Goodbye Finger Lakes, Hello Portugal!

Woah! Has it really been more than two months since our last blog update? 

We've blown right through the Finger Lakes and moved on to our winter focus, Portugal. Yes, in Porto and Madeira, the Portuguese make some of the world's greatest dessert wines — but you should also get to know their table wines, many of them blends made from an array of obscure indigenous varietals. Reds and whites both show a lot of character and, we're learning, can be quite sensitive to the country's unique and more-varied-than-you-think terroir and climate. They also represent great value for the money.

We'll be starting up a Sunday tasting series once the NFL season is over, and have some other special Portuguese-centric events in the works too — more on those later! 

We can tell you now about our Valentine's dinner with our friends at The Vandal, featuring guest chef Jamilka Borges, formerly of Legume and Bar Marco. Or, rather, we can link you to more info. If you missed our NYE collaboration with Joey & Csilla & company, you'll definitely want to get in on this one!

Map courtesy of Wines of Portugal

Map courtesy of Wines of Portugal

ICE COLD ICE

And then one afternoon in February, the lake began to freeze.

This may not sound like such an unusual circumstance, especially in 2015, when February made history as the single coldest month on record for much of the Northeast. But when the lake in question is nearly 650’ deep — and moreover, whose inclination to not freeze in winter is the only thing that allows a fine wine industry to flourish along its shores — a freeze is a dire and unwelcome nail-biter.  

Seneca Lake freezing over, February 2015. Photo courtesy of Lou Damiani.

Seneca Lake freezing over, February 2015. Photo courtesy of Lou Damiani.

In fact, a Seneca Lake freeze-up hadn’t happened since 1912. The Finger Lakes wine industry was booming then, too, with world-famous méthode champenoise sparklers made from winter-hardy native cultivars like Catawba and Delaware. Prohibition would soon put an end to that. It would be another 50 years or more before visionaries like Konstantin Frank and Hermann Wiemer figured out how the Finger Lakes’ unique thermal effects might provide winter protection for higher-quality but tender vitis vinifera vines. 

Riesling at Bloomer Creek, September 2015.

Riesling at Bloomer Creek, September 2015.

This isn’t Chile or Sonoma, where weather conditions are as reliable as death and taxes. And the Lakes’ insulating halo only stretches so far — go a mile or two inland and the winters are as brutal as anywhere else in the North Country. But with careful site selection and smart vineyard management, amazing things can happen in the shale and limestone soils that hug the shoreline: Rieslings with a focus and minerality not easy to find outside of Germany or Austria. Gewürztraminer with finesse instead of flab. Some of the best sparkling wines in the United States. And along Seneca’s famed “Banana Belt” — a twelve-mile stretch along the eastern shore between Burdett and Lamoureaux Landing that absorbs enough reflected sunlight from the lake to extend the growing season into October or even early November — sleek, chiseled reds in the hands of dedicated winemakers have started to come into their own: Cab Franc and Pinot Noir at first, but also Merlot, Cab Sauv and Syrah.

By no stretch of the imagination are these stereotypical New World fruit bombs, and they’re bound to disappoint those who would expect them. They show vintage and site variation like no other North American region. (A tasting of single vineyard Rieslings in any number of Finger Lakes tasting rooms is a genuinely instructive experience.) For those who buy into the concept of terroir — and who doesn’t, at some level? — the Finger Lakes fairly burst at the seams with it.

All that flies out the window, however, if the lake freezes. The growers are perhaps most keenly aware of that risk, and so hedge their bets: for all the accolades and burgeoning hype, 85% of the acreage currently under vine in the AVA is still planted with native labrusca grapes and French-American hybrids. Some high profile investment may nudge that number downward in the coming years, but there’s a finite amount of land that falls under the lake effect bubble, where vinifera vines stand a fighting chance of surviving the winter.

The February 2015 freeze was mercifully brief. A thin crust formed that spanned the lake from east to west, but after a few hours a breeze kicked up and open water was soon rippling again over Seneca’s deepest channels. It was the second consecutive harsh winter, and this year's yields are predictably down despite an ideal back half of the growing season. Farmers and winemakers alike are anxious about rumors of a milder, wetter winter in 2016, fueled by El Niño. And let's hope they have it. The vines, and the people who rely upon them, could use a break. 

 

 

You need to go to the Finger Lakes. Now.

We’re pretty excited about our Fall Focus on the Finger Lakes. Excited because it’s our first focus on a U.S. wine region. Excited because it’s only a 4-5 hour drive from Pittsburgh. Excited because we just recently got back from a kind-of-mind-blowing staff retreat on Seneca Lake.

But more than anything, we’re excited because, through innovation, smarts, back-breaking work and sheer stubbornness, the grape growers and wine makers of the Finger Lakes are very quietly creating stellar, authentic wines — some of the best in the country.

And it’s not just Riesling. This, of course, was the breakthrough grape for the region, the one that put the Finger Lakes on the world stage, and it’s still very much the star player, with almost every producer offering several versions at varying levels of sweetness, single-vineyard cuvees, etc. But as they get to know the vagaries of their microclimate and their terroir better — and the Finger Lakes has terroir out the wazz, as they say — they’re starting to branch out. Gewürztraminer and lean, focused, Chablis-style Chardonnay are coming on strong. At Bloomer Creek, we talked with Kim Engle as he was laying drainage tiles in a field soon to be planted with Chenin Blanc, a collaborative project with superstar sommelier (and Chenin evangelist) Pascaline Lepeltier. And producers are starting to crack the nut of how to make reds in this challenging environment that live up to the reputation of the region’s whites. (Finger Lakes Pinot Noir, in particular, is ready for its close-up. We’ll be adding proof from Forge Cellars in the coming weeks.)

Almost-there Pinot Noir at Silver Thread

Almost-there Pinot Noir at Silver Thread

So, as you can see, there’s a lot going on in our neighbor to the north. Really, you should drop what you’re doing and visit for yourself. But stop by first and taste what we’re pouring. We’ll be happy to talk to you about what makes these wines — and the region they come from — special.

Bloomer Creek's Kim Engle with lucky vineyard dog, Odie

Bloomer Creek's Kim Engle with lucky vineyard dog, Odie

Pink pariahs, pink plentitude

1975 was a pretty tumultuous year in the U.S. Saigon fell. The FBI nabbed Patty Hearst. Saturday Night Live debuted. The Ramones got signed to a record deal. And out in Napa, Sutter Home screwed up a batch of dry rosé made from Zinfandel.

The very first day of winemaking 101, you learn that yeast + sugar = alcohol and CO2. But if fermentation stalls for some reason, some sugar will be left over, and the wine will remain slightly sweet. This is what happened at Sutter Home. Not willing to take the loss on dumping it, they bottled their mistake, christened it “White Zinfandel,” and by the time the U.S. emerged from its sweet blush hangover in the 90s, the reputation of pink wines had been thoroughly trashed.

Not that they had enjoyed all that great a reputation before the White Zinfandel tsunami, represented as they were in the American consciousness mostly by cheap Portuguese imports like Mateus — a favorite of both Jimi Hendrix and Saddam Hussein — and Lancers. Little wonder that among rosé skeptics — and they do still exist — the perception that all pink wines look and taste a little like a well-chewed wad of Bubblicious dies hard.

(It’s worth noting that no less of an authority than the New York Times’ Eric Asimov, in his book How to Love Wine, counts a bottle of White Zin, shared with good friends at a beach house, as one of his earliest and most fondly recalled “epiphany” wines. And wine blogger W. Blake Grey recently opined that with the right marketing, Mateus could be the wine world’s answer to PBR — a cheap but decent throwback for slumming hipsters. Intrigued, we gave it a taste; we can’t say we agree.)

So if rosé has come a long way in the 21st century, it’s largely because it had nowhere to go but up. Fortunately, though, we live in an era where White Zin and Mateus can now be viewed through a prism of irony and nostalgia — leaving us free to enjoy some extraordinary wines like these, currently on our list:

Château De Trinquevedel Tavel 2014. 45% Grenache, 24% Cinsault, 15% Clairette, 10% Mourvèdre, 6% Syrah. Tavel is the only AOC in France dedicated exclusively to rosé, which means it’s not a by-product here — it’s the only product. Boasting a quintessential profile of Southern Rhône grapes, this one’s ripe with raspberries, musk melon, white pepper and bitter herbs with a sleek, somewhat unctuous mouthfeel and nice length.

Gaia 14-18h 2014. 100% Agioritiko. The name refers to the amount of time the skins are left in contact with the juice, resulting in a brilliant pale ruby color. In Nemea, Agioritiko can make reds somewhat reminiscent of Sangiovese; here aromas of sour cherry, melon and lime zest carry over to the palate behind a nice, tart, acidic cut.

Badenhorst “Secateurs” Rosé 2015. 50% Cinsault, 48% Shiraz, 1% Grenache, 1% Carignan. Lots of buzz about South Africa’s Swartland these days, thanks in no small part of wine makers like Badenhorst. Lively nose of strawberry preserve and rosehips, with a strong mineral presence coming out on the palate. Our first 2015!

Summer of Rosé rolls on!

Summer of Rosé rolls on!

A Rosé outlook, rain or shine … or Rain

So far, Summer 2015 in Pittsburgh has felt more like the Hebrides than the French Riviera — but we won't let a little rain dampen Summer of Rosé. (And, besides, even if the weather all too often reminds us of late March, one of the points of this exercise it to convince you that you should be drinking rosé year-round — it isn't like white shoes after Labor Day, people.)

Right now we're pouring off some seriously good stuff — including Wolffer Estate's crazy-quilt blended rosé (Merlot, Chard, Cab Franc, Pinot Noir, Riesling — a rare example of a red-white mix that works seamlessly) from the North Fork of Long Island, as well as Palacio de Canedo's spicy, floral rosado of Mencia — to make room for some other seriously good stuff in the pipeline, like Denis Jamain's elegant Domaine de Reuilly rosé of Pinot Gris. (Yes, a rosé made from a white grape!) The quicker you help us drink down inventory, the sooner we can change over the list.

Our current (but ever-changing) #PINKASFUCK lineup.

Our current (but ever-changing) #PINKASFUCK lineup.

A couple non-rosé notes:

  • As you might already know, we're hosting a pop-up preview for Chef Roger Li's new restaurant Umami tomorrow, Monday, July 13, starting at 4 p.m. This is not a ticketed or reserved event, and seating is limited. Plan to arrive as early as you can; it's likely there will be a wait.
  • Calendar note: we are closing for vacation Monday Sept. 7 thru Monday Sept. 14. (A staff field trip to the Finger Lakes is in the works! Yay!)

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD PINK?

Dudebro sitting one table over was concerned about my wine choice. In fact, by his own admission, he was downright fearful.

“Pink wine,” he announced as my server handed me a glass of bone-dry Provençal rosé to go with my oysters, “scares the hell out of me.”

Ostensibly, he said this to his girlfriend, but in reality, his pronouncement was made for the dubious benefit  of anyone within a twenty-foot radius. His collar was popped. He may have been wearing a Google glass.

A true and distressingly recent story. (In the interest of full disclosure, dudebro may actually be a composite of several different dudebros.)

~

Here at AWM, we like that a wine can scare the hell out of someone. We like that a wine can withstand decades of being maligned and grossly misunderstood, of being associated in the public consciousness with Mateus and white zinfandel, to finally claim its own well-deserved limelight. The truth all along, as Joe Strummer once astutely observed, was only known by guttersnipes.

So it’s with attitudes like dudebro’s in mind — and drawing inspiration from Summer of Riesling, which ended a glorious 8-year run in 2014 — that we announce that summer 2015 at AWM is officially Summer of Rosé. Things are about to get

#PINKASFUCK



Notes from the Chilean Underground

Like the Motor City in its heyday, the Chilean wine industry is dominated by a Big Three: Concha y Toro, Santa Rita & VSPT. These massive companies and their associated brands  account for more than 80% of wine production in the nation, and for the hard-to-shake perception that Chilean wine is profit- rather than palate-driven.

But an underground is growing.

In 2009, Canadian Derek Mossman Knapp, owner and winemaker of The Garage Wine Company in the Maule Valley, organized the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes, or MOVI, a sort of marketing cooperative for Chile’s small, independent vintners. (Their manifesto rather charmingly positions them as “a breathe [sic] of fresh air in a healthy but comfortable and conservative Chilean industry known well for blue blazers, grey flannels, incessant potential, and industry concentration.”) MOVI now claims 18 member wineries, including Lagar de Bezana, whose lean, focused Cab has been on our list for most of the spring ($11/BTG, $44/bottle).

(Mossman Knapp has also been instrumental in launching the VIGNO project — which even some of the big boys have gotten involved with — spotlighting dry-farmed, old-vine Carignan in the Maule. Alas, none of these wines are currently available in PA.)

This is certainly a welcome development, and points toward a future in which small, hands-on, boutique producers — often using organic or biodynamically grown fruit, and natural wine-making methods —  start changing people’s minds about a wine scene largely derided for its homogeneity. But the producer we’ve been most excited to discover during our Chilean spring focus is so outsider, he’s not even a MOVI member.

A Burgundian by birth and by training, Louis-Antoine Luyt moved to Chile in 1998. In 2006, he and some friends started producing distinguished old-vine blends under the Clos Ouvert label, an enterprise which unfortunately fell apart after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Since then, he’s made wines under his own name, including some truly singular, remarkable wines from very old Pais vines.

Pais, also known as Mission, is believed to be the first vinifera grape planted in the New World. Luyt’s vines aren’t quite that dated, but some of them are upwards of 300 years old, and the methods he uses in the vineyard and the winery are fitting throwbacks. He plows his vineyards by horse. He doesn’t irrigate. He harvests by hand. He crushes by foot. He ferments with naturally occurring yeasts. He doesn't filter or fine his wines.

In short, he’s the antithesis of the Big 3. You can read more about Louis-Antoine Luyt here.

Right now, we’re pouring Luyt’s 2014 “Portezuela” Pais from his Pipeño series of wines ($11/btg, $44/bottle), traditional, rustic wines made by the process of carbonic maceration. In the glass the Portezuela is a light, bright garnet with a little whiff of funk on the nose that blows off quickly. (Giving this wine 5-10 minutes in your glass makes a big difference.) Aromas of chocolate-covered cherries, strawberries and balsamic carry over to the flavor profile, with some campfire smoke wafting in at the mid-palate. The finish is longer and more tannic than you might expect from such a light-bodied wine. You want to have this with some prosciutto and a hard sheep’s milk cheese, like a good quality Pecorino.

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As you might expect, Luyt doesn’t produce huge quantities of this stuff, and we feel fortunate to have it. Once it’s gone, we’ll be pouring his 2012 Clos Ouvert Primavera (he still occasionally bottles under the Clos Ouvert label), a blend of old-vine Pais, Carignan, Cinsault, Cab, Syrah and Merlot.

It’s good to remember that, despite boasting the oldest vineyards in the New World, Chile’s wine industry is still quite young, largely a development of the post-Pinochet era. They’re still figuring themselves and their terroir out. It’s going to be fascinating to see how mavericks like Louis-Antoine Luyt and the MOVI affiliates re-shape the industry — and American perceptions — in years to come.


The Discreet Charm of Carménère

An ugly duckling orphaned in a faraway land. A famous case of mistaken identity. Oodles of quirky, unpredictable character.

If Wes Anderson ever gets around to making a wine movie, he needn’t look any further for inspiration than Carménère, a grape that puts the lie to the common complaint that Chilean wines are dull and anonymous.

Like Malbec just across the Andes in Argentina, Carménère was a minor and mostly forgotten Bordelaise blending grape that barely survived the phylloxera epidemic in France. The phylloxera aphid, however, never made it to Chile, where Carménère vines had been imported in the 1850s. There, it thrived and ripened in a way it never could in Bordeaux.

Unfortunately, it was planted in close proximity to Merlot, to which it bears a passing resemblance in the field. It ripened later and possessed some singularly non-Merlot-like aromas and flavors, but it eventually became known as Merlot Chileño, which was inevitably shortened to, simply, Merlot . . . you see where this is leading. Chilean "Merlot" acquired a reputation for being a funky, anomalous thing, which was true except that it wasn't really Merlot. It took until the 1990s for the world to be reminded by French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot that Chile was, in fact, home to thousands of hectares of very historic Carménère rootstock.

To muddy the waters further, it sort of tastes like Merlot — a core of plums and black cherries and chocolate — at least until you smack up against Carménère's oddball smoky-earthy-green-herbaceousness, which can be either unique and intriguing, or acrid and offputting (or worse, muted under an avalanche of oak) depending on the skill of the winemaker. Cab Franc is the only other red wine to have such pronounced green veggie flavors that aren't considered a sign of underripe fruit, but with Carménère there's an additional layer of smoke: think roasted hatch chiles or charred poblanos. And then there's the herbals. Mint and sarsaparilla get used a lot in Carménère descriptions, but there's an underlying earthiness that makes us think of yerba mate, which seems appropriate for this part of the world. 

Compared to other signature new world reds, Carménère’s neither as profoundly heavy as Malbec or as overly extracted and high in alcohol as Zinfandel — and, in a lot of cases, it has more surprises swirling around in the glass than either.

It's quirky and it's not for everyone, but lacking in personality it is not.

HULK SMASH!  2013 El Grano Carménère, Curico Valley

HULK SMASH! 2013 El Grano Carménère, Curico Valley

Right now, during our Spring focus on the wines of Chile, we’re pouring El Grano’s 2013 Carménère, made by Loire Valley native Denis Duveau in the Curico Valley 70 miles south of Santiago. The 20 year old vines are organically farmed and green harvested to keep yields low. Dark, pruney fruits, jalapeño and tea on the nose; cassis, spice and savory notes on the palate. This is a very friendly introduction to a unique grape that Chilean winemakers are still figuring out. Try a glass!