Cellar Direct: Underdog Whites

27 03 2018

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

IMG_7833Close-following Pop & Pour adherents (if such things exist) will have been waiting for this moment for a couple of months.  In my last write-up about the tremendous Euro-tacular wine offerings of Cellar Direct, I teased that the two Italian reds going head-to-head in that review were not the only bottles (or colours) from that country that Cellar Direct had sent my way, but I opted to hold back the indigenous Italian white wine from that set so that it could shine in an all-white duet in a later post.  Well, here we are, and tonight’s 100% Arneis lead-off hitter is joined in the batting order by a rather mysterious and off-grid white Burgundy (to the extent that anything Burgundy can be considered off-grid), each bottle a tantalizing find that proves both that even famous regions have hidden values and that you often need some expert assistance to find that value needle in the prestige haystack.  If Cellar Direct is anything, they are that Old World value sherpa, leading you to consistent quality at credible price points over and over again.  Their streak of never sending me a bad bottle lives on.

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2015 Chiesa Carlo Roero Arneis Quin ($27)

Arneis sits on some pretty prime real estate, hailing from the much heralded northwest-Italian region of Piedmont, in the ideally situated Roero subregion.  Roero faces Barbaresco directly to the east and Barolo to the south, located just above the town of Alba and southwest from Asti, in the heart of the Nebbiolo universe, a small white haven in a sea of red.  As every Arneis review is contractually obligated to tell you, the grape’s odd name means “little rascal” in Italian, and though this is likely due to its finicky viticultural nature (it is not the easiest grape to grow), it also applies well to its impish flavour profile.  Arneis had plodded along in relative anonymity for much of the last century as a white blender to leaven and soften Nebbiolo before falling out of favour in that role and nearly disappearing altogether; it was rescued by producers like Chiesa Carlo, who tended and focused on it as a star in its own right and released it in the form of 100% varietal wines.  Now Roero has achieved a pinnacle DOCG designation as of 2005, with Arneis the required focal point of all whites from the area.

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The Chiesa family has been in Roero for over three centuries, hewing to traditional low-intervention approaches in both the vineyard and cellar and combining its winemaking operations with a full working farm that indirectly ensures biodiversity and a thriving environment for grape development.  They create this Arneis from old vines planted back in 1960 and seek to retain its full varietal character with stainless steel fermentation and aging.  Interestingly, they specifically instruct on the back of the bottle that the wine should be served at 13 degrees Celsius, which is the temperature at which I drink most of my reds — this blossoms more fully after some time out of the fridge.

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Cork Ratings:  7.5/10 & 5/10 (I have a soft spot for text and graphics going width-wise instead of length-wise.  But classics both.)

There is quite the spritz to the Quin Arneis, to the point where a loud “pop!” was emitted from the bottle every time I re-pulled the cork to pour a new glass due to the pent-up carbon dioxide.  It smells sweet and warm and inviting, all peaches, rosewater, almonds, green leaves, lilacs and a host of other flowers, demure and dancing…then it clamps down with a quirky yet potent powdery grip on the palate and doesn’t let go.  Pink and purple Rockets candy and cream soda flavours last for a trace of a second and then are subsumed by a wave of walnuts and chalk, magnets and gravel soaking in lemon juice, a vise of mineral power that clenches fiercely despite a lithe body and only medium levels of acidity.  Then the sea clears and the Rockets and Pop Rocks return, faintly, almost bitterly, on an almost mocking finish.  A wild rollercoaster that personifies this mischievous wine.

89+ points

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2014 Gautier Thevenet Domaine Emilian Gillet Viré-Clessé Quintaine ($35)

This is a label that requires some deciphering, even for practised wine hands.  For a while, I had no idea what I was looking at, the variety of nomenclature staring back at me appearing almost random apart from “Grand Vin de Bourgogne” – Burgundy.  That’s a start.  White Burgundy almost always means Chardonnay, and Chardonnay that is not designated simply as “Bourgogne Blanc” and does not bear the name of a hallmark Cote d’Or region often originates from the southern end of the region, in the Macon.  It turns out this is the case here:  in the jumble of words above, “Viré-Clessé” is the name of a relatively new region (given AOC status as of 1999) formed out of territory that was previously part of the more anonymous quality region of Macon-Villages, with two such villages, Viré and Clessé, making wines that were so good and so similar that they were elevated together into a single appellation.

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Where does a casual drinker start with this label?  Bourgogne first, and the rest follows.

Domaine Emilian Gillet is one of what appears to be multiple estates founded in the 1980s by Jean Thevenet and now run by his son Gautier as of 2000.  The estate was named after an ancestral winemaker from the Thevenet family’s past whose legacy they strive to propagate.  The 10 hectares of vineyards, farmed biodynamically on limestone soils, are found near the village of Quintaine, plopping the last of the label words comfortably into place.  The Thevenets farm for low, concentrated yields, and unlike many current natural-style producers who pick early to ensure freshness and lower alcohol levels, they aim for very late harvests so as to squeeze every last ounce of flavour development from the grapes, which they allow to wallow and luxuriate in native-yeast fermentations that can last A YEAR (ambient yeasts are less efficient at fermentation than their commercial cultured equivalents).  Add old oak fermentation and barrel aging on the lees and you get a wide range of hands-off decisions meant to focus intensity and flavours as naturally as possible.

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There are glorious measured doses of oak immediately evident on this Viré-Clessé, the ideal complement to Chardonnay when done right (in my opinion), adding coconut, pie crust and toasted marshmallow accents to the salted honey, lime, lemongrass and Mandarin orange aromas, creating an olfactory chimera that was hedonistically delicious while remaining fully within control.  The expansive yet deftly textured palate, weighing about half of what you would expect, is pure tangerine and mango, orange Jello and potpourri laced with ginger, lazily unfurling on the tongue and coating every pore before disappearing clean.  There may have been a raised eyebrow or two at the title of this post, which attempts to classify the mighty Chardonnay as an “underdog” grape, but my brief time as a wine obsessive has coincided with a surprising level of derision and neglect aimed at this noble varietal that has a permanent place in wine royalty.  Anyone who questions oaked Chardonnay as a versatile food wine or a source of intellectual curiosity should come hang out with this one for a while.

91 points

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