In the Old Time Religion that is wine, here in the Year of Our Lord 2014, the rigid morality has it that we drink our whites by latching onto a favorite grape or two and staying within the safe, predictable confines of the Great Known Quantity: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Sauv Blanc, maybe an occasional Prosecco, and – if your Aunt Sadie from Minonk, Illinois is coming to town – maybe a sweet Riesling and…that’s about it. We’re Americans. We’re habitual. We’re not into “weird stuff”…We’re in a big freakin’ rut, is what we are.
It gets worse: coinciding with this year’s Taste Washington, a panel seminar on Exotic Grapes was held, and three of the wines included in the talk were…Petit Sirah, Sangiovese, and Chenin Blanc! We’ve been producing these three grapes in Washington for a pretty long time, now, especially the Chenin, which was among that first tiny handful of white grapes that started the planting of vitis vinifera in the Evergreen State and provided many of those God-awful, icky-sweet whites that set the drinking habits of spinsters and winos for the next forty years. It’s an old story, repeated all over the world: grape falls into abuse and is forgotten, only to rise again in the hands of an adventurous winemaker who embraces a longer perspective. So it is with Chenin Blanc, which was the cat’s ass back in the 1960s, when Vouvray was the hipster’s wine of choice. But the grape is prone to a sort of “dirty” character and it was made badly by a lot of producers and fell off the map. But it’s comin’ back, bretheren and sisteren!
And I am dancing for joy that it is.
Every year, I do this round-up of wines to drink during the two-two and a half weeks (maybe) of summer that we generally enjoy, here in the Soggy Corner of the US. With my Mom passing away, traveling to Virginia to see her, aches and pains of old age, and the joys of having two peculiar dogs, it’s screamin’ LATE this year, so I decided to give into the fiendish impulse that I managed to suppress in every previous year and give you a list of wines and grapes that you may never have heard of and may, in fact, have a devil of a time even finding. But in looking back at the tastings I’ve done in the past 12 months, the things that stood out were not the safe and predictable. They were these below and, maybe more than any other year since I started in the wine biz, whites lit me up very nearly as much as the reds did.
These are fabulous wines, every one of ’em, and I very deliberately excluded anything that was too familiar – there would be a noted California white blend, an Argentine Torrontes, and three Washington varietal wines in this – or already a critical darling. I tossed in two remarkable Rosés, just because you need – whether you know it or not – some variety in your piehole. It’s amazing how you can slog through the dull and the quotidian all day long and then upend and salvage the whole shebang with one glass of wine that makes you go, “Wow!”
These, then, are some bona fide Wow opportunities. I hope you take the time to grab one or two (or all of ’em) and escape the ChardSauvBlancPinotGris straitjacket for a day. Take it from me, a beautiful white can be every bit as revelatory as a great red, when the weather’s right…and you let yourself try it…
1. SPECIAL BARGAIN ALERT: If you’ve ever made even a quick pass through the wine section at any of the Grocery Outlet Bargain Markets, you know that the wines there are generally the oenological equivalent of Tod Browning’s “Freaks”: weird, obscure, scary, and even a little intimidating in their sheer impenetrability. But on a recent trip to our GO in Bellevoid, I espied a bottle that was quite well known to me and at a price that made me go all swoony. Luna Vineyards, of Napa Valley, California, a producer, primarily, of fine reds, was formerly the home of one of Napa’s winemaking legends, John Konsgaard. After he left to pursue his own company, Luna drifted a bit but is now back in its groove and has created a value tier called “Lunatic”. Luna Vineyards “Lunatic” White is a blend of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and Muscat Canelli, 33% each. It deftly balances the flamboyant Muscat tropical fruit and wildflower flavors with the hallmark spice of the Gewurz and the stately tree fruit of the Pinot Blanc. This is a gorgeous bottle of steel-fermented and aged Napa white, with lovely subtlety, vivid complexity, and gobs of fat, juicy fruit. It’s every inch a Luna-quality wine and several of the Grocery Outlets have it for…$4.99. I fully intend to be back there tomorrow, picking up as many bottles as I can find. For summer sipping or food pairing, this is a value that cannot be beat. 91 Points
2. I’m going to say something nice about my esteemed colleague and Facebook buddy, Paul Gregutt, and it’ll probably make him squirm but, hey, life’s that way, sometimes. I admired one wine critic more than any I’ve read before or since: Tom Stockley. Those who remember Tom will recall his unfailing good humor, his kindness toward everyone he came in contact with, his amazingly tuned-in palate, his Everyman sensibilities, and his deceptively fine, stealth-mode gift – there’s no other word – as a writer. He was far better than even his ardent admirers knew and Paul…is Tom Stockley’s logical succesor. He’s a fundamentally kind man, even handed in his views, rejects the notion that snark is a necessary component of the wine writer’s arsenal, and now, miraculously, has also become…a damned good winemaker. Waitsburg Cellars Cheniniere 2012 and Waitsburg Cellars Chevray 2012 are the two highest-rated American Chenin Blancs in Wine Spectator Magazine for the past THREE vintages and the only Chenins to rate over 90 points. Paul and his partners at Precept Wines are leaving bread crumbs for the rest of the vintners in the US on that brushy trail back from Chenin Purgatory. These are supple, clean, subtle, complex, immaculately balanced, and jaw-droppingly delicious wines; near-perfect sippers and among the state’s best whites as all-purpose food pairings. Both offer vivid stone fruit, almonds, white peaches, and uber-creamy texture. The Cheniniere is a touch, just a whisper, sweeter and shows a surprising and appealing quince note, couched in pools of citrus. The Chevray shows ripe Anjou pears, yellow apples, and honeydew, with a pronounced note of wildflowers on the finish. They’re simply how this grape should be made and even that isn’t the biggest surprise. That would be the price: about $17 for each. I may, in a certain mood, choose the Chevray over the Cheniniere but, fifteen minutes later, it might be the reverse. My recommendation? Buy ’em both. Compromise is sometimes a wise choice. 94 Points, both wines
3. SPECIAL MENTION: Readers of The Pour Fool will already know of my fondness for the wines from Woodinville negociant, Bob Bullock, and his ultra-value label, Eye of The Needle. I’ve been a fan of Bob’s wines ever since his 2009 start-up and, in fact, helped with blending some of them in the early days. So, it can be said that my knowledge of this label is complete and intimate. This summer, Bob has teamed up with Northwest Harvest of a twin set of bottles, one red and one white, called “12th Red” and “12th White”. Every bottle sold of either wine will buy a complete meal for a needy NW family and, even if the wines tasted like pond water, I’d be at least buying some, if maybe not reviewing them. But honesty compels me to say that Eye of The Needle Winery “12th White” (about $15) is quite possibly the best Washington white wine I’ve tasted – from anywhere and anybody! – in the past year. Far from the rocky, occasionally dirty Chenin Blancs (that Exotic grape again!) our parents used to drink from the Loire Valley, this blend of 85% Chenin / 15% Riesling intimates sweetness while never once verging on cloying, and is crystalline in its purity. Fresh-cut peaches is the first impression, followed by pineapple, almonds, Bartlett pears, mango, apricot, fresh cream, honeysuckle, and a hint of melon. The acidity is perfect: enough to make a great food pairing, well short of tartness. As a negociant, Bob Bullock buys finished wines from established wineries and blends ’em into more than the sum of their parts. I know the source for this wine and it is, without question, one of the top white-wine producers on the West Coast. Wine drinkers with a lick of sense will seek this out, sample it, and make this one of their 2014 summer beverages of choice. 94 Points
4. Quady North “Pistoleta” Rogue Valley 2012 (about $20) is a Rhone-style blend of equal parts Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, a blend which has been around for, oh, a couple of centuries, now, and is still pretty much a mystery to most wine fans. You doubt that? Say the words “Marsanne” and “Roussanne” to your wine savvy pal and watch his/her eyes glaze over. Maybe because of the epic stature of Rhone reds, whites from that uber-fertile region continue to fly under the radar. The antidote to that, if you’ve never ventured into them, is One Sip. This is a brilliant and somewhat overlooked example of that Tasty Beast; juicy, flinty, unsweet flavors of pine and citrus peel and gooseberries and pears abound, graced by notes of red apples, sweet minerals, Brazil nuts, melon, and kiwi. The ample acidity practically begs for a complicated green salad, shellfish, roasted poultry, or salmon. Herb Quady is making some Serious Stuff down there in the vastly-underappreciated Rogue Valley. 92 Points
5. Zero One Riesling “Golden Delicious” 2012 (about $15) is a shockingly fine bottle of Riesling from what is fast becoming recognized as on a par with any region in the world for for this stately varietal: the Columbia Valley. Zero One sourced this brilliant stuff from the Gamache Brothers vineyards in Basin City, Washington, from an area that’s never been one of the sexy regions in NW wine but which turns out spectacular fruit of all types. “Juicy” is a good thumbnail of this wine; a bursting, round mouthful of crisp pears, apples, lemon peel, pineapple, almonds, tangy minerals, apricots, and a wild, outdoorsy nose that smells just like standing in an orchard. “Exceptional” would be another great term and this wine clearly shows that the long riverbank there in Franklin County should stand with Evergreen Vineyard as the top sources for Washington Riesling. 92 Points
6. Castellargo “Albus” White 2012 (about $16) is a blend of Chardonnay, Friuliano, and Sauv Blanc. Given my oft-stated weariness on the subject of Chardonnay, the mere fact that there’s some in this should tell you how much I like this wine. The key here is the mitigating effect of the hefty dose of Friuliano (also known as Sauvignon Vert), a close cousin of Sauv Blanc that shows the delicate, subtle aspects of the grape family that the larger-scale Sauv Blanc frequently loses. Where Sauv Blanc shows ripe, full-frontal flavors of gooseberries and currants, Friuliano leans to wildflowers, jasmine, ginger, and honeysuckle. The Chard, here, is mostly structure but a few big notes of its hallmark yellow apple and pears come through. If you think the name has something to do with Harry Potter, you’d be right. Castellagro licensed the name, along with its red brother, Rubeus, for this duo of sunny blends and both are outstanding values, IF you can find them. 93 Points
7. Trenza Wines Blanco 2009 (about $16) is from the Edna Valley properties of the legendary California wine pioneer, Jack Niven, whose Niven Family Wine Estates are the legacy created by his foresight into the vast potential of Edna Valley and his hands-on transformation of raw forest and orchards into world-class vineyard land. This high-elevation collection of vineyards is at very least in the discussion of Cali’s best white wine growing region and this dazzling blend of Spanish varietals Albariño and Grenache Blanc is one of the most impressive new whites to come out of California in the past decade. Robert Whitley, writing in Wine Review Online, gave this 2009 Blanco 94 Points and closed his remarks by saying, “I absolutely loved it!” Me, too. The seldom-seen Grenache Blanc shares its red cousin’s spice and substance, while this crystalline Albariño provides clearly-stated tangerines, blood orange, red pears, and baked apples. The texture is Pure Silk and its zingy minerality gives it food possibilities limited only by your cooking skills. Glorious! 94 Points
8. Idilico Albariño 2012, (about $16) is the second label of Javier Alfonso’s tragically under-appreciated Pomum Cellars, in Woodinville, a winery started by this transplanted son of a family that’s been growing grapes in their Spanish homeland, Ribera del Duero, for over 100 years. I was a very early convert to Pomum fanboy status, initially tasting the wines on the weekend of the first release. I’ve also been a (possibly annoying) cheerleader for the Albariño grape in Washington. The very first review ever written in The Pour Fool, in fact, was a piece about Coyote Canyon Albariño grapes, as made into the first-ever varietal bottle by the now-defunct Shady Grove Winery. That first one was excellent. Idilico is spectacular. The robust character that makes this Spain’s choice as a premiere luxury wine is stated here with gusto: fat, dripping flavors of apple wine, over-ripe pears, sugar cookies, sultanas, red currants, lychi, crushed stones, and white flowers are vivid and just a touch off-dry. The texture is akin to licking velvet; sensuous and viscous. This is almost the yang to the Trenza’s Yin; more full-bodied, more intense…more. And I want more! 93 Points
9. Anne Amie Vineyards “Cuvee A Amrita” 2013 (about $12) is an adventurous blend of mostly Pinot Blanc and Viognier, with smaller doses of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris on the back end. I’ve contended that, for sheer sipping pleasure, Oregon is a better source for white wine than red, and bottles like this prove that out. This is a big, happy, sunny white that showers your palate with crisp flavors of baby strawberry, golden raspberry, nectarine, elderflowers, white peaches, honeysuckle, jasmine, fresh cream, and a subtle, elusive spiciness that gives the finish a haunting, powdery suggestion of cream frosting. Sounds sweet but it’s really almost bone dry, just showing a hint of sugar lurking on the lazy finish. Oregon white blend at its characterful best! 91 Points
10. Ponzi Arneis 2013 (about $28) is a wine that makes me happy in a way that almost no other white has in the past five years. I am a certified, wild-eyed freak for Arneis, and I spend money on it more than on any other grape, red or white. The great Piedmonte producers of Roero and Langhe work on me like catnip and not one single year has gone by in the past twenty that Bruno Giacosa has not gotten some of my bucks tucked into his wallet. Seeing a Northwest winery actually growing the stuff makes me want to dance a jig…and so does this wine. Sourced from the estate’s Aurora Vineyard, this is yet another Italian varietal that’s found a real comfort zone in the Northwest. The basic character is surprisingly similar to the Piedmontese wines but it’s a tad fatter, more revealing of minerals and groundwater and vegetation. Apples and pears lead into peaches, pineapples, mango, tangerines, and an lovely, nutty almond suggestion. 92 Points
11. Renegade Wine Company Rosé 2013…is a little embarrassment of riches. The blend – hang onto something!- is composed of 79% Syrah, 14% Cinsault, and 7% Counoise! Who takes that much trouble to craft a freakin’ pink wine, these days? Trey Busch, that’s who, and this second label of the remarkable Sleight Of Hand Cellars is rockin’ the value wines damned hard, lately. Their Red is a flawless little cherry bomb, with a food affinity that won’t quit, the Chardonnay ought to cost about three times what they’re asking for it, and this is very much in the running for the title of Best Rosé in The Pacific Northwest. It is absolutely NOT, no way no how, sweet, gushes vivid pomegranate, cherry, strawberry, rhubarb, dried cranberry, teaberry, and baking spice flavors, all kissed with a zingy, pleasing minerality. And the price…about $10 to $12 a bottle. This is nothing less than legalized theft, folks, and a wine you can easily keep around for those Thanksgiving turkey dinners. 90 Points
12. Villa Wolf Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013 manages the extremely rare trick of distinguishing itself from the agonizing parade of Pinot Noir pinks that come spewing out of the Northwest, every vintage. Where the Oregon wines tend to be just scaled-back versions of the winery’s cuvee Pinot, this JL Wolf offering, crafted by legendary German winemaker and frequent Chateau Ste. Michelle collaborator, Ernst Loosen, takes the leaner, more minerally Pinot grapes of the Pfalz region and spins them into something light and subtle and damnably smooooth. It caresses your tongue like an ostrich feather before carrying its red berries, Bing cherries, red currants, and laid-back spices right on through to the finish. It’s a beautiful wine, too, glowing in a lit-from-within ruddy salmon in the glass. I’ve seldom been so impressed with a Cheap Date Rosé before and the price is right, too- about $14. 90 Points
13. Parxet “Cuvee 21” Cava Brut NV is just simply one of the world’s two or three best value bubblies. Really. Michael Schachner, writing in The Wine Enthusiast, gave it 90 Points. Critics in Europe routinely heap praise on it. The catch? There is (in ALL likelihood) nary a single grape in this bottle that you have tried before. A blend of three native Spanish grapes – Macabeo, Parellada, and Pansa Blanca – this stuff does an uncanny impression of a fine, mid-tier Champagne – at about $12 a bottle! It’s dry as the Sahara, crisp, nicely restrained, shows beautiful mineral character, and is layered generously with subtle apples, Macadamia nuts, ripe pears, lychi, lemon peel, wheatstraw, and a hint of sweet spices. The bubbles are tiny and persistent and easily outlast the bottle. I’ve been tooting the trumpet for this wine for several years, now, and it just gets better every batch. 91 Points
14. Bodega Santa Julia “Vida Organica” Sparkling Chardonnay clearly shows that making a sparkling wine from Chardonnay and having it turn out elegant, long, nuanced, and bone-dry is not just a trick turned in Champagne. Santa Julia’s high-elevation vineyards in the Mendoza Valley, there in the foothills of the Andes, turn out long-hanging Chardonnay grapes of great expressive character and nuance. I slipped this into a tasting of pricey California sparklings and none of the seven people present suspected a thing, except for one guy who swore that I had slipped in an actual Champagne. The fruit is stately, clearly expressed, and shows amazing purity of a type usually only found in a thirty-buck Sonoma or Horse Heaven Chard. This wine was one of my biggest surprises of 2013 and it’ll even age for a year or two…not that it needs it. 91 Points
WINE OF SPECIAL DISTINCTION, 2013
Of all the white wines I’ve tasted in my 22 years in the wine trade, none has made a greater impact on me or haunted my dreams or lingered in my sense memory quite like an obscure Italian white from one of that country’s true oeneolgical backwaters. Marisa Cuomo, along with her husband, Andrea Ferraioli, revamped an old family estate and opened Cantine Marisa Cuomo, situated – literally – in every available nook and cranny of a vertiginous cliff side in the village of Furore, in one of the world’s most beautiful tourist areas, the Amalfi Coast. As these photos show, even growing the grapes to make the wines is an adventure, with vineyards planted on every square foot available dirt, just above a 500 foot drop into the Mediterranean. I first tasted Marisa Cuomo Furore Bianco “Fiorduva” back in 2009, when a Seattle Importer brought a bottle of the 2007 to my shop and poured me an ounce…ONE ounce.
I have daydreamed about that tiny mouthful ever since and was fortunate enough to find and taste the 2012 just this past winter. I don’t remember ever tasting another wine that expressed so clearly and vividly and even poetically the land that spawned it as Fiorduva…Look at the photos: that haunting, lambent light, the achingly beautiful green of the vineyards against the black volcanic rock, the haze of the sea mists mingling with the red dust. All this is in the wine, a ridiculously complex, vibrant, youthful, expressive, and subtle tapestry of flavors that are so startling and unique in my experience of white wine that I was completely baffled on how to think of it. It starts at the first sip, a shocking rush of mango and white peaches, overlaid with wildflowers. Sea air registers on the mid-palate, along with caramel flan, baked apple, coconut, jasmine, and ginger. Notes of the type of petrol character often found in German Riesling whisper in the background, graced sweetly with buttermint and banana and fireweed honey. It finishes with a herbal edge of lemongrass and something like teaberry gum. It’s one of the very few wines I’ve ever tasted that almost beggars my powers of description and I haven’t done it justice here.
I finally found the perfect way to approach Fiorduva: Don’t Think. Just be In The Moment. This is a wine that has not at all been overlooked in Italy, where it has won the uber-prestigious Gambero Rosso Magazine “Tre Biccheri” (Three Bottle) rating three times. It’s also won every major European wine award along the way but here, in the US, even finding it is a chore.
If I were in the business of turning out a Wine of The Year list, this would be on it, I suspect, every single year. It’s not a cheap wine. It’ll run ya about $50, which is a ton for a wine that contains none of our American comfort-zone grapes. This is native Amalfi varietals: 30% Fenile, 30% Ginestra, and 40% Ripoli. It makes me want to throw down my weary burdens, frankly, and run away to the Amalfi Coast; wallow like the unabashed hedonist I aspire to be, and wake up smelling the sea air and Fenile vines outside my window each morning. I makes me want to seek out wines that are out of the ordinary, flavors that I don’t find in every freakin’ wine I pour, and textures and aromas that don’t recall…well, anything else, really. It makes me want something More…a dangerous thing in a wine culture that’s all about the Tried ‘n’ True. But, if you’re one of those lost souls like me – a wanderer in the wilderness of sensation and exploration – Furore Bianco Fiorduva from the tiny house of Marisa Cuomo just may be the wine you’ve always dreamed of…and never dreamed you’d find. 99 Points