Producing wine is a delicate balancing act, producing it well is another thing entirely. Wines that are truly exceptional often come from producers or areas on the margins of grape-growing, whether this is a factor of latitude, topography, altitude or proximity to bodies of water, all of which can affect vineyard microclimate. Soil type and structure play a unique role too, and then there is the transformative human factor.
Vines are rather like humans. They need care and cosseting in the first few years to survive, then they need to strive to thrive. An amount of stress is beneficial. So very often, wines of the highest quality come from vineyards on the margins of the possible. Here, the most talented grape-growers and winemakers stand out. Acutely aware of prevailing climate and microclimates within their vineyards, the soils and vines themselves, these men and women ride the wire, subtly fine-tuning their fruit to perfect pitch. Never have conditions proved more challenging than they are today, in an era of significant climate change, one of the the driving issues of our time.
Viticultural regions have long been a scientific barometer of climate change and wine producers are on the frontline, grappling daily with its effects. On buying trips around the world in the last few years, I cannot recall a single producer who has not attested to this or to its alarming acceleration. Necessity is the mother of invention of course. Agile producers think ahead, and creatively.
The producers featured in our special selection share this philosophy. Brilliant wine growers like Christian Moueix or Cakebread Cellars in Napa, and Carmel Road in Monterey, have long been aware of the cooling effects of the Humboldt Current and the beneficial fogs rolling in off the Pacific. At the same time, thousands of kilometres down the Pacific coast, the pioneering Orueta brothers have taken an area of scrub near the ocean and created an extraordinary new estate, a move to future proof their livelihoods in an era of unprecedented climate change. Eduardo Chadwick was no doubt similarly minded when he founded Arboleda estate in the Aconcagua Valley, between the ocean and the Andes, surfing the cool airstreams from both to create his wines of delicacy and purity. Meanwhile, a hop across the Andes in Argentina, producers have looked to altitude for quality, planting vineyards high in the hills to grow grapes with exceptional colour, fruit concentration and fine acids.
Our special selection of wines of the Americas brings together producers from two hemispheres and a diverse wide range of origins and climates, but there is a unifying theme: all these men and women are pushing the boundaries in pursuit of balance and excellence. We hope you will enjoy them. Here is a little more background on these producers and the wines they have created.
Cakebread Cellars – Sauvignon Blanc 2017
A jewel on the glittering necklace of names making up Napa’s stellar Route 29, Cakebread Cellars has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the early 1970s. While the business has grown significantly since then, and the wines can now be found in prestigious restaurants and exclusive wine merchants all over the world, the business retains an unwavering sense of family values and a spirit of entrepreneurship.
Quality, attention to detail and continuous self-improvement are evident at every turn and show in the wines themselves. Growing an ostensibly cool-climate varietal such as Sauvignon Blanc in the Mediterranean heat of the Napa Valley presents stylistic challenges. Sauvignon likes just the right amount of everything to give its best and easily gets flustered in the heat, which dulls its zesty aromatics and can compromise the delicate balance of fruit and acidities.
Climate change has underlined this – conditions in the valley are hotter and drier, for longer, than they were in the past, presenting unique challenges. Bruce Cakebread and his winemaking team have been ahead of this particular curve for years, trialling countless blends of Sauvignon Blanc from their many different vineyards up and down the valley. Drawing on grapes from cool Carneros in the south to hot Calistoga sixty miles to the north, the winemaking team can subtly alter the balance of aromatics, fruit concentration and acidity. The attention to detail is endless – picking in cool night-time temperatures, whole-bunch pressing to yield only the finest juices, fermenting in old French oak barrels to enhance texture. The resulting wine is at once fresh and zesty yet concentrated and mineral, with a smooth texture. Testament to fresh thinking and innovative techniques, it is delicious.
Dominus – Othello 2014
Dominus is the legendary Napa Valley estate of Christian Moueix, perhaps better known for his Right Bank Bordeaux. Christian first visited the Napa Valley as a wine student at Davis University and immediately recognised its viticultural potential. The remarkable 50-hectare estate he went on to create is in Yountville, far enough up the valley to escape much of the Humboldt fog but close enough to benefit from its cooling influences. As a result, Napa’s rich fruit and flesh can be tamed and toned here, by extraordinary attention to detail in the vineyard, and discreet Old World tailoring in the winery.
Christian’s belief remains constant, that quality is founded in the vineyard, requiring a meticulous approach at all times. The vines might as well be known by name, such is the kid-glove treatment. The leaf canopy is assessed continuously, the grape clusters studied one by one to assess progress, even separated by hand to facilitate air flow. Where else would grapes be given a gentle wash to remove summertime dust prior to harvest?
Like Dominus and Napanook, Othello is an exercise in balance, expressive yet elegant. Predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with a dash of Petit Verdot, that much-loved Bordelais seasoning, Othello offers pure, ripe black cherry fruit with hints of cedar and graphite. Medium-bodied and fresh, it is fine and delicately structured with a mineral, earthy finish, enhanced by 14 months in French oak barrels.
Carmel Road – Riesling 2015
Carmel Road is based further down the coast, a couple of hours’ drive south of San Francisco on the famous Highway 1. Monterey County lies on a rugged stretch of coastline before the stunning Insta-ready vistas of picture-perfect villages like Carmel.
Monterey itself is a small, seaside town, once a thriving fishing village with an artistic crowd, but these days it is more of a tourist destination. A few miles inland, the Salinas Valley feels light years away from the manicured vineyards and pristine tasting rooms of the Napa Valley, and the wines are different too. The area was once considered too cool to ripen wine grapes, due to its proximity to the Pacific and unique topography.
Yet again, the legendary Humboldt Current is responsible for the extraordinary climatic conditons. Every afternoon, coastal breezes funnel up the valley, shrouding the vineyards in fog and sending temperatures plunging. By late morning the next day, warm sunshine burns off the fog and the process begins again. This cycle prevents the grapes from overheating and prolongs the ripening season, while preserving delicate aromatics and acids in the grapes – ideal for cooler-climate varieties and crucial to the Monterey style.
The Carmel Road winery belongs to the well-known Jackson Family, who helped pioneered viticulture here in the 1990s, implementing sustainable practices in the vineyards. This refreshing Riesling is fermented in stainless steel tanks to preserve aromatic freshness and delicacy, but a small percentage is fermented in old French oak barrels and allowed to rest on its lees, conferring textural softness and a creamy, rounded finish. This is a refreshing wine with attractive honeysuckle and white blossom aromatics, weighty on the palate yet beautifully balanced with fine acidity.
Arboleda – Chardonnay 2018
Chile is thrilling us once again with producers pushing boundaries in so many different ways. Arboleda is just one estate to exemplify this trend. The private project of the charismatic Eduardo Chadwick, doyen of the Chilean wine industry, Arboleda is a beautiful estate, effectively a nature reserve, in the remote Aconcagua Valley, which runs from between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, north of Santiago. The mighty Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America, rises to the east.
The philosophy behind the Arboleda project is to create single-vineyard wines that reveal the purest expression of each unique terroir, matching specific grape varieties to specific sites. The Chardonnay is grown in the Quillota vineyard just 12km from the Pacific, and benefits from the Humboldt Current influence, which brings morning mists and cool nights, mitigating warm summertime temperatures. This extends the ripening process and helps develop delicate aromas, flavours and acidities.
High quality fruit does not make wine on its own however! Sensitive winemaking can be transformative in creating good or great. With talented winemaker Francisco Baettig at the helm, it is hardly a surprise that the wines should be so beautifully balanced, but the wines he creates at Arboleda are particularly distinctive, also understated, with more than a nod to the structure and profile of European classic styles. Yet they also retain their distinctive Chilean signature: that uniquely pristine purity of fruit, a sensation in itself, found in all very best Chilean wines.
Idahue Estate, La Ronciere, Licanten DO – Cabernet Franc 2017
If ever proof were required of the pioneering Chilean spirit, the Orueta brothers of La Ronciere are evidence itself. The creation of Idahue Estate in remote Licanten is nothing short of astonishing.
Wine producers in the Curico Valley since 1949, the Orueta family have always sought to produce high quality wines. In the first few years after the millneium, the current generation, Jose Antonio, Andres and Alejandro, had become increasingly aware of the acceleration of climate change and resolved to take action. Their quest led them to seek out a new home for the production of high quality red wines. After significant research, they eventually homed in on an area of ancient rolling hills near the Pacific, called Licanten.
There was nothing here but scrub, but the brothers were determined to proceed and to succeed. In an engineering project extraordinary in its scope and ambition, they cleared the scrub, levelled and remodelled the land, created the necessary infrastructure and planted their first vineyards.
Harnessing the latest technology and precision viticulture, they mapped the slopes and soils, matching different grape varieties to specific plots, geared for quality. Their efforts have earned the area its very own appellation, or D.O as it is known in Chile (Denominacion de Origen), and the wines are already achieving critical acclaim around the world. You will see why when you taste the wines.
The Cabernet Franc is an exercise in elegance, with its delicate violet aromatics, intensely concentrated cherry fruit, fine tannins and fresh acidities.
Bodega Ruca Malen – Kinien Malbec 2014
Bodega Ruca Malen was set up in 1998 by old friends, both with extensive wine industry experience at a high level. They were fascinated by the potential of viticulture in the Andes and saw great possibility in the high-altitude vineyards of the Uco Valley, above Mendoza. They hoped to produce wines with a certain European classicism, with the rich fruit concentration of Argentina but a certain food-friendly, savoury quality.
Today, their wines are served daily in their award-winning winery restaurant, where the food is created to match the wines rather the other way around. Focused on quality, Ruca Malen produces wines from several classic European grape varieties, however its Malbecs are particularly prized and Kinien Malbec most of all.
‘Kinien’ means ‘unique’ in the old dialect, and as the phrase goes, the clue is in the name!. The wine is made from a tiny vineyard of very old vines in Vista Flores, high in the Uco Valley. At such high altitudes the light has a special quality, and temperatures are cooler, prolonging the growing season and helping promote flavour development. Kinien is made only in exceptional years. Classically structured, concentrated and brooding with dark, spicy Malbec fruit, with the the latent perfume of Vista Flores, this is a unique wine indeed.
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