Archive for Wine Thoughts
The Santa Cruz Mountain Appellation can be quite confusing at first to the non-professional avid wine lover. This mountainous AVA covers parts of 3 counties–Santa Clara, Santa Cruz & San Matteo & is much more of an altitude specific (covering the mountain terrain essentially above the fog line, ranging from 400 feet rising to nearly 3000 feet in elevation).
Without a doubt, the most famous of this AVA’s vineyards is the Monte Bello Vineyard, which ranges in elevation from 1300 to 2700 feet. This tract was purchased in 1959 by 4 Stanford Research Institute engineers. Their first commercial release was the 1962, but their rise to superstardom really began when they hired Paul Draper in 1969. The vineyard has a very unique green stone/clay soil with underlying decomposing limestone, which coupled with the cool, windy growing conditions, create a very different character to the wine than those from other Californian appellations. The 1977 I was fortunate to taste again in 2014, is still one of the very finest Cabernet based red wines I have yet to have out of California.
Kathryn Kennedy moved to Saratoga, California in 1949. I often wonder how & why she had the foresight to plant a 7 acre vineyard of essentially Cabernet clone #8 (which she got from David Bruce)in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation in 1973. When I first tried to contact the winery to get some wine sometime in the 80’s, I remember being told how much they struggled to get even a ton per acre from their vines & in 2 vintages the vines gave them a mere 1/4 of a ton per acre! That doesn’t sound like a very sound financial model to work. In addition because of the value of their land, being in close proximity to the Silicon Valley, I am sure the family has given over the years considerable thought to selling off to the highest bidder, strictly in a real estate sense. Still she perservered & her youngest son, Marty Mathis started in 1981 & eventually took over the reins, including winemaking. Theirs is an earthy, masculine Cabernet, with lots of structure & a unique character, which is VERY different from the fruit bombs one normally encounters from the Napa Valley & is well worth checking out!
Over the years, one of the true iconic Chardonnay & Pinot Noir estate standouts from California is Mount Eden. Located 50 or so miles south of San Francisco, at roughly 2000 feet in elevation overlooking Silicon Valley, this small, historic estate was founded in 1972 (essentially the year, the vineyard founder, Martin Ray, was kicked out by his partners/investors). The original plantings, however, began in 1945 for Chardonnay & Pinot & sometime in the 50’s for Cabernet Sauvignon (by Martin Ray). Theirs is a cool, exposed mountain top, with Montebello perched high above in the distance & the vines are planted in infertile Franciscan shale soils. The 20 acres of Chardonnay is Mount Eden selection; the 7 acres of Pinot is also Mount Eden selection (65 years of being around) & there is 9.75 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 2.9 acres of Merlot & roughly .4 acres of Cabernet Franc, mostly planted in 1981 & 82. The 2006 Chardonnay was barrel fermented & aged for 9 months in 50% new & 50% one year old barrels. This is big, wonderfully oak laden Chardonnay, broad, grand & full of character & hutzpah.
One of the relatively new standouts of the appellation is actually 2 labels–Varner & Neely. I group them together only because they overlap in many ways, starting with the fact their wines both come from the Spring Ridge Vineyard (which is actually located above the Stanford University golf course in the hills). Jim & Bob Varner oversee the farming & winemaking & Neely owns the vineyard. There are 3 distinct blocks for Chardonnay–“Home Block” (2 acres, east facing, 805 to 840 feet in elevation, of own rooted clone 4 which was planted in 1980); “Ampitheater Block” (2 acres, south facing, 735 to 780 feet in elevation, of own rooted Wente selection, which was planted in 1981); & “Bee Block” (3.5 acres, northeast facing, 670 to 735 feet in elevation, masale selection from Home Block, which was planted in 1987). Under the Varner label, there are then typically 3 single parcel Chardonnays produced in any given vintage. There is also a 4th Chardonnay produced, under the Neely label, which is a blend of the 3 parcels & the percentages different every year.
There are also 3 Pinot Noir parcels–“Upper Picnic Block” (2 acres, east facing, 645 to 660 feet in elevation, Dijon clone 777, which was grafted over to Pinot in 2003 from own rooted vines planted in 1981); “Picnic Block” (2 acres, east facing, 600 to 645 feet in elevation, Dijon clone 777, which was planted in 2000); & “Hidden Block” (3 acres, northeast facing, 650 to 730 feet in elevation, Dijon clone 115, which was planted in 1997). 3 single parcel Pinot Noirs are produced under the Neely label & a 4th Pinot, under the Varner label, is produced from a blend of the 3 parcels.
As you can imagine, the quantities of each are small & the media praise is high–& therefore availability limited.
Yes, we have been tasting quite a slew of aged wines lately. Thank you to all who come by to share!
Although quite modern in style, I find Elio Altare’s Barolo wines are much more elegant & refined than those from other contemporaries such as Paolo Scavino or Domenico Clerico & certainly Angelo Gaja & some tasters (even knowledgeable/experienced ones) may be underwhelmed at first because of Altare’s style. This 1998 was quite a stylish, classy, highly refined, majestic red with superb elegance & balance. Having said that, I would also say the pedigree of this bottling was surprisingly muted, even after considerable time of being open. Let it sit in your cellar. I really think with 25 or so more years, this will be a glorious, wonderfully perfumed aristocrat, which tasters will wish they had put away more bottles.
I remember being wow-ed when the 1998 was released, by its immensity, sun drenched depth & prolific structure & tannins. Yes, it was a monster. It’s really nice to see now, however, the breed & stoniness of the La Crau vineyard making its way back to the forefront, both in the nose & the taste & all of the parts are starting to resolve & harmonize. Make no mistake, this is an infant with quite a ways to go, but one can now get a better feel for where it is headed.
There is no doubt that Alvaro Palacios is one of Spain’s true game changers in the wine arena. His is a fascinating story, as he left his family’s domaine in Rioja to first study abroad, including an eye opening, imagination stirring stint with Christian Mouiex at Chateau Petrus, before founding his own winery in Priorat, Spain. Although his first major acquisition was Finca Dofi in 1990, it really was the later acquisition of L’Ermita, a higly revered, steep, northfacing 4 acre parcel of well drained schist soils, which would position him to shoot for the stars. L’Ermita (planted in 1900 to 1940) is not only one of Spain’s most iconic superstar wines, its meteoric rating, accolades & considerable pricing would create, along with Pingus, a whole new niche for wines in his country, similar to what Sassicaia & Angelo Gaja had done in Italy. And, like what Sassicaia has done for Bolgheri & the Tuscan coast, L’Ermita (& Pingus) has inspired a boom of vineyard & winery growth in the Priorat appellation. I must say, however, I think it is too early to make a true qualitative call on this phenomenon & specifically L’ Ermita, given that 1993, or so I was told, was the first vintage. My quandry? Although the winemaking is top notch, I wonder if that is what the hoopla is more about. Granted, L’Ermita is mainly old vine Grenache with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon & perhaps Carignane blended in, BUT I don’t seem to get the depth of character, vinosity or breed of other red wines in this upper echelon. Since I have such limited experience tasting L’Ermita, having had only the 1995, 1998, 2001 (3 times) & this 1999 (4 times), I guess only time will tell.
Subject: World’s Top 50 Most Expensive Wines?
Again, one of our goals for 2014 is feature more & more good wines……those which others can be compared to. This will help, tasters create a solid base to work from as their tasting adventures continue. It is not as easy as one would think. Here are 4 standouts from the Mediterranean basin. These are some of the most interesting & provocative rustic reds we have run across. I think soulful is a really good word to use here. If you want to better understand what we mean when we say soulful, then you should come & try these wines. Yes, just another really good opportunity to learn! Wines like this just don’t happen along!
Corsica’s star is rising on the American wine scene. Sommeliers & wine professionals across the country are jumping onto the Corsican bandwagon on the fast track. The rugged & very remote countryside produces some equally rugged, masculine red wines, of which the very finest are crafted from indigenous grape varieties. Certainly leading the charge is Abbatucci. Genius!!!! AND, a true champion of tradition & authenticity—in their wines & especially their environment.. Here is their Ajaccio (southwestern Corsica) which is produced from the Sciaccarellu & Niellucciu grape varieties, which are biodynamically farmed. A must to try!!!!
2007 D’Aupilhac “Le Carignan”
The family has been working this special tract in Montpeyroux down in southern France since the 1800’s, although the vineyard itself dates back to Roman times. (The Romans were true experts on where to plant their vines!) The neighbors across the way include Daumas Gassac & Grange des Peres (talk about an unreal neighborhood!!!). The ancient Carignane vines were planted on severe terraced hillsides with all kinds of crazy, extreme soils, which, at least partially, explains the completely wild & rustic character of this standout French “country” red. You never had something like this before!
2008 Guido Porro Barolo “Santa Caterina”
Here is our chance to show tasters a Barolo as it was made BEFORE roto fermenters & all of the other modern technology which is used to make modern/contemporary renditions. Yes, this is a winery who is dedicated to traditional methods both in the vineyards & in the cellar. The Caterina monopole vineyard is located at roughly 1200 feet elevation in the limestone heavy soils of Serralunga d’Alba. The region is most noted for producing long lived, full bodied Barolo. I therefore smile that the Porro version is much more elegant & refined, yet masculine, traditional & truly authentic in its core!!!!
2008 Tempier Bandol “La Tourtine”
Tempier has to be the most storybook wine of all. Their wines & estate is iconic, steeped in tradition, history & regional culture. It is hard for me to separate the wine from the family & its history. There is really nothing else like Domaine Tempier. The La Tourtine bottling usually is dominately Mourvedre, with some Grenache & Cinsault for finer details. I find the resulting wine has wonderful structure, more refinement & needs bottle age to really strut its stuff. Here is your chance to taste one of their treasures yourself & experience the magic of Domaine Tempier & its wines.
The other night, our friend, Dr Chris, surprised us all by bringing in a selection of some interesting wines from the Isle of Corsica. As VINO regulars well know, I have a real hankering for Corsica, as I have wanted to visit there for well over 25 years, ever since I tasted my first glass of Luigi Clos Nicrosi. The wine had such interesting flavors, viscosity & unique character. I am sad the wine is no longer produced. Well, the importer, Kermit Lynch, has uncovered several other interesting producers over the past few years & is now importing them into the U.S.. Thank you Chris for a wonderful tasting AND including the map, pictured to the right, which gave everyone a better picture of where each of the wines come from.
Michel Angeli is the man behind this winery, which is located in Cap Corse at the northern tip of the Island. As the map will show you, this region actually looks like a finger pointing north. The soil is mainly schist-clay & Michel had first planted Vermentinu & Codivarta & later Niellucciu (he got from Patrimonio) & Aleatico he got from Elba. 1952 was his first harvest. This particular bottling is typically around 50% Niellucciu, 25% each of Aleatico & Merlot, which he ferments in 100% stainless steel. Yes, it is rustic in smell & taste, is quite masculine in character, but flows on the palate surprisingly well from beginning to end. Merlot makes a surprising appearance, given Michel’s appreciation of native grape varieties, but as expected, it really seems to round out the edges in this case. (By the way, we have also purchased some of his rare Rappu wine, which is Aleatico, dried out on straw mats for 10 days, pressed, fermented in concrete (a touch of residual sugar, 16% alcohol) & then aged in old oak barrels for 7 years.
2011 Canarelli “Corse Figari”
Canarelli comes from the southern tip of Corsica. The vineyards lie inland from the sea, along a plateau, on granitic-alluvial soils rich in minerals & is both organically & biodynamically farmed. The climate is greatly moderated by the winds gusting off the Gulf of Figari. The 2011 Rouge is 80% Niellucciu, 15% Syrah & 5% Sciaccarellu, 100% destemmed & aged in large foudres for 14 to 18 months. One could readily detect the Syrah in the nose & taste. Eventhough people say this is a rustic style, I think it would be an easier wean into Corsican red wines for the Californian palate than any of the other reds we tasted on this night. (On another note, they also have indigenous grape varieties such as Carcahjolu Nera, Biancu Gentile, Paga Debiti, Barbarosa & Minustellu planted & featured in some of their other bottlings).
Yves left his family domaine to create his own, which specialized in a single terroir–“E Croce” E Croce faces the Gulf of St Florent & features a chalky soil, which lies upon a thick bedrock of pure schist. This is essentially another 1 man show. This bottling is 90% Niellucciu & 10% Grenache, which was fermented in stainless steel & aged for 12 months before release. One could detect on first smell & taste there is some Grenache in the blend. (We tasted the wines with NO knowledge of the soils the vines grew in nor the grape varieties used). Leccia’s wines are more refined, elegant & quite classy. They are really a pleasure to drink.
Antoine Arena Patrimonio
Arena is certainly one of the most revered producers of the Island. His vineyards are located in the Patrimonio appellation. Within Patrimonio he organically farms several parcels. Carco (2 hectares, planted in 1987) is mainly Niellucciu in chalky-clay-limestone soils. Morta Maio (2 hectares, planted in 2001) on clay-limestone soils. Of the 3 tasted on this night, I much preferred the 2010 Carco, which had a complete-ness, balance & soul. This wine surprised me, as I usually find Arena wines too much for my palate. Yes, it was rustic, perhaps too much so for many tasters, but it really had something to say, in a VERY unique way.
Although, this wine was NOT tasted on this night (mainly because we have not been able to get for the past couple of vintages), I just have to mention it here, because it is so damn good! I remember Kermit Lynch once saying–“Drinking her rose is like drinking a cloud. There is an absolute weightlessness to it. Nothing is left on the palate but perfume“. Marquiliani is located on the island’s eastern coast (Costa Serena)….in the village of Aghione, high altitude, & therefore, cooler nights. The terraced vineyards are a mix of schist, granite & gravel with silt. The rose is typically 90% Sciaccarellu & 10% Syrah, direct pressed, fermented in stainless steel with NO malolactic.
Syrah is undoubtedly one of the true “noble” grape varieties of the world & has been for a long, long time. Unfortunately, Syrah is not in fashion right now & I am not sure exactly why. I, in fact, wish I had a dollar for every time a wine professional/wine buyer/server has told me in the past 5 years, how Syrah based wines, (especially New World versions) do not sell so well for them. I would be rich!
I am saddened to hear of this plight.
Well grown & crafted Syrah deserves a niche in the wine world. Not only does this grape variety have world class potential, it also can fill the big puka between Pinot Noir & Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of weight, drama & profoundness. The very best can have intricacy, pedigree, UN-heaviness & texture a notch or 2 away from Pinot Noir, with the depth, masculinity & regality a notch or 2 away from Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah can be an ideal “tweener”.
Here are 3 examples which reminded me of this thought.
The Ogier family had been farming their vineyards & selling off to their grapes for many years (more recently to prominent producers such as Chapoutier & Guigal), until 1987 when they decided to grow & produce their own wine under their own label. At that time, they owned roughly 6 acres in Cote Rotie. Son, Stephane, started working alongside his father in 1998 & took over the domaine in 2000. Where previously, the winemaking was much more traditional with NO stems & NO new oak, Stephane changed his style to 100% Syrah, 80% de-stalked, 3 to 4 week stainless steel fermentation & 18 month barrel aging (30% new). In addition to their Cote Rotie, Ogier also began producing special bottlings–Embruns (2001) from purchased fruit & 50% new barrels; Lancement “Terroir de Blonde” & Belle Helene (a cask selection from their Cote Rozier parcel–30 months in 100% new oak). This is a producer of northern Rhone Valley Syrah well worth checking out. This 2001 Cote Rotie (13 years old), for example, was elegant, classy, refined, masculine, majestic with a surprising velvety texture. It had a gamey, rustic core with garrigue character & a sandalwood edge. I can imagine all kinds of meats & rustic meat preparations which one can have a field day with!
Noel Verset, for me, was one of the iconic stalwarths of the tiny Cornas appellation, who not only helped define an appellation, but shed a very different light on what the Syrah grape variety could be. His vines were old, his highly revered Sabarottes parcel yielded grapes like no other on the hillside & his winemaking was very traditional. I have to say, the resulting wines were truly one of a kind. They had a wild-ness–green & black peppercorns, true andouille sausage, raw meat, lots of red fruit, crushed rocks, garrigue with lots of herbal notes. His was a small winery, perhaps 800 case production in any given year. Rumors started circulating around the 2000 vintage, that he was retiring. (He even mentioned his thoughts on retirement on a visit I made in 1991). Subsequent vintages would pop up every now & then–I saw a smidgeon fo the 2003 & a tiny bit of 2006….& then quiet. It was the end of an era. Yes, there are other Cornas (Thierry Allemand & August Clape) which deftly carry on the appellation on the world class stage, BUT there was only 1 Noel Verset. I was completely enthralled with the 1995. It was quintessential Verset Cornas–wildly rustic, rock, peppercorns, wild herbs, with the rank smells of real French andouille sausage. It really sang out & was a thrill to savor.
For many, the Chave Hermitage is the pinnacle of northern Rhone Syrah. The family has been growing grapes & making wines on Hermitage hill since 1481. The vines today are organically & biodynamically farmed. “Every year, we start from zero in assembling the wine.” The core & backbone comes from the Bessards parcel, their largest parcel, located furthest west. Tasting out of barrel once with Gerard Chave, I found the Bessards to have a smokiness, a strong minerality with a certain elegance, velvety middle & lots of tannins in the finish. His parcels have very old vines. I found Le Meal was also smokey, but had distinct floral (violets, jasmine), ripe, jammy black cherry, green olive, spice & pepper with more of a middle, a riper, higher glycerine mouthfeel. Rocoules was fresher fruit, yet not as showy, with licorice, smoke, cassis, green notes & much more tannic. Peleat–more acid/structure with green olive, smoke & even an apple nuance. Diognieres had ripe cherries, jammy, bordering cassis like qualities with a funky/earthy edge. Baume–licorice, cherry, more austere, structured & refinement. L’Ermite–smokey, earthy, barnyard funk, green peppercrons, jammy–the most outgoing right out of the gates. The Chaves are master blenders, using all of the pieces to create a complete Hermitage–or as I used to say about the old Barolo masters—create an orchestra sound rather than just the horn section. Chave is the best at that! and HAS BEEN SINCE 1481!
Boy, is there a lot to say about rose to really better understand what’s the dealio. Good roses can be quite a revelation, not necessarily in terms of drama or profound-ness, but more about how they can add a whole ‘nother dimension to pairing with foods. The challenge is finding the good ones.
In the Old Days, winemakers looked to improve their RED wines by bleeding off some juice & thereby maximizing the remaining juice to skin contact ratio. With the bled off juice, the winemakers then sought to make something decent. While this may make for better (?) red wines, it often made for mediocre PINK wines…..unless one was looking for a wine to just gulp & wash the food down with.
More recently, we thankfully have witnessed a fast growing number of light & fruity roses, where the grapes are harvested at lower sugar levels (& therefore less drama & lower potential alcohol levels), direct pressed in stainless steel tanks at cool temperatures. These delightfully delicious, fruit driven roses are ideal for warm weather sipping with or without food.
Now, we are seeing the next generation of this style of pink wines—those grown in marine soils, which create minerality in the finished wines, in addition to being light & fruity. This minerality creates ethereal-ness/interestingness in the wines, in addition to adding refreshingness & accentuating the wine’s vitality & liveliness. From my point of view, these wines are also much more diverse at the dinner & lunch table AND with a wider range of foods.
We are now also seeing more & more masculine styled roses rising in availability & popularity. These versions are produced from more hearty, rustic red grape varieties, often grown in more rugged terrain & harvested at modest sugar levels, direct pressed & fermented at cool temperatures, BUT are just more masculine, hearty with more structure, drama, depth & hutzpah. More reminiscent of Rhone Valley Tavel….which in my mind is more similar in profile to a lighter red wine of the old days. One could readily pair these kind of roses to lighter meats AND even red meats.
Think about—a Thanksgiving feast with all of the fixings….& then there is the cranberry. This has been a big revelation, which I think we will see more & more of, once the public acclimates to the bigger price tags (which are highly deserved in the finest examples).
So….that is the inspirations for this tasting. A chance to taste 4 really good examples of what rose can be!!!
Yes, just another opportunity to learn!
Every winegrowing seems to have a real shining star who emerges from the crowd & vanguards the region into the modern era. The very best of them capitalize on modern techniques both in the vineyard & the winery to produce better wines than their neighbors, WITHOUT compromising a core of traditions, such as using indigenous grape varieties & never losing sight of purity of terroir & unique-ness. In the Nantais region, the western most outreach of France’s Loire Valley, that man is Eric Chevalier. “Éric sustainably farms twenty-five hectares of vines, producing wines of great character and finesse. The Nantais is a maritime climate, and the vineyards are not far from the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, there is an interesting variety of sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks, as this area once was ocean floor”. Eric has a little over half a hectare of a grape variety, named Grolleau (20 year old vines), from which he produces a superb, interesting, ethereal PINK wine. The wine is wild yeast fermented & aged on its lees in subterranean, glass lined cuvees for more texture & complexity. Here is that wine! Remarkably light, ethereal, salty, pure, precise AND most imporatant delicious!
Domaine Gramenon & its winemaker Maxime Francois Laurent is certainly that standout young phenom leading the charge in France’s southern Rhone Valley. His style of wine is a distinct move away from the bigger, burly, brooding wines the southern Rhone has been known for, for at least since the 1930’s. More importantly he is part of that vanguard looking to be uber-sustainable & back to basics both in the vineyard & the winery, which is why he & his wines have garnered an almost “cult” like following. Yes, these are really hard wines to get….& for good reason. They do not merely champion organic farming, but they incorporate the concept of sustainability into their daily lives by growing their own food and raising their own animals. Though Michèle and Maxime continue to test the confines of the appellation, the cellars are unsurprisingly old-fashioned. The Laurents use gravity-fed cuves and age their wines in oak demi-muids and foudres. That they take such gutsy risks as bottling old-vine fruit with so little sulfur, without fining or filtration, only demonstrates the lengths they will go to in order to highlight the freshness, purity, and intoxicating aromas. of their small, rare production. In addition to his work at his family domaine, Gramenon, Maxime also produces a small of wine under his own namesake label, which are even harder to get than those of Gramenon. Here is his rose—1/3 each of Syrah, Grenache & Cinsault (25 year old vines) grown in clay limestone soils, direct pressed, wild yeast fermented with NO malolactic. Another example of his thirst of purity, sense of place deliciousness & authenticity. This wine definitely smelled & tasted of the soil. NO tooty fruitiness here! BUT, still brimming with deliciousness.
The Maxime Magnon wines are some of the hardest for us to get. Magnon is part of one of the most revolutionary wine movements in France should give him a justifiable swagger to his step. He was fortunate to have purchased some prime parcels of old vines from abandoned plots and rents his cellar—a garagiste if ever there was one. He farms nine parcels over eleven hectares, with steep vineyards that reach high altitudes, and manages it all on his own. Maxime is part of the new wave of passionate viticulteurs who cultivate their vines with the utmost respect for nature and the soil. He’s certified organic, but also incorporates biodynamic practices into his vineyard management. Most of Maxime’s vineyard land is comprised of schist and limestone subsoils in the sub-appellation Hautes Corbières, bordering Fitou to the South. This is incredibly tough terrain to farm in, as there is virtually no top-soil, just pure rock and garrigue. His one rose is 30% each Cinsault & Grenache Noir & 20% each of Carignane & Grenache Blanc (80 years-average age). The wine is wild yeast fermented (the Cinsault separately) in concrete & aged for 6 months in 6 to 9 year old barrels. Yes, 1 case made its way to the Islands. I think most tasters were taken back by the darker color. It has a very unusual color, quite striking in fact. This wine also has a quite exotic nose–stony, flinty, even peppery with strawberry in the finish. I would say, this is a masculine, delicious rose….one I will remember for a long time.
Yes, Corsican wines are really happening across the country with sommeliers. And, Corsica has been on my wine bucket list to visit for at least 20 years. I have been warned however not to travel there alone. Seems like the remote parts of the island is rugged & inhospitable in more ways than just the countryside itself. Where Bordeaux, Burgundy & Champagne are regions producing wines of grandeur, class & sophistication, I would say Corsican wines tend to be more hearty, masculine in nature with lots of Old World character & spirit. That’s not to say, they aren’t good…..just intriguingly different. In France, Leccia’s have often been referred to as the “Rolls-Royce” of Corsican wines, a reputation earned after nearly 30 years of making consistently elegant and sophisticated wines. Raised in a small village in the heart of Patrimonio, Yves worked alongside his father in the vines and cellar at the earliest age he could. The Leccias have been making wine from some of the finest terroirs of Patrimonio for countless generations, Yves decided to branch off on his own in 2004 and focus on the single terroir he felt was the top in Patrimonio. This terroir, “E Croce,” sits on a thin chalk soil above a thick bedrock of pure schist, facing the gulf of St. Florent. This rose is 60% Niellucciu & 40% Grenache, direct pressed, wild yeast fermented & full of true Corsican character. Wow! Unlike the previous 3 vintages I had tried in the past, the 2013 had elegance, refinement & ethereal minerality, which really caught me by surprise. Kudos.
The Bien Nacido Vineyard is located midway in the Santa Maria Valley.
“The vineyard traces its roots back to the year 1837 when a Spanish land grant of some two square leagues was made to Tomas Olivera by Juan Bautista Alvarado, then Gobernador of Alta California. This grant covered nearly 9,000 acres ranging upward to the San Rafael Mountains from the Santa Maria Mesa, which bordered the Sisquoc and Cuyama Rivers. The ranch was generously watered by Tepusquet Creek, so called by the Chumash Indians to whom it meant “fishing for trout.” Thomas Olivera sold Rancho Tepusquet in 1855 to his son-in-law Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros and daughter Martina. Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros started construction on an adobe in 1857 and moved to the ranch the following year. He and his wife raised horses, cattle, sheep, several grain crops, and grapes for the production of wine“.
The current owners, Miller family, purchased this tract in 1969 & soon thereafter renamed the vineyard “Bien Nacido”.
Today, Bien Nacido covers roughly 800 acres of vines & is still quite breathtaking in scope. There is a myriad of designated blocks & soils, each “farmed to order” to the leaser. A good portion is sandy loam with tiny bits of seashells & sees morning fog & is cooled by afternoon sea breezes.
What is most tantalizing to winemakers is that several of the blocks still have the vines, which were planted in 1973 AND on their own roots. Of course, there is a pecking order to who gets what grapes. First in line for the prime parcels, includes those who worked with the grapes since nearly the beginning such as Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Adam Tolmach of Ojai & Bob Lindquist of Qupe. We are also seeing a transition, as some of the Old Guard who helped bring this vineyard to the forefront, such as Chris Whitcraft & Bryan Babcock, no longer work with the fruit. In their place, we today see a whole slew of young bucks such as Justin Willett of Tyler & Gavin Chanin of Chanin wines just to name 2.
Just the other night, two of our really good wine friends, Gail & Vern Isono, put together a BYOB tasting themed “Bien Nacido Vineyard wines” at our VINO restaurant. It really turned out to be a VERY memorable tasting, to say the least, as the participants brought an interesting selection of true standouts from this iconic vineyard to share with the gang.
There is no doubt that Jim Clendenen has over the years crafted some of the most compelling Bien Nacido Vineyard wines. I also would say, he was one of the biggest believers/advocates who helped bring the Santa Barbara appellation onto the world stage of quality wines. This specific bottling, which was previous named simply “Bien nacido Vineyard” was his signature wine. The grapes came from “K” Block (Chardonnay planted in 1973 on its own roots in sandy loam soils). I have always been amazed at how Au Bon Climat’s Bien Nacido” Chardonnay always showcased real physiological ripeness, innate compelxities & class with remarkably lightness, 13 plus alcohol, well integrated oak (despite being barrel fermented & with roughly 75% to 100% new oak) AND ageworthiness. Here is the living proof!!!!!!! The wine was all about mineral out of the gates…high toned, highly refined with fresh peach skin & layers of marzipan, which acvhnged to more of a creamsicle note with more air. This 1995 was so pure, seamless & complete with fabulous texture & balance (2 of Clendenen’s signature winemaking traits) with a long, citrusy finish. AND, it was so surprisingly youthful still! Crazy good!
1998 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay “Nuits-Blanches–Why Not“
Though Au Bon Climat’s more ethereal, highly refined, higher acid, lower alcohol Chardonnays had quite a following with the wine professionals, the wines were only lukewarmly received by the major media. BIG, oaky, lavish Chardonnays were in style & the emerging new age of wine drinkers readily jumped on the band wagon. Where there was once a waiting list of customers, times were changing. With the 1997 vintage, Clendenen decided to add another Chardonnay to his portfolio, one which tasters later would playfully say was more of a homage to the newer, IN style of wine. The “White Knight” was also produced from Bien Nacido’s “K” Block, but was picked a week or 2 later AND aged in a considerable amount of new oak. The bottle was more fancy & heavy in weight with a newly designed “look”, with the designation “Nuits-Blanches”…& his statement–“Why?”…front & center. This wine, of course, was ABC’s highest scoring wine in quite some time. Depressing????? Maybe for an artist, but Clendenen followed that wave of success in 1998 with his third “Nuits-Blanches”, this time with his simple statement–“Why Not“. Even though this Chardonnay comes from the same “K” Block, the resulting wine is so VERY different! The wine is more stony than minerally, with marzipan, orange blossom, fennel, creamsicle, apricot pit nuances. Dry, still quite oaky up front & quite youthful & resoundingly structured in its core with a long, grandiose finish. (FYI–starting with the 2000 vintage, Clendenen again adjusted this bottling by blending in some earlier harvest K Block & later some Chardonnay from his own Le Bon Climat vineyard across the river….& renamed this wine Nuits Blanches au Bouge).
2006 Foxen Pinot Noir “Block 8-Bien Nacido Vineyard”
2006 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “this is the “n” my only friend the “n””
The Foxen gang are really good people who helped bring Santa Barbara along wine wise. Bill Wathen studied under the legendary Pinot maestro, Dick Graff, at Chalone & along with his partner Dick Dore founded Foxen in the 1980’s. Their wine, unfortunately, did not show so well on this night. We’re not sure if it was shipping, storage or what. The 2006 Whitcraft was also in a dumb stage….but showed MUCH better than the Foxen & was so much more vinous, balanced & complete. As the night wore on, one could readily tell this wine has the stuffing & all the right fixings….just needs time. Chris Whitcraft, for me, was one of the “larger than life”, REAL characters of the wine industry. His wines were like him, in that one never knew what to expect, not only with each vintage, but when opening any of his wines at any given time. In short, they were all idiosyncractic & I have found over the years, either people really liked them or they really hated them. Chris was a protege/friend to the iconic Burt Williams, the namesake, founding winemaker of the old Williams & Selyem. He defined his winemaking as artisan & done without electricity. From early on, his 3 prized parcels were “Q” & “N” Blocks from the Bien Nacido Vineyard….as well as the Hirsch Vineyard of the true Sonoma Coast. When he hit it, he hit a home run. In 2006, Chris produced a terrific “N” Block Pinot Noir. He felt, however, after tasting through the barrels with Burt, there was one barrel, which had to be singled out & bottled on its own. This is that wine!!! ONE barrel. Sadly, either the 2006 or perhaps 2007 vintage , Whitcraft decided to say aloha to Bien Nacido. It really was the end of an era. On this night, the wine had a surinam cherry kind of pungency, with much earth, spice–rustic, totaly vinous, great core, mineral, showy….much more showy than his normal “N” Block bottlings (Martini selection–planted in 1973 & own rooted). I remembered how proud Chris was of this wine, when I first tasted it with him. I too agreed this was one of his finest, which is saying alot, considering all of the giants he made during his career. I was sad to hear of Chris’ passing earlier this year. He & his wines were like no other. Aloha, my friend. RIP.
Adam Tolmach is another one of Santa Barbara’s (if not all of California) REAL superstar winemakers! His wines are THAT GOOD! He was once co-founding winemaker at Au Bon Climat, but eventually packed up his bags to found his own winery, which he named Ojai. His wines thankfully also have Old World sensibility. Where his Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, & especially his Syrahs used to get HUGE scores from the major publications, especially Robert Parker, one could see over the years his decision to trim the oak usage appealed to the scorers less. How crazy is that? For me these same wines are better than ever. In fact, let me just say, when touring Californian wine country, our last visit is typically Ojai. It really is hard to follow his wines with any others. His top Bien Nacido Pinot parcel is “N” Block (planted in 1973, on its own roots). Unfortunately, on this night, the 2001’s nose was completely & utterly shutdown….despite us trying to agressively decant it back & forth for 25 minutes. On the palate, the wine, however, showed hard mineral, immense structure, HUGE vinosity, intensity with great texture & flow…..just so damned tight. I think this will be quite a wine, though, once it comes out of hibernation.
IN REPLY (from Fabien Castel of Ojai Vineyard)–“Incidentally I read the note about your recent tasting of the 2001 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido.The wine does need a lot more time and I can give some background as to why it tasted the way it did. It was my first year working with Adam. The 2001-2002 vintages ended being the densest and most angular for Pinot Noir. Part was extraction levels (punch downs), inclusion of a new cooper, occasional saignee and other finer details in the cellar. Ultimately it prompted Adam to rethink the way he was dealing with those wines and not repeat that level of texture that was drawing praises but not satisfying his sense of what the varietal had to offer. The wines had been softer in prior years (1996 to 2000) and would return to gentler textures in 2005, 2006. By 2007 Bien Nacido was less extracted with grapes picked earlier, now showing on an ideal course, 7 years later. Today he is adding again some extraction since he moved in a different realm of physiological maturation of the grapes. He has found delicacy and is ready to reintroduce power“.
1993 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Bien Nacido Vineyard”
Chris Whitcraft excelled at producing real provocative, HUGELY vinous, masculine, savory, rustic Pinot Noir from both the “Q” & “N” blocks of the Bien Nacido Vineyard. He was lucky to be there in the early days & was therefore able to garner getting the Old Vine fruit from each, which came from the vines planted in 1973 on its own roots. Sometime in the 90’s, since the rows between the vines were so wide, they went through & planted another row in between (referred to as interplantings). In the case of “Q” Block, I believe it was clone 667. & for “N” Block I believe they planted clone 115. So, every now & then, when Chris felt some of the juice did not reflect a “Q” or “N” Block designation, he would produce a “Bien Nacido Vineyard” designated bottling. AND, in some of the cases, he would also add some interplanting grapes in as well, just to add dimension. In any case, the Bien Nacido designated wines were VERY different from either Q or N Block & spoke of the vineyard rather than either parcel. On this night, the 1991 showed more of that pungent, rustic surinam cherry fruit, a peach tang in the middle with sandalwood, sap, funk/shoe polish/leather. It definitely had more vinosity than the 1993 poured along side. The 1993, on the other hand, seemed much more Californian. It was lighter in color, much more perfumed–light funk, peach/apricot middle, roasted coffee grinds, a more ethereal middle with a more fruity finish. We were all so surprised how youthful these 2 wines were.
What an intriguing contrast to the any of the other wines, that’s for sure! Much more elegant, feminine, refined….so seamless, impeccably balanced & so wonderfully textured. The fruit is sweet, ripe & surprisingly forward, but I believe that is part of the intention of this bottling. I also loved the vinosity & surprising vigor of this 19 year old wine!!!
1997 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “N Block”
I have been an avid fan of Chris Whitcraft’s Pinot Noirs for many years. I would be hard pressed to think of too many Pinots in the 90’s which had as much character & vinosity (old vine-ness) than his Q & N Block bottlings. ( Certainly nothing tooty fruity there!) Where his Hirsch single vineyard designated Pinots (1994 being the first) were much more masculine, sultry, darker, intriguing & harder edged, his Q & N were so much more vinous, rounder & more open. Chris worked with a Pommard selection in Q Block (planted in 1973 & own rooted). The resulting wine was typically the most open upon release. His N Block was Martini selection & was typically more earthy, reticent & shy upon release. The 1996 had a strong roasted coffee grinds/cocoa quality, with a very earthy tone. It was totally vinous on the palate, seamless, complete & long. The 1997, on the other hand, had a stemmy, spiced edge with a more ethereal middle & a long finish. It was much more refined & elegant than the 1996. Interestingly, I found this to be opposite when they were released. Both are still surprisingly youthful.
In 2000, my best friend, Nunzio Alioto, & I bought some Q Block grapes at a charity auction. ( He & I in those days typically bought small amounts of grapes from some storybook vineyards like Pisoni, Savoy, Mt Carmel & Eaglepoint Ranch & asked some friends to make it for us.) So, for the 2000, we asked Chris Whitcraft to make this wine. I believe it was 1 barrel’s worth. On this night, this seemed to be grandest of the night! Or, maybe because it was biggest, a beast with lots of hutzpah, chocolate, coffee & oak nuances. It also had, by far, the most vigor in the core. I found it way more interesting than a 2000 Whitcraft Q Block & a 2000 Hirsch I recently had tasted. Sorry, my last bottle. Thank you Chris!!!!!
Sweet wine is an interesting topic.
How does one get such ripeness & sweetness in the wines?
One answer is to simply leave the grapes on the vine longer or until they start to raisin. This is a very tricky line to walk. As the sugar rises, the acidity lowers. If you are therefore not careful, you could end up with a cloying or flabby wine. A simpler way is to stop the fermentation early, so the finished wine has residual sugar. Another way, would be to dry your grapes, such as they do in Italy, on straw mats. Yet, another way, is to encourage botrytis cinerea to infect your grapes. This beneficial mould will essentially get rid of water & thereby concentrate the extract & acids in the grapes. Or, one could do a combination of the above. The point being, there is more than one way.
These 3 wines feature very different & interesting approaches & it is a reminder why the resulting wines are so VERY different, especially with age.
Furthermore, I personally don’t talk about sweet wines too much, mainly because the wines are really about super ripeness & sometimes botrytis, especially in their youth & the terroir therefore often gets masked. It is true, however, after considerable age & the sweetness & the ripe fruitiness has a chance to resolve, the terroir can make an appearance again. Such is the case with this trio of wines.
Chateau de Fargues has been owned by the Lur Saluces family since 1472. They are the same family which also owned Chateau d”Yquem, which they sold off in 1999. This estate has 15 hectares of vines planted on a clay-gravel plateau, roughly 4 kilometers southeast of d”Yquem. Typically their blend is at least 80% Semillon with Sauvignon Blanc AND the yields are often lower than d’Yquem’s. The grapes are harvested through many vineyard passes (sometimes as many as 12) & are aged for at least 3 years in once used barrels from d’Yquem. This 1983 had lots of dried fruit nuances, honey, beeswax, stoniness, apricot, earthiness & a real waxy feel to it. One could see that this wine also had started making the transition from sweetness to a more tactile quality on the palate, which is also part of the resolvement. I felt, however, with the drying of the fruit, the alcohol & a bitterness poked out in the finish, which makes me better understand why many love to pair these kinds of wines with richer, fattier foods such as bleu cheese, pates & even foie gras. Thank you Michael for sharing this treat!
Now, this is a VERY unique & interesting wine, which is remarkably still under the radar screen for most wine aficionados. The appellation is Anjou in France’s Loire Valley & is actually located in the heart of the Coteaux du Layon, which is famous for their late harvest Chenin Blanc based whites. This 145 acre estate has been in the Touchais family for 8 generations (1787). My first experience was a 1947, which I tasted in the mid 80’s. I was blown away how unique & interesting this wine was. These wines are reputed to live as long as 100 years & the 1947 tasted so surprisingly youthful. I suspected this 1975 would therefore be an infant, but was still anxious to try it. The soils are schist, clay & limestone. The most curious aspect of the Moulin Touchais wines is how they are produced. (It wasn’t that long ago, no one was allowed in the cellar, & people therefore questioned the authenticity of its longevity). They say, 20% of the grapes are harvested only 80 days after flowering, when the grapes are essentially unripe with high acid levels. The other 80% is then harvested 120 days after flowering (dehydrating on the vine). (Botrytis is rare in this neck of the woods, which at least partially explains the nose, taste & color of the resulting wines). The wine is fermented in stainless & aged at least 10 years before release. The 1975 has a surprising freshness with baked apple, quince, mint, apricot, honey nuances. It was amazingly precise, fine, refined, intrguingly minerally with balanced acidity. Because of the bottle age, the wine’s once apparent sweetness had changed considerably to a much more tactile sensation. It was fabulous!!!! AND so interesting! Thank you Brent, for sharing.
The records show this estate has been around since 1561. Most of their vineyard holdings have red slate soils–Nierstein (Hipping, Pettenthal & their monopole Brudersberg) & a little in Nackenheim Rothenberg. This wine was the most gracious of the 3 “stickies” tasted tonight.. NO hard edges whatsoever AND had the most finesse. I had always previously thought Oelberg was a grosslagen (large collective site), but on a recent map, I noticed it was a single vineyard, past Hipping, down the hillside some. This wine was rich, lush with tropical fruit character, some botrytis & a distinct stoniness. One could also see that the once apparent sweetness is changing to a more tactile creaminess on the palate.