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Six Boutique Paso Robles Wineries Shipping DTC

Morning view of westside Paso Robles vineyards

All images by Lauren Mowery.

If you missed my article in the Village Voice

Halfway between L.A. and San Francisco, bucolic Paso Robles has exploded with wineries over the last twenty-five years. The region, long home to cowboys and farmers, grew from a handful of pioneering grape growers who arrived in the late Seventies to over 200 hopeful winemakers working in eleven recently delineated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Although new plantings have stalled due to serious water woes, to locals and visitors, vineyard saturation is palpable, especially when driving along one troublingly expansive, deep-pocketed project. But to East Coast drinkers, the area’s wine boom has largely gone unnoticed.

Because most of Paso’s wineries are small to mid-size, their offerings rarely penetrate the competitive, Eurocentric NYC market. Only a few famous names stick in the minds of drinkers. For example, Justin, known for its red Bordeaux “Isosceles” blend, and Saxum Vineyards, the label that earned a Wine Spectator Wine of the Year award in 2010, put Paso on the map for wine collectors. Tablas Creek, a successful endeavor founded by the Perrin family from Châteauneuf-du-Pape winery Château de Beaucastel, helped drive the red and white Rhône blends that have come to characterize the area’s wines. Now, with the expanded reach of direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipping and growing interest from local retailers, New Yorkers can tap into Paso’s wealth of up-and-coming, boutique brands.

“Paso Robles is an interesting alternative to other California regions because there is a lot of experimentation going on with different grape varieties right now,” said Jennifer DiDomizio of downtown Manhattan retail shop California Wine Merchants. “Of course there are the Rhône varieties and the more traditional zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon, but we are seeing more French, Italian, and Spanish grapes and blends coming out of Paso.” DiDomizio also noted Paso’s big improvements in quality, “particularly as producers match their micro-climates to suitable grape varieties. I’ve heard very high praise for these newer projects, and there is an excitement about the energy that a new generation of winemakers are bringing to the region.” California Wine Merchants currently sells a handful of Paso wines, and rotates its selection regularly, but DiDomizio said the percentage of Paso wines in the shop will continue to grow, reflecting the region’s dynamic growth.

From Italian grapes and organic vineyards to unique bottling methods, here are six exciting Paso wineries to watch, all now available at your doorstep.

Giornata 
Tucked into the back of Tin City, an industrial zone recently revitalized by a flurry of new tasting rooms, Giornata specializes in varietally correct Italian grapes stamped decorously by the California sun. A darling D.I.Y. clan, because of their practical-and-fun-and-good-for-the-environment ethos, owns the winery. Husband and wife Brian and Stephy Terrizzi, along with their small children, take a hands-on, sustainability-minded approach to every facet of the business, from the vineyard to the cellar. The family even uses a bicycle-powered grain mill (read: good for exhausting energetic kids) to experiment in making flour from locally grown whole grains.

Giornata produces the finest American iterations of nebbiolo and barbera I can recall tasting. “Joyful” is not an adjective I use often in a note, but the 2014 Barbera’s ($25) electric cherry fruit and silky texture elicited the descriptor. Even a simple white, the 2014 Il Campo Bianco ($20), provided delights in its floral and citrus echo of an Italian garden, and over-delivery on price.

Alta Colina
This small, family-run estate winery in West Paso focuses, like many, on Rhône grapes. Founder Bob Tillman departed the high-tech business world after 35 years to launch the label in 2003, and claims to embrace “the big, extracted style that naturally follows from this terroir.” I found the wines robust, but not pushy, which I attributed to their impeccable balance. For example, the 2011 Toasted Slope syrah ($45), featuring a splash of viognier à la Côte-Rôtie, pushed the boundaries of alcohol on the label, but not in the glass, where traces of booziness floated effortlessly away into a perfume of smoke and blackberries.

Tillman and his daughter Maggie, who runs their marketing program, believe in long-term stewardship of the land, and thus converted the entire mountain farm to organic. “It is a way of life, not just a business,” Tillman explained, adding that “this enterprise is intensely personal. We are constrained by only two things: The fruit must come from our vineyard, and we must be self-financed.” In addition to syrah, Alta Colina produces a viognier and grenache blanc for its whites, and a range of GSMs (grenache, mourvèdre, and syrah blends) and petite sirah.
While limited direct shipping is available, their NY distributor is Wine Source Group.

Field Recordings
Canned wine might not seem like the obvious choice for a dinner party, and perhaps it’s best left relegated to pool, park, and beach events where glass is prohibited, but the juice inside this innovative company’s packaging is worthy of a glass bottle.

The winery name, Field Recordings, came from analogizing the term used for audio recordings produced outside of a studio, and often of natural occurrences, to the thought process behind the vino — “the wine being the stories of people, places, and grapes, captured in a bottle,” explained founder Andrew Jones. With regard to using an aluminum conveyance, Jones said he was impressed with all the positives he discovered when researching the canning process. “It is extremely gentle on the product versus a bottling line, it is infinitely recyclable, it provides huge savings to the end consumer, and overall, it is the most convenient packaging around for enjoying wine,” he said. Not all of his offerings come with a pull tab (most don’t), but the FICTION blends, like the red made from zinfandel and a vintage dependent rotation of five to seven other varieties, do. FICTION white and a rosé are also available. Four 500 mL cans are $40.

The Kentucky Ranch Barn owned by Thacher Vineyards

Tired of working as a Silicon Valley cubicle drone, Michelle, along with her brewmaster and winemaker husband Sherman, sought to leave their urban lifestyle in Santa Cruz permanently. In 2006, they purchased an old horse ranch in the Adelaida area of Paso Robles, and opened a winery and tasting room by 2008. “We showed up and it was trial by fire,” said Sherman, “but we embraced it.” Despite the picturesque backdrop of dips and hills, complete with a historic barn emblazoned with “KR,” denoting “Kentucky Ranch,” the emblem of the former owners, Thacher buys most of their grapes. Their land isn’t as suitable for farming as it is for photographing. But the world of fine wine has proven repeatedly that solid grower contracts can be as good, if not better, than estate fruit.

Uniquely for the area, Thacher produces a medium-bodied, savory, tea- and spice-evocative 2012 mourvèdre ($45). Blended with a dollop of lively, strawberry-leather-scented grenache, it’s a nice break from the rich, fruity overtones of the region’s reds. The 2013 grenache blanc ($28), from La Vista Vineyard, also offers a refreshing take on this local white grape, with its bright salty-lime- and green-apple-soda-tinged flavors.

Ranchero Cellars
Ranchero Cellars is the tiny, personal label of Amy Jean Butler (only 650 cases a year), who is better known for making other people’s wine. Butler adheres closely to the wishes of her clients, but when it comes to her grapes, which she buys through longstanding contracts, she strives for an acid-driven, restrained style — a tough combination to find in Paso.

Butler learned to love acid, she says, working at California sparkling house Schramsberg, and her wines prove it. The 2014 grenache blanc “chrome” ($28) rips with zippy citrus fruit, and her 2013 La Vista Vineyard viognier ($30) portrays the leaner, more delicate side of the too often blowsy grape. But Butler’s real passion project is working with little-respected carignan, or, as she describes the grape, “the wild, brambly, and gnarly red beast.” Her vivid 2012 Carignan ($32) expresses crushed blackberry Pez and an herb crust akin to one you might find on a lamb roast. If the description sounds weird, the wine tastes delicious.
Purchase wines online or contact NY distributor Vine Collective

Clos Solène
Successful wine brands have compelling backstories, made more so when the tale incorporates true romance with a superb product. Such is the case for Clos Solène, a label born of two aspiring French winemakers, lovestruck Guillaume and Solène Fabre. Clos Solène began in 2007 with two barrels housed in a nearby winery; doubling in size each year, the pair now have their own tasting room in Tin City.

Their wines are unabashedly voluptuous, embracing the region’s propensity for naturally high alcohol without transforming the Rhône grape-based blends into diesel fuel (unlike a few of their peers). Flavors are intense, like the red-berry-concentrated 2013 La Petite Solène ($65), an SGM. While the wines sit at the top of the price pyramid for the region, they have received critical acclaim, resulting in regularly sold-out offerings. Production amounts are small, so if you love their wines, join the mailing list.

Afternoon view of vineyards on Paso’s east side

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Postcard: Barrels at Halter Ranch Vineyard, Paso Robles

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Barrels at Halter Ranch Vineyard, Paso Robles, California

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People Make Wine in Idaho. I’ve Got Proof.

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I write this post sitting in a log cabin in the middle of the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho. I’ll be lighting a fire and, dreadfully, donning my winter jacket for the first time this season; tonight’s expected low: 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Summer concludes precisely — cruelly — on Labor Day out here.

Not anticipating functioning wifi, I flipped open my laptop and the connection light blinked on.  Is there no place left in the world detached from the grid aside from the far western Sonoma coast? Regardless, here I type, at the base of stony, jagged peaks in a state to which cartographers had oddly apportioned a wide bottom with a long, slender finger that stretched north to Canada. I’d stare at maps as a child (and still do now), imagining life in the American West of this exotic state, so it feels odd to finally be here  — with my dad — because the fascination I held for Idaho (and surrounding states) was partly an extension of my father’s.

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My dad grew up a little bit country in Circleville, Ohio, where my great-uncle bred horses for harness racing. Likely a product of the era of his youth, one in which country western films featuring icon John Wayne pervaded the imaginations of growing boys, my dad took a curious shine to all things cowboy and Indian Native American. The toys of his youth reflected this interest which never abated with adulthood.

He’s the only lawyer in Columbus who wears cowboy boots to work and before judges in court, often dressed in a suit. He admits to not owning a single pair of dress shoes but several pairs of Tony Lama and Ariat boots. I believe he once subscribed to Cowboys & Indians magazine, and I know he acquired two reproduction Remingtons to conciliate his dream for an authentic one. (Remington was the equine sculptor who worked bronze into taut, sinewy horses and cattle ropers frozen mid-action.)

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Although unable to afford him the gift of a collector’s piece, I offered my dad passage to visit Idaho as a co-captain of my rental car to explore this curiously unadvertised and sparsely populated slice of the West. In addition to traversing the Sawtooth Mountains to ride horses and fish at the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, we’d visit nearly a dozen wineries in Boise and its surrounds. Characteristically, his first question was not “wine? In Idaho?” but rather “can I bring my cowboy boots?” Yes dad, bring your Tony Lamas. And your Stetson.

They Make Wine in Idaho

My thin knowledge of the Snake River AVA, approved in April 2007, stemmed from my WSET Diploma exam studies. I’d never actually drank an Idaho wine, let alone seen or heard of one in NYC. The Idaho Wine Commission was prescient in selecting me to visit; I immediately said yes. Intrigued by the chance to visit this state still unknown to me, especially one about which so little was written, I crossed my fingers I’d discover a pioneering wine scene to accompany the state’s unspoiled rivers and mountains.

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Quick Idaho Wine Stats (provided by the Idaho Wine Commission)

Idaho had one winery in 1976 and 51 by 2014. The Snake River AVA encompasses 8000 square miles with a little less than 1300 acres planted. Most vineyards are in the Snake River area which lies 30 minutes east of Boise, the best found around Sunny Slope.The leading varieties are, for whites: Chardonnay, Riesling, and Viognier; and reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, and Tempranillo. Elevations range from 600-3000 feet.  The climate is desert-warm with cold nights, and well-draining soils with access to irrigation from the river and reservoirs.

Day One:  Wineries of East 44th Street, Garden City

This industrial strip by the river, ten minutes from downtown Boise, functions like many wine ghettos that have sprung up around the country (Lompoc near Santa Barbara, California and Woodinville near Seattle, Washington), in that it provides young, enterprising winemakers affordable space to pursue their craft when owning vineyard land for a winery is not yet feasible. A particular strip of East 44th street has attracted several small optimists: Cinder, Telaya, Coiled, and Split Rail. The first three are located in a renovated warehouse, the latter in a former auto body garage.

EAST 44th STREET TASTING ROOM HOURS

Cinder: 7 Days a week, 11-5 p.m.

Telaya: Fri. – Sat., 12-6 p.m.

Coiled: Fri. – Sat., 12-5 p.m.

My review of the wineries…


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Te Mata Estate, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

 

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Te Mata Estate in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, was founded in 1896. The property was acquired by John and Wendy Buck in 1978, and is currently run by Nicholas Buck, the Estate Director, who has been with the winery, as he puts it, for “life”.   Fortunately, I met Nick in person today, since his answers to my Q&A (below) in advance of my trip, were terse and cheeky. Turns out, he’s a super affable guy surrounded by a lovely team of folks that treat each other like family. Winemaker Peter Cowley has been crafting their iconic Bordeaux blend Coleraine for the nearly 30 years of its production, and this afternoon, the fantastic Mr. Larry Morgan drove me around vineyard sites, and introduced me to the hardworking Czechs (not chicks, as I later found out) who help net the vines to prevent birds from nibbling grapes as they ripen.

A few words from the winery’s site:

Te Mata Estate was established in 1896, specialising in high-quality wines of classical style. All steps in the production of our wines are undertaken by us, from grape growing and pruning through to winemaking and bottling. Today, Te Mata Estate is recognized as one of New Zealand’s most iconic and prestigious wine producers, making nearly 40,000 cases a year of premium wine and exporting to over 40 countries.

Regarding the physical winery, horse stables, constructed in the 1870s, were converted into a winery by the Chambers family in the 1890s, and are today the centre of Te Mata Estate’s winemaking. The winery has since been updated in design, with the aim to create a modern wine-making complex that reflected the character of the landscape. Specializing in in-fill architecture and innovative modernist design, Athfield Architects created a series of buildings to reflect the art deco heritage of Hawke’s Bay and the art nouveau heritage of the original Chambers homestead.

Signature Wines and Prices:

  • Coleraine NZ$90
  • Awatea Cabernet/Merlot NZ$40
  • Bullnose Syrah NZ$50
  • Elston Chardonnay NZ$40
  • Cape Crest Sauvignon Blanc NZ$30
  • Zara Viognier NZ$30

What philosophy guides your viticulture and/or enology? Maximising the potential of Te Mata Estate.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? Disrupting the wine world status quo.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? Hawke’s bay’s ability to produce world leading wines across an array of wine styles.

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? The growing international recognition of the absolute quality of Hawke’s Bay’s best wines.

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? Source of widely available, inexpensive, reliable, good qpr, light-bodied, straight-forward, aromatic, fruity, white wines.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least? Favorite = Sonoma; Least = Napa.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Cabernet Sauvignon.

What do you drink at home when relaxing? Wine.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Family.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Mars.

Give one surprising fact about yourself. Alternative career ambition was an astronaut.

 

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Man O’War Vineyards, Waiheke Island, New Zealand

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Man O’War Vineyards was my last stop yesterday on Waiheke Island before heading off to the mainland wine regions and Hawke’s Bay. Duncan McTavish, Winemaker for the last five years, and Matt Allen, Vineyard Manager, showed me around the tasting room and property, the grapevines for which were first planted in the late 1990s. We tasted through their line-up, including the wild ferment Valhalla Chardonnay and two vintages of the dense, smoky Dreadnought Syrah, one of their signature wines that’s also available in the States (and by the glass at The Musket Room in NYC). Duncan took time to answer a few questions about the winery’s viticulture philosophy and the pros and cons to winemaking on Waiheke. 

Signature Wines:

  • Dreadnought Syrah NZD$55
  • Valhalla Chardonnay NZD$34

What philosophy guides your viticulture?  We have 76 vineyards spread over 175 acres so a lot of small parcels of fruit arrive at the winery. We want to understand each vineyard so the approach is to let each parcel speak for itself by doing as little as possible in the winery.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine? All of the above!
 
What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? The benefits are that 90% of our property is bordered by the ocean giving us a unique maritime climate coupled with volcanic soils and a varied topography allowing us to produce a diverse range of wines from a single estate. The drawbacks are that it is a challenging landscape and very labour intensive.
 
What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? The people–there are some interesting characters in NZ making interesting wines.
 
How do you think Americans (or the outside world generally) perceive NZ wines? I would hope they are regarded as premium wines.
 
What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Favourite would be a tie between the Mosel and Burgundy (like, probably, 90% of kiwi winemakers).  I’d love to travel to Portugal, but as I haven’t been there yet, I can’t call it my favourite.  Least? I don’t have one.

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Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected? Pinot Gris.
 
What do you drink at home when relaxing? Depends on the season but white Burgundy and Northern Rhone.
 
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Fishing and 2 young kids.
 
If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? I’ve just come back from a two week around-the-world sales trip so I would travel down the road to my local beach; that or be transported to the Maldives.
 
Give one surprising fact about yourself. I’d be surprised if I could answer that…

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Why 2014 Will Be Your Best Wine Year Yet

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With the close of the calendar comes contemplation: what have I learned from the wine world in 2013 and what do I expect (or hope) to see in 2014? A few observations: the rise of a new breed of “somm”, the demise of the wine score, the discovery of a Jedi Wine Master, and the impending Best Wine Year Ever.

A Return to the Antipodes

Australia Does the theory “If you build it, he will come” apply to wine? I hope so, because the woeful state of Australian imports in the U.S. belies the health and creativity of the industry Down Under. A recent visit to Astor Wines confirms the lack of antipodean demand — NZ and Oz shared a shelf smaller than the one devoted solely to NY State craft spirits! The Australian wine market has languished for years at the bottom of the U.S. market, so with nowhere else to go but up, expect to see a breakthrough of fresh vinous perspective in stores and restaurants. Importers like Little Peacock, which focus exclusively on Australian wines, have expressed tremendous optimism for the coming year. The wines produced by the new generation of risk-takers in Oz are lean, refined, funky, terroir-driven, and characterful. They don’t all work, but the journey’s as interesting as the destination.
Two to Try: Ben Haines Marsanne 2011, Yarra Valley and Jamsheed “Healesville Vineyard” Syrah 2010, Yarra Valley.

New Zealand This island country faces a different problem from Oz, albeit its wines are still underrepresented in the U.S. New Zealand has done so well with Sauvignon Blanc, the rest of its wines have been ignored. The importance of the grape cannot be overstated. The entire world drinks it (including, to the chagrin of Aussie winemakers, heaps of Aussies). The crisp, grassy style is the New World benchmark for the variety. But there’s plenty more from the land of jagged peaks and glacial lakes to capture a wine drinker’s imagination, and we’re starting to see those wines here in NYC. Fantastic Pinot Noir is trickling out of both Central Otago and, amazingly, Marlborough (the spiritual home to Sauvignon Blanc). For alternative whites, seek out James Millton’s Chenin Blanc. Although produced in the otherwise unremarkable region of Gisborne, he’s been called the Yoda of Kiwi winemakers — a serious endorsement. Is he a true Jedi Wine Master? Drink and find out.
Two to try: Terra Sancta Mysterious Diggings Pinot Noir 2012, Central Otago and Millton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2011, Gisborne.

The New Somm
In the past, a restaurant’s “sommelier” often fell into one of several categories, each of which — in an era of increased consumer wine knowledge facilitated by ease of access to information and greater willingness to experiment with up-and-coming regions — have become increasingly irrelevant.

We’ve suffered through uninformed yet opinionated waiters posing as sommeliers, informed and condescending sommeliers, and, most exasperating, the Grand Cru-obsessed, pompous sommeliers selling 100 percent Western European lists with 100 percent of the bottles priced over $100. Thus, it was about time the role either be redefined or abolished. (Yes, I acknowledge someone still has to build and manage the list.)

Fortunately for restaurant-goers, we’ve met the new generation of enthusiastic, educated sommeliers or “somms” who’ve reinvented their role, gifting us a new reason to dine out: access to diverse, reasonably priced bottles. Sure, we’ve seen prices on certain wines this year soar to previously unseen heights, but for the rest of us scanning the lower end of a list for value, we’re in luck: lots more under $50 selections than ever. And somms have managed to balance their lists serving traditional needs while presenting to the curious a plethora of distinctive wines such as zero dosage, undisgorged crémant from the Jura.
Where to Try: Corkbuzz by sommelier Laura Maniec, Pearl & Ash by sommelier Patrick Cappiello.

Jamsheed

Domestic Affairs
Wine lists and retail stores in NYC used to be dominated by European selections — France, Italy, and Spain — with small weight given to the New World and even less to the juice of our citizen winemakers. However, with increased demand for local and hyper-local food sourcing, we’re seeing the same interest applied to wine. While in the past a reputable fine dining establishment might not dare be caught with anything from the East Coast on its list, sommelier Thomas Pastuszak at The Nomad has embraced our home state. A huge advocate of NY wines, he puts out an extensive list of Finger Lakes bottles. The best part? These wines offer tremendous value — $35 for a bottle of vibrant Riesling with dinner? Yes, thank you.
Where to Try: The NomadFrankly Wines.

Coravin as a Verb
2013 saw the launch of the most lauded device in recent wine history: the Coravin. It’s a wine extraction system that allows the user to pull out a measure of wine, while safeguarding the remaining precious liquid inside against oxidation with inert, tasteless argon gas. Testing has shown the wine can keep for years, allowing drinkers to sample the bottle to check for development or just have a glass of that rare Cabernet bought at auction now and again with a Wagyu ribeye. The pricey but genius device will change wine drinking habits both at home and in restaurants, truly, forever. Del Posto, an initial supporter of the device, offers rare wines by the glass, and Anfora has updated its menu to include a selection of “Coravin Wines.” What shall we Coravin tonight, dear? And a verb was born.
Where to Try: Del PostoAnfora.

Nobody’s Worrying about Robert Parker
Finally, America’s adherence to a mono-palate (Parker’s) approach to wine is on the decline. Although Parker stepped down in late 2012 from his post as editor-in-chief of the Wine Advocate — the newsletter he founded that spawned decades of obsession over a 100-point grading system that favored huge wines — in February 2013, he became the first wine critic inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame in Napa Valley. Perhaps a deserved award, but the collective unfettering of our taste buds over the year has left individuals free to make independent decisions — or at least use more resources to do so. Trusted local retailers in conjunction with social media apps like Delectable and Drync have been filling the void.
Retailer: Le Du’s Wines
Apps: DelectableDrync.

More Curiosity, More Choice 
Overall, NYC wine drinkers are imbibing during exciting times. Whatever we want, short of actually flying to the vineyard, we can find. Wines from Croatia? Blue Danube’s got them. Need that expressive, biodynamic Umathum from Austria? WineMonger’s your importer. Our increased curiosity and willingness to drink anything has encouraged importers to scour the globe and bring us a range of wines that dazzle in their diversity. So, keep sipping folks — 2014 looks to be our best year yet.

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Nelson Mandela and His Vinous Legacy in South Africa

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Interviews with South African winemakers will follow this piece over the next few days, including comments on the recent passing of Nelson Mandela and his role in expanding and improving the wine industry.

Throughout the week, South Africans will gather to grieve en masse the loss of Nelson Mandela. A courageous statesman, Mandela began his political life as a young Soweto lawyer steering the resistance against apartheid, only to be imprisoned for twenty-seven years for his labors, later emerging to become president. Undoubtedly, his post-release navigation of the country away from the shores of a civil war into a peaceful, thriving, multiracial democracy will be regarded as his greatest achievement, and one for which he won the Nobel Prize.

However, Mandela’s leadership had other positive ripple effects — for example, it helped expose the local wine industry to the outside world, forcing improvements in viticulture and winemaking practices. Thus, this week we pay tribute to his extraordinary legacy through a missive exploring South Africa’s wine country.

The Cape wine industry is considered New World despite the arrival of vines via the Dutch in 1655. The industry’s three and a half centuries of production were as fractured as the country’s politics, and in several key instances, mirrored the nation’s political movements. Setbacks included the devastating wrath of phylloxera, a rash of overproduction, restrictive quotas, and a significant knock-back in the form of international trade sanctions in the ’80s as protest against apartheid. However, many credit Mandela as having influenced, both directly and indirectly, the Cape Winelands’ transformation into a modern New World industry. Authors and South African wine authorities Elmari Swart and Izak Smit expound upon Mandela’s impact:

This rather unsophisticated local market, when compared to international markets, did nothing but limit the winemaker’s scope for creativity. It was only after Nelson Mandela’s release from political imprisonment and the subsequent elections in 1994, that serious international focus fell on the South African wine industry. Mandela’s support for South African wines formed a necessary political stepping stone for the true emergence of Cape wine. Mandela toasted his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Cape wine. —The Essential Guide to South African Wines

I journeyed to South Africa two years ago and fell in love at first sight — it was easy to see for what Mandela was struggling to keep free but intact. The unrivaled drama and grand cinematic beauty of the Cape Winelands — rumpled terrain, mist-shrouded peaks, and endless green velds — coupled with the gravity of her complicated history, a country that’s collectively endured the peaks and troughs of joy and sorrow electrified my senses and left an indelible stamp on my spiritual passport.

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In addition to the scenery, the wineries themselves impressed. The charming architecture often reflected the classic Cape Dutch look, but several were über-modern, full of glass and steel; all capitalized on the dramatic views, gardens, and countryside greenery available to them. Perhaps my deep captivation hinged on the fact that the gap between my expectations and the actual degree of sophistication was so wide. After all, the country’s modern wine industry was still nascent, begun not long after dismantling the apparatus of apartheid.

Overall, the wines were of reasonable price for good to very good quality (although only occasionally sublime). South Africa is associated with Chenin Blanc — also called Steen, but the name’s use is dwindling — and Pinotage, but the Rhone and Bordeaux blends stood out, and varietal bottlings of Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay deserve consideration.

Unfortunately, frequenting South African wine country is made difficult by a very long flight — 17-hours direct from JFK to Jo’burg, then another two-hour flight to Cape Town — so most of us may ever only taste her vinous fruits on our shores. To that end, a few months ago, I gathered nearly 40 bottles from our local market to suss out the best of what’s available here at home. Many bottles were samples, some I purchased and a few I pulled from my personal collection (those are still available in our region).

I gathered a panel of 20 friends and colleagues. We made boerewors sausage, peri peri shrimp, bobotie, lamb sosatie, and chakalaka, attempting to marry the spirit of South African foods with the wine.

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We tasted poorly made wines, a number of classic styles (e.g., oak-aged Chardonnay), and several killer bottles. However, a large percentage of the wine we sampled sat firmly on the right side of safe, offering broad mainstream appeal to international tastes while lacking maverick spirit. As the industry is still young, it is likely on track to have a second wave of winemakers with a renegade approach that’ll bring more cutting-edge wines to market. Perhaps the movement is underway now — it’s hard to know without being on the ground, and the interesting, small production stuff isn’t often exported (a major selling point for traveling!).

My resulting list of 10 picks, with input from all tasters, is Chenin Blanc- and Stellenbosch-heavy, in part because those wines showed the best, but also because we had more of them in the sample pool. These 10 wines are by no means meant to suggest the top in our market (we didn’t taste everything), and they shouldn’t discount the fact that wonderful wines are made in other regions like Constantia, Swartland, Franschhoek, Elgin, etc. But they are good and provide a range of price points to suit your wallet.

It’s also worth noting that the Mandela family has entered the wine business, producing a line under the name House of Mandela. Makaziwe (Maki) Mandela and Tukwini Mandela, respectively daughter and granddaughter of Nelson Mandela, came to New York in October to show their Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc. I haven’t tasted the wine, so I cannot comment, but it appears Mandela’s wine legacy will continue, at least for a few more generations.

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Kanonkop Pinotage 2010, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, $35 
The finest Pinotage I’ve ever tasted. Smoke, red and black berries, an edge of minerality, and a full-body with decadent, silky mouthfeel. Will convert Pinotage detractors.

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011, Stellenbosch, $15
Made by a Chenin specialist, this bright, citrus-scented, tropical fruit-filled wine, with obvious but carefully integrated oak, shows a hint of nut and spice on the finish.

Raats Original Chenin Blanc 2011, Coastal Region, $14 
A great value for under $15 — I’ve found it for close to $10! The wine is refreshing and lively with pineapple, crisp apple, and floral notes. Thanks for keeping this one out of oak.

Cape Grace Chenin Blanc 2011, Western Cape, NA,
Loaded with tasty white fruits like apples, peaches, and pears plus a kick of honey and guava, too. Bright, cheerful wine.

Bartinney Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Stellenbosch, $29 
The winery sits nestled high on the slopes of Helshoogte Pass, the altitude providing concentrated flavor and fresh acidity to this dark berry-, plum-, cocoa-, and fig-saturated wine.

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Thelema The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stellenbosch, $39 
The panel favorite, I found this bottle hidden in a cabinet — another taster tried to save a final glass for herself. Notes of mint lace the classic Cabernet flavors in this balanced wine, but just enough to provide interest without overwhelming.

Rudi Shultz Syrah 2010, Stellenbosch, $30
A rather big, meaty wine with smoked-bacon, mocha, anise, blackberry, and pepper, made by a next generation winemaker who is also winemaking for Thelema.

Excelsior Chardonnay 2012, Robertson, $9 
Super value, enjoyable white plumped up with 3 percent Viognier, showing peach, apricot, and pineapple — a perfect aperitif wine.

De Toren Fusion V 2008, Stellenbosch, $50
I drank this post-panel, but it probably would’ve been a contender for the top prize — after all, it is the winery’s premium bottling. A concentrated, elegant, well-made wine, like drinking crushed velvet, showing hints of leather and tobacco interspersed with dark chocolate and blackberry. A wine for angels, the producer writes. I agree.

De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc 2011, Stellenbosch, $35
A “high-achiever” if you follow scores, this solid wine spent almost a year snuggled in new and older oak, but the mouthwatering acid and citrus, acacia honey, and stone fruit notes remain intact. SRP is $35, but I have seen for $25.

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Where to Eat in NYC:
Madiba, 195 Dekalb Ave, Fort Greene, 718-855-9190. On Sunday, December 15, at 6 p.m., the restaurant will be screening the funeral from Qunu, South Africa, with a prayer and live performance by the South African Allstars.

Where to Buy in NYC: 
Chelsea Wine Vault, 75 Ninth Avenue, 212-462-4244
Union Square Wines, 140 Fourth Avenue, 212-675-8100
Astor Wine and Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500

 

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