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Drinking Out Loud

The World's Largest Category of Fine Wines?

They all have one thing in common: They're UTR (Under the Radar)
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says "Under the Radar" wines share three distinctions.

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 6, 2015

Wine lovers, like horse-racing fans, love a system. No sooner does a bunch of wines, like horses at a race track, show up than the touts at the wine bar rail start devising some sort of hierarchy.

The classed-growths of Bordeaux's Médoc district represent the most famous such system: The first-growth through fifth-growth hierarchy devised in 1855 and later codified (some would say "ossified") into wine law by the French government with the arrival of controlled appellation laws in the 1930s.

Then there are the pyramidal distinctions of grand cru, premier cru and village, found in other regions of France, most famously Burgundy.

The Champagne region, for its part, employs … wait for it … a 100-point scale in ranking its vineyards, in addition to also using the designations grand cru and premier cru—a sort of belt-and-suspenders approach to categorization.

Elsewhere in the world, such as in the U.S., there are no official rankings or hierarchies. But that hasn't stopped the touts standing at the wine bar from devising back-of-the-envelope systems, most of them emulating something the French have already done.

Clearly, the sheer abundance and complication of fine wine fairly begs for cataloging, like a record collection that has grown so unwieldy that some kind of sorting approach is required. With wine, like recordings, you can sort by genre (grape variety, region); artist (producer); era (vintage); style (big, delicate, sparkling); scores (90 points or more); and even playlists (your personal go-to favorites).

Allow me to propose a classification that's worked powerfully well for me: Under The Radar, or UTR.

Over the years I've found UTR a useful way to buy wines and, especially, to sift for information in order to find deals. A disproportionate amount of my wine cellar is made up of UTR wines.

What is an Under The Radar wine? Definitions surely will vary, but for me, a UTR wine has these features:

• It comes from a well-known region, zone or district but is itself largely unknown or unrecognized by a wider audience.

• The producer is not a star, yet delivers exceptional quality.

• Other producers in the area, the real insiders, frequently mention the producer when you ask about worthy colleagues who should be sought out.

When a wine fulfills all three of these criteria, you have a UTR wine. Mind you, this is different from a wine seen or described as having a good quality-to-price ratio (QPR). The difference is that a true Under The Radar wine is exceptional, not merely a good deal for the money (which it often is as well).

Let me give you some examples. (You were waiting for that, right?) A textbook UTR is Domaine Guilhem et Jean-Hugues Goisot in the tiny, even obscure village of Saint-Bris-le-Vineux in northern Burgundy just outside the appellation boundary of Chablis.

Now, for just about every Burgundy-focused wine writer I know, Domaine Guilhem et Jean-Hugues Goisot is hardly unknown or, for that matter, unrecognized. But because it is not located in a primetime wine district, e.g., neighboring Chablis, and because its wine categories are so basic, e.g., Bourgogne rouge, Bourgogne blanc and the Sauvignon Blanc simply called Saint-Bris, Domaine Guilhem et Jean-Hugues Goisot doesn’t get star billing, or star prices, either. It is, in short, textbook UTR.

Let me give you another example, this one from a place where you wouldn't think anything or anybody could be Under The Radar: Napa Valley. Yet the small producer Casa Nuestra Winery and Vineyards is classic UTR.

Like one of those real-estate holdouts you see in photographs of an old family home squeezed in between towering luxury high-rise developments, Casa Nuestra is a ridiculously modest operation that, compared to its neighbors, could be said to be housed in a shack. It's about 6.5 miles outside of Calistoga just off the Silverado Trail.

Casa Nuestra has been around longer than many producers in Napa Valley, as it was founded in 1979. Production is just 2,000 cases a year spread across a dozen different wines. (You do the math.)

Its signature wines are, for me anyway, a dry Chenin Blanc from 50-year-old vines from a vineyard in St. Helena, and a red wine field blend from Oakville, of all high-rent places, simply called Tinto Classico. The tiny Tinto Classico vineyard, which I've visited, has the oldest producing vines in Oakville, at roughly the century mark. (It's in a swell neighborhood. You can see Harlan Estate from the vineyard.)

Both wines are exceptional. Just last week, I hauled a 2001 Chenin Blanc from my cellar and it was lovely: bright, quite fresh, with still-pristine, if mature, Chenin Blanc notes of wax and honeysuckle.

Go to Oregon and ask producers about UTR Pinot producers, and I guarantee you that you'll hear such names as Westrey, Cameron, Evesham Wood, J. Christopher, Brittan, Grochau, Matello and De Ponte, among others.

All are classic UTR. Southern Oregon's Cowhorn and Abacela wineries are also undeniable UTR producers. Their respective wines are exceptional—and largely unknown to a wider audience.

The list of UTR wines and producers is both extensive and worldwide. This is why I consider it the world's largest category of fine wines. It's not that UTR wines or producers are merely obscure. That's no distinction. Nor is it that they offer good value. Again, that's not the point, never mind that they usually do deliver value, if only because of a low profile.

Rather, a true UTR producer is blazingly, even obviously exceptional. Their neighbors know it. Wine insiders know it. The trick is you knowing it.

Nominations are open—if you dare to reveal your secrets.

Eddie Earles
Kentucky —  October 6, 2015 11:50am ET
Relative to the quality of wine that it produces (and despite good coverage by the Spectator), I'd have to say that the entire Greek wine industry is under-the-radar.
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  October 6, 2015 1:17pm ET
Great topic, I will go to the Finger Lakes in NY - Heart and Hands for stunning Pinot Noir, Hermann J. Wiemer for anything Riesling, and Ravines and Damiani for just about any wine they make. There are others, too many to name, but these four are making simply wonderful wines.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  October 6, 2015 10:00pm ET
Jacques (Patrice) Cacheux in Vosne-Romanee.
Claudio Monaci (Piancornello) in Montalcino.
Both are small production but exceptional and equally important, consistently good year in, year out.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  October 7, 2015 11:31am ET
Mr. Matouk: Many thanks for your suggestions. Your nomination of the Brunello from Piancornello is a new one for me. I'll hunt it down.

While we're playing this game (which I do love!), allow me to propose yet another Brunello that's surely Under The Radar: Il Marroneto.

Il Marroneto is a very small producer in Montalcino (it is available here in the U.S.) that has never gotten the widespread acclaim that I, anyway, think it deserves.

I recall reviewing their 2001 Brunello in one of my old newspaper columns, describing it as "Dense, rich and brimming with a no-tech purity, it is the sort of wine that helps explain in one sip why Brunello achieved such fame, as well as high prices."

By the way, their Rosso di Montalcino (a lower-priced wine) is equally superb. Unlike many other Rosso di Montalcino bottlings, which are sourced from different (and often lesser) vineyards than the flagship Brunello di Montalcino, that from Il Marroneto comes from the same vineyard as their signature Brunello di Montalcino. It really is declassified Brunello di Montalcino, made from grapes from their younger vines.

When I asked owner Alessandro Mori about this a number of years ago he said, “Everybody thinks that Rosso di Montalcino is declassified Brunello di Montalcino, a wine made from the grapes of the same vineyard that would otherwise create your Brunello di Montalcino.

“That was true 25 years ago. But today it’s usually nothing of the sort. Producers now have other vineyards, well away from the vineyards they use for their Brunello wines, that are meant exclusively for their Rosso di Montalcino. A lot of these are in a new appellation called Sant’Animo. It’s not at all the same.”


Ted Thomas
Columbus, Ohio —  October 7, 2015 1:59pm ET
We have been visiting Napa/Sonoma every year for a week since 2003. Every trip, we try to find "off the beaten path," outstanding wineries. Which by our definition, is your UTR. We stumbled on two that fit the bill, but admittedly, that may be changing now. Back in 2008, we were fortunate to visit Benovia Winery in Santa Rosa. We even got to taste with the winemaker, Mike Sullivan. If you enjoy Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs done in a burgundian style, this will be right up your alley. The chardonnays have great acidity with a vein of minerality from start to finish. The neutral oak adds a light touch of spice, but it is well integrated. The Pinot Noirs are fresh and balanced with good fruit and a touch of earthiness. I believe these wines perform well above their price point, while delivering a flavor profile not often seen in the valley.

The next clearly "off the beaten path" wine is Hidden Ridge. Located approximately 1500 ft. in elevation on the Mayacamas mountain. We first visited there in 2007. By the way, you need a 4WD vehicle to get to the tasting deck on the side of the mountain. These wines have great mountain fruit without being over extracted. The cabernet is complimented with notes of graphite, and leather. This wine has been gaining popularity over the last two years thanks to some outstanding reviews from some of the wine critics. I was always able to get a couple of cases before without any problem, but that has changed. I still believe this wine is under the radar for most comsumers.

I am always looking for wines that are UTR.

Cheers!
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  October 7, 2015 3:48pm ET
Mr. Thomas: Thanks so much for your UTR suggestions. I think that both Benovia Winery and Hidden Ridge Vineyard qualify as choice UTR wineries--even though Hidden Ridge did make Wine Spectator's 2014 Top 100 list!

(It came in at #32 for their Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 55% Slope . My colleague, James Laube, described it as "Dark, rich and layered, with tiers of dense dark berry, graphite-crushed rock, cedar, mocha and brownie flavors, ending with dried herb and tobacco accents. The fruit density stands out. Drink now through 2024. 3,385 cases made.")

While we're talking about the Mayacamas Mountains, may I suggest one of my favorite Napa Valley (mountain, really) UTR producers? It's Sky Vineyards, which is at the ridgeline crest of Mount Veeder at 2,100 feet elevation.

Sky's specialty is its remarkable Zinfandel which, despite their Zen-simple winery, is one of California's silkiest and most refined.

Sky Vineyards has been around--in Napa Valley, no less--since 1973, yet it's still UTR. Go figure.

Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  October 7, 2015 9:07pm ET
Matt,
Interesting to hear about Marroneto, I will hunt it down on my next trip to Montalcino. As for the Rosso di Montalcino, these are always interesting and economic options to the Brunelli as long as they are baby brother and not second cousin, twice removed (as in vineyard). I take your point. Among the smaller producers the difference tends to be age of vines.
This raises an interesting point and perhaps you may know better than I. I learned from several Tuscan producers that Sangiovese vines are seldom allowed to age more than 20 years. Does the same apply to Brunello (Sangiovese Grosso) which is a clone cousin? If so, the difference in age of vines (between Rosso and Brunello) is relatively small when compared to most other wines regions and vine types. Am I dead wrong here?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  October 9, 2015 11:22am ET
Mr. Matouk: You write: "I learned from several Tuscan producers that Sangiovese vines are seldom allowed to age more than 20 years. Does the same apply to Brunello (Sangiovese Grosso) which is a clone cousin?"

As for the information that Sangiovese vines are "seldom allowed to age more than 20 years" all I can say is that I've not heard that myself. Frankly, it doesn't make much sense to me as it's expensive to uproot a vineyard and replant, as not only do you have the costs involved in doing that, but you also have a loss of income for three years while waiting for the young new vines to bear fruit.

That said, there's been a great deal of replanting, especially in Chianti, over the past two decades to replace poorly-selected clones of Sangiovese, as well as taking advantage of more astute choices in rootstocks. So that may have been the rationale behind what you heard.

As for Brunello, a specific strain of Sangiovese originally identified in the Montalcino zone, the growers in Montalcino seem to be well aware of the desirability of older vines. Many of the plantings in Montalcino only began in the 1990s so, if anything, growers there are looking forward to seeing incremental quality improvements as their vines reach maturity.

Most producers everywhere in the world submit that vines 25 years old to 40 years old are ideal in terms of fruit quality, yield, vine health and the like. Beyond that range, opinions differ about vine age.

Issues about replanting tend to center on matters of yield and a high wine price. For example, producers in Burgundy's Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet districts, where their Chardonnay fetches stratospheric prices, are quite ready to replant their vines after just 25 years of age, give or take.

Why? Because young vines give generous yields and because the prices fetched by their white wines allow them enough income to wait out the three-year span between replanting and fruit-bearing young vines without much economic suffering.

In comparison, neighboring Auxey-Duresses, which issues some pretty fine Chardonnay in its own right, has never achieved anywhere near the prices of that of Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet or Meursault. Consequently, Auxey-Duresses has one of the highest proportions of old (50 years and older) Chardonnay vines in all of Burgundy. They can't afford to readily replant--and so they don't.
Martin A Cody
Chicago, IL Napa/Sonoma CA —  October 10, 2015 10:57am ET
Mr. Kramer-
I read this piece with a familiar bittersweet reaction: the immense joy one experiences when discovering the "steal-of-the-century" in relation to it's acquisition price juxtaposed with the chagrin the secret is no more. As it relates to UTR candidates using your metrics for Napa, the numbers favor the discovery process. As recent as 2012 there were 1,000+ commercially licensed wineries in Napa County with upwards of 85% producing under 10,000 cases and 90% under 5,000. UTR discoveries in wine and the joy they produce are no different than similar UTR discoveries in luxury lodging, fine dining or spectacular golf courses--we all appreciate exceptional PQR! I personally appreciate the Napa/Sonoma Valley UTR process and sharing the results so incessantly, I made it a business.
Also, few people will have heard of Casa Nuestra Winery until your piece, however fewer still will know of their apprentice winemaker from 2001-2010 who now has her own label. Good things do come in small packages be they "postage stamp" island greens or case productions measuring in the hundreds.

Nice work!

Martin A. Cody
Founder
Cellar Angels

Thomas Asger Hansen
Denmark —  October 14, 2015 3:56pm ET
I've been following Domaine Bernollain for a number of years now, and their White Burgundy is amazing from a value perspective. It is one of my UTRs. Located in Rully - a bit outside the hot spots - it has still not really been discovered and prices are well below what you would expect.
Personally, my favorites right now are the Montagny blanc, 1.cru, Les Chaniots, and also the Rully Les Saint Jacques is a really GREAT buy. I do not know if they are sold in US.

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