Posts Filed Under wine review

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Vinted on November 7, 2018 binned in on the road, wine review

[ Editor’s note: Following is a piece that a wrote for a magazine, but after waiting over a year for them to publish it and pay me, I’m giving up and putting it here so that it can see the light of day and you can get some insight into a region that doesn’t see a lot of media play. Enjoy! ]

Northern Spain’s “Small California”

Why your next favorite Cab, Merlot, or Gewürztraminer might just be coming from Somontano

Take a second or two, and think about your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, your go-to Chardonnay, even your last Gewürztraminer.

What region was emblazoned on the labels of those tasty wine? Paso Robles? Washington? Chile?

Chances are very good that the word “Somontano” was not the area printed on the label. And yet, chances are also very good that this relatively small northern Spanish Denominación de Origen has been growing those same fine wine grapes longer than the more famous regions that produce your favorite versions of those same wines.

Alquézar

Somontano’s ancient Alquézar

Like most of the wine regions in Western Europe, viticulture in Somontano was probably established by the Romans, and also probable predates reliable written history, extending back to the second century BC. That it took the region until 1984 to become an officially recognized  Denominación de Origen (DO) is, in a way, indicative of the minor identity crisis that defines the modern Somontano. At a time when “uniqueness” is the marketing battle cry of most luxury fine wine regions, Somontano is the odd man out.

Of the grapes officially permitted in the DO, only three (the white Alcañón, and reds Moristel and Parraleta) are indigenous. A few others (such as Garnacha and Tempranillo) are Spanish in origin but not native to Somontano. The rest are a hodgepodge of some of the wine world’s most famous – and decidedly not Spanish – grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.

What makes Somontano such an awkwardly difficult topic in marketing meetings is the same thing that makes many of its wines so good: the place has a great climate growing famous international grape varieties. As winemaker Jesús Artajona Serrano, from Enate (one of the founders of the Somontano DO) puts it, “we are in a small California…”

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No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)

Cowhorn OR view

One could be forgiven for expecting an overdose of “yes, I did in fact write those checks” bullsh*t when visiting Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, based solely on the facts that

a) it takes its name from the most infamous preparation (#500, which involves burying a cow’s horn full of manure) in wine’s most infamous set of farming practices (Biodynamics), and

b) founders Barbara and Bill Steele are former CFO/CFA financial types who, after leaving Wall Street and before establishing Cowhorn (despite not having a single lick of winegrowing experience) lived what they call a “homeopathic lifestyle in Marin County.”

Barbara Steele Cowhorn

Cowhorn co-fouder Barbara Steele

One’s skepticism about the Steele’s seriousness regarding their 25-or-so acres of vines and 4,000-or-so case production could be forgiven, but one’s skepticism would also be quite wrong. I mean, you’ll want to be skeptical about, for example, the earnestness of Bill Steele’s long hair, but then you’ll find out that he makes his own sulfites. And that the Steele’s spent two years researching the right place to plant vines before breaking ground on Cowhorn in 2002, planning on Biodynamics viticulture from the get-go (with Alan York consulting), and despite its under-the-radar status and various environmental challenges (ripening is actually the main challenge there, as they are farming Rhône varieties, and the cold air from the surrounding hills makes this a cooler spot by Applegate standards) chose Southern Oregon anyway.

And then there’s the farming mentality employed at Cowhorn, which feels downright legit when the Steele’s are waxing philosophic about it; as Barbara put it, “It’s the people behind it that makes this kind of viticulture possible for the Applegate Valley.” Even their yeast situation is kind of endearing; Bill mentioned that that six unique strains were identified there, primarily due to the 100+ acres of property having been left isolated so long before the Steele’s bought it.

And then… then you’ll taste their wines, which all have a consistent and defining element of being well-crafted and yet still characterful; not overly polished, showing their edginess and angularity while still retaining a sense of elegance. In other words, the only thing full of bullsh*t will be your own silly preconceived notions about their outfit…

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Block & Tackle (Troon Vineyard Recent Releases)

Troon view 3

You know that your brand is in trouble when, instead of talking about your forty-plus-year history in a nascent wine region, or your long hours of sun, 1300-foot vineyard elevation, diurnal temperature shifts of over fifty degrees Fahrenheit, or any of the other factors that make your terroir an ideal place for ripening interesting grape varieties, all anyone can mention is how your family business heir apparent allegedly got blowies during a commercial airplane flight.

That Troon Vineyards is now, only five years removed from that controversy, viewed as an Applegate Valley pioneer and a purveyor of some of Southern Oregon’s most promising and interesting wines is a minor PR miracle, made possible through the yeoman’s work provided by a combination of team players: new owners Bryan and Denise White (a Texas couple who started with the acquisition of nearby O’Neill Vineyard, then purchasing Troon in 2017), pedigreed winemaker Steve Hall, and impossibly indefatigable general manager Craig Camp.

Troon fermentation

Take heed!

When Napa-area veteran Camp came on board at Troon to help get the entity into more attractive sale shape, he told me that he was immediately impressed with the potential, given how good the wines already were. He focused first on ensuring that the operational and marketing basics were on solid footing – “block and tackle, man, block and tackle.” The additions of foot-treading and Biodynamics to the mix helped to put the finishing touches on the approach, and Troon was, in a very real sense, thus reborn as a brand.

What hasn’t changed is that Troon’s small vineyard location is capable of some excellent winegrowing magic when the right varieties are planted. Troon is more or less surrounded by the Siskiyou Mountains, near a wider section of the Applegate River, with river bench soils that consist of pieces of ancient seabed, granite, and sediment. “We have a mostly Northern California climate here,” Craig noted, “with a shorter growing season. So we can produce wines with European ‘weights.'”

Put another way, as winemaker Steve Hall noted when summarizing Troon’s current approach, “you do what can to make something… beautiful…”

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There’s A Red House Over Yonder (Masroig Montsant Recent Releases)

Vinted on August 16, 2018 binned in kick-ass wines, on the road, sexy wines, wine review

Masroig cellar 1

In the lower-ish (we’re still talking about 400-or-so meters of elevation) valley of Spain’s sunny Montsant region sits a small town (ok, village) of El Masroig.

El Masroig is quaint enough to be named (in Catalan, of course) “red country house” (most likely from the red clay soils that dominate this area of Priorat country), and small enough to sport a population of about 500 people, the vast majority of whose families live off of the farming of grapevines and olive trees.

El Masroig view

In even quainter non-ironic fashion, El Masroig is home to Celler Masroig, a winery founded in 1917 as a co-op that’s now run by just over 25 employees, and – somewhat ironically given all of the above – is easily one of the largest producers in the area at five hundred thousand bottles per year, farming from about 500 hectares of vines.

Even more ironically, given their size, at the time of this writing Masroig has yet to gain a sales foothold in the States. That’s a shame, and is a scenario that needs quick correction, because they’re making the excellent crafting of one of the wine world’s most underrated red grapes – Carignan – look downright easy…

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