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2012 vintage: a report card

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I’ve tasted only about 700 wine for Wine Enthusiast  from the 2012 vintage (the number should eventually rise to several thousand), but based on what’s come in so far, this is going to be a hugely successful year for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Most of the better red wines have yet to be released. But a few early Pinots show the vast promise of the vintage. Santa Arcangeli made a 2012 Split Rail Vineyard, from the Santa Cruz Mountains, that knocked my sox off, while early ‘12s from Siduri, Reaper, Orfila, The Gardener and Patz & Hall all scored above 90 points. I would expect that, in two years or so when we’ll have the lion’s share of top coastal Pinots in, there will be lots of 95-and-above scores, and maybe–who knows?–some perfect 100s.

Very little 2012 Cabernet has come my way yet, mostly under-$20 stuff, but even this grouping, which can be so mediocre, has lots of scores in the 86-88 point range, with wines showing plenty of vigor and good fruit. Cabernet in tnis price range is frequently disappointing, with thin flavors, so when you get a bunch of nice ones, it bodes well for what’s yet to come. So 2012 could really be a blockbuster Cabernet year.

The 2012 Chardonnays, however, are now pouring in. I would characterize them overall as elegant, well-structured wines. What they may lack in opulence they more than make up for in balance and class. I have a feeling, though I can’t prove it, that vintners are dialing back on ripeness and/or oakiness, in favor of acidity and freshness. A Foxen 2012 Chardonnay, from the Tinaquaic Vineyard of the Santa Maria Valley, typifies this lively style, combining richness with minerality and tartness and alcohol well under 14%. Even unoaked Chardonnays, such as Marimar Torres’ Acero bottling, are so delicious that they don’t really need any oak. So, again, 2012 should prove to be a fantastic Chardonnay year.

It’s not just the Big Three–Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Noir–that show such promise in 2012. A handful of Sauvignon Blancs that have come in (Ehlers Estate, Atalon, Matanzas Creek, Cosa Obra, Capture, Rochioli, B Cellars, El Roy, Longmeadow Ranch) show the ripeness and acidity that variety needs, without any of that annoyingly unripe, cat pee pyrazine junk. And Viognier, which is probably the most difficult white variety of all to get right in California (not too green, not too flabby and sweet), shows real promise, as indicated by bottlings from Pride Mountain, Qupe, Kobler and Nagy. The wines are racy and balanced. I could say the same thing about rarer whites, such as Bailiwick’s Vermentino, Birichino’s Malvasia Bianca, Grüners from Zocker and Von Strasser, white blends such as Vina Robles’ White4, Roussanne (Truchard), Albariño (Longoria, La Marea and Tangent), and dry Gewurztraminers (Gundlach Bundschu, Claiborne & Chruchill)–all these are 90 points or higher, exciting to drink, mouthwatering, ultra-versatile with food. And finally, rosé. Up to now, it’s never been my favorite California wine (too flabby and sweet)–but 2012 could change my mind. The few I’ve had so far (Lynmar, Chiarello Family, Ousterhout, Gary Farrell, Demetria)–wow. Dry, crisp, delicate and fruity, just what a rosé should be.

So here’s to many more magnificent 2012s to come. It will be the best vintage in many years, at least since 2007–and all the early signs are that 2013 could exceed it.


State of the grape: Viognier

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My young colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Andrew Hoover, recently found himself quoted in an article in the Richmond [VA] Times-Dispatch on the topic of Viognier.

Andrew led a breakout tasting session at the Virginia Wine Summit. Here’s what he said about the variety and wine:

“The study revealed that Virginia’s Viogniers strike a balance between those of France and California. Most of Virginia’s Viogniers don’t have the flamboyant fruit, high levels of alcohol and voluptuous body that often characterize California’s offerings. Instead, Virginia’s Viogniers reveal their exotic fruit character more subtly, making it compatible with more dishes. I think the audience will recognize the distinct personality of Virginia’s Viogniers and see how they have one foot in the Old World and one foot in the New World.”

This is a greatly articulate statement; Andrew is a natural-born communicator and I hope one of these days he’ll write a book! He has described California Viognier exactly correctly: high alcohol, voluptuous body, flamboyant fruit. But are these its virtues, or its vices?

The answer is both. Whenever you have a wine like that, it had better be balanced in order to avoid blowsiness. Funny word, that: it’s not even in my Webster’s New World Dictionary. I found this definition online: blowsy, adj. (esp. of a woman) untidy in appearance; slovenly or sluttish. Setting aside the sexist implications (which are annoying), I’ll fasten on the word “slutty” to describe what happens when Viognier goes over the top.

To begin with, it’s too much of everything. We all love the fruitiness of California wine, but something has to limit it at the boundaries, or the wine becomes a runaway fruit train. I once saw a fruit delivery truck on the freeway that had spilled its entire load onto the road: mounds of peaches, pears, melons, kumquats, grapes and oranges, mashed and oozing juice. You could smell it hundreds of feet away on that hot summer day. That’s bad Viognier, a fault compounded by residual sugar. Andrew referred to high alcohol: that is a tendency of Viognier, one that vintners sometimes “resolve” by stopping the fermentation while the wine still has dissolved sugar. This has been my main criticism of blowsy Viognier: it has the taste of a simple candy bar. And if you pile new oak on it, well, all you end up with is an oaky candy bar.

I remember the first California Viognier I ever had. It was a Calera, and was siphoned off from the barrel for me by Josh Jensen. (I think it was the first Viognier he’d made.) Josh handed the glass to me with the proud grin of a new dad, and watched as I smelled and sipped. I have never forgotten the impression that wine made on me: the top of my head exploded. Seriously. (You don’t forget a thing like that!) The wine was so amazingly rich, so unctuous, yet so balanced in acidity and minerality that it was one of the most complete, wholesome wine experiences I’ve ever had. (That was more than 20 years ago. At around the same time someone gave me some Zind-Humbrecht Vendange Tardive Grand Cru Gewurz. I don’t remember the vintage, but that wine similarly blew me away.)

Some recent California Viogniers I’ve given high scores to have been Arrowood 2009 Saralee’s Vineyard (95 points), Failla 2010 Alban Vineyard (93 points) and Jaffurs 2011 (92 points). These all possess Viognier’s flamboyance, yet exhibit precision and control. Any of them could substitute for a rich Chardonnay. And yet, I really haven’t had a California Viognier in years that did to me what that Calera did, so long ago. Maybe it was just the shock of discovery that made it so special–to realize that California could produce something so exotic. Maybe Josh’s joy rubbed off on me, too (which is yet another reason to take a skeptical view of wines you taste at the winery with the winemaker). Whatever it was, and as much as I like a good California Viognier, it has a ways to go before I can give it my unstinting praise.


Viognier: California’s heartbreak white grape

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Jon Bonné, the wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a nice piece yesterday in his blog, The Cellarist, on the topic of Viognier. He nailed the problems — of excessive ripeness and sweetness, mostly, and sometimes heat. I’d add one further issue that Jon didn’t address: bizarre, added acidity, which can make the texture and especially the finish unpleasantly scoury. My guess is that most California Viognier is acidified, as opposed to the “retained” acidity Jon described.

Jon referenced 2 Viogniers he likes: from Calera and from Cristom. I remember the first Calera Viognier I ever had, which was also the first one Josh Jensen made. (I think it would have been the ‘89 or ‘90.) I was visiting with Josh at the winery, which is way out in the middle of nowhere in the Gavilan Mountains of San Benito County, and we’d worked our way through his Mount Harlan Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays when he said, “Hey, do you wanna try something new?” Of course I did. He siphoned off some wine from a tank and filled my glass with the pale yellow-golden liquid. I sniffed, sipped — and the top of my scalp blew off.

Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. That’s a very rare experience for a wine lover — when you taste something new and unexpected and it’s so thrilling, it feels like your brain is exploding. It happened once with my first Hugel Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris. An awesome thing you never forget.

Anyway, Josh was very pleased with my reaction. I can’t say, though, that I’ve liked every Calera Viognier I’ve had since. There are certainly ones I’ve admired more: Alban’s, in particular, and also Failla’s (is there anything Ehren Jordan can’t do?). Pride Mountain always manages to make these amazingly gigantic Viogniers that somehow retain elegance and balance. How, I don’t know. Minerals? Acidity? Dryness plays a part, which is why I never really cared for Kent Rosenblum’s. Too sweet. Tangent also makes a very nice Viognier (as well as a range of other “alternative” white wines). That winery is owned by the Niven family, of Baileyana in the Edna Valley, and Tangent wines (which come in screwtopped bottles) always are unoaked. That way, you get to taste what the variety really tastes like. Viognier, at its best, is a big, fruity, floral wine, usually with all kinds of tropical fruits, honeysuckle and vanilla, and from Tangent you also get that stony, Edna Valley minerality and high acidity, which (I think, but don’t know for sure) really is natural, not added. I could be wrong.

You usually have to pay a pretty high price for a good Viognier (except for Tangent’s). I’ve found that most all Viogniers below, say, $20 are awful. And unless Viognier is from a cool place, it’s likely to be boring. The worst Viognier I ever had came from Lodi. I’ve had other bad ones from Clarksburg, Paso Robles, Temecula, Yuba County, Contra Costa County and with a “California” appellation, which I have to presume includes Central Valley fruit. If you don’t think they grow Viognier in the Central Valley, you’re wrong. There was more of it (in 2008) in San Joaquin County than in either Napa or Sonoma, almost as much in Madera County as in Monterey, and almost as much in Yolo County as in Santa Barbara. Where do you think all that Central Valley fruit goes?

Jon ended his essay with the question, “Did we really believe it [Viognier] would be the next Chardonnay?” Made me laugh. Yes, we did — “we” being the wine media around 1991. That was the same “we” as predicted that Sangiovese was the next superstar red, and that Super-Tuscans were taking over California. Just shows that you shouldn’t believe everything the wine writers say.


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