Inside Source

This is a collection of posts from various sources.

Itata grapes and rocks

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.

Group sitting at Leo's Shed

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 in the Itata Valley 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.

Granitico and Volcanico reds

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?!”

Pedro thinking about Leo's wines

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.

Itata Valley

June Edition: An Exploration of Pinot Noirs from Cooler-Climates.

June 1, 2017

Welcome to the June club, which features three wines from three producers. The wines have many differences, but, more crucially, they have a few things in common. This month’s exploration is perhaps a bit less technical than in past clubs, but it’s no less interesting. Best of all, the wines are delightful.

Actually, “delightful” may be too limiting, perhaps depriving these wines of some depth and gravitas. While no one would characterize them as “monumental” or “colossal,” their intricacies perhaps exceed “delightful.” This is all indicative of the contortions we often find ourselves in when contemplating this month’s theme, Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir Vines in Sancerre

A grape that defies easy categorization, can produce a dizzying multitude of styles, and boasts a genome more complex than our own, Pinot Noir eludes characterization when it produces even simple wines.

A grape that defies easy categorization, can produce a dizzying multitude of styles, and boasts a genome more complex than our own, Pinot Noir eludes characterization when it produces even simple wines. The beauty of its greater wines, rather, lies in their ability to integrate seemingly opposite forces: structure and suppleness, depth and buoyancy, gravity and delight. This month’s wines straddle that divide. More specifically, we’re drinking three Pinot Noirs from cool-climates. Technically all great Pinot regions are cool, but the ones featured today are outside the epicenter of the Pinot world, the Côte d’Or. They’re satellite areas or neighboring regions lacking the Côte d’Or’s perfect Pinot conditions. Today, attention is warranted for these lesser known Pinot zones, which have for centuries been afterthoughts, because, in the era of climate change, they may soon have more to say. So, on to the wines (in no particular order).
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Itata Valley Chile

 

“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.”

Granite Soil Itata Valley
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The May edition of the Inside Source Club, featured bottles from one of our true heroes of wine, Arnaud Lambert. It’s difficult to write about Arnaud without eliciting chuckles, because after just a few words one begins to sound ridiculous. He’s young. He’s talented. He’s hardworking. Thoughtful. Focused. Studious. Committed. Charming. You get the picture. Seriously, the guy is a dream, and we at The Source feel incredibly fortunate to be working with him. Oh, and, as you’ll taste, his wines are knockouts too.

Though all the wines in May’s shipment come from the hand of Arnaud, the theme wasn’t to showcase the hand of the winemaker. It was to talk about terroir, specifically how limestone expression is mediated by the presence of sand and clay. Indeed, we can approach Arnaud’s winemaking here as a control factor, an element we can now remove from the equation to better examine the differences in terroir between a handful of sites.

But first, let’s complete the portrait of Arnaud, because he’s someone you should know. In 1996 Arnaud’s father Yves, a banker, began Domaine de Saint-Just in the Saumur region of the Loire (more on this below). Freshly returned from winemaking studies in Bordeaux, Arnaud joined him in 2005. They also made a deal with the Comte of the nearby (and spectacular) Château de Brézé to farm his vineyards and market the wine. Hence the two labels you see today, Domaine de Saint-Just and Château de Brézé (one day we hope both labels may be consolidated under one brand). Yves died unexpectedly and tragically in 2011, leaving the estate under the control of Arnaud. Arnaud had already begun the conversion of their vineyards to organic farming in 2009, work he continues today. It’s a long and assiduous process, as the soils in this region had been decimated by fifty years of chemical farming. Only in the last few years has Arnaud begun to see the reappearance of real verve in his soils.
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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.”

This was that stone that looked like a hard granite but was easily bent in half

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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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April Edition: An Study on Chablis and its Soil.

April 1, 2017

Welcome to the April edition of the club! This month we have wines and a theme that are not only near and dear to our heart, the wines and theme are near and dear to each other. That is, the wines are Chablis, and the theme is rocks. If there’s a wine that appears to more transparently regard its soils than Chablis, we have yet to find it.

Soil in Chablis

If there’s a wine that appears to more transparently regard its soils than Chablis, we have yet to find it.

It’s always interesting to compare Chablis from different vineyards, so this month we’re keeping our focus tight by examining two distinct Premier Cru vineyards, while keeping the vintage and producer the same. Specifically, the two vineyards highlight a different texture in rock—one is harder, the other softer. But first, a word on Chablis…

Forgive the editorializing, but if you’re not drinking a ton of Chablis these days, you’re missing out. It’s Chardonnay. It’s Burgundy. It’s dry, racy and piercing, but with some lemony flesh to give it substance. It’s still way undervalued. And it’s always delicious and appropriate, whether as an aperitif or with so much of what we eat, especially now as we move into spring and summer vegetables.

Summer Vegetables
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Zucchini pasta

October 10, 2016

zucchini
The two prevailing names for zucchini suggest a split personality. The Italian name, which we obviously employ in the U.S. too, Zucchini, is a sort of silly word that sounds a bit like a clown who performs at kids’ birthday parties. (Oh, yes, there it is: http://www.zucchinibrothers.com/ ) On the other hand, the name favored by the French and English, Courgette, sounds gallant, like a courageous corvette or cougar with jets.

Given this pointed discrepancy, I see two prevailing attitudes toward this summer squash: those who esteem and admire it (the courgettes) and those who are uninspired and go out of their way to avoid it (the zooks). Well, I’ve been a fairly vocal member of the latter group for most of my life. Outside of ratatouille and a dish I was once saw a recipe for but failed in my attempt to produce it (sun-dried zucchini), I just don’t see the point. At best its flavor is extremely mild, poised somewhere between faintly bitter and sweet. At worst, it’s insipid, with no flavor at all and a slimy, mushy texture. So what gives?

antonio
So the other night I learned a much more compelling approach from an Italian chef, who was inspired to become a chef in part because of this dish. Zucchini, stand up and be proud. The zucchini hero was Antonio Giordano. During his eight years as chef of Terroni in Los Angeles, he earned raves for his perfect pizzas and meticulously handmade pastas. He recently quit to prepare to open his own restaurant, which will also be in Los Angeles.

onion
The dish is sometimes called Spaghetti alla Nerano for the town that inspired it on the Sorrentine Peninsula of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where Antonio grew up. The story is that the dish was invented by Maria Grazia in 1952 in her eponymous restaurant in Nerano. With its azure waters, resplendent beaches, and towering cliffs to the sea, the Amalfi Coast is one of the most spectacular areas of Italy. But before its towns like Positano became popular with jet-setting Hollywood celebrities (Bogie, Sinatra) in the fifties and sixties, it was poor region. For summertime tourist traffic, the area is remote—its snaking roads cling to incredibly narrow, vertiginous cliffs that make for punishingly long journeys into the population centers. Instead of a steady stream of commerce, these spectacular cliff side villages had to rely on the fishing trade and carving narrow terraces out of the cliffs to establish flat spaces on which to grow produce and grapes. This Zucchini Spaghetti, an incredibly simple, but soulful dish is from the simple, powerful cuisine of necessity.
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