Margins Wine: In Search of Difference

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margins“I wanted to make wine that was different, outside the comfort zone of most tasting room visitors” said Megan Bell, as we sipped through her lineup of low-intervention wines. Hence the name “Margins”. Trained at UC Davis and with multiple apprenticeships in wineries from California to Loire Valley, Megan certainly knows conventional winemaking. But she is chasing a different dream giving recognition to vineyards, varietals, and wine styles that she admits many people “won’t get”.

But these wines are eminently “gettable” if you appreciate originality. Although firmly in the style of natural wines made using native yeasts, low sulfur, without fining and filtering,  and only neutral oak, they nevertheless taste like no other and each bottle brings something distinctive to the table. With an annual production of only 500 cases (but growing) snap these up. They sell quickly.  Oh, and she has some of the coolest labels to ever grace a wine bottle.

Purchase Here.

Chenin Blanc  2017 Wilson Vineyards Block 20 Clarksburg

Made from organic grapes, this wine is creamy but with an underlying textured mouth feel, the result of skin contact for about 30% of these grapes. Apple, lemon, robust floral notes and a hint of yogurt on the nose, on the palate its more mineral than fruity with slight honey midpalate and a bit of pine on the structured finish.  6 months in used oak. A vibrant white wine with red aspirations.  90 pts. $25

Cabernet Franc Santa Cruz Mountains 2017

This is very French, straight from the Loire via Santa Cruz. Strawberry with background hint of barnyard especially after aeration and mint that plays hide and seek. Tart cranberry on the palate, this is lean with some interesting citrus-like top notes. The finish is acid-driven with powdery tannins playing a supporting role. A 3 week fermentation, on neutral oak for 8 months.  88 pts.   $26

Sangiovese Arroyo Seco Mesa Del Sol Vineyard 2017

From very stressed vines in a very hot vineyard on the back side of Big Sur, this is not Italian. No sour cherry here. This is a darkly fruited Sangiovese redolent of ripe plums, freshly turned earth, blackberry and hints of caramel. The palate is rich and round, full bodied, bringing chocolate to the table with really lovely supple tannins that build on the peppery, mouthwatering finish. Large-framed but elegant and refreshing, there is real purity of fruit on the finish. 6 months in used French and American oak. A standout.  92 pts.   $26

Mourvedre Santa Clara Valley Sattler’s Vineyard 2017

This wine is so unique, I could explore it for hours. An unusual nose, ripe berry, coffee, herbal wood notes, against a spiced chocolate background. It’s very luscious and creamy on the palate, supple and ingratiating, with a lengthy drawn out midsection that gently slides into a subtle finish softly lingering, loaded with delicate, hi-toned acidity that never cuts. A meditative, dreamy wine to be enjoyed with Jan Garbarek’s Knot of Place and Time.  92 pts.

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Wine Blog Daily Tuesday 9/18/18

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A daily sample of thoughtful writing and discussion from (mostly) independent wine blogs:

mt-etna-vineyardsTom Hyland explores the pre-Phylloxera vines from Mt. Etna

Tom Wark rebuts a recent defense of the three tier system by Rob Tobiassen, former Chief Attorney for the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

Amber Lebeau argues that Washington State should avoid specializing in a single grape.

The Wine Curmudgeon makes a movie about sommeliers and Bogart.

Winery Visits and Travel Posts:

Wine Travel Eats visits Doffo Wines in Temecula.

Selected Wine Reviews:

Meg Houston Maker reviews an unusual varietal in the U.S., the 2017 Sidebar Kerner from Mokelumne River Lodi.

Reverse Wine Snob reviews the Crios Red Blend from Uco Valley, Mendoza

Jameson Fink reviews the François Villard Viognier “Les Contours de Deponcins” 2015

Pull That Cork profiles Aridus Wine Company from Willcox, Arizona.

Larry the Wine Guy reviews the 2015 Poggio Gli Angeli Sangiovese from Toscana IGT.

Another Important Point about Wine and Objectivity

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ancient winemakingRecently, I pointed to success at passing the tasting component of the Masters of Wine exam as evidence that wine tasting and wine quality are not purely subjective. If it were, success on these exams would be random and arbitrary which they clearly are not.

Another bit of evidence for the same conclusion is more historical. We agree that some wines taste better than others because that agreement is based on focused investigations through several centuries by thousands of individuals, who could make a living only if they convinced others that their product is better than their competitors.

Through hundreds of years, generation after generation, particular plots of land have been carefully cultivated separating out the inferior vineyards from the successful ones with success determined by whether people buy the wine or not. Over that time, viticulture and winemaking techniques have also been tested, again weeding out what works from what doesn’t with everyone searching for an edge that will sell their wine.

The view that winetasting is subjective and wine quality arbitrary cannot explain those countless, independent decisions made under conditions that crucially matter for the survival of their communities.

Is it plausible to think these decisions were made by flipping coins or taking wild, uninformed guesses? Isn’t it substantially more plausible to think these decisions were usually based on a shared sense of what counts as good wine that was continually honed through innovation after innovation because it mattered that they get it right?

Obviously there were mistakes made along the way and corrupt motives often held sway—wine communities are human communities after all. And obviously there are different conceptions of quality, several ways for wine to be delicious.  But it is implausible to think there was no concept of quality informing these decisions.

No doubt there have always been sharp disagreements about wine quality. But through trial and error some people win debates and some people lose, because some wines taste better than others. Over time the frauds, hucksters and incompetents are found out and eliminated.

There is an in eliminable subjective dimension to wine preferences, to be sure, but given sufficient time, independence, and incentives to improve, the merely personal and idiosyncratic that are unsupported by a concept of quality are less likely to be reproduced.

Wine Blog Daily Monday 9/17/18

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old wine cellar 2A daily sample of thoughtful writing and discussion from (mostly) independent wine blogs:

Oliver Styles wonders why wine shops and winery stores don’t take more care to properly cellar their wines.

Tom Wark ponders the future of wine.

The Wine Curmudgeon talks to Andrew Stover a distributor and supporter of local wines.

The Wine Gourd tracks the number of wineries in the U.S.

Alfonso Cevola, On The Wine Trail in Italy, recounts his history with Erbaluce, a relatively obscure grape from Piemonte.

Alder Yarrow promotes the upcoming Masters of Wine Champagne Tasting in San Francisco.

Cindy Rynning hosts a discussion of the past, present, and future of Vinho Verde.

Amber Lebeau has a list of wine podcasts worth listening to, focusing especially on Wine for Normal People’s discussion of Tuscan wine regions.

Dallas Wine Chick delves into the history of Montepulciano DOCG.

Helen Conway has the facts and figures on Welsh and English wine and the wines of New South Wales Australia.

Selected Wine Reviews:

Jamie Goode tastes several Cape Wines from South Africa and several more here.

Reverse Wine Snob reviews the Leitz Eins Zwei Dry Riesling “3” from Rheingau

Fredric Koeppel reviews Tenuta Sant’Antonio Nanfrè 2016, Valpolicella Superiore.

Issac Baker reviews several Alsatian Gewurztraminer.

Jameson Fink reviews the  2017 Delinquente Wine Co. “Tuff Nutt” Bianco d’Alessano (Riverland)

Food Wine Click tastes forbidden foods and stinky wines from Cahors.

Helen Conway tastes through an intriguing lineup of Welsh wines.

Red Wine Please reviews the line up from Georges Deboeuf’s new line of wines from Pays d’Oc.

Tom Lee reviews the 2004 J. Rochioli Pinot Noir River Block Vineyard

Tim Lemke reviews the 2016 P.J. Valckenberg, Riesling from Rheinhessen.

Amber Lebeau reviews the 2007 Beringer Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Crushed Grape Chronicles reviews several Malbecs from Cahors.

Budget Wine Review: Paul Mas Grenache Noir Pays d’Oc 2017

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paul masDomaine Paul Mas has mastered the business of selling inexpensive French wine to the export market. Sourced from vineyards located in Languedoc, Jean-Claude Mas makes wines in the ripe, smooth style that succeeds on the international market. Domaine Paul Mas (named for Jean-Claude’s father) is the largest privately-owned winery in France outside Champagne.

Red berry and a hint of the garrique (thyme, rosemary, lavender) aromas characteristic of the south of France but marked by prominent chocolate notes that mask the herbal qualities.  In the mouth the wine is juicy, but not overly ripe, spicy, with plenty of bright acidity that turns tart on the finish. The tannins stay well in the background. Medium body with a smooth texture, this is a decent wine with enough French character showing to make it interesting for less than $10, although it is pushing in the “international” direction with the prominent chocolate notes.

A warm, generous wine that resonated with Al Green’s Love and Happiness.

Score: 87

Price: $9

Alc: 13.5%

Wine Blog Daily Friday 9/14/18

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biodynamic prepA daily sample of thoughtful writing and discussion from (mostly) independent wine blogs:

1 WineDude reports on the biodynamic preparations at Troon Vineyards in Oregon.

The Academic Wino has all you need to know about disgorgement and dosage in sparkling wines.

The Wine Curmudgeon reports on his experience at the Colorado Governor’s Cup 2018

Natalie Sellers has the list of Chile’s most expensive wines.

Amanda Barnes, Around the World in 80 Harvests, profiles Portugal’s Dão wine region.

Peter Pharos says huzzah for the wine marketeer. All clap!

Wine to Five Podcast is about a wine-fuelled summer trip across Europe.

wineORL profiles Jacques Lassaigne making grower Champagne in Montgueux

Winery Visits and Travel Posts:

The Drunken Cyclist is nearly finished with his ordeal—Day 8 of the 10 worst days of his life in Beaujolais.

Wine Travel Eats visits Palumbo Family Winery in Temecula.

Selected Wine Reviews:

Fredric Koeppel asks and answers What’s the Deal with Malbec?

Meg Houston Maker reviews the 2016 Kingston Family Vineyards Chardonnay Sabino Casablanca Valley, Chile

Reverse Wine Snob reviews the 2014 Pertinace Barbera d’Alba

Tom Lee reviews Marietta Cellars Old Vine Red Lot #67

Aaron Nix Gomez reviews two from Montefalco Sagrentino

Myths of the Wine World #3: Cabernet Sauvignon is the Best Grape Varietal

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Cabernet grapesAs with most myths there is some truth to this. Cab is king if you look at current sales figures, at least in terms of the dollar value of sales. (Chardonnay beats it if volume sold is the measure.)

There is good reason for Cab’s prominence. It is the principle varietal grown in the most storied of wine regions, the Left Bank of Bordeaux where some of the most esteemed wines in history had their origin. It ages well, a crucial consideration for people paying top dollar for wine as an investment. It’s a reasonably undemanding grape in the vineyard, growing in diverse soils and climates. When the wine industry took off in the U.S. after prohibition it was easily transplanted from France to the Napa Valley where it then defined new world winemaking as well. It makes deeply concentrated, high alcohol wines that take well to oak thus satisfying the current preference for that style.

Among grape varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon would seem to have all the credentials for top dog? But I suspect part of the reason for Cabernet’s popularity is simple inertia. People like to stay in their comfort zone and Cabernet has been there for many years. Moreover, if you’re thinking of planting a vineyard, what varietals will you choose to plant?—Cabernet that will get you $7500 a ton in Napa in the right location or Syrah that will get  you $3700? The answer is obvious. There is a lot of Cabernet on the shelves because there is a lot of it in the ground.

But does the wine world really need more Cabernet? The downside is if you’re looking for something different you won’t find it buying Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a bit of a one-trick pony. It does concentrated and oak influenced quite well. But that’s about it. If you’re looking for something lighter and with more life, it usually won’t be Cabernet Sauvignon. If you want a grape that is uber-sensitive to a vineyard site, Cabernet would not be the first choice.  And it pairs well only with robust meat dishes. As diets become more diverse and plant based, will Cabernet maintain its dominance?

Our tastes may be changing as new wine drinkers come of age. As Amber LeBeau recently documented, millennials tend to look for something unique.

A report by Master of Wine Matt Deller notes that 65% of Millennial drinkers in his Wine Access study actively sought out “unusual wines and vintages”. And while the buying power for Millennials currently lags behind Generation X and Baby Boomers, Millennials have a desire to spend more.

When I visit wineries that are experimenting with new techniques and new approaches to winemaking, few are using Cabernet Sauvignon.  And acreage of lesser known varietals is exploding, especially as more emerging regions with their own taste preferences come on line. If you’re an emerging wine region and you want to get noticed, trying to compete with Napa may not be the best idea. Planting Cabernet might not be the best choice.

My general point is that if wine lovers become more diverse and acquire a greater interest in diverse experiences, Cabernet Sauvignon may lose its position as the varietal of choice. In other words what counts as “best grape varietal” depends on the kind of experience you’re looking for and that is unlikely to remain fixed.

Cabernet is the best varietal only if you have a limited vision of what wine can be.

Myth #1 is here.

Myth #2 is here.

Wine Blog Daily Thursday 9/13/18

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harvest1A daily sample of thoughtful writing and discussion from (mostly) independent wine blogs:

W. Blake Gray praises the cellaring potential of Verdicchio.

Vine Art discusses the issue of French vineyard subsidies.

Jeremy Parzen revises his opinion of California wines.

Pam Strayer responds to criticism of her recent articles criticizing Sonoma’s sustainability programs.

Jameson Fink’s podcast “What We’re Tasting” is devoted to Chilean wine.

Winery Visits and Travel Posts:

Michelle Williams visits Germany’s Pfalz region.

Jamie Goode tastes some very old red wines from South Africa.

Selected Wine Reviews:

Meg Houston Maker reviews the 2016 Kingston Pinot Noir Alazan Casablanca Valley

The Wine Curmudgeon’s Wine of the Week is the Spanish white, Ipsum, 2017

Reverse Wine Snob reviews the 2014 Cannonball Cabernet Sauvignon from California.

Cindy Rynning profiles Franciacorta, the sparkling wine from Northern Italy.

Amber Lebeau reviews the 2014 Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Pinot noir

Aaron Nix Gomez reviews the 2014 St. Innocent, Pinot Noir, Zenith Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills

The Swirling Dervish reviews the lineup from Murrieta’s Well in Livermore Valley.

Crushed Grape Chronicles profiles Deven Morgenstern of Willamette Valley’s Joyful Noise.

Appetite for Wine reviews Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port

A Brief Tour of Piemonte’s Cuisine

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sheep

The Cheese Makers

Piemonte produces one of the most distinctive wines in the world. No other varietal tastes quite like Nebbiolo especially when grown in the soils of Barolo and Barbaresco. (See this post about our visit to Piemonte wine country.)  But as with most regions of Italy, Piemonte’s cuisine is equally distinctive—truffles, truffles everywhere, risotto, polenta and meat-based pasta sauces instead of pizza and tomato-based sauces familiar in the rest of Italy, gnocchi finished in butter, and simple roasted or braised meats, along with local cheese.  Some of these differences exist because olives don’t grow well in this climate, so butter and lard are staples (although they can import olive oil from Liguria next door.)

truffle-crudoBecause truffles are rare in the U.S. I had my fill while in Piemonte. We were there in June, well before truffle season which begins in August, so I didn’t see any white truffles for which Piemonte is noted. But the more common black truffles were ubiquitous and affordable, available even in the less expensive, family style restaurants called osteria where they are typically shaved over tagliolini. This crudo covered with truffles which I discovered in the village of Barolo was a standout.

vitielloSome of the meat dishes were unbelievably simple–veal shank or a beef steak, undressed with a bit of salt,  a perfect foil for their tannic, earthy Nebbiolo. In the more expensive restaurants the veal was spruced up in a Barolo sauce and served on a polenta cake. Although it is so common as to be a cliché, I always marvel at vitiello tonnato which originated in Piemonte. Thin slices of veal served cold and smothered in a creamy sauce flavored with tuna. It is an odd creation—a tuna flavored condiment for meat—but certainly distinctive and refreshing on a hot day.

Our splurge meal in Piemonte was at Ristorante Felicin in Monforte d’Alba, serving traditional Piemonte dishes with a bit more complexity. I enjoyed a tasting menu consisting of a beautiful, cold, fresh tomato soup with chic peas, capers, olives and basil, a fish potato cake with tapenade and onion marmalade, a tart of prosciutto cheese and zucchini, flat angel-hair pasta with tomato and parmesan, and braised goat with asparagus.

But two food highlights stand out. On our private tour of Barolo we had lunch with an artisan cheese producer Silvio Pistone who supports his family by making cheese for 7 restaurants, a few private, local customers and the silvio1tours that have become a regular part of his business. A former tile maker, he’s been making cheese for 21 years. To make great cheese Silvio said “it’s very important to talk to the old people” who started these traditions, traditions that are dying as fewer cheese makers are continuing to make the styles of cheese in which Silvio specializes. You also have to “know the sheep, they are the most important thing, Silvio remarks.” Despite the importance of tradition, Silvio is perpetually experimenting with various aging vessels and environments. We met Silvio in his home, and he then escorted us into an adjoining barn where the real stars of cheesemaking reside when they’re not outside foraging for grass in the field. Silvio is one of the rare producers who still makes cheese exclusively from sheep’s milk.

The first cheese we tasted was a rare, traditional cheese called Giuncà, a raw cheese with no salt made from fresh curds.  It was soft and tender with a delicate milk flavor, designed to be consumed within a day or so. We then tasted several tuma cheeses with increasing age, 2 days, 6 days, and 12 days as the cheeses became more dense with more intense flavors.

chef lucaThe second highlight was a cooking class with Chef Luca at l’Angolo di Rosino, a Trattoria in the charming hill top town of Novello where my son and I helped prepare the lunch menu consisting of potato gnocchi, a bell pepper flan with anchovy cream, and a traditional dish of Piemonte called Zucchini in Carpione. The recipe for gnocchi was straightforward but I did learn from Chef Luca the importance of boiling the potatoes with the skins on and peeling them while hot to prevent the potatoes from absorbing too much water. I’m not a huge flan fan but I enjoyed this savory flanflan, especially because anything with anchovies in it is bound to be good. Again the recipe was straightforward, sautéing the peppers in oil, making a béchamel, heating the cream and anchovies, putting that all together and  adding eggs and then beating with a hand blender. The batter was then poured into ramekins and baked.

The most interesting and unusual dish was the Carpione. This is a dish the vineyard workers would take with them for lunch—the vinegar marinade was a convenient way of preserving chicken. The dish consists of gently fried, sliced zucchini and thinly sliced chicken layered in a dish and covered with a marinade of gently cooked sage and garlic, and equal parts white wine, water and vinegar. The marinade is brought to a boil, then allowed to cool, and is then strained to cover the meat and zucchini.

As I mentioned in my post on Piemonte wines, Piemonte doesn’t get the publicity of some of the other regions in Italy so it’s a bit off the tourist track. There are still redoubts of old world charm here worth visiting before everyone finds out about it.

Our visits to wineries, the artisan cheesemaker and the cooking class were put together by Girls Gotta Drink, locals in the area, who did a great job of showing us around Barolo and d’Alba.