The traveling would be far and wide to visit the three makers of white wine in this month’s holiday 2015 club box. Why not start in Santa Barbara County, where people like Bob Lindquist and Jim Clendenen, who have been plying their trade their for decades, continue to deliver many of California’s best wines at astonishing prices. Otherwise known for his Au Bon Climat wines, here Clendenen is represented (not for the first time) by his boutique family label Clendenen Family Vineyards, and the 2013 Chardonnay ‘Pip.’ ($25)
This wine is made from fruit sourced from young vines at Jim’s flagship vineyard, called ‘Le Bon Climat,’ and as we have come to expect from him, it reminds us that California chardonnay need not be 1) overly rich, nor 2) overly richly priced—in order to be delicious, balanced, terrific with food. From Santa Barbara to the Mediterranean coast of Corsica, the Abbatucci family has been around for centuries and their vineyards for decades. The 2014 Ajaccio Blanc ‘Cuvee Faustine’ ($32), comprised entirely of the Italian coastal grape vermentino, comes from 40 year-old vines that were planted by Jean-Charles Abbatucci’s father Antoine in an effort to retain some of the island’s viticultural history. Vermentino is often associated in the wine world with the sea—it is almost always planted somewhat proximate to the coast—and it’s hard to imagine a bottling being more expressive of salinity and briny citrus than this one. To the northeast of Corsica by about 800 miles, in the western end of Austria’s famed Wachau valley, lies the world-famous winery of Franz Hirtzberger. Synonymous with the very upper echelon of Austrian winemaking, Hirtzberger has been setting the bar for top gruner veltliners and rieslings since he assumed control of his family’s winery in the early 1980’s. These are wines so good that they could be included in every wine club box, but the 2013 Gruner Federspiel ‘Rotes Tor’ ($35) forced our hand because of the extraordinary 2013 vintage in Germany and Austria. The Rotes Tor vineyard sits in a cool spot above the Danube river in the Wachau, and was an irresistible choice to show off the blazing acidity and complexity of these wines and this vintage.
Somewhat more geographically concise are the red selections—nothing here but California and France. I would be remiss if I didn’t lead the red section by introducing our first-ever Heirloom wine, which is the first wine made under our own label: Ringer. The Ringer concept is something I’ve considered for years, and was conceived as way to bring special one-offs from top winemakers to our guests when they become available. Ringer #1 ($26), the inaugural Ringer, was made by Bob Lindquist with fruit from his biodynamic vineyard outside San Luis Obispo called Sawyer-Lindquist. It is 100% syrah from the terrific 2012 vintage, we are deeply proud of it, and what’s more, have high hopes for what this ‘little’ wine will turn into in five or ten years. And while I’m on the subject of aging: herein also lies a wine perhaps more ageworthy than any other that has ever appeared in these boxes: the 2010 Bandol from Chateau Pradeaux ($40). Not a terrible idea to taste this wine now, at the infantile age of five, but it would be quite a safe bet to like this wine’s chances in 2030 or beyond, assuming proper storage. Bandol, the most famous appellation in southern France’s Languedoc region, is itself somewhat famously long lived, and Chateau Pradeaux, managed by the Portalis family since…1752, might well be the greatest producer of the zone. Typically comprised almost entirely of the grape mourvedre, Pradeaux rouge is always severely tannic in its youth and dark as a night in the country, and maybe the greatest ageworthy wine in the world for the money. Not to be underestimated in the aging department is a wine on the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from the Pradeaux—the 2010 Mercurey 1er Cru ‘Veleys,’ from Domaine Meix Foulot ($40). I was introduced to this wine at a dinner with Neal Rosenthal several months ago at which he brought out a magnum of the 1990 version. Stunned I was, to say the least, by the staying power and majesty of this supremely elegant pinot noir from the southern tip of Burgundy. With a vintage like 2010 available until very recently, we bought a few magnums ourselves. In the end, Neal himself would say, it’s not the brawn that makes a great old wine but the balance.
What a terrific grape chardonnay is, how much we love the best white Burgundies and great California chardonnays, and how refreshing it is to assemble a club box without even one wine made from it. The domestic non-chardonnay entrant to this month’s holiday 2015 box is, no kidding, the greatest domestic viognier I have ever tasted. Some of you may have heard of a man named Stephen Singer, who was married to Alice Waters and was the proprietor of a famous North Beach wine shop called Singer and Foy, and who some years ago decamped to Sonoma to grow olives and wine grapes under a label called Baker Lane. I have been impressed by his pinot noirs and syrahs for years, and had never tasted a viognier, perhaps because fifty cases of it are produced each year. This 2014 Viognier ‘Estate’ ($45) amazed me, full of the subtlety one finds in the best French viogniers and also with an unmistakably California girth. The other two whites here for me presented an irresistible opportunity to compare and contrast. News from the 2013 vintage in Austria and Germany began to trickle in months ago, and our first exposure to it was the arrival of the 2013 wines from Klaus-Peter Keller in Germany’s Rheinhessen region. Just as advertised, Keller’s ‘13’s exhibited depth and blazing acidity that I think could rightly be called monumental—white wines for the ages. When I had the chance to buy a small number of bottles from two more of the wider region’s greatest winemakers I jumped at it. Included here is the 2013 Riesling ‘Reserve,’ ($54) from the Boxler family in Alsace, and Franz Hirtzberger’s 2013 Gruner Veltliner Smaragd ‘Rotes Tor.’ ($55) Wines from the small family-run Boxler domaine near France’s border with Germany are always among the area’s finest, and particularly remarkable for their acidity and minerality, which are not always found in white wines from Alsace. The Hirtzberger name is synonymous with the great wines of the Wachau valley in Austria, and with the production of some of the best gruner veltliners and rieslings in the world. Hirtzberger’s American importer Peter Weygandt told me once that what distinguishes the wines for him, apart from the quality of the farming and the situation of the vineyards, is Hirtzberger’s resistance to extended skin contact, and his devotion to what he thinks of as a purer, crystalline expression of these grape varieties.
Considerably more difficult to offer here any sort of common context for the reds, not least because it’s a long way between the famous Hirsch vineyard on the Sonoma Coast and…Greece. I’m sad to say, this 2012 Pinot Noir ‘Hirsch,’ Lioco ($56) is the last Lioco bottling from David Hirsch’s spectacular, Pacific-perched vineyard near Fort Ross, and maybe the great winemaker John Raytek’s last crack at it. In addition to the work on his own Ceritas wines, Raytek has been the winemaker at Lioco for three years, and has imbued those wines with the same expert touch and grace found in his Ceritas bottlings. Lioco’s contract with Hirsch has concluded, and so it may be the last time John works with this particular patch of hallowed land. What Nerantzi Mitropoulos intends in Macedonia I haven’t the faintest idea. But I will tell you that this 2010 wine he has made with a grape called Koniaros—nothing more than the only wine, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, made from this grape in the whole world, seems to me to be exceptionally good. Needless to say, I had never heard of the koniaros grape until this wine arrived at the restaurant courtesy of an old friend in the wine trade. Does it taste something like syrah? It did to me. It’s pretty rare indeed that I taste something entirely new and obviously great—and the truth is that for years I thought Greek wines really didn’t have it. This 2010 Koniaros, Nerantzi ($60) made me change my mind. And all of that happened before my friend told me that Nerantzi’s wife hand paints EACH one of these bottles while she sits on the couch at night. What. If you happen to be on your way to Macedonia to visit Nerantzi Mitropoulos you might think to stop in Tuscany, where there might be a few remaining bottles of 2010 Brunello di Montalcino ($60) from La Torre at the local bar. 2010 is fast entering the pantheon of great vintages (2001, 1996, 1990, 1982) in Tuscany, and I couldn’t help but include some of our slight allocation here. Built to last, and mesmerizingly good already.