Pilgrim's Progress: Why Everyone is Flocking to Galicia

Galicia presents a version of Spain gleefully at odds with our preconceptions. You don’t get white villages and windmills and death in the afternoon here. (Thankfully, we’re getting a lot less death in the afternoon all across Spain these days.) Rather, Spain’s Atlantic Northwest — the brow that furrows neighboring Portugal — is green, cool, rainy, and decidedly Celtic. If that sounds more like Ireland than Andalusia, take note: as the crow flies, Cork isn't much farther from the regional capital of A Coruña than Malaga.

Wine-wise, Galicia isn't completely in step with what we’ve come to expect from the rest of Spain either. You don't get Tempranillo and Garnacha here. In fact, the region's leading grapes are pretty much exclusive to this corner of the country (notable exception: Bierzo in Castilla y Leon, but Galician in climate and spirit) — though they do, tellingly, show up in northern Portugal with tricky Lusophone aliases. Isolated geographically and culturally, and always fiercely independent, Galicia's forged its own wayward, sometimes difficult, identity.

 A bend in the Rio Sil in Ribeira Sacra

A bend in the Rio Sil in Ribeira Sacra

If anything, it's looking more and more like Spain’s answer to the Loire — from the maritime coast to the continental center, an inexhaustible source of complex, nuanced, minerally driven whites, and vibrant, food-friendly reds that provide a welcome counterpoint to the countries' more renowned regions, a place a little less bound to convention than, say, Rioja or the Medoc. If Galicia lacks the Loire's crémants and dessert wines — and sparkling and botrytized expressions of Albariño, while not exactly common, are not unheard of — the Loire can't lay claim to some of the world's most spectacular vineyard sites, or the tradition of heroic viticulture necessary to farm them.

But to draw the parallels more explicitly:

ALBARIÑO

 Albariño vines under pergola in Rias Baixas

Albariño vines under pergola in Rias Baixas

Now that we know that Albariño's origin myth — as a rogue Riesling clone that hitchhiked to Santiago do Compostela with German monks in the middle ages — doesn't have an ampelographic leg to stand on, it can finally be itself. And as growers pay closer attention to Albariño's sensitivity to site and vintners rely more on native yeast fermentations, the Riesling comparisons are starting to fade away. In the fjord-like Rias Baixas, the more apt analogy, anyway, has always been to Muscadet. Both are classic seafood wines with a distinctive tang of seaspray, and both gain considerable complexity from sur lie aging. Riesling-like peach and honeysuckle aromas are definitely still in the mix, but the region's granitic soils can also tease out herbaceous, flinty notes that recall another Loire stalwart, Pouilly-Fumé. It's taken several false starts for the real Albariño to reveal itself, but committed winemakers are doing great things with this grape.

Now pouring: Roberto Mendez and Raul Perez 'Cies' Albariño, Salnes, Rías Baixas, Spain 2017

GODELLO

Forty years ago, Godello was a near casualty of post-phylloxera neglect and Franco-era land reforms that rewarded farmers for bulk production. That was never going to fly with a delicate early budder like Godello, so all but a couple hundred vines were grubbed up and replaced with the far more reliable (and regrettably neutral) Palomino. Today, thanks to a small group of visionary growers and conservationists, complex, age-worthy Godellos from Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra, and Bierzo are gaining consensus as, arguably, Spain's finest whites. Richly textured yet taut, with a bracing mineral presence, they can call to mind the dry Chenin Blancs of Savennières and Vouvray.

Now pouring: Cobertizo ‘El Blanco’ Godello, Bierzo, Spain 2016

MENCÍA

 Heroic viticulture in action

Heroic viticulture in action

The fact that for many years Mencia was thought to be a relative of Cabernet Franc (it isn't) should tell you where this analogy is headed, but it's only been since growers have planted it on the steep, schisty hillsides of the Sil River Valley that Northwestern Spain's signature red grape has earned the comparison to Chinon and Bourgueil, and, yes, even Pinot Noir from the Cote D'Or. If the latter seems like a stretch, consider this: last year Bierzo approved a new Burgundian classification scheme that will identify village wines, crus and, eventually, Grand crus, probably signaling the end of cheap, cheerful, unbeatable value Bierzo forever. Sigh.

Now pouring: A Portela Mencía, Valdeorras, Spain 2014

 

New Fun in the Old world.

We tend to forget how young much of the Old World is.

Think about it. Some of the oldest of Old World locales are really rosy-cheeked new kids in the modern wine world. Twenty years ago, Sicily was largely dismissed as a bulk wine wasteland, and today Nerellos from Mt. Etna have earned their place with Barolo and Brunello among the elite of Italian reds. And Greece is only starting to emerge from its retsina-soaked economic nightmare to show it’s true, stunning potential.

Our spring focus region, Northwestern Spain, comprising Castila y León and Galicia, is part of this old-is-new dynamic, too.

 Spanish castle magic in Ribera del Duero. A young wine region, you say?

Spanish castle magic in Ribera del Duero. A young wine region, you say?

It certainly doesn’t lack for viticultural history. The usual cast of suspects — Greeks, Romans, Celts — were growing wine grapes here 2000+ years ago. Since the 9th century A.D., the Camino de Santiago has threaded through the heart of the region, attracting migrating grape varietals in addition to pilgrims. And it’s also home to what is arguably Spain’s most venerable and prestigious estate, Vega Sicilia, founded in 1864.

But by and large, wines from this part of Spain and their ascendant hipness are a very recent phenomenon. Take Vega Sicilia’s home appellation, for example. Ribera del Duero — today one of Spain’s premier appellations for Tempranillo-based reds — only achieved Denominación de Origen (D.O.) status in 1982. That’s the same year the Finger Lakes became an A.V.A. here in the United States.

In fact, of the fourteen or so D.O.s represented in our spring focus, only two of them predate the 1980s. (Ribeiro and Valderorras if you’re curious.) In terms of modern winemaking, that puts Northwestern Spain on roughly the same timeline as the U.S. and Australia.

 We'll never tire of posting this pic of autumn vineyards in Ribeira Sacra.

We'll never tire of posting this pic of autumn vineyards in Ribeira Sacra.

They’ve made the most of their youth. Ribera del Duero stands shoulder to shoulder with Rioja, while Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra have elevated the Mencia grape to world-class status. Albariños from Rias Baixas along Galicia’s fjord-strewn Atlantic coast are among Spain’s most famous white wines. Further inland, Godellos of considerable finesse and complexity are emerging from Valdeorras and Monterrei.

It all comprises a brilliant cross-section of one of the most fascinating wine scenes on the planet. We can’t think of a better place to spend spring.

The Wonderful Vintners of Oz

As we bounce between deep freezes, icy messes, and the intermittent burst of weirdly April-like weather here in Pittsburgh, it's time we turn our attentions to the antipodes for our Winter Focus: Australia.

Wait, what? Australia? 

W(h)ither, Australia?

  Terra Rosa : the dirt that made Coonawarra famous

Terra Rosa: the dirt that made Coonawarra famous

Twenty years ago, Australia seemed poised to rule the wine world. Aussie Shiraz was so popular that it convinced other New World producers to start marketing their own jammy, over-the-top expressions of Syrah as Shiraz as well. Coonawarra Cabs grown on the region's famous terra rosa soils were giving Napa a run for its money for quality, and handily beating it for value. And, yea and verily, the 90+ Parker scores resounded throughout the land like a heavenly chorus of didgeridoos.

And then the 21st century happened.

There’s a laundry list of reasons you can cite for why Australian wine’s reputation has taken a drubbing over the past decade. Environmental factors — droughts, wildfires, and the undeniable influence of climate change — are certainly key. A decade-long grape glut depressed the domestic market and bankrupted many smaller, independent growers and producers, while forcing the industry to double-down on its already category-dominating production of industrial-grade, grocery store plonk. For many, Australia became a cautionary tale for what can happen when you get so gobsmacked by your own meteoric rise that you try to wing it through your second act.

But underpinning all of these reasons is a fundamental problem with the way Australia,  and its wines, are perceived by the rest of the world.

Larrikins, Ockers, and Barossa Shiraz

To be fair, it’s an image that, for decades, Australia has all too happily exported to the world at large: bluff, brawling, and bibulous, cheerfully unsophisticated, always ready for a good time, a knife fight, or both. Australians have at least half a dozen different names for their national caricature: larrikins, ockers, yobbos, bogans. Think Steve Irwin. Or that Energizer battery guy, the one who was mercifully replaced by the animatronic rabbit. Or Crocodile Dundee.

Or for that matter, Barossa Shiraz.

Here’s the dirty little secret about Shiraz: what we know as Aussie Shiraz — ginormous, inky, syrupy, with alcohol levels that singe your nostril hairs — is an almost wholly American phenomenon. It was created for the export market to appease American critics (three guesses?) and palates — and some deeply ingrained cultural preconceptions, it would seem. Brash, balls-out, and undeniably hedonistic, it's like a night out with Bon Scott in his prime.

But it's not the Shiraz Australians themselves drink. Grab a glass of Shiraz at a café in Melbourne and you might be surprised by how light, nuanced, and downright Northern Rhônish it can be.

Beyond Crocodile Dundee (and Yellowtail)

But, wait: this is Australia. Subtlety, we’ve been told repeatedly by Australians themselves, isn’t in their DNA.

 Old own-rooted bush vine Grenache in Barossa. 

Old own-rooted bush vine Grenache in Barossa. 

And that’s the sad moral of the Australian wine story so far. Remarkably isolated from the rest of the world, they’ve always made complex, subtle, place-driven wines — in Coonawarra, in Margaret River, in the Clare and Eden Valleys, even in Barossa and McLaren Vale, ground zero for the big, blustery international style — but in their eagerness to be all things to all palates, they’ve too often neglected what makes their wines so intriguingly Australian.

Fortunately, old hands and new — as well as a handful of adventurous importers — are recommitting to expressing just what that means. And, for us, it’s like discovering a new country.

Our Fall Focus: Bring on the Balkans

balkans-graphic.jpg

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!