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Tasting mountain wines in San Francisco

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Some blind tastings confirm what you know. Others do just the opposite, bringing a wrecking ball to your presuppositions. The best blind tastings are a little of both.

That was the case at yesterday’s “Altitude Matters” tasting, in San Francisco’s Financial District, where Stonestreet winemaker Graham Weerts and Gillian Handelman, Jackson Family Farms’ Director of Wine Education, presided over a blind tasting of six wines–four reds, two whites–about which we knew nothing, except that they could have come from anywhere in the world, but from elevations of at least 1,000 feet–and, presumably, that at least one of them was a Stonestreet wine, although not even that was assured.

The objective, Graham explained, was not necessarily to identify what variety or varieties the grapes were, or even where they came from, as this: To discern if we could “tie together” some themes common to the wines, which then might provide a better context for understanding all high altitude wines.

High altitude grapegrowing is itself marked by certain conditions, based on the nature of the terrain. Soils tend to be depleted; water is scarce; the roots of the vines find easy proximity to minerals in the soil, but, on the other hand, the grapes’ exposure to sunlight, and particularly ultraviolet light, is greatened. In the case of Stonestreet, whose vineyards are on Alexander Mountain above the Alexander Valley, the grapes often are above the fogs that swathe the valley and lower elevations, making daytime temperatures warmer, especially in the mornings. But due to the famous effects of temperature inversion, nighttime lows are higher than on the valley floor, making for more consistent overall conditions. Because the grapes struggle, they develop thick skins, hence bigger (often much bigger) tannins than valley floor grapes, but they also, oddly, develop higher acidity. These are all major factors in determining the flavors, textures and longevity of mountain wines; yet, as Graham took pains to state, “We’re not saying mountain wines are better, just different.”

Here are the six wines and some comments about them:

Picher Achleiten 2012 Gruner Veltliner. I didn’t know it was Gruner but neither did anyone else, to judge by the comments (the attendees, numbering about 50, seemed mostly to be somms). I liked the wine’s dryness, grace and power, its amazing minerality and acidity, as well as a touch of green pyrazine.

Finca Dofi 2011 Priorat. This was a massive wine, rich in iron and black currants, with grippy tannins and big acidity. I didn’t even try to guess what it was, but just marveled at its power.

Telle Nere 2011 Etna Rosso. Made from  variations of the Nerello grape, this might have been a Northern Rhône Syrah, for all the grilled meat and black pepper notes. But, nope, it’s from Sicily.

Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew it was a distinguished, young wine, probably Cabernet. But with all that graphite and conifer going on, I missed its California origins.

Chave 2008 Hermitage. This was the tightest, most reserved wine of the tasting. I could barely get anything out of it for the first 30 minutes it sat in the glass. Then crushed blackberries and black licorice emerged. One or two of the somms got this right.

Stonestreet 2011 Upper Barn Chardonnay. I knew this instantly: that bright acidity, the pellucid mouthfeel, as pure as mountain stream water, the lemon verbena, peach and honey flavors that finish so dry. Surely it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay from a recent vintage.

But wait. This shows how psychology factors in. We already knew that Wine D was a Stonestreet. Would Graham have included two Stonestreets in a six-wine tasting? Thus I began to doubt myself. When Gillian asked for comments, I raised my hand and said I thought it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay, but, given Wine D, I was prepared for it to be something else.

Well, of course, Graham did include two Stonestreet wines, so it was gratifying to have gotten at least one of the lineup correct. It needs also to be said that I was impressed by how much the somms knew of such a wide range of world wines. I, by contrast, probably was more familiar with the world’s wines before I became a specialist in California wine. There’s only so much time in the day, and my emphasis, bordering on obsession, on tasting California wine leaves me few days in the year to taste much else. Afterwards, I was with my wonderful colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, and I told her how much I admired the somms’ knowledge.

“Yes,” Virginie replied, “but they probably wouldn’t recognize a Lodi Zinfandel.” Touché.

What linked all six mountain wines?

-Intensity

-Not entirely fruit-driven, but herbs and minerals

-Great structure, including acidity (none of the wines was adjusted)

-Ageability

-Complexity

  1. We are at 2,200 feet elevation and can attest to the validity. It’s beautiful! Go Mountain Vineyards!

  2. Interesting topic. I find mountain and high-elevation vineyards very fascinating.

    There should be a distinct made between hillside (or mountain) vineyards and high-elevation vineyards. For one, Hermitage and Achleiten are not above 1000 ft elevation, but they are steep hillsides. So, not all the wines in the tasting were “high-elevation.”

    Second, not all high-elevation vineyards are on steep slopes. Most of the vineyards in Colorado and the Valles Calchaquies in the Salta region of Argentina are on relatively gentle slopes in high valleys. In truly high-elevation vineyards, such as in these places, then the UV plays more of a role than in vineyards that are 500-2000 ft (where 5 of the 6 wines you tasted are).

    The “more consistent overall conditions” you allude to does pertain to hillside vineyards compared to valley vineyards (Pritchard Hill vs. Oakville), but is not true for a blanket statement of all elevated vineyards (see high-elevation valley vineyards above).

    Slope and aspect were probably more defining characteristics in those wines than any actual elevation. Upper Barn is west-facing, Hermitage is south-facing, Achleiten southeast, etc. I’m not sure any commonality of the wines can be attributed to the elevation. And the five links you listed can be found in valley floor wine, too! Perhaps expert winemakers is the true link!

    Finally, did you really take a swipe at sommeliers because they have broad knowledge on a subject and might not be able to distinguish a Lodi Zin, when you (a CA expert) admitted you couldn’t even pick out a CA cabernet?? Come on, Steve!

  3. Kyle, they said all wines were above 1,000 feet. And no, I did not take a swipe at somms. I gave them their props. It never fails to amaze me how some people are constantly analyzing my every word!

  4. Steve, you did give them props. I guess I just don’t see the point of including Virginie’s quote and your, “Touché.”

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    No surprise that you couldn’t pick out the Priorat. I can’t think of any imported wine region that has been so thoroughly and broadly Parkerized, possibly more so than even Napa itself. Perhaps the group of Aussie “cult” wines that came into the US a dozen or so years ago, but that’s about it.

    I always am highly amused when I meet an “anti-Cali” somm who has half a dozen Priorats on his list that are every bit as over-the-top as anything coming out of Napa.

  6. Bill Haydon, lol! Yeah that Priorat was a mega wine.

  7. Steve:

    Great article and great tasting. Always good to see you. Loved the comments from Graham regarding not only the elevation, but the slope of the vineyard and how that stressed the grapes. His reference to the placements of solar panels at angles gave a great visual on how to capture more of the sun’s power. Some high elevation vineyards are just tall and flat. These wines all had steep slopes that further stressed the vines with less top soil, less water retension, and more sun exposure.
    So many angles to consider, even for the vines.

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