Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Pioneering Santa Rita Hills spirit re-energized at Sanford Winery

The history of Sanford Winery is in the soil, as some of the first vineyards in the cool climate Santa Rita Hills AVA were planted at the pioneering Sanford and Benedict winery in 1971. There the winery's Pinot Noir soon began to gain attention. The operation later added an adjacent vineyard, La Rinconada in 1997.

I met one of the original founders of the winery, Michael Benedict, and one of the partners in the business, John Terlato, in New York this summer.  The pair guided a group of media through a vertical tasting of their award-winning Pinot Noirs, as well as two of their Chardonnays. 

Before the tasting began, John Terlato filled me in on the history of this special area, telling me that California had been covered by an ancient ocean that left calcareous shale in the land that would become the vineyard. John noted that the geological history of this vineyard was similar to Burgundy, which also was once covered by an ancient sea and still has fossilized sea life in the soil. 

John told me that when his family first became involved with this winery, their focus was on improvements in the vineyard, changing the canopies, the pruning techniques, and the grapes.  One of the exciting aspects of the vineyards is that there are some 47 year old vines on their own roots - a rarity in the world of wine. 

Today the winery is pioneering once again in the winemaking process: around 2017-2018 they stopped using commercial yeast in favor of all native yeast.  John showed me detailed notebooks of other experiments, including a comparison of wines that had low intervention and those that used "battonage" - meaning the wine was stirred in an effort to develop more flavors by encouraging more contact with the "lees," essentially dead yeast left after fermentation.  John found the wine in the trials that were not stirred were "mineral" and "precise." 

After enjoying learning some history of the vineyard and winery, we moved on to an extensive flight of excellent Sanford wines that showed the progression in winemaking philosophy over the years. 

2016 La Rinconada Chardonnay - This had fresh flavorful white pear and a clean mineral quality. $50

2015 Founders' Vines Chardonnay - Rich, browned butter nose, with extended length, and a palate of ripe yellow apples - a truly elegant Chardonnay reminiscent of Burgundy. $70

2011 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - A touch rustic with savory notes of cherry, clove and baking spices. 

2012 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Brighter tart cherry notes with balsamic on the finish, it opened and became more fragrant as it evolved in the glass. 

2013 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Bing cherries and wild blueberries dusted with clove. There was well integrated oak in this wine. $140 

2014 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Ripe cherries and raspberry puree with savory notes on the midpalate and a touch of leather on the nose.  $70

2015 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Tart cherry throughout with an angularity and fine tannins.  $70

2016 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Plush mouthfeel, round, soft tannins, cherry compote with a long finish. Excellent Pinot. $70

2015 La Rinconada Pinot Noir - Bright fruit character with cherry/raspberry notes, and a touch of cola on the midpalate.  $72

2014 Founders' Vines Pinot Noir - Deep flavors of ripe sour cherry mixed with rich baking spices of clove and nutmeg. Gorgeous depth of flavor and extensive length. $120

This impressive vertical tasting showed the evolution of this winery and its philosophy. The earlier vintages showed the gorgeous ripe fruit that this pioneering vineyard area is capable of, but the later vintages begin to show a more direct representation of Pinot Noir character.  This re-energized spirit of pioneering is serving Sanford winery well. 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Working Up a Thirst for Ferzo Wines at the Metropolitan Museum

I was recently the guest of Winebow on a mouthwatering Met tour for wine media led by the charismatic tour guide, Angelis Nannos, founder of the highly-rated In Food We Trust culinary tours.

The "Yum Yum Met Tour" began at a medieval carving of St. Nicholas with three small boys exiting...a pickle barrel. Angelis related the harrowing tale of an evil man "pickling" the small boys  during a famine. The unfortunate youngsters were miraculously rescued and revived by the saint.  Angelis told us food and drink are depicted throughout the museum, as he handed us tiny Heinz pickle pins and led us enthusiastically to the next exhibit. 

Here we admired a beautiful Austrian stag crafted from precious metals. Angelis asked what we thought the piece was used for, stumping us all.  As it happened, the stag could be animated to traverse a dining table, stopping randomly in front of a guest.  That lucky person got to bend back the stag's head to reveal a body full of wine - which it was the obligation of the guest to drain.  Oh, to bring back the days of the Hapsburgs! 

In our hour and a half tour, we saw Egyptian tomb relics that depicted beer and bread making, the "oldest shopping list" in ancient Greek, and a frieze with the Assyrian host of the world's largest dinner party.  

After viewing some of the Met's treasures through a delicious new lens, we had worked up a good thirst, and this was where our friend from Winebow came in.  We gathered in the Met's upstairs restaurant to sample a selection of delicious wines from Abruzzo with several of the restaurants' cheese plates. 

2017 Ferzo Pecorino, Terre di Chieti IGP - We started with the Pecorino, and I was delighted by the crisp white wine with nice acid, aromas of grass and lemon, and zesty citrus character. $26 

2017 Ferzo Cococciola, Terre di Chieti IGP - Next, we moved on to a lesser-known indigenous Abruzzo grape Cococciola.  Rounder on the palate, this had more lush stonefruit with minerality and a medium level acidity to keep things fresh. $26

2017 Ferzo Passerina, Terre di Chieti IGP - The Passerina grape had lovely aromas and flavors of white peach and lemon and also had a touch of salinity on the palate. As with the other Ferzo whites, it was a tangy pairing for the goat cheese and olives we were served. $26

2013 Caroso Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva DOP - This six year old Montepulciano was full bodied with black plum on the nose and black and red fruit on the palate, with savory flavors of olive and balsamic inflecting the wine with more character. It's an excellent value at $30. 

The white wines of Ferzo were universally fresh and crisp, yet far from simplistic.  Each of the native white Abruzzo grapes presented a different fruit expression and different weight - while all possessing refreshing acidity.  The Caroso Montepulciano is a nice reminder of how wonderful these wines can be and what great value they deliver.  And, without question, the In Food We Trust tours are well worth checking out - especially for entertaining out-of-town guests.  I challenge you to start looking for the food and wine in art - you'll begin to see delicious works everywhere. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Piper-Heidsieck's Emilien Boutillat honors tradition while seeking innovation

The historic Champagne house Piper-Heidsieck has engaged a new cellarmaster, Emilien Boutillat.  The charming Frenchman, who grew up in a winemaking family, has already made wine on four continents.

I met Emilien at a media dinner in Manhattan and the first thing one notices is his youth - at only 32 he may seem a surprising choice for cellarmaster of such a revered house.  Yet, when Emilien explains his approach, it's clear he has great respect for the traditions of Piper-Heidsieck that have made it so renowned.

He explained that he isn't intent on changing the wine much, but he stated that he "wants to focus on small details to make this wine even better."  He is encouraging sustainable farming practices in the vineyards that supply grapes to the house, and he's working with the growers on choosing when to pick the grapes. 

Dinner began with the Piper Heidsieck Brut, which Emilien explained is 80 percent of their production.  For this wine, Emilien said he wants "the nose to be complex, but not complicated." The brut had medium high acidity; fine, quick moving bubbles; crisp lemon on the attack; and a midpalate of pear.

We then moved on to the rose, Piper-Heidsieck Rose Sauvage.  Emilien described this wine, which is predominately Pinot Noir, as "a basket of fruit on the nose." This very dark rose, which boasted  aromas and flavors of raspberries and cranberries and crisp acidity, was meant to pair with food.

The third wine was a special vintage Champagne, the just-released Piper-Heidsieck Brut 2012.  The cuvee is 52 percent Pinot Noir and 48 percent Chardonnay.  The Champagne was rich, the flavor mouth-filling. On the palate there was a heady  mix of yellow fruit, gingerbread, butter, and a citrus lift on the finish.  This very special vintage wine can age and develop even further to gain greater complexity.

The fourth wine showcased the tradition of off-dry Champagnes, the Piper-Heidsieck Sublime, a demi-sec.  Emilien told me that it would work wonderfully with my foie gras (he was right!) and that it also pairs very well with spicy Asian cuisine.  With red fruit aromas and flavors - pureed raspberries with vanilla notes - the wine offered a balance of freshness and sweetness.

Across the various blends, Emilien stated that the style of the house is "elegance and finesse," noting that it's "all about the fruit."

After tasting these current Piper-Heidsieck releases and speaking with Emilien, I believe the prestigious Champagne house is in very capable hands.