White Wines

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Dan Petroski, photo courtesy of David Bayless

In 2009 Dan Petroski launched the entirely white-wine-focused brand Massican, sourcing fruit from iconic Napa Valley vineyards. In 2012, fruit from Russian River Valley was added to ensure adequate quantities for the various cuvées. Although Massican relies on fruit from California’s North Coast, the inspiration for the brand rests in the fresh, aromatic whites of north-eastern Italy. Petroski lived in Italy making wine for a year after leaving a publishing position with Time magazine, and fell in love with the high-acid whites of the country. Massican’s core blend, Annia, recalls the classic white wine blends of Friuli, bringing together the Italian grapes of that region with Chardonnay.

Since 2006 Petroski has also served as the winemaker for Larkmead Vineyards, one of north Napa Valley’s heritage wineries. There the wine programme centres more typically for Napa on red bordeaux blends, although it is also a source of old-vine Tocai Friulano. (In the United States the TTB still requires the variety be called by the full name, Tocai Friulano, even though international labelling laws demand it be called simply Friulano – see Farewell Tocai Friulano.)

Petroski’s decision to produce white wines only under the Massican label is unusual for Napa Valley. It hints at the potential diversity in a region that has so strongly aligned itself with Cabernet Sauvignon and structured reds. While Massican’s blends focus on Friuli’s characteristic white wine varieties, Petroski’s Sauvignon Blancs are also a stand out. His 100% varietal expression offers an example unique for the region, using just enough oak to give it pleasing palate texture, while in the end delivering a harmony of savoury notes, balanced by just enough sweet stone fruit, and just enough spice. The result is a serious but delicious example of Sauvignon that avoids its excesses or stereotypes.

At the end of April, Petroski opened complete verticals of every wine he has made for Massican. It provided a unique opportunity to taste his current 2016 releases and to revisit previous vintages to see how they have aged. While the earlier vintages of 2009 through 2011 show a sense of…

To keep reading this article, including tasting notes, head on over to JancisRobinson.com

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Oregon’s Renascent Riesling

Photo by Andrea Johnson Photography, courtesy of Brooks Winery

In the last 10 to 15 years there has been a small resurgence of interest in Riesling in Oregon. Today around 40 producers work with the variety, meeting as a group a few times a year to taste each others’ wines, both before and after bottling. They also host public tastings once a year in conjunction with the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in July. Together these producers hope to support and improve the overall quality of winemaking for the variety, to preserve and establish quality sites and to raise awareness of Oregon Riesling more broadly. Their efforts are not insignificant. While the Willamette Valley and even the Umpqua Valley in the south are both well suited to the variety, Riesling has faced challenges in the state.

The variety found its way to Oregon in the modern era in the 1960s when it was first planted in the southern portion of the state. Though much of Southern Oregon is quite warm, the Umpqua Valley is a cool zone that suits the variety and producers such as Brandborg continue to grow it.

By the 1980s, Riesling played a significant role in the Willamette Valley as well. For a time it was the dominant white wine grape constituting around 23% of the state’s plantings, but challenges in wine quality led to many of those vineyards being pulled out. Interest turned instead towards Pinot Gris. Wineries such as Chehalem, Elk Cove and Brooks kept…

 

To keep reading this article, including tasting notes on all of their 2014 wines, continue to JancisRobinson.com

Here’s the direct link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/oregons-renascent-riesling

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Drinking Saint Bris

To the Southwest of Chablis, along the cut of the River Yonne, in the heart of Auxerrois sits the darling appellation of Saint Bris – darling because of its uniqueness, darling because of its smaller size, darling because the mere idea of it carries ineffable charm. The subzone of Saint Bris proves to be the only AOC in Burgundy to grow Sauvignon, the presence of which in that celebrated region is a surprise to many.

As if the idea of Burgundian Sauvignon isn’t enough, make sure to place it in Kimmeridgian limestone, near its eponymous medieval city of Saint Bris that includes what are apparently the most intricate and remarkable limestone cellars in the region of Burgundy (I haven’t seen them personally but how I’d love to).

A mere 133 hectares grow in the Saint Bris AOC. It’s been a recognized appellation since 2003. The variety found its way to the area sometime after the phylloxera blight devastated the now-obscure white varieties then growing in the region. Until that time the village of Saint Bris was actually part of Chablis but the radical change to viticultural health as a result of the louse infestation led to geographical reassignments as well, even with the still Chablisienne soils. Enter Sauvignon. By the 1970s it was being officially recognized for quality.

With its relatively small size and moderate obscurity, the area still hosts smaller production, hands on, family farmers. The Goisot family is one such example. Father and son farmers, Jean-Hughes and Guilhem, dedicate their time to the viticulture then keeping a less interventionist approach, to beautiful effect, in the cellar. The wines are stunning.

While Goisot also produces Bourgogne blanc – a Chablisienne Chardonnay, and also a classic while friendly Aligote – it was their Saint Bris I had to get my hands on. The wines are simultaneously charming and serious, full of refreshing minerality and impressive complexity. It was exciting too to taste the side by side.

Goisot 2014 Saint Bris: Exogyra Virgula and Corps de Garde

The aromatics of these wines carries the chalky signature of its region while the palate on both is mouthwatering, sophisticated and full of length. In both there is an impressive natural density to the core of the palate and a luscious mouthfeel full of mineral freshness and mouthwatering while delicate acidity. They are both impressively elegant wines with delicious length.

The Exogyra Virgula focuses on Sauvignon Blanc vines of the family estate with half approaching 40 years of age, and the other half around 15 years thanks to replanting. The vines grow entirely in Kimmeridgian lime, and are farmed biodynamically. Once in the cellar the wine is vinified in stainless with ambient yeast fermentation and a focus on freshness, then aged on fine lees also in stainless.

The nose hints at Sauvignon Blanc aromatics with a flash of fresh, pure fruits accented by wispy hints of fresh floral greenery but on the palate the wine feels like rolling river rocks through the mouth – full of not-quite-salty palate stimulation – with a satisfying balance of mouthwatering acidity and enough flesh to let the wine have presence across the palate from open to close. The elegance with texture, sophistication with easiness of this wine really impressed me. Definitely enjoy it alongside food as it would love white seafoods.

In the best vintages Goisot also produces the Corps de Garde bottling made from the family’s vines of Fie Gris, an ancestor of Sauvignon Blanc also referred to as Sauvignon Gris. The variety apparently naturally produces lower yields than its Blanc relation, which reduced its popularity among farmers, while also more readily retaining freshness. The Goisot family remains one of the few to preserve the variety in the region. They grow it too in Kimmeridgian lime, biodynamically, then vinify it in stainless steel with ambient yeasts and full malolactic conversion. The result is beautiful.

More savory, and intense compared to the more delicate Exogyra Virgula, the Corps de Garde offers wonderful complexity with elegance and an impressive detailing of flavors. There are inherent exotic spices, hints of wax, wispy floral greenery and a lot of mineral persistence throughout. Most of all I love the mouthfeel, the chalky accents, and the mouthwatering length. It’s a lovely and special wine that would enjoy more time in bottle to age.

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Hyde de Villaine

Born of a collaboration begun in 2000 between Napa Valley grower Larry Hyde and Burgundy winemaker Aubert de Villaine, Hyde de Villaine (HdV) produces premium Chardonnay (as well as a range of red wines) from one of the region’s most coveted sites for the variety. Hyde Vineyard grows Chardonnay in the clay soils of Carneros, that, combined with the site’s older vines, offer incredible innate power to its wines. The oldest section of Chardonnay at Hyde was planted in 1979, established with Wente cuttings. With the wish to stay entirely in California heritage selections, in the 1990s a portion of the vineyard was planted to Calera cuttings as well, though the majority continues to be Wente. Vine age has proven an advantage not only for the quality of the wine but also the health of the vineyard coming through the California drought. As the vines have continued to age, cellar choices have also shifted. The older the vines the longer the wines are held in barrel before bottling, for example.

Stephane Vivier leads the winemaking for HdV, working with the Hyde and de Villaine families to adjust the expertise of Burgundy’s long heritage to the particular character of Napa fruit. The house style, for example, has included full malolactic (ML) conversion since 2004. The cool character of the Carneros vineyard’s microclimate make preserving a sense of intense freshness while still doing full ML possible. The HdV team chooses to innoculate for ML with a strain that delivers ultra clean flavors, while also going through ML in a relatively shorter time. As Stephane explains, while many producers in much cooler climates choose to go through ML slowly to bring greater depth of flavor to otherwise steely fruit, warmer climate Chardonnay can benefit from the opposite approach – maintaining balance from a shorter ML process. While Hyde Vineyard is cool for Napa Valley, the wealth of sun brings greater flavor development, and overall temperatures are warmer compared to more genuinely cool climates like Burgundy.

The goal for HdV is to produce what Stephane calls restrained opulence. As he explains, in Burgundy, Chardonnay is understood as the Queen of Grapes, simultaneously sturdy, serious, and even imposing, with a noticeable presence. Respect for the fruit, then, comes with recognizing that natural stature of the variety. The view makes sense when tasting the HdV style – nobility comes with an innate opulence without excess as it is shaped by poise and control at the same time. Thus, HdV respects the fruit expression of California while crafting viticultural with a focus on freshness and cellar choices to maintain that integrity.

In the cellar, winemaking techniques are kept simple. Fruit is harvested to capture acidity. Then, in one of the most distinctive winery choices, the fruit is pressed at profoundly low pressure and slow speed. Pressing lasts a rather long time, as a result, outstretching industry norms for the region by more than half a day. In taking the long, slow approach, handling of the fruit is minimized through a gentle touch that invites a subtle frame and a range of understated flavors in the resulting wine. As Stephane explains, the idea is to keep things simple but to make complex wine. During aging there is no racking and before bottling no fining of filtration. It is not necessary with full ML. Barrel choices are kept consistent. Aubert has a long standing relationship, since the 1950s, with the Francois family and so those barrels are used for HdV as well.

Tasting Vintages: 2014 and 2011

Last week Stephane and I were able to taste the 2014 and 2011 vintages of HdV Chardonnay. The record cold temperatures of 2011 were outstanding for the variety. In 2014, the third year of drought brought a surprising combination of bright acidity and ample flavor at lower brix.

As Stephane describes, the 2011 vintage for Hyde Vineyard was fairly wet at the beginning and then turned cold. Big rains came at the end of the season, impacting harvest for many people, though HdV brought in fruit prior to the biggest storm. The weather conditions reduced fruit set and slowed ripening bringing a lot of innate concentration and producing a very focused and bright wine with an utterly persistent finish. The 2011 Chardonnay remains mouthwatering and focused while carrying a bit more richness of age compared to the utterly youthful 2014.

The 2014 harvest came with the impact of three years of drought. Vines were just beginning to show drought stress but vineyards throughout the region dealt with it by creating one more push for large yields, a hopeful last chance to reproduce. Yields were large throughout Northern California. At the same time, vines created a surprise reaction – vines had significant crop but with concentration comparable to that coming from cold 2011, also offering acidity and ripe flavor at lower than usual brix. The 2014 wine is savory and lightly spiced in a focused, mouthwatering frame. Opening lean and concentrated, it continues to evolve significantly with air pointing to good aging potential and plenty of interest through the palate.

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Hanzell Chardonnay

Any time I can taste Hanzell Chardonnay – older or current release – it is a treasure. Their whites are among my favorites from California. Included in their wealth of vineyards are the oldest continually producing Pinot and Chardonnay vines in the state, planted in 1953. The original vines were established from cuttings of Stony Hill. In the Spring Hill District of the Mayacamas Mountains, Stony Hill was the first Napa Valley vineyard and winery established post-Prohibition. The rest of the Hanzell Chardonnay vineyards, including blocks from 1972, 1976, 1992 and 2001, are established with cuttings from those first 1953-vines as well as heritage selections from Hyde and Robert Young, and, in small sections, Dijon clones.

Hanzell sits within the broad Sonoma Valley appellation, on the eastern side of the county, set against the Mayacamas Range that divides Napa from Sonoma, while also open in the South to the cold, moist influence of San Pablo and San Francisco Bays, and the Pacific Ocean via Carneros. More recently it has been included in the sub-appellation of Moon Mountain, the slope on which it sits, but, as Hanzell grows low on the Southern side, it greets fog and a cooling influence that in those ways surpasses much of what the rest of that sub-region entertains. It is cooler than the rest of the Moon Mountain sub-zone.

While Hanzell has seen a handful of winemakers and viticulturists since it’s late-1950s inception, most of all it has held consistency. Where there have been brief interludes of shifting style it has quickly returned to respect for the vineyard and house focus. Winemaker Bob Sessions, of course, carried defining influence on the winery but, just as much, the commitment of its family ownership, currently the part of the Brye family, to doing what it takes to keep such continuity has guided the style, not in an outside sense of ownership as much as an internal question of respect for the vineyard. Today, Michael McNeill serves as Director of Winemaking guiding the ship, so to speak, to respect the heritage Hanzell carries while continuing to seek perfection in small incremental improvements met over time. It’s a compliment to Sessions, the Bryes, and McNeill, as well as the founders – Zellerbach, Webb and the Day family – that Hanzell has such a strong signature to surpass any of its particular viticulturists, proprietors, or winemakers, an indication of how willing any of them are to act in service to the larger history of the site and house.

Today, Hanzell Chardonnay is known most of all for its palate stimulation and age-ability. The volcanic soils of the site create a particular sort of sapidity – lingering through the finish, tightening at the back of the mouth, dusty-iron-like in the finish – while also offering the opportunity for the winemaking to respect the opportunity for wines to age long in the bottle. The wines, as a result, generally, when young, require decanting to show what they may, while also evolving over not only hours but days. Most of all, what I appreciate about the Hanzell Chardonnays is not only that evolving character in the bottle and glass but also the mouthfeel, a sense of weight and viscidity that carries persistent presence and weft without heaviness or any cloying finish. The aged Hanzell I am sipping on now continues only to be a pleasure.

Recent History

Michael McNeill became winemaker in 2008. Within only a couple vintages after the winemaking team decided to reduce their new oak footprint on the wines to return closer to the house style of the late 1990s. The 2009 vintage is a wonderful example of the transition. In 2008, Hanzell Chardonnays were made with about 33% new barrel fermentation, with those barrels going through malolactic (ML) conversion and sur lie aging for 12 months. Afterwards, those barrel fermented Chardonnays were put to tank and aged for an additional 6 months in stainless steel. The remainder was tank fermented, without ML conversion, for 6 months, and then put down to older barrel for 12 months. After 18 months, both the barrel and tank fermented lots were blended.

In 2010, Hanzell decided to reduce the portion of barrel fermented Chardonnay to 25%, thereby effectively reducing the proportion of new oak, and also of ML fermented Chardonnay as well. As Michael explains, doing so brings the Chardonnay regimen closer to that of what Hanzell was doing in the 1990s at the height of its then-stature.

Today, Hanzell has also shifted to what it calls “thoughtful, integrative farming” utilizing biodynamic methods and relying on organic farming while focusing primarily on the health of the soil and the biodiversity of the farm – including 60 chickens, 4 American Guinea pigs, baby lambs and an edible garden.

Historic Vintages

A week ago I was able to taste three vintages with winemaker Michael McNeill – 2009, 2011 and 2013.

As Michael explains, the Hanzell Chardonnays are in high form from 5 to 8 years of age in bottle. They move into another phase of aging from 8 years on that takes on further depth and tertiary character while the fresh tension of youth also slowly falls away. In that 5 to 8 year window the fruits begin to show with a more savory and, on the palate, saline quality, with a wealth of subtlety. Hanzell Chardonnays continue to age well, depending on vintage, for as much as two decades.

2009

The 2009, as I taste it over several days, just keeps getting better with air. It’s initial richness and freshness are met by ever increasing energy and palate stimulation, a fantastic tension through the finish that is enlivening and hard to ignore. As it sits open the palate actually tightens and gains greater focus, losing some of the baby fat it has upon initial opening.

The 2009, at this point, is more developed and complicated than the 2011 with a savory element, a bit more breadth through the palate and especially the finish than the 2011, but that seems obvious in comparing the warmth of 2009 to the cold of 2011, even if the yields of 2009 were not terribly large compared to 2011. The 2009 has always been a well knit and structured wine, with a lot of balance to it inherently. There is a grand piano element to the 2009 – the nose gives hints of cedar and hand-rubbed metal string followed by a high tone, golden harmonic that strums through the palate with a long finish. The 2009 gives the complete harmony of high tone notes with the mid range and a deep tenor all together.

2011

Initially, the 2011 seems narrower both nose and palate, tightly focused, but at the same time feels more age worthy. The 2011 carries a real beam of acidity and pretty aromatic that will flesh out with a little air. The cold of 2011 served Chardonnay well and the wine will be among Hanzell’s long aging vintages but at the same time it has less breadth currently than other vintages right now. It has power of presence across the palate with concentration and length, most especially thanks to acidity, to last through age.

The palate of the 2011 is wonderfully savory and subtle while focused. The savory and subtle aspects across the nose call for both decanting and air, showing a faint petrol quality that, as Michael explains, is more commonly an indicator of a cooler vintage.

As it is, the 2011 Hanzell, as mentioned, will be one of their longest lived vintages and should be enjoyed with such longevity and accompanying freshness in mind.

2013

The 2013 vintage of Hanzell Chardonnay is immediately stimulating, both bright and impressive, a wine that demands attention while still fresh, bringing fruit notes and concentration from the natural power of the vintage.

The 2013 carries a particular mix of pure fruits alongside the signature savory component carrying the salty edge of cured meats through the finish in a refreshing way. There is a purity here that runs the full length of the palate with nice density through the mid palate. Delicious.

Copyright 2017 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Rajat Parr (pictured above tasting from tank) and Sashi Moorman (pictured below in the Seven Springs Vineyard) of Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi wines in Santa Barbara County, and Evening Land Vineyards in Willamette Valley, have become two of the strongest proponents of good quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the west coast United States. They are also two of the more controversial. In California, their work is strongly associated with the now-retired provocative organisation In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB). Parr was, of course, one of its founders while Moorman made several of the brands poured in its tastings. Before starting IPOB, Parr also famously founded the RN74 restaurant wine list with the promise of no wines over 14% alcohol. While IPOB itself never made such claims, Parr’s association with both it and the under-14% cause inextricably linked the two. The idea led to anger from the California wine establishment attached to defending balance in bigger-bodied wines.

In Oregon, the controversy appears differently. There Evening Land Vineyards (ELV) in its original inception stood as an example of an earlier wave of outside influence in the still mildly insular Willamette Valley. The difficulty there, in its origin, was that the organisation secured a long-term lease on one of the region’s heritage vineyards, Seven Springs, thus reducing the availability of its fruit for long-time locals. After purchasing Willamette Valley’s portion of Evening Land Vineyards in 2014, Parr and Moorman undertook a complete renovation of the project design and winemaking. Most of the previous team left as the original project was dissolving, and the rest departed just after new ownership took hold. The rapid change led to some further dismay on the part of locals. Even so, together Parr and Moorman make some of the finest examples of the varieties in the two states.

SashiMoormanWalkingSevenSprings-7.jpg

What is unique about Parr and Moorman’s wines is not as simple as just making wine under 14% alcohol, nor simply picking earlier, although they do both. The two of them work well together because of their shared vision. While both are attracted to wines of finesse, informed primarily by the great classics of France, they have sought to achieve such style through truly marginal vineyard sites. …

To keep reading this article, including tasting notes on all of their 2014 wines, continue to JancisRobinson.com

Here’s the direct link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/parr-and-moorman-light-burgundian-touch

Subscription to JancisRobinson.com is £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($12.20/mo or $122 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the new 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the 7th edition to the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.

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Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

Looking over vineyards in the Riverlands area of Marlborough

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has a clear reputation for quality and expression globally. Winemakers through the region are impressively skilled at creating reliable wines that are both technically sound and on point. It’s near impossible to find a faulty Marlborough Sauvignon. The precision and consistency has served them well on the world stage ensuring that people know what to expect from the category. Consumers have responded enthusiastically. Even winery names that are otherwise unrecognized can benefit from the power of the regional brand with consumers having a sense of what to expect from the wine simply because of the region and variety association.

The strength of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has its disadvantages too. Such an established type can become entrenched with those same consumer expectations limiting producer options while closing consumer expectations to the idea of being surprised. I’ve always admired how effectively vintners from the area established their wines so powerfully on the world stage. At the same time in a US context the repetitiveness of the style has been challenging for me. Those same expectations of knowing what I’m going to get from Marlborough Sauvignon has made me less likely to seek it out rather than more.

These last two days, then, here on the ground tasting in Marlborough have been a wonderful surprise. I’ve actually gotten progressively more excited by the wines as we’ve tasted more. My enthusiasm has been peaked by the range of other successful wines from varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Noir, and even a solid Bordeaux blend as well. The sparkling wines from the area too include some of the nicest I’ve had recently. I’ll be writing more about both the Methode Marlborough sparkling wines and the various other varieties that have been stand outs here separately. Most of all though I’ve been relieved to find quite a range of styles on Sauvignon Blanc. It’s been refreshing and has reinspired my interest in the region. Additionally, we’ve been able to taste quite a few older vintages of Sauvignon, even going back to 2008, that has proved insightful. It’s been good to see how elegantly the wines can age.

While the US market (and others worldwide as well) has tended towards a rather narrow expression of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, a broader range of styles from the variety has always existed here in Marlborough. Smaller, boutique level grower-winemakers doing the work from farming to cellar are to thank. Their work too helped ignite the now international category by recognizing what the region has to offer – vibrant acidity combined with aromatic intensity – and so attracting the larger producers with the marketing capital to move wines worldwide.

Cool climate viticulture combined with the elevated UV levels of the area mean vines retain their acidity while still developing intensity on both the nose and palate. The area hosts a preponderance of high draining sedimentary soils ranging from sand to clay but throughout the region lifted aromatics remain the focus. Where sandy soils encourage those aromatics even further they also tend to create more supple phenolics. Clay, on other hand, creates more muscle and concentration. The wines here, then, of course cover that range.

Here are a handful of stand out examples of Sauvignon Blanc from the last two days.

The Seresin Marama captures an elegant while friendly expression of Sauvignon Blanc aromatics, rounding the edges of the ample acidity generated by the region through the palate. The result is a surprising and pleasant Sauvignon Blanc that carries sophistication in subtlety and a more casual though not unthought feel on the palate.

Giesen wines are all about sophistication with power. The Fuder Sauvignon Blanc delivers intensity through graceful concentration and a brilliantly executed use of oak. It’s a barrel fermented style that seamlessly weds the two – oak and variety – and is a good reminder of why the cellar approach became so popular. Delicious and elegantly done.

Catalina Sounds has captured subtlety from the variety through their Sounds of White Sauvignon Blanc. It ages beautifully becoming progressively more elegant with time in bottle. The 2013 vintage showed off nuance with delicate layers of aroma and flavor while still offering mouthwatering acidity and plenty of presence. I really enjoy the subtlety here.

Approachable and friendly, the Staete Landt Annabel uses oak for texture through the palate as well as a kind of textural layering to the aromatics. It brings depth to the wine. This is charming, and crowd pleasing while retaining nuance and avoiding the bore factor.

Brancott delivers a solid example of the Fume Blanc style with good integration of variety to oak hitting that midnote of the two seamlessly. Approachable quality. Nicely done.

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Winemaker Trials: Finding Consistency from Vintage to Vintage

 

The commitment Sonoma-Cutrer brings to researching and testing in its oak program has allowed the winery to offer a consistent style year to year
Sep 2016 Issue of Wine Business Monthly

Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards was founded in 1973 on the idea of quality Chardonnay. The winery has since added Pinot Noir to its portfolio, but its production remains primarily with the white variety. Integral to the success of Sonoma-Cutrer has been its ability to deliver a consistent style vintage to vintage while also clearly distinguishing between each of its individual cuvées.

The winery produces five distinct Chardonnays annually. The Russian River Ranches and Sonoma Coast labels serve as its widely available appellation blends. At the reserve level, Sonoma-Cutrer also produces two vineyard designates, Les Pierres and The Cutrer. For the wine club, The Founder’s Reserve Chardonnay includes the winemaking team’s favorite small lot cuvée from that vintage, which changes year to year. Across all five brands, 85 percent of the Chardonnay is fermented in standard-size oak barrels. As a result, the barrel program is integral to winemaking at Sonoma-Cutrer.

Sonoma-Cutrer Barrel Trials

Sonoma-Cutrer winemaker Cara Morrison leads extensive annual barrel testing. The trials allow the winery team to taste test different coopers and wood sources as well as different toast levels and styles—every year, 60 individual barrel types are chosen, and two of each selection are ordered. All 120 barrels are kept in the barrel trial over a three-year period, and refilled each vintage to check the flavor profile after fermentation, for each of the three years. They have been doing the yearly barrel trials in this way for more than a decade.

To keep reading this article head on over the WineBusiness.com where the article appears free-for-all. It is also published in their September 2016 edition of Wine Business Monthly. You can find it there on page 60. 

Here’s the link to the article online: 

http://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticle&dataId=173071

Michael Mara Chardonnay

The Michael Mara Vineyard Tasting

from left: Jill and Steve Klein Matthiasson, Richard and Susan Idell, Birk O’Halloran, Abe Schoener, Chris Brockaway in the Michael Mara Vineyard, Sonoma, April 2016

Last week Richard and Susan Idell hosted a producer tasting at their vineyard along with Steve Matthiasson, who farms the site. The Idell’s Michael Mara Vineyard hosts six acres of Chardonnay, clone 4 grafted to de-vigorating rootstock in an already de-vigorating site. The rocky soils, with their high drainage, not only keep vines from over-producing but minimize growth to such a degree as to create intense concentration in the fruit. Wines from the site consistently offer a glimpse of that stony character.

Planting the Michael Mara in 2006, Matthiasson helped design the vineyard, and continues to farm it, adjusting rootstock and techniques over time as characteristics reveal themselves through the vines. Within a vintage or two of first fruit, Matthiasson believed it to be a special site offering the kind of density through the palate and mineral expression, in his view, usually characteristic of older vine sites.

The concentrating power of the site can be glimpsed through surrounding foliage.

Michael Mara stands in the midst of a mini-plateau elevated by four feet when compared to surrounding properties. Throughout the earthen-swell trees reach almost half-size compared to those growing on lower grounds. Matthiasson believes the minimizing effect on plants comes from the low water retention of the soils, coupled with their mix of closely-packed rocks and volcanic earth.

Vines too grow smaller through Michael Mara, with not only less size increase year-to-year, but also less canopy compared to other vineyards. The combination of reduced growth and lessened natural shade again lead to concentration of the fruit. At the same time the juice-to-skin ratio is changed. Smaller clusters and smaller berries mean more skin to less pulp in the fruit. With the heightened phenolics from the skins, even wines put straight to press from the site carry a stimulating sapidity that washes the mouth with mineral freshness.

Flavors of the Vines

Growing up in Alaska, friends and I would sometimes spend an entire day just running through the mountains. A parent would drop us off an hour or so down the road on the Seward Peninsula at the entrance to a high elevation valley, then we would take the next several hours to simply run North through the belly of the Chugach mountains. Eventually we’d arrive near the edge of Anchorage, where another parent would pick us up. Along the way, if we grew thirsty, we learned to throw a rock in our mouths. The pebble would stimulate our palate making it water as we ran through the still snow-soaked summer range. The experience always tasted just a touch earthy, not quite salty but almost, with the flavor of fog lifting from the wet upland valley. In portions the resin scent of pine or evergreen blended in with the fog.

The stoniness of Michael Mara wines across producers and vintages reminds me of those runs through the mountains with a rock in my mouth – a mouthwatering wash of stones through the midpalate with a bit of earth and a flavor that’s almost salty but not – coupled with a bit of fog, a profound density of fruit, the flavor of which varies by picking time and cellar technique, and hints of forest resin.

The Idell family’s Michael Mara serves as source fruit for a range of producers making wine across a diversity of styles. Still that fruit density and stony wash remain consistent.

Following are tasting notes on the wines tasted at the event last week presented in the order tasted.

* Broc Cellars 2011 Michael Mara Chardonnay 12% $42

With delicate aromatics and a stimulating texture, the broc 2014 showcases a midpalate burst of fresh, clean fruit washed through with a mineral stimulating rush of acidity, and a savory finish. Refreshing, a hint funky, delicious.

* Matthiasson 2013 Michael Mara Chardonnay 12.9% $55

Offering a fresh fruit lift of pear and clementine touched by hints of honey and amber, the Matthiasson 2013 spins simultaneously with fresh and rich accents. Pleasing acidity carries almost lacy flavors married to a sense of lushness. Nice length and complexity. Delicious.

YoungInglewood 2013 Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.7% $60

Floral spiced aromatics followed by a palate of spiced wax, pear, and citrus rind with hints of savory forest-resin, the mid palate weight of the Younginglewood 2013 carries through a long finish. I would prefer a little less oak spice and a little less ripeness here but the wine offers a coherent expression of its style.

Idell Family Vineyard 2013 Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.2% $35

Tight aromatics and a subtle flavor profile with accents of oak spice throughout, the Idell Family Vineyards 2013 is not overly expressive currently but carries the promise of more. Showing light notes of pear and orange rind with a savory finish and persistent acidity, this wine would be worth checking-in on again in a year or two.

* Scholium Project 2014 Michael Faraday Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.49% $80

Savory aromatics and palate with a distinctive, animalistic energy brought into focus, the Michael Faraday from 2014 carries lacy flavors with a savory strength. With an almost implacable core, this wine will age through the apocalypse. It might be the only wine left standing after the Resurrection. (Does that make it heathen wine? If it is, I don’t want to be right.)

Scholium Project 2015 barrel sample Michael Faraday Michael Mara Chardonnay

Still in the fresh-wine phase, the 2015 Michael Faraday shows flavors still in evolution but carries nice energy and persistence worth investigating again later in bottle.

Iconic 2014 Heroine Michael Mara Chardonnay 12.8% $TBD

Subtle and savory aromatics with a fleshier mid palate and a softer finish (that is not to call it either soft or unfocused) than the other vineyard examples, the 2014 Heroine appears to have a little more influence of malolactic fermentation than some of the other wines poured. Carrying a subtle palate of flavor with still good density and a punch of zestiness spun through the finish. Hints of verve, pith, and savor.

Kesner 2013 Rockbreak Michael Mara Chardonnay 13.72% $55

My favorite of the three Kesner vintages poured, the 2013 feels the most cohesive with potential to age. Showing notes of wax-nut burnished by spice the flavors here are rich though nuanced with density and length carrying into a long savory finish. Allow plenty of air upon opening.

Kesner 2012 Rockbreak Michael Mara Chardonnay 14.3% $55

With subtle aromatics and palate, the 2012 is currently showing less complexity than the 2013 or 2011, as well as a softer finish.

Kesner 2011 Rockbreak Michael Mara Chardonnay 14.2% $55

While the 2011 feels more disjointed than the other vintages – simultaneously offering fresh fruit notes with a bit of ripe heat through the close – it also carries a burst of fresh flavor at the front of the palate that is pleasing, before falling into a softer finish.

Copyright 2016 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Why I Love Smith-Madrone

Charles Smith

I have a horrible big crush on Charlie Smith (shown above). He and his brother, Stu (shown below), express pretty much all of the desirable aspects of masculinity a girl born-and-raised in Alaska now living in California (and in love with wine) could possibly want.

Stu Smith inspecting Chardonnay, March 2013

The affection I feel for them parallels the qualities I enjoy in their Smith-Madrone wines – decidedly California flavor bred through a farmer’s tenacity, beautiful fruit wed to wry minerality with herbal deftness. Layer in the poetry Charles hangs in the winery (shown below), and I’m done for.

The romance of Smith-Madrone

Smith-Madrone Vineyards – farmed by Stu while Charles mans the winery – sit near the top of the Spring Mountain District between 1400 and 1900 ft in elevation, in a mix of volcanic soils and sedimentary rock. The site’s knit through by a forest of deciduous and evergreen with a single, historic alley of olive trees. In 1970, when Stu launched what would become the brothers’ project, Spring Mountain held few vineyards.

A small outcrop community from the Swiss-Italian Colony had previously settled the hillsides, dotting the landscape with vines. Others would follow. The Beringer family expanded its holdings to the Eastern slopes of Spring Mountain in the 1880s. The Gold Rush brought new investors to the region. But with the onset of first phylloxera and then Prohibition, the vines of Spring Mountain vastly diminished. Stony Hill and School House Vineyards were among the first to plant again in the region in the 1950s. Then at the start of the 1970s, Smith-Madrone served as part of the lead pack of young winemakers along with Keenan, Yverdon, Spring Mountain Vineyard and Ritchie Creek, planting the Spring Mountain District hillsides before the value of Napa Valley was widely known.

Today, Smith-Madrone celebrates 44 years, one of the treasures of Napa Valley. Their wines are entirely estate made, the fruit grown in blocks spotted about the site’s steep slopes and hillsides in 34 acres of vines. The property is dry-farmed. They have recently released their 2013 Chardonnay, and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. Notes below.

Smith-Madrone 2013 Chardonnay

Smith Madrone 2013 Chardonnay

Simultaneously racy and succulent, friendly and focused, the Smith-Madrone 2013 Chardonnay offers fresh aromatics with notes of lemon curd and crisp melon set on a toasted oat cracker. Delicious and pretty with a long finish.

Smith-Madrone 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

Beautiful aromatics of cedar and herbs carry into a palate of iron and spice with mixed dark fruit. The Smith-Madrone 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon carries a surprising composure – ample flavor on a moderate body with a supple-while-snappy backbone of tannin. Mouthwatering acidity balances through a long finish. This is a young, taut wine today that would benefit from a few years in cellar.

Alternatively, it opens significantly on the second and third day with the fruit that sits behind the herbal elements on the first day stepping decidedly to the fore. For those familiar with Smith-Madrone’s green and lean 2011 Cabernet, the 2012 is a completely different animal. The brothers tout the by-vintage character of their winemaking and the Cabernet serves as a perfect illustration of that truth.

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Happy New Year!

To read more about Smith-Madrone, you can see one of my previous write-ups from a lunch I shared with them in 2013 that was recommended by Eric Asimov for NYTimes.com: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2013/06/19/a-life-in-wine-stu-and-charles-smith-smith-madrone/

For more recent looks at the Smith brothers’ work, Eric Asimov asks them how Smith-Madrone has handled the drought here http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/26/dining/wine-california-drought.html?emc=eta1 and Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle considers Cabernet from beyond the hillsides of Napa Valley here http://www.sfchronicle.com/travel/article/Venture-beyond-the-valley-floor-in-Napa-6584745.php. Both articles have paywall restrictions.

Copyright 2016 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.