Really well-written article on sulfur inclusion and the misconceptions surrounding the discussion. It is not the sulfur that causes headaches! Wines with zero sulfur inclusion are just a fad from the so-called “natural wine” trend being marketed today! For those that have not seen a fact-based explanation on this topic, enjoy:
Chemistry Does not Support Wine Headaches being Caused by Sulfur Addition
Really well-written article on sulfur inclusion and the misconceptions surrounding the discussion. It is not the sulfur that causes headaches! Wines with zero sulfur inclusion are just a fad from the so-called “natural wine” trend being marketed today! For those that have not seen a fact-based explanation on this topic, enjoy!
My personal history with L’Aventure goes back to the first winery visit in 2007, when my wife and I were blown away by the amazing balance and elegance Stephen Asseo (winemaker) was able to achieve with these crazy big Southern Rhone style wines. At over 16% (sometimes 17%) alcohol fruit bombs, he was somehow able to get just the right balanced mix of fruit, structure and alcohol to make it all work… and they were fabulous. The Estate Cuvee is the winery’s flagship wine and almost always a mix of the best estate Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying percentages, depending on vintage. Asseo was one of the first few in Paso to experiment with eliminating filtering/fining and the wines almost always have that opulent mouth-filling feel. This label is aged in 100% new french oak, integrating better in some vintages than others.
Scoring and Tasting Method
I am done with the attempt to achieve a fair systematic scoring method. So, I will continue to follow the WSET/UC Davis process, but I am done with both the 100 AND 20 point systems. Moving forward, I will only be rating (not scoring) wines with a simple five tier description: Poor, Barely Drinkable, Drinkable, Superior and Excellent. The basis of these ratings will be: balance, fruit character, acid/tannin and sugar/alcohol levels. I will always comment when appropriate on specific characteristics, such as harvest timing, winemaking style, cellaring potential, etc.
2013 – 2017 Vintages
I opened these bottles for a group of friends two hours in advance of the tasting, decanted and returned them to the bottle prior to serving. I poured a personal tasting to write my notes prior to the group arriving. I also opened a 2014 L’Aventure Cote-a-Cote as a comparison. All of the Estate Cuvee wines were generally similar in flavors, so I will not get too detailed with the notes. All of the wines generally tasted of blackberry and black currant fruit and had both high tannin and acid (surprising after the years of bottle age). The differences were primarily in character and balance. After developing first impressions, it became clear, these wines were NOT meant for cellaring. On release, I had thought there was plenty of structure to lay these wines down in my cellar, but I was mistaken and I will tell you why after I provide the tasting notes.
This wine had a very weak nose, with no fruit apparent. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was complex with savory leather, black tea and dark chocolate. The finish was medium+ in length. The alcohol was a big piece of the profile, but not completely overwhelming. The oak was well-integrated. After nine years in the bottle, the tannin and acid were still both high.
Aromatic fruity blackberry nose. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was a bit simpler than the 2013, but similar. The finish was medium+ in length. The alcohol was big. The oak showed a bit too much, but was reasonably integrated. The wine filled the mouth more than the 2013.
Medium fruity blackberry nose. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was the simpler leather and dark chocolate profile. The finish was long in length. The alcohol was overwhelming. The oak dominated the wine with very strong vanilla and brown butter flavors. The wine texture was very mouth-filling. The oak did not integrate at all in this vintage and this wine was enjoyed the least by us and our guests.
This wine had a weak nose. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was the simpler leather and dark chocolate profile. The finish was long in length. The alcohol was big. The oak showed a bit too much, but was reasonably integrated. The big mouthfeel was here too.
The nose was all alcohol, overwhelming any other character. On the palate, it was fruit-forward with blackberry, black currant and black plum. The mid-palate was all savory with leather, black tea and dark chocolate. The finish was very long. The alcohol was a big piece of the profile, but not completely overwhelming. The oak showed a bit too much, with nice sweet vanilla and was reasonably integrated.
2014 L’Aventure Cote-a-Cote
This is L’Aventure’s Grenache dominated Southern Rhone blend (GSM), with: Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah – percentages usually in that order. By the time we reached this wine, the group was a couple hours into the tasting and this wine was very welcome. It was very aromatic on the nose and the palate was fruit-forward, layered and balanced. The oak was very well integrated. The mouthfeel was wonderful: elegant and silky. This label handled the 8 years of bottle age extremely well. A very enjoyable and impressive bottling.
When we tasted these wines on release, they all seemed to have enough structure (tannin/acid) to age well, but the balance presenting on release did not last well. The big fruit flavors when bottled dissipated too quickly, changing many of these Estate Cuvee wines into a disjointed jumble after five years. The other challenging element seemed to be integrating all that new oak. In some vintages showing well, in others not so much. I would not suggest holding the Estate Cuvee wines more than five years and would guess, three years would be better. Finally, it is clear the Cote-a-Cote and Optimus bottlings respond better to bottle aging and the one we tasted on this night was excellent!
This topic has been controversial since the tasting in Judgement of Paris back in 1976 (see movie Bottleshock). A related topic would be the controversy surrounding the “Parkerization” of wine. Read about this issue here: Wikipedia Link. There have been books and movies on both topics. The discussion is certainly fun, but way more controversial in real-life than it should be.
As a wine enthusiast who usually tastes blind (having a trained/experienced palate), I don’t understand the continuing controversy on this topic. The studies done have all been ridiculously skewed. The controversy seems to rise mostly because the average person simply cannot believe some wine snob in a suit can taste a wine blind and tell you the varietal, location, vintage, vineyard name, etc. I can tell you personally, it is very real, but takes decades of training, experience and practice. Training and experience matter in any profession and yes – wine IS a profession (see Sommelier here: Wikipedia Link). Does that mean this same guy could guess at the wine I would enjoy without him evaluating my taste in wine? Definitely NO! So, why do consumers put so much credence in scores by wine writers? Well, what other measure does the average consumer have to select a wine from thousands available (there are other options)? I buy and consume large quantities of wine and enjoy it very much! Many of us think of great food and wine as a fabulous lifestyle (no denial here). All this wine I drink, training I have had… do you think my idea of a good wine qualifies me to recommend a wine to someone I don’t know? The average consumer sifting through 100’s of wine scores is just wasting time. Perhaps, if you spent the time to learn a particular wine critic’s palate… but how many would take the time?
… But, the Studies!
If you read the articles linked to this commentary above, a big piece of the discussion is price. Are expensive wines necessarily better wines? The unqualified answer is positively NO! Can you impress a guest at a fine dining restaurant by ordering an expensive bottle of wine? Likely yes, and there in lies the rub. Price is often confused with quality in many product categories, but whether you personally would enjoy any given wine has nothing to do with its cost. I have written much on the topic of how to evaluate your own palate in past articles for anyone who has an interest. Just remember an important piece to this discussion, the average consumer is likely to enjoy many average priced wines and could likely not tell the difference. I can tell you definitely, my taste in wine is very, very different from most of my friends. Just because I have wine training and experience, does that mean you should like what I like? Think about it…
Can the Topic be a Serious Discussion?
What really matters in evaluating a wine for the general public is: is it faulted? is it balanced? is it made for cellaring? will it pair well with foods? etc. A few other general measures: is it fruity/savory? is it acidic? is it sweet? is it drying in the mouth? So, why don’t critics talk about these characteristics more generally, instead of sharing a score with a flowery completely worthless description attached? It won’t sell Wine Enthusiast ™ magazines! Personally, I am so tired of pro critics scores and notes! So, spend what you can afford, drink what you like and enjoy the wine with your favorite foods! Here is to hoping the media does not trap you with all this nonsense!
My wife and I enjoyed our first wine trip since COVID recently. We spent a week traveling through the Central Coast AVA in California, focusing on the newer wineries with higher professional critic scores. Having completed a large sampling, I found some interesting trends.
Demand for Boomer Wine Profiles is Diminishing
I asked a couple common questions of each tasting room manager:
Are you noticing changing wine preferences recently?
What wines are younger customers preferring and why?
Surprisingly, the answers were fairly consistent. By the end of the trip, a wine strategy seemed to be emerging. The typical Baby Boomer generation red wine style was not as popular as in the past… fruity, easy drinking (low-med acid/low tannin), lots of toasted oak and 15% alcohol. What I have come to call the “Caymus Profile”. In response to changing demand, a new profile seemed to be emerging…
Wineries are Changing Wine to Match Younger Palates
Most wineries were developing a two tier offering based on generational preferences:
Regular Release wines for Millennials and Gen Z at a lower price point and Reserve Release wines for Boomers at a higher price point. The younger generations were looking for Rose and Sparkling options.
The more raucous younger customers were visiting tasting rooms on the weekends and the older customers were staying away at those times and visiting during the week.
Wines for Millennials and Gen Z were focusing on a new profile: 13-14% alcohol, high acid, low tannin and no oak. I have never seen so many red wines fermented and aged in concrete as on this trip… or so much neutral oak.
The old Boomer wine profile (defined above), was being saved for the older guests, more able to spend on the pricier option.
The younger wine profile worked for me, but would not be appropriate for bottle aging more than five years. The tasting managers laughed at me when I asked about wines for cellaring. Hard to argue, as the numbers are clear: 92-95% of all wine purchased is consumed in less than 48 hours. Any wine where the tannin level went up and seemed more ageable… I found myself wishing for oak.
Boomer Style Wines are not Going Away… Yet
We stopped in at a few of the older profile wineries: Justin, Herman Story, Beckmen. A full line-up of the wines I am used to. The Boomer profile has not been my preference, so the last 10 years my red wine purchases from Italy and France have increased. More along the lines of: high acid, med+ tannin, 25-50% new French or Hungarian oak and 13-14% alcohol. This matches my palate better. Oak barrels are expensive and are usually rotated through a max of three vintages and then discarded, while concrete containers can be re-used virtually forever. Red wines aged in concrete will change the cost calculation for wine substantially.
The Future of U.S. Wine
As Boomer generation wine consumption continues to fall, Millennials and Gen Z palates will drive the industry. Younger generations tend to drink more wine without food, than with… so, the wine industry will come under increasing pressure to compete with hard seltzers, ciders and cocktail beverage options. You would think this trend would be driving per bottle pricing down… but the data shows that Gen Z (especially) is much more adventurous in their wine consumption and is actually spending more per bottle than the current average. These are interesting times for the wine industry and some wineries are responding to these new trends – as growth in wine consumption slows in the U.S. Let me know if any of you are noticing these same trends. Happy Holidays!
In many European countries, wine is thought of as a companion to food, not typically to be drunk as a cocktail on its own. This common viewpoint in many countries places wine on the dinner table to act as a flavor enhancer, much the same way as seasonings, or sauces would be viewed. It is a cultural concept. I did not grow up thinking of wine this way. It was a learned behavior for me, after I was introduced to fine wines and cuisine TOGETHER. The question is: how could you change cultural norms to include this thinking? NOT, how does the industry convince Millennials to drink more wine…
The Answer Is a Focus on Food
This does not seem intuitive, unless you dive into the European fine dining concept a little more deeply. Many countries take pride in and raise their children to think of natural local foods and the local culinary tradition as a part of their identity. I am not suggesting this should be the goal here, but it does give you an insight into how this wine pairing tradition could begin in the U.S. Investing money in a media campaign would be critical, but not to simply advertise wine, strangely… the media content would need to be focused on how the wine enhances the FOOD experience. Currently in the U.S., younger generations view wine more as a “cocktail” to be drunk on its own. With this viewpoint, wine is a poor value compared to Beer, Cider, Hard Seltzers and Spirits/Cocktails. A perception that could have a huge affect on future demand and ultimately wine production. It is all a matter of changing perceptions…
Famous Chefs as Spokespersons for Wine?
I am not an advertising exec, but it seems fairly clear. Think of it this way: a professional chef would never be trained without a wine pairing education. The wine industry must begin creating marketing content around cuisine, with the appropriate accompanying wine. Pay famous Chefs from the Food Channel to be out front, not winemakers. Have them talk about their favorite wine-food pairings and why. I am sure other creatives would have even more engaging ideas for marketing using this theme.
Could Culinary be the Savior of the Wine Industry?
I am no genius. Who knows? It might work. I would think the industry would not find it too difficult to fund a marketing board that could tackle such a large ad campaign… IF it was viewed as important enough to influence wine consumption trends in the U.S. I am curious, can anyone else out there see the merit in this idea?
This particular software branded as “Tasty” by name is similar in concept to others like “Quini” (if not in process), all have one very major flaw… Very few consumers have the trained palate and sensory awareness required to describe what they are tasting and how they perceive the wine components. I have been approached by software developers before and none had an appreciation for a trained palate and what it brings. These techno driven business models providing wine related services are all smoke and mirrors. Sounds great, until you dive a little deeper and find the missing piece. The idea that a straight chemical analysis, or even an analyzed database of wine tasting notes could provide any real insight into how wine is perceived by the human palate is misguided. Software can certainly accumulate, organize and label wine data, but how does that data have any relevance – unless it is filtered through human perception?
What Is Missing?
I have put some thought into this before and shared those ideas with other software developers in the past. The baseline in the software database must be established with trained professionals first – and not with WSET 4, MW, or CSW certified pros. The calibration has to be with Master Somms (MS) who evaluate consumer palates in restaurants on a daily basis. Once the underlying premise is established and the work is done to connect the human palate (sensory experience) to the chemical evaluation, the concept still requires a short consumer educational program to provide a shared vocabulary. That vocabulary is the vehicle for the shared human wine experience. Which words are chosen to describe each individual sensory experience? Is there a common understanding of what flavors/components they represent? I have yet to be introduced to software that attempts to address these concerns. Without that effort, the whole endeavor is a major waste of time and money.
Am I Biased?
I don’t think so. Regardless of my Somm training, I make my primary living in the technology and automation field. Perhaps that background gives me a little authority here. I most definitely believe the goal of these “AI” software products is achievable, it just requires more trade awareness to succeed.
New Communes (sub-regions) Established by Statute in Italy
The trend in Italy the last two years has been to establish new wine sub-regions in existing wine areas. Historic Sangiovese wine growing regions are being significantly impacted. I have not explored Sangiovese in this kind of depth before, outside of Montalcino (Brunello, Sangiovese clone). Certainly, nothing like the effort I have put into Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. These recent changes in Italian wine laws had me wondering: could there be enough unique wine character from Sangiovese to justify this many new sub-regions in Central Italy?
Can Italian Terroir Produce Sangiovese Wines Different Enough to Justify The Changes?
I decided to investigate this idea with a group of wine collector friends I meet with regularly. In the beginning of the year, I began looking through all the U.S. wine auctions trying to find 10 year old Sangiovese wines from various Italian regions outside of Montalcino (Brunello). To give this a fair evaluation, 10 years of bottle age seemed as if it might be close to the optimum drinking window for these wines. I wanted to taste the best potential versions of these wines for the comparison. While doing the research, I found a couple of U.S. made Sangiovese wines from respected producers and thought it would be fun to add these to the comparison. The tasting was held in my home just this last weekend and produced interesting results. There were a few disagreements across the group, but generally our impressions were similar enough. Here are my notes and scoring in the order of my best score first. I did not take detailed tasting notes, but did record my overall impressions.
Nobile di Montepulciano – Montepulciano Region, Italy
#1) 2012 Avignonesi Grandi Annate – 94/100 pts
This region is just east of Montalcino. Don’t get it confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. That is a completely different region and grape variety. Through history, this area has been well-known for the quality of its wine production, often just called “Nobile”. Thomas Jefferson mentioned this area as his favorite wine region.
This was very near a great wine, quality on the order of the bordeaux style wines produced nearby in Bolgheri. It was nicely balanced, with fruit, acidity and tannin in roughly equal measure. Just enough fruit to enjoy on its own and just enough acid/tannin to work paired with foods. It was not big and structured like many of the Chianti area wines I have tasted. It had a lighter feel with a perceived finesse. The flavor profile was typical Sangiovese red cherry, but only slightly tart. This was an impressive effort for a 100% Sangiovese. This wine could make you believe Sangiovese deserves a place as one of the world’s great varietals.
Radda – Chianti Classico Region, Italy
#2) 2011 San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo – 93/100
This is one of the better-known Sangiovese labels, from one of the most respected Chianti Classico wineries. 100% Sangiovese from the selected best fruit of the Tuscany region. This is not your typical Chianti Classico wine. 30+ day maceration, 30+ day ferment in concrete tanks, 20+ months in French oak barrels and 18+ months in bottle in the producer’s cellar. 3.5+ years before release… That attention to detail built an excellent wine, if not a wine that could carry the DOCG label. This wine is a definite example of why Italian IGT does NOT mean an inferior wine. Not sure the value was as special, but the wine was excellent and another great example of what Sangiovese wine can be in the right hands.
This was a very similar wine to #1 above, but not quite as refined. The finesse was evident here too, but not quite the same mouth-feel and therefore one point less.
This was the surprise of the evening for me. Over 60% Sangio, 20% Merlot and a few percent of these: Canaiolo, Colorino, Petit Verdot. This area is viewed as “up and coming” and is just Southwest of Montalcino. Maremma is the younger brother of the Bolgheri region and the area has been making great value IGT bordeaux style blends for some time now.
This was nothing like the first two wines, complex and layered with high acidity. Fruit-forward but not extracted, this hit the sweet spot for an Old World wine that could appeal to a New World palate. Of course, they had the luxury of blending varieties here and that can make a difference with the right winemaker. With reasonable value, I will be keeping an eye out for this producer in the future.
Napa Region, USA
#4) 2011 Biale SangioveseNonna Vineyard – 91/100
The two most well-known Sangiovese wines in Napa are this and the Del Dotto bottlings. The winery was kind enough to sell us a bottle from their library specifically for this tasting! This winery operated through prohibition and this particular wine has a family history, the vineyard was planted by the current owner’s grandmother.
This was the softest of the wines tasted. The mouth-feel was excellent and was definitely still fruit-forward after 11 years in the bottle. It was light on acidity at medium-minus and had medium tannin. This was an enjoyable wine. It had just enough Old World character to identify as such. This is another of those wines that may have been better a few years ago. Not past its drinking window, but perhaps nearing it.
Montefalco – Umbria Region, Italy
#5) 2012 Adanti Montefalco Rosso Riserva – 91/100
This area is in Umbria and while the area is known for its Sagrantino DOC, it has its own denomination for its Rosso DOC that must be no more than 25% Sagrantino and no less than 60% Sangiovese. This bottling also had 20% Merlot. This was a powerhouse wine, even after 10 years in the bottle. The Sangiovese dominates, but the Sagrantino pulled it towards a Southern Rhone type feel. I really enjoy Sagrantino wines and if you haven’t tried one, you should track down a good example to enjoy for yourself.
This was a bold, fruity wine, with medium plus acidity and tannin. Old World wine drinkers may find this a bit too extracted for their palate, but this was balanced enough not to feel hit over the head with too much oak, or too much fruit like many modern day Napa Cab Sauv’s.
Colli Fiorentini – Chianti Region, Italy
#6) 2013 Torre a Cona Badia a Corte Riserva – 89/100
This is a highly regarded sub-region of Chianti that now has its own denomination. This bottling is typically 100% Sangiovese. The area is North of Chianti Classico and attempts to focus on lighter, aromatic versions of Sangiovese.
This is another wine that may have been better had we opened it a few years ago. Lighter styles of wine can sometimes be limited in their capacity for bottle aging. This wine was a reasonable representative of a typical Chianti, but was too disjointed. It showed too much tannin and acid for its age and the fruit and mouth-feel weren’t there to round out the package. Would have been great with a tomato based pasta dish, but was lacking on its own.
Walla Walla Region, USA
#7) 2011 Leonetti Sangiovese – 89/100
This is a well-known premium bordeaux style producer in Washington state. Their Sangiovese label is grown and produced every year in Walla Walla and this was the most expensive bottle of wine in the group. The wine is 87% Sangiovese and 13% Syrah.
This reminded me of a better than average typical Italian Chianti. Very “one-note”, but definitely varietally-correct. Not as soft as the other U.S. wine we tasted. Would have been a good food wine, but certainly nothing special to mention.
Greve – Chianti Classico Region, Italy
#8) 2010 Podere Poggio Scalette Il Carbonaione – 88/100 This winery is well-respected for its Tuscany styled IGT blended wines. This bottling was 100% Sangiovese from several vineyards located in Greve. Not sure why this needed an IGT designation, instead of DOCG. This area now has their own regional denomination.
This was an uninspiring average Italian Chianti. With age, it had lost its fruit and was thin with nothing to balance out the acid and tannin. Not undrinkable, but given the choice, would prefer a different wine.
Observations & Conclusions
The differences between these wines had more to do with winemaking style and blending varieties, than the Sangiovese fruit itself. Although, there was enough diversity to claim we experienced various different styles of Sangiovese dominated wines. There is more to “terroir” than just soil and climate. If other contributing factors define these regions as unique, so be it. There is a clear marketing advantage to differentiating these wine “communes” and promoting a specific regional style. It will remain to be seen whether all these new sub-regions will be justified in the long-run, or the average wine enthusiast will just find it too confusing to care. I have mentioned DOC, DOCG and IGT classifications several times in this article. If you would like a quick explanation, here is a link: Wine-Searcher – Wine Labels Italy
Here are a few conclusions I drew from the tasting:
Sangiovese fruit alone may not show enough diversity at the premium level to support this many different style designations. Although, the Brunello clone grown in Montalcino is certainly a cut above the others.
Sangiovese is a fabulous blending grape. It carries structure with it, high acidity and tannin, if the winemaking style allows it.
In the U.S., we do produce Old World style Sangiovese wine that compares well with the Italian labels.
Finally, generally Sangiovese wine can be made with finesse. Not sure what I was expecting, but I did not anticipate the subtler wines we found in this tasting.
I recently had the good fortune to taste a flight of 1986 Gran Cru Bordeaux. They were:
2nd Label – Margaux Pavillion Rouge
Chateau Cos d’Estournel
Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron
Chateau Du-Cru Beaucaillou
I don’t often get a chance to taste labels like these in aged vintages, but I have drunk many wines in the last 20 years from producers in the French AOC regions of Margaux, St. Estephe, St. Julien and Pauillac. These Left Bank Bordeaux areas are the home of some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the world. Margaux is by far my favorite Left Bank region and St. Estephe next. Not that the others are not very good, just that these two regions match my palate better. I have been tasting Bordeaux Left Bank vintages back to the late 90’s. This was my first tasting from the 1980’s vintages.
These wines were all original purchase origin and were stored in near perfect conditions. There was hardly an oxidized brown tint at the edge of the glass with all these wines. The wines tasted amazingly fresh! None were fruit forward (if they were at release), but had good acidity and a few still had residual tannin. Perfectly balanced, these wines were expertly made… but in a completely different style than 2000 era Bordeaux wines. All tasted as if the fruit had been harvested early. There were vegetal and savory flavors reflecting a completely different winemaking and vineyard management style than today. Whether you enjoy wines with this much age on them is dependent upon your palate. All of these wines would have been fabulous accompanying a Black Truffle Risotto, although much of the nuance would have been lost. In the bigger picture, my palate has found Bordeaux Rouge Gran Crus from before 2000 tasted best at roughly 20 years of bottle age (depending on producer). After 2000, that started to change… In my experience, that has now become 10-15 years of bottle age.
Margaux AOC Region
I have tasted and enjoyed many different Margaux producers in quantity over the last 20 years: Brane Cantenac, Cantenac Brown, Giscours, Lascombes, Rauzan Segla, Prieure Lichine and my favorite Malescot St. Exupery. All of these with 5-10 years of bottle age tend to be fruit forward, structured, balanced and all often have a great… what I call “Margaux mouth-feel”. This is sometimes silky, but always softer, round and mouth-filling. This was missing from the older Margaux tasted here. In fact today, most Bordeaux premium wines are made to taste fruit-forward and vegetal flavors can be viewed as a fault. Especially for New World palates, I would suggest Margaux producers. These wines often are not as “muscular” as the other Left Bank regions.
Wine Styles… They Were a’Changin’
Bob Dylan aside, it was obvious something happened in the 90’s to the winemaking philosophy of Bordeaux producers. Most, would attribute this to chasing the Robert Parker 100 point score… and all that implied. Some would suggest back to the ’82 vintage, when Parker’s influence began… but I was not a wine drinker back then and can’t bear witness to that thinking. These comments attributed to the BBC in the late 80’s refer to this, “The globalist domination of the oenological press by Parker’s ideas has led to changes in viticulture and winemaking practices, such as reducing yield, harvesting grapes as late as possible for maximum ripeness, not filtering wine, and using new techniques—such as microoxygenation—to soften tannins. These widespread changes in technique have been called “Parkerization”… have led to a fear of homogenization of wine styles around the world as Parker’s tastes are irrevocably changing the way some French wines are made…”.
The changes in Bordeaux wine styles that began again in the 2000’s were most definitely impacted by attempting to appeal to the U.S. palate and open the U.S. market to more French exports. These changes I can attest to. I have witnessed that difference from 2000 to 2015. Personally, I feel the pendulum has swung a little too far towards softer, fruitier wines in France (and the U.S.) – as a generalization. As a wine consumer, your palate matters and whether you prefer these type of wines should be what drives your purchases, not wine critics.
Tasting these wines was a tremendous opportunity. I don’t often have the chance to evaluate wine styles over 30+ years in any wine region. Tasting these 35 year old wines side-by-side was a real pleasure and thanks go to Mr. Mandel, a fellow wine collector here in Phoenix. His generous hospitality made this a truly special experience.
This is a beautiful pic of an Italian vineyard, without VSP trellising. Somehow, this producer manages to make great wine. Thinking outside the box and regional differences are not necessarily a bad thing… as Arizona wineries may show you.
I advocate for balanced and restrained wines in every category. This style is a passion for me and I hope for others as well. I will be making the case for why these wineries are some of the best in their respective regions. It will be addressed one American Viticultural Area (AVA) at a time. Since my most recent tour and interviews were in Arizona, we can begin there.
Sonoita AVA – Sonoita, AZ
Sonoita AVA is a high-altitude (4,500-5,000 ft), warm climate wine growing region. The soils are mostly types of sandy loam, with a high pH character – both in the soils and water. The terroir (growing environment) mirrors many wine regions in Southern Italy and Spain, but the elevation adds a significant wrinkle. Historically, the area began with trying to produce Bordeaux style wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.), but a better understanding of the growing conditions and trial and error have moved the vineyards towards French Southern Rhone (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, etc.), Spanish (Tempranillo, Graciano, etc.) and Southern Italian (Aglianico, Sangiovese, etc.) red varietals. Today’s white varietals are also warm climate: Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng, etc. The individual grape varieties are not the important part of this story though, as many AZ wines are blends and the varietals often change by vintage due to the many new plantings in the area. The next varietal up will be Greek Assyrtiko – the climates are similar, although the soils are quite different. Maybe… it will be the next big find, like Petit Manseng was in the last few years.
These four Sonoita wineries make wines the closest to my palate. Although other wineries there make good wine, these producers deliver consistent quality and have winemakers with palates similar to mine. Does that make them the best wineries in this region? Possibly, but that judgement also depends on your taste. None of these wineries are making the fruit-forward, high alcohol, slightly sweet, low acid/tannin red blends that have become more common today (i.e. Apothic brand). These Sonoita wines are a serious attempt at chasing the premium wine category and they all succeed in some fashion. Whether or not you agree, this list is certainly a great starting place for an introduction to the region. In no particular order, they are:
Callaghan Tasting Room Entrance
Winemaker – Kent Callaghan the owner, vineyard manager and winemaker is a man of historic proportion to the local industry. His family has consistently nurtured the growth of the Southern AZ wine scene through their generous help and support to the local wine community and his accepted role as technical resource for the area. Since 1991, he and his family have been producing wine in Sonoita.
Wines – The first Callaghan wines I tasted date back to the late 90’s vintages. I have never tasted a Callaghan release that was not a quality wine. Their wines have been served at the White House during several administrations and generally have received enough notoriety to say they set the quality standard for the area. The wines always deliver the character of the local terroir, while offering the best contribution to his vision for premium wines. While the Callaghan wines have not necessarily been restrained over the years, they have been balanced and both age-able AND approachable young. This character is what makes the wines special and is a testament to Kent’s knowledge in the vineyard and winemaking skill.
Wines to Try – All. Look for blends and single bottlings of Grenache, Mourvedre, Graciano and Tannat for reds and Malvasia Bianca and Petit Manseng for the whites and enjoy.
Winemaker – James Callahan is the owner and winemaker here. He also makes the wine for Deep Sky Vineyards (also on this list), but Rune is where his palate and sensibility really shine through. James makes wine I consistently enjoy. He has had extensive experience in several different wine regions and more importantly, has developed a diverse and educated palate in his travels. His emphasis is on building the entire wine profile, that includes balance and mouthfeel, in a restrained style. These are the kind of wines that appeal to wine enthusiasts and foodies. Attention to the nuanced details really shines through, perhaps because of the more understated approach.
Wines – It is rare you can taste a winemaker’s vision in the wine. If you enjoy medium-bodied wines that aren’t too high in alcohol, consider a visit. James has a vision for the impact of his wines and they deliver.
Wines to Try – The Syrah is the flagship and is good, but find the Grenache and Viognier. They are representative of the best of the region and capture a real fine wine experience.
Twisted Union Wine Company
Winery – This winery’s story is about the large ownership team, not an individual. All with experience in a different aspect of the industry, together they bring a total skillset to the organization that somehow… just works. The group is only together 4-5 years and is already producing a quality product. I am looking forward to what their future endeavors bring. This is a beautiful facility worth visiting to enjoy the space. For an area with limited accommodations, they offer two very spacious and well-appointed rooms for local stays. The vineyard is still a work in process and will likely be re-planted in the near future. A producing estate vineyard will be an important addition.
Wine – These are well thought-out wines. Since the vineyard is not producing yet, they acquire fruit from the local area and California, with an eye on blending for quality. The wines produced are balanced and have a sensibility worth exploring.
Wines to Try – The reds here are good, but the whites are exceptional: look for the Malvasia Bianca and Viognier. Although, the special wine at this tasting was the Roussanne. I am not usually a fan of Roussanne in general, but this bottling was special – balanced, with just the right acid level and an accompanying soft mouth-feel. A profile I often search for in a white wine.
Deep Sky Vineyards
Winemaker – James Callahan is the winemaker here too. We established James’ credentials in the Rune Wines description, but at Deep Sky the sensibility is different. Bigger wines with higher alcohol in a more age-able style. The same balance is there, but with serious structure adding higher tannin and acidity as a solid backbone.
Wines – This is the AZ home for Malbec. The owner Phil Asmundson (Sci-Fi writing fame) also owns another winery in the Uco Valley in Argentina. This is a special opportunity at their tasting room to try the Argentina and Arizona Malbecs side-by-side. They are different, reflecting the different location and terroir. Deep Sky offers other varietal wines and with James at the production helm, you know they are made well.
Wines to Try – The Malbecs of course. These are best with a few extra years of bottle age on them, but well worth the wait.
Dos Cabezas Wineworks
Winemaker – Todd Bostock is the owner, vineyard manager and winemaker here. He has had some success in the past acquiring distribution for Dos Cabezas wines in and out of state, but the three-tier distribution system (topic for another article) leaves very little room for a small winery to make a profit. Todd has been busy changing the game plan, focusing on moving their distribution to direct-to-consumer retail sales. The tasting room in downtown Sonoita has added a larger food menu and is pairing dishes with food-friendly wines – focusing on the tasting experience. Their specialty is gourmet pizza, but other food dishes are also available.
Wines – The wines here are terroir driven and represent the region well. The thought in developing the profiles is clear, blends are the answer to making approachable, food-friendly wines with structure. Todd has a deft hand at building wines to drink now, or age. These blends are a broad mix of varietals, attempting to use the strengths of each varietal to compliment the other and build the profile to match Todd’s vision for the wines. The vintage variation is managed by adjusting the percentage mix to take advantage of the strength of each year’s fruit crop. The latest adventure has been a fun release of sparkling rose in a can. It is amazing how versatile sparkling wines are. They accompany a wide variety of foods so well!
Explore Something Different
Hops & Vines
Winery – The founding story and the two Owners here provide reason for consideration and addition to this list. Megan Stranik and Amanda Zouzoulas originally started this winery on a shoestring. Today, the continuing operation is limited to re-invested profits, with an eye on maintaining a down-to-earth atmosphere. The winery concept was built on lampooning the sometime high-brow attitude in the wine industry. The tasting room reflects a light-hearted attitude sorely missing from many wine circles. Hops & Vines is making the world of wine more accessible and have opened the eyes of an entirely different community of potential wine drinkers.
Winemaker – Megan makes some very good wine, with very little to work with. She has her challenges and sometimes encounters factors outside of her control, but I enjoy her wine sensibility. I am not sure how the local industry perceives her, but she deserves to be taken seriously. Her palate is educated and they are making restrained wines of a much higher caliber than their party atmosphere would suggest.
Wines – You can either have fun with these labels, or look past the marketing and try some serious wines. Visit their tasting room and taste through them. I am sure you will find wines you enjoy. I did.
Sonoita AVA is still evolving and has not really “found itself” yet. I originally came here with the expectation of tasting some good reds, but the big surprise was the quality of the white wines! As of today, roughly 10% of the wine produced here is white, but that is changing. The story that drives many decisions in the wine industry here is two-fold: 1) The lack of pure growers and well-managed vineyards, and 2) The barrier of entry to estate winery ownership caused by the high cost of vineyard development. The end-result is generally more demand than supply. While not a problem necessarily, it does have the potential to bring down the overall quality of the wines in the area. I will be very curious to see where the next few years take this wine region. It seems to me, all the components are in place for serious growth and overall improved quality. The future is looking bright for all of Arizona’s wine regions!
At least a third of the wine I purchase each year is from unfamiliar wine producers, especially from outside the U.S. How am I comfortable doing this? Most of my purchases, even from producers I know, is based on reviews, tasting notes and professional and amateur ratings. Vintage variation demands it. So, what other information can I use to determine whether I will enjoy unfamiliar wines? There are several other strategies, including researching: the winemaker’s style, the regional style where the wine is produced, the growing conditions (soil, climate, etc.) for the fruit and finally, the vineyard management and harvest strategy for the fruit. This may seem like more work than you care to put into the decision, but if you purchase 200-300 bottles per year like me, it is a necessity. Let’s look at the last strategy on the list in greater detail…
Does Vineyard Yield Matter to a Wine Drinker?
Look at the feature photo above this article for a sec. Common practice in many premium wine regions is to allow one cluster per shoot. This vineyard is different…
Am I suggesting you should ask your local wine shop about yield and vineyard management for each bottle you purchase? Well yes, sort of. Vineyard yield is a big part of the story for estate wineries. Most wineries producing premium wines usually graph yield against quality data, to find optimum production. It varies by varietal and growing conditions (Terroir, in the industry), but most premium wineries are harvesting around 2 tons/acre on 4′(vine) x 6′(row) vine spacing. Growers selling to jug wine producers, often harvest over 8 tons/acre. You would think a winery could produce four times more wine with four times more fruit. While this is true, you need to add optimum quality into the mix. Am I suggesting the average wine enthusiast can taste the difference between wines made from different vineyard yields? Yes I am, and here is how…
Yield Impact on Wine Character
To harvest the larger crop, you need: a warm climate, high daily percentage of sunshine, more irrigation water and fertile soil. This is your first clue. The location (Terroir) can be an indication. Some of the best vineyards in the world are in cooler regions, with arid conditions and soil so rocky, it looks like nothing would grow. The idea with premium vineyards is to “stress” the vines to the max, driving smaller berry size and the associated increased complexity and concentration of flavors. When making the decision whether to limit crop size, a winemaker has to think about: alcohol (sugar in fruit), pH (acidity in fruit), concentration (flavors in fruit) and structure (tannin, phenols in fruit). All of these are impacted by crop yield and harvest timing decisions. Work with me here… if you enjoy monster 17% alcohol, fruity red Zinfandels, you won’t care about the rest of this article, but if you enjoy balanced, food friendly wines that won’t get you drunk after a half bottle consumed, please read on…
“Balanced” is a term typically reserved for medium bodied wines with: under 14.5% alcohol, good acidity and medium tannins with good mouth-feel. That is a long description for wines that don’t hit you over the head and will taste good with, or without food. If this sounds like the kind of wine you enjoy, it requires a harvest strategy in the vineyard to get there. Premium vineyards require warm, sunny days to ripen, but cool nights/mornings to develop acidity. It is the reason why most premium fruit is harvested at night, to keep the acidity as high as possible. Issues like sugar content in the fruit (Brix, in the industry) is modulated by ripeness – pick too early and the structure and complexity can suffer. Over-water and it can dilute flavors and concentration.
Can You Taste the Difference?
I often taste wines looking for these characteristics, more than the flavors. High yield vineyards tend to produce wines that can be: watery/diluted, flabby and missing acidity, have candied, or jammy fruit flavors and have higher alcohol. This is the most severe example. Even with this jug wine growing strategy, you may not taste some, or any of these characteristics, because winemakers can breakout their chemistry set. Common additives can make a big difference in the wine, these include: adding tartaric acid for acidity and/or fruit juice for flavors and sweetness (etc.) in an effort to overcome the poor fruit quality. Although, “forcing” wine to match a better profile can also be detected by looking for: “sharper” bitter acidity, grape juice flavors, oily texture, residual sweetness and/or too much alcohol. All of these characteristics are your indication the winemaker is trying to cover up other problems. Better wine through manipulation is a strategy that often does not work in making quality wines. Selecting wines to buy without tasting can be hit, or miss… even with recommendations. So, if researching vineyard yield before buying can improve your chances of finding wine you enjoy, why not?
This topic is one of the most vehemently argued ideas in the wine industry. It has significant impact on grower and winery profitability. This is especially true in growing regions dominated by wine grape “farming” (agricultural growers, rather than estate wineries). Lodi AVA is a good example. When I was there touring wineries and growers 5-6 years ago, this was a VERY hot topic. At the time, the largest bulk wine producer in the U.S. was taking about 70% of the fruit production in the area and paying by ton of yield, regardless of quality. The other 30% was being produced by wineries trying to overcome the negative quality reputation driven by the 70%. There are some great vineyards in Lodi AVA in locations with cooler nights. Those owned by estate wineries in particular are making very good wine from that fruit. Keep in mind, there is a built-in bias associated with maximizing fruit production and I have spoken with many growers who still believe vineyard yield makes no difference in the final wine quality. I am convinced untrained palates can often tell the difference, depending on the skill of the winemaker… therein lies the rub. Experienced, highly skilled winemakers able to overcome these challenges via manipulating the juice (Must, in the industry) are more likely to work at wineries attempting to grow/buy better quality fruit. Like usual, most contentious issues are rarely simple.
Trained, certified Advanced Sommelier. AZ Art Institute Wine/Chef program focusing on wine pairing and beverage/culinary program development. Wine writer/blogger. Wine collector with extensive wine travel. Previously, consulting to the restaurant trade. Offering cellar management and procurement strategies, wine training & education, beverage business planning and marketing to the trade. Enjoy my blog at - www.coolclimatewine.net, my professional profile at: www.linkedin.com/in/douglasjlevin, my Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/TheDOCG, my Twitter feed at @douglasjlevin, or my tasting notes at https://rb.gy/r4xpom.
The Wine DOCG is a media persona of Douglas Levin. I attempt to be as transparent as possible regarding the opinions and reviews on this site. I accept no payments to review wine and I do not accept money in compensation for reviews. I do write other content distributed via other media sources and will always provide intent and/or compensation. I do accept samples from wineries and other outlets, without conditions about content. I do buy wine for review. This is over half the wines reviewed. This site is not focused on wine review though. The majority of my tasting notes are posted to the CellarTracker website here: www.cellartracker.com, user name: djlevin.
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