In so many ways Ciro Biondi is the perfect introduction to the land of Mt. Etna. Of all my visits, Biondi's estate is the closest to the southern port town of Catania, my home through my June 2017 stay. As I drive up from the sea toward the massive volcano looming above I'm still greeted by the palm trees and scenery most reminiscent of the Mediterranean. It's in this southern portion of Etna where the Nerello Mascalese-based wines are the very most elegant and softly-textured. The charm and infectious enthusiasm of Ciro Biondi is an easy way to be pulled into the history of Etna.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Biondi Outis Etna Rosso for $40 per bottle.
Biondi's family has been farming vines in this small southern town of Trecastagni since the early 1800's, and began estate bottling in the early 1900's. Climbing the hills of his property 100-year-old vines point to a rich history, but it's the greek artifacts littered throughout that constantly remind Ciro of Sicily's past of guests, influencers, and ever-changing rulers. He admits that although Sicily is in so many ways independent of Italy, it would be lost without someone to rule her. Its history of wars and conquerors simply knows no other way.
The steep terraces that make up each of Ciro's three vineyards are iconic. Immediately you have a sense you've been here before, but of course it's only through images you've stumbled upon in years past. Like most of Etna the black volcanic soil is evident, it falls through your hands like sand when you pick it up. Toward the very top of the steep terraces the soil and rocks turn a Mars-like red. I press Ciro on whether he ever has separated fermentation tanks to show the differences, but he's happy capturing the entire vineyard in one picture. He's discovered the need to limit his input into the winemaking decisions and do everything he can to let the place speak as honestly as possible, with the very lightest touch. Ciro reminds, nature is so much more powerful than he is, his best work over the years coming from recognizing that truth.
And the wines show it. Here, Nerello Mascalese is light and perfumed, calling to mind Pinot Noir more so than some of its darker interpretations on the north side of Etna. A small amount (10-20%) of Nerello Cappuccio is historically blended to offer some darker characteristics. But, without a doubt, this is Etna at its most delicate, graceful, and aromatic.
Ciro's Outis is a blend of his three vineyards. Pale colored, with bright red fruits and that faint note of dusty volcanic soil that offers the structure and backbone defining these light reds from the south. Rose pedals, bright cherry, and notes of fig linger on the finish here. If Etna is to seduce you for the very first time I imagine Outis would be the wine to do it.
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 Merlot and 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 2005 Merlot for $47 per bottle.
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 Merlot-based wines. When we talk about Ahlgren we need to pull away from this simple analogy a bit. Ahlgren produces wines from Merlot 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. The 2005 Merlot pulls us further away from primary fruit and into a deeper emphasis on the tertiary, floral, and earth tones.
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 I find in the 2005 Merlot that's simply Bates Ranch. Tannin was never the basis of structure for these wines, interestingly enough from a variety that rarely has any shortage in that department. Instead, it's the acidity and freshness that serves as the wines' foundation today with bright red and black fruits pulsating with energy. There's a soft, drinkable quality that's at once fun and playful, yet lingers with dead-serious earthy inflection that puts terroir front-and-center.
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.
It's no secret that over the last decade Jean-Marie Fourrier has catapulted his family's domaine into elite status within Burgundy. Fourrier is the 5th generation to lead this 9-hectare Gevrey Chambertin estate, officially taking over for his father in 1994 after interning with the mythical Henri Jayer.
Today, I'm very happy to offer a deep range from Jean-Marie Fourrier.
The wines of Fourrier are most associated in my mind for their silken texture with ripe and vivid fruit. They also are lauded for their ability to drink great at all stages of development. But, above all, it's a sense of purity and site reflection that have put them atop the wishlist of every traditional Burgundy collector.
Jean-Marie is most noted for his strict reliance on using only old vines for domainebottlings - averaging 60 years according to my visit in November 2012. The maximum new oak employed is 20%, and like Jayer grapes here are overwhelmingly de-stemmed.
Much of the magic to the wines' purity has to be tied into Jean-Marie's practice of using very minimal amounts of sulphur, instead relying on dissolved CO2 to remain in the wine protecting against oxidation. Because of this it's recommended that younger bottles are double decanted to help "blow-off" any slight effervescence that might remain.
Below is a wide range of Fourrier's 2016's, as well as back-vintage gems through 1999. Jean-Marie has recently started a négociant project, but, with the exception of theBourgogne Rouge, 100% of the wines offered below are domaine, having been farmed by the Fourrier family for generations.
There's no name in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir who's demanded more attention during the grape's rapid rise in popularity through the last decades like J. Rochioli.Today's offer includes limited quantities of Rochioli's best parcels spanning 2006 to 2009.
As great as the demand was for Rochioli upon release, today's enthusiasm for these vintages has increased tenfold. The upfront pleasure these initially provided meant that very few have been left to age, and those that do become available are quickly snatched up by collectors. Many featured today are the only offers in the country.
Rochioli Pinot Noir from this era marks an important shift at the winery where the power and extraction was dialed back, giving way to a more nuanced and energetic style. Although the micro-batch, non-interventionist approach draws inspiration from a Burgundian model, the wines are Russian River Valley through and through. The sun-kissed element of Pinot Noir from this section of Sonoma is the centerpiece of the wines. However, it was Rochioli that was a leader in the region's focus toward extreme site-specific winemaking. The unique alluvial and sandy "Yolo" loam soil along the Russian River gave an opportunity to vinify each parcel separately, offering wild distinctions between plots.
Joe Rochioli Sr. settled on this land in 1934, originally planting Cabernet Sauvingon in 1959. His son, Joe Rochioli Jr., realized Pinot Noir was better suited and was a pioneer in bringing clones in from Burgundy in 1968. At this time very little was known in Sonoma about the grape. But, when Williams-Selyem began purchasing the fruit in the early 80's everything began to change, and the successes convinced the Rochioli family to begin to estate-bottle.
Today, Rochioli is very much to Sonoma Pinot Noir what Mondavi is to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Unfortunately, concerning availability, the scale of production has continued to be very small. Today's perfectly stored, back-vintage releases of their top parcels is a rare collection not to be missed!
For years there was building buzz about Dominique Lafon's new collaboration with Larry Stone in the Eola-Amity Hills. That buzz reached a crescendo when the first vintage was released, and today the wines of Lingua Franca stand as among the very best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the New World.
Today, I'm happy to offer the top Pinot Noir from Lingua Franca, the 2016 Mimi's Mind, sourced from Mimi Castell's iconic vineyard of heritage Pommard vines in the Eola-Amity-Hills.
Like all of the Pinot Noir from Lingua Franca, Mimi's Mind is all about forward, pristine red cherry fruits with great lift and dead-serious definition. It may sound trite, but the balance in Mimi's Mind is again sole reason Lingua Franca has skyrocketed to prominence in such a short period of time. These are just perfectly composed Pinot Noirs of grace, and Mimi's Mind is where the grandeur of all the elements reach its apogee.
Originally, I sat down a few years ago with Larry in La Jolla and tasted through the inaugural release from his winery, Lingua Franca. And since that time I've made two visits to his state-of-the-art winery in the Eola-Amity Hills. Tasting through the 2017's in barrel made clear this project is continuing to raise the bar.
Larry and Dominque had become very familiar with the Eola-Amity Hills working previously with the Seven Springs Vineyard, and in the end, Larry planted vines and built his winery right next door. Though their admiration of Oregon terroir throughout Willamette Valley was very high, both found a magic combination here where the entire picture of the wines maintained sharp focus. This was the sweet spot where minerality met ripe texture and the results personified that elusive Burgundian sensibility: Elegance and impact, without the compromise of terroir.
As consulting winemaker, Dominique Lafon of Comtes Lafon in Meursault, has a style that highlights silky fruit and seamless texture. His Volnay and Meursault wines are among the most collected in the world, and early on Larry Stone was a huge force introducing these to America. Larry was the 9th American to become a Master Sommelier and became the very first to win the Best International Sommelier in his competition in Paris. Working with Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and then the iconicRubicon restaurant in San Francisco Larry's work to cultivate the following of Burgundy in the US cannot be overstated.
The Jory and volcanic soils in Eola-Amity proved to be the ideal landing for this joint venture. And recruited from Burgundy was their winemaker, Thomas Savre, whose work in the cellars of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti brought a skilled and meticulous eye into the fold. Lingua Franca is one of the most exciting new estates I've been introduced to. The overall balance and purity of fruit to each of the cuvées ultimately reflect their place. The legendary names that built this winery from the ground up have surpassed even the highest expectations placed upon them.