CH. MARIS and MARIS: Delicious Terroir-driven Organic and Biodynamic Wines

Ch. Maris is a 79-acre estate planted to Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan in the Minervois cru La Liviniere. Minervois is one of the villages of the Languedoc with itss own applellation producing some of the best wines of the Languedoc. La Liviniere has long been considered the best part of the appellation of Minervois and has stricter rules for wines labeled “Minervois La Liviniere” than for wines labeled simply as “Minervois”. Ch. Maris is an estate growing grapes using organic and biodynamic practices in the vineyard and making wines in and environmental masterpiece of a winery (made from hemp bricks) with a focus on organic practice and a clean but not sterile biome to make wines ranging from fine to stunning. The 79 acres (divided into a non-contiguous patchwork of plots and blocks) is a good-sized estate for the area.

Although founded earlier, the modern history of Ch. Maris began in 1997 when the current ownership group bought the winery and installed Robert Eden (one of the ownership group) as winemaker. Under Eden’s guidance, Ch. Maris moved away from commercial chemical farming toward first organic and then Biodynamic vineyard practices. As they did, life returned to the soil, the vine got heathier, and the quality of the grapes improved. Ch, Maris gained EcoCert status in 2002, Biodyvin since 2004 and Demeter in 2008. Ch. Maris was certified a “BCorps” in 2016. All these certifications remain in effect. Minervois has never tasted so good. La Liviniere has never tasted so good.

British-born Robert Eden is the winemaker and co-owner of Ch. Maris. He has lived in France since 1994 after traveling in Australia, Italy, Burgundy, Spain and California where he worked with renowned winemakers. Since 1997, he has pursued organic and biodynamic viticulture at Chateau Maris. Robert has been actively involved in the protection of the environment going so far as to build the first hemp cellar that passively consumes Co2. He regularly presents on the advantages of biodynamic viticulture and the importance of taking steps to reduce the impact on the environment in the wine industry.

All well and good but how are the wines? In a word: Stunning. I was expecting this tasting in my office to be a courtesy appointment ending sooner rather than later in a “Thanks for coming by.” Instead, it stretched out over two hours as I tasted wine after wine that both surprised and delighted me. I’ve been tasting wines from Minervois (and its Languedoc neighbors) for over 30 years and I have never tasted wines like these. I have never before thought that this area could produce a wine I would score 97 or 98 points. I was both stunned and elated. Please see my notes below. And come taste the wines for yourself on Monday October 14th (7pm) at the Wine School at l’Allaince Française.

MY NOTES (Wines arriving at Spec’s on Thursday October 10th):
MARIS Vermentino, Pays d’Oc , 2018
100% Rolle (Vermentino) from all certified organic vineyards (both estate and under contract) pressed off before fermentation and 4 months aging in concrete tanks.  Straw color with well-formed legs; dry, light-bodied with refreshing acidity and scant phenolics with a long finish.     Fresh with more lemon and lemon peel fruit with a hint of fruit stones with mineral earth. Light, bright, and alive.   BearScore: 90+.
126827   Spec’s Cash Bottle: $13.99

MARIS Rouge Organic, Pays d’Oc , 2018
An Organic Wine from all certified organic vineyards (both estate and under contract). 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache fermented and aged 4 months in concrete tanks.  Deep-red color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-light-bodied with very-freshly-balanced acidity and medium-light phenolics with a long finish.     Supple, fresh, easy drinking red fruit with some spiciness and a subtle mineral earthiness.   BearScore: 91.
126828  Spec’s Cash Bottle: $13.99

MARIS Le Zulu, Vin de France, 2018
An all certified organic vineyards (both estate and under contract) blend of 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache fermented and aged 4 months in concrete tanks. No sulfur added  SO2 at bottling was 2 parts per million. No fining / light filtration.    Magenta color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-light-bodied with very-freshly-balanced acidity and medium-plus phenolics with a long finish.     Supple fresh, lively, chewy red fruit accompanied by garrigue and black pepper spice.   BearScore: 91+.
126830   Spec’s Cash Bottle: $15.99

CHATEAU MARIS La Touge, Minervois La Liviniere, 2017
All certified biodynamic, estate-grown, 60% Syrah 40% Grenache. The Syrah was fermented in foudre and pressed in a basket press before 12 months aging  in 500 liter demi-muits. Grenache was fermented in concrete, basket pressed, and aged in concrete eggs for 12 months before blending. The blended wine is then aged 6 months more in concrete eggs before bottling. No fining/filtering. (SO2: 54 ppm).     Red-purple color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with very-freshly-balanced acidity and medium phenolics with a really long finish.     Fresh and lively red fruit with spicy garrigue. Bright fresh and alive. Vivid.   BearScore: 92+.
126831   Spec’s Cash Bottle: $18.99

CHATEAU MARIS Les Planels, Minervois La Liviniere , 2016
All certified biodynamic, estate-grown, 95% Syrah and 5% Grenache. Syrah fermented in Foudre, basket pressed, and aged 12 months in 500 liter demi-muits. The blended wines is then aged 3 months in concrete eggs before bottling.      Red-purple color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with very-freshly-balanced acidity and medium-chewy phenolics with a really long finish.     Supple, fresh, lively but full of red fruit flavor with hints of spice and garrigue. Layered-Textured-Dimensional.   BearScore: 93+.
126832   Spec’s Cash Bottle: $24.99

CHATEAU MARIS Savoir Vieillir, Minervois, 2018
An estate grown, certified biodynamic 100% Syrah Organic Wine that is in fact an earlier-bottled, no-sulfite version of “Les Planels”. Stabilized and bottled in Dec/Jan to avoid oxygen. As it is bottled early, it is classified as Minervois AOP. Since it is labeled “Minervois” and not “Minervois La Liviniere,” it does not need to have the normal 5% Grenache as part of the blend. Sulfites at bottling: 3 ppm.   Red-magenta color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with balanced-plus acidity and medium-plus phenolics with a really quite long finish.     Lovely pure, fresh red and darker red raspberry fruit with black and white pepper spice. Fresh and focused. Thrilling in the mouth.   BearScore: 93+.
126837   Spec’s Cash Bottle: $24.99

CHATEAU MARIS Las Combes, Minervois , 2017
All certified biodynamic, estate-grown, 100% Grenache fermented in 1500-liter wooden egg then aged 4 months in a concrete egg. Bottled early so declassified from Minervois La Liviniere to Minervois AOP. SO2 at bottling: 35 ppm.     Red-magenta color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with very-freshly-balanced acidity and medium phenolics with a really quite long finish.     Lovely pure sweet red fruit with only hints of garrigue and spice. Ethereal feel with a certain weightlessness in the mouth.   BearScore: 94.
126833   Spec’s Cash Bottle: $27.99

CHATEAU MARIS les Anciens, Minervois La Liviniere , 2016
All certified biodynamic, estate-grown, 95% Carignan and 5% Grenache. Basket Press. Fermented and aged in concrete eggs. No fining/filtering.  500 bottles made.  Deep-purple color with very-well-formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium-chewy phenolics with a really quite long finish.     Vivid, fresh, lively, slightly dusty red and darker red fruit with spice and liquid mineral. Wow and wow. Absolutely stunning. Layered-Textured-Dimensional.   BearScore: 97.
126835   Spec’s Cash Bottle: $31.99

CHATEAU MARIS Dynamic, Minervois La Liviniere , 2016
All certified biodynamic, estate-grown, 95% Syrah and 5% Grenache fermented in foudre, basket pressed, and aged 18 months 224-liter oak barrels. No fining/filtering. Only 500 bottles made.     Red-magenta color with very-well-formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with very-freshly-balanced acidity and medium phenolics with a really quite long finish.      Fresh, ethereal, alive. Vivid red fruit with an almost crystaline structure. Thrilling in the mouth with lots of lingering flavors. Lasts and lasts. Layered-Textures-Dimensional.   BearScore: 97.
126834   Spec’s Cash Bottle: $75.99

CHATEAU MARIS les Amandieres, Minervois La Liviniere , 2016
All certified biodynamic, estate-grown 95% Syrah and 5% Grenache fermented in foudre, basket pressed, and aged in oak barrels. No fining/filtering. 500 bottles made.  Deep-purple color stains the glass with well-formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium-chewy phenolics with a really quite long finish.     Has the fruit of Australia, the structure of Cote Rotie, and the ethereal weightlessness of a fantasy.  I have never had a Syrah like this before. Dark and darker red fruit with hints of coffee grounds and black pepper spice with a trill of white pepper. Vivid fruit with a finish that goes on and on. Oh, what a thrill. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. Would love to taste this next to Hill of Grace.  BearScore: 98.
126836   Spec’s Cash Bottle: $75.99

More on SOBs

No, this is not a Grinchy post about bad actors in the wine business – although that might be fun even if I had to change some names to protect the guilty. Rather this is about the good SOBs: Sustainable – Organic – Biodynamic. One her website, Dr. Liz Thach, MW of Sonoma State University writes about a consumer survey indicating that a lot of folks are willing to pay more for wines made from grapes grown using Sustainable, Organic, or Biodynamic farming. This is great but it looks like more than few of those surveyed are willing to pay more mostly because of the “feel good” associated with doing-the-right-thing.

I have zero problem with that. But I think there’s a more compelling reason to buy SOB. That reason is quality. Assuming good winemaking practices suited to SOB-grown grapes, wines made from SOB grown grapes have a much better chance of expressing terroir or site specificity than commercially farmed grapes made using commercial winemaking practices. I would argue that SOB-grown grapes produce better, more complex wines that give the geek wine drinker (which I am and which, if you’re reading this blog, you likely are, too) more of the experience we are looking for when we drink wine.

Either way, buy SOB (Sustainable – Organic – Biodynamic).

Fine SOB Cabernet

If you want to drink the best wines, look for the SOB.

Huh? You know, wine made from Sustainable, Organic, or Biodynamic grapes. Why is that important? Commercial farming is based on control with lots of chemical inputs and fertilizers and use of chemical herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides to control weeds, pests, and fungus. They do that but they also kill many of the beneficial microbes (yeasts, bacteria, molds, etc.) and beneficial insects and earthworms in the vineyard. SOB farming does not use chemical inputs and remedies so SOB vineyards have healthy microbial populations that support healthy insect and earthworm populations which aerate the soil (keeping the soils alive) and prey on detrimental insects. And, as it turns out, that healthy microbial population is also the means by which terroir or a sense of place is transmitted into the wine.

Fine Wine (which is a definable thing) comes from an identifiable Place and an identifiable Person. That place is where the grapes are grown and that person, whether the owner or estate manager or winemaker, is the motive force behind why the wines are grown and made and taste as they do. That motive force decides whether to grow (or buy) SOB grapes with which to make their wines. And they decide what techniques to use in the winery. A Person who goes to the trouble to grow SOB grapes is likely to refrain from dosing said grapes with sulfur-dioxide (an antimicrobial) when they come into the winery. And they are likely to keep a clean-but-not-sterile winery that has its own beneficial population of yeasts, bacteria, and fungi. Further, they are likely to let those two healthy microbial populations (vineyard and winery) interact to generate a beneficial Indigenous Yeast Fermentation.

So when a winery harvests grapes from an SOB vineyard, they bring a sampling of the natural microbial population of that vineyard into the winery with the grapes and those microbes, if allowed (by the Person who is the motive force) work with the natural microbial population of the winery to express both the Place of the vineyard and the Place of the winery into the wine. This indigenous yeast fermentation starts much more slowly with a greater variety of yeasts (and other microbes) doing the work and transmitting their flavor inputs than a cultured commercial yeast fermentation. The result is a more complex set of flavors making it into the fermenting wine.

If all of this happens and the Person behind the wine makes other good decisions throughout the process, the result can be wines that move beyond being “just” fine wines into Great Wines that show real excellence. For me, the hallmark of that excellence is wine that is Layered, Textured, and Dimensional (LTD). And the vast majority of all the wines I’ve tasted that I find to be LTD wines are made from SOB grapes with an indigenous yeast fermentations.

Here’s my selection of some of the best of the SOB Cabernets from California I have tasted (and drunk) lately. None of these wines are blockbusters and, although they sell well in steakhouses, none are what I think of as Steakhouse Cabernets. Rather, they are elegant balanced, nuanced wines that often exhibit layering and textures and dimension. These are what I think of as Great Wines.

ARAUJO EISELE ESTATE Cabernet, Napa Valley, 2013   ($485.89)
100% biodynamic Cabernet Sauvignon given an indigenous yeast fermentation in temperature-controlled tanks with pump-overs. Aged 20 months in all French oak barrels (all new).     Purple-red color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with balanced acidity and medium chewy phenolics.   Rich and ripe but completely in balance. Elegant and lovely with delicious dark and darkest red fruit. Layers in tobacco and gravel-earth with notes of spice and cedar. Stunningly good in its freshness and richness and over all pleasure it gives. Integrated, Complete. Layered-Textured-Dimensional BearScore: 100.

RIDGE Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2014   ($178.99)
An all estate, sustainably grown (at yields of less than 1.5 tons-per-acre) blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petite Verdot from genitically diverse vineyard blocks given an indigenous yeast fermentation and an indigenous,naturally-occurring malo-lactic fermentation. Aged 17 months in 100% new air-dried oak barrels (97% American, 2% French, and 1% Hungarian).     Deep-dark-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Lovely, balanced, elegant, supple very Cabernet-tasting red offering tobacco and spice with graphite and dust and hints of ceda and black pepperr. Complete, integrated, delicious. Nuanced. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. Stunningly good wine that stacks up with the very best wines made anywhere in the world. BearScore: 100.

OPUS ONE, Oakville Napa Valley, 2014   ($289.74)
80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, and 2% Malbec grown organically on the estate’s vineyards. Indigenous yeast fermentation in temperature contolled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers. Aged 18 months in all French oak barrels (100% new)   2014 was the earliest budbreak in winery history.     Red-purple colo with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity, medium phenolics.   Supple, dusty-juicy, alive. Delicious ripe complex but focused Cabernet with tobacco, dust, cedar, and subtle graphite. This is one of the very best Cabernets made in Napa Valley today. Balanced and complete. Already drinkable but a wine to keep. BearScore: 98+.

QUINTESSA, Rutherford, 2014   ($165.99)
A biodyamically grown, estate-bottled blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, and 3% Carmenere fermented with indigenous yeasts in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks using pump-overs (21 to 25 days average maceration) and aged 21 months in French oak barrels (85% new). Red-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Riper and richer. Supple and delicious with juicy red and some black fruit accented with tobacco, black pepper, dust, cedar and more. Long and delicious. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. YUM. BearScore: 96+.

INGLENOOK Rubicon, Rutherford, 2013   ($161.47)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate’s certified organic vineyards fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers and aged 18 Months in 100% French oak barrels (75% new).     Red-magenta color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Supple rich elegant classic (not modern) Cabernet . Red fruit and tobacco with spice and graphite. Balanced. Subtle. Integrated. Complete. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. BearScore: 96+.

INGLENOOK Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, 2013     ($66.49)
A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petite Verdot, and 2% Merlot from the estate’s certified organic vineyards fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers and aged 18 months in 90% French & 10% American oak barrels (50 new).     Red color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium chewy phenolics.   Elegant balanced Cabby Cabernet. No manipulation or over ripeness. Just lot of classic Napa Cabernet Fruit with tobacco and graphite and a welcome bit of dust. Takes a minute to open up but more than repays that bit of required patience. Quite Delicious. BearScore: 94.

TREFETHEN Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll – Napa Valley, 2014   ($45.99)
A blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, 6% Petite Verdot, and 2% Merlot (all sustainably grown on the estate’s main ranch) fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers and aged 18 months in 59% French 31% American, and 10% Hungarian oak barrels (48% new).   Purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly acidity, medium phenolics.   Supple focused elegant Cabernet. Lovely pure focused balanced red fruit and tobacco. Delicious. BearScore: 93.

HEITZ Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, 2012   ($221.99)
100% Certified Organic Cabernet Sauvignon fermented with blocked malo-lactic (very unusual in red wine making) and aged 1 year in Oak tanks followed by 30 months in French (Limousin) oak barrels (100% new), no ML     Deep-red color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Lovely supple, ripe, juicy. Darker red fruit with herbal notes of tobacco and euchalyptus to go with some dusty earth and integrated oak. BearScore: 95+.

HEITZ Cellar Trailside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, 2010   ($84.99)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon (certified organic) fermented with pumpovers but blocked malo-lactic fermentation. Aged 1 year in oak tanks and then 30 months in all French (Limousin) oak barrels (all new)   No MLdeep-dense-red-purple color, and with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity, medium phenolics.   Dusty tobacco, cabby red with all red fruit. Elegant and balanced. BearScore: 93+.

HEITZ Cellar Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2012   ($48.99)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, all from the estate’s vineyards and almost all organic (Oak Knoll is farmed organically but not yet certified.     Fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers to start and finished in American oak tanks. 1 year in oak tanks, 2 years in French Limousin Barrels (some new). Unusually, Heitz’ Cabernets get no malo-lactic fermentation. One additional year of aging in bottle before release.     Deep-dark-red color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Supple, fresh, lively, tobacco and red fruit Cabernet in a balanced, elegant, decidedly Claret style. BearScore: 91+.

GRGICH HILLS Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2012   ($56.97)
A blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon with 12% Merlot, 5% Petite Verdot, and 4% Cabernet Franc all from the estate’s certified organic vineyards. Aged 21 months in all French oak barrels (60% new) and then aged 2 years in bottle before release.     Purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Classic old-school Napa Cabernet with chewy, lively fresh darker-red-and-some-black-fruit accented with notes of tobacco leaf, graphite, cedar, and dusty oak. Delicious. BearScore: 94.