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Modern Wines from Old Vines

Old Vine Carignane from Niemi Vineyard and Trinafour Cellars

My friend Bernadette has a wine bar / wine shop called SIP! Mendocino. It’s in the tiny town of Hopland, a few miles short of 100 north of the Golden Gate Bridge on US 101. Belonging to the SIP! wine club … with its all-Mendocino selections … keeps me in touch (taste?) with the Mendocino wine scene.

Without Bernadette and SIP! I might not know about Trinafour Cellars, although I actually met Alex MacGregor, the proprietor / winemaker some years ago, when the Fetzer boys (yes, they are men, now, but we all felt like “boys” back in the day) were beginning their individual wineries.

Here’s what Trinafour Cellars says of itself on its Facebook page: Trinafour is a small production, family winery featuring organic, dry-farmed, under-appreciated grape varieties.

Those under-appreciated grapes are primarily old vine Carignane and not-so-old vine Petite Sirah from Mendocino County’s Niemi Vineyard.

From the Trinafour Cellarrs website: Niemi Vineyard sits on an iron rich bench in the center of Redwood Valley near the headwaters of the Russian River. Alvin Tollini farms his Grandfather’s land with great care, intuition and a consciousness that is both modern and respectful of the past. The vineyard is certified organic and would have qualified as such before these certifications ever existed. We harvest by hand from blocks that are head pruned and dry farmed.

Alex MacGregor makes both Carignane and Petite Sirah from the Niemi Vineyard. It’s the Carignane that is Steampunky. From 60-year-old vines, it is picked a couple of weeks later than the younger-vine Petite Sirah. Open top fermentation with two manual punchdowns each day, with free run juice (when near dry) drained on top of the already-pressed Petite Sirah skins (more color! more tannin!) to finish fermenting in a couple of days. This process is similar to an old Italian winemaking technique called “ripsasso.”

Winemaker MacGregor: “I like to think of the Carignane as sophisticated, nuanced wine with peasant roots. It has perceptible acidity and seamless tannins typical of old vine Carignane, and by controlling yields with dry farming and quasi ripasso techniques, the wine is elevated to a higher level.”

Trinafour Cellars is named for a tiny village in the Perthshire Highlands of Scotland, where Alex MacGregor’s great-grandfather was the game-keeper on a small estate. The Trinafour Cellars label design incorporates a MacGregor clan tartan.

Alex MacGregor’s “day job” is winemaking for Saracina and Atrea, from John Fetzer’s wine estate just north of Hopland. It used to be called “Sundial Ranch” and DAH lived there for a few years in the 1980s.

Visit Trinafour Cellars online HERE or find them on Facebook HERE.

And thank you Bernadette Byrne for SIP! Mendocino … visit SIP! HERE.

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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Modern Wines from Old Vines

150 years old and just released! Tasting Scion: A Piece of History

Absolutely amazing. And so totally Steampunky. A wine lost in time. Made before the U.S.Civil War. Made before phylloxera devastated the world’s vineyards. Held in cask until there remained no heirs of the owning family to hold it any longer. And only a few thousand dollars a bottle!

See the link, below.

Tasting Scion: A Piece of History

Congratulations to Taylor Fladgate for such a wine coup.

Would that I were wealthy enough to try it for myself.

Just the idea of waiting 150 years for a sensory experience makes me giddy. It feels like time travel when I taste wines that are 30 years old!

If anyone reading this tastes the wine themselves, please report back.

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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Old Vine Macabeo … from where?

Old Vine Macabeo (Viura) in Calatayud, Spain

I read a weekly “review of reviews” … an emailed summary of what wines are being recommended by key wine writers. This review, from The Baltimore Sun’s Michael Dresser, caught my attention:
“2009 Yasa Old Vines Macabeo: I picked up this dry white wine from the little-known macabeo grape at a local store on the strength of the reputation of its importer, Kysela Pere & Fils. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a spectacular value — rich, minerally and gripping. Its complex flavors of pine, lime and tropical fruit go far beyond my expectations in a 10-buck wine. Supplies of the 2009 may be low, but the 2010 is expected soon. I’ll be in line for a case of it.”

I thought to myself, “That sounds delicious, and I like to write about old vine whites. I’ll look for more information.”

I had never heard of Yasa, and seldom hear about Macabeo (also called Viura), which is the most widely planted white grape in Spain. At this point, however, I didn’t even know that Yasa was a Spanish winery. The French-sounding importer name had me speculating that it might be on the French side of the Pyrenees.

After searching my “usual suspect” online wine merchants, and doing a couple of Internet searches, I didn’t come up with easy access to 2009 (or 2010) Yasa Old Vines Macabeo. This is often a problem for wine writers: Finding an interesting wine to write about, but without any sense about whether or not their readers can find a bottle.

I abandoned my purchase-search for the wine, but thought, “I could write about it anyway, it’s still interesting.” I dug back into the Internet and quickly found familiar information about the winery, Yasa.”

I have, in fact, already written about this winery (if not their white wine), in the SteampunkWines post immediately preceding this one! Read that post HERE.

Yasa means “dry stream bed” in the language of Calatayud in Spain. This wine brand comes from Bodegas Virgen de la Sierra. Virgen de la Sierra is a grape growers co-operative founded in 1954. The co-op has a large membership (579), but each of those members must farm only a few acres of grapes (there are 1,753 acres in the cooperative, and that’s an average of only 3 acres per member). They mostly grow Garnacha, Tempranillo, and Macabeo (Viura).

From the winery US importer’s website: “The region’s semi-arid climate and high altitude make for ideal growing conditions for quality Garnacha and Macabeo grapes. Hot dry summers, with a sharp shift in daytime to nighttime temperatures let grapes reach full ripeness, while maintaining good levels of acidity. The red iron-rich oils are rocky, with a mix of sand and gravel and a low amount of organic material. A thick clay subsoil helps retain moisture through the long dry summer months.” (Kysela Pere & Fils)

What about Macabeo, you say? Well, macabeo/viura makes lightly floral, fruity wines which are usually quite dry and minerally and very refreshing. From old vines, I’d expect a bit more depth and intensity of aroma and flavor.

I still look forward to finding a bottle one day. In the meantime, I’m reveling in the synchronicity that  led me to find the same winery two posts running.

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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Modern Wines from Old Vines

Trader Joe’s 2009 Garnacha: An Old Vine Value Discovery!

I really enjoy making discoveries at Trader Joe’s. There’s a lot of uninteresting wine that’s always there … I suppose because it sells. But there are also wines that show up, sell for a week or two, then disappear forever. These are fun to watch for.

I’ve been asked, “How do you decide what wines to risk trying at Trader Joe’s? It isn’t all great stuff.” It helps that I’ve been in the wine business a long time, and things catch my eye as interesting or unusual, and I always wonder, “Why is that wine here?” At TJ’s, that means I try wines like the “Trader Joe’s Old Vine Reserve Garnacha Spain 2009” for $9.99.

I don’t recall ever seeing an import bottled as Trader Joe’s Reserve. $9.99 is not especially inexpensive for TJ’s. Old Vine Garnacha from Spain could be pretty good. And this bottling is good. Ripe and lush tasting, deep in color and character. And a little research reveals its old vine heritage.

The wine is produced and bottled by Bodega Virgen de la Sierra. Garnacha wines from this producer have been well-received by wine critics … Robert Parker’s “The Wine Advocate” scored a Virgen de la Sierra 2009 Garnacha with 88 points and called it a “terrific value.”

The TJ’s Reserve 2009 Garnacha is from the Calatayud region, and the front label reports the vines are 80-120 years old. Calatayud is in a mountainous region northeast of Madrid. The region’s vineyards are on the south facing slopes of the Sierra de la Virgen mountain range, some 1800-2600 feet above sea level.

Garnacha is what we English-speakers call Grenache, but it’s likely that Garnacha was the varietal’s original name. It is widely planted in northeastern and central Spain, and was long considered primarily a blending grape (it is also the key component in the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France). Like many grapes once thought of only as blenders, old vine plantings in high quality vineyard areas have given new life to Garnacha as a single varietal. Garnacha may have been grown in Spain for several hundred years, but it’s only since the 1990s that the region’s old Garnacha have garnered much attention.

Winemakers have rediscovered low-yield, bush-vine trained, high elevation Garnacha. These high old vines produce dense, rich, concentrated wines, so unlike the low-color, low-tannin wines often made from younger Garnacha vines grown on richer valley soils (in Spain and California).

You can taste that high old vine quality at an amazing value price in Trader Joe’s Old Vine Reserve Garnacha 2009. An old vine discovery!

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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Modern Wines from Old Vines

That Old Vineyard By The Church In Cloverdale

St. Peter’s Church Vineyard

My attention was drawn to this vineyard because K & L Wine Merchants offered the vineyard appellated 2006 Rosenblum Zinfandel for less than half its original retail price (I paid $20 a bottle).

I’d guess that the price reduction is part of the product-line trimming that comes with Rosenblum being purchased by the wine and spirits giant Diageo in 2008. They’re probably clearing out a few of the bottlings they don’t intend to continue. Rosenblum, when independent, made a rather dizzying line-up of wines. A corporate wine company had little hope (or need, or desire) of keeping them all.

The St. Peter’s Church Vineyard is a tiny patch of grapes adjacent to and owned by St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Cloverdale, California. Cloverdale is at the north end of the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, California. This small city was only recently bypassed by U.S.Highway 101 which used to run along Cloverdale’s Main Street.

This vineyard is about 120 years old now, and the vineyard-establishing energy at the time of its establishment, around 1890, makes sense when one realizes that Cloverdale is hard by the village of Asti, where Andrea Sbarbaro established his Italian Swiss Agricultural Colony in 1881.

Somehow, this little vineyard has managed to survive, and has been cultivated, for more than a century. It originally had a field-blend assortment of red grapes, with Zinfandel planted in the middle of the vineyard, surrounded by other varieties. The vineyard is relatively free of leafroll virus (which plagues many older vines), and has become a source of budwood to establish other, newer, fine Zinfandel Vineyards, like Rockpile (also in Sonoma County), Snows Lake (in the Red Hills of Lake County), and even some vineyard in Paso Robles, mentioned in passing by Kent Rosenblum in a video (I haven’t yet identified the Paso recipient of this heritage clone Zin).

This is a low production vineyard, producing only one ton or so per acre from each vintage. Rosenblum suggests the Zinfandel from St. Peter’s Church Vineyard is chewy, with blackberry  and blackcurrant fruit character, and hints of licorice and eucalyptus.

I look forward to tasting it for myself (and reviewing it for when my bottles are delivered.

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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Old Zin in Calaveras: Not the chocolate Ghirardellis, these still own their name

“Our family vineyard has survived and the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was sold long ago.”

Welcome to the oldest Zinfandel vineyard in Calaveras County, California.

Calaveras County lies south of Amador County within the larger Sierra Foothills AVA (American Viticultural Area).
Summer days are warm here, but evenings in the Sierra Foothills cool off, particularly at higher elevations. Most Calaveras County vineyards are planted on red clay and gravelly slopes between 1,500 to 2,400 feet above sea level.

The Ghiradelli Vineyard Zinfandel grapes are vinted by Milliaire Winery in Murphys, California. Milliaire is owned by Liz and Steve Millier. Steve Millier is a Fresno State graduate, in enology and viticulture. Steve’s first winemaking job, in the mid-1970s, was with David Bruce in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Milliaire … named for the family, and for the French word meaning “milestone” has a tasting room on Main Street in Murphys, in what was originally an old gas station. The winery produces about 2,500 cases annually.

Here’s what the Milliaire Winery website says about the Ghiradelli Vineyard (I’m reprinting the whole thing, verbatim, because it’s just perfect). Check out the honest simplicity of Milliaire at

The Ghirardelli Vineyard spreads over 25.5 acres of rolling hills near Burson in western Calaveras County. This Zinfandel vineyard is the oldest in the county. It is owned by Alan and Robert Ghirardelli. Like their father and grandfather before them, the Ghirardelli brothers tend the gnarled vines and preserve a family tradition that is over 100 years old. Alan is quick to point out that they are not related to Ghirardelli Chocolate. “Our family vineyard has survived and the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was sold long ago.”

Grandfather Ghirardelli emigrated from Genoa, Italy in the 1890s. He worked in the Jackson gold mines and in 1900 was able to purchase an established 7.5 acre vineyard on Pettinger Road.

The family leased the vineyard from 1900 to 1938. During that time the family operated Standard Fruit and Produce on 6th Street in San Francisco. The grapes were shipped by rail from Calaveras County to San Francisco for sale to home winemakers.

In 1938 their tenant at the Pettinger Road vineyard was arrested for bootlegging brandy. At the suggestion of the revenue agent, the Ghirardellis took over farming the vineyard. It was during this time that additional vineyard was planted: 11 acres in 1942 and 7 acres in 1951.

After 1968 the railroad spur in Burson closed down and the Ghirardelli family looked for new customers for their grapes. By this time the California wine industry was experiencing a Renaissance with renewed interest in Zinfandel. Beginning in the 1970s the family sold grapes to local wineries.

The vineyard is unique, even among old Foothill vineyards. The grapes are dry farmed; there is no irrigation and no need for frost protection. The vines are trained in the old Italian style; as “little trees.” They are head trained and spur pruned.

The soils are especially shallow, averaging 1.5 to 2 feet deep. The soils have excellent drainage, and combined with good air drainage in the vineyard, the grapes can ripen with no threat of mold. For this reason, the Ghirardellis have been able to continue their family’s nearly 100 year tradition of organic farming.

All these viticultural factors combine to produce very low yields, averaging one ton per acre. Those few tons produced have extraordinary concentration of flavor and intense varietal character. UC Davis viticulturalists are taking cuttings from the vineyard to enhance their own test vineyard, and to establish the Ghirardelli clone of Zinfandel.

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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Sylvaner: A blank slate grape to showcase old vines and a great vineyard site?

Sylvaner is a white wine grape variety that is grown primarily in Alsace and Germany. In Germany it is a blend component in Liebfraumilch, although the expansion of Liebfraumilch (Blue Nun) production in the 1970s contributed to increasingly reduced quality. Generally, the Franconia region of Germany is best respected for Sylvaner. In Alsace, Sylvaner is really a lesser, lower-quality wine. And this varietal has almost entirely disappeared from California, where it was once grown fairly extensively (as Sylvaner Riesling, Franken Riesling, Monterey Riesling, and Sonoma Riesling).

What’s interesting about Sylvaner: The vine is vigorous and the grape has a rather neutral aroma and flavor. OK, that’s not so interesting under most circumstances. But it can be interesting when the vine is older and grown on favorable sites. Then the wine, skilfully made, can provide a fine expression of terroir.

This is the case with a couple of Sylvaner (or Silvaner … you’ll see) wines tasted by wine writer Lettie Teague for the Wall Street Journal. Read what she has to say about old vine wines HERE

And here’s an excerpt: “I’ve had plenty of old-vine wines that are clearly superior to their younger-vine siblings. The most recent example came with a couple of Silvaners I tasted with friends. They came from the Franken region of Germany (and yes, the grape is spelled Silvaner, not Sylvaner, in German) and were made by Ludwig and Sandra Knoll. The Knolls of Wurzburg produce two very good wines from the otherwise-forgettable Silvaner grape: The 2008 Ludwig Knoll Silvaner K, at $20 a bottle, is a well-priced and attractive dry, unoaked white but the 2008 VINZ Spatlese Alte Reben ($46) is something else altogether. Produced from 50-something-year-old vines in a special parcel of the Stettener Stein vineyard, it has beautiful density and richness, with a penetrating mineral finish.”

Old vine whites are particularly interesting to me. First, they are rarer. And second, since white wines are so “transparent” (they just have less stuff in them than do reds) they often provide a clearer, cleaner experience … of site, vine, and grape. Particularly when they are made from a tabula rasa grape like Sylvaner, and raised without oak, as were the Franconia Sylvaner wines reviewed by Ms. Teague.

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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Bogle’s Phantom Red from the heart of California

In the realm of the “Old Ghost” from Klinker Brick I posted about a couple of weeks ago, this “Phantom” from Bogle flirts with the same sort of “out of the past” branding for an old vine wine.

Bogle is a family winery located in the Sacramento River delta, near Clarksburg, California. Initially famous for Chenin Blanc and Petite Sirah, Bogle is now generally recognized as a value-oriented producer of a full-line of varietal wines. The winery considers their Petite Sirah, first produced in the 1970s, as their a “heritage” varietal … and, thus, and “old vine” wine.

Thirty-two years after it was first produced by the Bogle family in 1978, Petite Sirah is today considered Bogle’s “heritage” varietal.

Bogle’s 2007 Phantom combines three “old vine” varietals and three grape-growing areas (triangulated on the Google map, above):

From Clarksburg comes Petite Sirah (53 percent of the blend);

From Lodi and Amador comes Zinfandel (44 percent of the blend); and,

From Amador comes Mourvedre, also known as Mataro (only 3 percent of the blend).

I like thinking about “old vines” from this heart of California … not the wine country of Napa and Sonoma, but the long-established vineyard-lands of the Delta and Sierra Foothills.

Here’s what the winery says of its 2007 Phantom: “The coveted Phantom, Bogle’s apparition of three unique varietals, combines lush berry and fierce spice into a wine of complex character. Vivid essence of black pepper, dark fruit and juniper haunts the nose, while brighter flavors of blackberries and blueberries glance off the palate. From the shadows, toasty cinnamon and nutmeg emerge, subtly embracing the deeply luscious and succulent fruit to create a full-bodied, ruby rich wine. Captured in 1, 2 and 3 year old American oak barrels, this wine showcases the best these distinct varietals have to offer. Though the wine is remarkable now, age in the bottle will only integrate the three varietals more. Welcome the winery ghost into your home again with this latest vintage, and enjoy with full-flavored and hearty meals…before it vanishes again.”

Flowery talk about a solid wine for winter, and a good value ($15-20 the bottle, depending on where you buy it … I got a bottle at Trader Joe’s). Enjoy it with a cold-weather-beating beef, stew, or a hearty soup, maybe a red-sauced pasta.

Bogle plays the rarity card here, giving the impression that this wine is difficult to find. However, I believe they produce more than 20,000 cases annually of Phantom, so you ought to be able to find this modest (in price and vine age) old vine red fairly easily.

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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Fish Rock Road vines, long forgotten islands in time

California State Route 128 winds from Cloverdale through the Anderson Valley to the Mendocino Coast. You can turn west off 128, between Yorkville and Boonville, onto Fish Rock Road, and follow it to the Pacific at Anchor Bay. But not many people do. It’s almost 28 miles of windy, only marginally improved roadway, that meanders through some remote Mendocino County back country. A pretty drive, but not a quick one. Which behooves a road trip back through time.

Tucked away off Fish Rock Road are some old Italian immigrant farmsteads that include one of California’s oldest vineyards (and the oldest vineyard in Mendocino County). The Ciapusci (Kuh-POO-chee) vineyard, on an 1,800 foot ridge-top, was planted in 1878. The old Zinfandel vines here produce small berry clusters and a yield of only one ton per acre of intensely flavored fruit. A Ciapusci Vineyard Zinfandel is bottled by Edmeades, once a tiny family winery, now a property within the sprawling Kendall-Jackson wine empire.

Jed Steele was the winemaker at Edmeades back in the late 1970s. He hunted through the remote hills and ridges of southern Mendocino County for forgotten higher-elevation, old vine gems, in vineyards that poked up through the fog to find sunshine in this cool coastal region. He polished up those gems to make some amazing ridge-top Zinfandels. When Jed Steele moved on to Kendall-Jackson Winery, he brought those vineyards (and, ultimately, the Edmeades winery) with him.

Not far from Ciapusci is the Zeni family’s vineyard, relatively youthful, planted in the early 1900s. Zeni, too, has been a vineyard-designated Zinfandel for Edmeades. When I lived in Mendocino County I was always fascinated by the idea of the Zeni family farm. Beyond winegrapes, the Zeni family had vegetable crops, and livestock, and century old chestnut trees … the inspiration for an annual Zeni “chestnut festival” which was sort of a pick-your-own pot-luck party.

These Mendocino ridge-tops are an interesting place for winegrowing, old and new. A couple of decades after Jed Steele made his first Zinfandel from these special vine sites, Steve Alden and Dan Dooling began researching and petitioning to create a very special Federally approved appellation: Mendocino Ridge. This appellation includes unconnected sites above 1,200 feet in elevation in the coastal ridges of southwestern Mendocino County.

Places that peak up at the sun from above the fog line. Literally, islands in the sky. And, in the case of those long-forgotten (but no longer forgotten) old Italian immigrant vineyards, islands in time.

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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Do old vines yield better grapes and wine? Matt Kramer says, “Yes.”

Do old vines yield better grapes and wine? Matt Kramer, writing in WINE SPECTATOR addressed this issue in a June 15, 2010 column. Read that column HERE.

Mr. Kramer answers that opening question with “Yes,” and makes several interesting points:

1. The age of “old vines” (how old is old?) varies by region. What’s “old” in a recently-established wine country like New Zealand is different than in a long-established wine country like Spain.

2. Fifty years and older feels about right to Mr. Kramer when thinking about “old vines.” I like thirty-five years and older … after the vine has past its yielding peak, and its annual production begins to decline in clusters per vine and tons per acre.

3. Old root systems are really the key, rather than just big, gnarly above-ground vine architecture. While those gnarly vines are dramatic, most of the self-regulating attributes that are a key to old vine quality come from the old root systems.

4. Old vines usually require a lot of nurturing, and their yields may be too low to be economical. Which is why they are a bit rare. Younger vines and bigger yields are usually more financially viable.

5. Old vines are usually steady and dependable. They’re going to yield what they’re going to yield, both in quantity and quality. There’s a bit less vintage variation in old vines.

6. A deep, old vine root system is able to tolerate both wet seasons and dry seasons better than a shallower, younger vine root system.

7. Wine aging can reveal the true character of old vine wines. The fleeting fruitiness of youth dissipates with time, to reveal more complexity in an old vine wine.

8. All things being equal, and barring the possibility that the grape grower is pushing old vines to increase their naturally lower yields, old vine wines will be “better” than young vines of the same variety and terroir.

9. My own observation: “Old Vine” means something a bit more rare, and therefore worthy of special attention. It isn’t necessarily “better” … just as Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa isn’t necessarily “better” than Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma. But old vine sourcing does tease with the possibility that you’ll have a wine out of the ordinary. And the sense of history, why those grapes were planted there and then, and by whom, adds a layer to my enjoyment of what’s in the glass.

DAH is David Anthony Hance at and

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