It may be a statement of the obvious, but the world’s great terroirs always seem to find a way to stand out. It seems to me to be one of the hallmarks of a top vineyard: a spot of the planet that, year after year, leaves its mark in predictable, extraordinary ways on the grapes grown there, and whose essential character shines through in the wines that ultimately result.
My white wine of the week today, Elena Walch Vigna Castel Ringberg Pinot Grigio 2019 Alto Adige DOC, is a transporting example and a particularly influential one also given Pinot Grigio’s somewhat challenging reputation.
Mainly because of the genuine sea of mass-produced, characterless Pinot Grigio that has flooded the U.S. market for an apparent eternity now, the grape has deserved astonishment (at best) and ire (at worst) for a generation of wine connoisseurs. And in fact, the vast majority of these wines are anonymous examples of the kind of white wine that suits everything and seems to fit into any conceivable situation, not because of its inherent nature, but actually because of the lack of any noticeable one.
Still, it does not have to be like this delicious wine proves. It grows on the Castel Ringberg vineyard in the Alto Adige area of northeastern Italy. At an altitude of just over a thousand meters, this almost 50 hectare plot boasts various soil types (gravel, limestone, richer moraines), lots of sunshine and excellent drainage. The Walch family has been making wine for five generations and is currently managed by Karoline and Julia Walch: This is a true family business, and the wines across the portfolio, which I find year after year, are excellent.
This one is also: Subtle, structured and layered, yet so energetic and graceful. Mineral stains of hard apples and subtle herbs are collected by lemon leaf before a palate of concentration and acidity, with an almost chalky mineral character that informs lemon grain notes and a finish that rolls in on a subtle briny wave kissed with apple fritters . Drink this over the next few years: It’s easy to find for less than $ 30, and it’s seriously worth the money. It’s also the perfect wine to pour into people who claim they’ve never had a Pinot Grigio that spoke to them: It will change their minds in the most delicious ways.
My red wine of the week, penultimate Napa Valley 2016, is from another world-class terroir. It is produced by the team that makes Promontory one of the stars of the Harlan family stable with iconic reds. The land itself, located on the other side of the ridge from Harlan, ranges from 500-1,150 feet above sea level and boasts an amazing diversity of soils (volcanic on the west-facing flanks, metamorphic on the east-facing flanks and sedimentary on the higher portions, primarily facing west). The 800 acres of land are very steep, surrounded by forest, and due to the tendency of the cooler air to linger, the fruit there tends to be harvested anywhere between 10 and 15 days later than at the Harlan Estate. And due to the large diversity of the property, the picking can take a month, despite the fact that only about 10% of the land or about 80 hectares are planted to vineyards.
Penultimate occupies a unique place in the portfolio of the Harlan family domain. Winemaker David Cilli recently explained to me that it is not a “different wine”, as most of them tend to be blends of younger vines or made from the wines left over from the production of great wine. Instead, this is its own unit, made from vines that are bred with the intention of going into the penultimate all the time. The fruit comes from ripe vines that “take longer to understand,” Cilli told me. These vines are not quite right for Promontory, though there are a number of blocks that have gone from penultimate to promontory. Cilli explained that Will Harlan, who runs Promontory, describes the penultimate as a sketch before the last painting. For $ 375, compared to $ 850 for Promontory, it’s far more available too … and still a blockbuster. I have recently tasted two bottlings, 2014 and 2016, to try to understand the character of the country seen through the lens of two very different vintages.
The nose of 2014 is magnificent – eucalyptus, mint and various balsamic notes are shiny clear and detailed and are associated with Amarena cherry pastry cream, mineral, pine, sage, thyme and, as Cilli said, not the forest floor but the canopy – a fine but deep important distinction. The palate drips with currants, cherries, cherry pepper tobacco, blood oranges, star anise, Chinese five-spice powder and mineral, it all vibrates with energy. It is a wine with deep character and soul, weightlessness and balance and with length and depth to spare, tannins that are ingeniously integrated and lifted, and the ability to age for at least the next decade and beyond … but I would not wait so long: Right now it’s impeccable.
As for 2016, it’s also great with cedar and a touch of sandalwood, currant and black cherry pastry cream, mint and sage, all before a beautifully textured palate with a deep mineral core, herbs and flavor, and the potential to get bigger opulence and depth as it ages. Cilli thinks it will “get even more flow, with excitement, freshness and minerality … it will be so much fun,” he told me. I could not agree more, but even now this beautiful evocation of its place of origin is persecuted and promises to evolve for another two decades plus. The new vintage of Penultimate, 2016, will be released to members of Promontory’s allotment list on August 10 in addition to limited amounts of 2012, 2013 and 2014.