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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.

Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Redwoods & Isolated Ridges
Elaine Chukan Brown

that’s me in cartoon thanks to Wine & Spirits Magazine

A few years ago, a 2007 Anthill Farms pinot noir from Peters Vineyard in western Sonoma shocked me with its energetic combination of earthy depth and high-toned aromas. That, I think, is when I really caught the Sonoma Coast bug. Since then, I’ve visited Sonoma’s coastal vineyards again and again, hoping to better understand the intricacies of these mountains.

The west Sonoma coast fascinates me partially because of the unique growing conditions of every site. From the steep, redwood-dense slopes of the north, mere meters away from the Mendocino border, to the exposed high-elevation peaks of Fort Ross–Seaview, all the way south to the fog-dripped slopes near Freestone and Occidental, each vineyard feels like its own isolated sovereignty. Thanks to the ruggedness of the region, many vineyards grow in remote reaches of the mountains out of sight of any other. Most of all, my fascination stems from the way this region’s pinot noirs express that diversity.

Sonoma’s coastal range draws a line between the warmer inland temperatures of the county on one side and the cold Pacific air mass on the other. Canyons and low points in between allow fog and cool air to sneak into the inland side of the county. Those two forces—the warmth of the continent and the chill of the ocean—interact to create unique microclimates tucked into the folds of the mountains.

The San Andreas Fault also contributes to the region’s viticultural diversity. The mountains here formed over millennia as the Pacific and continental plates crashed against each other, creating a complicated mineral quilt: shale and sandstone sometimes reduced to a powdery topsoil, volcanic rocks, and incursions of serpentine, quartz, greenstone and chert.

It’s a complex region. The six wines below only begin to scratch the surface, but they’ve become some of my most reliable signposts.

The Cool Southlands

The Freestone Valley—a particularly cool spot in the coast range—sits just north of the low valley of the Petaluma Gap. Here, vineyards are often inundated with dense fog and cold temperatures even in…

To continue reading, head on over to Wine & Spirits Magazine’s website where the article is available to read for free. As it continues it gives an overview on the unique growing conditions of Sonoma’s coastal mountains and also describes six wines that help understand the region. 

Here’s the link to the article: http://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/news/entry/sonoma-coast-pinot-noir-redwoods-isolated-ridges

For our holiday gift this year, Jr and I decided that instead of buying each other stuff we’d do something really cool together. So, I called up Captain Bob at Coastal Air Tours and arranged for us to take a flight around the San Francisco Bay and over Sonoma in a 1926-biplane. Old Blue even still has its original motor and original 104″ prop – the same type of motor and plane used by Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic.

Getting ready for the biplane flight

We flew in Old Blue but Captain Bob has another biplane from 1929 as well. He works on both himself and said that with planes of that era the maintenance is primarily focused on keeping things in good condition and well oiled rather than on replacing parts because most are so sturdy. He even loaned us flight jackets to stay warm.

in flight

Biplanes are piloted from the backseat. The front, where we sat, was just wide enough for both of us side-by-side. Sunglasses are a must-wear since your eyes need the air shields and it’s so bright out. We flew Sunday of this past weekend. It had rained hard on Saturday so our trip was unbelievably clear and everything down below was a brilliant green.

over the San Francisco Bay

As much as I knew what we were getting ourselves into when I made our plans for the biplane ride it is still completely overwhelming to look down after takeoff and realize you are looking *over the side of the plane straight to the ground below unobstructed* because when flying in a biplane you are of course also sitting outside. My mind is still sort of blown over that fact – we flew around the Bay Area while sitting outside.

the city on the right the Golden Gate on the right

While Captain Bob will do flights all over wine country or up the Pacific coastline, we asked if we could fly around San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Remarkable to have them both come into view.

the Golden Gate Bridge

Unbelievably beautiful – the Golden Gate Bridge.

approaching San Francisco

Getting ready to circle San Francisco.

San Francisco

Circling the city over San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco

We flew over the Bay Bridge then did a circle and came back along the Bay side of the city. Here, looking back as we flew on towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

the Bay Bridge in the background

The Bay Bridge in the background.

flying towards the Golden Gate Bridge

Heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

the city behind us

San Francisco and Captain Bob behind us.

we just flew over the Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge behind us.

flying back to Sonoma low over the slough

After flying over the Golden Gate Bridge we circled around Marin and then came back over San Pablo Bay and flew towards Sonoma hugged close to the ground over the slough. It’s a trip to see what you can learn about a region from touring it by air. For example, did you know San Quentin Prison has tennis courts? Or that there is a rather deep quarry in Marin right on the edge of the Bay – I kept thinking it was close enough to the water that it wouldn’t take much for it to fill with water. Or, in Sonoma there is so much low-lying ground full of clay from San Pablo Bay and its flood zones. Most of all though it was all just stunning.

flying over Sonoma wine country

Once we reached Sonoma country again, Captain Bob flew us over the southern parts of Sonoma wine country before we headed back to land in town of Sonoma.

coming in for a landing Coming in for a landing.

If you’re interested in taking your own biplane ride, Captain Bob was fantastic. He does flights around the Bay Area, up the Pacific Coast, or over Napa and Sonoma wine countries. It’s pretty crazy sitting outside flying around in a biplane but it’s also fantastic and an utterly unique, special experience. It’s worth checking out.

Here’s the link to his website: http://coastalairtours.com

You can also call or email him for more information or to make a reservation. His info is on the website.

Cheers and Happy Holidays!

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

 

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Discover small‑production wines that whisper to connoisseurs and collectors.

secrets-of-sonoma-lead

When people think of Sonoma wine, Pinot Noir comes first to mind, but the diversity of terroir makes the region suitable for both Burgundy and Bordeaux varietals to thrive. Sonoma’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean means cooler temperatures than in neighboring Napa Valley, and its 16 approved sub-appellations offer world-class wines across a range of styles. While its Burgundy varietals have taken center stage over the last few decades, the area first gained its foothold in winegrowing more than 100 years ago, through Zinfandel and field blends of mixed red grapes. Today, winemakers are preserving that heritage by turning to old-vine vineyards to create sumptuous new wines.

Adventurous connoisseurs are also looking to Sonoma for bottlings that most wine lovers look to Napa for—Cabernet Sauvignon. Elegant versions with the structure and tannins to age well can be found, often for a smaller investment, from some of Sonoma’s family vintners that dot the landscape. Read on for a selection of under-the-radar, handcrafted wines from some of our favorite producers that show off eight of the county’s sub-appellations. Embedded from Fort Ross–Seaview in the mountains along the coast to Carneros and the Russian River Valley to Sonoma Mountain on the county’s eastern side, these small-production vineyards are worth contacting directly to sample their best vintages.

To keep reading, continue to The Robb Report website for a slideshow look at what wines I’ve recommended from Sonoma worthy of gifting. The article is free-for-all to read. 

http://robbreport.com/paid-issue/slideshow/secrets-sonoma

Cheers!

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.

Illustrating Sonoma Cabernet

The editors of Wine & Spirits asked me this Fall to take on a rather unusual project. They wanted me to get to know the shape of Sonoma Cabernet. As Joshua Greene, W&S Editor, presented it to me, as a group they could readily articulate the shape of Napa Valley Cabernet. That is, there’s a recognizable character to the famed Valley’s Bordeaux reds but that of those same grapes grown one county West is less well-known. 

Sonoma County stands as the largest of the North Coast counties. With its reach all the way from the Pacific, across several river valleys and into the Mayacamas that separates it from Napa Valley, Sonoma’s growing conditions vary widely. A few pockets in the region capture the ideal warmth-light-and-drainage combination needed for Cabernet. Greene asked if I would focus in on four of these sites, dig into what makes them unique, and articulate how those conditions show in the wine. Through illustration. My task was to draw the sites and wines, not how they taste, but their shape on the palate. 

To be honest, this was one of the hardest projects I’ve done so far in wine. It was an incredible amount of fun at the exact same time that I felt like I was having to change fundamental aspects of my thinking to make it work. Illustrating the shape of a wine and its relation to its site isn’t anywhere near as straightforward as illustrating tasting notes as I usually do here. The resulting illustrations bare imagistic relation to the sites from which they arise but really are meant to show what you’ll find in the bottle. Have you ever had a wine that tastes like a mountain? I drew two. (They taste like very different mountains.)

Having put so much into the project it was a wonderful bonus to then have the editors select my work for the December cover. The illustrations themselves appear flat inside the magazine coupled with text about the project and each of the sites. The editors also printed the illustrations and placed them, as if labels, on bottles for what turned out to be the cover. Here’s a preview… 

Wine & Spirits Dec 2015

The Shape of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon
text and illustrations by Elaine Chukan Brown

The Pacific coast, the Russian River and the Mayacamas Mountains shape Sonoma County. Vines fill the region, reaching up the ridge lines and blanketing the valleys.

The Coastal Range protects much of Sonoma County from the direct effects of the Pacific Ocean. But thanks to the Petaluma Gap and canyon folds within those coastal mountains, cool maritime air reaches vines throughout the county. It’s a Pacific chill that might only tickle Sonoma’s eastern side, but when I drink finely grown Sonoma County cabernet, I can taste that maritime breeze.

Perhaps it’s that I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Sonoma vineyards. I’ve begun to form associations between the conditions of the site and the experience of the wine, to associate angular tannins with mountain vineyards, and fuller, rounder wines with warmer temperatures or more generous soils. The place a wine is grown begins to take shape on the palate. It’s an experience that differs from that communicated in a typical tasting note.

Tasting notes describe a wine’s …

To continue reading pick up a print or electronic copy of the December issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine, available now. The issue includes an in-depth look at five regions from Australia via the recent Sommelier Scavenger Hunt; the year’s best Champagne, Barolo & Barbaresco, US Cabernets, Porto, and others; a dining guide to Montreal (my favorite); a look at pairing food with sweet wines, and more. Here’s a peek inside the December issue: http://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/S=0/subscriptions/entry/december-2015

For more information on how to subscribe: https://members.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/Subscribe/Select

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

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Following the Growth of the Vine

Looking into Barlow Homestead Pinot

The early stages of shoot positioning – Barlow Homestead Pinot, May 2015

Earlier this year, Jr and I visited with Paul and Kathryn Sloan of Small Vines to track green pruning and bud break at their Barlow Homestead Vineyard in the heart of Green Valley. Jr created a video interview of Paul on the two viticultural events, which you can view here: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/04/06/a-year-with-small-vines-bud-break-green-pruning/

In May, and earlier this month I returned to track two different phases of shoot positioning with Paul. In a cane pruned vineyard relying on vertical shoot positioning, repeated passes for shoot positioning serve as an essential step to the health and balance of the vines offering ample air flow and canopy management for the developing clusters.

The following shares an overview of the process and a look at the importance of shoot positioning in the midst of a year’s vineyard management.

Shoot Positioning

Getting ready to shoot position with Bryce Potter + Paul Sloangetting ready to shoot position: (from left) Bryce Potter, me, Paul Sloan, May 2015

In a cane pruned, VSP trained site, shoot positioning serves as the next step after green pruning. While green pruning forms the basic architecture of the vine, shoot positioning manicures and directs the growth of the vine. Shoot positioning, then, occurs in multiple steps through vine growth.

The timing of shoot positioning depends on the growth of the vineyard in the particular vintage. 2015 brought a challenging spring for vineyards in Sonoma. With warm January and February weather, growth came early to the vines bringing early bud break and shoot growth. April and May then cooled off significantly, generating what is known as Spring Fever in many Pinot vineyards through the region.

Spring Fever + Frost Damage

Spring Fever is caused by the vine starting to grow from warm weather conditions, and then shutting down again when temperatures drop. Nitrogen gets locked into place in the vine, which in severe cases can lead to nitrogen necrosis in the leaves. In milder cases, as new leaves develop the vine recovers photosynthesizing through the upper leaves. Even so, with Spring Fever, vine growth is slowed – colder temperatures slow vine development, and in the case of nitrogen necrosis the vines ability to photosynthesize is impacted through leaf loss.

Frost damage can also show in damage to vine tips. When temperatures are cold enough, frost effectively singes vine tips, turning them brown and stopping shoot growth. In such cases, secondary shoots will sometimes push from the trunk of the vine becoming the focus for vine development that year.

Shoot Positioning 

Paul Sloan shoot positioning Barlow Homestead Pinot

Paul Sloan shoot positioning Barlow Homestead Pinot, May 2015

In vertical shoot positioning, shoot growth is managed through a series of steps moving wires into ever higher positions as the shoots get taller, or through tucking shoots between wires. Wires are placed on the trellis system in pairs that effectively create a sandwich around shoots as they grow, with one wire at the front and one at the back of the training system and shoots growing between.

Generally, moving wires is more desirable than tucking shoots as it is faster. In moving wires, however, it is important to be careful to avoid pulling leaves or breaking shoots. As vines grow, their tips and leaves will sometimes wrap wires, or other shoots. This must be managed when moving wires to avoid damaging vines. Tucking vines, on the other hand, is generally done for specific vines rather than entire rows and includes the risk of damaging shoots through breakage.

Wires are placed at the right height to support shoots maintaining a vertical position. Then shoots are spaced at approximately a hand’s width apart with clips used to hold the shoots in the best position between wires. The clips can be moved as needed to adjust to vine growth.

Clips for shoot positioning

clips used for shoot positioning. The C-shaped clips are biodegradable natural fiber and are used for when wires need to be held close together to maintain the shoot to secure the its position. 

Shoot positioning clip

The reusable black clips offer more flexibility and can be used to loop a shoot exactly in place, to offer wider spacing between wires, or to wrap a wire for even closer spacing. 

As vine growth continues, shoot positioning is revisited again and again to keep shoots about a hand’s width apart (in order to keep clusters about a hand’s width apart), and to manage any secondary shoot growth. Rows are approached individually. Wires can be positioned as is appropriate to vine growth in that particular row, or even partial row. Then, vines are clipped individually.

Ideal shoot position depends on the architecture of the particular vine, however goals remain consistent in each case. The goals of shoot positioning include a balance of air flow and leaf shade for clusters. The balance of cluster count per vine is generally established in the earlier step of green pruning as the number of buds allowed to grow determines cluster potential. How that balance is achieved depends upon goals of the farmer such as overall yield, and goals of the winemaker such as wine style.

When it comes to recognizing ideal shoot positioning in the vineyard, Sloan emphasizes the importance of knowing your vineyard. “There is no one right formula, one right thing to do. You have to read your vines, your vineyard. The more you pay attention, the better decisions you can make.” Sloan explains.

The frequency with which Sloan revisits shoot positioning in his Small Vines-managed sites allows him to rely on organic viticulture as well. The attention given to architectural points such as ample airflow and canopy management also serves his ability to keep track of overall vine health, and issues such as disease or insect pressure.

Vine Health and Flavor Development

Organic cover crop

Paul Sloan discussing cover crop choices in Barlow Homestead, May 2015.
Cover crop through Spring is valuable in organic viticulture as it supports soil health and also offers a habitat for beneficial insects. Vines are most susceptible to harmful insects in Spring, so planting cover crops between rows plays an important role in vineyard health through the balancing of insect populations.

Effective canopy management supports the overall health of the vine reducing disease pressure while also encouraging flavor development.

“What is important about shoot positioning for the organic farmer,” Sloan explains, “is to have air flow through the leaves and clusters.” How such air flow is achieved depends on the overall architecture of the vine.

In vines that include higher cluster count, air flow must be encouraged through leaf removal — too much of both fruit and vegetation doesn’t allow enough air flow — which also has the effect of increasing sun exposure to clusters. On the other hand, to preserve canopy for shade while maintaining air flow, the vine must be shaped in such a way as to reduce cluster count and manage leaf position.

In the case of Small Vines, Sloan chooses to reduce cluster count per vine and focus on high density planting. High density planting reduces the soil nutrients and water supply available to any particular vine, slowing growth, reducing cluster count and leading to a sense of density in the fruit profile.

The Role of Sunlight on Fruit Development

Barlow Homestead Pinot clusters

Pinot in Barlow Homestead, early June 2015 (getting ready to do another pass of shoot positioning but note the architecture of the vine places shoots and clusters about a hands width apart)

Sloan clarifies that air flow is not the only factor relevant to shoot positioning. “Even more important than air flow is sunlight. You want sunlight on every leaf, on every shoot” but not on every cluster. Sunlight on the leaves encourages photosynthesis, and therefore also vine growth and fruit development. Direct sunlight to clusters, however, changes the flavor profile of the fruit as well as the fruit structure. To put that another way, directing sunlight to leaves and away from clusters tends to keep flavors in the fruit fresher and brighter. (To read more on the role of sunlight in flavor development, see the following profile on Andy Smith of DuMOL: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/04/13/deepening-dumol-a-day-in-the-vines-with-andy-smith/)

Early sunlight on clusters often encourages thicker skin development (and therefore also more tannin profile), later sunlight on clusters changes the flavor profile of the fruit. Generally you can think of this sort of sun exposure as making flavors darker, moving flavors from fresh fruits to cooked fruit and kitchen flavors (such as caramel in the case of Chardonnay, for example). With reduced sunlight exposure on clusters, canopy management to promote air flow and reduce disease pressure becomes even more important. In this way, shoot positioning plays a role in both farming methods and wine style.

Vine Health and Wine Quality

Vine health also ultimately impacts wine quality. As Sloan explains, “The reason I am so emphatic about making wine from the vines I grow is because if I can keep walking vineyards, and I can move my crew where they’re needed, then I can affect wine quality directly.”

Sourcing fruit from multiple vineyards can be an excellent way for winemakers to get to know and express the signature of a region. Once a region is known, understanding the attention of a particular farmer is the next step to managing wine quality by finding an alignment between farming style and winemaking goals. In the case of Small Vines, Sloan develops and manages vineyard sites for others and makes his Small Vines wines from his own sites.

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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!