Tags Posts tagged with "pinot noir"

pinot noir

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This summer Mark Davidson interviewed me briefly to ask what I like about Australian wine, in particular Pinot Noir. The result is a 2 minute 2 second audio snapshot of what I’ve seen from the producers and wines through some Australian wine travel and persistent follow up tastings and meetings with vintners since.

In it I speak to the importance of tasting global wine as well as having the freedom to go deep at home, the character of Australian pinot, and what gives wine energy.

Here’s the recording:

 

To read more, check out Wine Australia’s write-up on the tasting done on Australian pinot noir at IPNC here:

http://www.wineaustraliablog.com/events/australian-pinot-noir-breaks-ipnc/

Or, read my write up on the event here:

http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2016/08/08/ipnc-master-class-2016-australian-pinot-noir/

Cheers!

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International Pinot Noir Celebration

One of the finest wine events in the world happens at the end of July every year in Willamette Valley. The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) brings together pinot noir lovers from around the world to focus on the best of the variety over four days.

On the first night, host wineries from across Willamette Valley feature their own wines as well as those of guest wineries from other regions with food made by some of the best chefs of the Pacific Northwest. Festivities take off on the second and third days with a mix of off campus vineyard visits and seminars as well as on campus classes and tastings. The main event is the Grand Seminar, a master class on whatever aspect of pinot noir takes the stage that year.

In 2016, pinot noir of Australia won the focus bringing 14 of the best examples of the country as well as many of the winemakers behind them.

Australia: Pinot Noir Master Class

IPNC Australia Master Class

from left: Tom Carson, Michael Hill Smith, James Halliday

Panel hosts James Halliday, Michael Hill Smith and Tom Carson guided the 400+ person audience each of two days through an in-depth look at 14 Australian pinot noirs grown from sub-zones of Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Additionally winemakers Michael Dhillon, Peter Dawson, Mac Forbes and Mike Symons spoke about their regions and wines standing from the audience.

Michael Hill Smith, the first person to pass the Master of Wine exam in Australia, moderated the session guiding us through a thorough-going discussion of pinot noir in Australia as well as of the 14 wines presented and their regions. Wines were poured in two flights of seven. Additionally, the IPNC team offered us an impressive booklet of information to round out the master class concept of the seminar.

History and Conditions of Australian Pinot Noir

As described by Michael Hill Smith and James Halliday, pinot noir arrived in Australia within the original collection of grapevine cuttings to reach the continent, the Busby collection of 1831. The first cuttings were taken from Clos Vougeot and has established itself throughout pinot noir regions of the country as clone MV6 (Mother Vine 6 – so bad ass).

First attempts to succeed with pinot in Australia proved difficult so the variety did not truly take hold until the last century. Much of its growth has occurred since the 1960s. By 2015, 4948 hectares of pinot noir were planted with 43,223 tonnes produced that year across the country by 950 growers and winemakers. Today the focus in Australia is to make site expressive pinot noir, rather than attempting to emulate other regions.

Much of the pinot noir planted in Australia has been established with own-root vines. However, in the last decades phylloxera has taken hold in some of the pinot noir producing regions. Strict quarantines of those regions has helped slow its progress but nevertheless, vintners of Australia are now forced to grapple with finding best rootstocks in the midst of losing old vine sites.

Australian Pinot Noir Regions and the Wines

The Australian contingent IPNC

front left Mike Symons, sitting beside Michael Dhillon; front right Peter Dawson sitting beside Mac Forbes

REGION: Yarra Valley

Our tasting for the Grand Seminar began with a focus on the province of Victoria and a first look at its sub-region the Yarra Valley. As we were informed, 135 wineries produce pinot noir in the region an hour east from Melbourne. The region hosts a predominately continental climate with moderate to steep hillsides between 50 and 1000 meters in elevation. Soils tend towards ancient sandy clay loam and younger red volcanics.

WINE: Coldstream Hills 2015 Deer Farm Vineyard Pinot Noir Yarra Valley Victoria

Coldstream Hills was founded in 1985 by James Halliday and has since become part of the Treasury Wine Estates. The primary focus for Coldstream Hills rests with pinot noir and chardonnay with also some production of merlot, sauvignon blanc and shiraz as well.

The Deer Farm Vineyard pinot from Coldstream Hills is made when vintage conditions support single vineyard quality. In 2015 it was made with 50% new puncheons. The wine features a perfumed and herbal lift from a body of zesty, mixed red and dark fruits and a long mineral-spice spine offering plenty of concentration on an otherwise lighter bodied wine.

WINE: * Mac Forbes 2014 Woori Yallock Pinot Noir Yarra Valley Victoria

Mac Forbes established his eponymous brand after having worked previously at the iconic Mount Mary in the Yarra, with Dirk Niepoort in Portugal, and in vineyards throughout Austria. His focus remains primarily with pinot noir while also being known for his chardonnay and riesling.

In the Yarra Valley the 2014 vintage brought the concentration and focus of the smaller bunches with the hens-and-chicks berries of a wet and windy spring. The 2014 Woori Yallock carries subtle and lifted aromatics with an ultra stimulating and lighter bodied palate washed through with finessed mixed fruits, tons of sapidity, nuance and length.

WINE: Mount Mary Vineyard 2013 Pinot Noir Yarra Valley Victoria 

Founded in 1971 by the late John Middleton, today Mount Mary Vineyards hosts John’s grandson, Sam Middleton, as winemaker. Mount Mary holds one of the finest reputations for Australian pinot noir, considered a leader in the early contemporary push to understand quality expressions of the variety in the country.

With broader aromatics and palate than the other two Yarra Valley pinots, the Mount Mary 2013 shows the attributes of a slightly warmer vintage. It offers an ultra long zesty palate lifted by a perfume of cultivated flowers sprinkled through with spice. Lots of sapidity and silky tannin carry through a long finish.

REGION: Mornington Peninsula

With 80 wineries in the Mornington Peninsula producing pinot noir, the region sits an hour southeast of Melbourne. Sitting alongside the Southern Ocean, the Peninsula hosts a maritime climate with gently rolling slopes and a mix of soils.

WINE: * Stonier Family Vineyard 2015 Pinot Noir Mornington Peninsula Victoria

Founded in 1978, Stonier stands as one of the founding wineries of the Mornington Peninsula. The focus rests in pinot noir and chardonnay made by winemaker Mike Symons.

The Stonier 2015 presents compact and earthy with a zesty red fruit palate and a long stimulating finish. A pleasure.

WINE: Paringa Estate 2014 Pinot Noir Mornington Peninsula Victoria 

Established in 1985 by winemaker Lindsay McCall, Paringa Estate established both pinot noir and shiraz in an abandoned orchard of the Mornington Peninsula. Not yet available in the United States. 

Full of zesty fruit, the 2014 Paringa Estate offers a compact and focused palate with lots of sapidity and a long spiced finish.

WINE: Yabby Lake 2013 Block 2 Pinot Noir Mornington Peninsula Victoria

Founded by the Kirby Family in 1998, Tom Carson serves as the Yabby Lake winemaker with a focus on pinot noir and chardonnay. Not yet available in the United States. 

Aromatics with just a hint of funk turn to musk on the palate with a mineral sprinkled focus on zesty fruit and a long wash of acidity.

REGION: Macedon Ranges

One of the smallest and youngest areas for pinot noir in Australia, the Macedon Ranges an hour and a half north of Melbourne, host 37 wineries producing pinot noir. The area celebrates a cool to cold continental climate with elevated vineyard standing 500m above sea level in a mix of extremely old soils of mudstone, sandstone mixed through with quartz and other volcanics.

WINE: * Bindi 2014 Kaye Pinot Noir Macedon Ranges Victoria

One of the hallmark pinot noir producers of Victoria, Bindi helped bring attention to the quality wine possible from the Macedon Ranges. Established in 1988 by father and son team Bill and Michael Dhillon. Today, Michael continues the legacy he began with his late father with a focus on estate grown pinot noir and chardonnay.

The Bindi 2014 Kaye carries an earthy mix of perfumed dark fruits and a sense of delicacy through ample concentration riding all the way through a long finish. Tactile and stimulating tannin and a palate full of sapidity, this wine offers a nice balance of finesse, complexity and length.

Tasting in flights, IPNC

REGION: Gippsland

38 wineries make pinot noir in Gippsland two and a half hours east of Melbourne.

WINE: Bass Phillip 2013 Premium Pinot Noir Gippsland Victoria

Founded in 1979 by Phillip Jones to make small quantities of artisanal pinot noir, Bass Phillip relies on high density planting in an ultra cool climate.

Notes of musk and forest floor and a lengthy waft of perfume move on the palate to zesty, mineral-tumbled notes with a lengthy finish.

REGION: Geelong

50 wineries produce pinot in the Geelong region of Victoria just an hour southwest of Melbourne just opposite Port Phillip Bay from Mornington.

WINE: * By Farr 2012 Sangreal Pinot Noir Geelong Victoria

Established in 1994 by Gary Farr, By Farr quickly became one of the best known and respected producers of the country. Son Nick Farr today serves as winemaker making estate pinot noir with a focus on whole bunch fermentation.

Notes of pit fruit tested by citrus on the nose are accented by hints of cigar box and touches of forest floor with dried rose leaf in the mouth. A lovely light frame with impressive complexity.

REGION: Tasmania

124 wineries make pinot in Tasmania. The region is known primarily for two established growing zones, the Coal River Valley and the Huon Valley. The Coal River Valley in the southern part of the island is both cool and dry leading to low disease pressure and good fruit quality. The Huon Valley is the southernmost and coolest portion of the island with a wet maritime climate and a small concentration of vineyard plantings. Tasmania as a whole is both cold and relatively dry with a relatively long season.

WINE: Home Hill 2014 Estate Pinot Noir Tasmania

Terry and Rosemary Bennet established Home Hill Estate to pinot noir in 1994 with Gilli and Paul Lipscombe today serving as winemakers. Eventually chardonnay and sylvaner were also added. Not yet available in the United States. 

Notes of dried leaves and flowers move into a musky palate with plenty of length and a focus on intrigue.

WINE: * Tolpuddle Vineyard 2014 Pinot Noir Tasmania

Tolpuddle Vineyard was originally established in 1988 and were purchased in 2011 by Michael Hill Smith and Martin Shaw. The site sits in the Coal River Valley with a focus on pinot noir.

Note of musk and rose potpourri with plum and cherry pits and a flash of nectarine carry nose through a long, stimulating palate.

WINE: Dawson James 2014 Pinot Noir Tasmania

Founded in 2010 by Peter Dawson and Tim James, Dawson James has already had success with pinot noir from Tasmania. Not yet available in the United States. 

Fresh cut peach and cherry with a focused presentation and zesty, mineral length, the Dawson James 2014 offers nice purity with plenty of concentration and a lithe frame.

REGION: Adelaide Hills South Australia

74 wineries produce pinot noir in the Adelaide Hills region of South Australia. The Piccadilly Valley hosts the Ashton Hills winery represented at IPNC, and offers the coolest growing conditions of the larger region sitting at around 570 meters of elevation. The area is greeted by rainfall throughout the season.

WINE: * Ashton Hills 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir Adelaide Hills South Australia

Founded in 1982 by Stephen George, who still serves too as winemaker, Ashton Hills has worked extensively with the range of pinot noir clones available in Australia to identify the best suited cuttings for the region. Today he relies on five. In 2015, George sold his estate to Wirra Wirra and still lives on the property offering insight to the practice.

Showing evergreen freshness throughout and a spiced jalapeño snap the 2014 Ashton Hills is intriguing, distinctive and savory with accents of forest floor and a long finish.

REGION: Southern Fleurieu South Australia

With only 3 wineries producing pinot noir, the Fleurieu Peninsula succeeds with the variety primarily in the highest and coolest elevations. The area is very maritime with extremely old sand stones and in the Foggy Hill Vineyard very low fruiting wines to stay close to the warmth of the stoney surface.

WINE: Tapanappa 2012 Foggy Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir Southern Fleurieu South Australia

Established in 2002 by Briane and Ann Croser, Tapanappa is one of the very few wineries of Southern Fleurieu making pinot noir. Brian serves as winemaker with a focus on pinot from the Foggy Hill Vineyard, considered a founding vineyard in the region for the variety. Tapanappa also works with other warmer sites to grow cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot, and chardonnay. Not yet available in the United States. 

With notes of candied melon and powdered berry (not sweet) on the nose flavors of spiced chili and a savory core appear on the palate with lightly tactile tannin and an ultra long finish. Distinctive.

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

 

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Australian Pinot

Mac Forbes

Mac Forbes

Several years ago a trip to Victoria, Australia renewed my faith in Pinot noir. I’d gotten lost in a sea of overly squishy, indistinct wines while doing mass tastings and lost site of the precision and energy that can be found in a truly excellent glass of Pinot. Then, at the start of 2013, David Fesq and Mike Bennie were kind enough to tag-team plan an incredible trip for me through some of Australia’s cool climate regions and the distant reaches of Victoria. David got me to Geelong and Great Western while making sure I tasted wines from the Mornington Peninsula, Macedon Ranges and beyond, then Mike took me about the Yarra Valley for a couple days. With them I rediscovered my love for Pinot noir – the grape that originally grabbed my attention for wine. The two of them hand-selected some of the best vintners of the region and while in the Yarra Valley, with my nose in the glass of a vineyard select Pinot by Mac Forbes, I found that nervy, energizing, sapidity, purity and length I love from a really good wine.

Mark Davidson has spent years now helping to re-educate the North American wine community on the virtues of Australian wine. North American imports of overly extracted, and low cost wines from that Southern hemisphere continent had incorrectly taught us to believe all Australian wines were of those styles. In reality the continent has always been more diverse. More over, in recent decades the wine industry there has undergone an evolution shifting to lower volumes of production with a greater focus not only on hand-crafted wines but also more delicate styles. The results are beautiful and intriguing.

Mike Symons of Stonier Wines

Mike Symons of Stonier Wines

Yesterday, Mark brought together a few of us in the Bay Area for an intimate tasting of some choice Australian Pinots. There I was again with Mac Forbes wines and the man himself renewing my faith in Pinot noir. In good time too as tomorrow the world converges on Willamette Valley’s annual International Pinot Noir Celebration with the largest contingent of Australian Pinot producers ever seen there. I’m looking forward to it. Mark’s tasting also included vintner Mike Symons of Stonier wines from the Mornington Peninsula. It was my first time meeting Mike and his wines were also excellent – full of purity and a lovely balance of fresh red fruit with a savory belly of sapidity.

Here’s a look at some of the wines from yesterday’s tasting. All prices shown are SRP for the US market.

Stonier and Mac Forbes Wines

Stonier and Mac Forbes Wines

Stonier Pinot Noir 2015 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria $30
Meaty aromatics flooded with red fruit carry into a palate of bracing acidity, cascading flavor and a honed structure somehow at the same time delicate and without heaviness. Bright, stimulating and lengthy. It opens to notes of cherry blossom and prosciutto with air. Lovely purity.

* Mac Forbes Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2015 Yarra Valley, Victoria $32
Savory and multi-layered aromatics carry into a palate of complexity and textural layers. Simulating with intense minerality, tons of sapidity and length. Full of savory, red fruit with ferric accents and natural spice, this wine washes the palate with flavor while retaining freshness and lightness throughout. I love the purity and palate stimulation of this wine.

* Stonier Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria $50
Meaty and lightly spiced with a mix of flowers and powdered (but not sweet) cherry ride into a long savory finish. A deft combination of power and delicacy with a full mouthful of flavor that shows dance-y and fresh across the palate. Full of purity.

Mac Forbes Woori Yallock Pinot Noir 2015 Yarra Valley, Victoria $75
Really nice freshness and lovely subtlety throughout. Notes of red cherry with a faint pop of nectarine and tangerine on the nose and a refreshing lift of evergreen throughout. This wine is both delicate and lacy with power, filled with a crunchy, fresh minerality, tons of sapidity and lots of length. All about purity of expression and nuance.

Australian Pinot: Flight 2

Flight 2

Giant Steps Applejack Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 Yarra Valley, Victoria $42
Just a hint of funk on the nose transforms into a persistent, lifting jalapeño that carries into the palate alongside stony fresh, spiced red cherry and peppered meat. Showcasing ferric accents throughout, lightly tactile tannin and lots of sapidity through a moderate finish. It offers a nice pinch of baby fat right now that will no doubt dissipate with more time in bottle as the wine also further integrates. Hold for a few more years.

Ocean Eight Pinot Noir 2013 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria $52
Fresh throughout with notes of cherry powder (not sweet) and a long savory line lifted by fresh evergreen notes. There is a feral wildness to this wine that is at the same time lithe and wirey. Give it a bit more time in bottle to integrate. Nice sapidity and a fresh wash of acidity that will no doubt develop nicely.

Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir 2012 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria $56
A bit muted and tucked in currently, the wine opens with savory aromatics that follows into a palate with still plenty of power and spiced red fruit. Accents of iron and saline. A plush palate with a bit less complexity currently than the other Mornington wines but might unfold with a bit of time in bottle and air upon opening.

Australian Pinot: Flight 3

Flight 3

Dalrymple Estate Pinot Noir 2014 Pipers River Valley Tasmania $44
Nuanced, concentrated, and at the same time delicate aromatics lead to a concentrated core of flavor not from over-extraction but natural fruit density. Rocky and textural with a mix of cherry and currant flavors and a refreshing evergreen lift. The wine feels simultaneously delicate and dense like a swath of handmade embroidered lace gathered into a ball of intricate fabric. There is a lovely textural quality as well as an almost chewy element I find appealing. I look forward to seeing this wine again in a few more years as the fabric has begun to uncurl.

* Tolpuddle Pinot Noir 2014 Coal River Valley Tasmania $75
A fresh pop of nectarine and just underripe red cherry couple with a hint of clove spice that twists into a persistent lift of jalapeño from nose through palate. A bit simple compared to the other wines but in a pleasing and delicious sense. Distinctive with massive aromatics throughout the long finish.

Bindi Dixon Pinot Noir 2015 Macedon Ranges Victoria $65
Fresh aromatics and a savory, rocky, almost perfumed palate. Flavors of a freshly split open cherry tasted close to the pit with savory and spiced notes throughout and a dry finish. A full round mid palate without heaviness or over-extraction finishes snug for a moderate finish.

Australian Pinot: Lunch Wines

Lunch wines

Over lunch we enjoyed several other wines. I did not take notes on these but they are listed as follows.

Si Vintners Halcyon Pinot Noir 2012 Margaret River Western Australia $46

Artisan by Murdoch Hill Phaeton Pinot Noir 2014 Adelaide Hills South Australia $45

Eden Road The Long Road Pinot Noir 2013 Tumbarumba New South Wales $27

Kooyong Massale Pinot Noir 2014 Mornington Peninsula Victoria $38

Holm Oak Pinot Noir 2015 Tamar Valley Tasmania $30

Thank you to Mark Davidson, as always, for including me. 

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

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The Judgment of BC

View from the Judges Seat, Judgment of BC

This week I’ve been touring wine country of the Okanagan Valley with Jamie Goode and our trusty (and patient) tour pilot, Laura Kittmer. We’re hosted by the BC Wine Institute and welcomed by WineAlign to help judge the annual National Wine Awards of Canada looking at wines from across Canada at the close of our visit.

One of the highlights of the trip so far was participating in the 2nd Annual Judgement of BC. The tasting brought 29 top tasters from across Canada, as well as Jamie and myself, to blind taste and rank 12 wines from BC against 12 wines of the world. It was arranged in two flights, one pinot noir, the other riesling, both evenly split between BC and International wines. The event was sponsored by the BC Wine Institute and organized by Canadian wine educator DJ Kearney.

The inaugural event last year celebrated Steven Spurrier visiting British Columbia wine country for the first time and looked at Syrah and Chardonnay. As DJ Kearney explained, the goal for the Judgment of BC is not to ask who is best in the world but rather to investigate how BC wines rank against standard bearers from around the world. It’s an opportunity to investigate how well a relatively young wine region is doing on the world stage in terms of quality.

It was an honor to become part of the group present for the tasting. It’s a group that includes top writers, sommeliers, and buyers from across the country. Jamie also served as a judge last year. This year they decided to include a second international judge as well and kindly invited me.

DJ did a masterful job selecting wines. The international wines were all chosen purposefully to offer wines known as standards from their region meant to both push the local industry towards quality and give the judges insight into how local wines are actually doing currently. Wines were also selected to be in a relatively comparable price range.

As a taster one of the things I found most insightful was that when it came to quality the wines of BC were on par with the international selection. It was profoundly difficult for judges across the board to accurately select the BC contingent from their international counterparts.

Here are the final rankings. Judges were asked to taste each of the two flights and rank wines 1 to 12. Judges’ results were then added together and averaged to determine the final rank for the wines.

Pinot Noir

1. Bouchard Pere Premier Cru Beaune Clos de la Mousse Monopole 2012 Burgundy, France 13%
2. Bachelder Oregon Pinot Noir 2012 Willamette Valley AVA Oregon USA 14%
3. Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2014 Central Otago, New Zealand 14%
4. Haywire Canyonview Pinot Noir 2014 Lenswood, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 12.5%
5. Meyer Family Reimer Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Okanagan Valley, BC 13%
6. Quail’s Gate Richard’s Block Pinot Noir 2013 Okanagan Falls, BC 12.5%
7. Blue Mountain Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 Okanagan Falls, BC 12.5%

Two wines tied for 8th place:

Thibault Liger-Belair Bourgogne Les Grands Chaillots 2012 Burgundy, France 13%
JoieFarm Reserve En Famille Pinot Noir 2012 Naramata, Okanagan Valley, BC 13.6%

10. BK Wines Skin n’ Bones Pinot Noir 2013 Lenswood, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 12.5%
11. Moraine Pinot Noir 2013 Naramata, Okanagan Valley, BC 13.1%
12. Meomi Pinot Noir 2014 California, USA 13.7%

Though I was disappointed to see Meomi in the tasting (yes, I did score it 12 as well in my personal ranking of the wines), DJ was smart in her explanation of why it was included. Meomi is the number one selling Pinot Noir in all of British Columbia by a large margin and she felt it was important for judges to be aware of what that market share looks and tastes like in the context of global wine. Not all judges ranked it in last place.

Riesling

1. Max Gerd Richter Grazer Himmelreich Riesling Kabinette 2013 Mosel Valley, Germany 9%
2. Cedar Creek Platinum Block 3 Riesling 2014 Okanagan Valley BC 12.2%
3. Wild Goose Stoney Slope Riesling 2013 Okanagan Falls BC 13.3%
4. Chateau Ste Michelle & Dr Loosen Eroica Riesling 2013 Columbia Valley AVA Washington 12%
5. Leeuwin Art Series Riesling 2012 Margaret River, Australia 12%
6. Synchromesh Storm Haven Vineyard Riesling 2015 Okanagan Falls BC 8.9%
7. Culmina Decora Riesling 2015 Okanagan Valley BC 13.5%
8. Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2014 South Australia 12%
9. Robert Weil Kiedricher Riesling Trocken 2012 Rheingau, Germany 11.5%
10. Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2013 Okanagan Valley BC 13.1%
11. Orofino Hendsbee Vineyard Riesling 2013 Similkameen Valley BC 12%
12. Trimbach Riesling 2012 Alsace, France 12.5%

It was interesting to judge both flights blind partially because of the mix of styles and sugar levels for both sets of wines. Ranking them was very much an exercise in looking for harmony and quality regardless of style.

Before results were announced judges had the opportunity to judge amongst themselves and beyond the judging, just in terms of personal interest, some expressed a strong preference against the sweet styles while others notes that the RS in some cases brought the balance to the wine.

In my own case I noticed I was more willing to allow RS in the Rieslings than the Pinots and did feel that in the case of the Rieslings the high acidity levels sometimes benefited from a bit of sweetness. In other words, my views here remained consistent with how I’d viewed tasting Riesling previously.

It’s been a ton of fun to investigate BC wines and get to know the people of the region. I’m looking forward to tasting wines from across Canada when Jamie and I join the final rounds of the National Wine Awards.

If you want to read more about the event, this article offers some additional information from one of the other judges:

http://myvancity.ca/2016/06/22/the-wines-of-british-columbia-stand-up-to-the-world-at-the-second-annual-judgment-of-bc-wine-tasting/

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

A Search for Radiance

Bob Varner

It’s evening in March. We’ve just finished barrel-tasting 2011 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with Jim Varner. The conversation has focused on a calm but passionate exploration of the principles expressed behind the wine. Listening to Jim’s account, what becomes clear is that the focus is one of supreme gentleness. The subtle power of such an approach echoes through the wines as we taste them. Twins Jim and Bob Varner have now celebrated 18 vintages making wine from their Spring Ridge site, though they began planting it 34 years ago. From it they produce wines under the Varner and Neely labels, Bob managing the vineyard and winemaking, and Jim running the office and business. Spring Ridge rides the rim of Portola Valley, on undulating slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Valley had not been cultivated to vines when the brothers began their project.

Through much of the Santa Cruz Mountains, vineyards grow out of sight from each other, giving winemakers a sense of isolation from outside influence that is rare to most wine country. The region still echoes today with solitude, though it also carries in it some of the deepest, most respected heritage of California wine.

In the 1870s, Paul Masson, a Burgundian winemaker, found his way on to the elevated slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains and established vineyards for sparkling wine. The fog and cooling influence of two bodies of water-the San Francisco Bay to the east, and Pacific Ocean to the west -combined to offer the structural assets of a cooler climate needed for sparkling wine. In the 1940s, Masson’s enterprise led local entrepreneur Martin Ray to establish even higher vineyards and to begin making varietally specific wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and later Cabernet Sauvignon, an enterprise essentially untried in the state before. The site would come to be known as the historic Mount Eden.

To continue reading this article continue over to the World of Fine Wine website where the article appears in full for free online. Here’s the link: http://www.worldoffinewine.com/news/a-search-for-radiance-varner-and-neely-4678090/

Sonoma’s Far Coast: A haven for pinot noir

Wine & Spirits pinot noir

We step out of the forest into a glade where light pours through. Ted Lemon has guided me to the top of a hill at 1,200 feet of elevation in The Haven. He has been farming half of this tenacre property since 2001, using biodynamic methods, and he left half of the land wild.

“This is why it’s called The Haven,” he says of Littorai’s estate vineyard. The surrounding forest and coastal scrub provides animal habitat to foster biodiversity. Behind us, pinot noir, chardonnay and chenin blanc grow from a mix of shale, iron sands, compressed clay and serpentine.

These hills are part of Sonoma’s coastal mountains, most of which remain covered in conifers, too steep for cultivation. Vineyards have only arrived in the last 30 years, almost all planted in the 1990s or later on the gentler slopes and hilltops. (Until 1994, when Williams Selyem, Kistler and Littorai came knocking, even David Hirsch’s now sought-after fruit was going to Kendall-Jackson for blending.)

To read the rest of this article click on over to the Wine & Spirits Magazine website. It’s currently free-for-all there. Here’s the link: http://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/S=0/news/entry/sonomas-far-coast-a-haven-for-pinot-noir

West Sonoma Coast: A Guide

Near Sebastopol

If you were following along on Instagram, you already know I spent a ton of time visiting vineyards and winemakers throughout the mountains of the West Sonoma Coast. I’ve turned that several months I spent studying and tasting the region into a six-article series over on JancisRobinson.com.

Here’s the link to a guide for all six articles. http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/west-sonoma-coast-a-guide 

The articles are pay-to-read but subscriptions at JancisRobinson.com are pretty straightforward and affordable. The site offers excellent articles every day about wine all over the world, as well as news events as they happen.

Subscription is £6.99 a month or £69 per year ($11/mo or $109 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and 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.

Cheers!

Talking with Michael McNeill

On Tuesday, I shared the first half of a conversation with Michael McNeill, Winemaker of Hanzell, one of California’s heritage houses.

Though we had tasted together before, we agreed to meet in order to dig more deeply into McNeill‘s views on winemaking, and how he understands his role at Hanzell.

McNeill’s position is unique in California. Hanzell makes wine from their own vineyards, which include the oldest continuously producing chardonnay and pinot noir sites in North America, each planted at a time when the grapes were rare on the continent. Add to that the fact that McNeill describes his job as a “guardian of the Hanzell style,” and you can see he carries a unique position.

The transcript of our conversation is presented here, edited for length, and in a few places for clarity. In the first half of the conversation (readable here), McNeill and I spoke on what he values about working for a heritage house, his previous winemaking experience, and how he came to work at Hanzell.

The following portion of the conversation picks up immediately following his story about interviewing with Jean Arnold, President Emeritus of Hanzell, for the job as winemaker. In this half of the conversation, we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation, how land ownership changes your winemaking choices, and whether he’s ever wanted to start his own label.

The following photos are each courtesy of Hanzell.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Michael McNeill, 2013

Michael McNeill, Winemaker Hanzell

Elaine: With the change you were facing, some winemakers would have thought, “Well okay, it’s time for me to start my own label.”

Michael: Yeah. I have kicked that around from time to time. But I have a son, and felt it really important to be part of his life. I didn’t want to have two jobs, which is what it really requires to have your own label. And my deal at Keller would not have allowed me to start my own label, so that would have been messy.

It could have turned out where I started consulting with multiple labels, and maybe at that point, I would have said, “Well I might as well start my own as well,” but I don’t know. I have enough friends that have started their own wineries and labels, and it’s challenging. It’s really challenging. Most of them still work two jobs and don’t have kids. I’m sure that there are examples of people that have done it, but I don’t want it. I’ve seen how hard people work and how challenging it is.

Elaine: Did you ever feel compelled to?

Michael: Sure. I think every winemaker worth his salt, at some point, wants to do their own thing because we all think we know all the answers, and would do it the right way. Of course, you find out how challenging it is and how many compromises you wind up having to make that you don’t think of prior. It’s kind of like when you’re the assistant winemaker, you always question the winemaker: why are we doing it that way? I would have done it a different way…

And then the first time you’re making the decisions, you’re making the picking calls, how incredibly nerve-wracking it is, how you wring your hands over the decisions you make. Am I making the right decision? I always look back at what Michael Michaud did at Chalone, and have so much added respect for what he did.

Elaine: The analogy that comes to mind is raising my daughter. It completely changed my perspective on my parents, and in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Just like silly things, like when Rachel was two or three, I suddenly recognized all these things my mom did when I was growing up were actually because she was tired all the time. I just thought of them as parts of her personality and maybe they frustrated me, but actually I suddenly recognized them as fatigue. It brought more compassion, more understanding.

Michael: Right. They were just tired.

I tell people that parenting changes your life in ways that you would have never expected. And you can’t explain that to someone — I always say, “Welcome to the club.” You’re here now.

Elaine: And you never leave the club. No matter what else happens.

So, anyway, you started at Hanzell that July, what are some of the things you focused on to start? I’m sure you tasted a lot of Hanzell wine initially. You mentioned you had tasting panels with multiple Hanzell winemakers, and you’d gathered a lot of information. So you started in July, and with harvest only a few months later, you had to pretty quickly get ready.

Michael: Yeah. Michael Terrien stayed on in a consulting role. He was available to me to talk to and figure things out. I could bounce things off of him.

Elaine: How long did he stay on?

Michael: Six months.

Elaine: Okay. So, through that harvest.

Michael: And that was very helpful. I appreciated having that, for sure. But all the picking and such was my call, but it was great to have him there to bounce it off of, and ask, “What do you think?” That, and looking at the old records.

Michael McNeill Hanzell Harvest 2014

Michael McNeill bringing in Hanzell chardonnay, harvest 2014

Elaine: When you look back through your vintages to 2008 in relation to the Hanzell library, how do you see your progression?

Michael: It’s still early, I guess, in the grand scheme of things here. I would say that for the chardonnay, I think we’re keeping it very consistent. We made some adjustments, but I think by and large, they’re pretty subtle. They’re the small corrections or adjustments down the road, looking down the road.

The pinot noir, I think things have changed fairly – not dramatically, but definitely in 2008, I was making the wine kind of the way Michael Terrien was making it. Once fermentation ended, we were doing an extended maceration. We were warming it up to 30 C, which was pretty warm.

Elaine: After or during, you were warming it up?

Michael: After fermentation, during the extended portion. Or, allowing it to peak at 30 C, and then we put the lids on holding it there. And also everything was completely destemmed. I thought at the time it was a pretty extreme thing to do, and so we started backing off in terms of temperature that we were holding the wines at and then the temperature we were allowing the fermentation peak to get to do.

Elaine: You mean in subsequent vintages?

Michael: Yeah.

Elaine: So that initial vintage was consistent with Michael?

Michael: Yes, it was. Just because, you walk in, and you’re at “Well, I have to have a starting point.”

The other thing, too, was that everything was destemmed. And again, a lot of the wines that Bob was making in the 90s – what he had started doing in the 90s is including some whole cluster. It was getting to a point where, it was like 30% whole cluster. But he was doing it, and it is fairly counterintuitive – he was adding whole clusters to soften the wines, which is not what most people think of with whole cluster. But the reason is that the old de-stemmer that he was using was extremely aggressive. I refer to it as a grape grinder. And so they were getting all the extraction up front, so they didn’t have to do these extended macerations. They were very short, quick fermentations.

So he was doing whole cluster to soften the wine by not putting it through the grape grinder. And I love the aromatics and the qualities of those wines. So we have been looking at how to reintegrate some of the whole cluster with the equipment that we have and using the extended maceration.

Elaine: Right. Because you can’t just do it the way he did it since you have different equipment.

Michael: No we can’t. And we don’t really want to. So we’re really making adjustments on the pinot noir. We’re bringing in whole cluster now. And the other thing too is we have the Sessions Vineyard, the site planted in 1999, that Bob was not working with then, and that’s now a fairly large portion of our pinot noir.

So there’s a lot of change that has come into the pinot noir program without deciding to change it. We have new vineyards, we have new equipment; now what do we do? And how do we work these elements in while maintaining our style, and how to best showcase this ground and the style? It’s a lot more difficult, or I guess a lot more, in a way, intellectual, than just simply saying, “We have a house style we follow each year.” It’s not that way at all.

Elaine: There are some winemakers that say in order to show the terroir of a place they use exactly the same techniques every year, and across every vineyard, with the view that that means the only difference you see is the vineyard, or the vintage. But then there are other winemakers that say that kind of approach is a way of not listening to the specific needs of a particular vineyard and its tendencies; that some winemaking techniques work against the conditions of a site, or make a disjointed wine in a way that covers up some of the site character. So, what works for one site might actually obscure another site.

Michael: Absolutely. I feel that way. I think that your role as a winemaker is to listen to the vineyard. That’s a cliché. But really, paying attention to the vineyard and getting it to express itself in its fullest form – that’s our role. Maybe it’s a bit, in a way, egotistical to think that the one way that you’re making pinot noir is the only way to make pinot noir.

Elaine: Right, but if you’re trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, you could say that they’d respond, “Oh no, I don’t mean this is the only best way to make pinot noir; I mean I’m just trying to remove all the variables to show the various sites, and I picked this way because I like it but, I’m not saying it’s the only way.”

Michael: I think that is, in a way, more of a marketing decision. Right or wrong. I don’t think that doing it that way is necessarily the wrong thing to do, but I don’t think that you’re getting the most out of each site. But, I think it certainly makes real good sense in terms of marketing and business, because you have delineated all of these different vineyards. And if you have a clientele that’s interested in what you’re doing, and they want to try all these different …

Elaine: They have to buy a six-pack.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s brilliant from a marketing perspective, but I don’t think it necessarily is the best for each site. But then again, most winemakers are doing things like that in a sense. They aren’t invested in the site. They just buy the fruit.

Michael McNeil Pruning Ambassadors Vineyard

 

Michael McNeill pruning Ambassador Vineyard, Hanzell 2013

Elaine: That’s the thing. Having a wine industry that is so focused on sourcing fruit – like much of California, or much of the United States, just because of how hard it is to own and farm your own land now – rather than owning the land, or even a negociant approach where you buy wine and make blends, like in France – making wine primarily through sourcing the fruit significantly changes the values you can bring to the winemaking, but then also some of the techniques, and the marketing.

Michael: Right. If you own the piece of ground, would you use those same techniques then? If you own each of those vineyards, would you make them the exact same way?

Elaine: And also, like some of the things you’ve said indicate, how might your approach change over time as you get to know your site better?

Michael: Right. When I first got here, there were a couple of people who had been long time collectors here. I had only been here for like two weeks. I was introduced. They were in a beat up pickup truck. They looked like farmers. And they said, “Yeah, we’ll know if you’re any good in about ten years or so.” I love that.

Elaine: That’s great.

Michael: Right. That’s fair. Bob thought in terms of decades.

I look back at the wines from the 90s just in terms of the overall style and transparency. There’s a real lithe quality about them. Not that they aren’t powerful, because they are. But they just seem to be — transparent is the best way to put it. You can see all of the elements within it that make up the total, and yet are still very harmonious. I think that I look to that as more of an inspiration, if you will.

Elaine: That transparency with harmony.

Michael: Yeah. You want to have some power and intensity, but you want all of the elements to be in balance, which every winemaker is going to say the same thing, that they want that. So, it’s a matter of what — how they view balance; what parts of the elements they find as important.

I think that’s ultimately the role of the winemaker on a property like this, while trying to make wine. You’re translating. You’re translating from the vineyard, and what that property, what that terroir is offering. And our job as winemakers is to translate that into wine. It is to deliver that. How do you deliver it?

And I think that that’s the difference in terms of being a winemaker and having one set of winemaking protocol, and one size fits all. You’re not doing the translating. You might have one program that that fruit is going through. You’re not allowing that specific place to be fully translated in what it can express.

Elaine: You mentioned doing small-scale experiments to investigate whether you want to incorporate them into the overall winemaking. What are you seeing with your whole cluster experiments?

Michael: Liking it. We like the element that it brings to the overall quality, especially in terms of mouth feel and aromatics. One of the other things we’re looking at is with the whole cluster, do we want to start pressing that off early instead of giving the extended maceration? So that’s another variable that we’re looking at as well.

And this place, Hanzell, is a pretty unique spot. There’s a particular energy that this property has.

Elaine: It doesn’t feel like anywhere else.

Michael: I saw Jacques Lardiere, he used to be the winemaker at Jadot speak at IPNC [The International Pinot Noir Celebration in Willamette Valley, Oregon] in 2012, and we were all laughing because he was so over everyone’s heads in the way he spoke about biodynamics. But when he was talking about a specific Premiere Cru vineyard, he said, “There is something about this place that is special. It has a special energy.” And I immediately got it. I understood that. I think this place, Hanzell, has a very special energy that, I don’t know, I honestly think I could grow damn near anything on this piece of property and it would be great.

***

In another portion of our conversation I asked Michael McNeill what he thought had allowed Hanzell to persist so well, and maintain its quality as a heritage house of California. He credited the history of excellent ownership from now all the way back to its beginning.

For the first half of our conversation: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/26/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-1/

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

The History of Hanzell

When it comes to heritage, Hanzell Vineyards and Winery carries some of the deepest in California. It’s chardonnay and pinot noir serve as a hallmark of excellence in the United States,  its vineyards among the finest.

The winery proves historically important too for its history of innovation.

Ambassador James Zellerbach worked with viticulturist, Ivan Schoch, to establish Hanzell, purchasing the property in 1948 with the goal of planting vineyards that could grow wine among the best in the world. At the time, pinot noir and chardonnay were rarely planted in California.

Today, vineyards at Hanzell include blocks established in 1953, home to the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay vineyard in North America. The Hanzell clone of each are considered among the important heritage clones of California.

Hiring winemaker-scientist Brad Webb in 1956, Zellerbach’s vision evolved in the winery as well. At Hanzell, Webb would become one of the first in California to use French barrels to age Chardonnay. More remarkably, he also established controlled malolactic fermentation by identifying the bacteria involved, and then went on to invent temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks. Both inventions would change winemaking worldwide.

In 1973, Bob Sessions succeeded Brad Webb in winemaking. Having worked previously with Webb, Sessions work at Hanzell would begin congruent with the style established by the original winemaker. Through his tenure, however, Sessions slowly evolved the iconic Hanzell style.

Today, Michael McNeill serves as winemaker, having taken the helm after a brief tenure by winemaker Michael Terrain. McNeill regards himself as a guardian of the Hanzell style, wishing to maintain its unique signature while continuing to grow its quality.

Earlier this month I met with Michael McNeill curious to better understand how he sees his role as winemaker in a heritage house. We have tasted together previously but this meeting was an opportunity to converse in depth about McNeill’s work as winemaker.

Following is a transcript of our conversation split into two installments — the second will be shared here Thursday. As the original conversation lasted almost three hours, the transcript has been edited for length, and in a few places for clarity.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Looking out over Hanzell Vineyard with Michael McNeill

looking out over the historic Ambassador’s Vineyard, inside the historic Hanzell Winery with winemaker Michael McNeill, April 2014, photo courtesy Kate McKay

Elaine: Hanzell has had a few winemakers, including one that seems like a distinct style shift from what was established by Bob Sessions, and what you’re doing now. Part of what I find interesting in talking with you is how you describe your role as winemaker. You’ve said you’re job is to remain consistent with the Hanzell style. I’m curious how you worked to identify that style considering the various shifts and changes in winemaking here?

Michael: Well, initially it was a lot of information gathering when I got here in 2008. And unfortunately at that point in 2008, Bob’s dementia was setting in. So what I tried to do was really look back at what was being done in the late 90s, through the 90s, and essentially emulate that. But looking at the wines, tasting the wines, trying to in a way project how we would make those wines today.

I was looking through the records of what had been done, to get a sense of how things were done. I’ve had many conversations with Jose Ramos [Director of Vineyard Operations], Ben Sessions [Bob’s son who also works at Hanzell]; there is some living history here that I have been able to reference. I describe the way I see my role here as being guardian of the style of wine that we’re making here. But, being a winemaker, you always want to push the boundaries of quality. You always want to make it as best you can, or better than it was before. And how do you go about doing that while still respecting the style? It’s a challenge.

So, I view it very much like steering a tanker, with a real eye looking way ahead, making small, careful, thoughtful adjustments, so that you’re not changing things drastically, but you’re doing small-scale experiments to see how those changes might work, and carefully evaluating them over time.

Looking at Bob’s career here, 30+ years as a winemaker, if you look at where he started and where he finished, there were some pretty radical adjustments. We went from no barrel fermentation to 25 percent barrel fermentation. That’s a jump, but it took 20 years to get there. I see my role as kind of the same. We have planted new vineyards. We’re integrating those new vineyards into what we’re doing here. The Hanzell Sebella Chardonnay has been something for me to sort of – if I need to have my own ego stroke or my own project – Sebella has been very much something that I’ve brought here. But I strongly feel that Hanzell is really about this place and about the style that we’ve developed over many, many years.

Elaine: In some ways, it’s easy to guess the answer to this, but just to make sure I understand where you’re coming from: What about that period in the 90s makes you choose that as a concentration of focus?

Michael: One, those wines were spectacular, and have certainly shown their ageability; they have stood the test of time. And I really feel that those wines really showed what Bob was doing at his best. There was a real clarity, a real transparency to the wine that really is uncommon.

Elaine: That makes sense.

Michael: One of the nice things about being the Winemaker here at Hanzell is that it’s already here. It’s already established. It already has a style so I don’t have to wave my hands to get attention. So many young winemakers have to make a real bold statement to get attention now just because of how the wine industry is. I learned to make chardonnay and fell in love with pinot noir when I was at Chalone Vineyard back in the early 90s, so I think that I was uniquely qualified to come to Hanzell.

I spent six years at Chalone. It was a very, very special place to me personally. And back then, when we talked about age-worthy Burgundian-style chardonnay and pinot noir in California. It was Chalone, Calera, Mount Eden, and Hanzell. Chalone is no longer what it once was; and I really felt that — it really saddened me deeply. I don’t want to see that happen again. I don’t want to see it happen here.

Chalone was my winemaking finishing school. That’s where I really feel I was developed as a winemaker. At Chalone there was an established house style, so the challenge was making the wine better, but still, respecting the style of the house has been something that I’ve been brought up with.

I’ve done the opposite as well – after leaving Chalone, making wines in Oregon, up and down the state of California, having to make impact wines. But coming here felt very natural. I really and truly felt like the prodigal son coming home. Hanzell is a perfect place for me, and I hate to say I’m perfect for it, but I think I bring a unique set of sensibilities that most others wouldn’t. I certainly think that there are probably better winemakers out there. But I think to be successful here requires you to subvert your own ego, and really be able to take the back seat.

The historic Hanzell winery with Michael McNeill

standing in the historic Hanzell winery next to the original temperature control tanks, with Michael McNeill, April 2014

Elaine: I’m curious where you find satisfaction in this work.

Michael: Every time somebody tastes one of these wines, or makes the comment like, “Gosh, I really don’t like chardonnay, but I really like this wine,” it gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It was funny – every year we do library tastings with the entire staff, prior to offering a selection of library wines to our Ambassador’s Circle collectors. We – Lynda Hanson [Associate Winemaker] and I, started at the same time, we had one of our wines in the Library offering. We just looked at each other and said, “We’ve arrived.” We’ve been here long enough where we have a library wine now. That was very, very rewarding.

[At an event] last night, I took a magnum of ’98 chardonnay. I had a lot of people coming up to me, “This is the wine of the night.” And even though obviously, it was Bob’s wine, I’m still proud of its place. I’m proud of the style, it’s something that I really believe in. You know, that’s really satisfying. When people say, “Oh. Hanzell, this is fantastic,” … for me, just being associated with the property and the legacy here is very satisfying.

And the other thing is when I started, and we still do, we have tasting panels. The first few tasting panels, included myself and Lynda,  Jean Arnold, and Bob — who would still taste with us then because he had a lot of clarity — but also Kim Giles who was Bob’s predecessor. Kim Giles still sits in on tasting panels. And Michael Terrien sat in on them as well. In that I had access to the experience of Hanzell from 1967 until that day. So we were tasting through various blends and such, as Ben Sessions likes to say, there was a lot of constructive disagreement. But at the end of it, they all said, “McNeill, good luck with that.”

It’s great because I get a lot of input from people who have been so closely associated with the wines and the making of the wines on the property to bounce ideas off of. That’s the kind of thing I think is rare today, to have that kind of depth of history that’s still a part of the current day. Does that make sense?

Elaine: Yeah. That definitely makes sense. It seems like even those relationships, and bringing all of that to fruition would be rewarding; being the one that continues the legacy that means something to you. What made you want to shift back to a more heritage approach for your career after that period in Oregon and other parts of California?

Michael: Well, I guess I went from Chalone up to Oregon, and that was in 1996 and 1997, beginning of 1998. But I was there for the ’96 and ’97 vintages. The winter of ’96-’97 was a record year up there for rain. And the way the winery was set up, I walked in, in August, and I was handed a stack of two-dozen contracts, and told, “Go make wine.” And so I was driving from vineyards all the way from Eola Hills in Willamette Valley all the way down to Ashland in the Southern part of the state. I put 7000 miles on my truck in six weeks.

Then I went from making wine there to Savannah-Chanelle in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There I was doing similar things. I was making wine from vineyards from the Russian River all the way down to the Arroyo Grande Valley. There’s something kind of fun about seeing all these different vineyards and working with all this different fruit. But then I got the job at Keller Estate in 2003, and I really enjoyed working with the vineyard, and I got much more involved with grape growing. I guess my career started in the lab, my degree is in chemistry, so that’s a natural thing. It started there and went to general winemaking, and then I kept going farther out into the vineyard. That’s been great for me, because it’s been a constant learning experience because I hadn’t been in agriculture or a farmer before.

Tasting Hanzell

Elaine: So then you went from Keller to here?

Michael: Um-hm.

Elaine: Yeah. Was it just too exciting an opportunity not to come here? How did that happen?

Michael: It’s a great story, actually. I had been at Keller for five years. It was interesting. Jean Arnold was president here at Hanzell, and I had actually interviewed with Jean twice before. Once at Chalk Hill; when Dave Ramey left Chalk Hill, I interviewed there for the job. That’s when I first met Jean. I didn’t get the job. And then in ’98, I had just come back from Oregon and I started at Savannah-Chanelle, and I got a call from the same headhunter, and it was for the job at Williams Seylem. And Jean was then the president, and I didn’t get the job.

But Jean really made an impression on me, and I made it a point to maintain a relationship with her. Every time I saw her at a tasting, I made a point to go say hi. And if I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I would just call her up out of the blue just to say hi. But I’d never actually come here. I would just say, “Hey, Jean, how are you? How are things?”

So in April of 2008, it was a Thursday, I had an epiphany that I had pushed the rock as far as I could up the hill at Keller, and I was like, “God, what am I going to do? All I’ve done is chardonnay and pinot noir. Where would I go? What kind of winery would want me?” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. This weekend, I’m going to clear my calendar and spiff up my résumé and get ready to look for a new job.” And when I came back from lunch on Friday, there was a message on my voicemail: “Hey McNeill, it’s Jean Arnold. How are you? Hey, we’re looking for a new winemaker. Maybe you know of someone. Give me a call.”

Elaine: Oh wow.

Michael: So yeah.

Elaine: That’s remarkable timing.

Michael: I still get goose bumps telling that story because it was one of those perfect storms. I just thought, “My god, that’s the place I need to be. I’m perfect for this job. It’s the perfect place for me. I have to get this.”

Elaine: That’s cool. So then you started in 2008?

Michael: Yes, I started July 1.

***

The remainder of the conversation with Michael McNeill will post Thursday. In it we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation in pinot noir, the idea of starting your own wine label, and what it means to capture site expression as a winemaker.

For the second half of our conversation: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/28/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-2/

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Andy Smith in the Vineyards of West Sonoma Coast and Green Valley

Andy Smith in Jentoft VineyardAndy Smith walking through Jentoft Vineyard, West Sonoma Coast, Jan 2015

“It’s okay to blend,” Andy Smith, winemaker and partner of DuMOL Wines tells me. It is morning and we are walking through the rolling hills of Jentoft Vineyard, a site near Occidental DuMOL planted specifically for blending.

Smith has agreed to spend the day driving me through DuMOL vineyards. We’re discussing the region but also his evolution as a winemaker.

Jentoft is unique for DuMOL in that it is one of only a few sites they farm in the rolling hills off Occidental Road.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, DuMOL made a name for itself making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of the Russian River Valley. More recently, the team has expanded further into sites hugged by the hills mere miles from the Ocean.

The addition of these cooler climate vineyards also reflects the winery’s shift towards a leaner style over the last decade.

But for Smith, the winery’s move into sites near Occidental is not just about climate.

“People talk about climate, but, for me, the soil makes the flavor. Soil is the building blocks of the flavor, and the climate is the vintage variation.” Together, Occidental vineyards have something unique to offer.

“To me the wine [in this area] always has a sense of air-oir, not just terroir, a conifer-spicy element.” Smith says.

Blending DuMOL 

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

I ask Smith if he’d ever make a single vineyard bottling from Jentoft.

“I think the single vineyard thing,” he says, pausing briefly, in the midst of answering, no. “There has to be something distinctive, and agreeable, and verifiable, and repeatable. I am sure this site can make a distinctive wine that is a distinctive part of a distinctive blend.”

DuMOL bottles a number of single vineyard sites, but has developed and farms even more. The goal for DuMOL is to bottle excellent wines rooted first in their own farming. Some sites, in Smith’s view, offer that beautiful component within a multi-site blend, while other sites carry their own sense of completeness.

The point is that high quality vineyards sometimes best serve as components in a blend rather than on their own.

Developing a site’s character, be it is for blending, or single bottling, takes time. Jentoft, for example, was planted in 2007.

“This site is just starting to come into its own for us.” Smith explains. “The first year a vine gives fruit can be quite nicely structured and well balanced. Then, the next few years the vines are like unruly teenagers. Around eight years a vineyard starts to find its balance. Then around fourteen years there is another plateau, and vines become much more self regulating.”

What that means today has changed from viticultural views of even ten years ago.

“That is the fun part of the change in the last ten years,” Smith says. “From the idea that we need to tell the vine what to do. Today farming includes beautiful cover crops, insectiary rows, and then seeing the results. For me, that is the exciting part. You can taste the results as well. The wines taste better at lower alcohol.”

Evolving the DuMOL Style

I ask Smith about his evolution as a winemaker. We are discussing Smith and his contemporaries from the early days of DuMOL.

“We were young guys in the late 1990s,” Smith says. “Starting out making rich wines. Now many of us are making lighter wines, with aromatic perfume. You know everything is different.”

But the change in style, Smith points out, occurred as part of a larger context, not driven by wine alone but the overall food culture.

“In the late 1990s, the scene was booming. Restaurants were booming. Chefs were going on with pork fat, and the wines reflected that.” Big flavor was not just a Parker fancy, but a cultural fascination.

“Some of my wines, I go back, and taste, and wonder, what was I thinking?” Smith laughs. “But, you know, it was the taste of the day. Now we have less new oak, and less toast. We have really moved to a more ethereal style with more perfumed aromatics. If you want more honey in your chardonnay, or more cassis and black fruit in your pinot noir, you pull leaves and expose clusters. Now we avoid sun exposure on the fruit.”

Smith’s reflection on sun exposure gets to the core of how DuMOL has shifted its style from bold flavor to graceful richness – DuMOL’s wines today a dance of movement and flavor.

“We’ve pulled back the wines as the farming has improved too.” Smith points out. “You can’t just go on and say, I am going to pick at 21 brix. You have to take a few years getting in tune with the farming, the soil health, and all that.”

DuMOL Today

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

DuMOL’s focus on farming has helped the label grow at a judicious rate, focusing on quality as it allows for growth. It’s maintained such an approach by expanding its volume only as its farming allows. As a result, quality remains in the hands of the DuMOL team, relying on fruit they’ve cultivated to match the house style.

“That’s part of our philosophy.” Smith explains. “I don’t like any extremes – no extreme pruning, no extreme exposure to the grapes, not too much, if any irrigation. Vines are a crop we maximize, and you maximize that by making the vine work hard, not stressed but hard.” I ask Smith to say more about how he maintains that middle line in the vineyard, avoiding extremes.

“The soil health is, of course, really important.” He responds. “Water is available for the vine. The roots are really deep now but because they haven’t been force fed water, they don’t binge on it. Vines are self regulating. They take what they need, and don’t take too much. When you over irrigate, you force the vine to take what you give it, and it takes and takes and takes, then collapses and ripens through dehydration.”

Then there is the architecture of the vine.

“The way we farm with tight spacing, we are looking for grapes that are bright and fresh, with thick skins though we are achieving that without exposing the clusters to sun. It gives more herbal complexity, dense deep tones, and bright fruit.”

The result shows through beautiful integrity from bottling to bottling.

DuMOL wines offer concentrated flavor and structural density with bright fruit, and delicious acidity across varieties thanks to the farming, while cellar choices preserve the wines’ pleasing texture and freshness. The combination Smith describes as his winemaking goal.

“I like texture, but I also like freshness. Any texture or density,” Smith clarifies, “should come from the vines.”

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DuMOL makes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and a small amount of Viognier from Sonoma County.

DuMOL Wines: http://www.dumol.com

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