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A tasting of current vintage, top Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs

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There are very few common Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley. Certainly, given the number of producers (in the hundreds), the level of quality is extraordinarily high, especially when we have two vintages in a row—2012 and 2013—that both were very fine, although it looks like ’13 has the edge in terms of consistency.

This was brought home to me following the tasting of RRV Pinot Noirs I arranged last week. In general, I found two different types of wines: darker, more robust and fuller-bodied ones that also tend to be higher in alcohol, and paler, more delicate ones. And yet, some higher alcohol wines can be delicate, while some lower alcohol wines can be dark and heavy. In wine, as in life, beware of generalizations; and don’t go drawing conclusions based merely on alcohol level!

All the wines were tasted blind; identities weren’t revealed until the very end. (Note: I am currently paid by Jackson Family Wines, which owns Hartford Court and Siduri.) We had six or seven people, and the conversation was lively. Not everyone agreed on everything, but I think there was plenty of unanimity in the room, especially concerning the overall quality of these dozen fine wines.

Here are my notes, with scores:

Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard. $40, 14.9%, 150 cases. Loved this wine. Complex nose of red cherries, cocoa, sandalwood, cola, persimmons, orange zest, cinnamon and clove. A little heat from alcohol, but not too much. Very high quality. The vineyard is south of Graton, at an elevation of 500 feet. The winemaker/co-owner, Robbie Meyer, has worked at Peter Michael, Lewis and Jericho Canyon. Good for a newish winery to score this well against far more famous veterans. Score: 93.

Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard. $70, 14.1%. Darker in color, richer and denser than A, despite lower alcohol. Go figure. A bit soft and over-extracted, with cherry pie, cocoa and pruney flavors. Ripe and voluptuous, but a bit too thick for my tastes, and some hard, bitter tannins in the finish. The vineyard is in the Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 88.

Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate. $57, 14.5%. Rich garnet-ruby color. Very aromatic, lots of crushed cherries, rose petal, tea, dried herbs, baking spices. Quite tannic at this time. Complex, layered, but very young. Give it at least six more years. The vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills area. Score: 92.

Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate. $59, 14.3%, 447 cases. Pale, translucent ruby color leading to delicate, complex aromas of golden tobacco, cranberries, persimmons, cola, cinnamon and clove, sandalwood. Feels delicate and silky, but quite intense in fruits and spices. Nice toast. Good finish. Gentle and lovely now. I thought it will age well, but others disagreed. Score: 93.

Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch. $46, 14.2%. Pretty ruby color. Fine quality wine. Tasting a bit one-dimensional now, but it’s a pretty dimension. Classic Russian River Pinot: dry, silky, good acidity, nice cherry-cranberry fruit. Lovely to drink now. If I were teaching a class in Pinot Noir 101, I’d use this. Score: 91.

Rochioli 2013 Estate. $60, 14.5%. Good color. Jammy pie flavors (raspberries, cherries). Nice dusty tannins, good acidity, smooth finish. Somewhat oaky and a little rustic. A bit on the light side. This is Rochioli’s basic estate Pinot Noir, not the block bottlings which tend to be superior. Score: 89.

Hartford Court 2012 Fog Dance. $65, 14.7%. Big aromatics: baking spices, smoke, masses of cherries, raspberries, blackberries, plums, sweet vanilla, balsam, wild mushrooms. Ripe, flashy tannins, good acidity. A flamboyant, showy wine that drinks well now and will improve. Also, ironically, an intellectual wine: I kept coming back and finding more. Score: 94.

Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch. $45, 13.7%. A pretty wine, polished and supple. A little disconnected now in the mouth: the oak, raspberries, tannins, acidity and spices haven’t knit together yet. I suspect most people will drink it now, but you really should age it unti 2020. A few tasters found it a bit hollow, but not me. Score: 92.

Dutton-Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard. $58, 13.5%, 613 cases. Pretty dark. Feels big and full-bodied despite the lowish alcohol. Dense, glyceriney. Could be more delicate, but it could be an ager. Oodles of black cherries and blackberries, orange rind, cinnamon, smoke. Considerable oak is evident. Hold until 2020, when it could easily be a 93-94 point wine.

Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard. $39, 14.2%. Nice to see this venerable winery doing well despite all the ups and downs of ownership. Combines delicacy with power. Intense flavors, firm tannins, some minerality underneath the bitter cherry candy and mushroom flavors. Very complex and layered, but needs time. Best after 2020. The vineyard is in Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 93.

Dehlinger 2012 Altamont. $70, 14.8%. Oak wood and spice notes dominate, along with strong tannins. Buried underneath is raspberry compote, sour cherry Lifesaver candy and exotic baking spices. Supple mouthfeel, very high class wine, noble, but young. Altamont is from a hilly section of the estate vineyard, which is south of River Road, in the cool, foggy Laguna Ridge section of the valley. Wait until 2020. Score: 94.

Hartford Court 2012 Hailey’s Vineyard. $65, 14.6%. A wonderful wine. At first I was suspicious of the tremendous extract (raspberries, black cherries, kirsch liqueur) and considerable oak (44% new French) but then the innate strength and elegance hit me. A flashy, sexy wine that grew complex as it breathed, giving off notes of balsam and tamari. There is a core of iron-driven firmness I associate with Gold Ridge soils. Very impressive for drinking now and will age. Score: 94.


What makes a wine memorable?

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The most interesting, or at least memorable, California wine I ever had was a 1977 Chateau Montelena when it was fifteen years old.

I’d gotten to know a fellow by the name of Albert Dupont, a Belgian, who was at that time one of the more interesting characters running around Napa Valley. He and his wife had a lovely home in southern Napa, filled with antiques. I never could quite figure out how Albert made a living, but he seemed to live well. He had a sort of gig wherein he would occasionally recork old bottles for wineries. This is a tricky business, because you have to pull the old cork and replace it with a new one, which involves exposing the wine to oxygen, which is something you don’t want to do very much, if at all, because oxygen as we all know will kill an old wine.

So Albert had invented a contraption, a kind of glove box whose inside was filled with an inert gas. He would put the bottle and the opener and the new cork and a wine glass inside the see-through box, then insert his hands into rubber gloves that protruded inside, so that he could perform all these delicate operations oxygen-free.

Montelena had hired him to recork their old library bottles, and Albert invited me to come along. Part of the operation involved tasting the wine to be recorked. After all, if the wine was already dead, or suffering from TCA contamination, there was no point in recorking it. So we were tasting all these Montelenas including that 1977.

It had already lost its primary character and was solidly in secondary or tertiary phases. So aromatic, so delicate, so complex and delicious, I could hardly find words to describe it. (Sadly, I didn’t take any notes.) But it struck a chord inside me, an almost satori-like moment I hadn’t even been looking for. I remember it to this day.

Can I say it was the greatest wine I ever had? Nope. I’m not sure I would call any wine the greatest, just as I couldn’t single out the person who had the greatest influence on my life. Many wines have blown my mind: a 1961 Heidsieck Monopole in magnum I drank in in 1991, a 40-year old Musigny. And not only old ones: my first Saxums wasted me, and there was a young Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive that a friend once kindly offered me when I was just starting out; I have a distinct memory of the top of my head exploding with the first sip.

But for some reason that Montelena occupies a special place in my mind. I can’t say why. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Italian word ambiente, which I learned about from Joseph Bastianich’s and David’s Lynch’s superb book, Vino Italiano. By it, the authors mean that everything concerning your experience of a wine—the time, the place, the people, the food, where you’re at in your life—contributes to how you perceive it. I suppose I had that Montelena at a happy time in my life; I had just been hired by Wine Spectator and considered myself a very fortunate young wine writer, indeed. (Of course, that’s not to take away from that ’77. It was a glorious Cabernet, and would have been great under any circumstances, I’m sure.)

I myself will probably never get the opportunity to taste or drink many older vintages of the world’s most famous wines the way some critics do, but that’s all right. I used to know a lot of wealthy people who could drink those wines every day, and I didn’t particularly find most of them to be interesting or vital human beings. Mostly they seemed consumed with their own success, which is a very un-Zen way to live. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve tried to live by the philosophy of “Be happy with what you’ve got.” That’s why I can be happy with perfectly ordinary wines (as long as they’re sound). I love Kendall-Jackson’s new Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris (yes, they pay me, but I wouldn’t mention it in print unless I really liked it), and you can get it for less than $15. Does it blow the top of my head off, like that Zind Humbrecht? No, it doesn’t. But I wouldn’t want my head exploding every time I sipped a wine, and besides, I should think I’d get jaded if I had a ZH Vendange Tardive every time I wanted one. Some things are all the more enjoyable because you don’t get the chance to enjoy them whenever you want, so when you do, you really appreciate it.

 

Have a great weekend!


Tasting Russian River Pinot Noir, and a shoutout to Gallo

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My weekly tasting at Jackson Family Wines tomorrow is exciting even for jaded old me. It’s of current release Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs. The lineup as now scheduled is:

Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate

Dehlinger 2012 “Altamont”

Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard

Dutton Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard

Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch Vineyard

Rochioli 2013 Estate

Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate Vineyard

Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch

Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard

Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard

Hartford Court 2013

La Crema 2013

Pretty impressive, eh? With the exception of the Peirson Meyer—which I’d never heard of until a friend recommended I try it—I have a long, rich relationship with each of these wineries and their winemakers/proprietors.

The Russian River Valley is such a vast place, with so many wineries, that I could have broken it down into several regional tastings, such as Middle Reach, Green Valley and Laguna Ridge. Maybe I should have, and maybe I will someday. As things turn out, most of the wineries in tomorrow’s lineup are from the southern stretch of the appellation, with quite a few from Green Valley, although nowadays that appellation seems to be falling out of favor; wineries seem to prefer Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast. I wonder why that is. The Rochioli, which comes from the north, in that sense is an outlier, as is the La Crema, a blend from various valley vineyards. Still, I hope we’ll get a sense of what Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is all about. What makes one different from Carneros, or Fort Ross-Seaview, or anyplace else?

The neat thing about these regional and varietal tastings is that the smallest imperfections, as well as the greatest highlights, of the individual wines are so much easier to perceive than if you’re just drinking the wine alone. Last week, for instance, the Donum 2012 West Slope really had everything a Carneros Pinot Noir should have—but if you’d tasted, say, the Saintsbury Lee all by itself, you might not have realized it was missing a certain something. Tasting is all about context, then, which can be a problem, because if you taste a lesser wine immediately following a very great one, the former will suffer by comparison. Yet if you’re tasting flights, there has to be some kind of order. The question is, how do you determine it?

Well, if you’re doing—let’s say for the sake of argument—Bordeaux, I suppose it makes sense to lead up to the First Growths by starting with Seconds or Thirds. And even with the Firsts you might want to put Latour after Haut-Brion and Margaux. But we don’t have classifications in California, so arranging the order of the wines is more of a problem. You could taste by alcohol level—going from lowest to highest. But if you did, it wouldn’t really be “blind” because you’d know the alcohol levels, which would tell you something you wouldn’t otherwise know, and possibly contaminate or bias your findings.

Anyhow, while worrying about the order of wines in a tasting of Carneros Pinot Noirs is the sort of thing I think about, it’s not going to keep me up at night.

* * *

I’m very glad to learn that Gallo has bought the old Asti property. I fell in love with this historic place in the Alexander Valley after researching and visiting it while writing my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.

The Asti campus is large and complex, with many beautiful old brick buildings, situated along the old railroad tracks that brought wine from these parts down to the big cities in the 1800s. It’s filled with history–Andrea Sbrabaro is a character out of a novel–and is a fabulous place to visit, only it’s never been open to the public, and most of the buildings were run down because nobody cared enough to restore and protect them. I hope Gallo does. Please Gallo, sink some money into Asti and build it into a historical/educational center!


Tasting eight Carneros Pinot Noirs

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My tasting yesterday of eight Carneros Pinot Noirs was enormously instructive to me, even after all these years. Afterwards, we tried to put together four attributes that linked all the wines, and they were:

  1. acidity
  2. a “Burgundian” earthy, mushroomy thing
  3. spices
  4. nice, ripe California fruit

Of course, identifying regional typicity is possible only in high-end wines, preferably single vineyards but not necessarily. As it turned out, there were two fabulous wines that really captured Carneros: one on the Napa side, the other on the Sonoma side. But these boundaries are political fantasies: true terroir doesn’t follow county lines, which is why Carneros was properly recognized by the Feds as the first AVA that crossed counties, because it was defined by climate and soil.

Here are my notes, somewhat abbreviated.

Donum 2012 West Slope, $90. The first wine in the flight. It blew me away so much that I decided to return to it after the last wine. Sometimes the first wine of a flight (and of the day) can seem better than it inherently is. It showed the most wonderfully ripe, pure raspberries and cherries, with plenty of exotic Asian spices, smoky oak, great acidity and polished tannins. After an hour in the glass the oak emerged as a stronger force. There also was a rich, mulchy mushroominess. This is a fabulous wine with a future. Score: 94 points.

La Rochelle 2011 Donum Estate, $80. A real disappointment. It was bretty but also thin. Well, it’s 2011, after all. Score: 84 points.

Carneros Hills 2013 Estate, $36. I work for Jackson Family Wines, which owns this winery. The wine was okay. Nothing wrong with it, in fact a pretty good wine, but the best I could do was 87 points. I know that Carneros Hills is a work in progress and I expect better things from it in the future.

Hartford Court 2012 Sevens Bench Vineyard, $65. Another Jackson Family Wines wine, and another disappointment. It was too hot in alcohol—officially 15% but I think higher than that. I scored it at 87 points.

Cattleya 2012 Donum Vineyard, $85. This was one of the better wines in the flight: rich, fruity and young, but a little soft. I thought it might improve in 3-4 years and scored it at 90 points.

Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard, $75. A fabulous wine. Savory, rich, complex, complete. Raspberries, plums, cherries, great savoir faire. Right up there with the Donum West Slope. Score: 93 points.

Saintsbury 2012 Lee Vineyard, $54. We all frankly found this wine a little unassertive. Nothing particularly wrong with it, just lacking that extra oomph. Score: 87 points.

Stemmler 2012 Estate, $44. It was better than the Saintsbury but not even close to the Donum or Paul Hobbs. A good, sound, well-made Carneros Pinot Noir. Score: 89 points.

Some critics have claimed to find minerality in Carneros Pinot Noir. I did not—at least, not as much as you find in Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir.

The question arose as to whether we can assume that the Napa side of Carneros is warmer than the Sonoma side. I do think that’s true, overall: Sonoma Carneros is that much more open to the Petaluma Gap. But it differs with individual wineries: when they want to pick, how ripe they want the brix or flavors to get before they pick. And there are differences in climate even within Napa, which is why the question of Haut Carneros—approaching the Mayacamas foothills—and Bas Carneros—the muddy, sandy, silty flats along San Pablo Bay—continues to be a fascinating one. I don’t know about the Frenchisms, but I do think this process of further distinguishing Carneros’s terroirs would be further along if they’d allowed more small, creative wineries to do business there.

Carneros has lost much of its luster over the last twenty years. But the potential is there for Carneros to re-gain the reputation it once had, and again be a contender.

Carneros


It’s always something: More changes on the blog

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Starting today, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on my blog: I’ll be reviewing wines.

The first batch follows below. None of these wineries paid me. I don’t intend for steveheimoff.com to become a wine-reviewing site, although I think people are interested in what I have to say. But I do want to do it occasionally. If you want your wines to be reviewed on steveheimoff.com, send me your tasting sample, along with tech notes and the SRP. You’ll notice my reviews are longer than they used to be at Wine Enthusiast. I always felt constrained within the 40-word format and now I can make these reviews as lengthy as I want.

This change coincides with some additional changes in my professional life. Starting tomorrow, I officially become a consultant. My first client will remain Jackson Family Wines. I’m having conversations with additional wineries. My goal is to assemble a high-end portfolio of wineries I like and respect, and who respect my contributions. If you’re interested in working together, reach out to me and let’s talk.

A word of caution: If you do use one of my reviews for promotional purposes, credit it to steveheimoff.com, not Steve Heimoff. Thanks.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON

Dominus 2012 Napanook (Yountville): $69. My tasting notes for Napanook have been remarkably consistent for many years, going back to the 1990s. The wine always has struggled in the shadows of its senior sister, Dominus Estate. For instance, I said of the 2006 that it “has been trying to stand on its own,” apart from Dominus. Napanook still is seeking its own identity. Like previous vintages, this 2012 is fairly tough, dry and tannic. Its black currant, blueberry and cassis flavors are framed in oak, 20% of which was new French. There’s an earthy complexity, reminiscent of dried sage and unsweetened cocoa. The overall impression is one of great balance and care, but of course, Napanook must be viewed as the second wine of Dominus. Unresolved now, it will benefit from hours of decanting. Is it an ager? Five or six years will present no problem. Much longer than that, and you’re gambling. Score: 90.

Laurel Glen 2013 Counterpoint (Sonoma Mountain): $40. I must admit to having lost track of Laurel Glen for a number of years, following Patrick Campbell’s sale of the winery. Counterpoint, the “second label”, often could be a worthy alternative to the main attraction, the estate wine, showing the same classy, dry, elegant structure, if less ageable. With this 2013, Counterpoint firmly establishes itself at the top of its price tier in California Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the anti-Napa Cabernet, bone dry and modest in alcohol. You’ll find plenty of California-style black currants and black raspberry essence, but no overripeness, just a rich, delicious complexity that finishes spicy and long. There’s an oaky sweetness that’s perfectly balanced with the fruit. The addition of 15% Merlot to the blend softens the tannins, bringing a sensual mellowness to the mouthfeel. This 2013 is as good as the 2009 Counterpoint, to which I gave 93 points, and, like that wine, I would recommend drinking it over the next four years. Score: 92.

Tamber Bey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $125. Tamber Bey has flirted with ripe, opulent Cabernet for years, with mixed results. With this 2012, they firmly ensconce themselves in the California style of high alcohol, extracted fruit flavor and generous new oak. You’ll find plenty of blackberry jam, cassis liqueur and dark chocolate, with an overripe hint of prunes, wrapped into soft tannins and just-in-time acidity. The result is heady and delicious, although it could grow tedious if you’re drinking the entire bottle. The official alcohol is 14.9% and 682 cases were made. Drink now-2020. Score: 88.

CHARDONNAY

Krupp Brothers 2013 Stagecoach Vineyard Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $65. Krupp Brothers, and Stagecoach Vineyard, are of course well-known for beautifully crafted Cabernet Sauvignon. But this lovely wine shows that Chardonnay can grow pretty well 1,500 feet up on the mountain, which straddles Atlas Peak. It’s enormously rich in orange, pineapple and mango fruit, with a sweet overlay of toasty, vanilla-accented oak and crème brulée. There’s a firm streak of minerals running throughout, as well as crisp, mouthwatering acidity that balances and grounds the richness. Fancy and memorable, it’s very fine to drink with rich California cuisine: Dungeness crab, shrimp or scallops, grilled Ahi tuna, chicken in cream sauce. Ageworthy, too–reminds me of a young Hanzell Chardonnay. Drink over the next ten years. Score: 93.

Tamber Bey 2013 Deux Chevaux Vineyard Dijon Chardonnay (Yountville): $55. The oak really dominates this single-vineyard Chardonnay, in the form of butterscotch, caramel and buttered cinnamon toast. That oakiness is accentuated by the butteriness of the malolactic fermentation. Underneath that, you’ll find ripe apricot jam, peaches and cream and pineapple crème brulée flavors. The acidity is acceptable. The ultimate result is quite rich and flamboyant. Drink it with lobster, scallops, crab. Score: 88.

Tamber Bey 2014 Trio Vineyard Unoaked Chardonnay (Yountville): $34. This is what superbly grown Chardonnay tastes like when it’s never seen a molecule of oak. How good it is. You’ll find an enormously deep, ripe array of flavors, ranging from golden apricots and oranges to succulent peaches, pears and exotic guavas and passionfruits, with hints of honeysuckle and clarified butter. The alcohol is hefty, yet balanced. Only 720 cases were produced. I would love to drink this wine with ahi tuna tartare topped with chopped, toasted macadamia nuts and mango salsa. Score: 91.

OTHER WHITE

Tenshen 2014 White Wine (California): $20. The Central Coast long has been a hotbed of Rhône-style white blends, and now Tenshen, which is owned by Guarachi Wine Partners (Montes, Guarachi, Bodega Norton and others) hops on the bandwagon. The blend is Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, with a decidedly un-Rhônelike addition of Chardonnay. Each variety brings something to the table, giving the wine real complexity. It’s a pleasurable sipper, dry, crisp in acidity and interestingly flavored in oranges, green melons, succulent peaches, spices and white flowers, with a creamy mouthfeel and bracing minerality. It’s a little hot and heavy—the alcohol is a sturdy 14.7%–suggesting pairing with rich fare, like seared scallops in beurre blanc or baked salmon. The wine is a new partner to Tenshen’s 2013 Red, which was successfully launched earlier this year. Score: 87.

PINOT NOIR

Guarachi 2013 Sun Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir (Petaluma Gap); $75. The vineyard, on the southern side of Sonoma Mountain, is one of the highest (1,400 feet) in the Petaluma Gap, an area currently contained within the greater Sonoma Coast appellation but one that is hopefully awaiting approval of its own AVA status by the federal government. Alex Guarachi owns the young (2007) vineyard, whose grapes have been purchased by others, including Patz & Hall and Fogline. Now Guarachi, who has perhaps been better known for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, has this bottling, which comes down firmly in favor of a riper, more alcoholic (officially 14.5%) and frankly gulpable style. It’s a big wine, dense, somewhat heavy and flamboyant, not your typical In Pursuit of Balance Pinot Noir, but certainly one that scores high on the deliciousness scale. With soft tannins and decent acidity, it’s forward in black cherry pie filling and cola flavors, with a smoky, cedary coating (55% new French oak) and tons of Chinese 5 spice in the finish. I would give it a several hours of decanting and drink it now, with rich, fatty foods, like lamb or steak, although it will overshadow something more delicate, like salmon. Score: 92.

Tamber Bey 2013 Sun Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $65. A stylish, classy Pinot, whose silky structure frames intense flavors. Floods the mouth with ripe raspberry preserves, cola, Christmas persimmons, red currants and sweet pomegranates, leading to a long, spicy finish. It’s ripe and soft and satisfying, solidly made in the California style, elegant and ageable for a few years. The new oak flavors of toast and vanilla are enriching. The vineyard is in a mountainous part of the emerging Petaluma Gap region. Only 484 cases were produced. Drink now-2021. Score: 91.

SAUVIGNON BLANC

Kenefick Ranch 2014 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc (Calistoga); $24. Sauvignon Blanc in Calistoga? Well, yes, and it’s as ripe as you’d expect it to be. No subtle grass and minerals here, but rather an explosion of Meyer lemon, apricot and orange preserves, with little bites of stewed fruit. Lots of spice, good balancing acidity, and a touch of smoky oak from barrel fermentation. A big wine, slightly heavy. but sound. Call it a white wine for red wine fans. Score: 85.

Tamber Bey 2014 Mello Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Yountville); $28. Tamber Bey is best known for its reds, but this is quite a good Sauvignon Blanc, and shows how well the southerly part of Napa Valley, with its Carneros influence, can succeed with this variety. The wine, which is highish in alcohol, has just a touch of wood influence, and treads a careful line between tart gooseberries and riper tropical fruit notes, braced with a clean, tangy minerality. The acidity is just fine, and the finish is dry and peppery. I’m giving it extra points for sheer deliciousness and complexity. Score: 92.


Thoughts on a Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting

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In California, we don’t get the extremes of weather that Europe does, but still, our vintages vary considerably from each other. You just have to know how to read the subtleties. Four years ago, 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and many of the wines have a lean, green streak, if not actual botrytis. Still, the best wineries successfully negotiated the challenge.

Yesterday we tasted a Ridge 2011 Monte Bello. It did indeed have a streak of mint and dried herbs, but it was clearly a wonderful wine, an ager, and the star of our Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting. If I were rating it, it would score an easy 94-95 points, and earn a Cellar Selection designation. The Monte Bello terroir is fabulous (if you know Ridge’s history, have done verticals and visited the property, you already know that), but, perhaps more important has been the quality level of Ridge’s viticulture. I’ve never seen a crush at Ridge, but I imagine (and the evidence of the wine supports it) that they have perfectionist practices, including an active sorting table.

Unfortunately, in our tasting were some pretty flawed wines. I’m not in the reviewing business, so I won’t identify them. But a couple were severely afflicted with brettanomyces, so stinky it was like Steph Curry’s armpit that had not been washed for several days. (Eeew.) I attribute this to well-intentioned but impoverished winemakers who can’t afford to completely sanitize their wineries.

Others were okay wines, perfectly drinkable; someone noted of one of them that, were he served it at a restaurant, he would happily have drank it. But nothing special. It’s hard to explain to someone what the difference is between a superb wine, like the Ridge, and an okay wine whose grapes may have been grown right next door to it, but just doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle.

This Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is an interesting one. It’s one of the biggest in California, a whopping 408,000 acres, but contains only about 40 wineries, most of them very small. The reason, I think, is because suburbanization claimed most of the available vineyard sites, and the rest is too rugged and mountainous for cultivation. I always like to tell people about the old Woodside Vineyards La Questa Cabernets, originally planted in 1884; that wine was said to be the finest in all of California in the early 20th century, and the vineyard still exists in the little (and ultra-expensive) town of Woodside. Had that region developed an intensive wine industry, the way Napa Valley did, the Santa Cruz Mountains (or perhaps a Woodside A.V.A.) would be as famous today as Napa Valley. But things didn’t turn out that way. (The appellation also grows very fine Pinot Noir. The latter tends to be on west-facing vineyards on the cooler side of the mountains; the Cabs are on east-facing sites overlooking Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay.)

Someone at the tasting brought up the subject of how Santa Cruz Mountains Cabs differ from Napa Valley’s. Well, the most obvious distinction is alcohol levels: they’re quite low in the former. (The Ridge was only 12.8%, and if I’m not mistaken, Ridge has never had a Monte Bello in excess of 14%.) This is in part due to Napa Valley’s warmer climate, but also because Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers have resisted the pressure to emulate Napa Valley.

When you make lower-alcohol Cabs, any faults in the wine are more apparent than they would be at, say, 14.5% or higher. Alcohol covers a multitude of sins. Brett shows up more clearly; so do greenness and tannins; and those wines can’t handle as much new oak as Napa’s. There were a couple wines in our tasting where the oak just stood out like a sore thumb. I honestly will never understand how some people think you can take a more delicate wine and make it get a higher score by drenching it with oak. I suppose some critics will fall for that, but not the better ones.

This 2015 vintage is looking good so far. It’s a drought vintage, but that’s not necessarily harmful to quality. Spring has been cool, until this heat wave that’s striking today; but the heat will be short-lived, and is less damaging at this point in the vines’ lives than it would be towards harvest. Everyone is raving about the 2013s. The 2014s seem fine too. With 2015, we might be in for a three-fer. But it’s too soon to tell. Right now, all that the growers are hoping for is rain next winter—a good, long, drenching El Nino. And that’s exactly what we might get.

 


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