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Reviews: 5 new wines from Chateau Potelle

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I’ve known Jean-Noel Fourmeaux du Sartel, Potelle’s winemaker/proprietor, for about 27 years, since I wrote an article for Wine Spectator on Chateau Potelle (which he founded with his then-wife, Marketta), back in 1989 or 1990. In fact, as Jean-Noel reminds me, it was my first big feature article for the magazine. I remember driving up the steep dirt road to the winery, high up on Mount Veeder, in a clearing in a forest heavy with evergreens; the road was so pitted after a rainy winter that when I arrived at the winery, Jean-Noel welcomed me to “Chateau Pot Hole.” His sense of humor was also exhibited when he punned on his name: “My friends call me Johnny Christmas!” He was a funny guy, but dead serious about wine, and about taking what he called a French-approach to a California style he deemed excessive. (He compared California wine to Tammy Faye Bakker!) The wine I remember the most from that visit was the VGS Zinfandel. It was in a tall, slender bottle; the meaning of the letters, Jean-Noel explained, was “Very Good Shit.”

Visitors these days will find a nicely paved roadway instead of pot holes, but Chateau Potelle isn’t there anymore; Jean-Noel sold the winery and vineyard to Jackson Family Wines, my ex-employer, in 2007, who renamed it Mount Brave. But he kept the brand’s name. I ran into Johnny Christmas recently at the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux tasting, at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. I’m pleased to review his exciting new Chateau Potelle wines.

Chateau Potelle 2014 VGS Syrah (Mount Veeder); $75. This Syrah instantly brought me to the Northern Rhône, although the tannins are completely different. I don’t know if anyone really cares about California Syrah anymore, except some sommeliers, but really, there’s a distinct place in cuisine for a great wine like this. It’s noble. I mean that in the French sense, of world-class finesse. The wine is young and immature, absolutely black as a moonless midnight, with just a tease of purple-garnet at the extreme edge. Aromatically, it’s muted. But in the mouth, Boom! Such power, such masculinity (if it’s still okay to have a gender reference these days). Waves of blackberry jam, plum preserves, cherry compote, dark chocolate, roasted veal bone, tamari, cloves, crispy bacon, charred cedar wood, Chinese 5-spice…Jean-Noel finds lavender, and I can see what he means, there’s something floral and pretty. Those tannins: big, firm, thick as only a Napa mountain can grow them, but so finely meshed. The vineyard is very high up on Veeder, at 2,500 feet, well above the fogline, where the solar radiation is intense, but keep in mind Veeder is right above San Francisco Bay and gets those cooling winds. Yikes, just spectacular. Grill up some lamb, sprinkle it with rosemary and black pepper, proceed to heaven. Drink this now, after careful decanting or even double-decanting, and over the next ten years. Score: 96 points.

Chateau Potelle 2014 VGS Potelle Two Red Wine (Napa Valley); $65. Massive flavor erupts from this young, dramatic wine, offering tiers of cassis, black currants, black licorice, plum crisp, sweetened espresso, milk chocolate, raspberry newton, smoky cedar, teriyaki beef and briary, peppery wild blackberries. The beef teriaki must come from the 16% Syrah in the blend of this Cabernet Sauvignon- (41%) based beauty. The briary pepperiness hails from 14% Zinfandel. Other varietal components are Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The “Potelle Two” designation, according to the winery, is meant to suggest this is a “second wine.” That is completely insane; this wine is as good as nearly anything out there in a dry, full-bodied table red. Irresistibly delicious. Drink now-2020. Score: 95 points.

Chateau Potelle 2014 VGS Chardonnay (Mount Veeder); $50. The structure is what pleases me. Anyone can get California Chardonnay ripe; packing in an architectural framework is tricky. Brilliant acidity, the mouthwatering kind that feels like freshly-squeezed limes. Sur lie aging brings its own form of structure, or perhaps texture is a better word, with a yeasty, sourdough dimension, while oak tannins bring a hint of firmness. There’s a minerality that reminds me of licking granite on a cold day. But back to the fruit. Papayas, guavas, immaculately ripe peaches and pears, Meyer lemons, kumquats, fresh pineapple, kiwi—my goodness, it goes on and on. But this is no fruit bomb: nervy, intense, complex. People think of Mount Veeder as Cabernet country, and it certainly is, but the mountain makes fabulous Chardonnay, and this one, grown at 1,800 feet and fermented with natural yeast, is spectacular. Score: 94 points.

Chateau Potelle 2014 VGS Zinfandel (Sonoma Mountain); $65. In the 1990s Chateau Potelle was making what was possibly California’s best Zinfandel, from their vineyard high up on Mount Veeder. These days, proprietor Jean-Noel Fourmeaux du Sartel still makes the winery’s VGS Zinfandel, but he’s shifted his fruit sourcing across the Mayacamas to another mountain, the one called Sonoma. This wine shows that Jean-Noel hasn’t lost his deft touch with Zin. It’s robust and exuberant, yet retains that “Frenchy” elegance, despite a hefty alcohol level of 15.5%. The flavors span the gamut, from raspberries and cherries to fruit liqueur, ripe figs, prosciutto, white currants, pepper and cloves. I personally would have put a little less oak on it; it doesn’t need all that toasty vanilla. But it sure is a delight. Score: 91 points.

Chateau Potelle 2014 The Illegitimate (California); $18. You wouldn’t know this was from Potelle without careful reading of the back label, but it is. It’s a departure for the winery, a (relatively) affordable, mixed-red blend with a statewide appellation. Jean-Noel calls it his “second flag.” There’s a place for it on the table. Dry and robust, it features blackberry, currant, licorice, cassis, bacon, black pepper, tapenade and smoky flavors, wrapped into chunky tannins. The mouthfeel is a little rough, but it’s a good, sound wine with some aspirations. The blend is Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Barbera, Petit Sirah and Zinfandel. Score: 86 points.

  1. S Douglas says:

    Having just teamed up with Jean-Nolle at the Beaver Creek Culinary Weekend and again just last week I’m reminded how much we love his wines. The VGS is,of course, the flagship wine and always fabulous but oh we love his style of Zinfandel. Now sitting smack in the middle of the land of Cab we are pleased he hasn’t let it slip away…a reminder VGS Chataux Potelle used to cling to the precipice of Md Veeder with one hand in the soil from each side of the hill. Enjoyed this review very much.

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