Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The great producer search for quality Cava

Producers in the Penedès wine region began deserting the Cava appellation, beginning in 2012, because of concerns that the brand had a poor image, with low prices baked-in in many markets. Further, these producers felt that the appellation was too large to be managed or regulated effectively.  First, some background on Cava.

Prior to Spain's entry into the EU, its sparkling wine was called Champán or Champaña. With the EU regulation that all sparkling wines called Champagne has to originate from the Champagne region of France, the Spanish sparkling was renamed Cava, a reference to the place -- caves-- where the early wines were stored for aging.  Cava was granted DO designation in 1986 on Spain's entry into the EU.

Cava is produced in 159 municipalities spread across Catalonia, Aragon, Navarra, Rioja, and Valencia but fully 95% of that production originates in Catalonia's Penedès, a wine region located about 40 kilometers southwest of Barcelona.

Penedès is surrounded by the Monserrat range which provides a protective barrier from the heat and humidity of the Mediterranean as well as the cold winds -- levanter -- from the north and east. The climate is Mediterranean with annual temperatures averaging 15.5℃ (60℉) across the region but with slightly differing micro-climates within its three sub-zones. In Baix Penedès, the area closest to the coastline, elevation ranges between 0 and 250 meters and the temperature is milder, thanks to its proximity to the sea. In Penedès Superior -- 500 - 800 meters elevation -- there is greater rainfall than in the companion zones and a greater differential between maximum and minimum temperatures. Penedès Central (250 - 500 meters) experiences a mix of the Superior and Baix microclimates.

The soil in the Penedès region is a mix of limestone, sand, and clay with a chalky top layer atop a layer of clay which in turn overlays a rocky base.

While the Méthode Champenoise is utilized in the production of Cava, the traditional Champagne grapes, if used at all, are bit players in this drama.  The prime varieties used in Cava are Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parelleda but small amounts of Chardonnay, Malvasia, Pinot Noir, Trepat, Red Grenache, or Monastrell can be used in the blend. Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada are grown in both Baix and Central Penedès but the highest-quality Parellada grapes are grown in Penedès Superior.

In order to be called Cava, the sparkling wine made in the region has to be aged a minimum of 9 months before being taken to market.  Many producers age their wines for 2 to 4 years in order to provide wines with more character.  To be classified as Gran Reserva, a Cava has to be aged for at least 30 months.

The first producer to leave was Raventós i Blanc in 2012.

Conca Del Riu Anoia
Raventós i Blanc was especially concerned about the lack of Cava quality, which to its mind, resulted from unfocused geographic and production specifications. It lobbied for the creation of a DO called Conca Del Riu Anoia in a small geographic area surrounding the Anoia River Valley between the Anoia and Foix Rivers in eastern Penedès.

In addition to narrowing down the geographic requirements for this proposed DO, Raventós i Blanc sought to tighten up the Cava production rules:
  • Only indigenous varieties would be used in the production of this sparkling wine
  • Vineyards must be organically farmed (biodynamic would be even better) and be at least 10 years old
  • At least 50% of the wine must be made from estate-grown grapes
  • For grapes bought off the estate, the producer must pay a minimum of 1€/kg versus the average of 0.40€ that was the norm
  • All grapes should be sourced from the River Anoia area
  • Yield from the vineyards had a ceiling of 10,000 kg/ha
  • Hand-picked grapes
  • Wines must be 100% estate produced and bottled
  • Wines must be vintage and aged on their lees for a minimum of 18 months.
Raventós i Blanc did not get much traction on its proposal but is making its sparkling wines according to these specifications and is placing this unofficial designation on its labels.

Classic Penedès
For those unwilling -- or unable -- to fit into the Conca Del Riu Anoia framework, were still dissatisfied with the Cava DO, but wanted the comfort of a large DO, the Penedès DO created a support vehicle called Classic Penedès.

The new classification scheme addressed members' concerns about geographic scope by limiting the grapes to the Penedès region and addressed wine quality by insisting upon 100% organic farming practices and residence on the lees for at least 15 months. Interested producers were given until 2017 (a 5-year transition period) to become fully compliant with the organic farmimg requirement.

The producers who left at this time includeAlbert i Noya, Mas Comptal, Loxarel, Colet, and Mas Bertram.

Cava de Paraje Calificado
It was not like Cava DO officials were unaware that they had a problem; but they had a broad group of members and it took time to get them on board with a politically viable solution to what was a real problem. A problem which was a limiting factor in terms of product growth  on the international market and which was also tearing the organization apart internally.

After much discourse with the members, Cava introduced Cava de Paraje Calificado in 2016 but did not certify it until 2017. This mechanism allows for the production of single-vineyard Cavas based on the following requirements:
  • The vineyards needed to be at least 10 years old and must be wholly owned by the estate
  • The vineyard must have been separately vinified for a minimum of three harvests
  • Maximum yield of 48 hl/ha
  • Grapes must be hand-harvested
  • Fermentation on the estate
  • At least 85% of the wine must be from estate-grown fruit
  • Unlike Cava, cannot be acidified
  • Normal acid level of 5.5 g/l.
One author has characterized this schema as having the Burgundy classification without the Village and Premier Cru levels. In this mechanism, the top vineyards have been raised to the top classification level (with everyone else at the "Regional" level), but with no discernible path between the two.

A number of Cava producers had been having discussions among themselves as to how to solve the perceived problem (they were not sure that the DO solution would address the problem adequately). After the Cava DO provided its solution it tried to play hardball with this subset of producers saying that they would not be allowed to use Cava and their proposed marketing name on the same label (This was an attempt to force them into ceasing their cooperation discussions and come on board with the DO solution). One day before the expiration of the deadline that Cava DO set, this group broke away and formed an organization called Corpinnat.

Corpinnat was a geographically limited construct -- 22,000 ha, all within the interior pocket of Penedès. This location is characterized by significant diurnal temperature variation (great  for acidity retention) and protection from Mediterranean humidity by a large chain of mountains. Allowed grape varieties are Xarel-lo, Macabeu, Parellada, and Malvasia for whites and Grenache, Monastrel, Sumoll, and Xarel-lo Vermel for reds.

Production requirements are as follows:
  • Organic farming
  • Hand-harvesting
  • A minimum of 75% of the grapes have to be grown in the producer's vineyard
  • Outside grapes have to be purchased at a set minimum price (0.70€/kg)
  • Native varieties must be a minimum of 90% of the blend
  • All wine should be produced at the winery
  • Wines must age a minimum of 18 months on the lees.
The first-movers in this organization are Gramona, Recaredo, Torelló, Llopart, Nadal, Sabaté i Coca, Mas Camdí, Huget-Can Feixes, and Júlia Vernet. While these producers represent only 1% of the total Cava DO output, their quality standing is reflecetd by the fact that they represent 30% of the Gran Reserva Cava production.

The problem confronting Cava DO is that it does not currently have a true mechanism for identifying quality. Cava is a mechanism for producing sparkling wine rather than a geographic or terroir-based schema. And it seems that the name Cava is irretrievably broken. The producers intuitively have the right ideas as to how to solve the problem but the DO is afraid of sinking into irrelevance.

It is extremely important that the DO work with these innovative producers so that, as a group, they can work towards a number of sub-appellations which can produce terroir-based, high-quality wines under a Cava umbrella (or some other less-offensive nomenclature). If they choose, instead, to fight along the way, the ensuing complexity of offerings will turn the consumer off and end in great damage to the Spanish sparkling wine industry.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Tasting the wines of Arkenstone with Jake Krausz, Estate Director

One of the treats of my previously annual jaunt to Premiere Napa Vally was tasting the wines of Arkenstone with Susan Krausz (estate co-owner) and Sam Kaplan (its highly accomplished winemaker). I was especially drawn to the Sauvignon Blancs which, in my humble opinion, are among the best produced in the United States.

Author with Arkenstone Winemaker
Sam Kaplan at Premiere Napa Valley 2017
I had an opportunity to revisit these memories on Tuesday last when Jake Krausz, the Estate Director, brought the key wines to Wine on the Way for a consumer tasting. The tasting was held in a "Happy Hour" format with Jake mingling among patrons on "this side" of the "bar" and Robert Zaun (Terroir Selections) and Connor Barbaree (Arkenstone) doing the pouring.

Jake Krausz, Arkenstone Estate Director
Arkenstone sits on the western ridge of Howell Mountain on land -- ranging between 1400 and 1650 feet elevation -- purchased by Ron and Susan Krausz back in 1988. After gaining the insight that the property was capable of producing high-quality wines, the Krausz's began a methodical and studied journey which has resulted in an estate and wines that have garnered attention and acclaim from consumers and critics alike.

Howell Mountain appellation with
Arkenstone indicated by red oval.
(Map sourced from howellmountain.org).
The Arkenstone vineyard is 13 acres in size and is planted mostly to red and white Bordeaux cultivars -- along with a small amount of Syrah. The vineyard is divided into 22 blocks and I could see a look of pain descend onto Jake's face as he told of digging rocks out of those blocks in his teenage years in order to expose the soil for reception of the vines. The Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in 1997 and the red varieties in 1998.

Arkenstone Blocks
As is the case for most of Napa, a wide variety of soils underlie the Arkenstone vines. Grades range between 2% on the flattest portions of the vineyard to as much as 50% on the steepest portions.

Howell Mountain provides a favorable climatic environment for those fortunate enough to grow grapes on its surface. The AVA sits above the fog line during the growing season and, as such, is able to deliver more extensive sunshine to its vines than can its neighbors in the valley below. The combination of altitude, nutrient-poor volcanic soils, and an abundance of rock yield stressed vines and smaller clusters with smaller berries. The lower juice-to-skin ratio results in concentrated wines with robust tannins and great acidity.

In addition to the estate fruit, Arkenstone produces 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc wines from grapes procured from high-elevation vineyards in the Eastern Napa Mountains. Sam Kaplan oversees the grape-growing in both the estate and grower vineyards, ably assisted by a Vineyard Manager who has been with the enterprise since day one. Arkestone farms organically, using cover crops and compost as integral parts of its strategy.

Yields are further managed by pruning and leaf-thinning. Harvesting is done in pre-dawn hours to preserve freshness of fruit. After sorting and destemming on the crushpad, the berries are moved by gravity-flow into the lower level of the winery for fermentation and aging.

We tasted the Estate and NVD Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernets on Tuesday night.

Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014
The Sauvignon Blanc grapes for this wine are grown on six very steep, very rocky vineyard blocks distinguished by nutrient-poor, well-drained, white volcanic soils. The Semillon grapes are grown in a single, small block that is located in the lower portion of the vineyard.

After fermentation, the wines are distributed 1/3 each into concrete egg, new French oak barrels, and used French oak barrels where they reside for 11 months on their lees. They are then bottled and spend 18 months aging before release on the market.

This wine has 6% Semillon by volume and showed hints of tropical fruit, to include pineapple, as well as citrus notes and lime skin. Salinity, spice, and minerality on the palate. Great texture and acidity. Lengthy finish.

Robert Zaun waxing poetic
about the wines on show.

Sauvignon Blanc NVD 2015
Austere on the nose when compared to the Estate. Elegant. Hint of tropical fruit. Riper fruit on the palate and broader than the nose implied. Citrus skin and minerality. Lengthy mineral finish.

Connor Barbaree reaching for the star(s)

Estate Cabernet Blend 2015 (formerly Obsidian)
This wine is generally made from Cabernet Sauvignon (67%), Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec grapes drawn from the top 16 of the 22 blocks dedicated to the Estate Blend. The lots are fermented and aged (90% new oak) separately, with the blending process beginning 11 months post-fermentation. After blending the wines are placed back into barrels so they can integrate fully while aging. The wines are aged in bottle for an additional year before being placed on the market.

Sweet, dark fruit on the nose along with spices, olives, and smoke. Very smooth on the palate.

Cabernet Sauvignon NVD 2015
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes sourced from Pritchard Hill, Soda Canyon, Calistoga, and Howell Mountain. Rich, creamy nose with blue/black fruit and chocolate note. Ripe fruit. Textured. Lengthy finish.


A unique and, ultimately, successfully approach to showcasing the wines. Attendees had access to Jake's perspective in an unhurried fashion but also had access to the expertise of Robert and Connor behind the "bar." The wines showed well but my personal bias still trends to the Sauvignon Blancs.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Estiatorio Milos: Fine Mediterranean cuisine at New York City's Hudson Yards

Whenever Ron, Bev, Parlo, or I go into New York City, we generally launch our expedition with lunch at the Midtown location (125 E 55th Street) of the famed Greek restaurant Estiatorio Milos. This restaurant was Chef Spilades entry point into the US and its signature open kitchen, fish market, fresh ingredients, and esthetically pleasing environment rendered it one of the standard bearers for Mediterranean food in NYC.

Our level of satisfaction with this restaurant has always been very high so when I heard that a second NYC location would be opened at the Hudson Yards development, I promised myself that I would check it out as soon after opening as possible. That occasion presented itself last Saturday.

I came in by Uber from Queens and decamped at the 11th Avenue entrance to the development. Hudson Yards is a "28-acre development built over an active rail yard and serves as home to more than 100 diverse shops and culinary experiences, offices ..., public art and cultural institutions including The Shed, modern residences, 14 acres of public plazas, gardens and groves, and the world's first Equinox Hotel."

Entering the plaza, we were immediately transfixed by The Vessel, the otherworldly structure that is the centerpiece of the Yard. "Comprised of 154 intricately interconnected flights of stairs -- almost 2500 individual steps and 80 landings -- the nearly one mile of vertical climb offers remarkable views of the city, the river, and beyond."

The Vessel

The Shed in the background

Stepping out of the car we were greeted by this bronze-gold, honeycomb structure rising out of the ground, narrowing as it reached for the skies. And there were people traversing its multiple bands, the center of attention of the throngs massed in the plaza below. This was a made-for-Instagram structure and one got the sense immediately that this place will grow to become an iconic New York City structure; a gathering place for locals and visitors alike. A mini-Eiffel Tower on the Hudson.

We crossed the plaza (after viewing The Vessel from every conceivable angle and taking a ton of pictures) and entered the 5-story, high-end shopping plaza that is an integral part of the complex. A security guard directed us to the express elevator to the 5th floor where Milos is located.

As expected, the layout and appointments of the enterprise are pleasing to the eye. The Wine Bar is located on the 5th floor while the restaurant is located one level up.The Wine Bar serves a large selection of by-the-glass wines and small plates while the restaurant has a similar wine list and food offerings as does the Midtown location. The fish market is a welcoming sign to Milos regulars.

What sets this restaurant apart from the Midtown one, is the possibilities afforded by the location: a sixth floor location with sweeping views of the rail yard, the Hudson River, and New Jersey beyond, as well as an in-your-face view of The Vessel. There is an inner bank of seats and then a step-down to another set of seats that hug the large glass walls. There is a balcony on the outside of the dining room which will be available for dining once it warms up.

Parlo, Greg, author, and Chris

There has been some discussion in the press regarding the high price of Milos' meals being obscured by the Market price designation but let not your hear be troubled. The prix fixe menu offers three course (each course selected from a healthy list of options) at a very fair price. We took this route and were very pleased.

The staff is young and eager but not as knowledgeable as the stalwarts of yore. But they will grow into it with the management team looking over their shoulders. Our server was excellent; our original Somm not so much. I had him switched out and things ran smoothly after that.

Ambience, great food, great wine, great views. It does not get any better than this.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme