When my wine education began about a decade ago, one of the first things I learned was: grapes that struggle make complex, interesting wine. What this means is that grapes that are grown in “perfect” conditions (healthy soils, optimal exposure, lush surroundings) make blah wine.
Grapes need to struggle! Vines that grow into steep mountain sides or extreme climates really have to dig deep into the ground, where they are rewarded for their hard work. This means more nutrients, more minerals, more complexity. I think it’s a great metaphor for life.
Famously Extreme Wine Regions. There are certainly lots of these extremes when it comes to the famous wine regions of the world. The Sonoma Coast in California, the Douro Valley in Portugal, Rías Baixas in Spain, Côte Rôtie and the northern Rhône Valley in France, the Mosel Valley in Germany, Mt. Etna in Sicily, the list goes on...
Extreme Sonoma Coast : The Edge of the World, Home to Cali-Cool Chardonnay & Pinot Noir. Driving up Highway 1 along the California Coast should be on everyone’s bucket list. It is terrifying, exhilarating, breathtaking and harrowing all at the same time. Above San Francisco, the Highway 1 experience really begins at Bodega Bay up to Jenner; from Jenner to Fort Ross is where the nail biting ensues. Massive cliffs jut out over the majestic Pacific Ocean. This region also happens to be world-class for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Most people think that California equals warm. Not so in the coastal north. The Sonoma Coast is quite chilly. Warm sunny days help ripen the grapes. Cool nights retain their acidity—resulting in wines that emulate some of the greats of Burgundy, but with a distinct California terroir.
Côte-Rôtie : the Roasted Slope, Home to World-Renowned Syrah. Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône Valley of France means “roasted slope” in English and grows some of the best Syrah out there. It is among the two most famous AOCs in the northern Rhône, the other being Hermitage (the other AOCs making scrumptious wine here include St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Condrieu for white).
The vineyards of Côte-Rôtie are unique because of the steep granite and schist slopes descending to the Rhône River. The “roasted” in “roasted slope” refers to the hours of sunlight these slopes bask in. The granite and schist (metamorphic rock) retain the heat very well; this is incredibly helpful when the mighty Mistral wind whips through this region and cools everything down.
Though Côte-Rôtie is synonymous with Syrah, the wines can be co-fermented with the local white grape, Viognier. The aromas of these wines can almost be paradoxical in that Syrah is incredibly gamy, with notes of black pepper, roasted meat and bacon, while Viognier lends an incredible floral note.
Mosel Valley : The Region of Three Suns, Home to Perfectly Pure Riesling. The Mosel Valley in Germany is the region that comes to the forefront when speaking of extremities. Harvesting can only be done by hand since machines would literally tumble down the steep slopes. Some vineyards even require the harvest workers wear a rope around their waist, helping anchor them to the slopes. Bremmer Calmont is the steepest vineyard in the world, with a 65° incline.
When we speak of the Mosel, we speak of Riesling. The slate in the soil here gives Riesling its beautiful transparency. There is nothing so pure as a well-made German Riesling. The aroma is a tropical fruit basket, with notes of petrol (in a good way) from the soil. Some wines are bone dry, others are on a sliding scale of sweetness.
The thing that makes Riesling from the Mosel so famous is the bracing acidity (since this is definitely a cool climate), that can balance out the sugar. It can literally be paired with any food. Peking duck, soft shell crab, pork and sauerkraut, or just on its own. Every sommelier I’ve met has a love affair with Riesling for this reason.
Mt. Etna : A Lesson in Lava, Home to Beautifully Smoky Juice. The entire boot of Italy is extreme in itself: the whole peninsula is basically formed by active and inactive volcanoes. Sicily, an island off the coast of southern Italy, has one such active volcano, Mt. Etna. Rebel winemakers have forged vineyard sites on the side of this mountain, and cannot get insurance because it can erupt at any moment. The terroir that Etna contributes to (all color) wines of this region is a beautiful smokiness and distinct minerality.
Valtellina : The Fearsome Mountains, Home to Our Favorite Earthy-Fruity Nebbiolo. The northerly reaches of Italy are extreme due to their location at the foothills of the Alps. Piemonte in northwest Italy means “foot of the mountain.” Valtellina in Lombardia (immediately to Piemonte’s east, above Milano) has been known for its skiing, and was a historical alpine pass between Germany and Italy. Just like Piemonte, Nebbiolo is the main grape here, known locally as Chiavennasca. Because of the intensely steep slopes in this region, the vineyards are haphazardly terraced with giant ladders sometimes placed against the side of these inclines. Our favorite producer from this area, ArPePe makes some stellar Nebbiolo from the crus of Sassella, Grumello and Inferno, in the heart of the Valtellina Superiore DOCG. These wines are earthy and dirty, but have the bright red Nebbiolo fruit at their core. They are lovely with alpine cheeses as well as the local bresaola (alpine air cured beef).
By Lindsay Furia - The Cru
WINE FROM ELEVATION & EXTREMES
EXTREME SONOMA COAST : EDGE OF THE WORLD
Hirsch Vineyards : $70 btl
"San Andreas Fault" Estate Fort Ross-Seaview, CA 2014 : variety, Pinot Noir
COBB : $90 btl
"Coastlands Vineyard 1906" Sonoma Coast, CA 2014 : variety, Pinot Noir
COTÉ ROTIE : THE ROASTED SLOPE
Louis Barruol : $100 btl
Côte-Rôtie "Besset," Northern Rhone, FR 2014 : variety, Syrah
MOSEL : THE REGION OF THREE SUNS
Peter Lauer : $30 btl
Riesling "Senior," Mosel GR 2016 : variety, Riesling
MT ETNA : A LESSON IN LAVA
GIROLAMO RUSSO : $34 btl
Etna Rosso “A Rina” 2016 : variety, Nerello Mascalese & Nerello Cappuccio
VALTELLINA - THE FEARSOME MOUNTAINS
AR. PE. PE. : $40 btl
Rosso di Valtellina, Lombardia, IT 2014 : variety, Chiavennasca (aka. Nebbiolo)
AR. PE. PE. : $112 btl
Sassella Riserva "Vigna Regina," Lombardia, IT 2005 : variety, Chiavennasca (aka. Nebbiolo)
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