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So why is the 2012 Ladera Cabernet—made from almost entirely from Howell Mountain fruit, from an incredible vintage—sitting pretty at $34.99? I honestly can't tell you. Maybe it's because no one knows how good the Ladera holdings in Howell Mountain are. Or maybe it's the pride that winemaker Jade Barrett takes in making a serious wine for a reasonable price. Or maybe it's because Ladera is an overlooked gem in a sea of Napa alternatives. For whatever the reason, I'm not going to complain. We tasted the 2012 vintage at our staff training yesterday and I was just floored by the quality of this wine. Dark, fleshy fruit cloaked in fine tannins, bits of earth, and in total balance, with enough gusto to go the long haul in your cellar. It's a whole lotta wine for $34.99, and it's made primarily from Howell Mountain grapes, harvested during a great vintage. 

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Entries in Grower-Producer (1)

Tuesday
May262009

First Stop: Ariston!

It is great to be back in Champagne, and even better to be welcomed by the Aristons for my first stop of the trip. I experimented with the TGV for the first time; Air France Flight 83 arrives at 11:15 and the train for Champagne-Ardennes leaves at 12:54. With the slow baggage delivery at CDG I am not ready to recommend this way of getting to Champagne! I made it by the skin of my teeth, but set a new personal record for arriving in the region: 1:24. Traveling at 300 kilometers per hour on the ground is a thrill for anyone who is into speed, but almost missing the train is a stressful way to start a business trip…

The Aristons, as usual, have been working very, very hard. Paul Vincent just took delivery of a new Coquard diagonal press, which promises to improve quality at his domain by allowing for far gentler pressing. Since these machines are also very quick to unload and clean, they also speed up the process, getting the grapes out of the bins and into the press, which will further increase quality.

Paul Vincent with the new diagonal press

They have also changed their labels; now the entire range will use the Aspasie name. They have an uncle in the village that has the same name, but trades his grapes for bottles at the local co-op, and then makes his labels look as much like theirs as possible. The quality of this 15 month old co-op wine is not anywhere close to the fantastic wine that they make here, so they are happy to have a name that they can protect: their great-great grandmother's!

Paul Vincent with the new Ariston Carte Blanche - now Aspasie!

We were joined at the tasting by the most serious Champagne journalist writing in the English language, Peter Liem. He has been uniformly impressed with the quality of the 2008 harvest, and the vin clair (Champagne that has not yet been made to have bubbles) from the Aristons certainly told that story well. We tasted seven, and they were all fantastic. The Aspasie Brut Prestige, made from 60-plus-year-old vines impressed me the most, with its butterscotch power, vinous weight and generous aromas—a big wine that came together with an effortless lift on the back palate, and a long, mineral finish.

We also tasted the entire range of current releases, starting with a new wine: the Cepages d’Agntan. This is from new plantings of ancient Champagne varietals and is composed of 40% Petite Meslier, 40% Arbanne and 20% Pinot Blanc. Paul Vincent dosed this at 9 grams per liter, though it tastes even drier, due to the extremely punchy, direct influence of the two native varieties. I think this is the most special wine that the Aristons have yet released and that it will take its place among the best Champagnes we have to offer. Like the vin clair of the Aspasie I mentioned above, the Cepages d’Agntan had very impressive breadth, lots of exotic (Peter called it pine sap- like) flavor and a completely dry, very long finish.

Paul Vincent pours the ancient varietal Champagne

He is also ready to release his 2002 now, and it too will be wearing the Aspasie label from now on. This wine was unlike any Ariston, or for that matter, any Champagne I have ever had. It is oeiul du perdrix-colored; like dark onion skin; almost rosé! Apparently some of the young vines, that had great flavor, also took on a lot of color. It has a huge nose of caramel apple and a super-rich, winey mid palate. Fans of a big style Champagne will love this; it is the fattest, richest 2002 I have had.

Caroline shows us the 2002

My next stop is Krug!

—Gary Westby, reporting from Champagne