Each bottle of Donelan wine is adorned with a motto: “Wine is a journey not a destination.” Perhaps it’s a bit corny, but as I sniff and sip Donelan’s reds, I feel like I’m experiencing not a finished product, but a continuing storyline. Yes, the wines possess pure and focused Sonoma County fruit that offers immediate pleasure, but it will take years to fully grasp the depth and complexity buried inside these wines.
Joe Donelan founded Donelan Wines in 2009 after leaving Pax Wine Cellars and parting ways with his former business partner Pax Mahle. Since its inception, winemaker Tyler Thomas has fashioned terroir-driven Rhone varieties under the Donelan label, and the wines have garnered all sorts of praise from the big critics. This praise is well-deserved. Donelan just announced Thomas will be leaving his position as winemaker, although he will continue to consult for the 2012 and 2013 vintages. Assistant winemaker Joe Nielsen, who has worked alongside Thomas for more than four years, will step up and take the reins as head winemaker.
If you’re like me, when you spend $45 on a bottle, you want a wine with the capacity to age and evolve. And the 2010 reds deliver droves of cellar potential. While each wine maintains an individual character, the 2010 reds as a whole display granite-like structure and concentration.
These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.
2010 Donelan Cuvée Moriah - California, Sonoma County ($40)
Smells of figs, sweet cherries, incense and meat — and the combination rocks. Firm tannins provide serious structure for the juicy cherry and plum fruit, and fresh acid makes it easy to drink. The non-fruit flavors of pepper, charcoal, tobacco and rosemary are delicious. This blend of 54% Grenache, 26% Mourvedre and 20% Syrah could develop even more complexity over the next few years in the cellar. About 50% of the wine was whole cluster fermented. Any Châteauneuf-du-Pape comparisons are completely justified. (90 points)
2010 Donelan Syrah Walker Vine Hill - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($45)
This Syrah is incredibly young, but with air it begins to show its class and complexity. Aromas of fig and blueberry jam combine with smoke, violets and charcoal. Dark and bold on the palate, with iron-like tannins and medium acid. The blackberry and blueberry fruit is pure and delicious, accented by flavors of coffee, sage and ginger snap cookie. Despite its boldness, this Syrah somehow maintains balance. Clearly a wine for the cellar, I’d lay this down for at least a year, if not two or three. Otherwise, a decanter is highly recommended. I’m very impressed. (91 points)
2010 Donelan Syrah Cuvée Christine - California, Sonoma County ($45)
Dark and deep on the nose, I get blackberry, blueberry, charcoal and sweet violet aromas. With air, the nuances of pepper and spices started coming out. Grippy tannins kickstart the palate, but there’s enough acid for balance. The fig and fresh blackberry fruit is strikingly pure and deep, accented by notes of meat, pepper and charcoal. This Syrah clearly has some complexity packed in, but it’s so young that air alone can’t fully coax out those additional characteristics. I really think this needs to be squirreled away for three-to-five to show its full potential. A blend of Syrah from four different vineyards, 35% of the fruit is whole cluster fermented and 30% new oak used. (90 points)
2010 Donelan Syrah Kobler Family Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Green Valley ($45)
On the nose, the Kobler Vineyard Syrah is much more floral and red-fruit focused, with bright raspberries and red plum aromas mixing with roses, violets and potting soil. It has the fresh aromatic theme of a flower garden after the rain. Fine tannins, crisp acid and 12.8% alcohol give this wine an elegant feel. The raspberry and plum fruit is fresh but still ripe. Notes of grilled meat, herbs and pepper add complexity. This 97/3 Syrah/Viognier is fermented with 40% whole clusters and aged 24 months in French oak, none of which is new. A real beauty. (92 points)
I don’t want to overlook the 2011 Donelan Chardonnay Nancie, from the Sonoma Coast appellation ($45). It didn’t wow me as much as the reds, but it’s still a quality Sonoma Coast chardonnay. I got aromas of melon, pear and popcorn, mixed with notes of limestone and sea shell. It’s juicy and ripe on the palate, with flavors of melon, honey, almond and butterscotch. Creamy body, but fresh acid keeps it in check.
I’m looking forward to seeing where the Donelan team takes this relatively new endeavor. So far, Donelan Wines offer a journey that I’d recommend to anyone.
This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.