Tired of Malbec? Try Cabernet Franc from Argentina

Think of Argentinian wine. If Malbec comes to mind followed by a shrug or shudder, I feel your pain. Argentina has tumbled down this monovariety’s path, much like Australia did with Shiraz decades ago.  Malbec became the recession’s answer to find a big red for less.  But it is a race to the bottom that backfires.  The grape, and Argentina by association, are now caged by their success.  They exist in most minds as a cheap alternative.

But what of Malbec’s parent from Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc?  Cab Franc hails from cooler climates thanks to its short season.  It makes for love/hate reds with acidity, leanness, complex aromatics, wild-berried fruits, and a tendency for green bell pepper. But how might it fare in the high, hot/cold, desert of Mendoza, Argentina?

Achaval Ferrer started in the mid 1990s. They planted cab franc as a blending grape for their Bordeaux blend, Quimera. But with the 2015 vintage, they decided the vines were ready for their own bottling.  Young winemaker Gustavo Rearte took the lead.

Achaval’s practices seem rare for Argentina, or anywhere. Cropping and sorting pars each vine down to only one bottle (usually a vine makes four bottles). They do not add sulfur. They avoid malolactic fermentation. They do not clarify, filter, add acid, or enzymes. They ferment hot.  Their Cabernet Franc sees only used oak.

But how is this first stab?

Achaval Ferrer Cabernet Franc 2015 Mendoza Argentina Wine

APPEARANCE: A clear, medium ruby-colored red fills to a clear edge with bamboo shoot legs.

Dainty AROMAS of rose water, perfume, and old cigar box hang over a core of headier, hot, mashed, red raspberries and plum.

The dry PALATE ziplines with high-toned acidity and medium woody tannins. Fiery kindling of 14.5% alcohol heats every crevice of my mouth.  The body is mid-weight. The texture feels snappy and flinty.

FLAVORS carry the theme with thin slices of tart green apple peel that overlay a salad of plump plum, pickled beats, raspberries, and licorice that cary a medium plus length.

Achaval Ferrer’s Cab Franc crackles with energy.   It is very good (4 of 5) and under $20.  I credit both the lack of malolactic fermentation and new oak: both would have muddled it.  This wine thrives with food: from olives, lean meat dishes, and charcuterie, to hard cheeses and red sauce pastas.

This may make converts out of Cab Franc haters.  Big Malbec drinkers may want more but it will still intrigue them.  Achaval Ferrer has had a brilliant first crack at Cabernet Franc. I hope the rest of Argentina will listen.

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Wine Review: Sparkling Aligote from Cave de Bissey

I need to bring something home.  Even though I sell wine, my wife deserves something different from time to time. Champagne would be great.  But I only have a $20.  I start flipping the bottles at a store checking back labels for something new. Then, one read in small print at the top:

“60% Aligoté 30% Pinot Noir 10% Chardonnay”

It was a Crémant de Bourgogne.  Now think Burgundy: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate the landscape.  But Aligoté!?  I have had a few still Aligoté: from Pierre Morey’s (here), to Villaine’s DRC side project, to Canada’s solid try (here).  But I did not realize that after 30% of the mainstays, AOC rules allow up to 70% Aligoté in Crémant de Bourgogne.

Cool! Literally.

Aligoté survives in small Burgundian pockets like Bouzeron.  It trickled into Eastern Europe, Canada, and other cool marginal climates. Even Bulgaria grows twice that of Burgundy.

Once upon a time Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir birthed Aligoté.  It shares the high acid, herbaceous, and mineral tendencies of pinot blanc and gris.

So how does it fair in the hands of Cave de Bissey?

Cave de Bissey came together as a cooperative of growers in 1928, down South in Bissey sous Cruchaud, a small village in the Côte Chalonnaise between the Maconnais region and the Côte d’Or.  Today 40 growers and 5 employees control the whole vinification process of their Crémant, from harvesting to bottling.  They sell 65% at the cellar.

Bissey’s Cremant comes from 60 acres, 800+ feet above sea level. Secondary bottle fermentation lasts three whole years: that is a solid amount of lees time.

Let’s crack it!


Cave de Bissey Cremant de Bourgogne Brut

The APPEARANCE looks a clear, pale straw with fine, rapid bubbles.

AROMAS twinkle with fresh cut grass, raw strawberry, and lime squeeze.

The PALATE feels dry, crisp with medium plus acidity, a light body, soft linen-textured, and crinkling with effervescence.

Delicate FLAVORS of lime water, quince, white fig, and salt carry for a mild but lengthy tenure.

Cave de Bissey’s Crémant de Bourgogne is delightful, crisp, and pithy with a delicate finish: like a gentle handshake or a sunny Spring rain.  For a mere $18.00 it is very good (4 of 5). Drink it as is, with oysters, nicoise salad, or goat cheese anything.

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Family Matters: Winery Tour of Trefethen Family Vineyards Oak Knoll Napa Valley California

Go to Napa or read the back of a wine label: most wineries will insist that a family owns them. This selling tactic attempts to ground all the Disney-land glamour onto something parochial and familiar.  But family ownership is not unique, roughly 80% of wineries in Napa are. Nor does family ownership ensure smallness or quality. Gallo is a family. So are mafias. Heck, corporations are people these days.

Thus, I visit Trefethen with trepidation. They too point to the Trefethen family’s ownership as a defining feature. But is it?

Like so many, the family left a successful business (Kaiser’s construction biz in this case), and bought Napa land in the 1960s (a hefty 600 valley acres in Oak Knoll). The Trefethens, oddly, wanted to farm, so they only sold grapes. But Eugene and Catherine’s son John started making wine in secret, then commercially, and then on the heels of 1976’s Judgment of Paris, saw his 1976 Chardonnay win 1979 Gault Millau’s World Wine Olympics in Paris.

Wait. Stop. See what happened there? We already fell down their rabbit hole. This narrative could be repeated for countless wineries and made into a Bottle Shock-esque film sequel. Does Trefethen’s family still care? Still make the wine? Or is it all faded glory for a bottle label?

Our tour begins in front of an 1886 barn that once housed Eschol Winery.
Trefethen Barn Front

It looks tidy and imposing now, but in 2014 a 6.0 magnitude earthquake tried to throw it to the ground.  Luckily barrels were only filled with water at the time. But the photos that line the second floor show two CAT diggers barely propping the barn up.

Trefethen Barn Fall

Any corporation would have bulldozed it and built something modern and better. But John and wife Janet worked and lived here. It was still the working winery.  It was built by Victorian Scottish architect of Napa icons Greystone (now the CIA), Far Niente, and Inglenook.  The winery had become a family member.  So they saved it.

Downstairs steel supports lattices of ancient beams.  Floor to ceiling windows protect barrels like a zoo. It retains a tired yet tidy charm.

Trefethen Barrel Room

The second story opens to a high ceiling.  The tasting arena overlooks a museum of century old winery equipment and more barrels.  The modern juxtaposes the old well here.

Second Story Tasting Room Trefethen

We head to the test vineyard.

Here things get interesting.  The Trefethen’s have never bought a grape.  Every wine comes from their 600 acres.  Even when phylloxera hit in the 1980s, they just replanted 10,000 new vines and scaled back.  Most wineries, bent on growth and profit, would buy fruit at least in bad years, or create second labels, brand extensions, or just push their wines into collectors’ realm prices.

Instead, the Trefethens seem to care. They practice sustainability on all fronts. In a country where vine-labor is seasonal, all their pickers work full-time, year-round with medical.  100% of power comes from solar. All water is reused. Owl and bat boxes and ponds aid biodiversity and control pests. Vine-wise, they plant a wide range of clonal types to avoid monoculture-led diseases.

Trefethen Vines Chardonnay

Prices stay shockingly affordable, especially for Estate Napa wine. Their main range starts around $20 for their Dry Riesling and stops around $55 with their Malbec-driven Dragon’s Tooth.

O.K.  I have drunk the Koolade and we have yet to taste anything. That or I am dehydrated. The half hour vine lecture in the sun definitely baked a few brain cells.

Regardless, we try the Trefethen’s wines with winemaker Jon Ruel. They taste clean, dry, minimally oaked, classic Napa, with enough acidity that balances them beyond reproach.  A course on Napa could use them as benchmarks.

I assume our tour has ended. Time for the next winery! But then they lead us through a hedge. We enter an herb garden that looks more like a forest:

Trefethen Garden

A villa emerges from the greenery and at the courtyard’s end sits a long table dressed for lunch.  We sit.  Then in floats Janet Trefethen and son Loren.  Janet woos us with her grace and snark.  She delves into their nitty gritty past, selling wine out of a van, and how she fought the 70’s male hegemony as one of the first female wine executives.

Janet Trefethen Lunch Napa

Son Loren lets mom range widely, but he quietly admits that he and his sister work full time at the winery, himself sliding into its marketing, while his sister, Hailey, into viticulture.

Meanwhile, a magnum of Trefethen’s 1990 Chardonnay fills my glass.

Trefethen 1990 Chardonnay Napa Valley

1990. I had just started hoping the Portland Blazer’s with Clyde Drexler could win the NBA Finals.  Meanwhile, in Napa, those twenty seven years ago, drought led to late season rains that saved the vintage. But does Trefethen’s wine have the quality to hold up?

The APPEARANCE looks a clear rich gold. AROMAS and FLAVORS still pop with verbena, lemon, wax, fennel, and hazelnut and hang a medium plus length. The PALATE remains dry, with ample acidity, and a medium body.  Somehow, 1990’s Chard is still outstanding (5 of 5). The salmon Tartar with kiwi, ginger, jalepino and greens works well with it.
While plates of beef filet, pomme anna, veg and chimchuri from their garden roll out, another magnum appears:
1996 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Trefethen 1996 Cabernet 1996. I had just started high school, meanwhile a wet winter and swings in temperature made for a challenging Napa vintage. American and French oak barrels tempered a Cabernet:
The APPEARANCE looked clear, medium ruby, framed by garnet and washing legs. AROMAS glow with crab apple, dried raspberry, cherry skin, still bright with a lovely dusky frame of licorice, old cigar box, and dried violet. THE PALATE felt lean and synced with medium plus acidity, backed by medium tannins, alcohol, and body.  FLAVORS were flush with mouthwatering, juicy cranberry, black raspberry, red cherry, turning to orange peel and salt that carried a medium plus length. Outstanding (5 of 5).
Janet takes a few of us through their villa, even into the bathrooms. I ask her if they have room for adoption.
OK, fine. Now I have drunk the Koolade.
So, does family ownership matter?  Yes, but it depends. The gap between generations can leave a winery a shell with a figurehead. But the Trefethens still hold their winery close to their heart. Their kids have decided to carry the mantel.
We went to many wineries in Napa and Sonoma. But visiting Trefethen felt like visiting a neighbor…a posh, fabulous, yet grounded, caring neighbor with a great cellar.
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Summer Wine Review: Lone Madrone The Dodd Paso Robles 2011 Tannat Red Blend

It is hot. But we have steak, broccoli, and purple potatoes. That, and my mother-in-law has arrived with wines from Paso Robles: that warm, central coast Cali region that grows a wild diversity of grape varieties.

Tonight’s offering, a red blend from Lone Madrone:

Lone Madrone The Dodd Paso Robles 2011

Grapes come from the Klau Mine Vineyard, tended by the Dodd family in old school fashion: dry farmed and head pruned in the cooler hills of western Paso’s Adelaide region. A rare borderlands grape from Basque country in the French Pyrenees called Tannat makes up the most of it with 61%. The grape snuck into Paso thanks to a French nurseryman who knew better than Tablas Creek.  15% Zinfandel, 14% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon follow. Wild yeast do their thing, then a mix of 90% used American oak barrels finish the wine in 18 months.

Lone Madrone, The Dodd, Red Blend, Paso Robles CA 2011

The APPEARANCE looks a deep ruby color that clears to a narrow rim, while washing vine-like legs. Wild AROMAS pounce with a feral musk, violet flowers, folding into figs, saddle leather, bourbon vanilla, white smoke (hi, American oak). The dry PALATE feels crisp and crunchy, with a worn knife edge of medium acidity, lean tannins, medium alcohol and body, Fruits dominate FLAVORS with extra berries, mulling spices, orange peel, and a range of spices finishing with leather and pine needles that last a medium plus length.

Lone Madrone’s The Dodd Red is sprightly and wild yet dark and complex. It is very good (4 of 5) and stands up to any grilled goods your summer will offer.

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