“Today, the big companies have bought up land and taken charge of farming and making port. […] But it may be smaller producers like [Luis] Seabra who will help lift the reputation of the Douro as a source for great table wines […].” —Eric Asimov of The New York Times
There’s no ragtag band of young producers vowing to carry Portugal’s Douro Valley, land of sweet fortified red wine, into the future, as has been the recent narrative for so many other alt-regions across the world.
But they do have Luis Seabra—a winemaker who spearheaded the growth at the port house Niepoort for a decade, then in 2013, veered left into unknown terrain, channeling the Douro’s terroir to produce delicate still wines—who will surely inspire the next generations to come.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2018 Luis Seabra Granito Cru Alvarinho, along with seven other Seabra wines that prove this is the first stop on any Portugal tour.
Most small growers are likely to sell their fruit to the big port companies that dominate the region, and the still reds that are produced are big and blustering, ripe and tannic. Still whites are pushed to the bottom of the totem pole. Ironically, where Luis sources most of his wines in eastern Douro has some of the most extreme diurnal shifts in the region—apt for high-acid, mineral-driven wines with tension.
Last year, Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote a feature on Luis Seabra and Dirk Niepoort that better encapsulates why this is a monumental shifting point for Portugal.
But what really sets Luis apart—not just in Portugal—is his affinity for soil, capturing this singular aspect of terroir and its influence on wine. In Portuguese, the word cru actually translates to “raw,” referring to the raw soils of his vineyard sources.
In the Douro, Luis' vineyards are white and red field blends of native Portuguese varieties, laden with schist, but the Granito Cru Alvarinho actually comes from a vineyard further northwest in Vinho Verde, closer to the Albariño region in Spain’s Galicia. The vineyard, planted in 1989, is made up of granite soils.
With this context, the Granito Cru Alvarinho is quite unique. Words that came to mind in our tasting: Saline, acid, electric, light-footed, and white florals. I savored the wine over the course of a weekend, and it just kept going, revealing an alternate ego that had rich, oceanic, almost umami flavors. This is a powerful wine, not in body or weight, but in its steady energy and depth.
Producers like Luis Seabra are few and far between. So much so that it now seems funny that he was on my radar years before the more recognized Raul Perez and Comando G in Spain, producing bright and fresh wines in a similar vein. Whether or not the Douro seizes this moment, Luis has made a compelling case for a style of wine that completely reconfigures our perception of this region.
For many years, Germany has been swinging for the fences chasing that home run impact for Pinot Noir to rival Grand Cru Burgundy. In most cases, the results fall well short for me, as the wine's showy full-throttle ripeness and excessive new oak suggest a lack of conviction in the site's potential.
In Germany, the Baden region seems to be the sweet spot for where Pinot Noir ripens sufficiently, and old vines tend to be planted. Here, the greatest surprise comes from two guys working very much against the grain, with a strong focus toward natural winemaking and only hands-on viticulture. If there's one undiscovered Pinot Noir producer that warrants your immediate attention, this would be the duo.
Today, I'm happy to offer the Baden Pinot Noir lineup from Enderle & Moll.
Sven Enderle and Florian Moll began farming 2 hectares of vines in 2007. They had worked in different settings throughout the globe. They came back home to Baden with a clear mission: to work the land in organic and biodynamic viticulture, applying the lightest touch possible in the cellar (they do not use pumps, filters, or fining agents). The two were very lucky to work steep parcels of ancient vines of Pinot Noir, some of the very oldest in Baden. Their exacting approach in both the vines and the cellar has allowed them to use minimal sulphur, highlighting even more fruit's vivid purity within each parcel.
On the one hand, the wines are spicy, ethereal, and composed. On the other, the Buntsandstein, in particular, has a power and intensity that brings a great counterpoint. Aging in older barrels directly from Burgundy's Domaine Dujac ensures these are brought up with the best care possible, given their extreme work on the edge with minimal sulphur.
While the more natural-focused wine crowd has championed these upon their relatively recent release in the US, critics covering a large spectrum of styles have dialed in here, most notably Jancis Robinson placing them firmly in the "cult" category. Whatever label you want to place on Sven and Florian, one thing is obvious; this is the new frontier of German Pinot Noir. Drawing inspiration from Grand Cru Burgundy is one thing, but the ultimate reason these are such achievements is from a strict focus on their own sense of place and unique style.
For the natural wine scene in Los Angeles, Austria has much to do with the recent frenzy of wine drinkers seeking out “funky” and “orange.” Wines like Meinklang and Koppitsch, affordable and chuggable, were flying off the shelves when I worked at Silverlake Wine.
Ewald Tscheppe of Werlitsch in Styria, the southernmost wine region in Austria, perpetuates the dreamy biodynamic farm vibes coming from Eastern Europe, and what he’s done in the realm of biodynamics restores my faith that there's brilliance to be found in the far reaches of natural wine.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2018 Werlitsch vom Opok Sauvignon Blanc.
Really, Ewald is a true biodynamic geek. His eight hectares of vines share a home with fruit trees, wild herbs and vegetables, and forest. He follows all of the “woo-woo” intricacies of preparations and compost teas and uses ground quartz and rainwater as “fungicide.” And absolutely no sulfur, ever. He’s referred to as an agronomist, an uncompromising naturalist, with the motto that nature always does it better.
Ewald was studying wine in university around the same time Austria’s reputation took a big hit; a 1985 winemaking scandal revealed that some wineries had been using antifreeze to add sweetness and body to their wines. On the other end of the spectrum, Ewald and friends had discovered biodynamics; he identified so deeply with the ethics of organic and biodynamic farming that despite his father’s wishes, he secretly started farming their vines this way in 2004. Coincidentally, his father passed away that year, which gave him the freedom to go full steam ahead.
There are two factors that set Styria apart from the rest of Austria: its grape varieties and soil. Three-quarters of the appellation is planted to white varieties: mostly to Sauvignon Blanc as well as Chardonnay (called Morillon here) and other native varieties. Then, there’s a distinct soil component called “opok,” a mixture of limestone and clay, rich in minerals and marine fossils. Planted on a steep hillside behind his home, Ewald's vineyards are made up entirely of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and opok is such a defining factor to the terroir, it’s the heartbeat to all of the Werlitsch wines.Our staff blind-tasted the 2017 Werlitsch Ex Vero I, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It had matchstick on the nose, then white florals, fresh citrus, and coconut milk, electric acidity on the palate—but it was really about the wine’s energy and thin wax texture. I thought it was from Jura. It had that Burgundy gone rogue feeling in Jura Chardonnay and Savagnin, except maybe it’s more appropriate to say Sancerre gone rogue given the context of Sauvignon Blanc.
The 2018 vom Opok Sauvignon Blanc is sourced from the lower part of Werlitsch’s hillside where the vines are around 30 years old. The fruit is directly pressed, stored in old foudre, and that’s basically it. It goes through fermentation then rests on the lees with no interference for at least 18 months. This wine is a great introduction to Ewald’s other projects, including the Ex Vero series that scales higher up the hill and the skin-contact wines.
I was aware of the allure surrounding Werlitsch for years, but at the time, these were just enough outside of the budget I'd normally spend on natural wine. Though, I wish I had dived in sooner. They're among a higher tier of wines that will expand your awareness of Austria.—Sydney LovePhoto Credit: Little Wine
We recently focused on Salvo Foti's Mt. Etna value knockout, the I Vigneri Rosso. Today we turn to Foti's top wine, Vinupetra ("a wine produced in a land full of stones" in Sicilian dialect). With so many exciting producers today in Etna, it can be hard to pick favorites, but when the discussion turns plainly to the greatest red wine from the slopes of this active volcano, there's no debate in my mind. It's Vinupetra.
Today, I'm happy to offer I Vigneri's Vinupetra from 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Vinupetra comes from just a single hectare of 100+ year-old-vines on Etna's north side. Simply put, it's a magnum opus for Nerello Mascalese. The north side is home to the most serious reds on Etna. At 2,300 feet, these are some of the highest altitude vines in all of Europe. Massive mountain ranges form the backdrop of the terraced vineyards, and the sea's influence is minimized compared to Milo in the south, where Foti sources his Carricante.
The impact Salvo Foti has had on the wines, vineyards, and producers of Etna is a tough task to complete in a few paragraphs. He is the Godfather of wine on this volcanic landscape. For so many years, his work was tied to other top estates like Biondi and Benanti, serving as an oenologist and vineyard consultant. But, in 2001, he began to focus nearly exclusively on his own project, I Vigneri. The name derives from the 1435-established Maestranzi dei Vigneri, a collective of vineyard workers who influenced the foundation of these magnificent vines atop Etna.
At I Vigneri, production is split between the white Carricante on Etna's Mediterranean-influenced south-east facing vineyards and its very old-vine Nerello Mascalese in the high altitude northern side of the volcano. Today, all wines truly set the bar for the heights now expected from Etna wine.
Nerello Mascalese sees intense sun exposure, but the huge swing into low temperatures at night keeps acidity very high and allows this to walk that tightrope between concentrated, ripe fruit and a disciplined frame of structured minerality. Vinupetra dazzles the senses with its transparency and ethereal nature on one end and powerful concentration at the other. Wines that find harmony between grace and power are not easy to come across. Vinupetra is more than the top example of Nerello Mascalese or a Sicilian red; it's one of the world's great wines of terroir.
"Aurora" comprises 90% Carricante and 10% Minella, coming from rocky lava soils with rich iron content. Aurora is a dynamic white full of white peaches, melon, and a salty finish with butterscotch hints. At 12.5% alcohol, this really impresses in its refinement, delivering a gorgeous balance between textured orchard fruit and a chalky crisp finish.
"Milo" is comprised of 100% Carricante from a special parcel set at 950 meters above sea level.
“The talented Cristiano Garella has emerged as the voice of the younger generation and is, along with Roberto Conterno, Alto Piemonte’s greatest ambassador. […] These producers, among many others, are the face of Alto Piemonte today.” —Antonio Galloni of Vinous
Before Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco earned their stronghold in Northwestern Italy, there was a time when Alto Piemonte, just two hours northeast, was the more widely planted and sought-after region for Nebbiolo. We have a handful of Alto Piemonte wines in our collection, but the first and foremost name to know among the current revivalists is Cristiano Garella.
Today, I'm happy to offer Colombera & Garella’s 2016 Bramaterra Cascina Cottignano and Lessona Pizzaguerra for $50 per bottle.
Alto Piemonte was pummeled by one crisis after another, starting with the spread of phylloxera in the 1800s and, more recently, by the industrial revolution during World War II when farmers abandoned their vineyards in the countryside for factory jobs in cities. In the last decade, Cristiano has strived to revive Alto Piemonte as a wine region, highlighting its distinctive varieties and terroir. Nebbiolo is still the noble grape here, but it’s blended with small amounts of native varieties like Vespolina and Croatina that add another dimension to the wines.
Cristiano is an adviser to roughly 20 wineries across the region, but Colombera & Garella is his own project (hence the namesake)—the first half refers to father-son duo Giacomo and Carlo Colombera, Cristiano’s long-time friends who have grown grapes in Bramaterra since the early 1990s.
Together, they farm nine hectares using organic and low-intervention practices in the vineyard and cellar (native yeast, fermentation in concrete tanks, minimal sulfur, and 24-month élevage in neutral barrels, etc.). These are currently the only wines in our Alto Piemonte collection from the appellations of Bramaterra and Lessona.
Compared to Barolo and Barbaresco, Alto Piemonte has a cooler, rainier climate. In Bramaterra and Lessona, the soils are significantly more acidic and respectively comprised of reddish-brown sand from an ancient volcano and yellow sand from the sea. Some sources conclude that these factors result in a more mineral-driven expression of Nebbiolo, with finer tannins and nerving acidity—all of which makes them more approachable and readily drinkable than their slower aging counterparts.
When we tasted the 2016 Bramatera Cascina Cottionano in September, I was pulled in by the high tones of red licorice and cherry pulsing through the wine that seemed to add another octave. Italian wine critic Antonio Galloni of Vinous wrote an overview of Alto Piemonte earlier this year that included a glowing review of Colombera & Garella’s latest releases, which I think best expresses how special these wines are:
“The 2016 Bramaterra Cascina Cottignano is bold, ample and super-expressive, although it is going to need at least a few years in bottle to be at its best. Even today, though, the wine's depth and overall resonance are both apparent. Dark red cherry, plum, spice, rose petal and earthy notes all flesh out in this potent, exotically rich Bramaterra. The 2016 is flat-out gorgeous, that's pretty much all there is to it.”
“The 2016 Lessona Pizzaguerra is super-refined and silky. A wine of grace above all else, the 2016 speaks with real distinction and tons of pure class. Sweet red cherry fruit, blood orange, mint, spice and star anise all run through this pliant, racy Lessona from Colombera & Gallera. Best of all, the 2016 will drink well with minimal cellaring.”
These wines are still distinctly the Nebbiolo we know and love but reveal another facet of the variety and, as a result, another layer of admiration, especially given their more-affordable price tag. The comeback of Nebbiolo's former homeland couldn't be more appealing!