Uncorked Ventures Blog
Over the past few years, New Zealand is a destination that’s grown in terms of acceptance among normal international tourists, while also becoming a more sought after destination for wine drinkers specifically.
So why are wine drinkers flocking to New Zealand?
To start, the wine world has undergone a dramatic change of late. The rich and dense Cabernet Sauvignon’s that made California famous have become passé. Instead wine drinkers are looking for more complex and interesting wines from cooler growing environments. New Zealand in a way is an ideal cool growing environment because of its unique geography that most people simply aren’t aware of. Since New Zealand is actually two islands (let’s be honest, Americans don’t do wonderfully well at geography), there is an incredible amount of influence from the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean on grape vines planted near the coast on either island. While people generally only associate New Zealand wine with crisp white’s and Pinot Noir, there are warm enough vineyards to produce a range of other world class choices, some of which we’ll talk about below. Vines on both the north and south islands benefit from long summer days, but also the cooling affects of the ocean as well as the cooler night’s that you’d expect from the world’s most Southern vineyard sites.
One region which makes some great wine and also doubles as a great tourist destination is Hawke’s Bay. Hawke’s Bay is located on New Zealand’s north island’s eastern coast. The area is known for its majestic beauty as well as a focus on a local food and wine culture. To us, it reminds us a lot of Sonoma closer to home here in California. The region is home to New Zealand’s oldest farmer’s market, the world’s largest colony of Gannet’s (it’s a huge sea bird with a wingspan of 6 feet or so) as well as one of the best and most extensive Art Deco building collections in the world. There’s plenty to do outside of food and wine for visitors, but we’ll stick to some of the lesser known wineries that we’ve run into and what we like about them in this space, as well as the winery which might be the standard bearer in the region:
Alpha Domus: Owned by the Ham family since 1991, the winery uses only its own estate vineyards to produce their range of incredible wines. On the high end they produce a cool climate Bordeaux styled blend called AD the Aviator which has been consistently rated at 90 points and above by major wine critics, while being touted for its expressive aromatics as well as its firm balance between fruit and tannins. On the white wine side there are Chardonnay choices (please note, this isn’t going to be the big oak driven Chard’s that made Napa famous, but a more austere and light oak style that is the driving style of New Zealand Chardonnay) as well as a Semillon . Of note for American drinkers is the Noble Selection white which in essence is a late harvest (dessert wine) Semillon. Given the uptick we’re seeing locally here in San Francisco with sweeter wines, this is the type of wine that could easily find a home on the cocktail and dessert path in the city.
Mission Estate Winery: In a story which is quite familiar to those of us living in California, Mission Estate Winery was originally opened by a group of French Missionaries who planted vines in order to have something for sacrament as well as, table wine. As you might expect, the history of the estate gets rather complicated from there (as it should with a 150 year old history) but Mission Estate continues to be Hawke’s Bay’s oldest winery. With a high end price of around $40, these are approachably priced and likely under priced given the quality. The Antoine red blend combines a traditional Bordeaux approach with New Zealand fruit and is really a stunning example of traditional French winemaking style with locally available grapes. There is a lighter texture to this wine that simply isn’t possible in other parts of the world, almost a finesse to the Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Paul Mooney was once a geophysicist when combined with a family tradition of making wine in Bordeaux, makes a couple of good reasons why he makes a more acidic and less fruit driven wine than many of their neighbors.
Tironui Estate: Located literally next door to Mission Estate (much the same way that Denner Vineyards in Paso Robles shares a border with the famed James Berry Vineyard yet only charges a fraction of the price for its wine) Tironui Estate is owned by a family currently living in Malta, but with roots in New Zealand. We wanted to mention Tironui in this space because of that connection (the area has already been proven when it comes to winemaking great results are coming), but also because Tironui’s story helps to tell the story of what the wine industry might look like as time goes by. Oregon has complained recently of California’s buying wine in their state, just as California winemakers complain of new Chinese ownership of vineyards in Napa Valley.
It’s a global world in general and as we become more “flat” ownership may very well be more driven by heritage and dreams rather than current location. It’s already happened during an age of the jet set consulting winemaker whose name ends up on the label, perhaps for only a few days of work while others spend every day in the cellar and in the vineyard. As I have family living in South America, this style of a more global world of wine is a good thing.
The last time we saw a surge of globalization in the wine world, we saw Italian vintners accept modern winemaking techniques and bring their wines to their rightful place among the wine elite after a decades long struggle for consistent quality. I hope that ownership stakes like the one we see at Tironui benefit not only their namesake winery in New Zealand, but help bring winemaking and grape growing back to Malta. If you aren’t familiar Malta is an island in the Mediterranean Sea just south of Sicily. That’s pretty much prime grape growing real estate, if there’s any land left over on a small island space and like most Mediterranean islands, there are native grapes to the area just waiting to be explored.
I’ve made the drive down the 101 Freeway between Santa Barbara and the Bay Area at this point more times than I can count and each time it seems like grape vines are springing up. One thing that you only see rarely though, is an actual winery within eyeshot of the freeway.
Laetitia Vineyard and Winery is one exception to that rule and it provides a litany of other differences between it many of the other wineries that consumers are more familiar with inside California as well.
Let’s start with the basics, Laetitia is located inbetween the towns of Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande which puts it about 75 miles north of downtown Santa Barbara and 50 miles south of Paso Robles.
For a long time people within the wine industry noted that this was the dead area when it came to California wine because although the only profitable grape vines back then (think the crash of 2008) were the vines right along the 101, wineries weren’t thriving there because of a lack of foot traffic.
Laetitia thrived then and continues to thrive now, yes they get some casual tourists passing by, but they’ve created a destination for people who love wine to enjoy on their trip up the California Central Coast.
Laetitia is different in another way as well, unlike virtually every other winery that has a household name in the state, they own all their own vines, or at least a huge percentage of them depending on whom you ask. Either way, it seems as if they either own, or have long term contracts with every important vineyard that they choose to work with.
Located largely in the Arroyo Grande AVA, Laetitia takes advantage of some of the unique characteristics of the area. First, you have an evolved and geographically diverse AVA, complete with both mountains and valleys. That combination of traits allows Laetitia to offer a range of estate wines both in terms of red and white wines, but growing blocks of both Syrah and Pinot Noir directly on the estate.
The Pinot Noir program, not surprisingly given their location near the land which brought the world Sideways, is largely the highlight of the winery. They offer at last count 6 different estate Pinot Noir’s, allowing consumers a real opportunity to experience the differences that small changes in either winemaking technique, clone choice or vineyard location can have on wine. One of our favorite experiences is the opportunity to taste different vineyards and compare them, but also to taste the stylistic differences between their whole cluster Pinot Noir versus their standard estate bottle.
Of course, if my wife had written about Laetitia, she wouldn’t have even gotten around to mentioning the Pinot Noir because Laetitia also boasts one of the most expansive sparkling wine programs in America. Yes, their estate vineyard and its blocks of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are well suited for sparkling wine, but like most everything on the estate they’ve gone that extra mile to create the best wine experience possible. Laetitia boasts the only two remaining European style basket presses in America. It’s a Middle Ages technology that most wineries have modernized for one reason or another (ease of administration, winemaker frustration or profit among them) but it adds more than an incremental amount of work to the process of making their sparkling wines. It is true that most estate’s in Champagne still follow this process, which calls for four separate manual presses of each grape, often in the early hours of the morning to ensure that the Pinot Noir skins don’t touch the grape juice for too long a time period.
Of course, no winery exists only in a vacuum and no winery simply drops their grapes from the vineyard and lets them seemingly ferment on their own. Winemakers make a big difference in the finished product which has helped move this industry into the whole winemaker as celebrity culture which abounds. Eric Hickey is the lead winemaker at Laetitia and has had a long ongoing relationship with the estate. Trained largely at the Central Coast standout of Maison Deutz, perhaps the areas most prototypical French estate in America, his job as winemaker and general manager at Laetitia seems somewhat predestined. That training and the French style of thought process that goes into winemaking at Laetitia, as well as the belief that the winery and vineyard should be inexplicably linked, shows that Laetitia is a good fit for Hickey, himself with an expressed appreciation for all things French (wine at least).
Of course, just as a vineyard doesn’t make wine itself without a winemaker, a winemaker doesn’t exist without an owner. Laetitia’s owner is Selim Zilkha, whose biography I won’t try to lay out in any detail here (the winery website does a good job, as does this profile) but I can have a ton of respect for anyone with as diverse set of interests as an international mom’s to be store as well as wind energy.
All of this is to say that if you find yourself planning a trip to either Santa Barbara or Paso Robles, a slight detour to Laetitia makes a ton of sense. It’s a gorgeous estate with a ton of history and some of the best and most varied wines anywhere in California.
So, I'm not one to be overly surprised by anything these days, but we received a Syrah from the state of Washington the other day which had the following as a closure:
My wife did get a good laugh as I had taken out the bottle opener only to look rather confused when I first pulled the cork.
In any case, have you ever seen one?
The good news about glass is that TCA (corking of wine basically) can't happen and of course glass is 100% recyclable.
The usual caveats apply of course including consumer sentiment (still strongly toward cork by most accounts) and the fact that it's still highly unusual.
We recently wrote a bit about Randall Watkins, the winemaker at Bugay Vineyards who describes part of his Sonoma upbringing by mentioning that his dad was a garagiste.
We thought that a few of our readers here at Uncorked Ventures might not recognize the term since some of the tasting room staff we run into aren’t familiar with it either.
A Garagiste in its simplest form is simply someone who makes wine in his or her garage. After all, not everyone has access to Crushpad (or something similar) and there are plenty of people whom would simply love the experience of making a barrel or two.
Of course, in different regions of the world the Garagiste term has different meanings, for example in Bordeaux the most famous use of the term includes a small group of vintners still making wine in a garage, but making it using local grapes and producing a more international wine in terms of style. The results made the world took notice when famed wine critic Robert Parker rated one of their wines more highly than a Petrus (typically the world’s most expensive wine in any given year) back in 1995. In Bordeaux the movement seems to be dying out a bit, but the whole idea is alive and well in Sonoma where tasting rooms are beginning to be set up to help these new age vintners sell their wine directly to interested consumers. After all, being able to meet the winemaker is still possible with Garagiste styled wines, which is something that most wine drinkers want to experience during a trip to wine country.
Since we’ve already professed that level of enjoyment of their wines, we thought a longer feature in this space would be a good fit as well.
Let’s start where all great wines start: the vineyard.
The Bugay Vineyard is located on the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma County, an area we’ve traveled to in order to find a couple of other wines over the years as well. It’s one of the most rugged regions for wine grapes left in Sonoma to be sure and it’s not always an easy visit, but it rewards those wine drinkers willing to venture slightly off the beaten path in much the same way it rewards vintners willing to take some added risk and avoid the valley floor.
Bugay sits at approximately 1200 feet of elevation, above the cooling elements of the fog which floats up from both the Pacific Ocean to the west, but more importantly the San Francisco Bay directly to the south. We know a few neighboring properties have views of the Golden Gate Bridge, which we think speaks to the level of wind and exposure that is faced by these vines. While the vineyard avoids the fog which robs sunlight during the morning and late evening hours, the cooling help from those bodies of water still exists to be sure. That helps the grapes ripen evenly. One thing you’ll notice about Bugay Vineyard wines, they are full bodied and supple, but they aren’t lacking in acidity.
Lastly, we’ve been on hand to experience what a double or triple pass through the vineyard can mean at harvest time, something Bugay talks about on their website. Most vintners and wineries wouldn’t dream of it because it literally adds double the extra time, or more and there are no guarantees that what they find during the second or third pass will end up being significantly better than the first run. Of course, adding extra passes might make your wines that small bit better, so for a farm like Bugay that’s all the reason they need to employ the practice no matter how much extra work it adds.
Ok, so about the wines and what we find interesting. As you might expect, Bugay is able to grow and produce some world class Cabernet Sauvignon from their mountain vineyard. I’m sure I could bore you all into submission talking about their mirco vineyard sites and how each Cabernet block is picked at different times etc. Frankly, I’ll let sell you on that, instead I wanted to focus on something more eclectic.
A 100% varietal Cabernet Franc. We haven’t seen many of them and even when we’ve had a few requests for it, too view winemakers are given the required grapes and even further still find those grapes planted in an area which is condusive to growing the grape. As you might expect, Cabernet Sauvignon needs similar sites, so Cab Franc is largely out of luck. The results here are splendid though and the wine carries most of the memorable Cab Franc traits, which again as you might expect are similar to what you probably think of when you consider Cabernet Sauvignon-with some important differences. The first difference you’ll notice is that Cabernet Franc is lighter in color than its more famous relative. We also find it more expressive on average on the nose than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also less dense with less significant tannins, which is interesting because the grape is one of the latest to be picked and in some areas of Napa, the last grape to come off the vine.
Of course, for any winery to truly make a name for itself, it needs a high quality winemaker. Bugay has exactly that in Randall Watkins. We’ve gotten a bit leery when we read a long list of previous stops for winemaker that typically include a bunch of larger production facilities that we’ve all heard of a million times, but a stint at Hartford Family & Moon Mountain will still get our attention. He also crafts some wine under his own label, Watkins Family Winery, which has been well received in its own right. Having grown up in Sonoma, Watkins is one winemaker who really does seemed destined for what he does for a living.
Of course, we couldn’t write anything about Bugay Vineyards without mentioning the man whom the project is named after: John Bugay. It’s interesting, most winery websites talk at length about their founder, leaving little room for conversation and background about anyone else. Bugay is a different animal to be sure, there is little to no information about John’s background on the site. For now, he’ll happily continue as something of the mystery man of Sonoma winery owners.
Lastly, I hate to mention it but it does seem like there are some changes afoot at Bugay. The good news is that John who planted and then managed the vines will continue his daily ritual at the vineyard and the winemaking team continues to be in place, so we don’t expect to see any change in quality or style from the estate.
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