Jean Vullien Savoie Chardonnay (organic)
dancing crow Sauvignon Blanc (SustainablE)
Azul y garanza rosado (organic, biodynamic)
Lorelle Pinot Noir (sustainable)
pfneisl zweigelt (Organic)
Scaia Rosso (organic)
Jean vuillien chardonnay (Organic)
The eastern French region of the Savoie is one of the most exciting wine regions on the planet, and it’s near the top of my must-see places to go once we can get on airplanes and visit other countries again.
Savoie is blessed —a cool mountain climate on a warming planet, and about as idyllic a place to grow and make wine as one could ask for. Known more for skiing and other outdoor pursuits, the Savoie is not so well known as a wine-producing area, though within the area known as the Combe de Savoie, there are a handful of the best producers.
With little-known grape varieties such as Jacquère, Mondeuse, and Altesse nestling alongside Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay, the world of Savoie wines begs to be explored. I was astonished at the quality of Jean Vullien’s wines, especially when compared to most other producers in the area.
How were they producing such high-quality, clean and fresh wines when so many others clearly couldn’t? It transpired that Jean Vullien learned viticulture in his native Bordeaux and his two sons, David and Olivier graduated at the renowned wine college, La Viti in Beaune.
The region’s best comes from a boomerang-shaped string of hillside villages between Grenoble and Albertville (site of the 1992 Winter Olympics) called the Combe de Savoie (Combe is a word of Celtic origin meaning a sharp, deep valley). Jean Vullien and his two sons, David and Olivier, tend 69 acres on the Combe in the villages of Chignin, Montmélian, Arbin, St-Jean de la Porte, and their hometown of Fréterive.
The domain’s holdings include all of the region’s indigenous grape varieties, as well as strategically-placed parcels of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wines range from a crisp, lemon and mineral Jacquère-based white that British wine author Andrew Jefford would categorize as “Muscadet of the Alps” to complex floral and spiced reds made from Mondeuse. In recent years, David and Olivier have also earned a reputation for their excellent Méthode Traditionelle sparkling wines. Though the Vulliens have been making wine for 40 years, the family is perhaps best known as a leader in another segment of the wine industry.
Since 1890, Vullien Pépinière Viticole (vine nursery) has been supplying young vines to growers throughout France. In fact, they were the source for about 25% of the Chardonnay planted in Chablis after the ravages of phylloxera.
Climatically, the Savoie is more challenged than many other wine-producing areas of France, hence the different native grape varieties. Jacquère, which is widely available, drinks like a dry Sauvignon Blanc and is superb with shellfish and seafood. Gamay, which is the principal variety of Beaujolais, is comfortable in this slightly cooler climate too. They are succulent, light and full of fruit with the Gamay Rose airing more on the side of a dry rose. Both work extremely well with Savioe dishes such as raclette, tartiflette, tarte flambee (flammekueche), and cheese fondues.
The prestige bottling is fermented and aged in stainless, and goes through full malo for a rich mouthfeel. A perfect complement for fish and fatty foods, this highly aromatic Chard is perfect with fish and chicken.
Dancing Crow Sauvignon Blanc (sustainable)
Tony Cartlidge is one of my favorite California Wine personalities. He’s a British transplant with an outsize personality, a memory like a steel trap, and a kind word for everyone.
He founded Associated Distributors in the ’80s and was the first one to bring in Jorge Ordoñez’s imported Spanish wines into California. He founded Cartlidge and Brown winery around the same time, gaining placements in nearly every independent wine retailer and fine dining restaurant in Northern California. (We carried his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for many, many years.
Associated was sold to a larger house, and eventually Cartlidge and Brown collapsed. Tony’s not one to sit idly by, so he started, along with his son Stefan, Dancing Crows, a Lake County-based winery that makes just two wines – a Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet (both are on the shelves).
His Sauvignon Blanc is textbook for a crisp and clean CA Sauv Blanc. Visiting Europe? Stop in at Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris or the Groucho Club in London and order this month’s bargain selection! Yes, an American wine beloved abroad. It’s all because Tony Cartlidge’s vineyard yields a unique style of Sauvignon Blanc—lower alcohol, yet possessing the flavor concentration of a California wine and the elegance of a Sancerre.
Winery notes: “The 2019 Dancing Crow Sauvignon Blanc offers aromas of yellow peach, basil, and guava. The palate has an invigorating, fresh texture, showcasing flavors of pear, lemongrass and crisp green apple, followed by a hint of lime rind on the lengthy, bright, full-flavored finish. The grapes were picked on August 27th at 21.5 Brix creating a subtle wine with full flavor at just 12.5% alcohol – a unique Sancerre-style experience in the New World..”
Here’s a review by the Wine Enthusiast : Lively fruit flavors and light accents of baking spices give this light-bodied wine an attractive profile, as crisp acidity livens the mouthfeel in an appetizing way.
Azul y Garanza Rosado (Organic)
The Azul y Garanza vineyards begin in the lunar landscape of Bardenas Reales Natural Park, the largest desert in Europe.
Founders Dani Sánchez and María Barrena (and Maria’s brother Fernando) work with “landscapes” – not merely vineyards – with each of their plots enjoying as much biological diversity as this harsh climate will allow. The surrounding plants, shrubs, trees, and animal/insect life play as much a part to the success of the grapes as the vines themselves.
Winemaking is quite natural – the widespread, almost exclusive use of concrete vats, natural yeasts and gentle hands. Shallow, clay-traced soils, with minimal water, and irregular, almost non-existent rainfall, as well as extreme contrasts in temperature between day and night.
Due to these singular geoclimatic conditions, the vines offer a naturally low production of small grapes that have a high concentration and a perfect equilibrium. Dani and María are passionate about organic farming and have additionally invested in farming their vineyards 100% organically, without the use of pesticides, insecticides, or chemical fertilizers that wear out the soil.
100% Garnacha from the vineyards of Murillo & San Isidro del Pinar, located just northwest of the Bardenas Reales. Certified organic and handpicked grapes from vines that are an average age of 15 years old on clay-calcareous at 400 meters. The grapes undergo a 16 day, wild yeast fermentation in concrete tank followed by brief aging in stainless steel until bottling and release.
A lively pink color with aromas of red fruits and floral notes. On the palate, you will find strawberry and rose hip flavors with a hint of blood orange. Clean, and crisp with excellent acidity – harmonious and persistent.
Pale peach color hints at a dry yet aromatically fulfilling wine. Aromas of Alpine strawberry, fresh plum and honeydew melon are accented by an exotic note of cardamom. On the palate, fresh yellow plum and strawberry fruits are enlivened by brisk mineral and savory flavors of fresh thyme. The finish offers a refreshing dry mineral sensation that is lifted by hints of garden herbs. This is an enthralling wine of great complexity that is refreshing and fun to drink.
Previous Vintage Review, 90 points, Vinous: Limpid orange. Fresh red berries, orange pith and a hint of pungent flowers on the highly fragrant nose. Juicy and light on its feet, offering vibrant pomegranate, strawberry and blood orange flavors that are complemented by a touch of candied rose. Finishes silky, focused and quite long, leaving sappy red berry and floral notes behind. It’s really thoughtful of the importer to provide this wine in a convenient, single-serving liter bottle.
Lorelle Pinot Noir (sustainable)
You are more likely to find Bigfoot in your local wine store than a $15.99 bottle of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir that actually tastes good. John Albin is well known for his winemaking at King Estate Winery and for the wines he made under his own J. Albin label, but his Lorelle is a bit of a secret, even in Oregon.
The Lorelle isn’t complicated, but it is the kind of quaffable “everyday” wine we’re always looking to present to our club members. Best of all, it tastes even better with a light chill. Straight out of the refrigerator Lorelle has this intriguing aromatic combination of caramel and blackcurrants. If you toast a marshmallow and dip it in blackcurrant preserves, you’ll know precisely what the Lorelle smells like. The palate shows off chewy tannins, muted acidity, and dark raspberry and toffee flavors.
The fruit from this bottling comes mainly from two sustainably farmed Wilamette vinytards – Laurel and Settler’s Hill. Laurel vineyard is high elevation in the Chehalem Mountains and is a cool climate site, while Settler’s Hill, in Salem, is in the mid-valley and is low elevation, hot, and produces more intense Pinot Noir. The vineyards used in this wine differ in soil types, elevation, and clones providing a balanced portrait of the Willamette Valley. Depending on the year, the Albin’s will round out the Pinot Noir with other vinyard sources.
One of those vineyards is planted at Goschie Farms. Located in Silverton, Oregon, it is owned and operated by Gayle Goschie. She is a third-generation hop farmer who was talked into grape growing by John while he was working at King Estate. She is a terrific farmer and produces intense valley floor Pinot Noir, predominantly from the Pommard clone. Another vineyard used is the Jesse Estate Vineyard, which is located at the base of the Chehalem Mountains. It is a really unique site that produces bright and vibrant Pinot Noir.
All of the fruit for this wine is hand-picked. The fruit is fermented in small 1.5 ton vessels. Assmanhausen yeast is typically used, as it brings a bright black-pepper note to the wine and expresses the fruit in a way that is unmatched by other strains. The wine is aged in French oak up until bottling.
Look for aromas of blueberry preserves and oak spice, with flavors of chocolate-covered cherries that are balanced nicely with medium tannins and a lingering finish. One of Oregon’s best values in delicious Pinot Noir.
Pfneisl Zweigelt Liters (Organic)
Another fun and delicious project from sisters Birgit and Katrin Pfneisl. Rather than make wine with their father and uncles who run the well-established family estate in Austria, the sisters decided to farm their ancestral vines in Sopron, Hungary.
From the outset, their wines contrasted sharply with those of their elders. Organic farming, old vines, and wild fermentation, all contribute to the finesse of their wines. They’re lighter, prettier, less structured, more aromatic, so we were happy to discover Birgit and Katrin’s increasing involvement in the Austrian estate.
The Austrian Zweigler is another collaborative project born from the common goal of deepening our relationships with each other and our common love of Austria’s dearest red grape, Zweigelt.
The young and charming sisters Birgit and Katrin Pfneisl, partners in Pfneiszl Winery are responsible for the equally charming Kékfrankos (AKA Blaufränkisch). Birgit is responsible for the vineyards and winemaking, Katrin marketing and sales.
Born and raised in Austria, their grandparents fled their vineyards in Sopron to escape Communism and settled just across the border in Kleinmutschen, Burgenland, where the “z” was dropped from their surname.
In 93’ the Pfneisl family reacquired their Hungarian vineyards. Having since established Weingut Pfneisl, one of Austria’s premier red wine estates, Birgit and Katrin’s father Franz Pfneisl and his brothers, decided to give these ancestral vineyards to the sisters.
After completing her University studies, Birgit set out to work far away from home. She made wine in Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and the US before returning home with dreams of an organic estate. Starting with the inaugural 04’ vintage, the Pfneiszl vineyards were farmed organically, in 09’ they were certified Organic. In addition to the fine Kékfrankos, Birgit makes the delightful frizzante Sparkelina, a stylish Merlot, and a range of thoughtful cuvées.
Sopron is an old Hungarian wine village just west of the southern tip of Lake Fertö (Neusiedler See). The prized vineyards around it are mostly Austrian, though what is Hungarian is ideal. Most of the Pfneiszl vineyards are in the dry-farmed, slate and sandstone site of Kräftner. This southeast-facing slope was replanted about 12 years ago, healthy plots of old vines were left intact. Varieties include numerous clones of Kékfrankos, some as old as 35 years, Merlot, Zenit (a local white grape), and small amounts of Sangiovese, Malbec, Zinfandel, and Shiraz.
Birgit employs a wide range of organic techniques ranging from standard practices like native crop cover to less conventional methods like insect pheromones. Birgit’s decision to pursue organic farming was at first controversial. Idealistic in nature, organic farming, in reality, is challenging and risky. So far, Birgit’s idealism and intuition are paying off.
Grapes are sorted and de-stemmed at the winery. Fermentation is conducted exclusively with native yeast. The Classic line of wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel while premium wines are aged in a combination of new and used oak, mostly of Hungarian or French stock. Malolactic fermentation is encouraged to finish though not demanded and small amounts of residual sugar are permitted if a wine doesn’t ferment completely dry. Most wines are lightly filtered.
Scaia is a project of Tenuta Sant’Antonio in the Veneto, makers of wonderful Valoplicella, Ripasso and Amarone.
This family estate belongs to the four Castagnedi brothers—Armando, Paolo, Tiziano and Massimo. From a long family of grapegrowers, the siblings came together in 1989 to create their own estate winery. They planted 72 acres of vines on Monte Garbi, a rocky, chalky mountain that’s challenging to farm but that produces intense, uniquely flavored grapes.
While most Veneto bottlings come from large companies that buy fruit and juice from all over, the Castagnedis source fruit only from their parents’ vineyard and from their own low-yielding vines, which are handpicked (another rarity in the Veneto). All of the Scaia wines are single varietal, made from organically farmed grapes, and packaged in a unique (and reusable) glass cork closure.
Scaia Rosso is 100% Corvina, one of three red varieties native to Italy’s northeast Veneto region that provide the basis for three very different wines: bold, complex Amarone; juicy, mediumbodied Valpolicella; and lighter Bardolino. In the last century, industrialization took over much of Veneto’s vineyards; quality went down as yields, aided by chemical fertilizers and mass processing, went up. In the last few decades, a counter movement, led mostly by small, quality focused vintners has taken hold. This is a succulent, medium-bodied Italian red that’s ridiculously easy to drink. It’s fresh and supple, with plump cherry flavors edged in spicy and herbal notes that recall white pepper and rosemary.