Satellite Wine Club, Octobre 2022
$42 Retail, $504/Case $403/Case for Members ($33.58/Bottle)
$35 Retail, $420/Case $336/Case for Members ($28/Bottle)
It’s cuffing season. The time of year when snuggles earnestly replace seaspray, when the specter of autumn softly blows in the seasonal cool, a time we naturally want to be curled up with our favorite people.
That said… this is Santa Barbara and we’re not *just* going to dive head first into cold and blue days just yet! Hell… this month so far has been far lovelier than June! To honor the changing seasons… while clutching our precious summer pearls… this month we’re exploring Cabernet Franc - The inbetweener!
So what’s the deal with Cab Franc? Why is it an inbetweener? What makes this grape so sophisticatedly flexible? Did I just hear “farmers market of the grape world”?? #Whatthehellarewetalkingabout?
Cabernet Franc is a mighty fine grape. Father to Cabernet Sauvignon (with the help of Sauvignon Blanc :) this grape is distinct for quite a few reasons. I hope these reasons help us all to appreciate just how special it is!
The most striking identifier for Cab Franc is PYRAZINES! That’s the molecular formation that literally makes this grape taste like green peppers. Sometimes the condition of that green pep will be very crunchy and fresh tasting, other examples feel more roasted or bbq’ed, others still verge on the delicate and floral - pepper blossoms anyone? This phenomenon is not *just* native to Cabernet Franc; Sauv Blanc and Cab Sauv are good examples too, however, the profundity and density of these flavors can absolutely stop me in my tracks.
Throw another peppa on the barbie!
Fall. Finally. October is here, and at long last so are cooler temps, hotter drinks, a little rain and the dawn of the holidays. As barbecue embers and billowy clouds coalesce in the skies, spitting smoke-scented raindrops like an empty bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s, we see hillsides turned green and pumpkin spice churned out from every possible direction. It’s a cloyingly sweet time for this black coffee drinker. Not that I’m complaining. Tanking up on cinnamon-blasted lattes sure warms the bones on a cold morning. As does an energetic Cabernet Franc later in the day, melding so perfectly with woody and peppery barbecue smoke that the aromas of one become indistinguishable from the other.
This month, we’re diving into, after Albariño, maybe the world’s most underrated grape: Cabernet Franc. Once called Bouchet, it crossed with Sauvignon Blanc a few hundred years ago to birth Cabernet Sauvignon. The rest, well, is history. “Cab” is now synonymous with Sauvignon – golden boy of all grapes, and the highest planted variety worldwide. Even as a crucial part of Right Bank Bordeaux and a sheer force in the Loire Valley, Cab Franc remains overshadowed by its beloved son.
As the Godfather of Soul would say: he ain’t too hip. He ain’t no drag. But papa’s got a brand new bag. In the right hands, Cab Franc shows thought-provoking contradiction rivaled by fantastic red Burgundy and Rhône – as ripe black cherry as it is spicy mineral, as lush as it is taut, as serious and dense as it is cheap and immediately approachable. For quality at a value, look no further. Especially when dining out. They may be tucked away in the “other reds” section, but a pro wine list will include a Loire Valley classic; a Saumur-Champigny, a Chinon or a Bourgueil. Anjou, Touraine, it’s all worth the meager expense.
Local bottlings are flourishing too. From Lo-Fi to Lieu Dit, many in Santa Barbara are betting on the Franc to high returns. Happy Canyon and the Los Olivos District in particular offer beautiful examples, and remind us that Cab Franc’s versatility and wide appeal can’t be understated. Any time the choice is red, these wines will please the table, uniting around one bottle the pinot fanatic and the guy wielding a steak knife demanding Cab Sauv. Just watch for mushrooms and other umami-rich food. They increase the perception of bitterness, which as a fairly tannic and often stemmy red, Cab Franc can have in abundance.
In classic Satellite fashion, we’re flying to a distant star before settling back in at home. Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame claims a standout producer in Domaine L’Austral. Their bottling is French, super food-friendly and a little on the wild side. Lo-Fi’s Coquelicot Cab Franc also evokes its home turf, with intensity. Kissed by Santa Ynez sun, the wine is darkly tanned and brooding with spice. Franc-ophiles, this is your month.
$42 Retail, $504/Case $403/Case for Members ($33.58/Bottle)
Le Puy-Notre-Dame is the quintessential medieval French town. Whether you’re familiar or not, it’s exactly what those of us who haven’t visited imagine the country to be. A gothic cathedral pierces the skyline, limestone caves pull apart the ground, and legend of old Christian artifacts and grapevines fill the space in between. The name refers to the lone hill, or puy, where a relic supposedly belonging to the Virgin Mary was once brought. It remains there to this day, and no, the church isn’t the Notre-Dame, but it’s every bit as angular, impressive and wrath-of-God-invoking as the Hunchback’s home in Paris.
If Touraine, with its grandiose castles and pristine sauvignon blanc is the Loire Valley’s heart, Le Puy-Notre-Dame is the cross necklace hanging on its chest. And what’s beyond the chipped city walls is just as cool. Vineyards, pasture and woods snake along the river, as lush as the country can be. No wonder it’s earned repute as the “Garden of France”.
Maybe an odd place for Pauline Mourrain and Laurent Troubat of Domaine L’Austral, or “estate of the south” to settle down. Mushroom production, cold winters and elaborate chateaux along stony rivers don’t exactly scream the south - of France or anywhere.
But theirs is a venture inspired by the land down under, from working harvests in Australia and southwestern France to toiling in subterranean limestone cellars. Their vines at the southern tip of Saumur, and down-home demeanor that bring to mind the Aussie Way, all make L’Austral what it is. And the sum is delicious.
Pauline and Laurent met at engineering school, she a materials engineer, he a land surveyor. Zombified by computer screens, the two quickly tired of their post-graduation jobs and longed for lives outdoors. Fast forward a few years, some Australian farms, one Roussillon winery, and another degree earned. The two now manage over a dozen acres that once belonged to Philippe Gourdon, a vigneron who champions biodynamics as much as he does their lesser-known appellation of Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame.
Philippe was looking for fresh, like-minded faces to tend his parcels when he met Pauline. She had gone back to school, this time for wine, before shipping off to Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame for an externship at Domaine Melaric. Her stay with the husband and wife team was fruitful. Pauline not only met Gourdon and began securing vines to call her own, she also helped craft some of the area’s most compelling Cab Francs and Chenin Blancs in their cellar beneath the vineyard. That was in 2015. L’Austral began shortly thereafter, literally next door, and Pauline still hasn’t emerged from those limestone caves she plunged into seven years ago.
Saumur is known for bold, rich Cab Franc. This style has a few factors to thank – namely clay soils atop tuffeau, the local limestone, and altitude, both of the appellation itself and of the Mauges hills to the west, which catch and send up Atlantic weather systems like a half-pipe for a skateboard. The resulting rain shadow leaves Saumur a dry patch in the wet garden of France. Low rain combined with water-dispatching limestone makes for low-vigor vines producing fruit of greater concentration and tannin. Roundness comes from the clay topsoil. What’s more, frost settles in low land, and sunlight punches the higher, more exposed slopes. Le Puy, being a hill, is naturally higher than Saumur, and here this effect is intensified.
Last year, Pauline and Laurent set about excavating chunks of tuffeau beneath their feet to lower massive fermenters and other equipment into a new cellar. They previously worked in caves, more or less the basements adjacent to Melaric’s, but these were too deep and cold for reliable winemaking. Especially for making Cab Franc. Extracting more color, tannin and often alcohol, red wine fermentations can and should run warmer than white, and precluding the use of heaters, there’s little beyond the cellar’s ambient temperature and a few Hail Marys towards the Le Puy cathedral to reverse chilly, yeast-halting conditions.
Above ground, however, conditions in 2019 were near ideal. Pauline called it a classic Loire vintage with more elegance in mature, healthy fruit. Classic, and warm, as the past few years have been. So her and Laurent opted for whole-cluster fermentation. Besides their own flavorful merits, spicy, herbal stems help mitigate the intense, ample fruit bestowed in a ripe vintage for a more balanced final wine. While Philippe Gourdon de-stemmed the crop he pulled from these vines, wanting to emphasize their fruitiness in lieu of cold weather, when warm is the norm “using the whole animal” has extended to grapes as well.
I gravitate towards whole-cluster wines like a moth to the flame. In my view, most reds are better with a heightened savory component, and while stems can hamper acidity, something we quite literally thirst for, it’s a worthy trade-off when done well.
The proof is in the puy – these wines have some cellar funk and tannic backbone to complement ripe cherry and chocolate. This bottling has a healthy dose of brettanomyces, or Brett, a yeast that, like stems, can add savory edges to the wine, though it’s typically more animal in nature. This one’s like leathery cowhide. Again, when handled correctly, it’s another layer that adds to a red wine’s enjoyment. And this wine is for enjoying, not waxing poetic. Gentle extraction during fermentation gives pure Red Vine-y fruit joining graphite, olive and umami on the nose. The palate is a light-bodied package of black cherry and mocha, tobacco and leather. Richness in the fruit is met with powerfully mineral and whole-cluster-driven austerity.
Juicy and savory and a little tight, Manta is meant for fats. Fire up that Big Green Egg with your favorite lipidic delights and see what works best. Whatever you make, be sure to share – as Philippe Gourdon did, and as Pauline and Laurent do. They now lease vines to younger winemakers in a full-circle effort to lift up hilly Le Puy even higher.
$35 Retail, $420/Case $336/Case for Members ($28/Bottle)
It’s 1:30 pm on a sunny Thursday afternoon as an idyllic scene unfolds - lime green sagebrush, chaparral and arroyo willows dot the banks and surrounding gulch of Tepusquet Creek. Gentle winds tug at wild grasses as a red-tailed hawk makes its descent from the steep, dried hillside dominating the background.
We’ve arrived at the Lo-Fi winery, one of the most iconic natural producers on California’s Central Coast. It’s an hour-plus meandering drive north from Santa Barbara through the Santa Ynez Valley, lush with coast oak-flecked cattle ranches, pockmarks of ramshackle produce stands and rolling vineyards. These vineyards lie along the only transverse growing region on the entire Pacific coast of the Americas. Unobstructed from the ocean’s cooling influence, Lo-Fi co-founders and long-time buddies Mike Roth and Craig Winchester are tapping the potential of these sites like few others.
There’s an unfamiliar and rightly confused face from across the parking lot. Few find themselves along this stretch of Tepusquet Road, more than a few miles outside of cell service where cottontail rabbits, farmhands and the occasional buzzed (and lost) wine tourist roam. “Hey, my name’s Sean”, I tell the mystery man, who, like me, is in a t-shirt, blue jeans and work boots. “Here to taste with [assistant winemaker] Crosby,” (last name Swinchatt, who’s sired more Satty wine club bottles than Mick Jagger has kids and emerges from the cellar with an outstretched hand). The mystery man offers his. It’s Craig Winchester, Lo-Fi’s co-owner and co-head winemaker. His co-pilot Mike Roth, who rivals Crosby in Satellite wine paternity, is out of town. No sweat. A beloved figure in Santa Barbara wine, his story isn’t hard to find.
Dirtying his hands in the cellars of legendary Napa producers Mike Grgich (who, in the mid-90s, boasted 230 acres of biodynamic vines well before it was cool) and El Molino, Roth called up Winchester for a brief stint in Sonoma. Soon after, he made his way down to Santa Barbara County for a job at Koehler Winery, coincidentally a stone’s throw from Lo-Fi’s current facility.
Lo-Fi, shorthand for low-fidelity, is a sonic aesthetic governed by analog equipment (think tape decks, not laptops), background noise, and the deliberate inclusion of pops, hisses and other warbled warps in recordings. Their name is a nod to the un(re)fined, unfiltered and unpretentious artifacts of natural winemaking.
And true to the style, what they’re doing isn’t new. Old barrels. Whole-cluster fermentation. Lots of carbonic maceration and little added SO2. While Sideways brought hordes of pinot fiends to the area, Roth and Winchester spent their time at local biodynamic houses Demetria and Martian Ranch, sharpening their simple approach and whetting their appetites for feral viticulture and winemaking.
Fast forward to harvest 2012. An extra 1.5 tons of Cab Franc fell into Roth and Winchester’s hands. So moved the needle to their debut. Initially crafting a meager 60 cases of wine, working on the night moves paid off, the label quickly caught on, and their tenth vintage in 2021 landed them around an 8,000 case production. Hosting a dozen grape varieties inside their cellar, Lo-Fi is a big tent. But a fruit salad experiment this ain’t. They know what’s performing best, and it’s the collection of gorgeous, fruity and spiced red wines we can’t keep stocked for more than three weeks at a time.
Mostly negociants, or winemakers who buy, rather than grow, their grapes, Roth, his wife and Winchester nevertheless planted three acres of own-rooted Cab Franc and Gamay on a Los Alamos hillside in 2014. Some Trousseau came later. That organic vineyard is called Clos Mullet, and yes, it’s business in the front, party in the back. Alongside Coquelicot Vineyard, it produces their most compelling wines.
I was fortunate to taste a number of them. We started with their latest experimental blend, a non-vintage clarete composed entirely of settled lees from multiple fermentations. Juicy and fresh, it’s resourceful, and the perfect apero to a couple of hours with Winchester and his crunchy, crackling wines, which remind me of the stoned college night I first heard Led Zeppelin IV on vinyl – intoxicatingly cloudy and hazy, crepitating and still clear in my mind.
The Demetria Syrah is purple and meaty, the Coquelicot Malbec eucalyptal and gorgeous. But the Coquelicot Cab Franc is something else completely. Rather dark in the glass, Manta’s chocolatey cherry twist strikes a deeper chord here, as one would expect from a fuller-bodied, even lower-alcohol California red. Buffering the ripe aromas are grilled bell peppers and a pleasant dustiness that recall cookouts at the park. Again, the mind inevitably goes to grilling, smoking, barbecuing, all things charcoal with Cab Franc. The palate confirms - really classic, rich, but still restrained and in balance. Tannins and acidity are both moderate, as Cab Franc in a sandy, warm site should yield. It’s bigger than Manta yet more drinkable on its own. More plush, sandy pepper textures and California sun vs. broad, stony clay savory in cooler France. No need to pick one. They’re both delicious.
Though he’s made many sulfur-free wines himself, Roth doesn’t mark them as such. Actually, his labels, inspired by famous 45 RPMs of old, say very little. Minimalism is the program, restraint is key. And there’s here’s no prize for purity or perfection. Winchester sums up their DIY ethos as such: “We make the wine because that’s what we like to drink. We’re not making it for anybody else.” Keep your ear to the ground, and let the vineyards do the talking.
It’s October at Satellite!
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