Natural Wine Battle

by Dave At our recent Natural Wine Tasting, we were lucky enough to have Erik Mercier from Juice Imports and Andrew Stewart from Vino al Vino Wine Imports going head to head for 4 rounds of wine vs wine battle. They tried to pick wines that had similarities, with selections focused on minimal intervention style wines or “natural” wines.

I personally have a very hard time with the term “natural wine”. First and foremost it is because there is not a set or agreed upon definition of what it exactly means. It can mean one thing for one person but something different for someone else. The other unfortunate part is that a lot of wine that has been termed as natural may potentially sell quite a bit even though it could be just a faulted wine.

For this tasting, we were lead by two very knowledgeable and resourceful agents that we work with quite a bit who both focus on minimal intervention wines. This basically means that the people who produce these wines use little mechanics, don’t add anything to their juice, use minimal interference when producing their wines and also have low to no sulphur added. Some of the wines that they represent are some of the best and most sought after in the world and we are fortunate enough to be able to taste them here in Alberta.

To start the night we went off with a bang of face ripping acidity, Riesling vs Riesling. Both of the Rieslings were from the new world. One from California and the other Australia.

Vinemind Riesling 2017 $31.99
A Clare Valley Riesling of more charitable mouthfeel and relaxed acidity. Well… relaxed for Clare…. Sure, we still see the bracing backbone the region is synonymous with, but with a more juicy, citrus-up palate, accented with a jasmine/lavender floral character, and flinty, chalkiness that doesn’t distract AT ALL, form the juicy and crushable fun time, go-go nature you will definitely love. Whole-cluster pressing handpicked, and a fantastic intro to the quality potential of the region at low $$. Also, skulls…

VineMind is the brainchild of Jen Gardner and Colin McBryde. Whilst their other endeavours, Adelina and Some Young Punks, are still very much ongoing projects, VineMind was born out of the opportunity to source fruit from vineyards and make wines in quite an experimental fashion diametrically opposed to what they do for the family estate Adelina and the collaborative Some Young Punks. An exercise in exciting regional wines that stray somewhat from the norms of stoicism.

Stirm Kick-On Riesling 2016 $30.99
Kick-On vineyard is located 16km east of the ocean in Los Alamos Valley, just north of Santa-Barbara. As this is an offshoot of the transverse range, the valley runs west-east which means oceanic breezes cool the vineyard daily. Ryan’s vineyard block is planted mostly on windblown sand with just a pinch of clay and dirt cobbles. Strong winds cause the vines to close their stomas which results in incredibly delayed ripening. The grapes were macerated as whole clusters for two days before being pressed off into stainless steel. After three days of cold settling, the juice was racked into tank for wild fermentation. No Sulphur was added until after malolactic conversion. The wine was bottled without fining, nor filtration.

Ryan Stirm is a true Riesling fanatic. His arguments for why Riesling works so well in California are hard to refute after tasting his wines. He started his winemaking career in the US, teaming up with the now legendary Justin Willett from Tyler and Lieu Dit. After four years, he ended up working in the Wachau, Austria where he fell further in love with Riesling as well as Grüner Veltliner.

His winemaking philosophy is quite simple. They whole cluster press everything, allow for short periods of skin contact, avoid SO2 until fermentation has completed, let indigenous yeast do their jobs, and fine/filter as minimally as possible. The ultimate goal is to let the vineyards shine through. As of 2016, he has finally accomplished his goal of farming his own tiny vineyard: a 2-acre plot of Pinot Noir high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Moving forward, it’s his goal to farm more and see the wine through from ground to bottle. I have to say that these were amazing wines to try and especially see how they show against each other. The interesting this as well as to see how they evolved after opening and tasting.

For this match-up, the winner was Vinemind Riesling. It was a close vote but it pulled out in front. Next up we had a couple of very interesting skin contact white wines. The grapes from these wines were different but the style was the same. Basically just like red wine is made these white wines are made by the skins of the grapes, staying immersed with the juice. This helps to give a lot more character and structure to the wines. There can be tannins in this style of white, full-bodied, and high minerality. These were both outstanding examples of this style of wine and I think can be quite approachable for anyone.

Ampeleia – Bianco de Ampeleia 2017 $50.99
Old vine Trebbiano and a smattering of indigenous and unidentified white varietals coming together to create a truly unique Toscana Bianco. Fragrant, slightly coloured, hints of orange peel and citrus peel. Fresh but with substantial depth, and super fun to consume. Biodynamically farmed, no additions or corrections, and minified to hold itself up over time. A wonderful and special wine from a trio of insanely talented and dedicated winemakers.

To say we have long been a fan of Elisabetta Foradori and her brilliant wines of the Dolomiti would be a massive understatement. So, when we discovered she had teamed up with colleagues, Giovani Podini and Thomas Widmann on a Maremma project, we were immediately interested. When we discovered their single site Alicante and the farmhouse charm of “Unlitro”, we were sold! Ampeleia is a unique Maremma site in that they focus on Mediterranean varietals, (Alicante, Carignano) as opposed to big Super Tuscan styled reds. There is a verve and life to these wines that is infinitely crushable while maintaining integrity to the sites. Our crush (pun intended) continues!

Dirty & Rowdy Semillon 2018 $59.99
Atomized river stones, fennel bulb, basil lemonade, and Belgian sour aromatics – lightweight, with a broad palate filled with sweet and sour citrus, and cool rock. Though savage in appearance, there is a line of focus that runs from snout to tail, stone to stars… It is as if Copernicus himself was raised by wolves!!

This Semillon is a wine for those who stare into the depth of the universe and say “ohhhh yeah” vs “ohhhh no.” 75% of this wine was fermented on its skins for 16 days. 25% of the wine was direct to press fermented in a concrete egg tank (no skin contact). Vinification Method: 80% of the fruit was fermented on its skins in an open top tank through primary fermentation (about 2wks) and pressed off into old oak barrels. The other 20% of the fruit was pressed off immediately upon arrival to the winery into a concrete egg-shaped tank where it fermented and rested until being blended with the skin-fermented lot before bottling. Native fermentation. Unfined and unfiltered, with minimal effective sulphites.

Hardy Wallace, the winery’s co-founder and helmsman, started his winding professional life as a classic East-Indian musician. Despite his skill and passion, the limited work he could obtain led him to the tech industry. Here he schmoozed clients at fancy dinners, ordering bottles of wine he himself desperately wanted to try. This gave him a unique opportunity to taste glamourous wines without breaking his own bank account. Eventually, his love of wine took over and he entered a contest to win a year-long job as a winemaker – needless to say, his charisma won him the opportunity. From here he learned some essential technical skills and made powerful friends.

Fast forward a couple of years and he was able to exploit these relationships to start his own project with his wife and best friends. The winery’s mantra is to question everything and make the wine they want to drink. This meant a focus on more balanced wine (lower alcohol, brighter acid, well-placed tannins) that still translated terroir. They wanted to work with organic and sustainably farmed fruit from a wide range of sites. This led them to many incredibly old vineyards in the underrepresented nooks and crannies of old California. In this vein, they have also thought about their packaging, using carbon-neutral Noma Corks for some of their cuvées.

The winner of this round went to Ampeleia Bianco di Ampeleia. That being said, both of these wines were outstanding. They both showed stellarly and were very interesting. It was unreal the colour that the Ampeleia had. It was anything but “Bianco”. With a very heavy tinge of orange, almost looking cider like and having some scents similar. These were both wines that deserve to be contemplated on and think about the secrets of the universe with every mouthful.

Now, onto the reds. These were definitely some of my personal favourites. It is hard because I am generally a big fan of Rieslings but these wines were just so delicious that it was hard for me not to gush over how exquisite and captivating they were. We started off with 2 different red wines, one from Chile and the other from South Africa. Both newer regions but having great explosions in minimal intervention style wines.

Leonardo Erazo – El Tunel 2017 $31.99
El Tunél reflects the stubborn persistence of Itata’s old vineyards and their vignerons. Against all odds, they have survived the test of time. We have the joy of working with grapes from our own old bush vine vineyards. El Tunél comes from a 0.6 hectares vineyard planted in 1959 by Victor Fuentealba. This delicately fresh Cinsault orates Itata’s history of honest, organic and respectful viticulture. El Tunél shows delicate herbal notes that represent Itata’s terroir, with its slightly saline taste and delicate notes of red fruit. It’s fresh and breezy like the Itata hills. Tiny quantities produced.

Leo Erazo Lynch is a young winemaker blowing our minds. Building on years of viticultural and winemaking experience across the world, and a Masters in terroir, he returned to his native Chile to make wine under his own name. These are the first wines under his own label. Leo believes the Itata Valley has some of the most extraordinary geology for vine growing in the world. He selects small parcels of old vines on marginal soils that have never been irrigated nor fertilized. The vines have ultra small yield. On the positive, his wines are purposefully structured, driven by fine-grained tannins. The cool coastal climate of the Itata Valley allows his fruit to reach full ripeness while never reaching high sugar levels. His wines are light, structured, and complex, speaking to his years of making wine in France and giving us a new take on these old soils.

Craven Cinsault 2018 $39.99
Last year, Mick released his first Cinsault from this site and it was a showstopper. Now the vineyard has had an extra year or organic rehabilitation and is thriving (their cover crop was as tall as I was!). It is planted on sandy granite near the ocean; you can feel the salty breeze. These bush-vines are dry farmed and tend to yield grapes with higher acid than their previous vineyard. Winemaking is the same as for their Syrah cuvées: whole-clusters, foot crushing, neutral barrels.

Just in case, you have to try Cinsault. These are some stellar examples and honestly, I could drink these all day long. They are so fresh, clean, exuberant and interesting. They have complexity and delight the palate with every sip. It was hard to contain my excitement during most of this tasting because both of these guys knocked it out of the park with their selections!

The winner, however, was El Tunel from Leonardo Erazo. Onto our final round, we are going in with the big hitters. Both wines from the United States and both are from old vines. This was definitely a close one.

Donkey & Goat Old Vine Carignan 2015 $43.99
Jared & Tracey of Donkey & Goat produces this small lot bottling of Old Vine Carignan to highlight the unique and delicious nature of the varietal on its own rather than blended. Form a vineyard coming up on 80 years old, the grapes produced yield this blue fruit, bush herb-scented beauty. A lighter palate, bright acidity and very reasonable alcohol level, increase the crushable factor, without giving up complexity and structure. Deep berry and spice notes round out the palate, medium tannins, and sense of continuous pleasure round out the experience. A great wine for the table during any season. Jared & Tracy Brandt rock out these delicious, small production labels in a compact warehouse space in Berkeley. Grapes sourced from sustainably farmed (or better) vineyards with a predilection towards Rhone varietals, and low input winemaking. Fresh, vibrant and unadulterated. Great juice! Small production means limited quantities so always best to grab what you can, while you can!

Broc Cellars Old Vines Carignan 2015 $47.99
Oat Valley Vineyard is located in the Alexander Valley. The 130+ year-old vines are own-rooted as the soils here are too sandy for phylloxera to take hold. This field blend consists of Carignan (85%), Alicante (10%), Zinfandel (4%), and Palomino (1%). The whole clusters undergo partial carbonic maceration. The pressed wine undergoes a six-month élevage in concrete before being bottled.

Chris Brockway is the owner and winemaker at Broc Cellars. His ultimate goal is to work with organically or biodynamically farmed fruit from vineyards in unexplored or forgotten Californian appellations. He isn’t shy about using heritage or unorthodox grapes. His winemaking practices are minimal, often avoiding sulphur right until bottling and letting everything ferment via natural yeasts.

After our final round, it was easy to see who the winner in this fierce battle was…… ME! Ok, maybe everyone else who was there as well. It was wonderful to be able to sit back and listen to both of these guys chat about the people that they work with and have met and really get a sense of what each of these winemakers are trying to do. Make wine that is delicious and does not harm the environment.

If you love wine, I firmly believe that this is the way to go. Look for wines that are made not just for turning a profit but also to make sure that they do more good for the earth than damage. If I agree or disagree with the terms and labelling of wine, I do believe that it is important to make wine from grapes that have minimal effects on our environment. It doesn’t have to be funky, but it should be fun. In the end, there are lots of wines out there that can do that, they don’t have to be called natural and they don’t have to be weird or marginal, they can be delicious and they should be sought after.

I really want to give a huge thanks to Andrew and Erik who are doing what they do best in finding fantastic wines. I also want to thank everyone who joined us for the tasting and hope that they were all able to come out with something new and interesting. Until next time, I hope your glass runneth over with delicious juice, whether that be just in life or your wine glass. Enjoy every moment and every drop of wine. Life is too short to drink bad wine or live bad moments;)


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