Elena Walch Pinot Grigio and the epic new vintage from the penultimate of the Harlan family

It may be obvious, but the great terroirs of the world always seem to find a way to stand out. It is, it seems to me, one of the defining characteristics of a great vineyard: a corner of the planet which, vintage after vintage, leaves its mark in a predictable and extraordinary way on the grapes grown there, and whose essential character shines in the resulting wines.

My white wine of the week today, the Elena Walch Vigna Castel Ringberg Pinot Grigio 2019 Alto Adige DOC, is a telling example, and particularly moving, given the somewhat… provocative reputation of Pinot Grigio itself.

Mainly because of the veritable ocean of mass-produced characterless Pinot Grigio that has flooded the US market for an apparent eternity now, the grape has won the bewilderment (at best) and wrath (at worst) of a generation of connoisseurs of wine. And, indeed, the overwhelming majority of these wines are innocuous examples of the kind of white wine that goes well with anything and seems to adapt to any situation imaginable not because of its inherent character but, in fact, due to the lack of any one.

Still, it doesn’t have to be, as this delicious wine proves. It is cultivated on the Castel Ringberg vineyard in the Alto Adige region in northeastern Italy. At just over a thousand feet above sea level, this nearly 50 acre parcel has diverse soils (gravel, limestone, richer moraines), plenty of sun and excellent drainage. The Walch family has been making wine for five generations and is currently run by Karoline and Julia Walch: it is a true family business, and the wines in the portfolio, I find vintage after vintage, are excellent.

This one is too: subtle, structured and layered, but still so energetic and graceful. The mineral aromas of harsh apples and subtle herbs are joined by lemon pith before a palate of concentration and acidity, with an almost chalky mineral character informing notes of lemon pith and a wave-rolling finish. subtly brackish that is kissed with apple fritters. Drink this one over the next few years: it’s easy to find for under $ 30, and it definitely delivers too much for the money. It’s also the perfect wine to pour for those who claim they’ve never had a Pinot Grigio that spoke to them: it will change their minds in the most delicious way.

My red wine of the week, the penultimate 2016 Napa Valley, comes from another world-class terroir. It is produced by the team that makes Promontory, one of the stars of the Harlan family stable of iconic reds. The land itself, perched on the other side of Harlan Ridge, stretches from 500 to 1150 feet above sea level and has a fantastic diversity of soils (volcanic on the west-facing flanks, metamorphic on those oriented to the east and sedimentary on the upper parts, which are mainly oriented to the west). The 800 acres of land are very steep, surrounded by forests, and due to the tendency for cooler air to linger, fruit tends to be harvested 10 to 15 days later than at Harlan Estate. And due to the great diversity of the property, the picking can take a month, despite the fact that only about 10% of the land, or about 80 acres, is planted with vines.

Penultimate occupies a unique place in the portfolio of the Harlan family estate. Winemaker David Cilli recently explained to me that this is not a ‘second wine’ as most of them tend to be blends from younger vines or made from leftover wines from wine production. great wine. Instead, it’s its own entity, made from vines grown with the intention of getting into Penultimate from the start. The fruit comes from mature vines that “take longer to understand,” Cilli told me. These vines are not quite suitable for Promontory, although a number of boulders have gone from the penultimate to the promontory. Cilli explained that Will Harlan, who runs Promontory, describes Penultimate as being like a sketch before the final painting. At $ 375, compared to $ 850 for Promontory, it’s also much more accessible… and still a blockbuster. I recently tasted two bottlings, 2014 and 2016, to try to understand the character of the terroir seen through the prism of two very different vintages.

The nose of the 2014 is magnificent – the notes of eucalyptus, mint and assorted balsamic are shimmering clarity and detailed, and joined by the custard of Amarena cherry, minerals, pine, sage, thyme and, as Cilli said, not the forest floor but the canopy – a fine but deeply important distinction. The palate is dripping with currants, cherries, cherry pipe tobacco, blood oranges, star anise, Chinese five-spice powder and minerals, all vibrant with energy. It’s a wine of deep character and soul, weightlessness and balance, with length and depth to spare, brilliantly integrated and lifted tannins, and the ability to age for at least the next decade and more. – beyond … but I wouldn’t. wait that long: right now it’s spotless.

As for the 2016, it’s also stellar, with cedar and a touch of sandalwood, currants and black cherry custard, toasted mint and sage, all before a beautifully structured palate with a deep mineral core. , herbs and flavor, and the potential to gain fluff and depth as it ages. Cilli thinks it will “gain even more fluidity, with tension, freshness and minerality… it will be so much fun,” he told me. I couldn’t agree more, but even now this magnificent evocation of his place of origin is haunting and promises to evolve for more than two decades. The new vintage of Penultimate, the 2016, will be distributed to members of the Promontory allocation list on August 10, in addition to the limited quantities of 2012, 2013 and 2014.

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