Welcome to The Spirit Haus, Amherst's Specialty Beverage Center

Tomorrow afternoon, we proceed unimpeded tasting an eclectic batch of wines beginning with a lovely Portuguese white, then to comparisons between Chardonnay from Chablis and Santa Barbara and 2014 Pinot Noir from Burgundy and the Santa Cruz Mountains, before finishing with an old vine Carignane/Grenache blend from Priorat. Our transition from Chardonnays to Pinot Noirs will be in the company of a Schiava from the Sudtirol/Alto Adige Denominazione of Northeast Italy.

This past Monday, Franck, the Ideal Wines salesman for Western Massachusetts, brought by two wines, a red and an white, from Vadio, a producer in the Bairrada DOC which is located on the coast of Central Portugal about 125 miles north of Lisbon and just a bit south of Porto. Bairrada is characterized by an immense plateau of soft hills and numerous valleys, with clay-limestone soils, an Atlantic influence and native grape varietals that make unique country-style wines. Vadio's Branco 2017 [$16.99], a blend of Bical and Cercial, couples a fresh, lifting aromatic and a surprisingly unctuous mouthfeel and finish that reminded me in its way of Viognier.!? It is the kind of white that pairs so well with winter soups.

Then to Vignoble Dampt's 2014 Chablis 1er Cru Les Fourneaux [$29.99] and Varner Wine's 2015 Chardonnay El Camino Vineyard [$26.99]. Probably co-incidentally, we have two pairs of brothers represented here: the Dampf brothers Eric and Emmanuel formally joining in 2009 to produce their wines; and the Varner twins, Jim and Bob, after graduating Davis in the early 1980s and searching for a “perfect” spot to plant Chardonnay and Pinot, settled on a farmer's hilly hay fields in northern part of the Santa Cruz Mountains ten miles from the ocean to dry farm and hand hoe plots that by 1988 had become Spring Ridge Vineyard. Unfortunately for the Varners, the farmer sold his land and, after 2014, the collaboration with the new owners fell apart. Thus, the Santa Barbara County AVA for tomorrow's 2015 Chardonnay.

However, the 2014 Varner Spring Ridge Vineyard Hidden Block Pinot Noir [$52.99] will be with us. So, before the Varners, Spring Ridge was just a hay field. From observing differences in how the hay grew, the brothers were able to glean and then soil test the several best plots for grapes. As a hay field, no insecticides or fertilizers had ever been used. The Varners hand harvest, ferment with indigenous yeast and use malolactic bacteria from the vineyard. Rather than fining and filtering, the barrels are hand-racked and the wine is siphoned off with a special method that leaves the lees undisturbed at the bottom of the barrels. Spring Ridge is also at a high enough elevation to avoid morning fogs. Thus, wines as naturally natural as can be and are highly expressive of their sites.

Lucien Le Moine's 2014 Bourgogne Rouge [$58.99], his basic regional bottling, will be our French Pinot. Le Moine bottles at least four dozen vineyard designate Burgundies. We have small amounts of Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Hauts Doix 2014 and Nuit Saint-Georges 1er Cru Vaucrains 2014 awaiting a future occasion. Winemaker Mounir Saouma doesn't rack his wines at all during their two years in barrel. We will give his Bourgogne a gentle decanting.

To shield the aromatic Pinots from Chardonnay's influence, we will taste next Nals Margreid's 2016 Schiava [$19.99] a beautifully ripe, light to medium bodied wine full of flavor from up Dolomite country on your way to the Alpine Bremmer pass into Austria. The wager is here is that this will bring a surprising smile. Here is a nice review:

Nals Margreid – Schiava Galea Alto Adige
Ian D'Agata, Vinous, September 2018: Bright pale red. Saline, perfumed aromas and flavors of red fruit and herbs, with hints of flint. The finish is very saline and characterized by Pinot Noir-like nuances. Fermented 6-7 days in cement on the skins and then aged in 80-90HL old oak. Made from ungrafted 100 year old Schiava Piccola (from where the modern day Schiava Piccola clones 40 and 59 vines were selected), grown near Bolzano in the Santa Maddalena area, a true grand cru for Schiava. The 2016 vintage proved to be an extremely great one for Schiava, as the grapes were picked on October 2-7, in a late harvested, air-dried state. Drink: 2018 – 2020. 92 points.

Then to finish, we jump to Spain with Ferrer Bobet's 2013 Vinyes Velles Priorat [$54.99], a full-bodied offering blending Cariñena with 30% Garnacha from the special slate soils around the village of Porrera. We'll give probably give this Mediterranean shaped beauty a decanting too. Here is its review:

Ferrer Bobet – Vinyes Velles Priorat 2013
Luis Gutierrez, Wine Advocate, Oct 2016:The 2013 Vinyes Velles is an old-vine cuvée that mixes Cariñena with some 30% Garnacha from slate slopes and terraces in the village of Porrera. It fermented in a combination of stainless steel and oak vats and matured in French oak barrels for some 15 months. There is a combination of fresh fruit and slate, with dusty minerality and imperceptible oak. The palate is medium to full-bodied with superb freshness and lively minerality, great persistence and length. It should develop nicely in bottle. There are 23,000 bottles produced. Drink: 2016 – 2023. 93+ points.

So, even wines from five different countries makes our afternoon beginning at 2 pm. Bread, cheese and salami will accompany to help with your focus. The paid portion of our tasting will be $6. Please see below for additional reviews of tomorrow's wines.

Thank you all so very much for your time and interest.


Vadio – Branco 2017
Mark Squires, Wine Advocate, Aug 2018: The 2017 Branco is a 60/40 blend of Cercial and Bical aged for eight months in used French oak. It comes in at 12.5% alcohol. Owner and winemaker Luis Patrão said this was arguably his best vintage since he began making wines in Bairrada (circa 2004). There seems to be fine acidity here to go with the big concentration, despite the fearsome reputation of the 2017 vintage. This is stuffed, long on the finish and surprisingly well balanced given the vintage difficulties. Different year, strange year—yet this works out to about the same place. It may be even slightly better than the 2016, but let's be a bit conservative just now. It's a fine value. It may also age better than anticipated, but let's start here. Drink: 2018-2025. 90 points.

Vignoble Dampt – Chablis Les Fourneaux 2014
Wine Spectator, Feb 2017: Taut and bracing, with fine tension supporting the peach, apple, stone and saline flavors. Almost mouthpuckering on the intense finish, presenting a chalky feel. Drink now through 2023. 112 cases imported. 92 points. –BS 
“Maturing in barrels for 30% and 70% in stainless steel curves. A rich, powerful, flattering and accessible wine.”

Varner – Chardonnay 2015 El Camino Vineyard Santa Barbara County
Antonio Galloni, Vinous, Sept 2017: The 2015 Chardonnay El Camino Vineyard is striking. Lemon confit, orange peel and tropically leaning flavors make a strong opening statement. Broad and ample on the palate, with plenty of supporting acids, the El Camino is a wonderfully complete wine, not to mention a terrific value. Drink: 2017-2023 . 92 points.

I have to admit, my most recent tasting with Bob and Jim Varner was bittersweet. The Varners have ended their collaboration with the Neely family, so the 2014s are the last wines the Varners made in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That is a real loss to the region and the wine world more broadly, as the Varners made stunning Chardonnays and Pinots from these sites. The Varners have moved to Santa Barbara County, where they are making a new Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the El Camino and Los Alamos vineyards respectively. Both wines deliver superb quality for the money. The Santa Cruz Moutains wines remain reference points for what is possible in these mountain terroirs; namely rich, phenolic Chardonnays and intense Pinots.

Varner 2014 Pinot Noir Hidden Block Santa Cruz Mountains
Antonio Galloni, Vinous, June 2018: The 2014 Pinot Noir Hidden Block is the most immediate and dense of the four Pinots in the Varner range. A core of sweet red cherry and plum fruit fills out the wine's mid-weight frame effortlessly. Round, pliant and totally seductive, the 2014 has a lot to offer, including tons of near and medium-term appeal. Drink: 2018 – 2026.

William Kelley, Wine Advocate, May 2018; Bursting from the glass with notes of smoky cassis, elderberry, pomegranate and nori, the 2014 Pinot Noir Hidden Block Spring Ridge Vineyard cuts a broad, lavish swath across the palate, revealing velvety tannins, an ample core of ripe, dark fruits and a long, generous finish. It's among the fleshier and more generous of these four Pinot Noirs, and it's already drinking well. Drink: 2018-2028. 91 points.

My wife and I visited the Varner brothers' winery on Spring Ridge in 2014 in the midst of harvest on our honeymoon, so it was more than interesting to taste through these lovely Pinot Noirs. It's a great swan song vintage, as in 2015 the brothers' relationship with these vineyards—which they planted and nurtured for three decades—came to an end.