The Wildest Wine I’ve Tasted

Today’s Story: Ochota Barrels

Ochota Barrels is a small, family-owned winery located in the Basket Range area of the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. The idea for Ochota Barrels came about in 2000, when Taras and Amber Ochota were wrapping up a surf and wine trip along the western coast of Mexico in a Volkswagen campervan. Following some time spent as a punk rocker, Taras graduated with a degree in Oenology from Adelaide University then worked as a “flying winemaker consultant” concentrating in Puglia, Abruzzo, and Sicily in Italy. Taras also spent some time making wines in California before he and Amber settled on their 9.6 acres in South Australia and Ochota Barrels launched in 2008. The Ochota Barrels philosophy is to produce pure and fresh wines which, in Taras’ words, are “something delicious and gorgeous for all of us to enjoy with none of the nasties and more of the love.” A blow to the South Australian winemaking community (and beyond), Taras unfortunately passed away last year at the young age of 49 following a long battle with an auto-immune-related illness.

The Ochota Barrels farming and winemaking philosophies center on minimal intervention to produce pure, expressive wines with a true sense of place and variety. Taras and Amber were inspired by the biodynamic producers they met in France, farming their own vineyards with many of the same practices. Fruit is harvested early to preserve natural acidity, and wild fermentation occurs with only indigenous yeasts. Whites see whole-bunch pressing and reds get whole-bunch fermentation and extended maceration with texture an important focus. The wines age in old French oak barrels before bottling with a minimal addition of sulphur.

To learn more or read praise for the Ochota Barrels wines, you can visit their website here. I also previously wrote about their 2020 The Mark of Cain, which is a fun wine made of 100% Pinot Meunier.

Today’s Wine: 2019 Botanicals of the Basket Range

Blend of Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Isabella, and Shiraz; 12% ABV

The 2019 Botanicals of the Basket Range is deep salmon in color. This wine leaps out of the glass with aromas of medium (+) intensity and you immediately know you’re in for a fun ride. The nose showcases aromas of white strawberry, raspberry, cherry, rose petal, rosemary, thyme, sage, and chalky mineral. The flavors are of medium intensity, with the palate displaying notes of maraschino cherry, freshly-picked strawberry, raspberry, lavender, thyme, lemongrass, mint, and crushed rock minerality. This dry, vermouth-inspired wine is light- to medium-bodied with high acidity, light tannins, medium alcohol, and a medium (+) length finish. In addition to the grape varieties listed in the blend below, 17 botanicals from the Ochota Barrels garden were submerged in the wine and they include sage, wild fennel, blood orange rind, elderflower, lemon balm, bay leaf, and thyme amongst others.

Price: $55. While I can’t put a value analysis on this as it compares to other wines since I’ve never tasted anything like it, I can say that for me this is absolutely worth the price and then some. This is one of the most unusual and fun wines I’ve tasted so far, all while maintaining impeccable quality, complexity, balance, and length. This is truly magical stuff.

A Wine of Personality

Today’s Story: Thackrey & Co.

Thackrey & Co. (which is somewhat of a misnomer because it consists of practically only its founder, Sean Thackrey) is a small and esoteric winery located in Bolinas of Marin County, California. An art gallery director by trade, Sean transitioned into winemaking during the late 1970s and early 1980s and by modern standards is rather unconventional in his craft. Though he started with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from the esteemed Fay Vineyard in Napa (now owned by Stag’s Leap), he found the varieties and resulting wine too “proper” and set out to purchase varieties like Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, and Syrah to broaden his horizons.

Thackrey’s philosophy can be described quite easily as esoteric, as he eschews classroom and lab learning but rather views winemaking as a natural process that has no clear order and is filled with necessary and unavoidable challenges. He also takes many of his practices from long-forgotten ancient methods, one of which is allowing his wines to ferment at least 24 hours under the stars which can be found in ancient texts of Greek poet Hesiod. In fact a large number of Thackrey’s winery operations occur outdoors amongst leaves and pine needles in his eucalyptus grove, as there is a significant lack of order on his homestead where these wines are crafted. Don’t expect this perceived mayhem to stop with the wines either, as Thackrey often never knows the final blend of his wines but they are brooding, powerful, and eccentric.

Thackrey is known largely for two of his wines, one being the non-vintage Pleiades which is a blend of roughly six different varieties and is rumored to be at times Syrah-dominant and at others Sangiovese-dominant. The blend changes each release, which is signified by Roman numerals on the label. The second wine is his flagship, named Orion, and its fruit is sourced from the Rossi Vineyard in St. Helena. For much of its history, Thackrey thought the Orion bottling was old vine Syrah but, following a study of the vineyard, five types of vines could not be identified and the bottling is now labeled as an “old vine California red.” Total production sits around 4,000 cases per vintage, and while this background probably seems rather chaotic the wines are in high demand and often receive high praise from critics. I can tell you that of the four Sean Thackrey wines I’ve had over the years, I am always blown away and welcome the rustic power they bring.

Today’s Wine: NV Pleiades XXVIII

Unknown Blend (rumored to include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese, Barbera, Carignane, Viognier, and potentially other varieties); 14.4% ABV

The NV Pleiades XXVIII is medium garnet in color. This is one of those wines that constantly evolves over time in the glass, so I did not decant it but drank it over several hours. The aromas are of pronounced intensity, with a complex nose of black cherry, blood orange rind, licorice, rose, violet, smoked meat, leather, tobacco, tar, cracked pepper, and pine. There’s slight heat from the ABV, but this should integrate with time. The flavors are of medium (+) intensity, but the palate is also complex and displays notes of cherry, redcurrant, red plum, anise, tobacco, cola, smoke, grilled herbs, and baking spice. This dry red blend is full-bodied with high acidity, medium tannins, high alcohol, and a medium length finish. Overall a very fun and thought-provoking wine. Bottled November 2020.

Price: $22. This is a very fun and unique wine that I think is absolutely worth trying. I haven’t had anything quite like it, but the quality and complexity are quite profound. Quite an interesting wine to shake up some palate fatigue.

A Renaissance for the Mondavi Family

Today’s Story: Continuum Estate

Continuum Estate was established in 2005 by Robert Mondavi and his children Tim and Marcia following their sale of Robert Mondavi Winery in 2004 to Constellation Brands. In 2008, they purchased the estate vineyard high up on Pritchard Hill in the Vaca Mountains on the eastern boundary of the Napa Valley, and the winery was finished in time for the 2013 harvest. While most of the fruit they used starting 2008 was from the Continuum estate vineyard, they did not use 100% estate fruit until 2012. Though Robert passed away in 2008, Continuum is still run today by siblings Tim and Marcia Mondavi with the help of their children.

Continuum consists of about 172 acres, of which roughly 62 acres are planted to the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The property sits at elevations between 1,325 and 1,600 feet, offering both optimal winegrowing conditions and impressive views of the valley below. Continuum focuses on one premium Bordeaux blend each vintage, though they do produce a second wine called Novicium from the younger vines and it is typically Merlot-dominant or closer to an equal blending of the four varieties.

In making their wines, Continuum practices organic viticulture though they are not certified. All fruit is hand-harvested into small baskets, then hand-sorted, destemmed, and hand-sorted again. The resulting fruit is gravity-fed into small French oak and cement tanks for fermentation to begin. Following primary fermentation, the wines are drained into 85% new French oak barrels for malolactic fermentation and aging. Each vintage roughly 25-30% of the lots will be declassified because they do not meet the strict quality standards of the team, and each vintage spends 19-20 months aging in barrel. The wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Today’s Wine: 2014 Continuum Proprietary Red

65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot; 14.8% ABV

The 2014 Continuum is opaque deep ruby in color with deep purple hues. Given about 2 hours in the decanter, this blossoms into aromas of blueberry, plum, blackberry compote, black cherry, licorice, pipe tobacco, tilled rocky soil, sage, pine, and cedar. Meanwhile on the palate I get notes of cassis, sweet blueberry, spiced plum, redcurrant, blue and purple florals, pine, crushed rock, baking spice, iron, dried vanilla, light smoke, and green herbs. This is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, fine-grained medium (+) tannins, and a long finish. A very opulent and silky wine that probably needs another 3-5 years of cellaring.

Price: $220. Like many of the wines produced on Pritchard Hill, this is not an inexpensive bottle. In value terms, I think this is a bit of a stretch and there are wines which drink just as well if not slightly better around the $150 mark. Nonetheless, this is a delicious wine and I think it is a solid renaissance for the Mondavi family.

Incredible Value from Andy Erickson

Today’s Story: Leviathan Wine

Leviathan was founded in 2004 by renowned winemaker Andy Erickson. Andy’s goal with creating Leviathan was to create a unique red blend sourcing Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot from some of Northern California’s best vineyards and each year releasing a bottling of different blends. For those of you who are not familiar with Andy, his resume in California winemaking is extensive and includes stints at Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, and Staglin as well as consulting roles at Dalla Valle, Arietta, Dancing Hares Vineyard, Mayacamas, and Ovid. Andy also co-founded and co-owns Favia Wines with his wife Annie and together they are producing some of my favorite wines I’ve really come to love over the past several years.

Today’s Wine: 2015 Leviathan

Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot (exact blend not provided); 14.8% ABV

The 2015 Leviathan is deep purple and almost black in color while being completely opaque like a starless night sky. Once this opens up, the nose emits aromas of blackberry, black plum, wild blueberry, redcurrant, black raspberry, graphite, dried tobacco, potting soil, black truffle, mocha, cinnamon, and cedar. On the palate, I get notes of black cherry, cassis, blackberry compote, black licorice, violet, worn leather, charred earth, smoke, green peppercorn, chocolate, and oak. This wine is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium (+) grippy tannins, and a long finish dominated by dark chocolate and black fruit notes.

Price: $45. This is an outstanding value while its complexity and high quality are both mind-boggling but not shocking because this is after all an Andy Erickson wine. Pair this with steak au poivre, grilled lamb, or grilled portobello mushroom.

Corsican Beauty

Today’s Story: Domaine Comte Abbatucci

Domaine Comte Abbatucci was founded in 1950 (though wine history of the family estate dates back more than a century) by Antoine Abbatucci. The Abbatucci name, however, has even deeper roots in Corsica that stretch at least as far back as the French Revolution. Jean-Charles Abbatucci and Jacques-Pierre Abbatucci, for instance, were both Generals during the French Revolution with Jean-Charles considered a hero who fought with Napoléon Bonaparte. Unsurprisingly, there are streets, monuments, and entire plazas in Corsica named after various Abbatucci family members, particularly in the capital city of Ajaccio.

Circling back to the winery as it exists today, the domaine is located in the heart of the Taravo Valley in southern Corsica. During the 1960s, Antoine grew concerned with what seemed to be the impending extinction of native grape varieties thanks to life disappearing in mountain villages that were home to some of the island’s oldest vineyards. As President of the Chamber of Agriculture of Corsica, Antoine removed cuttings from each threatened vineyard he discovered and planted them in one single plot of granite soil on his estate. Through these efforts, this one plot of vineyard land is planted to 18 varieties and pays homage to the winemaking history of Corsica. The fruit from this plot goes into the wines of the highly limited Domaine Comte Abbatucci Cuvée Collection.

While Antoine created arguably one of the most important vineyard plots in Corsican winemaking, his son Jean-Charles made his own vital strides when taking over the domaine. A biodynamist at heart, Jean-Charles converted the estate to biodynamic farming in 2000 to further preserve the original terroir and grape varieties of Corsica. With care for the natural habitat of the vineyards, Jean-Charles conducts work periods based on lunar cycles and the time of day, plowing is accomplished on horseback, and a flock of sheep grazes on the natural and permanent grass cover between rows during the winter. During harvest, all fruit is harvested by hand in small boxes and carefully sorted both in the vineyards and at the winery. Winemaking is accomplished by gravity-flow, fermentation is completed only using indigenous yeasts, and maceration is gentle with alternating punch downs and pump overs. Though Jean-Charles did change the farming practices, he follows in his father’s footsteps by providing cuttings of the salvaged native varieties to other vignerons throughout Corsica.

Today’s Wine: 2016 Cuvée Collection Ministre Impérial

22% Sciaccarello, 18% Nielluccio, 15% Montanaccia, 15% Carcajolo Nero, 12% Morescono, 10% Morescola, 8% Aléatico; 14% ABV

The 2016 Ministre Impérial is named for Jacques-Pierre-Charles Abbatucci, a leading military figure under Napoléon Bonaparte’s Premier Empire and later a senator and official councillor to Napoléon III. He was Jacques-Pierre Abbatucci’s grandson and Jean-Charles Abbatucci’s nephew. The wine itself is a moderately transparent pale ruby color with rose variation toward the rim. Once this opens up in the decanter, the nose emits aromas of cherry, redcurrant, boysenberry, red florals, ground herbs, leather, smoked gamey meats, earth, graphite, smokey minerality, and a hint of woodiness. On the palate, I get notes of cherry, redcurrant, wild blueberry, dried rocky soil, granite, herbs, smoke, slight peppery spice, and mineral. This is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity, elegant and refined medium (-) tannins, and a long finish dominated by red fruit and rocky minerality. 500 cases produced.

Price: $95 (though if you can find this in Europe it seems to be closer to $60). This is a really cool wine to taste given the backstory on these varieties and the simultaneous elegance and complexity it presents for a Corsican wine. If you can find a bottle, I highly recommend giving it a try. Pair this with lamb, wild boar, veal, or charcuterie and cheese.

Why Wait for Screaming Eagle?

Today’s Story: Jonata

Jonata came onto my radar in unlikely fashion about two years ago, as these wines very rarely call retail stores home. I sat on the Screaming Eagle waitlist twiddling my thumbs for the chance to purchase an allocation (I am still waiting), and I received an email that their sister winery, Jonata, had offerings for purchase. I quickly discovered that Stan Kroenke, owner of Screaming Eagle and the LA Rams, owns Jonata as well and since their wines are highly regarded began seeking some out.

Jonata’s vines are planted in the Santa Ynez Valley on California’s Central Coast, and although Kroenke bought 586 acres of property only 84 acres are planted under vine. Like many wineries in the area, Jonata found success planting Rhône varietals such as Syrah but also grows Sangiovese and Bordeaux varietals. As far as soil goes, the entire Jonata property is sand (specifically Careaga Sandstone) which is known to be highly aerative with low water holding capacity and therefore low fertility for fruit. However, thanks to their adept winemaker Matt Dees, Jonata is able to produce exceptional wines and some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the Ballard Canyon appellation.

On the topic of quality, Jonata in their words seeks to become “the vanguard of an emerging quality movement in California winegrowing.” Great care is put into their vineyards and the winemaking process, resulting in a relatively small production of about 4,725 cases per year across 8 wines (2,426 cases being their Todos red blend). Sustainability is also a major point of focus for the winery, integrating livestock (chicken, turkeys, goats, pigs, and sheep) into the farming model to naturally enhance the soil. Jonata also maintains a communal garden and an orchard that produces olive oil and honey from bees raised on the ranch. Source: https://www.jonata.com/.

Today’s Wine: 2005 El Corazón de Jonata

41% Syrah, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc, 11% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, and 2% Sauvignon Blanc; 14.9% ABV

Our wine today is a very deep, opaque purple color with ruby variation toward the rim of the glass. We let this slow ox in the bottle for about 30 minutes before additional air-time in the glass, as it was still slightly tight as a pop-and-pour. On the nose are enticing aromas of black cherry, blackcurrant, red berry fruit, cigar box, sweet tobacco, licorice, and oak. Once in the mouth, we get notes of jammy blackberry, black cherry, blueberry, graphite, smokey/charred earth, and a touch of chocolate. Opulent and showing no signs of age, today’s Jonata is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, mature medium tannins, and a long finish that lingers with notes of iron.

Price: $65. I think this is a little high (I’d love to see ~$50) but still worth a try due to its rarity and complexity with plenty of gas left in the tank. We paired this with smokey barbecue chicken, but I think this would also stand up well to a New York Strip.