New World Wine with Old World Soul
With physical distancing and travel restrictions in place for the foreseeable future, wine has given us the opportunity to explore the world safely in our own homes. Many of us choose to revisit our “comfort” brands during these uncertain times, but why not venture beyond “old reliable” and try wines that give a refreshing perspective on familiar regions and styles? Let’s discover a new take on wines which pay homage to age-old traditions.
Practical, Postmodern Winemaking
California winemaking has evolved since Spanish missionaries first planted vineyards for sacramental purposes in the late 1400’s. From the decimation of viticulture due to phylloxera in the mid-1850’s and Prohibition in 1920, to the Judgement of Paris in 1976 which launched California wine to the world stage, the wine industry has sputtered and revived. And through these turbulent centuries, California wine developed its own, distinct, New World style—one in which bold, fruit-forward, and muscular wines dominate.
Not all California wines are made this way, of course. A cadre of “postmodern” winemakers has gained momentum, adhering to a philosophy that is at once progressive yet hearkens back to 7000 year-old-traditions. A diverse movement that incorporates work of winemakers and researchers from the last 20 years, these followers explore models that stress technique, skill, and intuition to craft not create wines like a science project. Ultimately, they believe in making wine pragmatically, acknowledging that producers still have to run viable businesses and be approachable to wine drinkers.
Postmodern winemaker Clark Smith demonstrates the “practical art” of “rendering grapes into liquid music” through his Winesmith selection. Explore the intriguing and complex 2015 St. Laurent from Sonoma County, mineral-driven and herbaceous 2013 Meritage red blend from Lake County, and delicate and seductive 2014 Pinot Gris from Monterey for an “operatic” experience. (www.winesmith.com)
Wine as art is also a mantra followed by Rafael et Fils a small, family-owned and operated winery located in Northern California. Focusing on single varietal wines from a single vineyard—not trendy blends from multiple plots—head winemaker and owner Marc Rafael painstakingly crafts wines to express terroir, the Old World notion of “sense of place.” Producing only 1500 cases a year, Rafael’s goal is to be as non-interventional and restrained as possible from vineyard to the winery. This approach is decidedly Old World in spirit with resultant wines tending towards elegance, complexity, and nuance. Not the typical bold, fruity, extracted wines for which California has been associated.
It’s hip for wineries to claim that “wine is made in the vineyard,” but wines from Rafael et Fils genuinely express the structure, depth, and concentration that only artisanal, varietally-pure winemaking can achieve. Savor Rafael et Fils Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay for a perfect melding of Old World techniques with New World fruit. (www.rafaeletfils.com).
Old Skool With Attitude
While California produces the vast majority of wine in the United States, Oregon boasts the largest number of boutique wineries, led by some of the country’s most creative and innovative winemakers. And if Napa Valley claims Cabernet Sauvignon as its show horse varietal, it’s Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley that produces Oregon’s signature wines. Oregon Pinot Noir can take on many expressions from fruity and full-bodied to earthy and lean, but Maison Noir’s founder Andre Mack crafts his wines to exemplify the classic Willamette Valley style: earthy, spicy, floral, and herbaceous.
Mack approaches his winemaking cleverly and with humor. As a banker-turned-sommelier, Mack launched his own winemaking company originally called “Mouton Noir”— “black sheep” with a reference to Bordeaux’s Chateau Mouton Rothchild. Like his wines, Mack’s witty, tongue-in-cheek labeling have resonated with drinkers because of their approachability, authenticity, and attitude. His wines are unique and “garagiste”—paying homage to France’s micro-negociant traditions. While his personal perspective on wine subculture is bold and audacious, his wines embody Old World notions of refined vineyard expression. Explore Maison Noir’s O.P.P. (Other People’s Pinot) for a distinctively “old skool” riff on Oregon’s signature grape. (www.maisonnoirwines.com).
The pandemic has encouraged me to more intrepid in my wine choices. How has it affected your love of the grape? I would love to hear how this new era has impacted your winederlust. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.