Of all the great discoveries traveling north from Lisbon to Porto, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out an estate that, thankfully, got on my radar several years back. While it's an over-generalization to point to one vintage as a triumph across all of Europe, 1985 is a year that I fervently hunt throughout nearly all regions of France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and now Portugal. After selling out of the 1990, I'm thrilled today to turn to the 1985.
Frei Joao's 1985 Tinto from the Baga grape is the diamond that arrived to us just this year, after a long 34-year slumber in the dark, dank cellars below the clay soils of Bairrada. At $56 per bottle, and down to $52.99 on 6 or more, this is the aged, old world red that delivers history in bottle at a can't-miss price!
When I think of the wines that have stirred the very greatest emotions they've all had significant bottle age. Meeting a wine at its apogee can be thrilling in a way that often leaves you without words. Those dramatic times when silence falls upon a table always seem to be recounted later, but in the moment we're completely dialed into the glass. The scents, the flavors, and the textures are worlds apart from what we find in young wines. The word haunting often seems to be the note most associated with these aged wines in their prime, where deep sense memories are easily accessed.
Unfortunately, most of these personal wine experiences have come with a price tag that reflects the scarcity of the bottle in question. That's why today's offer is a very exciting one. Portugal, like Spain, is slowly making their case in the US for value and terroir-driven wines that are highlighted by freshness. Along with these new, fascinating arrivals we're also given a few serious gems.
Frei Joao was established in the 1950's, focused on the indigenous red and white grapes of the Bairrada region. The simple story is that because of their long history in the region and strong relationships with growers Frei Joao is offered the right for first refusal of the best fruit. Thankfully, they've taken this gift seriously, stashing away vintages from 1959 to 2000 for long aging at the winery.
The Baga grape is one with compelling tannins and very pronounced acidity, the perfect recipe for gradual and transformative aging. The clay soils and the evolutionary track we see today points quite a bit to the right bank of Bordeaux, but of course, the price point couldn't be further apart. Today, the 1985 banner vintage is fully resolved with supple tannins, dark cherry fruit, and all of the tobacco, mocha, and leather old world secondary notes you'd come to expect.
At 12% alcohol the element of freshness cannot be overstated. Portugal's Bairrada is never shy on ripeness, and this old school mentality tied to lower alcohol winemaking has put this 1985 in the perfect spot today. The limited nature of these wines shouldn't be glossed over either, as Frei Joao is the only commercial winery in Portugal offering library releases from their caves going back this far.
In its prime, an aged bottle poured around a table creates a collective excitement unlike anything else in the world of wine. I've never come across a better opportunity to see that convenient truth more so than today.
My first visit after landing in Barcelona took me 2 hours northwest to the land of llicorella in Priorat. In many ways Priorat was the single region that pulled me to the Old World as a primarily California drinker as I was finishing college. The llicorella (black slate) of these high altitude vineyards, often resembling a lunar landscape, imparted colossal minerality and a full-throttle inky, black fruit quality that hypnotized me from first sip. While my palate has changed quite a lot since the early 2000's, it has been a huge surprise to see a winemaker here who, in tandem, changed the profile of Priorat. Dominik Huber's Terroir Al Límit shows a face of the region that diverges drastically from the norm, and constructs wines true to this slate foundation, except with a transparency and fresh streak that's altogether singular.
Today, I'm happy to offer the four wines from Terroir Al Limit's 2014 release that opened the window for me to see Priorat's magic in a shimmering light.
Terroir Al Límit's lineup is centered around Garnacha and Carinyena's explosive violet aromatics, met with wild strawberry and an array of blue fruit tones. The slate and clay soils that are so special to Priorat endow each wine with a deeply layered and saturating mineral punch that forms the cornerstone of all wines. But, alas, building trends over the 1990's have placed just about every winery of this region into a camp of high extraction and high oak influence that obscures an authentic sense of place. And, that's where Huber raced in stage left.
First and foremost, Dominik employs an organic and biodynamic approach. Given the arid climate, one would imagine this a popular regimen, but it's still incredibly rare. Secondly, infusion and semi-carbonic fermentations make Terroir Al Límit a completeoutlier. This whole cluster fermentation limits extraction and keeps the beastly tannins at bay a bit. His aging in Austria's Stockinger foudres is also an integral key to preserving the delineation and more filigreed expressions of terroir.
When deciding which cuvées might appeal to you most, I'd like to really hammer home one point. Rarely have I visited a region where grape variety falls into the background behind terroir as much as in Priorat with Huber's style. Garnacha does best in more clay-dominant sites, and the wines show this more broad sensation on the palate, with arguably a touch more in the red fruit camp. Carinyena, alternatively, is best suited on pure llicorella and schist, where a more vertical and incisive personality forms, with a touch darker profile and scorched earth traits.
In the end, this is the one destination in Priorat that you must become familiar with if your palate has lead you to Burgundy and traditional Northern Rhône. Although the wines here would never be mistaken for the aforementioned, the clarity and poise found in glass is founded on similar principles.
Torroja Vi De La Vila is the "village" wine here, consisting of equal parts Garnacha and Carinyena from 50-75-yr-old vines. This is the sole wine of Terroir Al Límit that sees a blending of these two main varieties.
Abrossar taps 90-yr-old Cariyena from a north-facing slope. This exposition was of little interest to many vignerons in times past, but with warming temperatures and Huber's insistence on freshness over power, this wine today is the model for Carinyena's prospects of levity and elegance.
Les Manyes taps 50-yr-old Garnacha vines from clay-based soils. Broad and saturating with more red fruit tones and a long mineral-driven finish.
Les Tosses (where Dominik and I are pictured above) is a steep and very high altitude Carinyena vineyard containing 90-yr-old vines. Along with Les Manyes, this is the magnum opus of Terroir Al Límit.
* Decanting each wine for over 30 minutes prior to drinking is highly recommended.
Today, finding myself so far removed from the powerhouse-styled wines that I gravitated towards a decade ago can leave me a bit melancholy at times, as that was such an exciting period in my growing interest in wine. But, landing on the sole domaine that harnesses all of those rare traits of Priorat in a more understated style that speaks to my palate today is simply thrilling. Sharing my passion is the goal everyday as I write these offers, and I cannot think of a better stop on the wine route to illustrate a region's promise in shifting a style as what Dominik has done with Terroir Al Límit.
My fondness for the old school winemaking mentality that can be regularly found in pockets of the Santa Cruz Mountains is no surprise. Names like Ridge, Mount Eden, and more recently Arnot-Roberts have proved emblematic of Cabernet Sauvignon's ability to show a more nuanced and earth-inflected tone in this ultra-cool zone of California. This is where my excitement for the variety reaches its fever pitch in America. There's always an element of mystery to these vineyards that have remained way off the radar as compared to Napa counterparts. Among the mysteries residing in the Santa Cruz Mountains, no winery elicits the same intrigue as that of the former Ahlgren Vineyards and their Bates Ranch bottlings.
Today, I'm happy to offer the late release direct from the winery of Ahlgren's 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon for $68, and their 2005 Merlot for $39. I've also created special 6-pack pricing to sharpen up this rare back-vintage offer even more.Val and Dexter Ahlgren had been producing wines from this Boulder Creek zone of the Santa Cruz Mountains since the 70's. Upon their relatively recent retirement they had sold all of their library stock to a favorite distributor of mine whom I've long turned to for everything from Soldera Brunello to Foradori Teroldgeo to Cedric Bouchard champagne. When they announced these Ahlgren wines would be poured at their portfolio tasting I was very excited to taste. The results in bottle were so impressive I took every bottle available.
Now, I've painted the Santa Cruz Mountains with a broad brush in the past, describing a middle ground between Napa and Bordeaux for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based wines. When we talk about Ahlgren we need to pull away from this simple analogy a bit. Ahlgren produces wines from these two varieties with a transparency and light extraction that actually bears little resemblance to either Napa or Bordeaux. Ahlgren exists in its own category of style, and pointing to similar references wouldn't do these wines justice or accurately explain what you'll find in bottle.
For me, these late releases impress first and foremost in their soundness of fruit. These had been resting at the winery since initial bottling until their recent purchase.There's a singular sweet brown spice found in both the 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2005 Merlot that's simply Bates Ranch. Tannin was never the basis of structure for these wines, interestingly enough from two varieties that rarely have a shortage in that department. Instead, it's the acidity and sense of freshness that serves as the wines' foundation today with bright red and black fruits pulsating with energy. Each has a soft and utterly drinkable quality that's at once fun and playful, yet lingers with dead-serious tertiary development that makes terroir the prime feature.
Late releases from wineries always offer something that's worthy of getting excited about. Especially in these more delicately constructed wines the provenance is so critical in enjoying them at their apogee. Today's final release from Ahlgren Vineyards Bates' Ranch is one that sums up why this ultra old school zone of California warrants so much attention.