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The VinoRadio Blog


A Night at the Aosta

Plain and simple, it’s our nature is to explore. From the depths of space, to the trails of our local parks, we are driven by a boundless sense of curiosity. So when I hear people in the wine shop say that they find the diverse world of Italian wines intimidating, I offer that Italy is a wonderful journey of wines that provides years of exploration and fun. All you have to do is pick a region, read a little about it, buy a few bottles, gather a couple friends, some food, and enjoy. The same is true for me.

Pavese '09 Prié BlancMy passion for wine began with the wines of Italy and even after 15 years of drinking and exploring their diversity, my journey continues. In fact, the most recent leg of my expedition was last Friday, as I gathered five friends and six ancient varietals from Italy’s Valle D’Aosta. The white varietals were Prié Blanc and Petite Arvine and the reds were Cornalin, Vuillermin, Petit Rouge, and Fumin. We all wondered how the Alpine soil and climate would define the wines. Fortunately, all we had to do was pull the corks, drink the wines, and chat it up to find out.

Les Crêtes '09 Petite Arvine

In preparation for the tasting, each of the reds was decanted for an hour and then placed back in the bottle several hours before the tasting began. Once guests arrived, each of the reds was placed back into a decanter. Just prior to serving, each of the whites was Vinturied into a chilled decanter. The order of consumption of the wines was arranged from lightest to heaviest body based upon the literature available on the varietals. Now on to the Valle D’Aosta and its wines…

The Valle D’Aosta may be Italy’s smallest wine region in size and production, but by no means does its wine suffer an inferiority complex. This horseshoe shaped valley’s dry climate and hot summers, when combined with the region’s cool nights, create prime conditions for growing grapes. Flanked by the majestic peaks of Alps, the rocky semi‐fertile soil and steep terraced vineyards of Valle D’Aosta are producing wines as beautiful as the region.

Feudo di San Maurizio '09 CornalinFrom a vineyard at the base of Mont Blanc, came the first grape varietal of the evening, a 09 Prié Blanc, made by the producer Ermes Pavese ($25). Grown in one of the highest elevation vineyards in Europe (3600 feet above sea level), the wine had a jasmine and grapefruit nose. We described the palate as slightly grassy with lemon and watermelon flavors and a waxy feel. Some in the room found a resemblance to Loire Sauvignon Blanc. The wine’s bright acidity made it a lovely palate primer for the night ahead and when paired with the salty fatty prosciutto, the wine shined even brighter.

Next up was the second white, a 09 Petite Arvine from the producer Les Crêtes ($35). I don’t think anyone in the room expected the Petite Arvine to be as complex as it was. In fact, the longer the wine was open the more complex it became. The folks in the room described the nose as apple jelly, citrus, floral, and banana, and we all agreed that this medium bodied white had a long grippy finish with acidity so persistent; it leaves a smile on your face. To let this varietal show all it has to offer, I intend to decant the next Petite Arvine I drink for about an hour. Yes, I decant white wines, but we’ll discuss that in another post.

Feudo di San Maurizio '09 Vuillermin Now on to the reds, and first up was the '09 Cornalin from the producer Feudo di San Maurizio ($25). I would have been happy just to smell this wine let alone drink it. Aromas of balsamic vinegar, white pepper, sweat, and pine resin had the room chatting. An earthy palate of red berries was less complex than the nose, but made for an enjoyable medium to full bodied wine nonetheless. Hoping the wine would open with further air, we each left our glasses aside until later in the evening. Upon returning to the wine after an hour or so, the palate had not turned into the nose, but we still enjoyed the wine.

The next red was the 09 Vuillermin, also from the producer Feudo di San Maurizio ($49), and it came with a great story. Purchased at the Enoteca Vino Nostro in San Francisco, the importer and shop owner, Amanzio Tamanti, informed us the varietal is so rare that there is no vineyard of it. As the story goes, the grapes used to make this wine were collected by the producer from small plantings around the region. Our anticipation, based upon tale, was not let down. Aromas of nutmeg, allspice, cardamom, and flowers greeted us from the glass, while flavors of tart loganberry, wild mountain strawberries, hints of cranberries, and baking spices fueled a long finish. We loved this wine!

Gerbelle Didier '08 Tourrette

Our only blend of the evening was from the DOC Tourrette and was comprised of 70% Petit Rouge, 20% Cornalin, 5% Fumin and 5% Premetta. Made by the producer Gerbelle Didier ($19), the least expensive wine of the night was, by no means, any less of a wine. In fact, my friend Charles' description of the nose as "hints of anise along with an ancient sea bottom of tectonically uplifted earth" had the room in tears, but we all agreed, "Yeah, that’s how it smelled." Charles continued to nail the palate creatively with his "toasted kelp reminiscent of ocean side beach fires" description. Once we all stopped laughing, we, once again, got what he meant, and then we added flavors of tart cherries along with a dark earthiness to his description.

Feudo di San Maurizio '09 Fumin Last, but not least, was the 09 Fumin also from the producer Feudo di San Maurizio ($30). Here we saw similarities to Syrah, but different. Baking spices, fat and smoke aromas were given a humorous twist once again by Charles, as he described the wine’s aromas like a “wet campfire in the morning”. Obviously, we were enjoying the wines and the company just a little by this point. With this wine all of the aromas of the baking spices and fat and smoke aromas were present on the palate along with hints of menthol and a lovely acidity.

At the end of the night, we found the cool alpine climate and soils imparted common traits to both the reds and the whites. Pleasantly, each of the wines ranged in alcohol from 12% to a high of 13.5%. Common to the wines was an acidity and minerality that delivered a crisp and clean palate. These young reds all possessed high toned floral or spice notes and a sense of elegance along with fine well integrated tannins allowing them to show well after only an hour in the decanter.

All in all, the true test of enjoying a bottle of wine is when you would buy it again, and everyone in attendance agreed that we’d buy all of these wines again.


Get Your Saint-Joseph On

The crazy steep Saint-Joseph vineyards above Tornon, France.

I had the good fortune to travel, by car, on a wine tasting expedition through France in 1999. On that trip, my companions and I stopped at winery after winery in the Northern Rhône, where winemakers gave us tastes directly from their barrels. Whenever we fawned over a particular wine, they filled up plastic jugs for us to take along for the ride. The wines were both earthy and fruity, and always with that peppery brilliance for which Syrah is known. I've loved that region ever since. Whenever I drink a Rhône wine, I'm looking for something that will bring back my memories of that magical trip. 

The Saint-Joseph AOC is one of my personal favorite Rhône regions. Originally known as Vin de Mauves (meaning "purple wine," and apparently a favorite of Louis XII), its wines often possess a seemingly contradictory combination of muscular earthiness and disarmingly gorgeous finesse. Like the other Northern Rhône appellations, the only red wine grape allowed is Syrah. As for white wine grapes, only Marsanne and Roussanne are permitted. The thing is, people have produced wine in these vineyards for hundreds of years, and these varietal regulations are there for a tried and true reason: these particular grapes, grown in this particular geology and climate, can produce incredible wines.

Saint-Joseph (pronounced "Sahn Josz-EFF") sits just north of Crôzes-Hermitage, widely considered the second most prestigious region of the area. The most prestigious is Côte-Rôtie, which is about a 40 mile drive north up the A7. With the reputations of Côte Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage both outshining that of Saint-Joseph, you can find some amazing bang-for-the-buck St. Joe gems at your local wine store. 

The younger Pierre GononOne of my favorite producers of the region is Pierre Gonon. This domaine was founded by Pierre himself, but he turned it over to his sons, Jean and Pierre, in 1989. I really liked the Gonon Saint-Joseph rouge (100% Syrah) the first time I tried it a few years ago, when my nose and taste buds told me what some internet research confirmed: this is an old-school producer that embraces traditional vinification methods. In fact, although they haven't yet bothered getting certified organic, they have been farming completely organically for years. You'll see this phenomenon a lot more in Europe than elsewhere: some producers care more about doing things "right," for their land and for their own notions of integrity, than about the marketing cachet (but added cost) that getting officially certified brings. The Gonons also steer clear of new wood, as they believe -- as I do as well -- that this lets their wines' terroir come through in the most pure way. To cement their credentials as traditional winemakers, note that the Gonons only use indigenous yeasts, ferment in open oak vats, punch down by foot (!), and never filter their wines. This winery is about as natural as they come.

I recently had Gonon's 2007 Saint-Joseph "Les Oliviers" blanc. The namesake of this beautiful white wine is the equally beautiful Les Oliviers vineyard. Les Oliviers is on a steep slope above the town of Tornon, where the precariousness of the vineyard requires the grapes to be harvested by hand. The soil is made up of alluvial deposits of clay and sanded granite stones. The wine is 80% Marsanne and 20% Roussanne, and it's a true stunner that reflects both opulent fruit and that stony soil. On the nose, I found a lovely bouquet of honey, tropical fruit, lemon zest, baking spice, and a distinctive chalky, minerally aroma I just couldn't get enough of. The mouthfeel was unctuous and oily, and flavors of persimmon, apricot, vanilla, baking spice and sweet lime danced around my mouth. It's not high in acid, but it is somehow still incredibly lively. I didn't want this delicious assault on my tongue to stop, and fortunately for me the finish went on and on. For the cost, usually around $35, this wine is actually a decent bargain. 

After this satisfying experience, I was eager to try Pierre Gonon's red Saint-Joseph again, so I tracked down a bottle of the 2008 vintage ($35). This wine had an intriguing and complex nose, mostly of pepper, herbs, and crushed rocks. On the palate, however, after a pleasingly wild hint of dirt, forest floor, and fresh pepper, all I could detect for fruit was something akin to unripe raspberries, and not much else -- darn it, the fruit was completely closed down, even though I had decanted it for two hours and poured it through my Vinturi. So I corked it back up, hoping for better results in a day or two. Thank-Dionysus I did. When I re-popped it two nights later, the wine had found its legs. Now I began to get the full picture: an initially floral nose anchored by white pepper, plum, blueberry syrup, and a hint of prosciutto. Upon tasting, the prevalent peppery earth from two days before was now complimented by ripe raspberry and plum as well as a meatiness balanced by integrated but pronounced acidity. This led to a deep, lengthy finish. This is what I was looking for. Memories of my trip to the Rhône came flooding back to me. This wine tastes like France, and left me jonesing to go back.

Other Saint-Joseph producers to look out for, and who also stick with a traditional approach, are Dard et Ribo (a favorite of Alice Feiring), Robert Michel, Jean Louis Chave (tres famous, but for good reason), and Bernard Faurie. And if you have the time and means, take a trip to France, rent a car, and road trip along the Rhône (with a designated driver, of course). And don't forget some plastic jugs.


City Slicker Farms BBQ (and Rosé)

As we mentioned in our Modest Monday post earlier this week, it's a great time of year to bust out the rosé.

Last week, I attended the 2nd Annual Baywolf Back Alley BBQ benefitting City Slicker Farms (more about them later). Knowing that I was going to have smoked chicken with potato salad and grilled veggies, I grabbed the 2010 Tablas Creek Rosé from the fridge and headed to Baywolf.

All you have to do is look at the Tablas Creek Rose’s vibrant crimson hue and you want to drink it. Comprised of the Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise, this southern Rhône styled blend from Paso Robles delivers flavors fresh strawberries, followed by rich mid-palate of watermelon, and a minerally acid driven finish.  It was way tasty, fun to drink, and a perfect party wine for a summer BBQ .

Available in several Bay Area wine shops for between $24-29, the Tablas Creek is a pricey rosé. And yes, for about half of the price or less, you can have an equally enjoyable experience with an actual southern French rosé. One of my favorites this summer is the 2010 Domaine Sainte-Eugénie Corbières Rosé. Here the blend of Cinsault, Syrah, and Grenache fills the palate with flavors of raspberries and dried herbs which are followed by a minerally dry finish.  It's another way tasty and fun to drink rosé, but this time it’s only $11 a bottle at The Wine Mine in Oakland.

Now back to the real stars of the evening, City Slicker Farms.  Helping low income to turn their yards into sustainable farms, City Slicker Farms educates the people of West Oakland feeding their minds and bodies. Their efforts are forever changing the landscape of West Oakland and the lives of the people they touch, making them my #1 recommendation!