Tuesday, 6 October 2015

When Zinfandel isn't Zinfandel

I am just about old enough to remember when it was officially declared in the mid-1990s that Zinfandel, California's most Californian grape, was the same as Italy's far less heralded Primitivo. This came as a blow to advocates of California wine: Zinfandel, grown throughout California since the nineteenth century, is, in its fruity, blowsy, unabashedly alcoholic way, California in a glass. In contrast, Primitivo comes from Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, a region whose reputation rests on producing fruity, alcoholic wines to be anonymously blended into those from other cooler parts of Italy. It was like saying that Zinfandel is, ultimately, only good for White Zin.

As ever, the truth is a little more complicated. The DNA fingerprinting that confirmed the connection between Zinfandel and Primitivo also showed that the two are actually non-identical twins, and that neither originates from Italy. Furthermore, despite the clear similarities between the two grapes, the wines taste distinctly different: Zinfandel remains very much its own Californian thing, as winemakers firmly appreciate.

how did Zinfandel end up in California?

There's still a lot of speculation about the origins and etymology of Zinfandel, and many of the discoveries about where it came from have only emerged in the last twenty years. But a narrative has emerged: in the 1820s, an American called George Gibbs imported cuttings from Europe and one of the varieties was probably what we now call Zinfandel - called Zanfandel and Zinfindel in New England (Zinfandel's name may be because the grape was misidentified as being called Tzinifándli, which is actually an obscure Hungarian white grape). He took it to Boston, where it was grown in greenhouses and used as a table grape. It's difficult to think of a climate less suitable to Zinfandel than cool, wintery New England. Rightly overlooked as a table grape, Zinfandel crossed continental America during the Gold Rush, settling in the Sierra Foothills where gold was first discovered and then around San Francisco. This is what I love about Zinfandel: its history in California begins at the same point that California's own history begins, with the influx of American and European immigrants into the state in search of sunshine and gold.

After its arrival in Napa and Sonoma in the 1850s, Zinfandel quickly became the most planted grape in California. The wines, though, were not the single-varietal wines Americans are now most familiar with; instead, the wines were field blends, made from a number of varieties planted in the same vineyard. Most important in these blends were Petite Sirah, still an important blending grape in Zinfandel wines, Carignan, and inferior varieties such as Alicante Bouschet. Some wineries still make these field blends: Acorn in Sonoma make a wine from over 60 varieties, while Ridge, one of California's greatest wineries, make some of the state's best Zinfandel from old-vine field blends.

so where did it come from?

Mike Grgich is one of California's most important winemakers, emigrating to the US from Croatia in the 1950s. Upon seeing and tasting Zinfandel, he immediately thought that it was the same as a Croatian grape he had grown up with called Plavac Mali. When it was discovered that Zinfandel and Primitivo were both clones of a different variety, he and others urged UC Davis researchers to see if he was right: they found that Plavac Mali was actually an off-spring of Zinfandel. Encouraged by that connection, they tested other Croatian grape varieties and found one that was both identical to Zinfandel and indigenous to Croatia: Crljenak Kaštelanski. At the time, in 2001, there were just nine vines of the variety left in Croatia, all growing wild. It really is very impressive that Grgich was able to identify the Croatian background of California's most individual grape, and that the researchers were able to find the Crljenak Kaštelanski variety before it went completely extinct.

the twentieth century, lest we forget

Old-Vine Zinfandel is now a term much seen on wine labels, first used in the late 1960s. There are many plantings throughout California, dating back to the 1880s particularly in Lodi and Sonoma, and it's amazing that these plantings still exist. California was hit by phylloxera in the 1890s, and then Prohibition. Vines of all varieties were ripped up in the 1920s, and replaced by Alicante Bouschet, a dark, intense, simple variety that home winemakers could make easily and claim to be wine.

After Prohibition and the Second World War, California slowly began to rebuild its wine industry, but Zinfandel was not the focus of that renaissance. It was seen as too old-fashioned, simple, and rustic, and French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon were preferred for the higher-quality wines that were redefining California's reputation around the world. As much as I abhor White Zinfandel, the popularity of that style in the 1980s allowed the old vines to survive. Zinfandel was then subject to another trend: hang-time, allowing the grapes to stay on the vine beyond normal ripening to maximise sugar levels and therefore alcohol. The strongest Zinfandel, a grape naturally high in alcohol, which I have tasted is 16.5%.

That's fortified wine. But California and Zinfandel don't care. Part of the 2005 EU-US trade agreement allowed California wines to label their wines above 15%, which is the legal cut-off point for wine in the EU. California creates its own rules, which the rest of the world is sometimes forced to follow.

where we are now

I've been here in California for 15 months now, and I've come to the firm conclusion that wines from Zinfandel are some of the most expressive that California has to offer. The alcohol in the wine is slowly getting into balance - 15% for Zinfandel is natural and balanced, if high - and the use of French and American oak adds structure. And the great strength of Zinfandel is the old vines; not that many places around the world have 130-year-old vines, which result in wines with an intense, concentrated joyfulness.

Zinfandel? or not Zinfandel?


Dubrovački Podrumi Crljenak 2012 ($27)

Croatia's vineyards are located near the Adriatic Sea, the cooling influence of which creates beautifully aromatic white wines and tannic reds. This maritime climate was apparent in the wine: the red fruits didn't have that alcoholic ripeness of Zinfandel and the palate had drying, rather than ripe tannins. Nevertheless, there was a rich complexity, with dried blueberries, prunes, paprika spices, cedar, and smoke, besides the red fruits. There was a subtle, difficult element to this wine, which emphasised just how Californian and upfront Zinfandel is, as did the 13.5% alcohol - there's few, if any, California Zins with this low alcohol nowadays. I don't like the terms "New World" and "Old World," as they simplify the complex variety of wines made around the world, but this was a case in point of how European wines can have such a different style from those made, for instance, here in California. ✪✪✪✪✪

Grgić Plavac Mali 2010 ($37)

As it's made by Mike Grgich himself, it's not surprising that this was a much fruitier and more Californian wine than the Crljenak. Plavac Mali is the grape that Grgich thought was Zinfandel, and he now makes a varietal wine from his native Croatia. The alcohol likewise was at Zinfandel levels, of 14.8%. Nevertheless, the fruits still weren't quite as jammy, and were much blacker. The wine too wasn't as spicy as either the Crljenak or a typical Zinfandel. I liked this wine, but I felt it could have benefited from being a little more Croatian and a little less Californian, as it fell somewhere in between. ✪✪✪✪


Tenute Rubino Punta Aquila Primitivo 2012 ($16.99)

Much more like a Zinfandel, with its ripe red and blue fruits, smoky nose, and spicy palate. Primitivo, as its name suggests, is an early ripener, more so than Zinfandel. This means that the fruits here weren't quite as richly jammy as Zinfandel's, though the alcohol was still high (14.5%). Interest in Primitivo has soared since its identification with Zinfandel, with lots of single-varietal wines being made in Puglia. This has drawn more attention to Puglia, where the wines are slowly getting better and better. Although this is a good thing, Primitivo isn't Puglia's best grape - it's traditionally been used for blending - and the increased number of Primitivo wines doesn't necessarily showcase the best that Puglia has to offer. ✪✪✪

The grape identified as the same as Zinfandel produced the wine most unlike it, while the two grapes which are closely related but slightly different were most like a California Zin. Which, ultimately, just goes to show that the climate, the soil, and the winemaker are just as important in how a wine tastes as the grape variety itself.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Winemaker and the Custom Crush

Back when I worked in Manchester for hangingditch wine merchants, one of our most popular wineries was Napa's Peter Franus. This was partly because my colleague Sophia Luckett adored the wines and would sell them to unassuming customers at any opportunity; she even hosted a winemakers' dinner in an underground, disused bank vault with Franus. The wines' popularity was also because of their forward, fruity style: these were wines that spoke loudly and clearly, true to their California origin.

Sophia visited Napa last week, exploring the genesis of some of the wines we once sold in the shop together. On her very last morning before braving the San Francisco traffic to get to the airport, we made something of a pilgrimage to visit Peter Franus's production facilities just a few miles north of Napa.

assistant winemaker Tim Dolven, Sophia, and Peter Franus

The experience was somewhat different from what we had been expecting. Rather than the romantic image of the winemaker slaving to make the perfect wine in dusty, dirty, ramshackle conditions that the name "Peter Franus" had evoked in far away Manchester, Franus makes his wine in a custom crush facility shared by forty other labels, together producing 400,000 cases a year. With his 4,500 cases, Franus is just a small cog in the machine, but the mechanical reality of winemaking was evident.

Peter Franus has been making wine for decades - he was winemaker at Mount Veeder winery from 1981 until 1992. He has had his own label since the late 1980s, but he has never had his own physical winery. He first used Mount Veeder's facilities, then others', before settling on Laird Family Estate in 2002, where he's still based.

Laird themselves make 25,000 cases a year, but their large and impressive facilities are mainly used for custom crush, an enterprise they established in 2001. Custom crush is a brilliant idea, mainly - I thought - used for amateur enthusiasts to make wine. It allows the latter to use the facilities of large, established operations without having to buy any of the equipment themselves, while drawing on the wineries' experience and expertise. They can be as active and involved in the winemaking process as they wish, or be completely hands-off and allow the winery to produce the wine for them.

Peter Franus isn't the first producer I've met who has used custom crush facilities at other wineries to make wine. Waits-Mast, an excellent producer of Sonoma and Mendocino Pinot Noir, first started making their wine this way, although they now have their own (shared) production facilities in San Francisco. What surprised me about Franus continuing to use a large operation like Laird's is the lack of control it affords him over the winemaking. Everything is done by Laird rather than Franus, albeit under his instructions: the pressing and crushing of the grapes, fermentation, any treatment of the wines in barrel, bottling. The only thing Franus has to take charge of is storing and selling the wines.

Does this make the wines less 'authentic'? Everything is still done as Peter Franus and his assistant winemaker Tim Dolven ask; he buys the grapes from his favoured vineyards around Napa; the wines are aged and blended as he wants; they are bottled under his label and taste recognisably his. Franus also follows the philosophy of intervening as little as possible in the development of a wine. I still find it difficult, however, to imagine many other serious winemakers willingly ceding so much control to such a large operation.

In the meantime, Peter Franus is becoming increasingly popular in a UK more attuned to California's wines - in fact, very little of his wine is sold locally. Compared to the extortionate prices many Napa wines fetch, they present very good value. We got to taste several of his wines, mainly from the barrel.

2015 Chardonnay

Still fermenting in its barrel and a little bit sweet and grapey. Even at this early stage, though, it was possible to sense its potential: there was already a bit of spiciness from the oak, with rich stone and tropical fruit flavours. The wine will also undergo some malolactic fermentation.

2014 and 2015 Albariño

It's very unusual to see Albariño in Napa Valley. The grapes are sourced from a vineyard just south of the city next to Highway 29, where it's not that far from the cooling maritime influence of San Pablo Bay. This allows the wine to maintain its acidity and gives it a saline quality that makes it surprisingly similar to those of wet Galicia, which Albariño is native to. Even though the still-fermenting 2015 was a little bit sweet, it was still possible to sense the stony, drying acidity that was more immediately apparent in the bottled 2014.

2014 and 2015 Zinfandel

From a vineyard on Mt. Veeder, these two wines had the rich fruitiness typical of the grape but with noticeable tannins from the cooler altitude. The 2015, again still fermenting in its stainless steel tank, tasted like acidic, fruity, tannic grape juice; the 2014, ageing in oak, now tasted like wine, and a very good one at that.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015


One of the great winemaking regions of the world is Tokaj. First mentioned in the fifteenth century, the wines are made in north-east Hungary near the Slovakian border. The area was the first to create rules to oversee the production of its wines, including on the use of manure. The most famous wines are sweet, but as I wrote in a blog late last year, there is considerable variety to the wines, with some extremely good dry wines being made from Tokaj's most important grape, Furmint.

Over the centuries, many different styles have emerged, from bone dry to the syrupy sweet Eszencia - at up to 600g/L of residual sugar, it was used as a medicinal in the nineteenth century. While I was studying for my Diploma Unit 3 exam, I became interested in one of the styles called Szamorodni, because it's aged under a film of yeast like a fino. I tracked down a bottle, but, as there was no chance of it being in my Diploma tasting exam, I only just got round to drinking it.


The grapes used for sweet Tokaji are dried, shrunken, and often botrytised, carefully picked very late in the harvest (historically, on the third hoeing). In contrast, grapes for Szamorodni are not specifically selected, instead being a mixture of healthy, shrivelled, and botrytised berries. Very popular in Poland in the early 1800s, Szamarodni means "as it comes off the vine" in Polish.   

Szamorodni can be made in both a dry (száraz in Hungarian) and a slightly sweet (édes) style. Although it has the same name, the dry style is quite different from the sweet. Dry Szamorodni is aged in cellars covered with a mould called Claspodorium cellare; it also has a layer of yeasts, which are native to the area, on top of it, protecting it from oxygen and other bacteria. Over the ageing period, alcohol evaporates from the wine without any water loss, meaning that the wine loses half a percent of alcohol. Unlike a fino, there is no fortification, although alcohol is naturally high (at around 14%) due to the sugar content in the shrivelled and botrytised grapes.

Samuel Tinon Szamorodni Száraz 2007 ($45.99; 500ml)

Samuel Tinon is a Frenchman who travelled all around the world - including Jerez and Jura, where similar wines to Szamorodni are made - before settling in Tokaj. The wine was aged on its lees for six months, before spending five years in small oak barrels. It's best served at cellar temperature, so refrigerate for 20-30 minutes before serving.

The oxidative nature of the wine could be smelt as soon as I opened the bottle: potent, nutty, and, for want of a better word, sherry-like. A light amber colour, on the palate it was richly textured, more like an amontillado than a fino, with baked apple and crème brûlée flavours. In fact, as the wine opened up, the aromas made me think of a just-developing palo cortado. The Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes also provide naturally nutty and spicy aromas, such as marzipan, all-spice, and paprika. A quite extraordinary wine: reminiscent of different styles of sherry, but with higher acidity and more aromatics from the grapes. ✪

with cheese

I tasted the Szamorodni with three different cheeses - manchego (thinking of the sherry connection), gouda, and English cheddar. I thought the rich, nutty texture of the wine would complement the manchego particularly well, but it may be that the two were both too dry together. Instead, it was the English cheddar - quite a simple one bought in a supermarket - that worked wonderfully with the wine: the crumbly creaminess of the cheese softened the nutty, oxidative wine while also soaking up the rich, creamy flavours.  

This Szamorodni was a complex, engaging wine that makes me want to seek out other examples. Despite being drawn to it by its similarities with fino, it was nevertheless something very individual. Aged in small oak barrels in mouldy cellars from grapes grown on volcanic soils, it was different both from the famous sweet wines of Tokaj and the classic wines of sherry. Expensive, unusual, and great with cheddar: my kind of wine.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Oregon: Confused but not Dazed

When I recently visited Jim Clendenen of Santa Barbara's Au Bon Climat, he described Oregon as the most confused place on the planet. As a fellow Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) producer, he found it hard to understand why so many producers were searching out difficult sites that result in low yields and, consequently, high-priced wine. The emphasis on difficult sites may produce individual wines with distinct character, but it makes it almost impossible for producers to run a commercially successful business, at least on a scale that allows their wines to be known out of the state.

Two years previously, I had visited Willamette Valley - Oregon's most important wine-producing area - and I understood what Clendenen meant. Many wineries were making expensive, single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, all of which were very good but at prices which were difficult to justify. I thought that Oregon producers needed to diversify the range of their wines to make them both more affordable and engaging. This week I attended a tasting of Oregon's wines in San Francisco called Pinot in the City, and I was interested to see just how Oregon had progressed in explaining itself to the outside world.

a little history

Oregon's winemaking history is young, beginning in the 1960s. The major protagonist in its development was David Lett, who died in 2008. He studied at UC Davis and decided, against his professors' advice, that Oregon was the best place to plant his favoured Alsace and Burgundy varieties. He planted Pinot Noir in the Dundee Hills - now the prime AVA for the grape - in 1965, establishing Eyrie Vineyards, still Oregon's best and most distinctive producer.

Sometime later, in 1979, his 1975 Pinot drew attention at a Paris tasting: Robert Drouhin of Burgundy was so impressed that he entered the same wine into a more formal tasting in Beaune the next year, where it came second only to Drouhin's own Burgundy red. Oregon, an obscure, Pacific state, was all of a sudden on the international map for Pinot Noir. Robert Drouhin took his admiration further, encouraging his daughter, Véronique, to work in Oregon after completing her oenology degree in Dijon in 1984. Three years later, Domaine Drouhin of Oregon was established with Véronique as the winemaker. That French backing further cemented Oregon’s reputation.

The last few years have seen an astonishing growth in the number of producers, including those from elsewhere in the US and France. Despite the growing industry, the state’s wineries remain very family-orientated: both a virtue and a vice.

Domaine Drouhin

Pinot Noir

As a cool-climate grape, Pinot Noir is not an obvious fit for the USA. California’s Pinots were until recently fruity, oaky, made like a light-coloured Cabernet, which is one of the reasons why David Lett and others decided Oregon was a better fit for the grape. The cool, and often wet climate certainly suits Pinot Noir, and it now dominates plantings. Of all the New World Pinot Noir regions, Oregon is the one that produces wines most similar to Burgundy: high acidity, lightly ripe red fruits, with earthy game flavours even in the younger wines. However, I am not sure that Oregon producers have the confidence to allow the grape to speak for itself: many of the wines I tasted at Pinot in the City were aged in 40% new French oak. In some cases, this use of oak was well integrated, but in many the oak was too obvious, resulting in over-aggressive, spicy flavours. Oregon’s coolness and its variety of soils don’t necessarily need that much intervention.

Nevertheless, I drew two positive conclusions from the tasting. The quality of the Pinot Noirs was consistently high, even if too much oak was being used. Moreover, although Oregon is a young wine region, enough producers go back long enough to demonstrate the longstanding quality and substance of the state's Pinots. I tasted several library wines, dating back to the 1990s (including a giant 1994 Methusalem). The spicy game I encountered in the younger wines had matured into a measured, animal earthiness, with both red and black fruits fresh enough to make the wines still immediate and appealing. It may well be that Oregon's Pinots are, rather like Burgundy's, best laid down than drunk young.

Pinot Noir at Adelsheim (2013)

other grapes

Nearly two-thirds of Oregon's grapes are Pinot Noir. No other major wine region has such a dependency on one variety - only New Zealand with its Sauvignon Blanc comes close. Where there's Pinot, there should be Chardonnay, but Oregon has a chequered history with the grape. Chardonnay clones more suited to California were initially planted so that most producers became convinced that the grape could not succeed there. One exception to this was David Lett, who planted his own cuttings taken from European vines planted in the 1930s: Eyrie's Chardonnays are still some of the best, ageworthy, and unique white wines from anywhere in the USA.

In the early 1990s, the French came up with an answer for Oregon's Chardonnay issue: clones of the grape taken from Burgundy, popularly called Dijon Clones, which were much more suitable to Oregon's climate. Scarred by their experience with Chardonnay, too few producers take advantage of these clones, but those that do make exceptional Chardonnays, with crisp, dry acidity and an almost raw texture. I believe that Chardonnay offers an alternative future for Oregon but only a handful of producers seem to dare to share that vision. I don't like to encourage yet more wines from such a ubiquitous grape, but Oregon has the potential to make Chardonnays that can compete with the world's best. Adelsheim, one of Oregon’s older producers, Domaine Drouhin, and Bergström are wineries that demonstrate the potential in the state.

I tasted more white wines than I was expecting at Pinot in the City. Many of them were Alsace grapes, with Chenin Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, and Viognier thrown in. Although producers are focusing on cool-climate grapes, for such a young region there needs to be a focus on one or two white grapes which sum up the state. With Pinot Noir, that’s how Oregon has come to be known around the world. Chardonnay fits the bill as a recognisable white grape that consumers can identify with, but so does Riesling. This is a grape that the US struggles with, but Oregon's cool, long growing season should be ideal for the grape, making the state's stand out from the rest of the country. At Pinot in the City, only one producer brought a Riesling; another, Chehalem, which makes excellent examples, brought a Grüner Veltliner instead.

There is also another side to Oregon that is rarely tasted outside the state. Cool, wet Columbia Gorge is an AVA shared with Washington, not that far from Portland but further inland - and one that Washington winemakers seem to use and understand better than Oregon’s. As Oregon reaches further from the ocean it becomes desert-like, sharing more AVAs with Washington (particularly Walla Walla and The Rocks District, which is entirely within Oregon but also entirely within Walla Walla, one of Washington’s best-known AVAs) and Idaho. To the south of the Willamette Valley, towards the dry heat of California, are more wine-producing areas, where Syrah and Spanish grapes like Tempranillo and Albariño are of interest. These AVAs are little known outside the state, and remain relatively underdeveloped.

the future

It's both perverse and arrogant of me to predict the future of the wines of a state I haven't visited in two years, or to offer advice. But Oregon is such a distinctive state, producing wines like nowhere else in the USA, that it could offer a more vibrant, varied, and challenging selection of wines than it currently does. My advice, for what it's worth, is:
  • use less new oak for Pinot Noir
  • make more good-value, friendly, yet still quality Pinot Noir
  • concentrate more on Chardonnay
  • experiment with Riesling for further variation
  • for the time being, forget all other white grapes, especially Pinots Gris and Blanc
  • start marketing the wines properly
  • what about the rest of Oregon? Washington seems to understand its shared AVAs more, while the south of Oregon is overlooked. Get those wines into the market, as they may represent better value and give more variety.
Oregon needs to get over its Pinot Noir obsession, even though it produces such good, international quality versions of the grape. It needs to back up those wines with variety and choice. Rather than making wines for their own pleasure, Oregon needs to think about a much wider audience.

tasting highlights

Adelsheim Caitlin's Reserve Chardonnay 2013 ($45) ✪✪✪✪✪
Belle Pente Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 ($48) ✪✪✪✪✪ and 2004 ✪✪✪✪✪
Bergström Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 ($85) ✪✪✪✪✪
Chehalem Reserve Pinot Noir 1994 (magnum) ✪✪✪✪
Domaine Drouhin Arthur Chardonnay 2013 ($35) ✪✪✪✪
Erath Pommard Clone Prince Hill Vineyard 2009 ✪✪✪✪✪
Yamhill Valley Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir 1994 (Methusalem) ✪✪✪✪

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Savage Grace

On my last trip to Washington in March, I visited many of the state's AVAs and tasted many great wines, with the further good fortune of meeting the makers of those wines. One winemaker in particular stood out, for his wines seemed both typical and atypical of Washington. The wines of Savage Grace have astonishingly high acidity - a characteristic I associate with the cool nights of Washington - but their fruit profile is much more restrained and reserved than much of the other wine I've tasted from the state. In March, I tasted his Sauvignon Blanc - which has an acidity I've rarely tasted outside the Loire Valley - Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc - the latter two wines being among the highlights of the trip. So when last weekend I returned to Seattle to visit my good friend Matt Hemeyer of @drinkaddition, I made sure that I visited winemaker Michael Savage in his tasting room in Woodinville.


With hazy smoke drifting from Washington's forest fires on a warm Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere was warm and oppressive. I was also slightly hungover, the clanging in my head augmented by an outdoor pub-punk-metal band playing a block away from Woodinville's tasting rooms. These rooms are on an industrial estate, with dozens and dozens of sandwich boards pointing hopefully from the car park to a series of anonymous units. In the car park, there was a tour bus and a limousine, out of which staggered a high-heeled bachelorette party, as if they'd taken a very bad wrong turn from Napa. We wandered through the estate looking for a sandwich board to point us in the right direction, until we finally found Savage Grace, the estate's very last tasting room.

the tasting room experience

I really wasn't expecting to find Michael Savage, quiet and diffident, in the middle of an industrial estate visited by tour buses and bachelorette parties. Even though he's at the end of the estate, one of each came in while we were there, and he dealt with them nervously but efficiently. The tasting room is small, an industrial unit very tastefully converted into an intimate, stylish area.

Woodinville serves as a base for many wineries who source their grapes from distant, desolate eastern Washington. Like many other industrial tasting rooms, the wine is made on site, a tiny 'cellar' right next to the tasting experience. Michael took us into the cellar to show us the Sauvignon Blanc that had just been picked two days previously. He was ready to pour cultivated yeast into the tank - he described how he had experimented with native yeasts for Sauvignon Blanc and believed it made an inferior wine - and gave my friend Matt the opportunity to do it for himself. We all await with baited breath to see how the 2015 Sauvignon turns out: Michael thinks it will be bottled in February.


Michael Savage

Nervous, shy, and awkward, Michael Savage is not dissimilar to a quieter Woody Allen. Every question is received with a long pause as he considers the several different answers he could give. The answer he eventually decides to share is not likely to be the one expected, and it can take a while to follow his train of thought. Each answer takes a certain direction, however: his very particular take on how he thinks wine should be made and how he makes it.

Acidity is absolutely important. He picks his grapes earlier than anyone else does in the same vineyard, resulting not only in high acidity but wines with a very subtle, less fruity nature. He also chooses vineyards and growing regions that are cool, particularly Columbia Gorge, a wet AVA that straddles Washington and Oregon. The wines are generally released very young, giving the wines a raw just out of the barrel feel. This gives consumers the rare chance to taste quality, young wine near the beginning of its life. Although Michael is only into his fifth vintage with Savage Grace, the acidity and complexity of the wines offer definite ageing potential. Michael says he doesn't care when people drink his wines, though, just as long as they drink them.

the wines

just-picked Sauvignon Blanc
Having tasted eleven of his wines over the weekend, I just want to highlight some of my favourites.

Grüner Veltliner 2014 ($20)

Grüner Veltliner is a late-ripening grape with naturally high acidity (the grapes were picked in early and then late October), not always suited to the warmer climates of the US. Like many of the Savage Grace wines, the grapes come from Columbia Gorge's Underwood vineyard, the cool climate allowing a slow ripening of the grapes. This Grüner has typically floral and spicy notes of jasmine, ginger, and white pepper, with lightly tropical fruits. ✪✪✪✪✪

Chardonnay 2013 ($30)

I have written about this wine before, and I still think it's an exceptional example of a cool-climate Chardonnay not often found in the US. It's again from Columbia Gorge, though from Celilo vineyard, considered one of Washington's finest for Chardonnay. Grapes picked from the higher part of the vineyard give the wine its bracing acidity and are aged in tank, while those from the lower part are picked earlier, are aged in neutral barrel, and lend the wine its lightly spicy, cinnamon, and lime flavours. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Cabernet Franc 2014 ($26)

Another wine I have written about before, and the one that I think is truly outstanding. To taste a red wine this young yet complex is very rare, with firm tannins, red fruits, and green, padrone pepper, rhubarb aromas. Michael told me that he accidentally aged a couple of the bottles in the warm back of his car for a couple of months. On opening the bottles, the wines tasted just as good but as if they were a year older, convincing him that this Cabernet Franc has great ageing potential. I suggested he should make a Madeira out of the grape in the future. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

From Red Willow vineyard - one of Washington's greatest - this Cabernet has only just been bottled. It may seem a surprise that Michael should be making wine from a grape as bold as Cabernet, but the wine is quite different from most. Despite being so young, there are gamey, animal aromas, with intense black fruits and gripping but not dominant tannins. This is a restrained, yet intense Cabernet Sauvignon that's difficult to classify - its experimental nature is emphasised further as it's made from a new clone planted in the vineyard. ✪✪✪✪✪

Riesling 2013

The Seattle Times named this Riesling as the best Washington white of the year, and it's sadly already sold out. Michael described the wine as having a magical quality that he couldn't define. The grapes hung longer than they normally do, but still had a higher than usual acidity which is able to balance the residual sugar in the wine (29g/L). There's a wonderful complexity, with smoke, petrol, mineral aromas, together with lemon, lime, and orange blossom, given further depth by a honeyed sweetness. Once again, the grapes are from Underwood vineyard, where late ripening can cause issues: the terraces are so steep that the seventy-something vineyard owner can't access them on his tractor come wet November. He even once overturned the tractor trying to do so. Even Michael Savage's search for perfectionism falls short of asking the grower to do that again. ✪✪✪✪✪✪