For the past year we have been importing and selling a very unique Bordeaux-style wine from Croatia, produced by the Josić winery. We were thrilled when we read a review of this wine on one of our favorite blogs: Strong Coffee to Red Wine. With permission, we are excerpting Rick Dean’s evocative write-up on one of our very favorite Croatian wines.
I found this bottle on Topochines.com, an online wine retailer. I was drawn to them because of their selection of wines from Croatia. The shop also carries smaller offerings of wines from Italy, Spain, France, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and the USA. In 2019 they are adding 8-9 wines from Portugal. The offerings are unique no matter the country of origin, so I’m sure I will be sampling many others as well.
But it was this wine that I most wanted to try. All of the others are from indigenous grapes to Croatia but this one is a blend of recognizable, international grape varieties and I thought that would be a good place to start. The few wines from indigenous grapes are waiting for me in the cooler.
This wine is more accurately an International Red Blend with 35% Cabernet Franc, 35% Syrah, 30% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the use of Syrah that is not considered a Bordeaux varietal that makes this more of an international blend. Regardless of who’s blend it is, it is flipping delicious.
The color is deep purple. The wine is bone dry with medium-plus acid. The tannins are soft and lingering. The nose is an explosion of aromas. Never have I smelled so much in a wine before. Dried figs predominate followed by bing cherries. Next is the burn of alcohol and a bit of caramel. After a second swirl came sandalwood, sawdust and chocolate covered cherries. And finally, some cooked black fruits. This was such an exceptional smelling experience. I could have kept my nose in the glass for hours.
The flavors on the palate were a bit closed off but enjoyable all the same. Mostly was stewed black fruits like prunes and figs; followed by mild licorice and dark chocolate. The finish was lingering with the soft tannins reasserting themselves.
I am thrilled with this wine and am so glad I chose to make the purchase. I look forward to the wines from Croatia’s indigenous grapes later this winter.
We recently encountered a travel company that has the type of experience in Croatia and surrounding countries that we wish we knew about when we planned our first trip there. www.AdriaticTours.com. Read to the bottom for contact information and to obtain a discount on their services for being a Topochines Vino reader!
Some travel is less intimidating than others. For instance, if we travel to other states in the U.S., this is generally not intimidating because the currency stays the same, everyone speaks the same language, no visa or passport is required, and most of the hotels and airlines are well-known to us. Traveling outside of the U.S. can be more intimidating, but much of Europe feels manageable because of the single currency (Euro), the well-known landmarks (Eiffel Tower, Grand Canal in Venice, Colosseum in Rome, etc.), and the availability of literally hundreds of tour companies and guide books available to make any trip worry-free.
When we decided to go to Croatia at the end of 2016, though, the intimidation factor was pretty high despite the destination being a European country. Although they joined the EU in 2013, Croatia has yet to adopt the Euro as its currency; the Kuna is still its currency of record. Further, our familiarity with the local language is as close to zero as you can get, and their alphabet has a number of unique letters and characters that really threw us off. While there are an increasing number of tourists going to Croatia – drawn by their beautiful beaches, their affiliation with Game of Thrones, and the relatively economical cost of travel – travel resources are not as deep as they would be for Spain, France, Italy or other popular continental destinations.
When we planned our trip, we did so without any assistance beyond what we were able to find out using Google and reading travel blogs. So much of what we read turned out to be nonsense, including the dangers of traveling by car (crooked police pull over foreigners rampantly and give them tickets, while locals pretend to have car trouble and rob tourists who pull over to help). We were literally traveling blind, though, because we did not have much reliable information about the places we wanted to visit or stay. In the end, we managed to have a fantastic trip but we realized that we missed so many beautiful places because, well, we just didn’t know better.
We recently came across a travel company that we wish we had known about when we were planning our first-ever visit to Croatia: Adriatic Travel, started over 44 years ago by Niko Hazdovac, a native of Croatia who moved to the United States. After a career as a merchant marine officer, Niko started Adriatic Travel to provide those with Croatian ancestry a reliable way to visit their homeland or the homeland of their parents and grandparents. Today, Adriatic Travel is still a family run travel agency with deep roots in Croatia as well as surrounding countries.
Adriatic Travel has a wide range of services and experiences for travelers looking to soak in everything Croatia has to offer. For those that prefer to cruise, they offer trips on both sailing ships as well as motorized vessels. Examples of their cruises include:
Venice to Dubrovnik (or vice-versa)
Zadar to Dubrovnik (or vice-versa)
Round-trip from Dubrovnik to Split
Dubrovnik to Porec.
A full list of their Adriatic sea cruises can be found here: Sea Cruises.
For those desiring a bit more adventure on the seas, Adriatic Travel also offers charter cruises priced by the week for small groups of a dozen or so. Longer charter trips come with captain, sailing crew, chef, and waiters to provide a luxurious on-water experience. “Bareboat” charters – those with no crew – are available for those that are bold enough to commandeer their own vessel. Adriatic Travel can set up many different craft charters from catamaran, sail boats, speedboats, and more. More information on their charters can be found here: Charter Cruises.
Of course, not everyone wants to travel by boat when they visit Croatia, especially given the number of sights on land and inland. For travelers who would like to explore the cities in more depth, visit wineries, and tour some of Croatia‘s stunning national parks, Adriatic Travel offers escorted land tours. Some of the most intriguing for us are:
Croatian Food and Wine Tour, which starts in Zagreb and ends in Dubrovnik. In between, travelers will visit several wineries and partake in the delicious local foods.
Dubrovnik to Venice, with stops in beautiful Kotor, Montenegro; a day at the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia; a visit to Lubljana in Slovenia; ending in the magical city of Venice.
Belgrade to Zagreb, with many exciting stops in between including Montenegro and Slovenia, along with several stunning stops in Croatia.
When we traveled to Croatia we managed to visit Slovenia (for a few hours) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (for two days). Unfortunately, we missed Montenegro and Serbia; next visit we will make sure to visit both countries as we have heard amazing things about them.
In addition to the various tours and excursions we have mentioned, Adriatic Travel also offers assistance with air reservations, car reservations, and one-way transfers and private excursions with driver. We rented our own car but we have to say it would have been much more convenient (and safe!) to have taken advantage of an excursion to visit wine country.
If you are thinking of making a trip to Croatia or any of the Balkan countries (Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia), consider Adriatic Travel. You can contact Peter Hazdovac at firstname.lastname@example.org. Friends of Topochines Vino will receive $100.00 off per person when they book any tour or cruise with Adriatic Travel. Let us know if you are planning to travel to Croatia or if you already have we would love to hear about your experience.
The ability of social media to connect people across countries and continents has several very powerful proof points for us. One of these proof points is a seemingly random “like” and “follow” that we received after one of our tweets in the summer of 2016. We do not remember what the particular tweet was, but it resulted in a message from an Italian winery, The Vinum, letting us know how much they liked our wine blog. We looked them up and saw the range of wines they produce in Italy and asked a fateful question via Twitter: “Where can we find your wines in the U.S. – we would love to try some?” They answered that they did not sell their wines in the United States. Well, we said, we’re going to be in Italy in a few months, maybe we can connect.
Vassilios Dragani, one of the principals of The Vinum, asked where we were staying and offered to ship some wines to our hotel for us to try. As our trip got closer, Vassilios let us know that he changed his mind and would not be shipping the wines. Instead, he would make the 6 hour drive from his home in the Abruzzo wine region and have dinner with us in Venice where we were staying. About a week before we arrived in Venice, Vassilios emailed and asked if it was okay for him to bring his wife Natalia along on the trip, as she is also a partner in the business. We thought this would be even better as it would make for an easy foursome at dinner.
On a lovely night in Venice, at the restaurant atop the famous Hotel Danieli, we met Vassilios and Natalia and enjoyed a fantastic dinner with them which included several of their wines. After a wonderful evening we left our new wine friends and went back to our hotel with a mixed case of The Vinum wine.
Saying goodbye after dinner
This case would travel with us for the next 2 1/2 weeks from Italy to Slovenia to Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, making a final stop in Istanbul before we flew back to San Francisco.
Immediately after meeting Vassilios and Natalia and tasting their wines, we knew we wanted to import those wines to the United States. To our taste, the wines were perfect expressions of their terroir and incredibly high quality but at price points that were super-competitive compared to U.S. wines of the same quality. But we wanted to validate the quality of the wines with some real experts and had a high-pressure tasting with a Master Sommeliers (there are just over 200 in the entire world). This Master Somm owns his own wine store and a few hours after we presented our wines, someone on his team reached out to us and ordered several cases of wine (our very first order as importers).
Today, we offer a range of The Vinum wines on our online wine store, Topochines Vino. These are the wines currently in stock:
2009 The Vinum Barbaresco DOCG
As wine nerds know, “DOCG” means Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) and is the highest designation of quality for Italian wines. By several measures, the quality of The Vinum’s 2009 Barbaresco is superior. At the 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards, The Vinum’s Barbaresco received an impressive Silver Medal. After tasting this Barbaresco, James Suckling, one of the most respected reviewers of Italian wines, gave The Vinum Barbaresco a score of 92.
An impressive 92 points for The Vinum Barbaresco
Supporting this score were the following notes: “This is seriously rich and ripe now with plenty of cooked cherry and flower character. Full body, round and flavorful. Plenty of dried fruit, spice and cedar flavors. Long and persistent finish. Chewy. Drink or hold.”
This wine features 100% Nebbiolo grapes from the Piedmont region in northern Italy. Vassilios and team source the grapes from small growers in those regions that produce the highest-quality fruit.
2011 The Vinum Barolo DOCG
As with the Barbaresco, The Vinum Barolo is also of the highest quality – DOCG – and a favorite with wine critics. The aforementioned James Suckling had this to say about The Vinum 2011 Barolo, to which he awarded 90 points: “Lots of tar and rose aromas. Full body, silky and chewy tannins and a long and flavorful finish. A compacted and young Barolo. Lovely now.”
90 points for The Vinum Barolo
This wine features 100% Nebbiolo grapes from Piedmont, sourced from vineyards high up on the slopes in La Morra.
2014 The Vinum Colline Pescaresi
This wine is produced from grapes grown on The Vinum’s estate in Abruzzo. Think of this wine as a cousin of the Super Tuscan wines, which are generally blends of indigenous Italian grapes with international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. While a Super Tuscan might contain Sangiovese and one or more international varietals, The Vinum’s “Super Abruzzo” is a blend of Montepulciano (60%) with 25% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.
2016 The Vinum Montepulciano D’Abruzzo DOC
This wine, produced from 100% Montepulciano grapes, is referred to affectionately at The Vinum as “Il Rosso” – the red wine. Made from organic grapes grown on The Vinum’s estate vineyards, this is a powerhouse wine. Visually this wine is stunning, dark, almost inky, with a silky appearance when swirled. This wine has a lush, almost syrupy mouth-feel and a beautifully smooth finish.
2015 The Vinum Chianti Superiore DOCG
This wine is produced from grapes grown in Italy’s Tuscany region in the small town of Fiesole, in the hills just outside of Florence. A 100% Sangiovese, this wine is made from organic grapes and only produced in years in which The Vinum team believes the grapes are of sufficient quality. Simply put, this Tuscan wine is super.
2010 The Vinum Langhe Rosso DOC
This is the third Piedmont red wine from The Vinum that we offer on our site, Topochines Vino. While the Barbaresco and Barolo are 100% Nebbiolo, this Langhe Rosso is an inventive blend of two traditional Piedmont grapes – Nebbiolo and Barbera. Together, these two varietals create an elegant, full-bodied wine with an impressive finish. This 2010 wine is ageing beautifully and certainly ready to drink now.
2016 The Vinum Moscato D’Asti DOCG
If you’re thinking, “Oh, I’ve had Moscato before,” we have to point out that this is not just Moscato, but Moscato D’Asti. There are two important differences about this wine and other Moscato wines we have tasted. First, this wine is slightly sparkling, or “frizzante” as our friends in Italy like to say. Second, this wine has only 5.5% alcohol – far less than some beers we have consumed lately. At this alcohol level, it makes for a delicious and refreshing dessert wine.
There are several other wines from The Vinum that we are planning to bring over in our next shipment, including a delicious Prosecco and our favorite take on Rosé – a Cerasuolo D’Abruzzo made from Montepulciano grapes.
We look forward to long and fruitful relationship with The Vinum, grape growers and wine makers who share our passion for small production, organic wines that are true to their varietal and the terroir in which the grapes were grown. For us, the people and the stories of grape growers and wine makers shape our overall experience with the wines themselves. Today, the driving force behind The Vinum is a new generation of growers and vintners, led by Vassilios Dragani and joined by his wife Natalia, his sister Cristina and his friend Pina Paolucci. The Dragani and Paolucci families have had vineyards and wine cellars in Abruzzo going back to 1812. In the middle part of the 20th century, the families expanded their vineyards and started selling their wines across the Abruzzo region.
Now the Dragani and Paolucci vineyards have been merged together and this generation has pushed The Vinum beyond Abruzzo: they are now purchasing grapes from select producers in other regions to make excellent terroir-driven wine with a constant attention to quality. In Italy it is not uncommon for a wine group to own vineyards in different regions and produce wine under multiple brand names. The Vinum, though, wanted to produce all of its wines under a single label and make “The Vinum” synonymous with quality and care for the environment.
We read an article recently in a reputable publication that proclaimed Zinfandel as California’s “heritage grape,” and went on to describe this grape varietal as “a quintessentially American phenomenon. It’s zesty, rugged and loud, challenging to rear, a lover of barbecue.” This characterization of Zinfandel is not uncommon and we have even heard more casual wine consumers refer to Zinfandel as “American’s wine grape.” As charming as this characterization is, it does not stand up to reality or, more importantly, science.
Some people take their grapes really, really seriously!
The story of original sin involves a fruit and a man named Adam; in his case, the fruit was allegedly an apple. In the case of “original Zin,” a man and a fruit are again involved, but in this case the man is named Miljenko and the fruit is a grape. As Adam was fascinated by the apple, Miljenko Grgic (Americanized to Mike Grgich when he came to this country), had a deep fascination with grapes.
Meeting the legend himself at Grgich Hills
In 1959 Mike Grgich arrived in Napa Valley and started working at Souverain Cellars & Vineyard where he encountered Zinfandel grapes on their property. Studying the canes, leaves, clusters, berry color and size, and, eventually, the juice the grapes produced, Grgich was convinced that Zinfandel was anything but a “quintessentially American phenomenon.” To his eye, Zinfandel and the indigenous Plavac Mali grape from his native Croatia were one and the same. Zinfandel, therefore, originated from his native Croatia. For many years, he steadfastly maintained this conviction and shared it with anyone who would listen.
Okay they do look alike …
In 1990 Mike Grgich made his first return trip to Croatia since leaving the country thirty-six years before in 1954. To him, the similarities between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel were still apparent during this trip and he remained convinced they were the same grape varietal. On his next trip, in 1993, Grgich stepped it up a notch and actually took Napa Valley Zinfandel clusters, leaves and canes with him to Croatia to do a literal physical side-by-side comparison. His conclusion? The same grape.
Almost 5 years went by before Grgich took a step that would settle the question once and for all as to the relationship between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel – a step that would prove Grgich both right and wrong. This step involved connecting with Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor in the renowned Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. Her area of expertise was – and yes, this really is a thing – grape genetics. As a grape geneticist, Dr. Meredith studied the genes of grapes to understand how those genes contribute to making the grapes and vines they way they are. She had a particular interest in the history of wine and understanding where specific grape varietals came from, which made her a perfect investigative partner for Mike Grgich.
Professor Meredith receiving the Order of Danica Hrvatska medal from the Croatian government
In 1998 Carole Meredith and Mike Grgich got together and he shared with her his opinion about Zinfandel and Plavac Mali. This visit inspired Carole to go to Croatia herself that same year to see for herself if she could definitively solve the Zinfandel-Plavac Mali puzzle. She took samples from over 150 Plavac Mali vines from vineyards in the most renowned growing areas of Croatia, including the Peljesac Peninsula (where Mike Grgich has a winery today called Grgic Vina) and the island of Hvar. Upon returning to U.C. Davis with her samples, Dr. Meredith performed a series of genetic tests on them and reached a definitive conclusion: Zinfandel and Plavac Mali were not the same grape. What she did discover through her tests, though, is that these two grapes are related. As she put it, Plavac Mali is the “son” of Zinfandel; in other words, Zinfandel and another grape together produced Plavac Mali. So after nearly 50 years of believing Zinfandel was his native Plavac Mali, Mike Grgich turned out to be wrong. But something interesting would happen soon after that would make him right again, sort of anyway.
Never one to give up, Carole Meredith continued her work, having connected with two professors from the University of Zagreb who were looking for help in using DNA tools to understand better the indigenous Croatian grapes and how they would be impacted by modern development and globalization. The three professors continued to search for the elusive connection to Zinfandel and, lo and behold, they found it! Near the port town of Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, nine Crljenak Kastelanski vines were found that DNA testing determined to be a 100% genetic match to Zinfandel. As it turns out, Zinfandel was not Plavac Mali but it was indigenous to Croatia. Subsequent historical research has shown that Croatian Zinfandel (also known as Tribidrag) was planted as far back as the 15th century. What the Italians call Primitivo is also Zinfandel, having originated from the Croatian Tribidrag and been imported to Italy some 200-300 years ago.
Crljenak/Tribidrag grapes growing in Croatia
We were so intrigued by this story that we made a trip to Croatia in late 2016 and soaked up as much wine and vineyard knowledge as we could. We trudged around the Peljesac Peninsula where Mike Grgich’s beloved Plavac Mali grows on steeps slopes just meters from the sea. Over the course of 2 ½ weeks we tasted dozens of Croatian wines and fell in love with the character, depth, and complexity of their wines. Our favorite? Crljenak Kastelanski (or Zinfandel if that’s easier to pronounce). We loved this wine so much that we are now importing a Crljenak Kastelanski produced by Vina Matela. We recently tasted this wine with an 86-year old winemaker partner and he proclaimed: “This is one of the best wines I’ve ever had.” We have to agree.
Wine consumers that are looking for “California Zin” should ignore the Vina Matela offering as it will not live up to expectations. Frequently fans of California Zinfandel use terms such as “jammy” or “fruit bomb” to describe their favorite wine. Matela’s Crljenak Kastelanski has nice fruit on the nose and the palate but is a much more complex, rich, and balanced wine. Fruit aroma and flavor are matched with a strong earthiness driven by the unique conditions of the mountain soil in which the grapes are grown.
You can purchase Matela Crljenak Kastelanski at www.topochines.com. Click on “Countries” and then “Croatia” to find this wine along with our complete range of white and red Croatian wines for sale. Readers of this blog can enter “Friends15” at checkout for a 15% discount. For those interested in a broader exploration of the Croatian red wines, we also offer two different Plavac Mali wines, one from winemaker Tomic and the other from Edivo. We will provide a deeper review of each of these wines in Croatian Wines, Part III.
We import white and red Croatian wines and make them available to U.S. consumers at our Topochines Vino online wine store: www.topochinesvino.com.
In late 2016 we made our first ever foray to the Balkans, a trip that was planned more or less on a whim and without any goal in mind but to explore the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia. When this former communist country imploded in the early 1990’s, a number of countries formed out of its ashes – either six or seven, depending on whom you ask. Yes, in that part of the world, everything is up for dispute. At a minimum, the former Yugoslavia now comprises Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia. For reasons too complicated to explain here, Macedonia is usually referred to as the FYROM – the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Counting Macedonia, there are six countries that have sprung from the boundaries of the old Yugoslavia. We’ll save the story about Kosovo for another day, but you can see on this map that it is considered an autonomous province of Serbia.
There is a lot going on in this region!
On our 2 1/2 week trip we visited half of the countries that make up former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. During this trip – which originated in Venice – we met wine makers and other wine experts that opened our eyes up about this truly fascinating region. We were somewhat familiar with the history of the region, going back to the murder of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that sparked WWI, extending all the way through the recent Balkan war. A very important detail, though, had escaped us: the region’s viticulture and enology.
During our trip we learned that grape growing and wine making in Croatia, for example, go back 2,500 years to the time of the Ancient Greek settlers. All along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, grapes were planted and quality wine was made for both domestic use as well as export. In more recent times, private wine production was hampered by the communist Yugoslav government, resulting in much of the wine industry being cooperatives, with private ownership discouraged. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, private ownership of land once again emerged and the commercial production of wine once again became vibrant. For the uninitiated, here is a quick primer on Croatian wines:
Wine Regions. While there are 300 recognized sub-regions in Croatia, they can be broken down into two broad categories: Continental and Coastal. Historically, much of the hype has come from the Coastal region as it encompasses the well-known Istria region (very similar in many ways to Tuscany) and the Dalmatian coastal and island vineyards that produce some of the best wines in Croatia. However, in the past several years producers in the Continental part of Croatia – primarily Slavonia and Plešivica – have begun making wines that are getting international attention. We have recently tasted some of these wines, including some delicious sparkling wines, and plan to import them here to the U.S. and offer them on our Topochines Vino online wine store.
Even with the recent surge of quality in the Continental region, the focus in Croatia is still on the Coastal regions of Istria and Dalmatia. Many visitors to Istria compare it to Tuscany, both for its physical resemblance as well as the quality food and wine available.
Stunning views of Istrian vineyards in Croatia
Both red and white wines are produced in Istria, and vineyards feature both indigenous and international grape varietals. The most common indigenous white grape grown in Istria is Malvasia; the most common red varietal is Teran. We are offering a crisp, refreshing Istrian Malvasia from producer Benvenuti: Buy Malvasia.
Farther down the coast of Dalmatia one encounters some of the most famous regions and vineyards in all of Croatia. most of them producing wine from indigenous Croatian varietals. Dalmatia breaks into three geographic sub-regions: Northern Dalmatia, Interior Dalmatia, and Central/Southern Dalmatia. These regions are largely dedicated to producing indigenous Croatian white varietals such as Bogdanuša, Debit, Grk, and Ninčuša and red varietals including Crljenak Kaštelanski, Dobričić, Plavina and Plavac Mali.
Geographically, the vineyards and wineries in Dalmatia are stunning and unlike anything we have ever seen. One of the places we visited was Grgic Vina, the Croatian winery owned by Napa winemaking legend Mike Grgich (of Grgich Hills). Their winery is a literal stone’s throw from the Adriatic sea and their vineyards a few hundred meters up the slope from the sea.
Grgic Vina on Croatia’s Peljesac Peninsula in Croatia
Along the coast, many of the vineyards can be found on unbelievably sloped hills, some of them with upwards of 45 degree slope with vines running straight up and down the hill.
Plavac Mali vines in Dingac (Croatia)
Obviously, harvest must be done by hand and in most cases the pickers have to be harnessed and tethered due to the extreme slope.
In all of our travels to U.S. and foreign wine regions, we have not seen anything quite like the Dalmatian region of Croatia. While many vines are on the mainland close to the sea, some of the most famous vineyards are on islands and/or peninsulas: Hvar, Brac, Korcula, Vis, and the Peljesac Peninsula that houses the Dingac vineyards above.
Island of Korcula, home to Grk and Posip (Croatia)
Island of Hvar (Croatia)
In our second installment on Croatia wines, we will go deeper into some of the wines that we think are most special and give more information about some of the most important indigenous varietals.
This is the latest chapter in our ongoing series of posts about wines and wine makers that we feature on our Online Wine Store. Our Topochines Vino wine store focuses on small-production wines from family wineries in the United States and Europe. This chapter is dedicated to one of our newer winery partners, Ghost Hill Cellars in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, whose 2013 and 2014 Pinot Noir Blanc are sold on our site.
Most of the world’s champagne is made from the red Pinot Noir grape. After the Pinot Noir grapes are pressed, the extracted juice is removed before the dark skins contribute any color. What emerges from this process is a clear liquid that will, after a couple of fermentations, become champagne. What many people do not know is that a still, white wine can also be produced from Pinot Noir Grapes; this wine is called Pinot Noir Blanc, or white Pinot Noir. We encountered this wine recently during a trip to find unique wines for our Topochines Vino wine store. We were so impressed with the wine that we snapped up several cases and the 2013 and 2014 vintages are now available here: Ghost Hill Pinot Noir Blanc.
Just before Thanksgiving, we spent nearly a week in Oregon’s Willamette Valley crisscrossing the Valley from one A.V.A. to another. One of our favorite stops was the intriguingly named Ghost Hill in the Yamhill-Carlton District. According to legend, in the late 1890’s a miner was traveling from Southern Oregon to sell his gold in Portland. He made the fateful decision to stop for the night and set up camp at the top of what is now known as Ghost Hill. During the night, so the story goes, the miner was robbed and killed, his horse mortally injured, and his hard-earned gold stolen. To this day, the miner is said to wander the hill looking for his stolen gold and to right the wrongs that befell him that night. Hence the name Ghost Hill.
Not hard to imagine a ghost on that hill
While the miner may be still searching for his gold, the Bayliss family has struck gold of its own on this property – wine gold, that is. In total, the Bayliss family owns 234 acres of farmland, a true “Century” farm – meaning it has been owned continuously by the same family for over 100 years. In the case of the Bayliss clan, they are on their fifth generation working this land. For most of the 20th Century, the Ghost Hill land was dedicated to sheep and cattle, hay, and other crops. In 1999, Mike Bayliss and his wife Dendra decided to plant Pinot Noir on a portion of the property and today they farm a 16-acre parcel planted 100% to Pinot Noir. Their Ghost Hill Cellars label produces several different wines from these grapes – the above-mentioned Pinot Noir Blanc, a rosé of Pinot Noir, and two separate Pinot Noir offerings.
We did our tasting in the cozy Ghost Hill tasting room, with owners Mike and Dendra pouring the wines and telling us more about each of the wines. Mike and his son Michael built the wooden Ghost Hill tasting room building by hand,
inspired by prospector shacks of the 1850s. The building features a sliding barn door,
reclaimed windows from the nearby Trappist Abbey Church, and a counter made from the former altar floor.
Ghost Hill Cellars tasting room
Mike and Dendra live on the Ghost Hill estate in the same farmhouse where Mike was born 70 years ago. He and Dendra have been married for 50 years and they are true partners managing this large farm. As Ghost Hill only makes wine from Pinot Noir, we made our way through their portfolio, starting with the whites, moving to the “pink,” and on to the red.
We started our tasting with the 2013 Ghost Hill Cellars Pinot Noir Blanc, and tasted it side-by-side with the same wine from the 2014 vintage.
We enjoyed both wines immensely; they were crisp and refreshing with aromatics of pear and spice and, on the palate, apple, pear and honey. Our next wine was the 2015 Ghost Hill Cellars Rosé of Pinot Noir.
Like the white Pinot Noir, the Rosé was crisp and refreshing with a nice balance of fruit and acidity. Strawberry and citrus on the nose give way on the palate to a luscious blend of watermelon, citrus fruit and strawberry.
Our final two wines were (red) Pinot Noir offerings – the 2012 Ghost Hill Cellars Prospector’s Reserve and the 2013 Bayliss-Bower Pinot Noir. Both of these wines are blends of four different Pinot Noir clones from Ghost Hill’s estate vineyards. Both wines are classic expressions of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, although the Prospector’s Reserve (priced slightly higher than the Bayliss-Bower) is a bit more dense and full-bodied. Either wine would make for a great pairing with Christmas dinner.
For us, the “trifecta” of wine tasting occurs when we encounter (1) wines that we love, (2) in a magical location, (3) made by people that we like and admire. Ghost Hill Cellars hit the trifecta for us.
One of the wines in our Topochines Vino Wine Store is from Oregon winery Vidon Vineyard whose winemaker Don Hagge we met recently and enjoyed a tasting of over a dozen of his wines. The 2016 Vidon Rosé of Pinot Noir is available here for $20.00 per bottle.
We recently ran across a book that asserts “wine is not rocket science.” After our recent trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, we are not so sure. One of the wineries we visited as we were scouting wines for our Topochines Vino Wine Store is Vidon Vineyard, located just outside of the town of Newburg in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Vidon’s founder and winemaker, Don Hagge, is a rocket scientist. Referring to Don as a rocket scientist is not a generic way of saying that he is a really smart guy. Don isa rocket scientist. Literally. Before starting his wine career at the age of 69, Don worked at NASA as Chief of the Physics Branch at the Manned Space Flight Center (now called the Johnson Space Center). So, you see, he really is a rocket scientist.
After completing a 2-year tour in Korea in Naval aviation, Don returned to the University of California, Berkeley (Go Bears!) to complete his engineering degree. While at Berkeley, Don had the opportunity to study and work with Ernest Lawrence, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics (for inventing the cyclotron) and the founder of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. After receiving his PhD, Don did post-graduate work at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the Centre d’Etudes de Physique Nucléaire in Paris. He then joined NASA and supported a number of key space Apollo space missions including Apollo 11 (Armstrong’s moon landing) and Apollo 13. Transitioning from government to private work, Don moved to Silicon Valley and had a long, successful career managing high tech organizations.
When we first heard Don’s story, we wondered how this stellar scientific career would translate to winemaking. After tasting his wines, we can say the translation is perfect. In everything he does, Don applies his scientific knowledge and challenges pre-existing assumptions about the best way to grow grapes and make wine. His goal is to continue finding ways to do things more efficiently through a test-and-learn approach: try something new, measure the result, and implement the new solution if it is indeed better. Although several wine makers told us their preference for screw tops vs. corks, Don made his case the way a scientist would – with data.
Most wine consumers are aware that a certain percentage of wines are ruined each year as a result of “cork taint,” which involves the cork being tainted by the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. While the cork industry claims taint occurs in only 1-2 percent of all bottles, the above data suggests otherwise, with 2007 showing a nearly 10% frequency of taint. For their white wines, Don uses a screw top; for the red wines, he uses a glass stopper rather than the traditional cork. In addition to avoiding cork taint, he points out that the use of cork results in unacceptable variability in aged wine. As he explains, a case of red wine that has been aged 10-15 years will have 12 different wines because each cork is different and the oxygen entry will vary by bottle. Generally, wine consumers that age wine are looking for consistency not variability. If there is a theme to Don’s use of science at the winery, it is to eliminate variability in the process so that each wine tastes the way that it should.
To strengthen the scientific fire power in the tasting room, Don decided to double the number of PhD’s from one to two by hiring David Bellows to assist with the wine making. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Arizona, Dave received his PhD from the John’s Hopkins School of Medicine. Complementing Don’s physics training, Dave is a molecular biologist and has long had an interest in wine. Together, these two run Vidon’s cellar like a lab with more emphasis on predictability and and little to no worry about following conventional methods simply for the sake of tradition.
During our visit at Vidon, we tasted at least a dozen wines, starting with the several 2016 Vidon white whites: Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Viognier.
These wines were exquisite examples of their variety – aromatic, crisp and dry – and very nice values at $20.00. We also tasted the 2015 Chardonnay, a lovely “French-style” Chardonnay with crispness and nice acidity but also a lovely yellow/gold color and a full-bodied texture. Before moving on to the red wines, Don poured for us his 2016 Vidon Rosé of Pinot Noir, easily our favorite rosé from among the many we tasted during this Oregon excursion. We made room in our car for a few cases of the 2016 Vidon Rosé so that we could get them up on our website as soon as we got home. This wine has a gorgeous light-salmon color and a beautiful aroma of cherry and apricot with a hint of strawberry. On the palate, the wine is clean and crisp, balancing the fruit flavors with nice acidity to provide a long finish. While perfect for summer, we think this rosé drinks just fine in Fall and Winter as well.
Moving on to the red wines, we tasted the entire range of Vidon Pinot Noir offerings, three of them named after a different Hagge grandchild – Brigitta, Mirabelle and Hans. Measured by total case production, the top Pinot Noir is the “3-Clones.”
This particular Pinot Noir is produced from three different Pinot Noir clones, while the “grandchildren” wines are produced from a single pinot noir clone (777, 115, Pommard) from grapes grown in different blocks on the 20-acre property, of which 12.5 acres are planted to vines.
We thoroughly enjoyed these wines and they clearly reflect Don’s hands-off approach to winemaking. We could definitely discern differences between vintages of the same wine as well as the difference between, for example, the Mirabelle Pinot Noir (clone 115) and the Hans (Pommard clone). As part of Don’s non-interventionist approach to making wine, he generally avoids new oak in fermentation resulting in subtler wines rather than the bolder, fruit-forward wines that many Oregon producers favor as they search for high scores from wine reviewers. Despite this approach, however, the Vidon wines have managed to accumulate an impressive array of scores from the top wine publications.
This is one of Don’s favorite fact sheets in the tasting room as it shows the price difference between his 94-point-rated Pinot Noir and wines from some well-known names in Willamette Valley whose prices are 2.5 times higher per bottle. For us, this was one of the key takeaways of the visit to Vidon: the focus on making high quality at prices much more approachable than many places we have visited in the past.
As we drove away from the Vidon tasting room, one of us said to the other, “When I grow up, I want to be Don.” We were mesmerized by his incredible life story, but even more captivated by the courage and passion to try something so different at the age of 69 and to be still fully engaged at 85. Make no mistake, Don is no figure head or chairman emeritus at Vidon Vineyard. He can still be seen riding a tractor in the vineyards or doing punch downs in the cellar.
Two of the wines in our Topochines Vino wine store are the product of one of our favorite Oregon wine makers, Wayne Bailey. We offer both his 2014 Bailey Pinot Noir and his 2014 Cuvee Pinot Noir. Here’s a bit more about Wayne and his fantastic Willamette Valley winery.
Just before Thanksgiving we made a trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine region to scout out unique wines for our Topochines Vino wine store. As our “home base” for our five-day trip, we stayed at Youngberg Hill Inn, easily our favorite place to stay in all of Willamette Valley. This was not our first time staying at Youngberg Hill, but on this occasion we were privileged to be staying as guests of the owner, Wayne Bailey. In addition to views afforded by its perch nearly 700 feet above the Valley floor, the inn has exquisite rooms, ample common areas, and one of the friendliest, most competent staff we have encountered.
But we weren’t at the inn just for rest and relaxation (although we did get some of that as well); we were there to spend some time with Wayne Bailey and taste his wines. Cascading down the hill from the 9-room inn are 20 acres of Youngberg Hill’s vineyards, the majority planted to Pinot Noir with smaller blocks of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Over the course of our stay at Youngberg Hill Wayne spend considerable time with us, sharing a bit of his upbringing, his many careers, and his philosophy of winemaking. At heart, Wayne Bailey is a farmer, having grown up as an Iowa farm boy helping his father raise a variety of crops. After leaving the farm, Wayne started the first of 5 distinct careers, becoming a mechanical engineer and then a consultant in the beverage industry. His travels took him to France where he fell in love with the Burgundian style of Pinot Noir. He believed that his future was growing Pinot Noir grapes in a cool climate and making beautiful wines from those grapes.
In the early 2000’s, while traveling around with Oregon viticulture legend Jimi Brooks, Wayne found himself looking up at the Youngberg Hill property. “It’s a pretty nice hill,” Brooks said, which we consider quite an understatement. In 2003 Wayne and his wife Nicolette purchased the property and made a commitment that they would farm their 20-acre vineyard organically. This commitment to organic and sustainable farming, he believes, is the right thing to do as a steward of the land. More than that, though, Wayne and Nicolette live on the property with their three young daughters. “Why would I want to expose my family to chemicals?” In the past couple of years, Wayne has pushed his practices beyond organic and has instituted biodynamic farming in his vineyards.
Not surprisingly, Wayne’s non-interventionist farming practices extend into the cellar. Rather than try to manipulate his wines to meet a particular style or flavor profile, he lets his wines reflect the land and conditions where the grapes were grown. In Willamette Valley, this might mean a growing season with a deluge of rain at harvest, or many summer days with less than optimal sun. Wayne believes that his wines should reflect the particular weather and other conditions of the growing season and harvest.
From the top of the hill down towards the road, the Youngberg Hill Vineyards are separated into blocks.
All three daughters have a block named after them
Across the blocks, there are differences in elevation and soil type and Wayne has meticulously selected the right varietal (and clone) for each block. From each of the “daughter” blocks – Aspen, Natasha and Jordan – Wayne makes a separate Pinot Noir and they have distinct aroma and flavor profiles.
Every day at 4 p.m., the Youngberg Hill tasting room – which is inside the inn – closes to the public and guests who have not already tasted during normal hours have access to the tasting room for an additional hour. As we had the unusual luxury of being the only guests on the property that day, we had a personal tasting experience with Wayne, followed by dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in McMinnville. It seems like we tasted every single Youngberg Hill wine in current release, as well as a couple of library wines Wayne was nice enough to share.
Of course, we started our tasting with the white wines – Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. We enjoyed these wines quite a bit as they fit squarely within our preferred flavor profile for white wines: aromatic on the nose and crisp on the palate. We especially enjoyed the Youngberg Hill Chardonnay, a relatively new addition to Wayne’s portfolio – he grafted Chardonnay vines in 2014. During our stay in Willamette we had more Chardonnay than any of our other trips and were enthused by the quality of the wines.
But what would a Willamette Valley tasting be without Pinot Noir! Fortunately for us, Wayne bottles five different selections of Pinot Noir, four of them from estate wines and the fifth a blend of estate Pinot noir grapes and grapes sourced from trusted vineyards in the area. We tried all five of the Youngberg Hill Pinot Noir offerings, in multiple vintages, and had a great deal of difficulty selecting a favorite. One might assume that the estate Pinot Noir would all taste the same, especially from the same vintage. This would be an incorrect assumption, however, as the pinot noir grapes are grown in different soils, at different elevations, and with different sun exposures.
All of Wayne’s wines reflect his non-interventionist approach to wine making and we enjoyed all of the Pinot Noir offerings he poured. If we had to choose (and we did have to, as we were buying wine for our Topochines Vino Store), the Bailey Pinot Noir and the Cuvee were our favorites. They are available for sale here: Topochines Wines – U.S.A.
We look forward to a long partnership with the Bailey’s and Youngberg Hill.