Abe Schoener from Scholium Project Wines
Abe Schoener is a sommelier's winemaker and if he's coming to town, you do whatever it takes to get an audience with him. I met Abe for the first time yesterday morning when I had and opportunity to taste through his Scholium Project Selections at the Cream Wine Company headquarters.
Something rather unique struck me about Abe upon our initial greeting -- he had a warm handshake. Not a sweaty paw kind of handshake but rather one that emits waves of vibrant energy that conveys a sense of who he is as a person. If humans can embody a biodynamic force field, Abe certainly has one. I could see why so many of my colleagues have become enamored with him - he draws you in from the very start.
We sat down for the tasting and Abe took me through the genesis and history of his winemaking career. He began in 1998 when he took a sabbatical from teaching ancient philosophy at St. John's college to follow his interest in the biology behind grape growing. He met John Kongsgaard during an internship at Stag's Leap Cellars and from there a desire to start his own winery eventually blossomed into the Scholium Project.
Abe's style of winemaking - one that endears his legion of fans in the sommelier community - is based on non-intervention and experimentation. He speaks of his wines as I imagine a Montessori school teacher would describe his/her students: each one on its own unique and individual path. His job is to foster, nurture and guide but basically let the wine find its ultimate destiny. According to Abe, "Once you learn that wine is self-regulating, you learn to stay out of the way." Non-orthodox winemaking is his philosophy and this could mean letting a batch of Chardonnay ferment for two years if that's what it needs or barrel aging a blend without So2, racking or even topping off. With conventional winemaking, these techniques may not necessarily give you successful results but in the limelight of Abe's magical energy, his wines thrive and eventually come into their own.
Will soon be available at The Boarding House
We began the tasting with the Clos Thalès wines from Maury in the Roussillon, midway between Priorat and the northern Rhone and forty miles inland from Collioure. The vineyards are planted in broken schist and decomposed granite. The conditions are so harsh that not much else grows in the vineyards; even weeds are scarce. Clos Thalès is a collaborative effort between nine friends including Abe, Master Sommelier Chris Blanchard and his partner Kimberly Jones. I was actually first introduced to Clos Thalès by Chris and Kimberly. They had generously shared a bottle of the Carignane Blanc with me back in April and it rocked my world as I had never even dreamed Carignane Blanc was possible. They said Abe and Cream were bringing it into Illinois and I was on a mission to secure an allocation for The Boarding House.
By law, Maury can be white, red (minimum 75% Grenache) and the most popular style - fortified and sweet. The Clos Thalès wines don't conform to the local appellation laws which is a good thing. The inspiration behind the project was to make wine from "crazy ancient vineyards" planted with Carignane, Carignane Blanc, Grenache, Grenache Gris and other white grapes.
2008 Clos Thalès Foun del Bosc Blanc -- made from a selection of Carignane Noir grapes that at some point mutated to white grapes. This was a very unique experience as I had never seen or even heard of Carignane Blanc until the Clos Thalès wines. Nose exudes mango skin, peach fuzz, peach pit, wet gravel, honeysuckle. Palate is savory and loaded with umami driven notes of almond skin. Alcohol clocks in at 14.9% but you don't feel it.
2007 Clos Thalès Clos d'en Coulon -- 100% Grenache. Tasting this wine reminded me of Jay McInerney's quote about Grenache from his book, Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar, "Theoretically, each brings something different to the party: Sturdy Mourvedre provides the house; peppery Counoise is the skinny joke teller; Syrah broods and leans against the wall, pretending to hold it up; and Grenache sashays in and promises great sex to everyone in the room." Sometimes the promise can empty but this is what Grenache is like when it's great. Nose jumps at you with ripe raspberries, strawberries, port, fig compote and raisins. Palate has great structure with dry and dusty tannins, excellent concentration. Flavor reminds me of the fig jam that comes on cheese boards and I can see this pairing quite nicely with aged sheep cheese or even strong game such as venison.
The Scholium Project lineup - each one unique, delicious and a must-have experience
Next we moved on the Scholium Project wines made from small vineyards throughout California. Abe purposely doesn't indicate the grape and favors the broad California appellation on his labels as to prevent any preconceived notions. Many of the wines are named in honor of ancient references - Abe studied ancient Greek philosophy.
09 Scholium Project Naucratis Verhelho, Los Slough Vineyard, Clarksburg -- Lost Slough Vineyard is located in the Sacramento Delta. Stainless steel fermented and aged. Tropical nose with peaches and green apples. Very fresh and bright style, perfect for summer sipping. Freshness gives way to umami savoriness and minerality. Crisp acidity makes me crave calamari and seafood with a lemon white wine sauce. Takes me to Galicia!
09 Riquewihr Los Slough Vineyards (500 ml) -- Riquewihr is a village in Alsace and this is a fitting homage to an Alsace style Gewurztraminer. Mango, peaches, lychees, floral. Voluptuous, curvy and sexy but not the sloppy, spilling out kind. Think the late Anna Nicole Smith during her Guess Jeans days. Crisp texture, dry and slight nuttiness on the finish.
09 Midan Al-Tahrir -- Name inspired by the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt. Blend of three vineyards, four grapes (Verdelho, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). Barrel fermented and aged for two years without racking, stirring or SO2. Considering this wine was basically left alone for two years, I would expect it to be oxidized and sherry-like but the nose is remarkably fresh with notes of jasmine, roses, lychees, tropical fruit and peaches. The barrels lost about 5 inches but the micro-activity and equilibrium in the winery somehow kept the wine fresh and in balance.
07 Choephoroi Los Olivos -- 100% Chardonnay. This shows the most oxidative notes of all the wines we tasted yesterday. Made in the same manner as the Al-Tahrir but far more nutty in the nose. Palate shows a bit more freshness with lemon curd that eventually gives way to a fino sherry-like quality. I imagine this would pair well with Spanish tapas such as marcona almods, oily fish and salty, fatty jamon.
08 Choephoroi Los Olivos -- 100% Chardonnay. Remarkably different than the 07. Mush fresher in the nose with notes of honey, lemons, lively and bright. This took two years to ferment yet shows a great deal of vibrant youthfulness.
05 Babylon Tenbrink Vineyards -- 100% Petite Sirah. Funkiness in the nose with leather, animal, blood, reminds me of rare lamb. Excellent core of concentration with dry and dusty tannins. This is not your usual jolly, golly Petite Sirah studded with blueberry pancake syrup flavors. More serious and reminiscent of Northern Rhone Syrah. Would pair oh so well with rich, fatty meats prepared Mediterranean style with rosemary and thyme.
07 Bricco Babelico Tenbrink Vineyards -- 100% Petite Sirah. The name evokes a Nebbiolo reference that makes complete sense once you experience the tannic finish. The fruit is luscious and friendly at first but then unexpectedly the finish leaves your mouth dry and puckered. Very interesting. This wine reminds of meeting someone really attractive and at first they are flirtatious and charming and you feel all fuzzy and giddy and then all of a sudden the object of your affection turns on you with a rude and vicious comment completely out of left field. Very interesting wine indeed and hard to believe the fruit is the same as the Babylon.