Club Write-ups

Everything But Red
March 2021

Tim's Wine Market

For this quarter’s features, I intentionally chose three international blends. For several years, the “Red Blend” category has been very popular with consumers, but white blends rarely are as popular.  However, many of the greatest white wines in the world are by their nature a mix of grapes, which have evolved to show the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

2019 Charbonniere Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc -$49

The wines of Domaine Charbonniere are old favorites of mine, newly available in Florida again after a decade long absence.  In 2000 I spent ten days in France visiting properties represented by Kermit Lynch.  It was an amazing trip, meeting the people who make so many of the wines I sell, and dining in Kermit’s favorite restaurants across the country.  One stop was this up-and-coming estate owned by Michel Maret.  They were ill-equipped to receive visitors and we tasted their wines off the top of a barrel in their equipment building.  Michel spoke little English but his teenage daughters translated as he showed us the plans to build a new cellar.  I am not sure when they parted with Kermit, but I remember selling the 2003’s and perhaps the 2005’s.  In any case, I was delighted to learn local supplier recently picked them up, and after tasting the latest releases  here we are.

The Domaine de la Charbonniere was founded in 1912 by Michel’s great-grandfather Eugene.  It has grown to be a medium size estate, with a little over fifty acres of vines in Chateauneuf du Pape, and additional holdings in nearby Vacqueyras.  For most of their history they sold their wine to the local cooperative and did not bottle their own wine until the mid-1990’s.  This was a very common practice in this region until the price of the wines began to climb in the early 1990’s.  I can remember visiting esteemed properties in 1993, and they would only bottle wine on demand, keeping it in large wood tanks for up to two decades.  Once the price of Chateauneuf started to climb over $20 a bottle, a number of producers, like Charbonniere, began to control their own destiny and bottle their own wines. 

  In the mid-2000’s the new cellar was completed but I lost track of the wines as they parted with Kermit.  Then in 2010 Michel’s daughter, and my translator, Véronique joined him in the cellar.  The 2012’s are her first vintage running the domaine, although Michel is still in the winery every day. With her ascension they have also started to convert their farming practices over to biodynamics. 

For their Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc the blend is 40% Grenache Blanc, 40% Roussanne and 20% Clairette.  These grape varieties come from 2 different but complementary terroirs: the sandy soil “Mourre des Perdrix” and the more clay heavy”Brusquières.” The picking is entirely by hand, with sorting in the vineyard and again in the cellar. All of the grapes are destemmed and crushed to the fermentation vessel. The Grenache and Roussanne are aged 75% in stainless steel vats for seven months, with stirring on the lees. The rest is aged in new oak barrels for seven months, with regular lees stirring.  The Clairette is fermented and aged only in stainless steel.

  When you prepare to open this wine, decant it and let it warm up to around 55 degrees before serving. Once you do, it delivers notes of fresh pear, peach, dried thyme and fresh baked, buttered brioche. On the palate it is quite dry and full, with a good sense of savory fruit, long, nicely balanced acidity and moderate finish. Drink now through 2026 and serve with a crown roast of pork, butter poached lobster or grilled swordfish steaks.

2017 Benjamin Romeo Rioja Blanco – $49

I have to admit, this was the last wine selected for this feature and it was the dark horse, competing against Sinskey Abraxas, a Carneros, California – Alsace inspired white. Do not get me wrong, the Sinskey is really good, and I bought it for the store anyway, but this wine is the best example of Rioja Blanco I have ever tasted and easily deserves attention in this club.

Unlike the other two features that trace their winemaking origin back more than a century, Benjamin Romeo is a producer who began making wine just at the end of last century, 1995. It was in that year that Benjamin was able to lease a small portion of a centuries-old cave beneath Castle of San Vicente de la Sonsierra, a 15-minute drive from the city of Haro. In 1996 he produced his first wine, La Cueva del Contador, a red wine, and began purchasing vineyards to expand production. He added a Grand Vin, Contador, and for several years produced minuscule quantities from this tiny cellar. He also remodeled his parents’ garage and turned it into a winery, giving him more space to expand as he continued to buy vineyard land.  Then with the release of the 2004 and 2005 vintages, he burst on the international wine scene with consecutive 100-point ratings from Robert Parker.  At that point, demand for his wine exploded and build a three-story, gravity flow vineyard just below his original cellar at Castle of San Vicente de la Sonsierra.

Today, Benjamin farms over 50 different vineyard parcels that he has collected over the past 25 years. Each site is selected based on how the aspect, soil and microclimate will effect the grapes and ultimately how it will be used in his wines. Most of his vineyards are pruned using the Guyot method, which looks like a five-fingered hand reaching out of the ground. He directs his vineyard workers to leave only one shoot per finger, greatly reducing the yield of grapes, but focusing all the energy of the vine to a handful of clusters. Soils in Rioja were formed by the creation the Pyrenees Mountains, so they are a mix of sand, clay, ancient limestone seabed as well as tumbled rocks similar to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This diverse combination of soils further adds complexity and dimension to the wine.

For his white wine, he uses grapes farmed in 11 different vineyard sites, yet only produces about 900 cases. The blend for this vintage is 56% Garnacha Blanca, 31% Viura and 13% Malvasia. All of the varieties are hand-harvested separately, de-stemmed, then placed in stainless steel tanks where the juice is kept on the skins for three days. He does this to extract complexity from the skins, as well as to build texture. After three days, the juice is drained directly to 228-liter, French oak barrels and fermentation begins using the native yeast culture. Romeo uses 30% new, and the balance is second- and third-pass barrels.  After eight months, the wines are racked to tank and the final blend is made. 

When you serve this wine, make sure to decant it for half an hour and let it warm up to 55 degrees, or cellar temperature. Then, when you pour the first glass, you will be greeted with notes of musk melon, Bosc pear, honeycomb, lemon grass and wet oyster shells. On the palate it begins with a searing frame of acidity that is quickly filled with a shocking richness of fruit, co-mingling with subtle oak tones as well. The finish is relatively long but will stretch out more as this wine ages.  Drink now through 2026 and try with seafood paella, grilled shrimp finished with lemon/herb butter or poached salmon.   

2016 Renato Keber Malchevada – $49

The final selection walks the line of a “natural wine,” or the term I prefer, ‘low intervention.’ For those who are unfamiliar with this term, there is a tiny movement in the wine business for producers who want to input as little into the wine as possible, with the belief that the wine will display the truest purity of varietal and terroir character. However, there is a saying in winemaking, “man makes wine, God makes vinegar.” Often wines produced using too little intervention can show wild flaws, to the point where they often re-ferment in the bottle. Then there are producers who understand how far they can push the line and still produce world class wines, which brings us to Renato Keber.

In 1900, Renato’s grandfather, Franc, settled in the village of Vipulzano, in what was then the southeast corner of Austria. After WWI, the region was ceded to Italy and became known as the Collio. This is why the wines of this region are very different from the rest of Italy, displaying more richness and body more in common with those of Austria. For most of the 20th century, the Keber family farmed their steep, hillside vineyard, known locally as Zenga, and sold their wine to merchants in bulk. In 1976, the region was devastated by two massive earthquakes. Renato’s father used the opportunity to rebuild their house and upgrade their winery. He even purchased a second-hand wine press, which Renato says made a “night-and-day difference” in their wines. During this time, Renato studied winemaking at the side of the top producers in the Collio, and in 1987, the family began bottling wine under their label. 

By the 1990s, the wines were beginning to attract attention in the Italian wine magazines, and Renato met US importer Marco de Grazia. Marco encouraged Keber to visit the Burgundy region of France, so he did, along with his friend Josko Gravner. The two saw how winemakers there used a number of techniques, including extended skin contact with the grapes, to coax extra dimension and complexity from the wines. Empowered, he and Gravner returned to Italy and began implementing changes to their production. Today, they are both considered top white wine producers in Italy.

To produce wines of this quality, the Keber family follows the classic Burgundy model, planting over 3,000 vines per acre, and all trained in the Guyot method as well. This dense planting creates competition among the roots for nutrients and water, naturally reducing the yield of grapes. For Malchevada, their flagship wine only made in great years, Renato begins with a hand-harvested, field blend Pinot Grigio, Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Ribolla Gialla. All of the grapes are de-stemmed and placed in a stainless steel tank, where the juice is kept cold and on the skins for seven days. Then, he warms the tank and allows the indigenous yeast population to ferment the juice. Once dry, the wine is racked to 500-liter new French tonneaux, where it rests with the lees for 12 months.  The wine is then moved to stainless steel for a year and bottled without filtration or fining.

When you are ready to serve this wine, you absolutely must decant it for a half-hour before serving. Then, you will discover a mind-blowing, complex nose of toasted sesame seeds, star anise, dried apple, dried apricot and sage. On the palate it delivers an almost red wine savoriness, with hint of spiciness at the finish.  Serve now through 2025 with grilled octopus, smoked salmon and pasta cream sauce or pan seared sea bass.

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