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In early January of 2017, Andrea and I left Chile’s capital, Santiago, to meet the renowned terroirist Pedro Parra for the first time. Five hours into our drive, we exited Ruta 5 at Chillán to leave Chile’s long Central Valley and drive west, away from the breathtaking Andes, which form the border with Argentina. We continued toward the Pacific Ocean and into the ancient granitic hills of the Itata Valley, a place Pedro claims to be Chile’s promised land. As we got closer to the Pacific the wind picked up, gusts blowing our car from side to side, slowing us down while the trees lining the highway bent wildly back and forth. As we entered Pedro’s hometown of Concepcion, the summer sky was bright blue and fresh, unlike the gray, smoggy ceiling above Santiago. The further into the city we went the more the wind howled. Along the right bank of the Bio Bio River, we passed through clusters of Chile’s modern commercial buildings, dilapidated midcentury, multicolored apartments and many shanties of the poor (very typical in any Chilean city). Eventually, we found our way to a street corner where we saw a familiar face that we’d only seen in photos. Standing alongside his German importer, Dirk von Streit (a tall German with Chilean heritage), Pedro immediately extended his hand to me for a warm shake and gave Andrea a big hug. Right away, it seemed like we’d known each other forever. Andrea even joked that maybe I had met her just so I could cross paths with this Chilean scientist, who shared my lifelong fascination with rocks. Every kid has unique interests, and mine happened to be a curious obsession with rocks and seashells. I was so in love with them that when I was about five, I asked an old lady at church who usually wore seashell necklaces and bracelets if I could have them when she died. I’m sure she really appreciated that—at least she smiled. Andrea drove our car so I could ride with Pedro and start the conversation I’d been wanting to have since I was a boy, and we all headed towards Pedro’s Itata vineyards, about 45 minutes away. In the passenger seat of his SUV was his rock hammer, a tool no geologist or terroir specialist would leave home without. He put on Wayne Shorter and we rolled down the road, windows open because his air conditioner had just broken. We leaned on the center console so we could hear each other over the jazz and the rushing wind, keeping our eyes on the mirrors so we didn’t lose Andrea, following in her mother’s bright red, roller-skate-sized Chinese-made car; it may be one of the slowest new cars in the world, so Pedro took it easy getting into the Itata. He asked me a little bit about myself and I told him the story of how had he foiled my big research plans in Chile... For quite a while now, I’ve been developing a strong interest in Chile, my wife’s native country. I read about Pedro’s work a number of years ago while researching geological formations in Chile’s cooler southern regions, and years before I discovered him, I visited what was then Chile’s “new frontier” of cold climate terroirs, the Casablanca Valley. The articles about the Casablanca were far more interesting than what I found when I got there. At the time, my opinion was that Casablanca hadn’t even remotely pushed the boundaries of cooler climate grape growing, contrary to what has been written about it in various wine publications. Pedro stated that it’s actually very easy for wines from Casablanca to ripen to well over 16% alcohol in most years. I was convinced there had to be more interesting soils in significantly cooler areas of Chile, terroirs that could express distinct personalities beyond cellar and vineyard techniques that force wines from uninteresting soils to be something they were never meant to be. For almost ten years, I had the idea to explore geological formations in the south of Chile and plant experimental vineyard blocks to vinify and isolate high quality terroirs. I was ready to make the move on my project and even got a couple of talented winegrowers interested in joining me. Just when I was ready to pull the trigger, I was stopped short after reading a few articles about Pedro’s work; he was already doing something exactly like what I wanted to do. Besides having the home court advantage, he was far more qualified, holding a Master’s Degree in Precision Agriculture and a PhD where his main focus was terroir. It was bittersweet, but Pedro spared me from a lifetime of research and experimentation. I let him know just how thrilled I was with his work. He smiled, acknowledging this shared idea—one of a couple of ideas we would come to realize that we shared. “But Chile is deeply wrong with wine.” Part 2 of 6, "Of Rocks and Wine," will post next week. Find Pedro Parra Wines here To keep up with this story you can sign up to our email list, or check in next week at the same time and you will find part 2.
Who would have thought that it would be a Chilean from the industrial city of Concepcion that would become one of the most influential terroir specialists in the world? The unusually talented and enthusiastic Pedro Parra has taken on that roll as he consults for some of the world’s greatest vignerons in France, Italy, as well as many other countries. He has a master’s degree in precision agriculture and earned a Ph.D. for his work with terroir. Spending time with Pedro is an enlightening experience; you find yourself learning something every single minute you’re around him . He’s able to talk with great precision about his own experience as a grape grower, winemaker and terroir consultant, and at the same time, he’s completely open to new ideas. While Pedro gives nothing less than his best to his clients and many business partners in other ventures, his family project, Pedro Parra y Familia, is his most personally important* and idealistic venture yet. Everything is made in the vineyard and cellar exactly as he wants it, without the need to collaborate with others. His wines are distinctly Pedro; they’re honest, intense, humble and have great personality.
Pedro held out a slab of granite that had decomposed almost completely into some kind of dense mudstone. Each mineral crystal was in place as if it were still solid rock. It was amazing; the soil was completely eroded in place. The rock bent a little before breaking with very little effort. It was a fragile soil that was completely available for the vine to plunge its roots as deep as they could go. When the vines dig this deep, Pedro calls it the vine’s “200-million-year-old Michelin three star tasting menu.” “Everyone talks about their soils and how their vine roots plunge deeply into them. How can you really know what your roots are doing if you don’t dig holes to observe them directly? Really... how do you know?” he exclaimed. “People have it wrong,” he continued. “They say meager topsoils will be too nutrient deficient. But there is a feast here,” pointing to the fissures, “that awaits the roots deep in the soils.” We jumped into the car and headed back to have dinner with his family in the coastal village, Pingueral, a town with an entirely rebuilt center, after a tsunami destroyed it in 2010. Pedro said it would take forty-five minutes to get back, but it took an hour and a half. Time got away from us because I threw a flurry of questions Pedro’s way, and he seemed to prioritize answering them over making good time to his family’s house. Unlike the hungry people following us, I didn’t mind. Pedro explained a theory on the vine’s relationship with soil that has gained momentum in the last decade or so. The idea (largely promoted by the well-known French soil scientist, Claude Bourgignon) is that the life and magic happens in the top soils and not deep in the bedrock; perhaps meager topsoils in granitic vineyards, like those in the Itata (similar to France’s famous granite soils of Cornas and St. Joseph) weren’t sufficient for the vine to get all it needed to thrive and develop a deeper range of complexity. Although Pedro acknowledges the logic of this theory, he doesn’t completely subscribe to it. As we drove toward the coast, I asked Pedro more about subsoil fractures and their relationship with vine nutrition. I threw in a concept I’ve heard many biodynamic producers talk about: the need to build up microbial activity in topsoils as a major key to unlock a wine’s terroir. The concept of “building up soils” was always a little strange to me; it seemed the opposite of a terroir wine. Before it was a vineyard, if the land never had particular microbes and all of the sudden these new alien microbes were introduced, wouldn’t that be changing a vineyard’s natural terroir even further? If a topsoil is rich in everything the vine needs, it’s like the vine is eating fast food “If a topsoil is rich in everything the vine needs, it’s like the vine is eating fast food,” Pedro quickly stated. “For example, in clay top soils they have a “full meal deal”: easy to get, quick to give, but no [real contribution to the wine’s] taste.” “Granite topsoil [unlike clay] is a low calorie meal, like a lean but nutritious dinner with only something like chicken and lettuce. But the vine can plunge deep into the granite’s vertical fractures,” he continued, “and while the topsoil’s portion of chicken and lettuce isn’t enough to sustain the vine’s nutritional needs, each foot below the surface gives another serving of chicken and lettuce, and further down more and more portions of chicken and lettuce,” he said, looking at me over the top rim of his glasses. He pushed them up his nose and continued, “this is enough to keep the vine fed, but only on lean and clean food. I want my vines to dine on a healthy multi-course Michelin-starred tasting menu, not fast food.” Pedro’s chicken and lettuce analogy was funny, and it made sense to me. At Pedro’s family’s house we were greeted by his two kids, his wife, Camila, and her mother and stepfather. There was also an innocent and quiet-looking, overgrown short-haired puppy that, when given the chance, mauled you with an endless flurry of jumping, biting and bullying, leaving you with slobber and needle-sharp hair all over your hands and clothes. The family was ready for us with typical Chilean appetizers like shrimp cocktail, crab claws, and abalone baked in cheese. We were handed glasses of sparkling wine from a project of Pedro’s, which was wonderful surprise. Then we tasted through a few white wines from another one Pedro’s Chilean wine projects, Clos des Fou. After a fantastic salmon dinner with a series of international wines, including a magnum of Saumur blanc (Arnaud Lambert’s 2014 Clos de la Rue, which I brought), a Barolo from a lesser-known, but great producer, Marco Marengo, and many more international wines one wouldn’t expect to find in this remote part of Chile, we were ready to hit the sack. Early the next day we were off to Cauquenes, the location of Pedro’s winery. After a two-hour drive, we entered an old, run down, but charming hacienda-style government building that he was able to use as their winery. Pedro brought us into his vat room full of concrete, stainless steel and large oak tanks, to taste through his single-vineyard Cinsault and Carignan wines. Once you visit a wine’s vineyards and see the soil and rocks it comes from you begin to really understand what you are tasting. After seeing Pedro’s pits and the ancient, newly unearthed stones, they become burned into your memory, giving a perspective on the wine you can’t have unless you’ve been there. The first Cinsault was elegant, like a beautiful Beaujolais. I was pleasantly surprised by how different each Cinsault was. They all went through the same winemaking process, with very little intervention or styling. Each wine had a clear voice, unique to each vineyard. The first Cinsault was elegant, like a beautiful Beaujolais; the second’s exotic and richly perfumed character evoked a strong emotional response; the third was gritty and structured with loads of peppery spice, like it was mostly made of Syrah; and the fourth was dense, with high-toned aromas of damp, green forest floor with wild, tiny black and red berries. I was taken by the unexpected, intensely mineral nose of each Cinsault grown on various granite soils with different physical structures. I later proposed to buy and import them to California as separate cuvées instead of all blended into one, which Pedro currently does. In the palate, all were earthy, mineral and textured with flavors I usually associate with Old World style wines. Embodying the intense, honest, pure and humble spirit of Pedro, I felt like I finally had my first uniquely Chilean wines. At some point in my wine career I wasn’t sure that I would find New World wines with this level of x-factor (metal, mineral and texture), while maintaining the character of a noble wine commonly found in the Old World. I’ve had my fair share of New World wines and so few are as raw and authentic as these. Unfortunately, many New World wines from interesting terroirs are tinkered with so heavily they often need to be psychoanalyzed to find their terroir imprint. After the Cinsaults, we tasted Pedro’s two Carignans. They seemed to subtly express the scent of pine and eucalyptus that we had smelled at the vineyards the day before, something we didn’t pick up in the Cinsaults. But from this, a dynamic set of richly scented, earthy and spicy reds emerged. It seemed obvious where the forest notes came from, and I asked him to weigh in on that perception. He agreed that it was likely from the trees. The topic of a vineyard’s surroundings and its effect on a wine’s aroma and flavor is another (true) story, but that’s for different article… After a quick sandwich in the laboratory and a tasting of Pedro’s newly bottled wines, we were on the road again to our final spot, Guarilihue. We had only three more hours with Pedro, but they would prove to be some of the most interesting hours of our trip. Part 5 of 6, "Los Reconquistadores" will post next week. Find Pedro Parra Wines here To keep up with this story you can sign up to our email list, or check in next week at the same time and you will find part 5.
Off-roading through a bumpy, hilly and winding dirt road for what seemed an eternity, we headed into the Itata Valley wilderness, our destination an ancient granite vineyard surrounded by pine and eucalyptus. Along the way we were joined by one of Pedro’s grape growers, Juan Palma. Juan comes from a family with a 300-year-old lineage, centuries of passed down vineyard wisdom. He took the lead in the caravan and we followed closely behind on the dirt road, windows down, eating dirt the entire time. The road was terribly dusty and our car was filled with it. Pedro didn’t seem to mind, though, and I figured this was the norm in hot weather with no AC in the Itata backcountry. After about thirty minutes we pulled into our first stop. Immediately we were met with warm dry wafts of wind pushing their way through the pine and eucalyptus trees lining the roads. Standing in the vineyards, it’s impossible not to notice the eucalyptus and pine aromas in the air at all times. Pedro setup an eraser board to illustrate Chile’s geological heritage and how the country was divided up in a simple way: the Andes were volcanic and metamorphic rocks, the Central Valley was filled with alluvial materials from the erosion of the Andes, and the coastal mountains were largely made of granite, an intrusive igneous rock. Years ago, the Chilean government erroneously decided that the old granite hills of the Itata weren’t useful for vineyards. They designated them for growing trees, mostly for making paper products—a controversial ecological dispute in these parts, because of the environmental damage from the pulp mills. Ironically, the native Mapuche Indians continue to light the forests on fire in rebellion to this catastrophe. Just as we were about to go up to visit one of Pedro’s many soil pits (he’s famous for digging massive holes in vineyards), we had an unexpected visitor. At first glance, I thought she was one of the vineyard owners. Why wouldn’t I think that? We were in a vineyard out in the boonies. But as she got closer, we saw a very small woman with a wind burnt, dark face, sunken in brown eyes, with lines carved into her face from many years of sun exposure. She wore a raggedy, but somewhat classy looking purple overcoat. She walked up to us with her hand extended, mumbling to herself, but really talking to us. She came for money. Pedro quickly went into his car and gave her some Chilean pesos. She made her rounds to the rest of us and Pedro told her that he had given her money for all of us. She smiled and slowly disappeared back into the forest. Pedro explained that big companies often pay 80 Chilean pesos per kilo of grapes—the equivalent of $.05 per pound. Like in the U.S., the poor in Chile stay poor, only a lot poorer. Even Chileans who work full time jobs often live in shanty houses made of cardboard and tin siding with dirt floors, even right in the middle of Santiago. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to see this poor woman out in the middle of nowhere. In the Itata, big companies from the north have come in to try to dupe the locals out of their land for pennies on the dollar of its potential value. Thankfully, most winegrowers of the Itata haven’t sold their vineyards. Instead, the growers maintain their work and they know that if they did sell, they wouldn’t have any alternatives except to become employees of the company that just bought their land. To them, selling is not an option. While grapes in high-demand regions of California can go for well over $6000 per ton ($3.00 per pound), Pedro explained that big companies often pay 80 Chilean pesos per kilo of grapes—the equivalent of $.05 per pound. It’s an extraordinarily cheap price to pay for grapes, especially when they come from dry-farmed ancient vineyards with vines that can be older than 200 years. However, more than the ancient vines, the true magic of the Itata are the pink granite soils. Over 500 years ago, the granite soils of the Itata were one of the first places the Spanish conquistadors planted vines. If they make the leap, something truly special could happen: they could be making wines authentically Chilean, instead of the big, generic, internationally styled ones. They got it right back then, and Chile forgot about these vines and the people farming them; at least until producers like DeMartino and Pedro Parra came around. Pedro now pays $.50 per pound for grapes and Juan thought he was stupid to offer to pay him such ridiculous prices. Pedro insisted to Juan that they were worth at least that. Pedro believes that if the farmers realize what they have, they will be able to flip the balance of power out of the hands of the big wineries. These farmers hold onto their vineyards, despite only making something like $20K each year for their entire family. Yet they know they have no economic future without their vineyards. Pedro believes that if the big companies weren’t able to buy fruit for almost nothing, they would likely start to fail. In fact, it’s thought that some of these old-vine parcels make up significant proportions of their top wines. One of Pedro’s life dreams is to help the growers in this region make their own commercial wines. His great idea is to gather enough money to take them to other wine regions to see first-hand the story of how extremely poor regions with gifted terroirs (like Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco regions) rose to become frontrunners in the world of wine. If they make the leap, something truly special could happen: they could be making wines authentically Chilean, instead of the big, generic, internationally styled ones. After the lady in purple disappeared back into the forest, Pedro brought us a little way up the hill to view the first of many holes he’d dug in the vineyards. They were about eight feet deep with stairs carved out at the entry. Smiling, Pedro made sure to point out that this hole wasn’t dug just for us, but for the many people that come to the Itata to see the beautiful soils Pedro evangelizes all over the world. Pedro entered the pit and invited us to come down. With his hammer, he began to pull slabs off the walls that have existed in place for 200 million years. He pointed out the vertical fractures that helped the roots easily find their way down into the many levels of the soil. It’s awe inspiring when you first expose a stone to the sunshine after it’s been buried for millions of years. Part 4 of 6, "Chicken and Lettuce" will post next week. Find Pedro Parra Wines here To keep up with this story you can sign up to our email list, or check in next week at the same time and you will find part 4.
“You need to find the proper mother for your wines… and a vineyard’s geology is the number one consideration,” Pedro said, as we drove towards his vineyards in Guarilihue. What was true 450 years ago when the Spanish Conquistadors settled in Concepcion is still true today. They recognized that Itata was a perfect mother for their vineyards because of the soil and climate, so they quickly established their roots in this place. “I chose this place because after working so many years with my clients, I knew exactly the places I hate. Back on one of Chile’s many dirt roads, we followed Juan Carlos Torres, another vineyard owner. I asked Pedro why he chose the Itata to establish his family’s label, Pedro Parra y Familia. Why didn’t he go further south into even cooler coastal climates closer to (but not in) Patagonia, or higher elevation sites in the Andes? After a moment of contemplation, he said, “I chose this place because after working so many years with my clients, I knew exactly the places I hate." “I have a map in my head of places where I know there is no solution,” he added. “I know that even if we bring in a super skilled winemaker, a place can be too strong to make a balanced wine. For example, granitic soils can be found all over the coast of Chile and up north, even in Casablanca. (A link to that part of the story can be found here). But as you know, the natural ripeness of Casablanca can be 16% alcohol, or more. I don’t want to add water or acid to my wines; that’s not what I like to drink… That is the first point. “The second point was that I knew I needed green land, which means both rain and clouds. It’s not about good year-round temperature; it’s about having cloudy weather in the beginning of the growing season, and in the end [toward harvest]. It’s only in the middle when I need the sun.” I suspected his third point, and I was right… He said, “We don’t have limestone in Chile. It’s too bad because I love limestone. So, if it’s not going to be limestone, it’s going to be granite, which I have the best in the world, and I love it. So, once I found the granite, I had to find more cloudy than sunny weather.” "I have dug thousands of pits in my life and I know very well the difference between irrigated roots and dry-farmed roots." - Pedro Parra The last point Pedro made was similar to one of the staples of French wine law: no irrigation. “I have dug thousands of pits in my life and I know very well the difference between irrigated roots and dry-farmed roots. If my clients want to irrigate their vines, that’s fine, but not my family’s wines… ever.” When we were tasting at Pedro’s winery, both of the other importers in our group, Dirk and Jorge, started to prep me for meeting another talented Chilean winemaker, Leonardo Erazo, a good friend of Pedro’s who had worked with him in Argentina and on many other projects. They insisted that I should consider tasting Leo’s wines and import those as well. As we wound up a very rocky dirt road, we took a final turn and eventually stopped on top of a hill. Down a little vineyard path a few people emerged from a makeshift pergola constructed out of small trees. Gusts of wind blew through the open sides, and the wooden roof was covered with greenery. It kept the sun from beating directly down onto the table where Leonardo and his Belgian girlfriend, Zjos were waiting. They joined us on the walk further up the road, through the intense wind and into the last vineyard of our tour. As always in Pedro’s vineyards, we came upon another soil pit. Up to this point, we had spent a lot of time talking to Pedro almost exclusively about granite with a little on limestone sprinkled into the conversation. I learned the day before that he wasn’t a big fan of volcanic soils, so I didn’t bring it up too much. I like wines from volcanic soils. But it’s necessary to have the right grape varietals planted to express their magic. I like wines from volcanic soils. But it’s necessary to have the right grape varietals planted to express their magic. Much of the time they mark the wines as distinctly as any soil type, especially from many of Italy’s wine regions, like Sicily or Campania. Volcanic soil is found all over the world, and the dominant “international grape varietals” like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Merlot in New World regions are often planted on them. More often than not, grape varietals are chosen for commercial reasons, not specifically because they are ideal for a particular type of soil. That’s what makes the wines of Lacryma Cristi, Taurasi, Etna and other southern Italian wines so special: they’ve established extremely suitable grapes on the right soils for centuries or, in many cases, for millennia. Standing over the pit next to Pedro, Leo drew comparisons and articulated the differences between volcanic and granitic soils and their influence on wine. “Basaltic [volcanic] and granitic rocks are igneous [both were once molten, but granite forms underground, while basalt forms above ground after an eruption], but their constitution is very different because of the way they cool. The slower the cooling, the bigger the crystals,” Leo explained. “Granite has bigger crystals, which you can see without a magnifying glass, unlike the tiny crystals in a basaltic rock. “The weathering [a geological term for the breakdown of rocks] is quite different, and the result in the wine is different too. With granite, depending on how much they have weathered over millions of years, there can be a lot, or a tiny amount of clay. The hardest mineral in granite is quartz, and it will be the last mineral to weather, leaving it almost completely intact.” Other minerals such as feldspar and mica will weather sooner. "Wines from here made from volcanic soils are softer, more linear and delicate; granite makes wines that are more wide and round." - Leonardo Erazo Leo continued, “the richness and water holding capacity of weathered granite is totally different than basalt. In the Itata when the basalts weather they become sandy, and the granite becomes more like clay. Wines from here made from volcanic soils are softer, more linear and delicate; granite makes wines that are more wide and round.” Going deeper into the smell and taste of these wines, Leo explained that the mineral sensations are different as well. In the back palate, granite is stronger (similar to metamorphic rock) and gives a rich saline and iodine sensation with a firm impression of iron; it tends to give more structure and tannin to the wine. The Itata’s sandy volcanic soils render more finely structured wines in comparison to granite. The aroma gives the impression of volcanic cinders and sometimes the phosphorus from a match. “The delicately textured tannins of volcanic wines carry the flavor to the very end of the palate," Leo added. Up to that point in my travels through many granite vineyards in Europe, I had never seen any so weathered into clay as in the Itata. Up to that point in my travels through many granite vineyards in Europe, I had never seen any so weathered into clay as in the Itata. Normally, I smuggle rocks back into California to add to my collection. If I had taken a piece back from some of these vineyards, I would have brought back what looked like rocks, but with a little time, they would dry and crumble on the mantle of my fireplace, since they were really just compacted pieces of soil,. Leo explained that there are granitic vineyards in the Itata that have hard, rocky soils, and others that are unusually soft. Granite is made up of a mix of minerals: mostly quartz, mica and feldspar. Depending on the amount of each component in the granite, the soil could be more or less susceptible to weathering. Clay content in the soil plays a big role in a wine. During the winter and spring, rainfall swells the clay, and in the arid summer it shrinks and contracts, potentially tearing roots and stressing the vine. Leo explained that the response of the vine to any kind of stress is to produce phenolic compounds to protect itself and the result can be hard (green) tannins. In the Itata, the result is that granite soils tend to make more tannic wines than sandier volcanic soils. Leo made it a point to say that this may not be true of volcanic soils worldwide, but it is in the Itata. The last segment of this 6-part series, "A New Discovery" will post next week. Find Pedro Parra Wines here To keep up with this story you can sign up to our email list, or check in next week and you will find part 6.
On our way back down to Leo’s improvised shelter, Andrea and I debated if we had time to taste Leo’s wines because we had to drive back to Santiago. It was past five and what would normally take five hours to drive in any normal car would take us seven. We knew we’d have to take it easy out of fear that our tiny little red car might fly apart merely by going the speed limit. Pedro mentioned that he had to go as well, and that we had just a few minutes if we wanted to quickly taste Leo’s wines. The wind maintained its intense howl and Leo took a seat with a cooler full of wine. Dirk, Jorge and Jorge’s group sat down and made themselves comfortable as they readied themselves to size up Leo’s new vintage for import. Leo pulled out a bottle of white wine and offered us a taste. With my mind already in the car, counting the hours driving back to Santiago, I stuck my nose in the glass. The Pacific Ocean winds did their best to whisk the aromas of Leo’s white wine out of the glass and back into the Itata, but the strong will of the wine resisted. High-toned, but delicate ocean spray, baking spices, exotic white fruits and citrus flowers gently fluttered out of the glass like a kaleidoscope of baby butterflies. The aroma was beautiful and charming. My eyes now wide open, I stared at Andrea with a look of surprise; she and I had labored through so many bottles of mediocre whites from this country over the last nine years, and this immediately seemed liked something very different. We took our first tastes at the same moment. The white, Pipeño (named after the old wooden 8000 liter traditional aging vessel shaped like a pipe), was authentic and complex. Made of 90% Moscatel and 10% Semillion, it was ornate and unapologetically delicious, even to an importer like me, who mostly opts for racy, high octane mineral bombs from Europe’s best spots for Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. It was salty, finely textured and familiar, but it wasn’t the grapes that brought familiarity… it was the influence of its granitic mother. The white, Pipeño (named after the old wooden 8000 liter traditional aging vessel shaped like a pipe), was authentic and complex. Andrea Arredondo Half smiling and unsure, Andrea glanced at me, as if for permission to put her cards on the table. I knew she liked the wine (as did I!), but she knew it could be a mistake to say out loud so soon if the rest of the wines weren’t as good; believe me, we didn’t expect them to be. Our eyes were locked, keeping our secret alive going into the next set of wines made from Pais. Pais makes a rugged and tough wine. Louis Antoine, a displaced Frenchman living in Chile, helped take the grape to notoriety in the States by making it in a Beaujolais style, with carbonic and semi-carbonic fermentations. He had worked in the cellar with one of France’s greatest vignerons, the late Marcel Lapierre, and made a name for himself in the “natural wine movement.” He’s now the best known producer from that genre in Chile. We had tasted in Louis’ cellar the previous day, and he had shown us some Pais made in a more traditional way (no carbonic method). The wines were interesting, albeit unfinished and straight out of tanks. They were massively tannic, and Louis made it clear he knew they needed more time to soften before going into bottle. Zjos and Leo Leo pulled two Pais wines out of his cooler. The labels were very charming and had sketches we later learned were done by Leo, alluding to the history of the Spanish Conquistadors and their cultivation of the Itata. Both wines were labeled Pais and were separated by their soil types, “Volcanico” and “Granitico,” in red letters. Both wines were labeled Pais and were separated by their soil types, “Volcanico” and “Granitico,” in red letters. The first red in my glass was Pais grown on volcanic soil. The color was as light as you’d ever see for a red. A seductive and unusually elegant wine greeted my nose. Again, the intensity of the wind blew most of the aromas out, making it difficult to catch its subtleties. I stuck my nose further into the glass to confirm that I was smelling and tasting a wine like no other I’d ever had from Chile. The next wine was the Granitico Pais. It carried a slightly deeper hue of red and worked forcefully against the wind compared to the last wine. More powerful, but equally elegant as the volcanic Pais, the nose and taste were unmistakably marked by the soils we had just seen. Blood, metal, mineral, coarse salt, orange and dark red roses, and deep, but supremely elegant red and black fruits filled out my mouth, leaving me a little stunned. Again, the familiarity and impact of the granite soil was clear. I was impressed, but still couldn’t help second guessing myself with these first three wines. My wife looked at me, still waiting for a cue, and I shrugged my shoulders and said, “who knew?!” I walked over to Pedro, who was patiently waiting for us. I was excited about Leo’s wines but I wasn’t sure what to do. Here was the guy I came down to see and then I met this other guy, Leo, who was equally impressive and making wines that were very different than Pedro’s remarkably intense and authentic wines. I looked at Pedro and cautiously said, “I am a little surprised by Leo’s wines. I think I need to import them as well.” Pedro smiled. With his arms crossed, he looked over the rim of his glasses and said, “They are beautiful wines aren’t they? You should import them. We work together and it would be good for our region if you would represent both of us.” I looked at Pedro and cautiously said, “I am a little surprised by Leo’s wines. I think I need to import them as well.” Pedro and Leo embody the best of their country. As guardians of Chile’s nearly forgotten legacy, they are championing the Itata’s important history and the families who have cultivated these lands for centuries. The ancient families of the Itata face a modern world where big business moves faster in two years than these farmers have in the last one hundred. Luckily Pedro Parra, their most faithful advocate, is the voice for their inevitable rise to the top of Chile’s wine culture. The ancient families of the Itata face a modern world where big business moves faster in two years than these farmers have in the last one hundred. As we left the Itata and joined the Ruta 5 north, back to Santiago, Andrea and I were glowing with excitement. In the past, taking a trip there during the southern hemisphere’s summertime was about momentarily getting away from our regular routines and the short winter days in California. We used to go for Chile’s beautiful and rugged beaches, endless supply of delicious seafood (especially sea urchin!) and perfectly ripe, in-season fruits and vegetables. We’ll still go for these things, but in less than two days we experienced a new Chile and started making plans to return much sooner than expected. We felt like we had just scratched the surface in the south and got a tiny glimpse into the Chile we’d been searching for.
As Pedro said, “Chile is deeply wrong with wine,” the tempo of the Wayne Shorter seemed to pick up. “Chile has a great geology, with different climates, but the wines are mostly the same… but in a bad way,” he said , pushing his glasses up the ridge of his nose (he does this about every minute while he talks). “Everything is focused around Santiago and everyone tries too hard to emulate the bigger wines of the world.” Chile suffers a similar challenge to my home state, California. Like many of California’s top growing regions, Casablanca is conveniently accessible to a major metropolitan area. And like California, a lot of regions in Chile are on somewhat uninteresting soils. These areas are often chosen by lifestyle winemakers and investors, Santiago’s affluent, who pass through Casablanca on the one hour drive to their coastal summer homes near Viña del Mar, Chile’s second largest city. They don’t want to give up easy access to the conveniences of urban cultures and sunny weather to work in rugged terroirs with interesting soils that are off the beaten wine path. Wine regions in Europe are different; many suitable terroirs just happen to be relatively close to urban centers. In France, Paris is inside a massive geological formation known as the Paris Basin, famous for its limestone and chalk vineyards—home to Champagne, Chablis and the Loire Valley—most of which are little farther than a two-hour drive. In France’s second city largest city, Lyon, vineyards begin where suburbia ends. The ancient granite soils of Beaujolais are only forty minutes north from the city center, while towards the south, the schists and granites of the Northern Rhone Valley are even closer. The Savoie, another geological wonderland, is just an hour and a half to the east, towards the Alps. Each of these region’s wines are distinctly marked by their rocks and soils as much as they are by the climate and grape variety. Pedro continued, “people tell me that their soils are clay, or loamy-clay, or sandy-loam, but I don’t care about the grain of the soil. I want to know if the sand or clay is a limestone-rich clay, or granite sand, etc. Most people don’t realize it, but it makes a difference what those clays and sands are made of.” Rocks, like granites, schists, slates (most famously in Germany) and limestones are endowed with distinctively influential attributes that undoubtedly impose a geological imprint on wine. Many new world regions don’t have these distinguished mother rocks and their decomposed topsoils. Without a soil that speaks its own distinct language, the natural tendency is to compensate by relying on enological and viticultural techniques, unnatural amendments and fertilizers, and drip irrigation where there is not enough precipitation. (It’s sunny all the time, a great place to live!). Regions with low precipitation or soils that have very little water retention often need drip irrigation. This crutch could be the greatest hurdle in producing a wine with the potential for a strong soil expression. Imagine a drip-line water emitter in the same exact location throughout the year. The vine is like my Italian friend, Antonio; it will always do the minimum to get its needs met. Under irrigation, it will naturally form most of its roots around the 5-inch diameter of the drip area, close to the surface of the soil and spend the rest of the day at the beach instead of working hard to dig deeper. A supporting argument for drip irrigation is that if the drip is sustained long enough in the same spot it will soak deep into the soil. This would encourage the vine to seek water further down, giving it access to the underlying complexity of the soil/bedrock below. There is logic to this theory, but it may also be a good argument against drip irrigation; if the root system were confined to take in nutrients only from the narrow strip of soil directly below the drip line (even if it were 2 meters below the topsoil), is this enough to give the wine the depth of personality of a vine whose roots have explored the soil in every imaginable direction? There will always be exceptionally talented winemakers who make delicious, well-made wines from most soil types. There are a lot of winemakers in the New World that express very well the varietal and climate with beautiful artistry. However, the soil expression in the wine rarely exceeds any impact beyond the basic physical structure of the soil. This is not to say that a terroir wine is better than a non-terroir wine; it is simply to say that some wines speak of the soil more clearly than others. Fully decomposed granite from the Itata Soil comes from weathered rock. Granite decomposes into many forms, like gravel, sand and clay. So, the use of general terms, like sand, clay and loam reference only to the soil’s structure and inadequately explain what the soil offers the vine outside of its water retention capability. What is the soil composed of? Is it silica sand made of quartz? Biogenic sands made from seashells? Kaolinite clay or montmorillonite clay? The possibilities are endless, and the differences can be subtle and monumental at the same time. “Most of the great boutique French importers from Europe don’t realize it,” Pedro said, “but they are mostly buying wines from schist, granite and limestone soils. Those soils speak of place more clearly than any wines in the world. I know the portfolio of wines you import and this is the case for you as well.” Further up the highway we stopped at a gas station and met up with one of Pedro’s other importers: Jorge Perez Hurtado, a Chilean national living in New York accompanied by a couple of his buyers from Connecticut. We continued on to one of the most fascinating and historical vineyard areas of Chile, the Itata Valley. Part 3 of 6, "Visitors and Soil Pits," will post next week. Find Pedro Parra Wines here To keep up with this story you can sign up to our email list, or check in next week at the same time and you will find part 3.
That question again... Is it possible by taste to assess what type of bedrock and soil a wine comes from? I am aware that extensive, abstract or technical wine writing doesn’t usually sell wine, but I don’t care. I view short, oversimplified marketing strategies with catchy, punchy and clever comic book-style writing too short and shallow, word salads that don’t mean much, only intended to attract attention. I prefer the longer form with wine because wine is not a small subject, unless you are a beginner or just drink it because you like it and nothing more; I wish sometimes I could do that too! Short form writing is the same as a quick wine tasting, while the long form is the exploration of wine as one drinks a bottle and really digs in. Many of you subscribe to us because we sell delicious wines made with sound philosophy, practice and a lot of heart, but also because we continue to adventure deeply into the conversation of this utterly fascinating subject. With this offer, I want to share something with you that (like many others in our field) I can’t seem to get enough of. That is, the search for clues to the currently not fully understood organoleptic link between wine and the composition of its bedrock and topsoil. Science can’t yet explain all the processes for what makes a wine taste the way it does, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t possibilities to be considered; we just haven’t found the answers to everything yet. But when we do find answers, will it diminish the thrilling mystery of wine? When one mystery is solved, another will inevitably emerge. So we’re safe to share our ideas outloud, even if they are not completely right; exploration and searching are always at least half the fun! In what I hope will be the first in a series of offers that follow a specific theme, today we focus on wines that grow on landscapes developed more than three hundred million years ago. They come from a world we would hardly recognize today, a time long before the dinosaurs: The Pangaean Era. A Short Preface to the Wines Each of these wines comes from land formed in what geologists refer to as the Variscan orogeny. This mountain building event took place 370 million to 290 million years ago and formed an ancient chain of mountains that connected North America to Eastern Europe and were likely comparable in size to today’s Himalayas. Now they are squat, rounded and extremely short by comparison after hundreds of millions of years of erosion. These mountains were formed during the collision of two supercontinents, Gondwana and Laurussia, and once connected they formed Earth’s last supercontinent, Pangaea. The remnants of this ancient belt-like chain of mountains is connected to today’s ten wines that come from Spain and Portugal’s Iberian Massif, France’s Armorican and Central Massifs, as well as central and eastern Europe’s Bohemian Massif. All of the land that separates these massifs today developed over the last two-hundred million years as Pangaea broke apart and the Earth’s seven continents drifted to where they today. There is no doubt that a wine’s bedrock and soil composition influences certain elements of taste. We can start with the soil’s grain size, meaning whether it’s clay, silt, sand, gravel or a mix. This aspect of the soil imparts a different shape to the wine, which we sometimes describe somewhere between angular and round, or vertical and horizontal. It’s commonly accepted that sandier soils typically veer wines toward elegance and lift, where clay-rich soils make them more broad and muscular. This is an influence of soil grain, not as much as what the soil is derived from. A wine’s palate-weight and the strength of where it finishes with the most intensity and length appears to be more often associated with its bedrock and soil composition, especially if there is a particularly dominant rock type, like a limestone, granite, schist or slate. This is where we will focus on in this somewhat short essay. With today’s current trend of less is more in the cellar, the perception of these characteristic traits from specific rock types has become even more evident to those who spend time observing this particular characteristic of a wine. Indeed this seems like some seriously advanced wine assessment, but once the concept is grasped, it’s digestible. Don’t worry, you’re going to get this. That said, there is one little tedious technical detail that needs to be addressed before we get started. That is that there are two basic categories of igneous rock: intrusive and extrusive. Both were once liquid magma, but an intrusive rock slowly cooled below the earth’s surface, while an extrusive rock was expelled by volcanoes and cooled on the earth’s surface quickly in minutes, hours or days. The resulting wines from these two igneous rock types are extremely different, and volcanic wines have been excluded from today’s conversation, because most volcanic rock on the earth’s continental crust appeared there after the time of Pangaea, and it tends to influence wines quite differently than intrusive igneous rocks, like a granite or gabbro. Finally the Wines! Intrusive Igneous Rock Whites Our first wine is close to home—literally… I live about ten minutes from Quinta do Ameal, which sits along the Lima River in Portugal, a magical place where our dream to live in Portugal started. Ameal’s Pangaean connection is the Iberian Massif, and we are located in the far northwestern area of Portugal, inside the Lima Valley of the Vinho Verde, the latter is Portugal’s coldest wine region, and the former it’s coldest subzone. The bedrock and topsoil at Ameal is 100% granite, an intrusive igneous rock. Granite wines are almost always front loaded in the palate, no matter where they’re from. And you can especially feel this palate pressure about fifteen seconds after you swallow the wine and observe the finish. Granite imparts elegance to its wines and a lot of salty freshness too, which this wine has in spades. This is especially useful for grapes with naturally high acidity, like Loureiro, which constitutes the entirety of this wine. I’ve drunk my way through a lot of Portugal and quite a few of its good restaurants and have asked sommeliers and waiters for their suggestion on wines from the Vinho Verde region just to see what they have to say. Without exaggeration, if Quinta do Ameal is on the list, it is always recommended; and for the price and versatility it always wins. At Ameal, everything is carefully controlled and organically farmed. This wine is raised exclusively in stainless steel and goes with almost any kind of food, especially seafood, fish and full-flavored pork dishes— barbeque included. And it’s a wine for absolutely any occasion. There are only a few vineyard rocks I’ve held that are as heavy and hard as the gabbro found at Morandière's Muscadet vineyards, in the Loire Valley’s furthest west major region. Gabbro is an igneous rock, like granite, that was formed underground before it was plunged to the surface hundreds of millions of years ago with tectonic movements. By sight, the gabbro in his vineyard has a slightly green/grey cast and sometimes some faded white splotches. What it delivers to the wine is a tremendously dense core and front palate power on the finish, similar to what granite imparts. Muscadet is a cold region and is part of France’s Armorican Massif, named after pre-Pangaean mash up when Gondwana and Laurussia played a rough game of bumper plate tectonics with the smaller floating continent Armorica sandwiched in the middle, forming a long, crumpled up, snake-like mountain range. During this period the vineyard land of Muscadet used to be connected by land to the Vinho Verde, through northern Iberia, and there are similarities between the way these wines feel—especially in the palate aftermath once you’ve swallowed the wine. The grapes from these regions are very different; both are super fresh, but the Loureiro is extremely lithe but angular, while the Melon de Bourgogne, the grape in Muscadet, often carries more density, texture and deep mineral and metal characteristics; but the mark of their similar bedrocks is evident, leaving pressure on the front palate of the finish. Metamorphic Rock Whites The Bohemian Massif, another Variscan remnant, is what makes Austria’s Wachau river gorge special. The Danube River carved out this narrow, picturesque gorge now covered in steeply terraced vineyards atop soft, short riverbanks filled with vines and small villages. If it weren’t for the Danube slicing through this area, it would be a very different geological setting—a continuation of the relatively flat plateau covered in forest next to the Pannonian plain toward the east. The Danube exposed, gneiss, a beautiful metamorphic motherrock with colorful earthtone mineral bands that give the impression of a bunch of strings bunched up, compressed together and turned into rock. Tegernseerhof's Superin vineyard is planted to Grüner Veltliner and sits just next to the Danube, though not on a terrace. It’s in a unique position compared to other vineyards down by the river in that it's butted up against a hard gneiss outcrop that the village, Durnstein, was built on. As the river rushed by, it stripped the topsoil from the rock, leaving a shallow covering of river sediments on top of this gneiss bedrock. Here, in classic Tegernseerhof style (mineral, crystalline and pure), we jump into the metamorphic wine world. Unlike the first two wines, this one digs deeper in a way that, as the famous Chilean soil scientist, Pedro Parra, says: “it drills into your back palate.” While the igneous rock wines hits hard and continues to weigh heavily on the front palate after the wine is gulped down, here it rests on the side and back palate, often leaving the mid- and front-palate finish nearly non-existent by comparison to what an intrusive igneous rock imparts. Continuing on with another metamorphic white wine, we jump back over to the Armorican Massif, not too far east of Muscadet, and into likely the oldest exposed rock formation in France—at least according to Patrick Baudouin, the maker of this wine who, like me, spends a lot of time shooting the breeze about minerals, smashing rocks and sipping wines with geologists and asking too many questions. Here we find some pretty nice schist, a metamorphic rock formation about five hundred million years old. Baudouin's Coteaux du Layon "Les Croix" is an organically farmed vineyard within a complex valley stitched together with a wide variety of rock formations, largely from volcanic and metamorphic origin. I don’t know what it is with these metamorphic rocks, but they also make wines especially salty and with strong impressions of metal even more than mineral; the grape, Chenin Blanc, is a fabulous transmitter of terroir and really lets these features fly. Put a Baudouin Chenin from the Layon or Savennières, next to a Chenin grown on a limestone terroir just toward the east, in Saumur, and if you don’t know Chenin well, you may not believe that they are even the same grape, let alone grown so close to each other. Like other wines grown on metamorphic bedrock and soil, Patty’s salty and fresh Les Croix drills into the back and side of the palate, especially on the finish, somehow leaving you quenched while at the same time still wanting your next sip. Intrusive Igneous and Metamorphic Rock White Last for the whites today is the 2018 Bodegas Paraguas "Atlantico." Here we have a blend of different motherrocks, and you’re going to feel it. We’re back to the Iberian Massif, more specifically the Galician Massif in northwestern Spain, and a wine region I believe to be one of the greatest future prospects in all of Europe, the Ribeiro. Why such a seemingly cavalier claim for this mostly unknown wine region? We’ll get to the geology, but first we have to note its history as one of Spain’s most celebrated wine regions of yesteryear (the other being Rioja, which never fell out of favor) before more than a century long series of problems, listed here (in order to the best of my knowledge): powdery mildew, phylloxera, downey mildew, WWI, Spanish Civil War, dictatorship, WWII, continued dictatorship, post-war industrialization and the abandonment of the countryside by poor farmers in search of work within nearby bigger cities. From a geological standpoint, the Ribeiro has no limits to its potential with its blend of a wide range of metamorphic and igneous rocks. And in the three parcels that make up this wine we have a blend of schist and granite. Taking into account where these wines strike and remain with pressure on the palate (intrusive igneous in the front, metamorphic in the back and on the sides) you can imagine the level of impression on this wine. It’s more diverse but still strong on the palate, making for a wine with more dimension in some ways than the others. That doesn’t make it better, it just makes it different and perhaps more full and rounded, and without dominance of either schist or granite. The primary grape here is Treixadura, one that lends itself to more richness and softer acidity. I guess one could say it’s kind of like the Chardonnay of Galicia, but if it’s not managed well in the vineyard it can lose its freshness more quickly; but at Paraguas it’s done quite right and surprisingly taut for this grape. If you buy this mix of ten wines, try this one after you’ve gone through the other whites so you are more familiar with the way the individual rock categories feel in the palate before you get the one-two punch here. Intrusive Igneous & Metamorphic Rock Red Continuing on with the igneous and metamorphic vineyard mix, and because our first red is from the Ribeiro and extremely elegant, I put Cume do Avia's Colleita 6 as the starter in the lineup of reds. The vineyard for this wine is not far from Paraguas, deep inside the Galician Massif. As mentioned in the last white, many factors are at play in the Ribeiro. But there is also the proximity of the land to the Atlantic, the constant whistle of fierce winds that bring in fresh air and help grapes to stay somewhat dry in this pest-rich environment. And of course, there is the richness in diversity of the bedrock and topsoil composition. The bedrock and topsoil in Cume do Avia’s vineyards add great breadth to their wines and from one meter to the next they can quickly alternate. Here you’ll find a kaleidoscope of different intrusive igneous rock, metamorphic schist and slate. The soil grain is equally diverse and randomly shifts back and forth between sand and clay. The soils are dark orange, white or brown, depending on the mineral makeup. It’s an extremely complex area within only twenty-two acres. What is incredible about this wine made principally from the grapes Brancellao, Caiño Longo and Souson, is that it is so sleek, elegant and low in alcohol (11%) and looks like it won’t feel or taste like anything, but nothing could be further from the truth. When this wine hits your palate, and the weight of all we spoke about—the front palate from the intrusive igneous rock, the side and middle of the metamorphic rock, and now all the different grains of soil from sand to clay—flood the palate with an unexpected weight and pressure, like you have a mouthful of buckshot (the small metal balls inside shotgun shells) resting on all points of your mouth with the added electricity that metal brings to the tongue. It’s really quite fascinating how this level of complexity happens with such a humbly-priced wine, but for me these elements point to the rock medley the grapes are grown in. Metamorphic Rock Reds We have two wines on this offer from Breogan Rodriguez, the one-man show at Terra Brava. Breo’s wines come from three hectares of steeply terraced vineyards in the Amandi sub-region of Galicia’s Ribeira Sacra, on Spain’s ancient Galician Massif. The vines face south and southwest on shallow decomposed gneiss and slate terraces with topsoil derived from the bedrock and kept in place by the terraces. Cool air from the Atlantic and warm air from the Mediterranean influences the climate, creating a tug of war that usually brings beautiful balance to the growing season. However, this is extreme wine country in every way—hot summer days, cold nights, heavy rains, unexpected hailstorms in the summer, etc. And it’s the most fun place to bring someone who hasn’t been there before to hear the gasps and oohs and ahhs as you drop into the gorge from seemingly a mildly hilly country road—just like many of the entry points to Germany’s Mosel River Valley. It’s an impressive place and it’s impossible to capture the literally breathtaking intensity of it in a photo. I admire Breo and his fine craftwork in the cellar and organic practice in this extreme and sometimes brutally harsh work environment. Terra Brava's "Xastre" could easily be mistaken for a wine from France’s Northern Rhône in taste, were it not for this mix of indigenous Galician grapes that bring their unique stamp unlike any others outside this part of the Iberian Peninsula. This is no surprise because most (some would say all) of the best vineyards in the Northern Rhône Valley are remnants of Pangaea's Variscan mountains. They share a similar geological history and makeup, with their intrusive igneous and metamorphic rocks. This wine, made of 85% Mencia, is seductive with fresh berry and earthy nuances along with a natural propensity for being a strong transmitter of mineral and metal impressions, associated with the bedrock it's grown in. The textural grit is expansive and the pressure of the finish is clearly weighted in the back and side palate on the finish. The next wine is the Terra Brava "Lagar do Breo." It’s made with 95% Caiño Longo, an indigenous grape specific to this area of the Iberian Peninsula that will catch your full attention with the first taste. It can be freakishly acidic for a red wine, but it delivers a full range of complexity that is undeniably noble, and somehow balanced. This must be the most overlooked mega-talent on the list of the world’s great grapes, at least from what I’ve tasted. I guess one could criticize Caiño Longo for not being so subtle, but the wine as a whole can be layered for days and may in the future stand tall next to the world’s elite grapes. There is some kind of beautiful rage inside Caiño Longo and its naturally high acidity hums like an overhead power line, much like a Chenin Blanc from the hill of Brézé, in France’s Loire Valley. And, like a great Côte Rôtie or Cornas that shares some likeness to this wine, you must take your time to see all it has to offer, and you surely will have the same effect on the finish of the wine's mid and back palate. There are layers and layers to discover here and given that there are so few wines made with almost 100% Caiño Longo, it would be a waste (but not entirely) to gulp it down and not give it the time to fly as high as it will go. Finally, we jump to Beaujolais. We are now entering France’s Massif Central, home to so many great wines of France. I saved Thevenet for last in the discussion because of the power of the 2015 vintage. Sure, 2015 has its detractors because of this power, but when we speak about balance, it can exist on all levels, whether gentle and soft, or brutally strong. 2015 Beaujolais is no exception to this. It is indeed a vintage of impressively high natural acidity and higher alcohol than usual, but it also has a profound well of complexity that could help its wines ride as far and long as any vintage before it. The detractors? They are mostly Beaujolais drinkers newer to the game in search of wines that must be under 13% alcohol to be worthy of their appreciation. Sadly, this perspective pretty much shuts the door on many of the world’s epic red wine regions. Wine’s diversity, not its uniformity, is what keeps it interesting. So, we finish with two Gamay wines in Beaujolais grown not more than a few kilometers away from each other, same grape, weather, vinification in old oak barrels, cellar aging, low SO2 regimen and organic farming, but different bedrock and dirt. I’ve not found greater confusion about the geological composition of any other famous wine spot than the Côte du Py. I’ve been on the hill with the geologist Brenna Quigley, talked with winegrowers, looked at everything I can find on the Internet with very little consensus. There are a lot of different explanations that include igneous intrusive or extrusive (volcanic) rock, and metamorphic rock; it’s most often referred to as either a schist (metamorphic rock) or andesite (an extrusive igneous rock, so a volcanic rock formation). Recently I asked Brenna what her general conclusion is for the Côte du Py. Her safe bet is to say that it is likely a mix of meta-diorite (the "blue granite" people refer to), meta-basalt and likely some granite; so likely dominated by metamorphic rock. The Côte du Py is a rounded, freestanding lump of a hill with these rocks scattered about ranging in color from orange to light and dark shades of teal. Important to note is that whatever the rock is, it's incredibly hard and the vineyards are often spare in topsoil, making for straight and powerful wines with more defined lines and a deeper core concentration than what is typically found from wines grown in granite. Wines grown on metamorphic bedrock showcase pronounced unique stony, mineral and deeply metal nuances in the aroma, taste and texture. The most palate impact with this wine rendered from 80+ year old vines is to be found toward the back and sides of the mouth—in the palate it has always felt more like a meta wine to me. Intrusive Igneous Rock Red There is no doubt whatsoever that granite completely dominates Thevenet's Morgon Vieilles Vignes vineyards. The mix comes mostly from vineyards in Douby, with semi-coarse, shallow topsoil and exposed bedrock on the north side of Morgon between the Côte du Py and Fleurie; and the lieu-dit, Courcelette, where his parcel is on soft, coarse beach-like granite sands. Much of these vineyards are on gently sloping aspects ranging from southeast to southwest. There are also rocky sections where the bedrock pokes out, but generally the vineyards are fine-grained to coarse sands. This leads to wines that exhibit elegance and subtlety, but are endowed with great length and complexity from its ancient vines that range between 85-150+ years old. If you’ve read this entire essay on these wines, it may seem redundant to say that you can expect a little bomb on the front palate and remains strong for a good length on the finish. That concludes this extremely oversimplified (though complex) idea that I have observed and discussed at length with wine lovers, wine specialists and scientists, for quite a few years now. I hope you enjoyed it and take the leap to give these wines a swirl. Thanks to MSc in Geology, Ivan Rodriguez, for his assistance on the geological story of Pangaea and the Variscan orogeny.
Andrea and I started our journey with a much-needed out of wine experience in Scotland on the Great Glen Way with our friends, Reuben, Bella and Benjamin Weininger. I admit that after seven months in Italy it was nice to be in a country where both of us were fluent in the local language; although sometimes Italians speaking Italian are easier to understand than Scottish speaking English. I’d wanted to make that walk in Scotland for a long time. It was memorable, not only because it was the first time I’ve walked/hiked 19.5 miles in a day, but we also found the best fish and chips I’ve ever seen and tasted along the trail. Edinburgh lived up to the hype of its beauty and had an unexpectedly diverse, quality ethnic cuisine scene; we ate some of the best Indian and Korean food while there, and a duck dish that I will remember forever. And I’ve got to give props to the less attractive industrial city of Glasgow for the same high quality of ethnic food. After Scotland we went to Madrid for a few days to wait for two of our coworkers at The Source, Andrew and JD, to join us for a trip in northwestern Spain. After an uneventful couple of days in Madrid that were highlighted on two occasions by visits to the restaurant, Media Ración, we set off for Jimenez de Jamuz to visit with the folks at Fuentes del Silencio and Chef Gordon at the restaurant El Capricho for my seventh meal there (but whose counting?)—never a disappointment. But first, we had to stop at Segovia, one of our favorite small cities in Spain, for a dinner at José Maria to eat his epic suckling pig. Sadly I was a little sick from something I ate in Madrid so I took only a single bite from Andrew’s plate, but it was delish! José Maria probably makes the best suckling pig in Spain, though I am sure there are contenders I don’t know about, and in my last four visits it’s been perfectly consistent. My favorite portion is the leg, so if you get the opportunity to choose your portion, go for that one. We left Segovia the next morning for Jimenez de Jamuz to revisit its ancient resurrected vineyards, discuss the gold in the soil and the local yeast strain that pronounces the unique voice of its terroir, and the early promise of more special wines to come from Fuentes del Silencio and their team of fired up wine pros. Then it was off to El Capricho for the four-hour lunch, and on to the ranch to watch José wrangle some 2000 lbs+ steers with his team. We plan to import José’s delicious wine when he has something for us to sell. We started the next day with an impromptu visit with José Antonio Garcia and his wife, Julia, vignerons in Bierzo, who were kind enough to give us a quick vineyard tour of the area around Valtuille and Corullón. While Bierzo is not part of the Galician wine region, when you start to climb the hills it’s every bit of Galicia when considering its geological heritage. After a walk in the dark red clays of the lower vineyard land, he took us for a quick tour of high elevation slate-dense and quartz-rich vineyards of Corullón. It was my second time with José up the hill and it was as impressive as the first—what a place! Everyone talks about the extremes of the Ribeira Sacra because the vineyards and valley carved out by the rivers are truly breathtaking (a description I will reserve solely for this wine region—a place where photographs just don’t do its beauty justice), but some slopes in Bierzo are just as steep but not terraced like they are in the most steep parts of the Ribeira Sacra, which makes them all the more precarious. Once we got up into the higher areas it began to snow, a signal for us to return down the hill. Next stop, Galicia. The Galician wine scene is inspiring (as are many of the southerly regions of Spain) and I am humbled to become involved and received with such welcoming hospitality. Andrea and I went to Spain on our honeymoon a few years ago and completely missed Galicia as we seemingly went everywhere else in the country—I guess we were saving the best for last. After too many heavy reds on that trip we fell back on beer and Albariño only after the first week of our month long adventure. I asked waiters along the way if there was an organic Albariño on the list, but no one knew of anything. I contacted a certified organic Albariño producer there and started the ball rolling in that direction and imported their wines for a short time afterward. I had no idea that I was walking into a wine world that would capture my attention and consume my focus. When we got back home to Santa Barbara from our honeymoon, a series of events happened that were like a calling to Galicia. It started with our friend Rajat Parr who randomly gave me a bottle of Envínate and said, “you need to go to Galicia.” Brian McClintic, who lived in our back studio at the time, went too and came back with the same encouragement. Then we hired JD Plotnick, a wellspring of information on Galicia, a region he had already focused on back when its newfound uprising was only a whisper. He helped direct my attention to which producers' wines we should seek out during our first trip to set the bar on taste, as well as which restaurants to visit. I asked him if he knew of anything out there that wasn’t already being imported to California, or anywhere else in the US. He gave me many names but one of them was “an upcoming producer” he’d heard about from Raul Perez (Spain’s New Wine Testament prophet), though he hadn’t yet tasted the wines. After one Facebook message to this guy, in Spanish (thanks to my wife), we had a meeting set up. Andrea and I have now been Galicia five times in less than two years (three times in the last seven months), and plan to go back again at the beginning of June and then again in September. I’ve learned a lot over the last couple of years but there are too many loose ends and much more context needed before I engage in more extensive writing about it from a technical and experience standpoint. What makes it most difficult to wrap one’s head around is that the locals have to largely rediscover their own region because much of the knowledge has been buried in the local cemeteries with generations past. What also holds me back from going deeper at the moment is that I’m one of the newer importers there and have great respect for those who have focused on this region for so many years before me. I feel I need to earn my stripes first, and only time brings those. Our first stop in Galicia was the Ribeira Sacra to visit a new producer there, Breogan (Breo) Rodriguez, the owner/vigneron at Terra Brava. It was an impressive lineup out of barrel with his miniscule quantities of 2018 (thanks to the monstrous mildew challenges to that vintage), so we expect a great follow-up to his super 2017s. Breo’s wines made from Mencia and Caiño Longo (my new favorite grape) are clean and honest and bear a strong resemblance in mood and some characteristics to Côte-Rôtie and Northern Saint-Joseph Syrahs grown on a mix of metamorphic and igneous rocks; I speak of those cool metal and mineral fresh notes on the palate and nose with darker earth and fruit. The wines just landed in the U.S. and with the enthusiasm of JD, Andrew and Rachel Kerswell (our national sales manager and New York outpost who has visited Breo and our new roster in Galicia), spreading the word on what we were able to buy from this micro producer should be short work. Next was the Ribeiro, a region I think may be the top place to watch in Galicia. I admit that I don’t yet know much about Galicia compared to other wine regions, but over the last twelve years I’ve spent nearly four months of each year on the wine trail observing the physical traits that make up Europe’s top wine regions, which have led me to this hunch. Aside from that, perhaps the most compelling argument is that long ago the Ribeiro once shared Spain’s top honors next to the Rioja for wine and there’s no doubt that it has the potential to rise again to take its place as a contender for top billing. What makes it most interesting from my perspective is the Ribeiro’s perfect location between the climatic tug of war between the cold Atlantic and a warm Mediterranean influence, its great diversity of rock and soil types (all acidic soils with a lot of granite, schist, slate, gneiss and other metamorphic rocks that contribute to a more broad impact on the palate of the wines) on mildly steep hills, and softer sun exposure, resulting in wines with great snap and crunch in both white and red—the latter being the most intriguing to me. The red grapes of Brancellao, Caiño Longo, Souson, Ferron are a few examples of indigenous grapes that show tremendous promise. Our new winery partners there are Bodegas Paraguas, Cume do Avia and Fazenda Augalevada—all tough names (especially the last one) but spectacular wines. To have three producers from this single region seems like a lot at first, but each of them are different shades of the area. Paraguas is exclusively producing white wines led by Treixadura, a grape that in their direction has a Chardonnay-like body and structure, but with almost no relation to Chardonnay’s presentation of tastes and smells—it tastes like Galicia: savory and mineral, with honey, dried grass, citrus and stone fruit. Then it was Diego and family at Cume do Avia with their high energy, organically farmed reds that completely blew my mind last year and redirected my attention to red wine. The new vintage of their whites is a significant jump from last year and shows wonderfully raw, straightforward terroir-rich expressions of indigenous whites. Finally it was Augalevada, the unique embodiment of the biodynamic grower, Iago Garrido, who buried an amphora filled with wine in his vineyard that subsequently developed flor yeast and set the direction of his focus. He thought the wine should be thrown away at first, but bottled them for his friends who began to ask for more and what stood in Iago’s way became his way. As a new winemaker, Iago has demonstrated early his tremendous eye for detail and a few of the wines I have tasted from amphora and barrel over the last three visits are on par with some of the most riveting single tastes of wine I can remember. His estate white, Ollos de Roque, is a magical mystery tour that lands somewhere between Chenin Blanc from Vouvray and Savignin from the Jura, with a subtle touch of flor. Some of the reds out of barrel can, like they did for me, compel you to once again pose those meaning of life questions. Our final visit in Galicia was in the Rías Baixas for a new project with the budding superstar—to be revealed at a later date—whose name was given to me by JD. During my first visit with him a couple of years ago, he politely refused my proposal to work with him in California out of respect for his U.S. importer, who I didn’t know already represented his wines in CA, and who buys as much of his wine as he has to sell. Accepting and respecting the answer but not the defeat, I proposed a new angle on my second visit with him and he was open to it: a project together. Since then we’ve developed a strong friendship and when we visit the area, he literally clears his schedule for us. It’s funny though that he speaks no English and I don’t speak Spanish (yet!), so it’s a relationship that exists through my wife and Google Translate when we are at dinner or lunch together. He asked how I thought he should make the wine for this project but I told him that his approach already embodied all I could dream up in crafting an ideal Albariño: sleek, mineral, energetic but balanced, and a nearly perfect match of intention and execution. I gave a few minor suggestions, which he employed, and the results were staggering—not because of anything I did, but because he’s got the magic touch. I could see it on the face of Andrew and JD as we tasted through the range of unfinished wines over lunch, that they had already sold every bottle of his wine in their minds before they were even finished and brought to the U.S. Those wines will arrive in the fall. It was great to run the route with Andrew and JD, to soak up their experience and passion for Spanish wines and the abundance of conversations about unusual things and trends in wine. Those two could captivate an audience with an unscripted on the road wine comedy show. Even Andrea was laughing out loud regularly by their never-ending conversations full of disagreements and amusing offhanded comments. She can really get sick of the wine talk, but I kept checking in on her through the rearview mirror while she quietly tried to get some sleep as they ceaselessly rambled on about everything and nothing, while at other times she smiled and erupted into hysterical laughter with tears streaming down her face. We jumped over the Spanish border and into Portugal’s Vinho Verde country to one of our favorite spots in the world, Quinta do Ameal, and one of our favorite people, Pedro Araújo. Whenever we find ourselves in Ponte de Lima, a beautiful and well-kept Roman village, in the Lima Valley, we never want to leave. The visit with Pedro was as great as usual and involved his rapier-like delicious wines, epic sea bass and suckling pig, along with the constant feeling that Andrea and I may have found our Elysium on Earth. Ponte de Lima has become such a special place for us; the energy, the humility and kindness of its people, the landscape rich in trees and beautiful rock outcroppings, the ocean a fifteen minute drive away with the Spanish Galician border the same distance. Andrea and I have decided to move to Ponte de Lima after our one-year anniversary of living in Italy. In fact, we’re in the process of buying a house in the countryside (we won’t know for sure if it will be ours until June) and will be setting up our residence there for the foreseeable future. During our time there we invited Pedro, Andrew and JD to check out the place we are trying to buy. Pedro was skeptical before seeing it because he knows the land so well and what’s available out there, but once we arrived he went crazy for the place. It’s located up a ravine near an old monastery and sits out on a point all alone with exposed views on three sides. It’s a lot like Toro Canyon in Santa Barbara (for those who know the area) but with a Midwest U.S. country home price. We’ve fallen in love with it and hopefully the June deal will go our way. Our short trip with JD and Andrew ended at the Porto airport. They were headed to France to run the route over a couple of weeks in Chablis, Côte d’Or and Beaujolais. We spent Andrea’s birthday in Porto, a wonderful city in the middle of a full renaissance. When we were there the first time in 2014, they were selling abandoned apartments in Porto’s historic center for 1€ (no joke!) if you had the money to renovate it. I told Andrea that Portugal was the place to be and I’m even more convinced today. Now the city is full of life, color and people—in a very short time so much has happened in that city and the changes are welcome, except for the new busloads of tourists. A tip: If you ever stay there, try the Sheraton. They have the best spa facilities we’ve been to for a hotel in their range and the staff is extraordinarily gracious and attentive. Andrea and I headed south from there to visit some parts of Portugal we hadn’t already seen. First stop was the Alentejo region in a shockingly beautiful ancient roman city, Evora. I got a much-needed haircut but was treated to a monster of an allergy attack from all the surrounding grassland. Happy to leave because I could hardly breathe, we went south to Faro and stayed at a decent beachfront hotel on the ocean. The highlight there was the Portuguese hospitality and a great little lunch spot called Zé Maria. It served up a perfect beach day lunch because the food was simply prepared and not overdosed on anything, including the price—my whole grilled sea bream was only 15€. Sadly, they are only open for lunch otherwise we would’ve eaten there for every meal. The final stops on this leg were in Jerez and Cádiz, two places we were near but never made it to on our honeymoon. We went this time to meet a prospective producer, but our first stop was in Sanlúcar de Barrameda at one of Jerez’s legendary bodegas, Barbadillo, with Armando Der Guerrita. In our short time with Armando, he overflowed with enthusiasm about Jerez and the magical effect of the flor yeast, as well as his opportunity to work as the wine director of a new inside project for the bodega. Armando also owns a drinking hole, Taberna Guerrita, which comes highly recommended (though we didn’t make it there) and is apparently the place to go if you are a Jerez (Sherry) nut. He explained during our visit that in Jerez, it is all about the yeast and the bodega and its buildings, each with their own influence over the wines they house. I brought up certain estates where I know this to be true on the wine route, like Château Rayas, or many of the Burgundy domaines that carry a mark of their cellar as much as they do the hand of their maker. He looked at me and with a resounding response, he said, “yes, of course!” He’s a special guy and Jerez is lucky to have him. After a quick bite of Spanish seafood and vegetable tapas, we headed south to Cádiz. What a city! Surprisingly clean, it has stunning ancient architecture and a spectacularly modern San Francisco-like (toll free) bridge that Andrea would have simply refused to drive over if she was behind the wheel due to a slight phobia she’s recently developed with bridges. After a mix-up in scheduling, our visit with the producer we came to Jerez to see was given by one of the cellar hands, a gracious and young fourth-generation bodega employee (something you definitely don’t hear everyday). It seems Jerez is another one of those Spanish wine places overrun by importers on the hunt. There’s not much left to choose from, but the good news is that new young producers are on the rise. The challenge is the uphill battle for any mainstream market share because Jerez is not a typical wine and there is a lot of this unique wine produced. Many of the new upstarts are playing with non-traditional wines, like straightforward still white wines, from the same vineyards, which have a much greater chance of breaking into the mainstream. Despite being utterly different wines, I found Jerez to be some kind of mirror, or doppelganger, of Champagne in some ways. It has similar limestone bedrock and limestone rich topsoil, the topography is not so different with relatively flat landscape with undulating soft hill slopes and the juxtaposition of colorful farmland on the flat, non-vineyard areas, and a wine industry based around a unique wine style. They both take a lot of time in the cellar to develop their depth and are often blends of different vintages to bring more complexity and balance. It wasn’t so long ago that Champagne discovered its true talent for bubbles, which was first recorded in the early to mid-1500s; similarly, Jerez’s development of wines under flor yeast and the solera system apparently originated in the late 1700s in the humid climate of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The last similarity I will point out is that like Champagne, Jerez has a lot of work to do with regard to farming and boutique wine crafting. Indeed, Champagne is light years ahead of Jerez, but the output similarly remains vastly controlled by the big houses, as it does in Jerez. Most of the vineyards we drove by in Jerez were over cropped and showed obvious signs of chemical farming. The bodegas are huge industrial operations with staff managing their cellars who likely have no inputs or have anything to say about the wines, which we witnessed firsthand (excluding Armando, of course, who seems like the walking historian of Jerez)—in other words, they are the antithesis of boutique and are difficult to get behind as an importer who prefers to work with small growers that know great wine starts in the vineyard. I am not blind to the fact that with the low price of most Jerez wines that take a lot more time in the cellar to produce makes it difficult to justify more idealistic approaches in viticulture and detail work in the cellar and still make a profit. Once consumers are willing to pay the higher price for higher quality Jerez wines, it seems the doors will open for agricultural idealism to gain a solid foothold and the cellars will naturally improve where they can as well. It’s the same argument for a place like Saumur, France, which clearly has the weather, soil type and a great white grape (Chenin Blanc) to make truly compelling sparkling wines, but few are willing to pay the higher prices for a non-Champagne sparkling from a region that has churned out some pretty good bubbles at a modest price. So what’s the incentive for the producers to ignore the costs and go for the gold medal? During our chat with Armando, he made sure that we understood that the renaissance has begun with some tiny unknown producers, and that some of the larger bodegas are coming out of the of the smog of industrial times and seeing the potential of improved quality if attention is placed on the vineyards instead of only the cellar—what a concept! And that’s a wrap on a rookie perspective on Jerez. As we returned to Sevilla to fly back to Italy, we accidently found ourselves with six hours to spare literally in the middle of Sevilla’s big annual festival, called Feria, and what luck! Sevilla is one of the great cities of the world and to see this classy, familial, deeply cultural affair took our experience there to a totally different level. From there it was a short flight to Roma, where our luck continued when we found that all the national monuments and buildings were open and free for everyone for the day! We went to the Palatino and Colosseum and there were no lines… that would never happen any other day of the year. Is there any city in Europe that tops Roma in history and beauty? Not for me. Ciao.
Pedro Araujo (Portugal’s Peter Pan) is a special person. His family’s wine heritage found a new direction when his father and his grandfather (the famous Adrian Ramos Pinto) decided to sell their Port house, Ramos Pinto. It was always a dream of Pedro’s father to buy this special plot of land, the Quinta do Ameal, just north of Porto, in the Vinho Verde region. After the passing of Pedro’s father, the renaissance of this ancient property began. Until you see it for yourself, you cannot imagine the scope of detail and authenticity that has been put into recreating the past and merging it with today, in both design and spirit. Once you set foot on the property, it is clear without even the need to ask if the vineyards and the grounds are tended with an organic practice. which they are. The entire property is densely green with life. No matter where you roam, there are happy bugs circling the air that seem to be infused with Pedro’s boyish charm and lust for life. It is a place that you won’t want to leave once you are there.