Chardonnay of the Michael Mara Vineyard

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.

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3 COMMENTS

    • Sapidity is a kind of mouth stimulation that happens with some wines that is not quite the same as what mouthwatering acidity causes, and not quite the same as the tactile textural response that happens with tannins, and not quite the same as the ever elusive minerality. It’s a micro muscular response in the mouth that feels like mouth stimulation from the wine and is both energizing, and makes you want to go back for more. It’s a term very common to wine discussions in Italy and also in France, though I hear it less often here in the States. Well traveled winemakers use the term as well. Discussions I’ve heard in Italy speak of sapidity in relation to the natural salts in a wine that come from the fruit itself, and they see it as distinct from what we call minerality. You can think of it in relation to what happens in your mouth when you sprinkle sea salt on food after you cook it – think of how the food feels in your mouth before you add the sea salt, versus how it feels in your mouth after you add the sea salt. That micro muscular stimulation, and heightened response to the food you get after the sea salt add, that is sapidity.

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