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Southern Rhône’s Troubled Middle Child (Welcome To Lirac)

Lirac stones
I can relate

Lirac has a bit of a troubled middle child syndrome on its hands. Being a middle child myself, I can relate.

Look at it this way: if I asked you to tell me about some killer Southern Rhône reds (which is 85% of Lirac’s output), you’re probably going to start waxing poetic about Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You might even mention Vacqueyras or Gigondas, which are offering up CdP levels of quality at about 30-40% lower prices. But Lirac? Not happening unless you’re seriously geeky.

The interesting thing is, the main difference between Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Lirac reds is… uhm… well, after touring the place on a 2018 media jaunt, I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Lirac is a small appellation of five villages that sits just on the other side of the Rhône river from its more famous older brother CdP. Like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac gets a metric crap-ton of sunlight (2700 hours annually), employs nearly 15 grape varieties, uses low training for old vines (average age – about 45 years) due to the windy conditions, and sees Summer vineyard temperatures that can get into the 50s Centigrade (“every year we lose one percent of the vine” due to the dryness and heat, noted Domaine Maby‘s Richard Maby).

Lirac old vines
Old soul, *not* from CdP

The similarities are sibling-level; hell, they’re more like fraternal twins level. Saying that Lirac and Châteauneuf-du-Pape have “similar” soils is like saying that all humans have “similar” DNA. As Château de Montfaucon proprietor Rudolphe de Pins put it, “we have exactly the same soil you can find in Châteauneuf.” That would be galets, stones that are probably larger than your head.

Hell, much of the Lirac wines are even vinified in neighboring CdP (or Tavel). The fact that Lirac is the birthplace of the Côte du Rhône historical designation probably only adds to its sense of being in CdP’s shadow. If there is Lirac typicity, one could probably encapsulate it as “balance.” There’s power to the wines, but also a freshness that even CdP can lack. “We have a natural freshness in our wines,” de Pins told me. Another Lirac promoter, Jean-Baptiste Lafond of Domaine Lafond, summed it up this way: “the main difference, vintage by vintage, is acidity.” And as you know, we like acidity here at 1WD. On that note, here are my vinous thoughts on Lirac’s specialness

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It’s Spring, So Drink Some F*cking Tavel

Tavel galet
Drink Tavel, or I’ll smack you upside the head with this galet!

It’s Spring in the Northern Hemisphere, which for wine writers means one thing: an inundation of Rosé samples and PR pitches. So I am here to remind you about the Southern Rhône’s answer to Rosé Spring Fever: Tavel.

You remember Tavel. It’s near Avignon. Wine has been produced there for centuries as a light-ish red. It’s one of the first Rhône crus, having become an AOC in the 1930s. It’s 100% rosé – 60% GSM, with a bunch of other (in typically Rhône-ish fashion, seemingly one billion) varieties allowed. It usually clocks in at 14% abv, and sports some of the deepest, darkest, sexiest shades of off-red in the wine world. It’s rosé with seriousness, versatility, and personality. It’s rosé that embraces its butch side. It’s f*cking great. And it’s a potentially endangered species: while there are currently 900 ha of vines in the region, that number is eroding slowly as (according to appellation co-president Thomas Giubbi) successive generations fail to take up the vine and wine work of their retiring parents. So you need to drink more of this stuff.

The key to understanding Tavel (at least, as I saw it when I I visited last year via media jaunt), is to realize that the region’s three soil types probably have the greatest impact on its realization of kick-ass rosé. As Domaine la Rocalière’s Sèverine Lemoine explained to me, “Other [Rhône] appellations have three colors, and one type of soil; we have one color, but three types of soil.”

Those (in)famous Rhône galets, brought from the Alps via the Rhône river, provide grapes with structure and power. Clay-rich limestone promotes freshness and spice notes. Finally, the oldest soils – Pliocene sand – offer fruit with finesse and fruitiness. Combined with a Mediterranean climate, you’ve got a compelling environmental mix for crafting a seemingly paradoxical ballsy rosé.

Here are a few examples from compelling Tavel producers that I visited. Assuming that you’re man or woman enough to handle the Sergio Oliva of pink wine, that is…

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“Sweet Lincoln’s Mullet!” (2019 San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge Highlights)

I recently had the honor of judging at the 2019 San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge (now in its 37th year!), the results of which have been published, allowing me to share some of my thoughts on a few surprises that my panel had the good fortune of tasting during the competition. When I wasn’t feeding errant seagulls who begged at my hotel room window, that is. It’s a long story.

Sweet Lincoln's Mullet!

Anyway, seasoned 1WD readers will recall that I’ve been infecting the Stay-Classy-San-Diego-based Critics Challenge competition for the last few years, but this was my first time joining much of the same well-heeled, finely-tuned crew for the SD Challenge. I’m happy to report that the SD incarnation is every bit as fun and professionally-executed as CC, and I’m already crossing my fingers that I’ll be back next year. [ By the way, if you’re curious about how the details on these competitions go down, listen to head honcho Robert Whitley dish on it over at the Wine Biz 360 podcast. ]

Sky sea-rat
Who got somethin’ for Deebo?!?

One of the most interesting – and fun… and humbling – things about judging wines blind is that occasionally some items surprise you, busting up your preconceived notions and turning you on to things you might otherwise overlook. The 2019 SD Challenge proved particularly generous in that regard. Here are a handful of vinous items that impressed my panel (Platinum medal winners all), the majority of which are over-achieving budget lovelies, tailor-made for Spring sipping by the San Diego seaside in a manner that would make Ron Burgundy himself beam with pride. Okay, before we start, let’s go over the ground-rules… No touching of the hair or face… And that’s it. Now FIGHT!…

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It’s Good To Be The Princess (Azienda Vitivinicola Condé Recent Releases)

Chiara Condello
Chiara Condello in non-princess mode

Chiara Condello grew up “ten minutes away” from Predappio’s Azienda Vitivinicola Condé, a place so picturesque – even by exceptionally picturesque Romagna standards – that it houses its own resort, which in turn houses its own restaurant in an area that’s nearly synonymous with Italian cuisine.

Condello’s father, Francesco, established this little slice of Napa-Route-29-in-the-heart-of-Romagna-wine-country in 2001, after retiring from real-estate finance brokering and consolidating nearly 80 hectares of vineyards (73 of which are devoted to Sangiovese, with a bit of Merlot and chardonnay making up the rest) from their previous owners.

Condé vineyards

The U-shaped Condé estate has 52 parcels, from which 7 wines are made, and boasts plantings dating back to the late 1930s on Spungone soils (sandy, sponge-like limestone rich in ancient seabed fossils) that date back a lot further (over three million years, to the Pliocene). In other words, it’s prime Sangio growing territory, with good winegrowing and winemaking talent behind it (including agronomist Federico Curtaz, eonologist Stefano Zoli, and Tuscan consultant Federico Staderini). Of course, they also have olive production. And, of course, they’re organic (“for me, it was crucial,” notes Chiara, “in terms of respect; I don’t want to change the balance that we have in the area”).

Chiara Condello has four acres of her own to play with on the estate, and has access to all of Condé’s winemaking resources. But before you write her off as embodying the stereotype of a modern European princess, you should know that Chiara studied Economics at Luigi Bocconi University in Milan; and got her CEMS Master in International Management; and is currently studying eonology; and seems to know what the hell she is doing when it comes to making Sangiovese (something that I learned firsthand when tasting these wines during a recent media visit)…

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