at bottling.

In truth, it’s not a total crapshoot. Hand harvesting and whole-cluster fermentations can reduce the need for SO2 when grapes enter the winery. Extended lees contact offers a measure of antioxidant protection during fermentation. Harmful bacteria have a harder time thriving in stainless steel or concrete vessels than in old oak. Shipping in temp-controlled containers — who doesn't do this in this day and age? — minimizes the risk of spoilage in transit.

There's a tendency to think of natural winemaking as hands-off winemaking, but the opposite is actually true. It takes a lot of hard work and a certain amount of gamesmanship. It's a high-wire act, and working without sulfur is working without a net. But when the winemaker pulls it off, the results can be dazzling.

Interested in learning more about natural wines? Get your tickets for Monday Night RAW, a tasting and talk led by Justin Scappaticci from Philly-based importer/distributor Artisan's Cellar on February 20. They're going fast!

 

ANALOG WINE IN THE DIGITAL AGE

Martilde's juicy, lively, natural Croatina (aka Bonarda) from Lombardy, currently one of Jamie's favorites.

Martilde's juicy, lively, natural Croatina (aka Bonarda) from Lombardy, currently one of Jamie's favorites.

For our winter focus — which officially got underway in earnest last week to give everyone time to recover from the holidays — we’re changing things up a bit. Instead of spotlighting a region (like Oregon) or a style (like rosé), we’re taking a closer look at an ideology: the natural wine movement. If you haven’t noticed, natural wines are kind of having a moment right now —  but they’ve been around, well, since some blessed soul discovered what happens when you let grape juice sit around too long.

The current trend, however, is rooted in a reformation that took place in the past 10-15 years that saw a number of prominent critics, winemakers and sommeliers call bullshit on the Hedonistic Fruitbomb style that had come to dominate first the New World and, increasingly, the Old. These were wines that, from the vineyard to the bottling line, had gone through an endless sequence of manipulations — microoxygenation, reverse osmosis, multiple filtrations, massive doses of oak, even, in some more heinous cases, the addition of color extracts like Mega Purple — to arrive at what is known as The International Style: heavy, decadent, jammy, often unbalanced wines aimed squarely at the pleasure centers. In the process, they've also been systematically denuded of a sense of place.

Natural winemakers reject all that. If great wine is made in the vineyard — a line you hear maybe a little too often when natural wine comes up — then his or her job is simply to stay out of the way and let the grapes tell their story. That means no interventionist processes, no corrections for color or acidity, an aversion toward cultivated yeasts and new oak, a laissez-faire attitude toward ambient bacteria like brettanomyces, and some serious philosophical wrestling with whether to use sulfur dioxide or not. (Some do, many don’t.)

Gnarly AF! These 250-year old Pais vines in Chile's Bìo-Bìo Valley still pump out grapes that go into Cacique Maravilla's natural Pipeño — look for it back on the list soon!

Gnarly AF! These 250-year old Pais vines in Chile's Bìo-Bìo Valley still pump out grapes that go into Cacique Maravilla's natural Pipeño — look for it back on the list soon!

Natural wines are risky as hell. They don’t always taste the way we’ve been conditioned to expect wines to taste. They can be funky and tart and thin. Sometimes they’re best decanted directly down the drain. They're inconsistent by design. But when everything aligns, they can be revelatory — a Russian novel’s worth of detail into the intimacies of terroir and vintage in the glass. We’re looking forward to bringing back a number of our favorite natural producers over the next few months and sharing new ones with you. Keep an open mind and an open palate — you’re bound to be surprised.

 

 

 

Fire & Water: A Tale of Two Soils & Willamette Pinot

The view from Mo Ayoub's deck/tasting room. Dundee Hills in all its splendor.

The view from Mo Ayoub's deck/tasting room. Dundee Hills in all its splendor.

You don’t have to hang around in Portland too long before you get the sense that California’s loss has been Oregon’s immeasurable gain. It’s not just a case of Bay-area rent refugees transforming Portland into Portlandia, either — in the Willamette Valley, just south of the city, you hear a fairly common story among winery owners, grape farmers and winemakers: priced out of Napa or Sonoma, or philosophically out of step with the bombastic style that so often dominates there, they headed north and found a haven on the 45th parallel, which, not coincidentally, the Willamette Valley shares with Burgundy.

A yellowjacket getting all up in the Pinot at Patricia Green Cellars.

A yellowjacket getting all up in the Pinot at Patricia Green Cellars.

The first Willamette Pinot Noir vines were planted in the Dundee Hills in 1965 by UC Davis grad and Napa expat David Lett, who went on to found Eyrie Vineyards. He had a hunch that the region’s cool climate, wet winters and dry summers — as well as the series of wind gaps that draw cool Pacific breezes through the Coast Range into the valley — were good omens for Pinot. They were, as were the soils, deposits from the Missoula Floods of the last ice age: primarily red volcanic (Jory) and sandy marine sediment (WillaKenzie). Pinot grown in the former tends to be rounder, plusher and more expressive of bright red fruits, while the latter produces wines that are leaner, more structured and more centered on dark cherry aromas.

As anyone who’s seen Sideways knows, Pinot doesn't flourish just anywhere. It ripens early. It’s prone to disease. It picks up nuances of terroir like no other red grape. It takes sure, deft know-how in the vineyard and the cellar to tease out its full potential. Willamette growers know that nature’s dealt them an enviable hand. They don’t have much else under vine as far as reds go — some Gamay (which makes sense) and some excellent cool-climate Syrah (we’re currently pouring Adelsheim’s, which you should try). Why mess with a good — often great — thing?

Right now we’re pouring a few estate Pinots blended from Jory and WillaKenzie parcels:

  • Yamhill Valley Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir ($11/$44), Yamhill-Carlton AVA. 
  • Trisaetum Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($11/$44), Ribbon Ridge AVA.
  • Mo Ayoub Memoirs Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills/McMinnville (via Coravin™). We had a pretty memorable meeting with Mo on his deck at the end of a long day of tasting (for us) and harvesting (for Mo). Be sure to ask about it!

Onward to Oregon

And like that, Summer of Rosé 2016 is done. (We may still have a handful of “Never Mind the Bollocks” tees in the basement if you failed to pick one up.)

"We hereby claim this valley in the name of the Allegheny Wine Mixer."

"We hereby claim this valley in the name of the Allegheny Wine Mixer."

Pinot Noir on the vine at Four Graces

Pinot Noir on the vine at Four Graces

So what’s up for Fall? If you follow us on social media, you probably know that the staff spent the week after Labor Day (our annual closing week) on the West Coast, checking out the Portland scene by night, tasting in the Willamette Valley by day — hard prep for our Fall Focus, Oregon.

You might think this will simply boil down to a tale of two Pinots, Noir and Gris, and no one would blame you if you did. The former, especially, is the grape to which Oregon has hitched its star, and for good reason: the cool, wet Willamette Valley offers optimal growing conditions for this notoriously difficult grape, producing wines with an elegance and structure that only Burgundy can surpass. (The local relationship with Pinot Gris is far more ambivalent, but more on that in a future post.)

But to dismiss Oregon as a two-trick pony overlooks not only some exciting developments in the warmer climes of the Rogue and Columbia River Valleys, but more diversity in Willamette than it typically gets credit for. We tasted plenty of Willamette Rieslings, Syrahs, Muscats, Chardonnays, Viogniers and other less common varietals throughout our trip. Many were real revelations.

Some of these wines will start hitting our list in the coming week, and they’ll change often throughout the fall. We’re looking forward to sharing them with you and telling their story.