New York Riesling Diary: Day 2 – NEWSFLASH! Chile has 2nd Top Dry Riesling Producer

Yesterday I attended the New York Wine City (NYWC) tasting of MOVI, an association of smaller Chilean wine producers stretching from the northern limit of wine growing to the far South with the expectation that there would be some exciting red wines, but no Rieslings of any note. How wrong I was! The very first wine that the group’s representative, Jean-Charles Villard – yes, that really is the name of a Chilean winemaker! – poured for me was the dry 2014 Riesling from Meli in the Maule Valley. I’d tasted earlier vintages of this wine and placed it clearly behind the wines of Cono Sur, but with the latest vintage Meli has at least matched the established star of Chilean Riesling. Their 2014 was brimming with lemon, lime and floral aromas. The balance of juicy, creamy and crisp elements on the palate was spot on even the slight hint of the bitterness in the finish  accentuated the freshness. The wine tasted a bit lighter than its 13° alcohol, which is always a good sign with young dry Rieslings. It was an uplifting discovery that made me feel confident that Chile and South America is realizing its Riesling potential, even if the wines don’t have a high profile compared to all those big reds.

As I was leaving the MOVI team wanted me to tell them what my three favorite wines at the tasting were and I told them to read this blog posting. So here they are in alphabetical order: Meli, 2014 Riesling; Trabun 2010 Syrah; Villard 2012 Le Grand Pinot Noir. Interestingly, none of them are “typical” for Chile, whatever that word means in a wine industry that has rapidly finding its way since Pinochet was replaced by a democratically elected president in 1990. The MOVI tasting prove that Chile’s wines are far more diverse than is widely perceived, and even in the field of big tannic reds from Bordeaux varieties there was a wide stylistic range. Jean-Charles Villard told me just how rapid development has been in the Casablanca Valley where his vineyards are. When his father planted the first Pinot Noir vines in this region in the early 1990s there were just 80 acres of vineyards there. Now there are more than 6,000 acres!  By the way, his name isn’t so strange for a Chilean when you think that the great hero of Chile’s war of independence against Spain in the early years of the 19th century was Bernardo O’Higgins!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 1 – The Outrageous Canadians and How Riesling Leaves the Gates Open

I wasn’t going to write about the event last Saturday evening at Grano Restaurant in Toronto, because it was to promote my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH (shortly to be published in German under the title PLANET RIESLING by Tre Torri) and I thought that you might have had too much of that already. However, some stuff happened that evening, as stuff tends to do when good Riesling flows and good Riesling people are present. That’s always a good bases for good fun, but sometimes also for outrageousness, as was the case on Saturday. I think you need to hear about that.

It all started when, towards the end of the evening, the patron of Grano, Roberto Martella (pictured below), started a discussion about Riesling became dangerously open-ended when wine educator and blogger Billy Munnelly (see dived in. “Think about SEX. If you’re a good sexual player, then you’ll have foreplay. Riesling is foreplay and it leaves the gates open!” he said with great conviction. You have to imagine this in a strong Irish accent to get the full effect though. “And it’s high in acidity, whatever that means. After a few glasses of Riesling you need something else,” he added in case some of us hadn’t completely understood his first remarks. After that there was something close to pandemonium in the private dining room of the restaurant.

Anne Pennachetti (right in the photo), the wife of Tom Pennachetti of Cave Spring Cellars, was one of many who disagreed with Billy and she made her argument more forcefully than anybody else. That she did so from Roberto’s lap made it all the more convincing too. “All you need is Riesling: before – during – after!” To which Angelo Pavan, Cave Spring’s winemaker, added, “More than one at a time would also be a possibility.” Everybody got the ironic ambiguity of that one, and the entire party was in a collective fit of laughter. If anyone had ever needed convincing proof that the stereotypical image of Canadians as boring and humorless is seriously wide of the mark here it was by the bucket-load.

The Rieslings that evening from Cave Spring, Charles Baker, Hidden Bench and 13th Street (scroll down for more) were also convincing proof that Ontario can play in the global major league of Riesling in styles raining from dry to dessert wines. However, that wasn’t a surprise for the great majority of the guests who have followed the development of these wines for some years, and in some cases since the first beginnings 35 years ago. Although the Niagara Peninsula doesn’t look or feel like a new winegrowing region it is very much a New World of Wine in the most literal sense of those words. That has many positive sides, some of which I’ve already pointed out in the blog postings below (and another will follow shortly), but there’s also a downside that it was impossible to avoid during my stain Ontario. I think you need to hear about that too.

The problem is that an idea of how Riesling ought to taste has gained a firm hold in the minds of many people in the Canadian wine scene, because a bunch of the nation’s Rieslings taste that way. I’m talking about the wines that are lean rather than light, austere rather than pristine, with an acidity that is searing rather than refreshing. These wines are typically made from grapes picked in September and high yields often also play a role. Of course, encouraging a generous crop level and picking before fall rains in order to have plenty of clean grapes has a positive keeps production costs down and minimizes risk, but that’s seldom talked about.

Ontario Rieslings with this flavor profile can have some terroir character (which says something about how great the potential with Riesling here is) and the combination of this with their severity is sometimes declared to be proof of their authenticity. Even if that argument holds up (and I’m not sure that it does), the fact is that a harmonious wine tastes way better than a disharmonious one, and it is the wines that taste good which etch themselves in our memory. Those Ontario Riesling producers hooked on this style need to compare their wines with the so-called classics of the cool climate wine regions of Germany to find out how much more aromatic and generous those wines are at modest levels of ripeness. This too is possible in Ontario, as Cave Spring, Charles Baker, Hidden Bench and 13th Street showed on Saturday night.

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Niagara Riesling Diary: Day 2 – No Word Other Than “Revolution” Will do

When it comes to wine it’s easy to throw around big important words like “revolution” without adequate reason, because it sounds so good and therefore nobody questions the relevance of such a term to the situation in question. For many years the quality of the wines from the Niagara Peninsula has been improving and this is a process which has been well recognized if not well reported by the international wine media. Their lack of a clear focus on this region has created an established wisdom which the facts on the ground often seem to support: the progress has been steady and incremental, remains so to this day. However, as a result of today’s visits to a number of the region’s producers large and small I really do see a revolution beginning thanks to people like Francois Morissette, pictured above at his Pearl Morissette winery just outside Jordan.

Francois is seriously rethinking how the wines of this region could taste, and therefore also how they could be made. I just had one of the most fascinating tastings I can remember with him and those are also words that I don’t throw around lightly. It began with Rieslings that were as radically outside the norm for Niagara as you could imagine. Bold yet delicate, richly textural, but also blessed with an intense yet subtle fruit character they need several years of aging to shine, and even the 2010 and ’11 have both opened up just about enough to show what they really are. His 2013 Riesling will need a couple more years to reach that point, and may well not be released until then; another radical departure from conventional practice. You will have to wait for that one to enable you to drink outside the Ontario wine box! By the way, these wines all did full malolactic fermentation, but they still had a healthy acidity and no hint of unattractive “non-Riesling” aromas like butter or sauerkraut from that process.

Some local winemakers are painting Francois as a charlatan, a troublemaker or even a devil, and he’s certainly a charismatic character with a lot of strong opinions, but he’s also a thinker, an experimenter and a pragmatist (without compromising his core ideals) who isn’t afraid to look at the analytical figures and think about them before making winemaking decisions. In fact, I think he does more analysis of his wines than many conventional winemakers in this region!  ”I am making wines with low sulfur, but I am committed to biological stability. I don’t accept wines that are oxidized, have too much volatile acidity or other faults. But, I’m not afraid of things I don’t understand,” he told me. So far he has made Riesling in stainless steel, then large old oak casks and now concrete eggs in his search for the right way to realize his vision of Riesling as a wine with textural complexity and appeal.

In fact, texture is what interests  him most in any wine. For Chardonnay this is a less unconventional way of thinking and thus his Chardonnays are also less unconventional wines, although they have their own very distinctive personality. How many high-end Chardonnays outside Chablis have zero perceptible oak aromas? Almost none, except for these and I promise you I wasn’t yearning after vanilla and toast when I tasted them! Personally, of his dry white wines it was the 2012 Chardonnay that stunned me the most. In that vintage of lush and tropically aromatic wines he added 10% Riesling to give the wine more acidity, rather than either add tartaric acid to make the wine taste fresher, or to add nothing and accept a balance that was far from the vitality that he seeks in wines. It was a stroke of genius that resulted in a spectacular wine with a whiplash of mineral freshness that comes as a wonderful surprise after the almost opulent first impression which it mades. He also showed me some striking and highly original Cabernet Franc and Gamay reds, which belong to the best produced from these grapes in Ontario and are great wines in any context.

There was a total contrast of approach to creating something revolutionary at Chateau des Charmes  in St. David’s where Paul Bosc Snr. (right in the photo), his son Paul-André  (left) and winemaker Amelie Boury (centre)  have pursued the arduous process of breeding new grape varieties ideally suited to this region with its “Siberian” winters and “Algerian” summers (the family originates from Algeria). Since Paul Snr began this process 18 (!) years ago he’s run through perhaps 20,000 combinations of vine genetics in the search of a new one that will at least match the most successful vinifera varieties grown here and have a distinctive personality. “146″ may be an unromantic name for a variety – it is only temporary – but this cross of Gewürztraminer (mother) and Riesling (father) combines the baroque aromas of the former with the racy acidity of the latter to give something that is completely new and exciting either as a dry wine or one with some sweetness. In a few years, under a new and much more attractive name, the first experimental wine will hit the market. My hunch is that the Boscs will vilify it in a similar style to their impressive dry ‘Old Vine’ Riesling (great value at just under $15 here) Who knows what the reaction will be? I was certainly amazed by the micro-vinifications I tasted and can’t wait for the revolutionary moment when the first commercial product hits the market!

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Niagara Riesling Diary: Day 1 – Welcome to the Riesling Central of the Northeast!

OK, this isn’t exactly the way I normally see vineyards in my mind’s eye when I think of Riesling, but this is the way that the vineyards of the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario/Canada looked when I arrived here yesterday afternoon. Today the sun came out and everything shimmered rather than being bathed in that ice-box blue, but whatever the color there’s no doubt that this is the Riesling Central of the Northeast. Nowhere in the eastern half of the North American Continent are there more Riesling vineyards than here. In BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (of which the German language edition PLANET RIESLING is about to be published by Tre Torri) I used the statistics for 2011, because in that year almost all the states and provinces I wanted to compare had gathered new statistics, creating a level playing field. In 2011 Ontario had 1,648 acres of Riesling ahead of New York State’s 1,034 acres, then Michigan in third with 575 acres. You have to look right across the continent to Washington State and California to find more Riesling than is here in Niagara. Here Riesling is in the process of overtaking Chardonnay (another variety very well suited to this region’s climate and soils) to become white Vinifera grape number one.  Here in Niagara people are pulling out Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in order to plant Riesling!

Of course, those and other statistics are only one part of the story of Riesling. The taste of the wines is always far more important, because it delivers the punchline to the wine drinkers and it is their reactions – in this case people demanding more good Riesling – that drive the vineyard planting. Pictured above is one of the most beautiful mature dry Rieslings I’ve tasted in a long time. The 1999 ‘CSV’ from Cave Spring here in Jordan was perfectly mature in aroma, super-elegant and properly dry (although it began life as a mdeium-dry wine – all wines dry with age) in flavor with a great mineral freshness. I’m sorry that few of you will ever get the chance to experience this wine, because Cave Spring now have just 17 bottles left, but at least it proved the oft-made claim about the aging potential of Niagara Rieslings is not a hollow one. Please remember that this was the very first vintage of this wine, and that the first plantings of Riesling in this region are only slightly more than 20 years older than this wine. That is either a shallow history or a rapid and dynamic development, depending upon you have a the-glass-is-half-empty or a the-glass-is-half-full perspective. I choose the latter.

I already got to taste a few of the 2014s, wines that only just finished their fermentations. Here is Jean-Pierre Colas, the winemaker of 13th Street presenting me with the powerful and grapefruity  2014 ‘June’s Vineyard’ dry Riesling that is still milky with yeast. That first taste was very promising for this extremely early stage of the wine’s life and bodes well for the new vintage. Like 2013 it seems to be a cool and elegant vintage with quite high acidity, but also excellent balance. I can’t wait to taste these wines when they are in the bottle, but right now I have to run to Grano’s Restaurant in Toronto for a signing of my book and the Riesling dinner that will follow it.

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 5 – PLANET RIESLING kommt bald ! / the German Language Edition of my Riesling Book is coming soon !

Finally, the German language edition of BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH called PLANET RIESLING will be published very soon by Tre Torri Verlag in Wiesbaden. Unten in Deutsch / below in German is the story of how my book has unexpectedly become part of the Great Dönnhoff Controversy. For english-speaking readers it may be hard to imagine that the super-elegant dry and sweet Rieslings from the Dönnhoff estate in Oberhausen on the Nahe could be the subject of any kind of debate. “Isn’t it blindingly obvious that they’re great wines?” many will ask themselves. However, the fact that Cornelius Dönnhoff took over the making of these wines from his father Helmut back in 2007, many people in the German wine scene didn’t notice and only found out recently (mainly because they didn’t want to see it), has ignited a major controversy. The fact that the new edition of the Gault Millau Wine Guide to Germany just demoted Dönnhoff has massively stoked the fires of this debate. Although there is much new material about German wines in PLANET RIESLING, this text is identical in content to that in BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH.  In both books Dönnhoff is the only producer on this Planet Riesling to appear in there of the five hit lists!     

Jetzt ist es ganz klar geworden: manche Mitglieder der deutschen Weinszene sind gegen Dönnhoff. Seit der ‚Gault  Millau Weinguide Deutschland 2015’ das weltberühmte Riesling-Weingut H. Dönnhoff in Oberhausen/Nahe herab gestuft hat, ist das Gut Objekt einer heftigen offenen Kontroverse. Jetzt sind die Gegner, die das Weingut bisher hinter vorgehaltener Hand zerredet haben, lautstark geworden. Jetzt gibt es Aufruhr im Nahetal, das sonst so schön und ruhig ist!

Ich stehe aus tiefer Überzeugung auf der anderen Seite als der Gault Millau und das nicht, weil ich seit Oktober 1986 die Familie Dönnhoff kenne. Aus meiner Sicht ist die Qualität der  trockenen Dönnhoff-Rieslinge (vor allem die feinfruchtigen und kraftvollen „Großen Gewächse“– auch aus 2013) in den letzten Jahren keinesfalls abgesackt, sondern eindeutig gestiegen! Die edelsüßen Riesling Spätlesen des Guts sind nach wie vor vielschichtig und brillant. Deswegen feiert mein neues Buch PLANET RIESLING, das kurz vor Weihnachten im Tre Torri Verlag erscheinen wird, die Dönnhoff-Rieslinge und in der Ausgabe der Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) vom 23. November habe ich Cornelius Dönnhoff zum Winzer des Jahre gekürt. So muss es sein!

Damit bin ich möglicherweise auch in die Schusslinie geraten, aber in meinen Buch und  in der FAS-Kolumne geht es nur um die Wahrheit und dazu muss ein kritischer Journalist stehen. An Angriffe bin ich schon seit Jahrzehnten gewöhnt; wer eine klare Position bezieht, wird beschimpft. Ein Buch wie PLANET RIESLING, das die Riesling-Weine der Welt beschreibt, ist Jahre lang im Umlauf und bleibt die ganze Zeit der Kritik ausgesetzt. Gerne!

Manche Leser werden zu Recht fragen, warum das Weingut Dönnhoff in der Kritik steht. Ist das Gut nicht eines der Riesling-Monumente Deutschlands? Ja, das ist es schon und nicht erst seit gestern. Mit den Jahrgängen 1989 und 1990 ist Helmut Dönnhoff vom Geheimtipp zum international bekannten Riesling-Erzeuger avanciert. Nach der Jahrhundertwende ist „Dönnhoff“ durch einen großartigen Jahrgang nach dem Anderen zum Inbegriff der rassigen und mineralischen trockenen und der filigranen süßen Riesling-Weine geworden. Seitdem war die Rede von „der Helmut“ und manchmal war der Ton schon halbreligiös!

Nun wurde vor kurzer Zeit bekannt, dass Helmuts Sohn Cornelius (oben in Central Otago/Neuseeland) schon seit einigen Jahren hinter den Dönnhoff-Weinen steckt. Seit 2007 ist er für den Keller des Guts und viel mehr verantwortlich. Lange haben viele Mitglieder der deutschen Weinszene diesen Fakt verdrängt, weil sie an ihrem „heiligen Helmut“ festhalten wollten. Nach und nach mussten sie die tatsächliche Situation im Gut wahrnehmen und das war offensichtlich ein ziemlicher  Schock. Aus der Sicht vieler Gegner ist Cornelius Dönnhoff das Problem, weil er nie wie sein Vater werden kann. Das ist natürlich gehässiger Unfug!

Auch „sachliche“ Argumente werden von manchen Gegner vorgebracht. Sie deuten mit dem großen Zeigefinger auf die angeblich glatten und/oder technokratischen Dönnhoff-Rieslinge. Das starke Wachstum des Guts seit der Jahrhundertwende wird als Bestätigung für diese Behauptung genommen. Doch nur wenn man gewollt die Dönnhoff-Weine im Vergleich mit misslungenen „Natural Wines“, die nur stinkig und ruppig schmecken, stellt, wirken sie „glatt“ oder „technokratisch“, bzw. reintönig und geschliffen. In der gegenwärtigen Weinszene gilt „Authentizität“ über Alles, auch wenn es stinkt und beißt!  Urig auf Teufel komm raus waren die Dönnhoff-Rieslinge aber nie. Feinheit und Eleganz sind die Ziele von Cornelius, genauso wie sie es für seinen Vater Helmut waren.

Der Hauptunterschied zwischen den Weinen von Vater und Sohn erwächst aus der Klimaerwärmung. Während der 1970er, ‚80er und weit in den ‚90er Jahre musste Helmut um reife Trauben kämpfen. Heutzutage ist das aber kein großes Problem mehr. Das ist der Grund, warum die Weine von Cornelius oft etwas voller und einen Tick weicher in der Säure schmecken als die seines Vater. Aber auch dieser Umstand ist für die Gegner schlichtweg falsch; für sie muss Alles beim Alten bleiben.

Da denke ich an Friedrich Nietzsche, der solch krankhaft negative deutsche Geister als “Tarantulas” bezeichnet hat. Ich bin auf der Seite der globalen Community der Dönnhoff- und Riesling-Fans. Sie sind auch das Thema von PLANET RIESLING.

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 3 – Looking Back in Space-Time at Maynard James Keenan

TIME PAST AND WINES PAST! There’s no way round it, now I’m looking back both in time, and across diverse mountains, plains and rivers between my desk on the East Coast and the American Southwest and my actual Gonzo #AZwine Adventure. Of course, it ended three days ago with the long flight back to New York Wine City from Phoenix/Arizona, most of which I passed by in a seriously dazed and confused slumber. Done is done! But what is every really done? It’s an everyday paradox that memories are right now, even if they’re like albums of faded photos. Time past and wines past?

Some of you are surely well aware that my host and guide Maynard James Keenan (MJK), pictured above, split from his business partner in the Arizona Stronghold wine project, Eric Glomski (EG), back in the spring of 2014. I can well understand how you might consider that with this move the really exciting phase of the #AZwine story ended. Famously Punk Rock was already dead back in 1979. I remember graffiti in rural Switzerland telling me that piece of news.  Undeniably, it was Arizona Stronghold, founded 2007, that first made a noise about the state’s wines (distributed in 38 states plus some exports!) thru the promotional tour MJK and EG undertook when their first wines came onto the market and the 2010 documentary movie about the pair ‘Blood into Wine’ Stuart! It’s way too late for reporting. If you really must write something, then it will have to be The Official History of #AZwine (Part 1)!

I have to admit I was unaware of the above history when I set off for AZ just over a week ago and I’m really glad that I was, because that Divine Ignorance enabled me to absorb everything around me in a nonjudgmental, sponge-like manner, though obviously, some wines did more for me than others, and some people fascinating me more than others. However, what I experienced most intensely was not the bunch of extreme individuals I encountered, but the complex network of business (not only money, also goals, ambitions) and other relationships (blood and other bodily fluids) that bind them together in a wine community like I’ve never experienced before. And I’ve been doing this thing long enough to have seen many wine regions come up, and a few go down too.

When I get down to writing the Big Story of #AZwine, MJK and his Caduceus Cellars some time next year after another visit to the state, then it will be about that network, although I’m not quite sure how to pull that off without turning it into an #AZwine version of a Russian novel. Certainly it will need some history of the kind outlines above – how else could you figure out how all these people got where they are now? – but I promise you it will be all about what’s happening in the fiery crucible of the  Storytelling Now, all about the moment of wine becoming. I hope that doesn’t sound too fine and fancy, because it certainly isn’t intended to do so, in fact, this story is caked in a gooey-gritty mix of dust and grape juice that sticks to everything it comes into contact with.

WHO EXACTLY IS THE MAN? An important side-effects of my deliberate lack of conventional journalistic focus, was that I took MJK almost exactly the way I found him. Sure, I’d heard he was the singer of a gigantically successful heavy metal band called ‘Tool’, but I didn’t know their music, and, although I’ve now heard a bunch of MJK’s work with ‘Puscifer’, I still don’t know what ‘Tool’ sounds like! Sure, I listened carefully to the music he played on his car radio and in his house; a musician’s taste in music surely say something about him, though it may be damned hard to figure out exactly what that really is. I noted Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, because I was surprised to find that MJK also enjoys music I do. This relaxed way of doing my job is no doubt naive, but it meant that I wasn’t dazzled by the aura many of his fans clearly see around him. For me he’s a complex guy who’s done a bunch of stuff in his life and recently mutated into a creative winemaker. I promise you, amongst them that’s a horribly rare thing, although a slew of the rich and famous are making wine. Let’s face the truth, most of them are employing people to make wine for them and taking the credit for the, because it means magazine covers. Often the result taste remarkably dumb and are way too expensive on top of that. Did I mention Gérard Depardieu? It seems I did, because I just read his name on the screen and felt slightly queasy. Forgive me for digressing…

I took MJK to be a creative winemaker from my first encounter with him was at the Festival at the Farm of the Arizona Wine Growers where he presented a tasting-seminar devoted to a method of red wine production called Submerged Cap Fermentation (which is what the tank he’s pictured with below is for). He was obviously right on top of this thing in the technical sense, but – as every good winemaker exploring some new technique is – and from the four very different 2104 Sangiovese red wines we tasted he’s also relentlessly running down exactly the right way to use it. In winemaking the difference between more or less right and exactly right is often also the difference between a very good wine and a mind-blowing one (although getting up to either of those levels demands the use of excellent quality grapes). Although we talked about all kinds of things during the following days – I was actually listening far more than talking, because that’s what a journalist after a True Story has to do – we always swung around the next corner back to wine growing and winemaking. Although music is still important to him, this creative process which turns solid grapes into liquids in barrels and tanks no less defines who he is, not only publicly, but also in his own mind.

Obviously, the wines MJK makes, mostly powerful and tannic reds, plus some rich dry rosés and dry whites, are far removed from those that usually dominate this blog (Riesling & Co.) but that isn’t the point. As Michael Pierce of the Saeculum/Pierce winery in Wilcox and Enology Director of the Southwest Wine Center in Clarkdale said, “Nature will prove you wrong if you plant the wrong grape varieties!” The growing conditions dictate what will work best in a particular location, be it in a long-established wine region or out on the enological edge in the mountains of Northern Arizona, and whatever the location if you want to be succeed in making wines that excites people and sells well, then you better pay attention to the growing conditions before you plant the vines. In fact, you’ll need to kneel at the altar of the weather’s caprioles – good, bad and ugly – for the entire lifetime of your vines if you want to play in the Wine Major League. That’s more important than it the wine happens to be Riesling, even if it is the Best White Wine on Earth. Please give me a delicious Big Red, rather than a mediocre Riesling. “It works” is a rather compelling argument in the world of wine!

AN EVENING AT THE BUNKER: Suddenly I was sitting in MJK’s house in Jerome with another four glasses of red wine were in front of me again. Clearly, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape that dominated the ‘Judith’ vineyard below his house when he first planted it is a grape that’s well adapted to the conditions in the mountains of Northern Arizona, otherwise the 2008 ‘Judith’ (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) wouldn’t be at once imposing and so well adjusted at six years of age that it could both delight and challenge me. However, I greatly preferred the 2012 ‘Judith’ and it’s one third Cabernet Sauvignon and fully two thirds the Spanish red wine grape Tempranillo. The perfume of this youngster reminded me of violets and hot dry earth, which is crazy, because violets naturally grow in cool, damp woods; the tingling suspense of contradiction! This is one seriously intense wine, boldly sexual in a way some will find too domineering, others maybe too darkly feminine, but that’s my wavelength and I’m not talking FM rock. On the basis of that I’d say that Tempranillo digs the narrow stone terraces of the ‘Judith’ vineyard even more than Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe the 2014 ‘Judith’ that we tasted  from the barrel later that evening will be even better. If so, then it will be because of that Submerged Cap that MJK has prescribed for the wailing newborn that are his fermenting wines. As I said, the man is a creative winemaker.

And I still feel that I’m scatting the surface! Bear with me while I scratch some more and be prepared that I might draw a drop or two of blood, because it’s down there.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 5 – Drawing Big Conclusions about #AZwine on Down South Road Trip

The official program of the A2Z press trip to the wine regions of Arizona ended last night when I got back to the Four Points Hotel next door to Tuscon Airport from dinner at Augustin Restaurant. Full stop, end of story? No way. My flight back to NYC via Phoenix  doesn’t leave until early afternoon, so I’m hunkering down in the hotel room this morning to tell the next episode of the story of my gonzo #AZwine adventure. It takes us Down South, or to be more precise, to the Southeast of the state where about three quarters of the wine is currently grown.

I took the picture above that thru the windshield of Maynard James Keenan’s car (MJK seems to be an established acronym) and it gives a pretty good idea of what the latter stages of this journey looked like, but first we had to get the four hour drive south from Jerome past Phoenix then beyond Tuscon behind us and it was a grind. I mention this to give an idea of the huge physical separation between the vineyards of the North and those in the South of AZ. As we approached Elgin-Sonoita the landscape reminded me of intensely of the sixties TV series ‘Bonanza’, with which I’d had a love-hate relationship (I found some other westerns were more exciting). It was a bizarre thought that in just a moment the first vineyards would swing into view and we would be in a wine region.

This is not the time to go into great detail about the Elgin wines that we tasted at Lightning Ridge and Callaghan, because the general conclusion of those tastings is more important: although winegrowing here is just one generation deep this is clearly a great location for growing powerfully tannic and generously aromatic reds, possibly also for full-bodied whites. Again and again I was stunned by how bright and fresh red wines with a stack of dry tannins and 15% or  more alcohol tasted; a complete contrast to California, where those kind of numbers almost invariably mean  a porty and ponderous or even monolithic brute in your glass. At the moment the best wines are blends like Kent Callaghan’s Petit Verdot & Cabernet Franc driven ‘Caitlin’s’, to give just one stunning example. That may be a reason the varietal-obsessed mainstream wine press has so far paid little attention to these wines. When they did take notice they tended to grossly underrate the finest products of this industry for no better reason than Arizona was on the label. Wrong wine style, wrong state! Where’s my 100 point California Cult Cabernet, God damn it!  

Calling wine growing in Elgin-Sonoita  an “industry” gives a rather false impression, because there’s a drive from one vineyard to the next and during it you rarely see any vines in the gently undulating landscape that is primarily devoted to cattle ranching. The problems begin with the fact that the hollows are no place for vines, because of the very real danger of late (i.e. spring) frost damage. The availability of well water for irrigation is also a major limitation for wine growing, ruling out many potential sites. That, as much of the early stage of development of winegrowing here and under-capitalization, results in the wide open spaces between the vineyards through which a group of cowboys could easily drive a big herd of cattle.

The distance between Elgin-Sonoita (the only AVA, that is official appellation for wine, in AZ) and the Wilcox region is more than two hours drive, but doesn’t look like much on the map. There’s an utterly different landscape there, pictured below, the vineyards lying close together on the flat valley bottom between mountain ranges that were well-known to Jeronimo. The red wines from here share the chewy tannins of those from Elgin-Sonoita, but are usually a shade fleshier and more supple. The excellent blended reds like the ‘Le Norte’ made by Todd Bostock at Dos Cabezas epitomize this type, but Sand Reckoner (first vintage 2010) and Deep Sky (first vintage 2013) are hot on his heels with their new wines.

At Saeculum/Pierce (first vintage 2011) Michael Pierce is plowing a different furrow with lighter, fresher reds like the elegant ‘Gallia’. The floral and juicy dry whites with fresh acidity that Pierce and Sand Reckoner made from Malvasia Bianca this often overlooked grape is extremely well adapted to growing conditions here. It’s also a great grape for white wine blends as Dos Cabezas ‘Meskeoli’ already proved (scroll down for more). So Wilcox isn’t turning out just one type of wine, much less shifting standardized wine units, in fact there seem to be a couple of dozen different grape varieties that do so well here that they may have a long-term future. That means the possibilities are enormous and even the daring young winemakers of this region are still just scratching the surface.

HANG ON JUST A MOMENT! These lines all seem way too pedestrian to me as I read them back, so let me add some more direct and spicy words that will hopefully drive those people who want the world to stay put and confirm to their preconceptions crazy. Arizona is not only making many really good wines and some great ones, but one day this state will one day be famous across America and around the world for its wines. The fact that MJK became the sole owner of the 80 acre Buhl Memorial Vineyard here early this year, and his team are rapidly knocking that site into great shape means that this recognition may come sooner, rather than later. Because he’s planning to sell about half the fruit he grows there, this site will be a major source of grapes for many producers as well as fuel his own brands. As he told me, his team, “have pulled a white rabbit out of a hat” in knocking the vines here into shape in a single season. Even without that though, the smaller producers mentioned above are all pursuing the goal to top quality and distinctive flavors with great determination, and that’s what a new wine region needs to grab the attention and capture the imagination of media and consumers alike. Here in Wilcox are enough grapes, and enough land that can be quickly planted, that a new out-of-state demand could be supplied.

With each vineyard visit and each tasting not only did the layer of dust on my boots grow, so did my conviction that although there’s only be a small amount of Riesling here (scroll down for more), this state’s improvised and sometimes chaotic wine industry is a great story for me. The #AZwine spirit I breathed in deep made me feel more alive than when I got on the plane from NYC to Phoenix just 5 days ago. Was it really that short a time? It’s very hard to believe The somewhere-or-nowhere-in-America ambience of this hotel room is hardly compatible with the gonzo ethos of this undertaking, but that doesn’t alter the basic fact that a great new wine adventure has just begun for me. The best thing of all is that in spite of absorbing a huge mass of impressions I can’t give you any idea where this will all end.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 4 – The Surprising HOW of AZ Wines (Believe Me, this Place isn’t all Desert)

The Big Problem with figuring out how Arizona can make exciting wines – scroll down to see how I became aware that it can do that – is the rigid stereotypes in my head, in our heads. The most obvious of those stereotypes is the one that says AZ is a rocky desert filled with cacti, and it is the most difficult of them all to overcome. You see, large chunks of AZ are rocky desert filled with cacti, and other parts would be if man hadn’t brought in huge quantities of irrigation water in order to grow the cities there. That fact only ingrained the stereotype more deeply. So the above photograph, poor in quality as it is, is essential to try and revise that deeply rooted perception. It shows the vehicles carrying the group of (all expenses paid) journalists I currently belong to fording a river in order to visit Caduceus Cellars’ Eliphante Vineyard, the largest of their sites in the Verde Valley of Northern Arizone. As you can see, there was enough water that the drivers needed to proceed cautiously, although it’s a long while since the last rainfall in this part of the state.

The fact is the landscapes and natural vegetation of AZ are way more diverse than outsiders imagine, and there are ecological niches were wine growing can function really well as long as some irrigation water is available. Annual rainfalls in these locations vary between about 8 and 20 inches, which is comparable to Eastern Washington State (a slightly cooler and distinctly less humid desert). Summer highs may go slightly over 100° F/40° C, but they go higher in Napa or Sonoma/CA, for example. The AZ wine growing climate has its foibles, most notably the danger of frost in April when the vines have just began growing after their winter dormancy, then the way later in the growing season the weather flips over from windy and dry to hot and humid. However, as a whole it isn’t nearly as extreme as most people imagine it to be.

The picture of the Eliphante Vineyard below serves to undermine the preconception amongst wine pros, that while AZ may make a few drinkable wines these belong in the world of small scale semi-hobby production that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously by the mainstream wine media, somms, etc. The Eliphante Vineyard is around 30 acres/12 hectares in size and as you can see much of it isn’t old enough to give a crop yet. Owner Maynard James Keenan (yes, the rock star) has planted a slew of grape varieties here, many of which are Italian, on the basis that since Sangiovese does really well in AZ it’s worth taking a bet on others like Nebbiolo (from which Barolo, Barbaresco and many other high-end reds are made in Piemonte/Italy). That’s a risky policy, but he’s well aware of that. As he told me, “I’m not delusional. Nebbiolo could fail, because that’s been the broad trend around the world.” I seriously admire this serious daring.

No less striking is the hidden side of Keenan’s approach to cranking up the rapidly developing AZ wine industry that involves a lot of systematic thinking. He’s incredibly focused and has done a great deal of thinking to try and avoid wasting time, energy and money on going down dead ends that don’t lead to wines that are capable of exciting and surprising. His wild sense of humor and boundless self-confidence never seem to get in the way of the question that lies behind the complex strategy to put AZ wines on the map he’s developed over the last years. But more about the man later, let’s get back to the wines, which have been a font of surprises.

I would never have imagined that one of the wine categories in which AZ would shine is rosé, but the three (!) different rose´s that Caduceus Cellars produced in 2013 are conclusive proof of this. They’re anything but flimsy blushing maidens, rather they’re like the strong, loose women I imagine hanging around saloons in this part of the world more than a century before there was a state of Arizona (founded 1912). The picture below shows these three femme fatales, from left to right the ‘Marzo’, the ‘Lei Li’ and ‘GSM’. They taste as different as those colors look, too. The ‘Marzo’ is 100% Sangiovese and has the bright fruit and acidity I associate with this grape married to considerable power and a candied orange note. Anything but superficially charming the ‘Lei Li’ is 100% Nebbiolo and a big, warm non-fruity rosé that I struggled to adequately describe this unique wine. ‘GSM’, a blend of  the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes (hence the widely-used acronym for this combo), was more like a big meaty red wine, but had a freshness that enabled it to just about fit into the rosé category. $40 per bottle isn’t cheap, but these are big personalities like their maker.

So, even before we left the North of AZ on the four and a half hour drive that brought us to the utterly different world of wine growing here in the Southeast of the state a bunch of preconceptions had to be slammed into the trash can of useless ideas. That was an exciting process that continued yesterday afternoon and will proceed further today. The next posting may also take a little while as the program is pretty intense and many of my colleagues in the group have a lot of experience and ask the wine producers strings of probing questions. As astonishing as the best wines have been it has been tough to keep up with the pace. The effort has been more than worth while though, because here is what I call a Big Subject. I will return!

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 2 – How AZ is About to Change the Way We Think about American Wine

Fully aware of the journalist’s saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, I must report that during a generous and rather tasty dinner last night at The Asylum Restaurant in the Jerome Grand Hotel I had a moment of revelation about #AZwine. In fact, there were two moments, one of which was directly the responsibility of Maynard James Kennan, the man pictured above, the second of which he was indirectly responsible for. You can look up more biographical information on this winemaker and rock musician on the internet than I can usefully give you here, so let’s go to the wines that convince me Arizona is about to change the way we think about American wine.

The first moment of revelation when I tasted the first white wine with dinner, the 2013 “Meskeoli” from Dos Cabezas Wine Works in Sonoita down in the southeast of the state, which managed to be simultaneously bold and richly expressive, but also cool and lively. The back label detailed a blend of grape varieties so crazy and complex that not only could I never have dreamed it up, but I can’t understand how anyone managed to get all those components to give a wine so precisely balanced and delicate in flavor. Amongst them was 15% of Riesling, that somehow seamlessly ran through the body of the wine like a silver thread. The majority of the blend was composed of Picpoul, Viognier, Roussanne, plus a splash each of Albarino, Muscat and Malvasia. I would place this wine firmly in the Mediterranean-type dry whites category, but I don’t know anything else in that category that comes close to this. Congratulations are due to Todd and Kelly Bostock for this delicious curveball of a wine!

They are good friends of Maynard’s and that was, I guess, as much the reason their wine being on the table as its inherent quality, but that is not the issue. I was far from being alone in singing its praises. The same could be said of the 2012 “Kitsuné” Sangiovese red from Maynard’s own Caduceus Cellars here in Jerome, a slightly eccentric corner of which is pictured above. American Sangiovese usually taste a bit tart, lean and rough, even when it manages to have 13.5% natural alcohol like this wine. There wasn’t a hint of that in this wine, also sourced from a vineyard in the far south of the state. Instead it had the ripest and brightest cherry aroma wrapped in a slew of dark aromas that ranged from violet to star anise. And I promise you all that I’m not the guy who normally writes descriptors like that. It was seriously tannic, but those dry tannins were wrapped in something that felt like velvet on my tongue, so that even at this young age the wine slipped down almost effortlessly while touching nerves I didn’t know American Sangiovese could reach.

Of course, dinner had been bought for us all and there’s no denying the intention of this on Maynard’s part was to impress us. Please dismiss all the above if you think the situation makes the impressions I gained invalid, but in that case you might have to permanently avoid this blog. You see, if I think that it helps me find out something valuable I am going to let a winemaker entertain me, and I will always bring my own attitude to that dinner table. I think that it is also significant that several other wines were served that were either very good but not mind-blowing, and one (the 2013 Dos Ladrones, a dry white from Caduceus Cellars made from a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Malvasia) that was technical spot on, but left me cold. That strike rate tells me that the best winemakers of this state are just getting into their stride. However, it already seems clear that the best wines of the future from here will not be pure varietal Cabernets, Merlots or Chardonnays, but will lie outside the current American Wine Box in which most of the nation is drinking. For #AZwine to be fully successful it will have to persuade some of them to drink outside that box with relish.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 1 – AZ Contradictions as Seen from the Gonzo Perspective (Part 2)

Of course, this is how many readers imagine my trip thru Arizona in search of unknown  Great American Wine, and, as you can gather from this photograph which I took on Highway 17 heading north from Phoenix to Jerome this afternoon, at least some of the time it looked exactly the way you expect. However, beforehand at the 6th Annual Festival at the Farm of the Arizona Wine Growers Association at Maya’s Farm in Phoenix, pictured below, it looked exactly the way you would imagine an al fresco wine tasting in California would. The wines were very different though, in fact they were very different from any other wines I’ve tasted from the Western side of the United States. Here the acidities are sometimes moderate, but rarely  too soft in the way they often are in California, and the best wines have a lively acidity that I found appealing rather than tart. I have to admit that the sample was a bit erratic, because I deliberately left out the wineries we’ll visit during the coming days, but I felt the pattern was rather clear. Only a couple of the wines – reds from low acid varieties like Grenache – were a little bit on the warm and broad side due to pronounced alcohol and lowish acidity.

This acidity was part of the explanation for several very good white wines I tasted, although none of the Rieslings were more than solid. The most delightfully surprising of these whites was the dry 2011 Chenin Blanc from Carlson Creek Vineyards close to Wilcox in the southeast of the state. It had attractive apple, pear and honeysuckle notes as well as a touch of what I call wet wool (a rather common aroma with this variety in my experience). Better still the wine was crisp and bright with a pronounced mineral freshness and the 13.5% wasn’t perceptible. A mineral flavor in a Chenin Blanc from Arizona! That was really a shocker in the most positive sense of that word.

No less striking was what the Pillsbury Wine Company in Cottonwood, a short drive south of Flagstaff, has done with a new white grape called Symphony during the last few years. The dry wine Sam Pillsbury made from it in 2012 was slightly reminiscent of a rich Gewürztraminer, but with more freshness and a great apricot aroma as well more spicy notes. In spite of 14.7% alcohol it was not heavy, finishing deliciously clean and fresh. The same winemaker’s 2013 “Sweet Lies” is also made from Symphony and the complex dried fruit aromas of that wine were stunning. If only it had a little more sweetness and a little less alcohol, then it would have a really satisfying balance and be a great sweet white, but in spite of that it didn’t have any alcoholic burn with 15%. That says how fundamentally right the combination of this location, this grape and this style are.

The drive north to Jerome was fascinating not just because of the frequently changing scenery, but also because the flow of no less fascinating stories from Maynard James Keenan of Caduceus Cellars, seen at the wheel in the above picture. Please be a little patient, because I’m still getting a grip on the multidimensional personality of this winemaker and musician in order to give you a story that doesn’t reduce him into a journalistic cardboard cutout. Here’s one of the phrase he uttered that I jotted down as sped across the dessert. “Rule one: be nice to other people. Rule two: don’t eat other people’s shit.” He meant it literally as well as metaphorically and saw no contradiction between those two rules. That’s Arizona at its best.

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