Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Night of Delicious Domestic Rhones

The Rhone Valley of France has always been one of my favorite wine regions, partly because it’s the ancestral home of so many amazing grapes, red ones like syrah, grenache and mourvedre, white grapes like roussanne, marsanne and viognier. And it was here, in the Northern Rhone hills of Côte-Rôtie, where vintners first began co-fermenting syrah with a dash of viognier — which is obviously one of humankind’s greatest ideas.

Another such idea was planting these grapes in California and Washington State. American winegrowers have decades of experience producing stellar Syrahs, Rhone-style blends, as well as whites. Domestic “Rhone” wines feature prominently in my cellar, they make frequent appearances on my dinner table, and they constantly wow me at wine tastings. So it was with much pleasure that I attended a wine tasting dinner with a domestic Rhone theme. Organized by David White of Terroirist (a daily wine blog I occassionally write for), ten of us got together for some domestic Rhone wines and grilled lamb. (Syrah and lamb is a match made in heaven.)

Here are my notes from an evening of epic wines…

2011 Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc Saralee’s Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Smells like those peach ring gummies, sweet white flowers and even a hint of mineral. Tangy acid, plump white peach and canteloupe fruit. A waxy mouthfeel, but this stays crisp the entire time, something I find rare in California white Rhone blends. A blend of 40% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, 20% Viognier and 10% Grenache Blanc, fermented and aged in old oak. (88 points)

2011 Halcon Vineyards Prado Alder Springs - California, North Coast, Mendocino
What a beautiful white blend. Aromas of peaches and cream, lemon zest, clover honey and vanilla. On the palate, this wine is oily and full but the acid is persistent and snappy. Melon, pineapple and banana mix with notes of mineral and vanilla bean. Juicy and ripe, but it stays elegant. 50% Marsanne, 50% Roussanne, aged in 20% new French oak. (93 points)

2010 Phoenix Ranch Viognier Phoenix Ranch - California, Napa Valley
Fresh and bright on the nose, lemons, limes, potpourri, honeysuckle. Full-bodied, but so crisp and delightful on the palate that it never feels heavy. Pineapple, green melon and white cherry combine with honey and a distinct chalky flavor that I really enjoy. All stainless steel and aged 10 months on the lees. Rarely do I find a Napa Valley Rhone white that’s so brisk. (90 points)


2010 Black Ankle Vineyards Syrah Leaf-Stone - Maryland, North Central Piedmont
Tasted blind from a decanter. Interesting mix of aromas: cherry sauce, tart berries, fresh tobacco leaf. On the palate this wine is quite soft, which made me think it had some age on it. Fine tannins and crisp acid. Juicy berry and currant fruit, along with leather, tobacco and a hint of tomato paste. A bit of toast lingers on the finish. I had all sorts of ideas about what this could be (a modern style Bordeaux? An Aussie cab?) but I never would’ve guessed a Maryland syrah. It’s not a typical syrah, but it’s a very solid wine. Lots of other tasters enjoyed this wine and everyone was surprised that it came from Maryland. Black Ankle produces some of the best wines in the state, and this bottle is further proof. (90 points)

2006 Syncline Syrah McKinley Springs Vineyard - Washington, Columbia Valley, Horse Heaven Hills
This was my contribution to the tasting. Complex and seductive aromas of roasted coffee, all sorts of mixed berries, white pepper. So polished on the palate with fine tannins and solid acid, combining in a velvety mouthfeel. I love the cranberry, red and black plums, coffee and dark chocolate flavors. So pure on the finish. Despite it’s dark and rich nature, the wine leaves the palate refreshed, not overwhelmed. A beauty that I’d like to revisit in two or three years, except I don’t have any more. Damn!
They nickname this vineyard the “Espresso Block” for its dark color and rich flavors. The syrah was co-fermented with 2% Viognier as well and aged in old French oak, which allows the purity of flavors to shine through without dominant oak influence. (93 points)

2008 Betz Family Bésoleil - Washington, Columbia Valley
Herbal on the nose, like rosemary and sage, mixed up with red berries, smoke and rhubarb. Pure velvet on the palate, rich but very balanced by the acid and fine tannins. Flavors of red cherries, strawberry, along with milk chocolate and herbal notes of white pepper and rosemary. Green olive lingers onto the finish. A stunning blend of 82% Grenache, 9% Mourvedre and 9% Syrah. (92 points)

2008 Long Shadows Wineries Syrah Nine Hats - Washington, Columbia Valley
Love the aromatics: cherry pits, blackberry, olive and campfire. Good amount of game and olive to accent the sweet red and black plum flavors. Minerals and charcoal last long on the finish. Overall, very nice,and perhaps I’d rate it higher than 90 if I hadn’t tasted it alongside so many awesome wines. (90 points)

2001 Behrens & Hitchcock Syrah Alder Springs Vineyard Homage to Ed Oliveira - California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Aromas of dark plums, fig, tobacco, soil and dried roses. Fine tannins and medium acid, this wine feels like glycerin on the palate. The fig, date, caramel and smoke flavors are deep and brooding. A dense and serious syrah that still has years ahead of it. I was surprised this was from 2001. If tasted blind I would’ve guessed 2006 or 2007. (92 points)

2008 Saxum Broken Stones - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Ah, Saxum. This blend of 79% syrah, 13% grenache and 8% mourvedre smells like paint, incense smoke, dried roses, blueberries and a whole mess of other things. So complex aromatically, although we did drink this out of a decanter, which I highly recommend. The palate is extracted and thick as motor oil. The fig and blueberry fruit is undeniably delicious, but the fruit is backed up by charcoal, black olive, vanilla and smoke flavors. Very dense and probably capable of much more in a few years. (93 points)

2008 Saxum James Berry Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Obviously, this is a massive wine. That said, what a beauty. A medley of wild berries, figs, charcoal and iron on the nose. Full on the palate with firm tannins and loads of pureed berry and plum fruit. The acid somehow keeps this wine juicy, almost velvety. Packed with secondary flavors of grilled herbs, charcoal, anise, chocolate. A gorgeous beast of a wine that will reward the extremely patient. 52% Grenache, 31% Syrah and 17% Mourvedre. (94 points)

2008 Copain Syrah James Berry Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Another James Berry Vineyard from 2008 and another winner. Mocha, caramel, fig, licorice, chocolate... the nose is incredible. Full and dense on the palate, but the raspberry and plum fruit tastes fresh and the acid is lovely. So complex and layered, with chocolate and caramel and anise. Endless finish that actually tastes crisp and makes you want to take another sip. A beauty that will be even better in five or 10 years. (94 points)

2008 Carlisle Syrah Cardiac Hill Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Bennett Valley
Rich blackberries, earth, olive brine and smoke on the nose. Full-bodied and generous, yet balanced and easy to drink. Great combination of black fruits, meat, olive and charcoal. Acid carries onto the finish, which is long and smoky. I’ve enjoyed wines from Cardiac Hill before, and this is no exception. A good five years ahead of it, I’d wager. (91 points)

1998 Henri Sorrel Hermitage Le Gréal - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
The only actual Rhone wine in the tasting, this Hermitage is orgasmic. The complexity of aromas, the balance on the palate, the length of the finish, all of it is top notch. The aromas are endlessly beautiful: red berry fruit, dried cranberry, anise, olive tapenade, seaweed, oyster brine, musk and mineral. Pure and velvety on the palate, with silky tannins and brisk acid. Snappy red fruit is accentuated by lots of olive brine, crushed rocks, herbs, iron, white pepper, tobacco. One of the best syrahs I’ve had, period. And it’s in such a perfect place right now. As close to perfect as I can imagine. (98 points)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tasting Report: California Chardonnay, 2010 and 2011 Vintages

My last chardonnay report focused more broadly on chardonnay from Oregon and California. This week I’m honing in on the Golden State. More and more, I’m impressed with the diversity of aromas, flavors and styles in California chardonnay, as this report shows. 

All wines were received as press samples by my friends at the daily wine blog Terroirist. I tasted and scored all of the wines blind before unveiling them and researching more about them.  

The highest-scoring wine in this report, the Smith-Madrone
displays wonderful balance between richness and zesty acid.

2010 Smith Madrone Chardonnay Estate Bottled - California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($30)
The fruit smells honeyed and rich, yet these shaved lime peel, sea shell and peanut brittle notes demand attention as well. It all combines in a beautiful aromatic display. This chardonnay introduces itself by barging through the door, with pineapple, melon, honey, and mixed nuts from the oak. (It spends 8 months in 100% new French oak). But it’s still bright from the acid, which is crucial to have in wines with this kind of intensity. Orange peel, seashell, caramel and hazelnut linger long onto the finish. A brave wine that challenges — and rewards — my palate. I’m kind of in love with it. (92 points)

2010 Grgich Hills Chardonnay Estate Grown - California, Napa Valley ($42)
Aromas of juicy yellow apple, pineapple, guava, but there’s also this white flower and sea salt aroma that keeps it from being too rich. The palate is blessed with acid. Richer flavors of pineapple and guava mix with Granny Smith apple, sea shell and striking minerality. The wine is fermented and aged 10 months in 40% new French oak, which adds caramel and nutty notes to the finish. It undergoes no maloactic fermentation, so if you like citrus in your chardonnay, this is perfect. I’m impressed with the depth and balance of this wine. Grgich Hills, blind or sighted, I end up loving these wines. (91 points)
2011 Lawer Family Chardonnay Duck Shack - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($22)
Bright on the nose with tart lemons, tangerines and mineral notes. On the palate, this wine has tart acid, creamy body and flavors of green pear, apple and lime. Very tangy and brisk in its approach, with just enough richness and creamy-nutty notes to say, “I’m from California.” The 13.2% alcohol is really refreshing. (88 points)

2011 Breggo Cellars Chardonnay - California, North Coast, Anderson Valley ($28)
The nose reminds me of key lime pie, with the sweet lime, the cream and the graham cracker. Juicy yellow apples on the palate, buttery and creamy. Medium+ acid keeps this together. Nice graham cracker, hazelnut notes linger long onto the finish. A bit simple, but clearly a crowd-pleasing wine. I’m generally more enthusiastic about Breggo wines. (86 points)

2011 Landmark Chardonnay Overlook - California, Sonoma County ($20)
Aromas of honeysuckle, buttered biscuits and fleshy yellow apple. Creamy on the palate, with yellow apple, baked pear, buttercream and toasted oak flavors. Medium acid keeps it fresh. There’s a flavor that reminds me of toasted biscuits. Overall, a solid chardonnay. (87 points)

2011 Artesa Chardonnay Carneros - California, Napa Valley, Carneros ($20)
Smells of floral perfume and honeysuckle, and I also get some whipped butter and green pear notes. Medium acid on the palate provides counterweight to the creamy body. Honeysuckle and orange blossom mix with yellow and green pears and pineapple. The nutty flavors don’t overwhelm the floral and citrus elements, which makes this a balanced effort. Crisp acid lingers with richer hazelnut notes on the finish. Half the wine was aged six months in 30% new French oak, while the other half spent time in stainless steel, so you get just a hint of the oak, but the wine retains its purity. Great buy at $20. (88 points)

2011 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone White Rocks! - California, North Coast ($18)
Okay, so this isn’t a legit chardonnay, but rather a unique blend of mostly chardonnay with some gewürztraminer. Totally tropical on the nose, with white peach, ruby red grapefruit and canned pineapples. On the palate, this wine is plump and juicy, the tropical fruit flavors playing the same riff. Medium acid keeps it from being too thick. Hints of lychee nut, chalk and honeysuckle accent the finish. Who would’ve thought a wine with an exclamation point on the label could be so solid. Open a bottle of this, and bring on summer. (87 points)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Holman Ranch: A Lighter Shade of California

Monetery County’s Holman Ranch has been a popular destination for decades. In its heydey, Holman Ranch hosted dinners and parties for the likes of Clark Gable, Vincent Price and Marlon Brando. These days the property has stables capable of holding more than 100 horses and contains a 20-stall show barn. Nearby, olive trees soak up the warm Monterey sun.

Oh, yeah, and Holman Ranch also produces wine.

Thomas and Jarman Lowder bought Holman Ranch in 2006 with the idea of making their own wine and olive oil. The property, located in the Carmel Valley appellation, is now home to 19 acres of vines, most of which were planted in 2007 and 2008. These estate vineyards sit 12 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean at an elevation of about 1,000 feet. (Here’s a map of the vineyard plantings.)

The Lowders also wanted to continue Holman Ranch’s heritage as a kind of Monterey wine country destination, so they refurbished the property with all the bells and whistles and now market the ranch as a place for weddings and retreats. Their daughter, Hunter, coordinates the winery’s special events. (Judging from the view in these pictures, it does seem like an awesome place for a wedding.)

I’ll admit that the emphasis on Holman Ranch as an event space and tourist destination made me wonder if their wines might be a littly gimmicky. The ’90s script on the labels and the corny language in the press materials — “Where the Past is Always Present” — didn’t help my prejudices. I was expecting run-of-the-mill pinot and chardonnay without much personality. I’m happy to admit I was wrong.

Don't be scared. Tartrate crystals in a bottle usually signify
a minimalist approach to winemaking, not a faulty wine.  
These wines, like the Holman Ranch property, are old school. They display high acid and low alcohol, a combination that is far too uncommon in California these days. The wines are unfined and the whites show a significant amount of tartrate crystals in the bottle. (Tartrates are harmless, natural crystalline deposits, so don’t worry. They’re not the result of the winemaker doing something wrong.) If I had to ascribe a common theme to Holman Ranch wines it would be freshness. These wines are easy to drink and perfect for the seafood, salads and chicken dishes of summer. I have to praise the modest price points as well.
These wines were made by Greg Vito, a UC Davis graduate. Before opening his own vineyard and winemaking consultancy, he used to work for Spring Mountain Vineyards in St. Helena.  

Here are my notes on Holman Ranch’s new releases. All of these wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.
Some tartrate crystals in the glass, but no worries. Aromatically, this takes the citrus and floral road, with grapefruit, lime and honeysuckle. Really tangy on the palate with lots of acid. Ruby red grapefruit flavors all the way, along with green melon and lemon peel. Brisk as all get out and the 12.5% alcohol keeps it light. Not your typical California sauvignon blanc, and I mean that in a good way. Bring on summer. (87 points)

Aromas of oil, dried wax and sea salt — what is this, Jura? — along with some lemon-lime and honeycomb. The palate starts off with a tremendous rush of acid. It’s incredibly brisk in its approach, with flavors of mineral and oyster shell battling it out with the grapefruit and rich honey notes. This is aged three months in new French oak, but, at first, all I could taste was the acid. As the wine opened up and warmed up to near room temperature, you can start to fully taste the toasted popcorn notes. Overall, this wine is intriguing, but definitely a stylistic wine that might not be for everyone. I say open this with oysters, pair it like you would a Chablis. Very good stuff. (90 points)

Green melon and yellow apple fruit combine with floral notes on the nose. On the palate, high acid starts it off. Apricot, melon and yellow apple fruit, along with notes of quinine and dandelion. Fresh and floral in its approach with a medium finish. 12.5% alcohol. (85 points)

Bright strawberry-cherry colored. Smells of watermelon and wild strawberry topped with lime juice. Brisk acid on the palate, with flavors of wild strawberry and lime mixed with a spicy-herbal note that reminds me of rosemary. 12.5% alcohol, this wine is a light, bright rose that paired wonderfully with an array of hard cheeses. (87 points)

A flat-out joyous pinot noir. Mix of sour and ripe cherries on the nose, along with rose petals and pepper. Bright and juicy on the palate, with fresh cherries, cola, earth and notes of chewing tobacco. Firm tannins and fresh acid make this a refreshing pinot. Minerality and pepper linger on the finish. Not the deepest or most profound pinot noir, but delicious and very brisk for a California pinot noir. 12.5% alcohol. (88 points)

Plums, cherry pie and some dusty, earthy notes on the nose, along with rose petals and hints of pepper. The palate shows fresh, juicy red fruit and black fruit mix together with notes of cola, tobacco, cedar and soil. Medium acid with fine tannins, quite delightful. This is bigger than the estate pinot noir but not necessarily more complex. Still quite delightful. (88 points)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Le Clos du Serres: Terroir-Driven Wines From Terrasses du Larzac

Sébastien Fillon was born in the Loire and worked as an engineer in Lyon. At 30, he switched careers and became a winemaker. He received a degree in viticulture and started looking for a place to make his own wine. After three years of searching, Sébastien and his wife Béatrice found the perfect spot in Southern France’s Languedoc. In 2006, they bought Domaine le Clos du Serres, near St. Jean de la Blaquière in the relatively new Terrasses du Larzac appellation.

“There’s everything one needs to make great wine: arid soil, deep water, sun, a very special climate,” Sébastien explains. “After the era of mass wine production, it was here that Languedoc quality wines began re-emerging in the ’90s. Nowadays this outstanding terroir is buzzing and its true potential has only been recognized in the past few years.”
The Fillon family in Terrasses du Larzac. Photo courtesy of Weygandt Selections.
Terrasses du Larzac was recognized as a sub-appellation of the AOC Coteaux du Languedoc in 2004. The AOC regulations allow only red blends to be produced under the Terrasses du Larzac appellation. These wines are mostly blends of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre, but these three grapes cannot individually exceed 75% of the blend. Also, syrah and/or mourvèdre must make up a minimum of 20% of the wine. Every Terrasses du Larzac wine must be a blend of at least two varieties. While these regulations sound strict, they do allow for a lot of variation in the amount and percentage of grape varieties in the final blend.

The soils of Terrasses vary widely, composed of stones, clay, sand, limestone. The hot Languedoc sun is tempered by the proximity to the limestone Larzac plateau and the river valleys of Hérault and Lergue, which bring in cool air during the summer nights. This large shift in temperature between day and night helps the grapes mature slowly and maintain acidity.

For Sébastien, Terrasses was the perfect place to lay down roots. “The Terrasses du Larzac appellation is still young but its reputation is coming on in leaps and bounds,” he explains on his website. “The number of seriously high quality vineyards in the sector is incredible.”

I recently had the opportunity to meet Sébastien in DC and taste through some new releases from Domaine Le Clos du Serres. Weygandt Wines, the DC shop of one of my favorite wine importers, recently started bringing these wines into the U.S. Considering their quality and reasonable prices, I’m sure these wines will be a big hit.

My notes on the wines of Domaine Le Clos du Serres are posted below.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Tasting Report: Napa Valley Cabernet & Blends

You get what you pay for. Sometimes. Frequently, you get less. Only rarely do you get more.

Assessing the relationship between quality and price is one of the most frustrating things about wine. Paradoxically, it’s also one the most fun things. When tasted blind, without any knowledge of the producer or price tag, a taster can focus solely on what’s in the glass: the color, the aromas, the flavors, the acid, the complexity, the length of the finish. When we’re dealing with pricey categories of wine — like Napa Valley cabernet for example — blind tasting can be an interesting case study in quality vs. cost.

My last cabernet sauvignon tasting report focused more broadly on the New World, but today I’m focusing specifically on cabernet sauvignon-based blends from Napa.

All wines were received as press samples and tasted blind.

2008 Franciscan Oakville Estate Magnificat - Napa Valley ($50)
The nose is dark and deep and needs some time to open. But I got some lovely smoked earth, sweet plum, potpourri and toasted oak with some time in the glass. Very creamy on the palate, showing richness but also intensity. Black cherry fruit, earth and mocha are topped with sweet cedary oak, perhaps a bit much for some palates, but I think the oak is balanced by the overall power of the juice. Tobacco and hints of lavender linger onto the finish. Time in the cellar would do this good. A blend of 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 6% Petite Verdot and 2% Malbec. (90 points)

2008 Castello di Amorosa La Castellana - Napa Valley, Diamond Mountain ($88)
Intoxicating aromas of wild raspberries, sweet plums, some violets, fig paste and cedar. Fresh red and black fruits start off the palate, raspberry, plum, fig, even some notes of dried apricot. Flavors of soil, coffee, cedar and hazelnut add complexity. The tannins have smooth edges, making this easy to drink now, although I think it could be cellared for five years easily. The acid lingers onto the finish along subtle notes of vanilla bean and toast. A fruit-forward yet elegant blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 16% Sangiovese. Simply delicious. (91 points)

2009 St. Supery Estate Vineyards & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa Valley ($30)
Aromas of ground coffee, cherry liqueur and notes of rhubarb. Rich and jammy on the palate, but really firm tannins provide structure. Lots of red currant, red apple peel (no joke) mixed with flavors of vanilla bean and toasted coconut. A solid Cabernet Sauvignon that will gain complexity over the next few years. 5% Merlot in here as well, all aged 22 months in 40% new French oak. (88 points)

Luscious nose of red and black plums, cherry pie, cedar and cinnamon candies. On the palate, fine tannins and medium acid provide a base for the bright cherry and tangy plum fruit. Cinnamon, cedar, campfire smoke and vanilla bean flavors grab my palate’s attention and keep it. With time, hints of dill pickle and sage drift in and linger through the long finish. Throughout, the wine maintains a very fresh, unassuming style, but it’s layered with complex flavors and seems capable of serious development in the cellar. A Steve Matthiasson wine. (92 points)

Aromatically, this wine is rocking: pure plum and blackberry fruit, hints of white and bell pepper, wet leaves. The fruit is distinctly Californian, but it has a Bordeaux-like approach as well, and I love it. Fresh acid balances with fine tannins and rich plum fruit. Complex and lush, with those same peppery notes, tobacco and a braised meat flavor. Soft oak adds toast and vanilla notes, but they don’t overwhelm. Very balanced and ready to drink now. (90 points)

2010 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon One Point Five - Napa Valley, Stags Leap District ($72)
Incredibly dark purple color in the glass with thick legs. Aromas of black plums, espresso, toasted oak, hints of rose petals. Grippy tannins provide solid structure. The plum skin, blackberry and cassis flavors are strong and compact and need time to develop. Acid seems a little low. On the finish, flavors of black tea, espresso and dried leaves mingle with a big dose of toasty oak (it’s aged 20 months in 100% new French oak). If you’re drinking it now, a long decant is the way to go. (88 points)

2010 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District - Napa Valley, Stags Leap District ($70)
Dark and rich on the nose, like blackberries and currants cooked down with brown sugar and ground coffee. Notes of tobacco, dusty earth and anise come out on the nose as well. The tannins are firm and dusty, the acid is focused and the blackberry and currant fruit is pure and velvety. Notes of potting soil, soy sauce, mocha and pipe tobacco add complexity. Long finish with notes of creamy oak. A beautiful example of 2010 Napa Cabernet, and a wine that will do wonders over the next 10-15 years. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot, aged 20 months in 54% new French oak. (93 points)

2010 Vineyard 29 Cabernet Sauvignon “Cru” - Napa Valley, St. Helena ($54)
Dark purple colored. Aromas of dark plums, raspberry jam and sweet pipe tobacco, also some cedar and mocha. Really alluring aromas that transition to rich flavors on the palate. Medium-tannins, medium acid and a rounded use of oak set up the dark plum and boysenberry flavors. Mocha, toast and cherry liqueur mixed in. A rich finish with notes of vanilla and cherry wood. A hedonistic wine, but impressive in its concentration. Aged 18 months in 50% new French oak, this cabernet sauvignon includes 7% Merlot, 4% Malbec, 3% Petite Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc. (91 points)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Two Rocking Reds From Gun Bun

As far as Sonoma County producers go, Gundlach Bundschu may be one of the hardest to pronounce. (Something like Gun‑lock Bun‑shoe, although it’s often referred to by the punchy abbreviation Gun Bun.) But nothing about Gun Bun is simple.

Based in California’s Sonoma Valley appellation, the history of this family-owned winery dates back to 1858! (The story is so epic that I can’t detail it here, but if you’re interested, the winery provides some fascinating historical context.) They craft a wide variety of white and red wines from their Estate Vineyard, blending in grapes from other nearby plots as well. Gun Bun provides one of the coolest features I’ve seen a winery website: an interactive map of their gorgeous Estate Vineyard.

I had the recent pleasure of drinking two different Gun Bun red blends from the 2009 vintage. Both wines were tasted blind among a host of other quality Napa and Sonoma red blends, yet both Gun Bun wines stood out from the crowd with their class, complexity and unique flavors.

2009 Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvée - USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley ($24)
This wine shows some restraint on the nose, but I mean that in a good way. I smell red currant, sour cherry, rose petals, tobacco and some roasted coffee, and it’s all mixed together really well. Tangy acid and fine-grained tannins on the palate make this so easy to drink. Lovely mix of currant, sour cherry, roasted plum fruit, and it all tastes fresh and crisp. Secondary flavors of tobacco, sage, black pepper. A hint of bacon fat on the long finish. Very Old World in its approach, must more nuanced and subtle than bombastic. Still has a good five years of aging potential. A kitchen sink red blend of 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc, 6% Zinfandel, 3% Syrah, 3% Petit Verdot, 1% Malbec. For the price, are you friggin’ kidding me? (91 points)

2009 Gundlach Bundschu Vintage Reserve - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley ($80)
A complex and sure to be long-lived wine. Aromas of smoke, tar and loam accent the pure blackberry and cassis. Juicy and fresh on the palate with ripe but firm tannins and fresh acid. The blackberries, fig paste and caramel flavors are deep, verging on the profound. Rich, but not overbearing. Graphite and cocoa powder last long onto the finish. Delicious now, but this will get incrementally better with five years in the cellar. 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petit Verdot aged 20 months in 65% new French oak.
(92 points)

Gun Bun makes justifiably pricey wines, but, as the Mountain blend shows, they’re equally dedicated to producing quality wines at solid prices. Hats off, Gun Bun. Hats off.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Welcoming Spring With Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Fumé blanc isn't a grape variety, rather a proprietary synonym
for sauvignon blanc made in a dry, crisp style. The wines
are sometimes fermented or aged in some amount of oak.
It’s technically spring, although if you’re anywhere in the Midwest or East Coast you may beg to differ. Surely warm weather and sun will be here soon enough. I’m looking forward to the patio parties, the brighter food and, of course, the wine. And what better way to welcome in spring than by sipping some Napa Valley sauvignon blanc? Here are four such wines that shouldn’t disappoint.

All wines were received as press samples and tasted blind.

2010 Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc - USA, California, Napa Valley ($20)
Aromas of lemon, margarita salt, grapefruit rind, some green melon… very expressive. Tangy, full, lots of pineapple and key lime flavors, white flowers. Very fresh acid, yet really rich. Creamy-coconut flavors accent the finish. This is such a consistently good wine that I’d recommend pretty much any vintage. There’s 6% semillon in here as well. (88 points)

2012 St. Supéry Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc - USA, California, Napa Valley ($20)
This sauvignon blanc shows lots of tropical aromas (mango, papaya, orange peel) mixed with notes of sage and a hint of green onion. Creamy tropical fruit on the palate but also lots of green grass, sage and white pepper notes. I really like the way the herbal kick and acid linger onto the finish. (87 points)

2011 Grgich Hills Fumé Blanc Dry Sauvignon Blanc - USA, California, Napa Valley ($30)
A pretty aromatic display of guava, pineapple, lemon-lime and notes of sea shell. Plump on the palate, with lots of fresh guava and mango fruit, but the acid stays focused throughout and keeps this wine fresh. Notes of chives, grapefruit rind and sea shell add depth to the hazelnut and whipped honey flavors. Creamy yet tangy on the finish with surprising length. Very impressive. This wine comes from certified organic and biodynamic grapes to boot. (89 points)

2011 Vineyard 29 Sauvignon Blanc Cru - USA, California, Napa Valley ($54)
This wine is not kidding around with the aromatics: a deep and complex mix of key lime, lemon zest, sea salt, pineapple… it’s like the Caribbean in a glass. This wine is full-bodied and rich, but the live-wire acid keeps it zesty. I love the flavors of lime, papaya, sea salt, mixed with richer notes of apricot, golden pear and honey. Notes of oyster shell and minerals linger onto the long finish. It’s the most expensive wine in this bunch, and I rarely see sauvignon blanc come with this steep of a price tag. That said, the juice justifies the cost. This is gorgeous California sauvignon blanc that deserves some of the freshest scallops or a sweet-glazed salmon. Aged 11 months in 65% French oak (30% new), 25% concrete and 10% stainless steel. (93 points)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A California Syrah Defies Convention, Expands Consciousness

At a blind tasting last week I came across a wine that both puzzled and delighted me. It smelled of blackberries, roses, violets and rich earth. On the palate, the wine was fresh and light, the acid was tangy, and the tannins were fine. The flavors of olive, black tea, white pepper and crushed rocks were complex and intriguing. And the earthy and mineral-driven finish lasted forever. As I’m prone to do at blind tastings, I tried to guess the grape and region. The olive and earth aspects reminded me of a Northern Rhone syrah, perhaps a single-vineyard Crozes-Hermitage? But the black tea and mineral also made me think of a pinot from the Jura region of France. (Two other experienced tasters guessed nebbiolo from Piedmont.)

What the hell was this stuff? I was confused, but I rated it a conservative 92 points.

When the wine was unveiled, I was shocked. It was a 2010 Edmunds St. John Syrah “Wylie-Fenaughty” from El Dorado County, located in California’s Sierra Foothills appellation. The alcohol clocked in at a meager 13%. After tasting this wine, my journalistic mind kicked into gear I just had to find out what made this California syrah so damn unique.

Keeping in mind the truism “wine is made in the vineyard,” let’s start there. The syrah juice in this bottle comes from two separate vineyards (hence the hyphenated name on the label). Both the Wylie Vineyard and the Fenaughty Vineyard are located at 2,800 feet on separate sides of the American River. The Wylie Vineyard soil is shallow and composed of fractured quartzite and shale. This hilly spot gets so steep that some rows of vines had to be terraced. Co-founder and winemaker Steve Edmunds describes the Fenaughty Vineyard this way: “The soil at Fenaughty is volcanic, in origin, a series known as Aiken Loam; it’s very red in color, sandy in texture, with a good deal of rock mixed in.”

A cooperative effort between Steve and his wife Cornelia St. John, Edmunds St. John has been making wine since 1985. Based in Berkeley, the couple also sources grapes from Napa, Mendocino and San Luis Obispo Counties. (The story of the winery is fascinating, and detailed here.) Steve Edmunds made his first syrah that same year, sourcing the grapes from Paso Robles. The resulting wine came in with a bantamweight alcohol content of 10.5%! Edmunds says he was hoping for something like 12.5%, but, either way, I think this says a lot about the winemaker’s approach to syrah. And the 2010 Syrah Wylie-Fenaughty says a lot about the shortfalls of the Old World-New World dichotomy. It fights back against the general conception of California syrah as a hot blackberry boot to the teeth.
Steep slopes of syrah - Wylie Vineyard
Edmunds seems like a true terroirist. In a 2010 blog post, he explains how “California syrah” is not the most helpful mental construct, considering the tremendous diversity of elements that come together in each bottle of wine. “The fact that Syrah in California has been thought of, for most of the past twenty-odd years, as being very dark, full-bodied, powerful wine makes a certain kind of sense, at least in the abstract. California is generally a warm place, with a long, mostly dry growing season, one that starts early and hangs around almost until the Winter holidays in many years. But this abstract sense strikes me as neither informative nor useful, since California’s geography boasts stunning variability in elevation, proximity to the ocean, marine airflow patterns, mountain airflow patterns, soil moisture-retaining capacity, soil vigor, wind and sun exposures, topography, and so on, that profoundly influence the nature of wine produced on any given site.”

If you’re interested in expanding your own concept of what syrah is capable of achieving in California, drink this stuff. And, check this out: K&L Wines is selling this syrah for a modest $30 sum. Well worth it, especially when you consider that consumers probably won’t see “Wylie” on any more Edmunds St. John labels. (In an email, Steve wrote: “Wylie, unfortunately, is no longer a source for us. Long, sad tale of woe.”) Yes, it is sad, but I plan on scoping out more wines from this producer very soon.