Sunday, December 20, 2009

From Eden with love

It’s hard to imagine what a struggle it must have been for Martin Ray to plant and farm his vineyards in the mountains above Saratoga in the 1940s. Even today, the drive up there is all but an easy ride. And when you go there, I promise you will start to wonder if this really is the right way. It’s only a dirt road, winding and narow to the point it almost feels dangerous, and sometimes also very steep (my car almost didn’t make it in certain parts), and it seems to lead to nowhere. It’s so unlike a truck could drive up and down this road with barrels and cases of wines – so of course this must be the wrong way. Yet, there is no other way up the hill. After 2.2 miles, you’re finally there!

The Mount Eden Vineyards saw the start of its modern era in 1981, when Ellie and Jeffrey Patterson bought the historic property. Here, some of the best clones Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from high end domains in Burgundy and France were planted long time ago, and when the new owners took over, there were still some of the old vines left (however, in 1997 the oldest block of Cabernet Sauvignon was ripped out and replanted).
It’s wrong to say that Mount Eden Vineyards is a hidden gem. Hidden might be a good description when talking about its location, but the vineyard is far too famous to be called hidden. Forgotten may be a better word. The wines, especially the chardonnays, are famous for their longevity, and they belong to the most classic of the white wines of California. But one should not forget the cabernets, which combines the complexity of the great wines of Bordeaux and the well structured and long lived wines from mountain vineyards in California, such as those from Ridge, Diamond Creek and Dunn.
Production is now up to 10 000 cases in a good year, and prices are great – around 50 dollar per bottle!

2005 Estate Chardonnay / 91 p
One of the secrets is the relatively early harvest, and the other is the soil and cool vineyard site. That’s what makes this chardonnay so long lived. Grapes are whole bunch pressed, and the juice is then fermented in equal parts new and one to two year old French oak barrels. It undergoes full malolactic fermentation (of which you can’t tell) and will stay in the oak for ten months. It is for sure a very classic wine, Californian by all means, with a golden straw color, rich and intense nose with notes of tropical fruits (but no sweetness) and lemon peel, as well as hazelnuts. Still there is enough complexity to, if so only for a moment, think about the wines of Bâtard-Montrachet. On the palate it is rich but completely dry with a lively acidity and a structure that is almost tannic, and again there is a kind of French touch to it. But there’s no doubt about this wine’s origin – it is so Californian, but in a style that even the more classic oriented wine drinkers would love. Drink it 2010-2015 (or later).

2007 Estate Pinot Noir / 90 p
Although a good wine, I’m not as impressed of the pinot as of the Estate Chardonnay, but that’s most likely due to the youth of this vintage – it is a bit dry, tannic and short. On the nose, it’s at first a bit closed, but with some air it opens up and reveals lovely aromas of dark cherries and sloe, and there is also a slight floral note. This is not one of those seductive and ripe pinots, this is more earthy and deep, also more well structured and mineral driven, and it needs some time in the bottle to show its full potential. It is made in a classic way, but there is as much a 75 per cent of new oak, and the wine has been kept in the barrels for 18 months. Considering the time and amount of new oak, it’s very well integrated. I would love to see this wine a few years from today. Drink it 2011-2019.

2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 95 p
This is the star of the show. In this vintage, which is great from a vintage point of view, it’s a blend of 76% per cent of Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 per cent of Merlot and only three per cent of Cabernet Franc. The wine has been treated with both new and older French oak barrels for 24 months, and took the oak very well. Although very young and far from it will be in the coming years, the nose is already gorgeous, massive and complex. There are loads of dark but not sweet fruit, intense in a way that only great wines can be – yet so young and tight. It is easy to say “Bordeaux like”, and yes – it is. In ten years from now, you can fool most tasters in a blind tasting with this wine. However, the mineral notes and firm structure is much more California and poor mountain vineyards, than the gravelly soils of the left bank of Bordeaux. From pouring it directly from the bottle, it transformed from a massive and tight wine, to a more open and ultra complex cabernet during the 30 minutes I had the wine in the glass. Decanting is therefore recommended, now as well as within the coming 10-15 years. Drink it 2012-2030.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Delicious Delicato – Fog Head wine series

Working almost exclusively with fine wines, I have to admit that I very rarely get moved by wines from the large wine companies, who more seems to seek for best buys than wines with a great and true personality. However, there are exceptions at many of the big wine companies. On my visit to Delicato Family Vineyards in the impressive San Bernabe Vineyard (sometimes described as the largest single vineyard in the world), I came with no expectations at all. Actually, I saw the appointment as one of those I have to do – to know, to understand, and to have done it. I spent two hours, tasting a lot of average wines, but also some surprisingly good!

Since the vineyard is so huge (I drove more than 20 kilometers back and forth in the vineyard, before I found the right house!), there is a lot of different soil types, altitudes, exposures to sunlight, winds and coastal fog. There is also a wide variety of grape varieties, clones and rootstocks, so the material the winemaking team has to work with is almost a never ending story. For that reason, the team has since 2005 made small volumes of quite delicious wines under the label Fog Head. And they are not expensive – that’s the good news!

2008 Fog Head Highlands Sauvignon Blanc / 84 p
Harvested at moderate ripeness, this cuvée of Sauvignon Blanc with a splash of Chardonnay and Viognier (to add some weight and flavors) from some of the cooler blocks in San Bernabe Vineyard is very fresh and dry. The juice is fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel tanks to almost dryness (there is still almost 3 grams of residual sugar, very typical of the wines from Delicato), and it has a very fine nose with lemony and grassy qualities.
Drink it 2009-2010.

2007 Fog Head Limestone Ridge Chardonnay / 88 p
The grapes for this wine, comes from a cool block with almost white limestone soil in the San Bernabe Vineyard, and you can really smell and taste the mineral notes from the soil – which of course adds complexity to the wine. Fermentation is taken place in French, but also Hugarian and even American oak barrels, a small fraction of new barrels but most of them one to two years old. You will of course notice the oak, but it is very well integrated, and the personality of the wine is more the cool climate fruit with just small notes of sweeter tropical fruits. On the palate, it’s dryer that any of the wines from Delicato, which I find to be very good (and which also adds some extra points!) and it is indeed a much better chardonnay than you’ll find at much higher prices at a lot of much more fancy wineries than Delicato. It’s really a great choice! 1600 cases were made.
Drink in 2010-2011.

2005 Blow Sand Syrah / 85 p
There is two red wines under the Fog Head label, and although the Hillside Pinot Noir is acceptable, it is the weakest of them. I prefer this syrah that is picked from selected blocks in the San Bernabe Vineyard. Compared to the other Fog Head wines, this is the most Californian, and its alcohol has reached 15 per cent. Still there is a good portion of finesse here, and although the fruit is quite rich, dark and intense, you’ll also find some complex notes of licorice and dried herbs on the nose, and the oak is well integrated. Also, there is a fine acidity to balance the richness and the tannins. 600 cases were made.
Drink it over the next 3-5 years.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Destruction Level Sauvignon Blanc from Wrath

Over the past decade, we have seen a tremendous evolution among Californian white wines, from heavily oaked and full malolactic wines, to wines of more finesse, structure and complexity. For being the most planted green grape variety, the most notable change has been seen with Chardonnay, but the search for finesse is an overall winning concept among Californian white wine makers. One of the true winners in this is Sauvignon Blanc, for which we have seen a great evolution since early 90s. Over the state, there are now loads of crisp, aromatic, and elegant wines of Sauvignon Blanc to be found. Most of them show notes of grapefruit rather than flavors of gooseberries, asparagus and bell pepper, and few of them taste like the wines of New Zealand or Loire. But there are some exceptions, and perhaps the most French styled of them all, comes from the recent established Wrath Wines in Arroyo Seco, just across the road from the higher regarded appellation Santa Lucia Highland (from 2010, their estate vineyard will be included in Santa Lucia Highlands).

2008 Destruction Level Sauvignon Blanc / 90 p
At first I really thought I had a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé in my glass, there were so much of cool climate and limestone mineral notes on the nose. It didn’t really remind me of grapefruit or sweeter tropical fruits, more like grass, gooseberries and minerals, and with its intensity it wasn’t really that far from the great wines of the late Didier Daggenau. On the palate, it is as intense as on the nose, and it shows a great complexity with a for California quite rare balance of body, texture, fruit (not to sweet), acidity (which is high, very high indeed), and mineral notes. Also it lingers in the mouth for quite a while, and it is really a delicious wine.
The wine is mainly made of Sauvignon Blanc of the Musqué clone, but there is also around five per cent of the Mount Eden clone of Chardonnay in the blend. To get to the perfect balance of crisp acidity and ripe fruit flavors and body, the harvest is made in two steps, one early at 20-21 Brix, and one later at 23 Brix. Grapes are mainly sourced from the estate San Saba Vineyard, they are cold soaked for 24 hours before they are gently pressed. The juice is then fermented in a combination of stainless steel and neutral French oak barrels. Drink it 2009-2011.

Chardonnays from De Tierra Vineyards

The question will be asked over and over again, and there is not really one true and adequate answer to it. Could, or even should, a Californian chardonnay taste like white burgundy?

Well, to be honest, the monks of Burgundy didn’t invent quality, nor did they apply for a patent on terroir or mineral notes in wine. However, the general assumption is that white burgundies are lighter and less oaky than most Californian whites, and that might be true in 99 percent of the cases, but it's not true that one couldn’t find terroir and true quality in California. I could easily give dozens or even a hundred examples on that – and for sure I will – but this time I stay with one, the small but impressive one-man-show of De Tierra Vineyards in Monterey.
This small winery produce just 5 000 cases per year, and the mind behind is the talented David Coventry (he is co-owner with Tom Russel, owner of a huge vegetable operation). His taste is more driven towards finesse, high acid, lower alcohol and a moderate use of new oak, and above all of that – the expression of the wines birthplace. Or terroir, my dear Francophile friends!
The range includes Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and even Merlot, and some small lots of outstanding sweet wines. And I really like them all!

2008 Tin Man Chardonnay / 90 p
This wine is a great example on what Chardonnay will taste like when the winemaker relies on what so popular is called a “hands off winemaking”. However, David doesn’t go all in for stainless steel fermentation, like so many other winemakers do today. Instead the gentle whole cluster pressed juice is fermented in a combination of steel drums and neutral French oak barrels, and the wine is then transferred to another set of neutral French oak barrel for nine months. There is no lees stirring here – therefore the wine has a fine, dry and crisp structure.
What is just great with this wine is that the steely and neutral character is combined with a silky and slightly richer texture from the oak fermented fraction of the wine, but there is no actual taste of the oak. Another thing that has added some complexity in this steely chardonnay is the ageing on the lees. Most steel fermented wines lacks complexity due to a too short ageing. This doesn’t. It’s a very fine example of a modern, well made and perfectly balanced almost lesser oaked chardonnay. Drink it 2009-2011.

2007 Chardonnay Coast View Vineyard / 93 p
Okay, let’s make a statement here. There are normally no relationship between Californian chardonnays and white burgundies, but here you have one! Still young, the color is of course very pale with a greenish rim, not golden like many oak fermented whites so often are. Then we have the nose, and tasted at “normal” serving temperature (10-12 degrees Celsius) it shows just lovely, with a just a slight touch of the oak and a ripe but cool climate scented fruitiness. But what struck me, was the mineral notes on the nose. They really reminded me on what is to be found in premier crus of Puligny-Montrachet from producers such as Domaine Louis Carillon and Château de Puligny-Montrachet. Tasted almost two hours later, at 20 degrees Celsius, the wine was even more burgundian in style. Not many Californian chardonnays will do that – they will taste flat and oaky (exceptions are the ones from Kistler, Marcassin, Kongsgaard, Stony Hill, and Chalone).
On the palate, it’s completely dry, very fresh with a notable high acidity (although full malolactic fermentation) and the mineral notes are even more expressed throughout the long taste. It’s truly a great wine, at least if you believe in terroir, and like it. I guess Robert Parker and James Lauby will be of a very different opinion, but who cares?
The grapes are sourced from the highest elevated vineyard of Monterey, on the eastern slopes of Gavilan Mountains, some 45 kilometers north of from Chalone. The soil is almost pure limestone, hence the exceptional mineral notes, and the wine has been fermented in French oak, mostly Francois Frères and Seguin Moreau, but only 40 per cent new barrels. No malolactic fermentation and no lees stirring. And that recipe results in a great wine! Drink it 2009-2013.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dalla Valle Maya 1999 and 2001

One of the most elegant cabernet wines of Napa Valley, is the Maya of Dalla Valle. Although very rare, and seldom tasted of drunk, it’s always a pleasure to do so. The new winemaker Andy Ericson told me in August, that production now is very small due to the replanting program, and Maya is even rarer in the latest vintages, and vintages to come. The Maya vineyard is only 3.05 hectares, planted to two thirds of Cabernet Sauvignon and one third Cabernet Franc. Elevated above the valley floor, with a red volcanic soil and a perfect southern exposure to the sunshine as well as cooling breezes from San Pablo Bay, this vineyard creates unique conditions for a great wine. And great is what it is!

1999 Maya / 97-98
There is something magic about the 1999 vintage – the ripeness is there, but besides the winemakers who seek too high ripeness and richness in their wines (which makes them boring), the wines are overall very complex and elegant. So many well made and even exceptional wines were made in 1999, and Maya is no exception from that. It’s really a very fine wine, already when the cork is popped and you put the nose in the bottle, you understand that this will be a great wine experience. Imagine a cuvée of the very best classical styled Napa Valley wine, and a great wine in a perfect vintage of St-Emilion in Bordeaux, and then let wine reach an age of ten years, then we are getting very close to this!
There is still some primary red and dark fruit on the nose, but also more complex secondary aromas of lead pencils and cedar – but not really cigars – and the oak is extremely well integrated. There are really no rough parts at all on the nose, and also on the palate the wine is as seamless as can be. Of course there are tannins, rich and firm but ripe, and there is some sweetness from the fruits, but then acidity, mineral notes and a long, very complex richness takes over, and stays in the mouth for more than a minute. Only in the finish, some ripe fruit flavors take over and create a seductive balance to some very fine tobacco notes. This is a profound wine, at the same quality level as the magic 1994 Maya. Drink it over the next 6-8 years.

2001 Maya / 96-97
The competition in the tasting where I put this bottle was extreme – all the Napa Valley cult wines of Napa Valley were put in a blind tasting – and this one was next to Grace Family, Araujo Eisele Vineyard, Screaming Eagle and Sloan … and then came the rest. At first, it was very shy, elegant and youthful with delightful and pure cassis fruitiness, but within ten minutes a more complex nose and palate evolved. The oak is very fine, perfectly balanced with the fruit and medium intense body, and there are so many notes reminiscent of the finest bordelaise wines – foremost lead and cedar, but also a hint of grass. All those complex flavors are present on the palate, which also shows a beautiful balance of acidy, tannins and mineral notes, and in the lingering aftertaste there is layers of fruit, acidity and sweetness – but overall an elegance that is outstanding. All those lovely things mentioned, I don’t believe this is a wine to keep for a long time, also it is just too elegant to drink right now. And it really showed well, especially to the other elegant cult wines of the valley, those from Grace Family and Screaming Eagle. Drink it over the next 5-7 years.

Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve vertical 1996-2005

It’s always something special to drink the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from Mondavi Winery. Most often the wine is delicious, but there is also the emotion of drinking a wine that in many ways changed the direction of the Californian wine culture. Robert Mondavi always believed that the wines from Napa Valley could play with the best in the world, and his never ending hard work and ambition later on proved to be right.
This reserve is always a blend of grapes and vineyard sources, but the majority of the grapes (normally 70-75 percent) comes from the oldest and best vines in the well known To-Kalon Vineyard that surrounds the winery in Oakville. The balance comes from slightly cooler vineyard sites in Stags Leap District, as well as from other small vineyard lots in Oakville and Carneros. The blend varies, but on average it consists of 85-90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon plus Cabernet Franc and small portions of Merlot and Petit Verdot.
Since the grapes are harvested at a moderate (and wise) ripeness of 24-25 Brix, the wine will never be too ripe, sweet and overly alcoholic. On the contrary, this is always a very elegant and classic wine, as young of course with a dense and dark fruit. With age, it improves to a classic!
After a strict selection of grapes, a light crush and a few days of cold soak, the grape must is fermented during 9-10 days with remontage 3-4 times per day. The cuvaison may stretch from 30 to 50 days in total, and that’s also one of the reasons for the fine structure. Only new French oak barrels are used for malolactic fermentation and the 18 to 20 months long ageing.

1996 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / 91-92
Only 3 percent of Cabernet Franc and 2 percent of Merlot was added to Cabernet Sauvignon in this vintage. Today the wine shows a delicious maturity with a fine but not dominant fruit with small notes of leather and tobacco in a quite classic way. It’s really a very elegant wine that could be taken for a slightly warmer vintage in Bordeaux, the alcohol is only 13.5 percent. On the palate, there is still some primary fruitiness and sweetness, but also notes of raisins (which I don’t like), but overall it is the fine classical nuances and elegance that should catch your attention. Drink it over the next 6-8 years.

1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / 93
Only 50 percent of the blend in this great vintage came from the To Kalon Vineyard. The color is dark, still quite young and the nose is slightly deeper and richer than medium intense, and it’s very elegant with notes of dark cherries, black olives, walnuts and only small traces of the oak. On the palate, it is medium intense and still young and well structured, with the fine balance of sweet ripe fruit and high intensity, but still more elegant than rich. It is still quite firm, and it will open up to a more Bordeaux like greatness with some more bottle age. Drink it 2010-2017.

1998 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / 89-90
When released, the reds from the El Niño vintage 1998, was criticized by most American wine writers as unripe wines with green tannins. In most cases I agree on that, but the critic was not true for all wines. The wine growers who did the best job, and the winemakers who sorted the grapes well, made very good wines. Most of the wines, however, still didn’t show the ripeness and sweet fruit that so many American wine writers like and look for. But for me, with a more European palate, I found many wines to be quite elegant and classic, although not great with Californian standards in mind. However, I knew the best wines needed some years in bottle to mature, and to leave some of the grassy notes behind. Over the last year, I have tasted dozens of 1998s – and now I know I was right.
The 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is a good example of a good (but not great) wine of the vintage. It is medium intense, actually with slightly deeper fruit than the 1996, but what is doesn’t have is the same complexity and finesse although it is medium bodied. I like this wine, but I wouldn’t keep it much longer. Drink it over the next 3-4 years.

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / 92-93
This is one of my favorite vintages for the red Bordeaux grapes in Napa Valley. The color is still young and dark, and the nose has just begun to open up and show the wine's full potential. It’s very elegant, rich and deep with a perfectly clean and ripe fruit (cassis and dark cherries) and only some signs of a first maturity. On the palate, the still firm but perfectly ripe structure combines a finely ripe but elegant dark fruitiness and if it wasn’t for a slight touch of tobacco, it would all taste very young. Still the aftertaste is a bit closed due to the tannins, but over time it will open up and reveal a complex balance between fruit, body, mineral notes and a more silky tannic structure. Drink it 2010-2020.

2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / 89-90
This vintage seems to be uneven – some wines are very fine, others more average. To me, this wine belongs to the latter group. It has a medium intense nose, but I miss the higher perfumes to be found in relatively young wines like this. However, it shows some depths, and small notes of chocolate and walnuts. The palate shows a quite good body, a nice and slightly sweet but not intense fruit, and surprisingly also some maturity with tobacco and the kind of sweetness you normally find in mature wines where the tannins are softer. Also, it lacks the concentration you seek in a great wine. Drink it over the next 3-5 years.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / 94-95
This was the first vintage made in the brand new 20 million dollar winery with its 56 fermentation vats of French oak from Taransaud. Over the last year, I have tasted this wine many times, with consistent impressions. It’s still very young, firm and almost closed – you have to let it sit in a decanter for at least one hour to see the more fine nuances. It’s young, dense and dark, yet very elegant, with notes of cassis and dark (almost black) cherries with both sweet and sour flavors. There is also the very typical note of walnuts. On the palate, it’s rich but not sweet, with a classic (or even modern Bordeaux like) structure with firm but ripe tannins and a good acidity. The oak is still quite present and shows fine notes of chocolate and coffee, and although the lovely dark fruit is still dominant you may find some mineral notes. It’s truly a great wine that will be a classic in the history of wines from Mondavi. Drink it 2012-2031.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / 93-95
I was really hit by this wine, tasted the first time at the winery some years ago, and since then several times again at the winery. Again, this is a great vintage with smaller proportions from To Kalon (only 53 percent) and with slightly more Cabernet Franc than on average, 12 percent. As the other vintages from the 2000s, this is still a very young wine that should be kept for many more years before tasted again. It’s dark and densely structure with a rich but not sweet fruit, intense but foremost elegant, and it also shows more spicy notes (lavender, saffron and bay leafs) than in other vintages. On the palate, it shows layers of ripe fruit, it’s rich but still dry, at the moment everything is hold back by the tannins and the bittersweet tannins of the oak. For sure this will be a great wine for the future. Drink it 2014-2025.

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve / 92-94
Of course this wine is far too young, but still very appealing. The nose is quite restrained, but not shy since it is packed with dark, ripe fruit, and also at this stage with a slightly spicy note of oak. On the palate it is rich, intense and fresh – the acidity and the mineral notes are very present although the fruit is quite sweet – and also the alcohol is notable (this vintage, alcohol reached 15 percent). Even if the different fractions of the wine has not yet married, there is enough to see and taste to understand that this wine will become a beauty over time. The oak is still a bit too present, the tannins firm and dry (but ripe!) and the fruit is nervous. But I really like it – we just have to let it be for some years. It’s a sleeping beauty. Drink it 2015-2025.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Judge 2003 from Kongsgaard

John Kongsgaard and Chardonnay joined forces already in the early 1980s, when John worked at the legendary Napa Valley winery Stony Hill, and later on from 1986 to 1996 at Newton Estate up at Spring Mountain. There, the wild fermented Unfiltered Chardonnay became an eye opener for chardonnays to many consumers. Today Chardonnay is the most important noble grape variety of California, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of chardonnays to be found.
He started his own label in 1996 when working with Fritz Hatton at Arietta, a winery he later on left to focus on his own wines. Nowadays he lives up at Atlas Peak, where he has dug a cave into the mountain at his 61 hectare estate. His regular Napa Valley Chardonnay is very good, but it is always the rare top cuvée The Judge, named in honor to his father, that ranks among the best chardonnays in California. Grapes are sourced from the Stone Crest Vineyard in Coombsville in the cooler southern part of Napa Valley, they are whole bunch pressed and the grape juice is then slowly fermented during several months in new French oak barrels, where the wine will undergo full malolactic fermentation and spend up to two years.

2003 Napa Valley Chardonnay The Judge / 95
I compared this wine with several great California chardonnays from vintages 2004 and 2005, and this wine was significantly more golden in color. However, after tasting it, I didn’t think of it as more matured, rather as a more concentrated wine. When poured from the bottle, it was rich and ripe with a sweet butterscotch note – all this which is expected in a young full malolactic barrel fermented chardonnay. However, the oak was well integrated, at this stage only showing some vanilla notes and just a hint of spiciness on the palate. Instead, there’s a lot of flavour and a full body to match the oak and surprisingly moderate alcohol (14.1 percent), and although this is a full malolactic wine, there’s a quite good acidity. Again, just like all great chardonnays of California, the true personality and complexity of this wine is revealed only after a proper serving procedure – it really needs decanting and a slightly higher serving temperature, let’s say 30-40 minutes in a decanter and 12-14 degrees as serving temperature. On the palate, the wine is very intense and rich with sweeter notes of fruit, alcohol and oak, but there’s also a fresh acidity that gives elegance and balance to the wine. I once told John Kongsgaard I thought this wine lacked structure and acidity, and still I do. However, I would lie if I told people I don’t like it. Summarizing my tasting notes, they actually really remind me on my tasting notes of Bâtard-Montrachet from quite good producers. And that's not too bad. Drink it over the next 2-6 years.

Chardonnays from Marcassin

There’s several cult cabernets in California, also some cult syrah wines (notably those from Sine-Qua-Non - I'll get back to those!), and a few of Pinot Noir. When it comes to whites, there’s still only one producer with some kind of cult stature – Marcassin. Helen Turley, the woman behind the winery, came to California in 1977 and started her career in the laboratory of Mondavi Winery. Later, she made wines at Chappellet on Pritchard Hill, at B R Cohn and then at Peter Michael Winery. She became a superstar winemaker of Sonoma and then Napa Valley with many highly acclaimed wineries in her consultant business. She was loved, she was feared, and her wines was awarded with top Parker scores.

In 1991, she planted a 3.45 hectare vineyard in the cool true Sonoma Coast, Marcassin Vineyard, and begun to make great chardonnays, and pinots. Today, the wines are extremely hard to get, sold only through the mailing list. You'll also find them on the second hand market, but there they are very expensive.
The chardonnays are all made in the same way, whole bunch pressed, very slowly fermented with the indigenous yeast in 100 percent new French oak barrels, and always with full malolactic fermentation. The wine style is somewhat extreme, especially when taste young. Helen Turley says the wines need some years of bottle age, sometimes even 10 years – and although I normally don’t think California whites are able to age very well, I do agree with here on these wines. Give them 5-7 years from vintage, and don’t serve them to cold, 12-14 degrees is great. Like the wines from Kistler, these wines benefit from decanting.

2004 Chardonnay Zio Tony Ranch / 88-93?
The Zio Tony Ranch in Sonoma Coast is owned by the Martinelli family. This wine was a bit strange. At first, it was very shy and closed, with a quite oaky note and something that felt a bit unclean. Under that, there were notes of yellow plums, lemon zest and vanilla. With air, the musty notes became stronger, and stayed there for almost one hour. The cork wasn’t very good, but there was no trace of TCA, neither of oxidation. It was more like reduction – so I waited. For two hours! Then it turned into something very enjoyable, still young actually (Helen is right, her wines needs air, and bottle age) and the roasted notes of oak became more and more balanced and there is lovely notes of honey and both white and yellow flowers. On the palate, the wine is full and rich, at first with an intensity that you almost would describe as sweet, but the taste is completely dry. Alcohol is 14.9 percent, but to be honest, I don’t really feel that. The notes of honey is there, combined with lemon zest and a kind of clove like spiciness from the oak. The aftertaste lingers for a minute, or two, and suddenly I really like the wine. Still I’m a bit confused. Is the wine too young? Was it a bad bottle? Drink it over the next 3-4 years.

2004 Chardonnay Marcassin Vineyard / 96-97
This is always the greatest selection of Marcassin wines. Made entirely from the estate grapes of the Marcassin Vineyard, and produced in the same way as the other wines. Unfiltered and slightly hazy, it doesn’t look too good (well, I know it's good, so I don't care), but just put your nose in the glass, and you’ll smile. This is almost as complex as California chardonnays gets, great and intense at the same time as there is finesse and cool but rich and ripe yellow stone fruits. The one hundred percent new French expensive oak is extremely well integrated, as in the finest grand crus of Burgundy, a proof of the intensity and quality of the site and the grapes … and the winemaker. If you focus, you’ll notice the high alcohol (14.8 percent), but most likely you’ll move on to enjoy the floral notes, the lemon zest, the cool Pacific influenced fresh acidity and the fantastic balance of this great wine. If there is something I miss that would bring higher score to this wine, is would be a bit more intensity and liveliness in the aftertaste. But as long as it is so damn good, I will not complain too much. After all, it is a truly great bottle of wine! Don’t serve it too cold, and don’t pour it directly from the bottle – it needs decanting! Drink it now thru 2014.

2001 Chardonnay Marcassin Vineyard / 93-94
I had this wine at French Laundry, and therefore it was tasted open. The sommelier decanted the wine, as expected, and it stayed in the decanter for 20 minutes before I really tasted it. I can just image how much it opened up during that short period of time. As always, I find the wines of Marcassin to be a bit oaky at first and when young, but when they open up with some air, they show much more of their rich body, their depth, their intensity. With this wine, although it was almost 8 years old the time and the honey notes were more present, the oak was still there. Marcassin is always a very rich wine, and you almost always expect to find notes of pineapple and sweet lemon here, but still the acidity is so fresh so you’ll never feel any sweetness. This is one of the great things about this wine. Let’s go for the silky and quite charming body, but there is nothing easy about these wines. The acidity is always marked, this is the sign of the true Sonoma Coast, and even if there is sweetness from concentration and alcohol, you will describe the wine as completely dry. This is for sure a very good wine, but knowing it was a Marcassin, I actually expected a litte bit more. Was the wine fading away? Was it too old? Or was it still closed? To be honest, I don’t know.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Kistler Chardonnays

The more I taste the younger vintages of the chardonnays of Kistler, the more I find them to show elegance, complexity and personality. They are all whole cluster pressed, the must is then settled over night and fermented with its natural yeast in French oak, 40-60 percent new depending on vintage and vineyard. All wines undergoes full malolactic fermentation and are barrel aged on their lees for 12 to 18 months, with frequent bâtonnage during the first year. Consider that treatment, the wines are surprisingly elegant. And they have become even more elegant in recent years. I strongly recommend you to decant the Kistler chardonnays at least 30 minutes prior to serving them, or even one hour in advance, and also to serve them at around 12-14 degrees rahter than too chilled. This is the best way to maximize the pleasure of drinking those wines!

2004 Chardonnay Vine Hill Vineyard / 93-94
The grapes for this wine are sourced from the 8.10 hectare estate vineyard in the heart of Russian River. With a production of about 2 700 cases, it’s normally the largest of the vineyard selections from Kistler. Like all of his chardonnays, it's unfiltered and therefore slightly hazy, in this case also with a first hint of golden straw maturity nuances. On the nose, the wine shows lovely notes of ripe pears and lemon zest, and apart from a slightly more roasted touch of oak ageing than you normally find in Burgundy, it’s actually quite burgundian like. For sure, the cooler climate of Russian River is shown here, and the alcohol (14.1 percent) it very well integrated. When I first tasted the wine, it showed more ripe fruit, but with some air and the time in the glass (and especially after two hours in the decanter), the sweet notes almost disappeared. That’s when the highly appreciated complexity takes over. And there’s a lot of fresh acidity and also mineral notes from the goldridge soil, and the long lingering aftertaste is so incredibly elegant. The 40 percent of new French oak is incredibly well integrated. Drink it now thru 2012.

2005 Chardonnay Hudson Vineyard / 95
Color is slightly more golden yellow in this wine, still with a youthful greenish touch. As expected (this wine was not blind tasted), both the nose and body shows good concentration. The Chardonnay grapes of Old Wente Clone are sourced from the legendary E-Block of Lee Hudson Vineyard in the cool Carneros of Napa Valley, from where Helen Turley of Marcassin made her legendary wines many years ago, hence the great reputation of this site. At first, this wine is rich and creamy and almost buttery. But there is more to come if you are patient – with air it really opens up, and after half an hour in the glass, it reveals more of a grand cru power and finesse. There is lemon zest, a delightful smokiness from the oak and the ageing on the lees and fine notes of pan roasted brioche and the bacon fat. The more wine evolves in the glass, the more complex it becomes. No wonder the Hudson Vineyard selection so often is the very best of the Kistler chardonnays. On the palate, oak is still present although well integrated with the rich but still very elegant fruit. Notes of roasted hazelnuts and nutmeg are there in a very soft and delicate way, but the cleanliness of the fruit and the fresh acidity – and a salty sensation I guess derives from the minerals in the soil – gives the wine a great balance. I just love this wine! Drink it over the next 4-5 years.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Napa Valley Reserve 1997, 2001 and 2005

Needless to say, anything that comes from the hands of the talented and hard working Bill Harlan turns into gold. For sure his Harlan Estate is a modern classic, one of the very best wine estates in California, and Bond is almost there as well. The Napa Valley Reserve is a unique member only wine, created by Bill Harlan in 1997 and since then a slowly growing wine club with the goal to reach 300 members. It's very easy to become a member – you only need to get a personal invitation from Bill himself, and of course pay the onetime fee of 160 000 dollars.
The winery is situated next to the luxury resort Meadowood in eastern Napa Valley, and grapes (predominately low yielding Cabernet Sauvignon) are sourced from their own vineyard as well as from Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle (I guess), which now is part of this extraordinary venture. These are among the rarest wines in United States, and they are of course not commercial. Nevertheless, they are great!

2005 Napa Valley Reserve / 96-97?
I must be honest with the circumstances around the tasting of this wine. Since tasting (and drinking) the outstanding 1997 Napa Valley Reserve, my friend (who is a member of the club) brought this bottle to a dinner two days later, and at that time I didn’t have my notebook with me. Also, the wine was tasted open, with all that comes with that, and the tasting notes were written in the morning the day after. The color is dark and dense, and the nose shows ripe and rich fruit, very lush and sweet but still elegant and complex with some (very well integrated) notes of cacao from the new French oak. On the palate, it reminds me very much about Harlan Estate, but I usual (yes, now I feel I’m entitled to say that) it doesn’t have the same intensity and silky texture. The Napa Valley Reserve has a slightly lighter body and therefore a more obvious tannic structure. However, there is nothing but the purest fruit and classic elegance to be found in the wine. This is again, a profound wine. Drink it 2010-2020.

2001 Napa Valley Reserve / 98
This wine was presented blind in a tasting of 12 Parker 100 points wines. Only one person knew that this wine was part of the tasting, and it was included to see how it would do next to the full score 2001 Harlan Estate. There was something in the wine that reminded me about Harlan Estate, just as I felt when I tasted the 1997 vintage a few days earlier. On the nose, the wine is packed with dark and ripe fruit with just a hint of sweetness, but there is a very noble elegance that is only to be found it the greatest of wines. It’s silky, polished and elegant on the palate, still with a touch of coconut and chocolate from the oak, but with a seductive fruit and the fine mineral notes you so often find in wines from mountain sites. It is really a great wine, the best of the three vintages I tasted, just below the outstanding full score 2001 Harlan Estate. It should be drunk within the next 15-20 years.

1997 Napa Valley Reserve / 97
When this wine was poured to me, I knew about this winery, but not about the wine itself. It is too rare to be found for that! However, when I tasted it, it felt quite familiar to me. At first it was closed, still young and very elegant with a wonderful dark cherry fruit with some stony notes of minerals and just a touch of walnuts (quite often, I find this aroma in the wines of central Napa Valley). With some air, it opened up, and when I tasted it, it was marked by minerals and tannins, although ripe and very elegant which made me suspect the grapes came from a high quality mountain site. Since the fruit was very intense and ripe, but the palate so well structured, I guessed on the cooler 1999 vintage. It was not. With more time in the glass, the wine opened up even more, and the more I sipped on the wine, the more my guesses went to Harlan Estate. When the bottled was showed (on this vintage, it was only labeled with the small vintage sticker), I didn’t realized it was the Napa Valley Reserve. It really tasted like Harlan Estate, but slightly more structured.
I have a theory on this wine, not proven nor mentioned at Harlan Estate (of course). Since 1997 vintage was great, and a big one, most of the grapes in this unique wine were sourced from the hills of Harlan Estate. It really makes sense. For sure Bill Harland needed an outstanding wine to attract members to his new exclusive wine club, and for sure he had a larger crop than ever to use. Whatever is true, this is a wonderful wine. Drink it 2009-2017.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, 1998, 1994 and 1984

On my last visit at the estate in August, the subject of discussion among the visitors was the Estate Chardonnay, the wine that won the Paris Tasting in 1976, and that is the main focus in the new movie Bottle Shock. Although the chardonnay wine of the estate is very good, my pick on the wine list is always their great Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Although made in a classic way, marked by mineral notes and a serious tannic structure, it also shows a rich dark fruit and great intensity. To me, this is one of the finest of the classic wines in the valley, and it is a wine to cellar for a long time.

2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 94-95
Over the last year, I’ve tasted hundreds of 2005s, and the vintage shows great potential for long bottle ageing. This wine is dark and youthful, still not developed although it’s already quite complex. Working with the wine in the glass, the nose opens up a bit and shows a pure and very intense dark fruitiness to balance the lovely, stony mineral notes. What is surprising at this early stage, is how extremely well integrated the oak is. On the palate, the wine I medium bodied, but I suspect it will evolve into a more full bodied taste when the mineral and tannic structure softens a bit. There are small traces of oak bitterness, as well as a warm feeling of the alcohol, but apart from that this wines shows great complexity. It is for sure another great wine from this estate, and knowing how extraordinary these wines become after a decade or more in the cellar, I just wish I could have a quick glance of this wine in 15-20 years already now. This might be another classic vintage from Montelena. Drink it 2012-2030.

1998 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 90
I don’t really understand what went wrong with American wine writers after the El Niño vintage of 1998. Most of the publications, especially Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate, really trashed the vintage as unripe, poor, and even very bad. Surely, the vintage was cooler, later and more difficult than most vintages in California, but was it really that bad? The answer is quite simple. No, it was not that bad! It was just another of those classic, cool and demanding vintages that we Europeans are so “blessed with”. The growers who worked well in the vineyards, and also made green harvest and a strict selection, made wines with finesse and fine structure. I admit that most wines were different than the more expected ripe style found all over Napa Valley and Sonoma. I can give many examples of very good wines from 1998 in those regions.
This wine was tasted from a 5 liter bottle, and it performed extremely well. It’s not deep and ripe, but elegant and classic, with complex notes of cedar, lead pencils – just as great reds from Médoc and Péssac-Léognan so often does. Is that so bad?
Okay, I miss some of the depth and length I normally find in this estate wine, and the nose is slightly more expressive than the palate, but overall it is a good and very drinkable wine with some complexity and none at all of the green and unripe personality of this vintage. Drink it over the next 4-5 years.

1994 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 93-94
It is amazing to see the evolution of this estate wine. Tasted blind, most tasters would end up in Bordeaux – at least before they really taste the wine and discover the structure of tannins and minerals, typical for the well drained volcanic soil of this northern situated wine estate. The dark but slightly tawny colored wine shows a medium intensity on the nose, clearly with a great deal of maturation with earthy, leathery and chocolaty notes, and there is also the same kind of gravelly dust you’ll find in fine wines of Médoc with some age. On the palate, the wine still show some sweet dark berry fruit, and the tannins are firm (as they normally are here) in a classic cabernet way. Acidity is relatively fresh and the finish is medium long and complex, but perhaps a bit dried out. Apart from that, it is truly a very well made, well kept and lovely wine. It should keep well another 10-12 years, at least.

1984 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 94
Some years ago, I got a bottle of this wine as a birthday present. I poured it blind to some of my best friends, all top sommeliers and good tasters, and I put it next to 1989 Château Haut-Brion. Most wine lovers and tasters would think it was an easy game to distinguish the two wines. But then, they were not there. So the answer is – it was not too easy. This was just one of very many tasting games like this I’ve done. What we can learn from it is that great Californian cabernets from poor, stony and mineral rich soils have the potential to mature into very complex and classy wines. Also, that quality is not always driven by tradition, but as often by dedication and passion in combination with good terroir – no matter how long the history of the vineyard or estate is.
Therefore I arranged a tasting of a dozen Napa Valley wines from 1984, and this was one of them. The color was fully mature, brick colored but with a dark and ruby red center. On the nose, it was first a bit dull, but it actually opened up with some air and disclosed a touch of sweetness. Fine and complex earthy and leathery notes gave the nose a bit more complexity and we all wrote “very Bordeaux like and complex” in our tasting note books. On the palate it was also fully mature, but still with a great deal of tannins and mineral notes, and with the still quite rich and almost sweet fruitiness and good acidity, the aftertaste lingered for a minute or two. It was, and is, a remarkable wine. With wines as old as this, bottle variations are common. It should be drunk within the coming 3-4 years.

Wine Shops in Napa Valley and Sonoma

There are a lot of interesting fine wine shops in California. Over the last ten years, I have on a regular basis purchased wines from a lot of wine shops, both on location and over Internet. What I look for is a broad and deep selection of wines, not only “the standard wine list”, but also some of the rare and most sought after wines. I also encourage high knowledge as well as a good sense selection among the many new entries – and this is something we always must demand of the stores we purchase wines from. As a longtime chef and sommelier, I also expect good service. That's essential for me to even consider buy wine in a wine shop. All of the wine shops mentioned here lives up to that, and therefore they are California Wine Report Recommended Wine Shops.

St Helena Wine Merchants
This is one of my favorite wine shops in Napa Valley. I always find some new and interesting wines here. Of course they focus on Napa Valley wines, but they also offer a good selection of Sonoma wines. Although most of the wines in the reserve room have heafty price tags, you’ll always find a good selection of very rare wines (the cult wines, all of them!) that are sold second hand from people on the wineries mailing lists. So this is a great opportunity to buy some of the most sought after wines. They also sell wines from private collections, so you are able to find older vintages of some of the most classic wines of Napa Valley.

699 St Helena Highway, St Helena, CA 94574

Dean & Deluca
Another of the great wine shops in the heart of Napa Valley, next door to St Helena Wine Merchants. They have a large selection of wines from all over California. Depending on the time of the year, the selection also includes some quite rare and sought after wines, such as Bond, Hundred Acre, Bucella, Levy & McLellan! On my last trip to Napa Valley in August, I was surprised to see all those rare wines. Prices can sometimes be slightly higher than elsewhere, but still most often acceptable.
Dean & Deluca is also the perfect store for fine food and sandwiches – a must have in the car during long days of winery visits (unless you take a break and visit some of the fine restaurants in the valley).

607 St Helena Highway (Highway 29), St Helena, CA 94574

The Wine Shop
This is a small, but great and well filled wine shop at the corner of the plaza in the small town Healdsburg in northern Sonoma. There is a good selection of predominantly Sonoma wines, but you will also find many fine wines from Napa, and also some from the Central Coast. In their small reserve room, there is a good selection of rare and exclusive wines, some of them sold second hand to quite high prices – but still you can at least find some of the great and rare stuff.

331 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg, CA 95448

Friday, September 18, 2009

2005 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Kistler

Since inaugural vintage 1979, winemaker Steve Kistler who teamed up with Mark Bixler, has produced chardonnays and pinots of exquisite quality. The wines of the first decade I didn’t taste, and they’re now all gone (at least the remaining bottles will not have last – these kind of wines should be drunk within their first ten years). The first bottles I came along in the early 90s, were all good to very good, but since the last vintages of the 90s, the quality improvement has been remarkable. Kistler and Bixler now owns 24 hectares of vineyards, but they also source grapes from various cool and great vineyards around Carneros, Russian River and Sonoma Coast. Methods are all the same utilized at leading premium domains of Burgundy, but style wise wines are Californian, of course. However, over the last vintages, the style has become more and more elegant.
These two wines, tasted at a full day California Wine Seminar I held for sommeliers, both showed what a talented winemaker Steve Kistler is.

2005 Chardonnay McCrea Vineyard / 94
Steve Kistler shows his skills with Chardonnay in this lovely, pure and elegant wine, made from grapes bought from the well known McCrea Vineyard on 240 meters altitude in Sonoma Mountain. It was planted with low yielding clones in 1970, but has been managed (very well) by Kistler and his partner Mark Bixler since 1983. Grapes are whole bunch pressed, and the grape must is then completely fermented in French oak barrels, not more than 50 percent new, and kept on its lees with full malolactic fermentation for around one year.
Color is young and pale, and the nose is quite discrete with fine notes of cool climate fruit, pure and fresh with a finesse normally found in fine wines from Burgundy, but not too often in California. The oak is also very well integrated, and I find no buttery or creamy notes of the malolactic fermentation. Great finesse and balance is also found on the palate, medium bodied with a lively acidity, and just a touch of spiciness (almost like cloves) from the oak. One way to check the quality of New World chardonnays is to let them sit in glass for 30 minutes. Wines that loose most of its aromas and flavors are rarely of great quality. Wines that keep their finer fragrances, and even improve in the glass, are great. This wine stays perfectly well and keeps its finesse at even higher temperatures than its recommended 12-14 degrees. Drink it thru 2012.

2005 Pinot Noir Kistler Vineyards / 92-93
Things I look for in a pinot, is fragrance and elegance. A Pinot should never be heavy, neither to week, and its seductive fruit shouldn’t be covered in oak. In that sense, this is a lovely and well recommended wine. Grapes comes from cool sites in Occidental in the coolest parts of Russian River, and production is classic with no stems, a few days of cold soak and a total of 22-28 days of skin contact with pigeage, natural yeast, malolactic fermentation in French oak casks, and then only a year in total in oak. At first, the nose is upfront fruity with intense aromas of red and dark cherries, sloe and also wild raspberries. With some air, more elegant och complex nuances make its way through the fruit, and as always (nowadays) the oak is very well integrated. On the palate, this is a very seductive wine, soft and silky with ripe tannins and a lively and fresh acidity that make a fine balance with the almost sweet and very elegant fruit. It’s hard not to like this wine. It should keep well over the next 6-8 years.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

2007 Estate Chardonnay from Far Niente

The majestic hills of Harlan Estate vineyards and since long time famous cru To-Kalon Vineyard surrounds the stone winery of Far Niente, situated on a wooded island in the middle of its great 80 hectares Stelling vineyard. Far Niente makes two wines only, a very good estate cabernet which in bottle evolves extraordinary well over at least 10-15 years, and this non malolactic chardonnay. For this wine, the grapes are not sourced in this Oakville vineyard, but from a much cooler vineyard in Coombsville in the southeastern corner of Napa Valley.
The Far Niente Chardonnay has a quite interesting connection with Sweden in the bestselling books written by author Jan Guillou about the undercover agent Hamilton of the Swedish navy. In several of the books, Hamilton drinks this wine and he is very sentimental about it since (I guess) it reminds him about his years in California when he was trained as a Navy Seal.

2007 Estate Chardonnay (Far Niente) / 91
It’s interesting how easy our impressions change depending on where and when and the competition. When I taste this wine in California, where my palate quickly calibrates to the California style of wines, I find it to be very elegant and almost burgundian like. Back in Sweden (or at least Europe) where most chardonnays are lighter and less oaky, I think of this wine as a rich and more Californian, and also with a spicier note of oak than I find when I taste it in California. This is so typical, not only for me – but for most tasters. And that’s part of the joy and great fun of tasting wines.
Poured at 12 degrees directly from the bottle, the nose is first almost closed with just small notes of sweet but not overly ripe tropical fruit. With air, the spicy oak shines through, but I have to admit that it is extremely very well integrated. Some of the sommeliers who tasted the wine blind with me (it was poured in a “Chardonnay from all over the world” blind tasting), first put their guesses in Europe, and even in Burgundy, or perhaps northern Italy. After a while, the tropical fruit notes were gone, and now the wine showed more classic and complex nuances. Guesses were back on Burgundy.
On the palate, it was at first quite closed and with a marked structure of the high non malolactic acidity, and the year in 60 percent new French oak was only down to a very fine and appealing bitterness and nutty aftertaste, and some spicy notes of cloves and nutmeg. The fruit is more on the cooler and fresher side, and the lack of burgundian minerality is compensated by the vital acidity and the overall elegance. It’s indeed a very good wine, and very classic to be Napa Valley. Drink it now and the coming 5-6 years.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

2006 l'Hiver Syrah from Copain

Not all winemakers are born into their profession. Actually, very few are, and in California they are even harder to find. What most often makes the California winemakers to choose their profession in wine is passion, and to me that’s one of the important cornerstones in quality. Wells Guthrie started his career in wine as a coordinator for the blind tastings at Wine Spectator in 1995, and although his job didn’t include the actual tasting of the wines, he gradually got more and more involved in wine. After two years, he left to go to Europe, where he worked one vintage at Chapoutier in Tain l’Hermitage. There, he learned a lot about viticulture and winemaking. Back in California again, he contacted the winemakers he admired since the wine tasting days at Wine Spectator, among them Mia Klein and Ehren Jordan. It resulted in one vintage with Ehren Jordan at Turley Cellars, and then he was on the hook. The only way to go, was to set up his own wine company, Copain.

2006 l’Hiver Syrah (Copain) / 89-90
At first, I found the nose to be a bit closed, even if it offers a quite intense dark fruit which is quite appealing. But to be honest, it’s not more than that. It’s ripe but not too sweet, more on the fresh side with pure notes of blackberries, and not a single nuance of oak. That’s good. But be patience, after just a few minutes in the glass, notes of violets and licorice, as well as some meaty aromas rises through the fruit and adds a good portion of complexity to the fruit. And now I really like the wine and find it interesting. Of course this sudden transformation from fruit to complexity is due to the youth of the wines. The same effect, but with an even more complex result, will occur with a few years of bottle age. On the palate, the wine is fruit forward and rich, again quite intense and almost slightly sweet at first, but there is a serious structure of silky tannins and fresh acidity to balance the fruit. The spicy note comes with air, and the finish is fresh and fruity, as well as silky and elegant. Drink it over the next 4-6 years.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

2005 Point Rouge of Peter Michael Winery

The rarest wine of Peter Michael Winery in Knights Valley in the north eastern corner of Sonoma County is the Point Rouge. It’s a top cuvée of the best barrels of the winery, selected for the intensity and richness. Winemaker Nick Morlet and his brother Luc Morlet (former winemaker and now consultant) describe this wine as a “wine beyond terroir”. It’s simply a grander and fuller wine than the rest of their wines, and it does not reflect any particular parcel in the vineyard. Production is very limited, normally six to eight barrels per vintage, and normally the blend spends 14-15 months in oak, rather than 11-12 months for their other chardonnays. From a price point of view, this is also the most expensive wine – of course.

2005 Point Rouge (Peter Michael Winery) / 94-95
As always, the color is almost golden straw but still young, and since the wine isn’t clarified not filtered, it is slightly hazy. On the nose, it combines elegance with power and intensity, a hard to obtain balance. Fruit is lush and sweet with both tropical notes, but also with nuances of cooler climate fruits such as yellow apples and still not ripe pears. Oak, of course, it there, but I find it to be extremely well integrated, another proof of the excellence of the winemaking brothers. There is also a touch of creaminess, derived from the full malolactic fermentation, but again perfectly balanced. Give the wine half an hour in a decanter, and it might fool even a well trained wine taster – it actually reminds me of a Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru! However, on the palate, due to the rich and creamy texture (of glycerol and the 14.5 percent of alcohol), this couldn’t be a burgundy. Also, there is not enough minerality in this wine to really be a great burgundy. It is too much of a great California chardonnay here. I just love the silkiness of wines like this, and even if alcohol is quite high, and the fruit is rich, there is still the right amount of true acidity and also mineral notes, to make this a great and very elegant wine. Drink it over the nest 5-6 years.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ovid Red Wine 2005

At 420 meters altitude, at the highest peak of western Pritchard Hill, with the most amazing view over Napa Valley, you’ll find the small and very elegant estate of Ovid Vineyards. This is one of the most exciting of the new estates in Napa Valley. It is founded and owned by the software program business partners Mark Nelson and Dana Johnson, but the 6.10 hectares of vines, were planted on the rugged virgin land by the well known viticulturist David Abreu, and famed wine maker Andy Erickson in 2000. The first harvest was 2005, and with low yields, production of the one estate wine, and small lots of so called Experiment wines, reaches only 600 cases in 2008.

2005 Ovid Red Wine / 97
This is the inaugural vintage of Ovid Red Wine, a blend of 82 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Cabernet Franc and just a little Merlot and Petit Verdot. All grapes comes from the estate vineyard, at this stage only five years old, all planted in well drained red volcanic soil. After a strict selection, grapes are carefully destemmed and dumped into small open top fermenters of concrete and French oak, just as at the finest château of Bordeaux, to ferment with the natural yeast. The cuvaison stretches from 25 to 45 days depending on the grape variety and lot, with careful and frequent pigeage. Den free run wine is filled into premium French, around 80 percent new, for malolactic fermentation and maturation during 18 months.
It’s one of the best and most profound new wines from Napa Valley since the release of Sloan, Scarecrow and Kapcsándy. Just the nose of this wine will make you happy and thrilled, it’s just outstanding! It offers ad deep and intense, perfectly ripe and aromatic nose with loads of dark cherries, but also with lovely floral notes of violets and lavender, and the oak is extremely well integrated.
On the palate, the joy and happiness continues, again with a pure, dark and intense cherry fruit, however not as open as on the nose. That may be explained by the marked notes of mineral, the youthful and firm but yet elegant tannic structure which holds the fruit back. With some air, the wine opens up quite a bit, and it’s a pure pleasure to drink this exceptional wine. Alcohol reaches 14.8 percent, but it is so well integrated and masked by the minerals, the fresh acidity and the tannin, that it’s almost not notable at all.
Not needed to be mentioned, I just love this wine and I will keep my eyes open on this estate and their future releases. Based on the extraordinary finesse and balance, the fruit and structure, I predict this wine to evolve in the bottle for a long time, perhaps longer than my expectations at this early stage. Drink it 2010-2020.

Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1992 magnum and 2004

It’s easy to forget about the classic wines of such a dynamic appellation as Napa Valley. Every time a visit Napa Valley and enter the wine shops, I’m surprised over how many new wines, wineries and labels there are to be found. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the evolution. The sad thing is that in this focus on new wines, the classic wines seem to fall into the shadows of newer and more hyped wines.
Among the true classics of Napa Valley, the Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Beringer is always one of my favorites. I guess the size of Beringer make some consumers believe that their wines are mass produced, and that the quality of their premium wines isn’t as high as the wines from smaller family owned estates. The Private Reserve, however, is a true great wine with a track record that shows how well Napa Valley cabernets can age.

1992 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon / 94-95
This wine, tasted from magnum, is made of 97 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, almost half of it from Howell Mountain, and the balance of Cabernet Franc. It’s been kept in new French oak barrels for its 22-24 months. The wine was decanted half an hour before it was poured, which normally is needed for rich and great wines like this, and it was tasted blindly next to a great magnum of 1985 Château Léoville-Barton (also blind tasted). I knew the wine, but most of the very skilled sommeliers around the table put their guess on a warmer vintage of Bordeaux, like 1990. This showed me, again, how graceful fine Californian cabernets age. The color is still dark och surprisingly youthful, and the nose was also relatively young with only small notes of cedar, tobacco and dark chocolate that revealed some age. The oak is very well integrated. On the palate the wine is still rich, but also very elegant, and although the tannins now still are present but on the more fine side, the mineral notes reveals the volcanic soils of the Howell Mountain vineyards. It’s a damn good wine, the kind of wine you should pour to any Francophile who claims that California wines are too rich, fruit driven or high in alcohol. Drink it now, over the next 8-12 years.

2004 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon / 92
Since late 90s, the source of grapes has changes slightly. The State Lane Vineyard in Yountville is now owned by the Kapcsándy family (who makes great wines from it) and is not used anymore, and the proportion of mountain fruit, predominately from Steinhauer Ranch up at Howell Mountain, is now greater. The effect is that the wines now are more structured, and therefore also a bit more complex. This wine offers a young and rich dark fruit with hints of sweetness, quite intense in a modern style, but even if the fruit is warm and ripe, there is the kind of finesse I like in wines that are made in a slightly more classic style. The alcohol reaches 14.4 percent, and it is well integrated. Tasted blind, my guess first went to Oakville and Mondavi Reserve or even Opus One, but with the mineral notes and youthful tannic structure, I went to mountain vineyards. At this stage, the acidity is fresh, tannins firm but fine, and still the oak flavors is a bit smoky. Decanted a good hour before serving makes the wine delicious already today, but with the knowledge of the track record of this wine, I would wait. Drink it 2012-2024.

Santa Lucia highlights

Santa Lucia Highland in Monterey County is indeed a highly interesting appellation for wine. Almost 2 000 hectares of vines are planted, and Pinot Noir and Syrah are the stars. On the valley floor, salad and broccoli and other greens are dominant, but in the mountains above the valley floor, vines produce grapes and wines of the good to great quality. One of the leading growers and wine producers is Gary Pisoni, and his own wines from Pisoni Vineyards are often among the best in the appellation. Gary sells grapes to various winemakers all over the state, and as long as the winemakers are doing their job well, their wines will show the great terroir and quality of Santa Lucia Highlands. To me, the best wine producers of this valley are Pisoni Vineyards themselves, as well as Siduri and Peter Michael Winery. Others who frequently make great wines from here are Patz & Hall, Testarossa and Tantara. Their pinots are normally all worth seeking out for.
This was just another evening with a dear friend. Two wines were tasted.

2005 Syrah Gary’s Vineyard (Lucia Vineyards) / 89
Lucia Vineyards is the second label of Gary Pisoni, but this wine is not a second class wine. Grapes are sourced from neighbor, friend and business partner Gary Franscioni and their co-owned 20.25 hectare Gary’s Vineyard, mostly planted with Pinot Noir but also some Syrah. Winemaking is classic in small open top fermenters with punch down, then French oak barrel ageing. At first, this young wine is a bit closed, with only some dark fruit and a touch of spicy oak, but with air, the nose and palate opens up and displays layers of dark berries and plums, as well appealing notes of licorice and dried French herbs. Tannins are first quite firm, but during the time in the glass, they soften a bit. This is a fine example of cool climate Syrah, it is indeed very good, but not great. Drink it over the next 5-7 years.

2004 Le Moulin Rouge (Peter Michael Winery) / 91-92
At Peter Michael Winery in Knights Valley in Sonoma, pinot wines stands for less than five percent of their production, but 90 percent of the requests. Although they also are one of the true stars of chardonnays, their pinot program is very interesting. Now they produce three pinots, but Le Moulin Rouge is their first, and so far also their best. Grapes are sourced from a very good plot in Pisoni Vineyard. Normally this wine needs some air before it shows it true face. This vintage at this stage, was open and surprisingly silky almost directly from the bottle, although it opened up and showed higher aromatics with some extra air, displaying raspberries as well as dark cherries. Oak and tannins are present, but not as firm as expected (as they normally are), and the fine acidity lingers in the seductive aftertaste. Drink it over the next 4-5 years.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon vertical 1984-2004

Vertical tastings of Bordeaux wines are quite common, but the chances to follow the evolution of a great California cabernet wine over decades, is rare. Most of the older vintages of Californian wines are gone, either consumed or over the hill for one reason or another. Also only a few wines have a longer history than let’s say ten years, of 15 at most. You have to look for the classic wineries in Napa Valley, such as Mondavi, Beaulieu, Phelps, Clos du Val or Dunn to find older vintages, or to the still family owned Shafer Vineyards.

The latter company was founded by John Shafer in 1972, and almost without any deeper knowledge in viticulture or wine making, he started to replant some vineyards in his newly bought estate in what later would be classified as Stags Leap District. The first wines was made in 1978, only two years after the now renowned Paris Tasting (which gave hope and pride to the Californian wine industry), and within a few years the Shafers had gained some reputation for their cabernet wines.

With the 1983 vintage the decision was made to make a separate bottling of the cabernet wine from the steep slope right behind the winery. That was the birth of Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that since then has become one of the finest examples of the greatness of Napa Valley cabernets. John Shafer was right in his beliefs that mountain vineyards would produce a much more intense and structured wine, and especially in this corner of Napa Valley, where cool breezes from San Pablo Bay in the south, the western exposure to the afternoon sun, and the high content of minerals in the rocky, volcanic soil gives unique qualities and complexity to the wines.

Since 1983, Hillside Select Cabernet has been made every single vintage, and it has been made in more or less the same way also. It’s a pure Cabernet Sauvignon from low yielded wines, rigorously selected (the selection has been more strict in recent years) and then fermented with its indigenous yeast in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then transferred into new French oak barrels to undergo malolactic fermentation and ageing during 30 to 32 months. It’s bottled without fining or filtration.

When I told Doug Shafer about this tasting, he was not very comfortable that I wanted to include the older vintages. “We didn’t really know how to do before 1990, and I don’t think the older wines have kept very well”, he told me a few month before the tasting took place. For sure the quality of the more recent vintages is much higher, but I was not actually that surprised that some of the older vintages were good and even enjoyable, although fully mature and not able to keep more than a few more years. Of course his pride over how the quality has taken major steps up since 1990, or to me since 1991, then after the monumental vintage of 1997 and again in the 21st century, is easy to understand. Still I can’t help being impressed with what they did in the early days, years before Napa Valley had gained the reputation as one of the greatest wine regions in the world. Back then, there were few to ask, and few who were willing to pay the price of high quality – that came in the early 90s. To be honest, most wineries were still trying to find their style in the 80s, and as Shafer, most of them were writing the first chapter in their own history books.

1984 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 86
Given you like fully mature wines, the 1984 is actually a quite good wine. On the nose, the wine shows a noble maturity with hints of black truffles and leather, but on the palate, the fruit is beginning to fade away – although there is still enough fruit to balance the tannins, which still are present. The wine does not keep well in the glass. Good bottles would be nice to drink now.

1985 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 84
At first, the 1985 offered a very fine, mature and elegant nose with just a hint of oxidation, and it showed both complexity and fine notes of semidried fruit. The tannins are still here, and they hold up the structure in a good way. However the body and fruit slowly fades away and what was great about this wine the first ten minutes, slowly dried out and leaves a leathery and quite dry, rustic aftertaste. Drink now.

(1986 was not part of this vertical tasting)

1987 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 88
Towards the end of the 80s, quality has improved, and 1987 turned out to be a very good wine and vintage. Although the wine today shows a fine maturity, and I love to use the term “Bordeaux like” here, the body and fruit shows more vitality here compared to the older vintages. There are still some notes of dark berries and even red berries, but of course some leather and tobacco join these more youthful qualities in the 22 year old beauty. Tannins are relatively silky, and the acidity is still quite refreshing. Drink it now thru 2012.

1988 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 89
I was so surprised over the absolute purity of the fruit – I couldn’t imagine that this wine was over 20 years old! The color is of course mature, and the intensity is not that high. On the nose the fruit also shows maturation, but there is still young and fresh sweetness to be found. On the palate there is some tannins left to give the wine a good structure, but the overall impression of this vintage (now) is that it is seductive, lush and delicious with a slight sweetness, good but no to strong acidity and a long an silky aftertaste. Drink it now thru 2011.

(1989 was not part of this vertical tasting)

1990 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 87
Here maturity and a slight oxidation combines with notes of dried fruit, tobacco and some fine chocolate, and in comparison with the younger vintages, this is the last vintage made in a more traditional style. There was a lot of sediment in this wine, and it need to be decanted, but not in advance (it will not keep well in the decanter). On the positive side, it is very true to its vintage and age, but is has somewhat a strangely marked acidity in the finish. I’m not sure this wine will evolve to anything better. Drink it now.

1991 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 92
This wine can best be described as a very fine, classic and still dark and lively wine. It has much darker color than the older ones, also a deeper and more intense nose with more vital and sweeter fruits qualities, and a more firm structure. It also shows more minerals than the previous vintages, and its aftertaste lingers for a minute. Drink it over the next 3-5 years.

1992 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 94
One of the hidden treasures of the 90s, is the now mature but still intense and fruit driven but very complex vintage of 1992. When this wine was young, it was tannic and acidic, but now when it is at its peak, it show as profound nose with a deep fruitiness with lovely notes of cassis, cherries and some chocolate. The structure is still firm, but it is much more seductive than it was. It’s worth mentioning, that this wine evolved in the glass for almost one hour! Drink it now and thru 2012.

1993 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 80?
This was a real disappointment, both on the nose and on the palate, where it showed notes more likely to find in older bottles of an average Nebbiolo! Not that the wine I completely dull, but it does not live up to the standard of a high end Napa Valley cabernet, The fruit is light and sour, and tannins are dry. Avoid.

1994 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 96
To me, the first truly great vintage of Hillside Select is the glorious 1994. This is first of all an excellent vintage, and secondly is the first vintage of winemaker Elias Fernandez. He is a very modest man, and when asked how to make a great wine, he just say “It’s all about the grapes”. Of course that’s true, to a certain point, but his arrival as head winemaker marked a new era of the estate. He is relentlessly focused on the smallest of details, which may be one reason for this wine to shine. The nose is exquisite, pure and elegant with depths and good intensity, where also higher notes of lighter fruits. This is also the first vintage (at this age) where the oak is present, still in a fine way, and although the tannins are quite marked and promise another ten years at least, the balance is just great. Drink it now thru 2018.

1995 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 87-92?
Tasted at several occasion the last two years, with various notes and scores, this 1995 have either been a lovely wine with an almost Bordeaux like finesse, or quite dull and a bit too premature like the one in this tasting. Good bottles has shown a fine tuned dark fruit, a delicate oak character and silky but not fully mature tannins, but the bottle in this grand tasting also showed a slight oxidation in the finish. Drink it now thru 2014.

1996 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 92-94
Of all vintage tasted, the 1996 is the most odd. On the nose, there is a quite distinct note of eucalyptus, which is a bit odd, almost like in Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, but the overall impression of this wine is that it’s structure and fruit qualities is very typical for the age and vintage. It shows a good deal of complexity, and maturity, and should be drunk within the next 3-6 years.

1997 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 100
Already when newly launched, this wine was absolutely stunning! It was, and still is, pure and intense, with a massive, dark och ripe fruit and just a hint of sweet oak. Today there is much more complexity on the nose and on the palate, and although the structure still is very serious, the word seamless comes to mind. The tannins are as massive as the fruit, but ripe and very well integrated, and so is the oak. Almost 12 years old, the fruit still shows a youthful sweetness and intensity, and the finish lasts for minutes! Even after 2 hours in the glass, the aromas are strong and intense. This is a fabulous wine, one of the very best of the vintage! It should keep well for more than 10 years from now.

1998 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 92-93
There is a lot to say about 1998 – but the most important is that so many American wine writers decided that this El Niño vintage was poor and that the wines came out green and unripe. I guess to most American wine writers, most complex European wines are that way. I have no problem at all with 1998 – especially not today when most of the wines have entered their first stages of maturity. Contrary to what has been said about 1998, this is a vintage now shines just because the wines are showing their secondary aromas – which doesn’t include the ripe and sweet fruit some people are looking for. There are many great examples of Napa Valley cabernets from 1998, and Shafer Hillside Select (together with a dozen of others) is a very good wine. I guess good vineyards and vineyard management, and a very strict selection is to be found behind this wine. The wine shows a good but not overly big body, a fine acidity and well balanced tannins, and it’s more about finesse and complexity that pure power and length. I really enjoy this wine! Drink it now thru 2018.

1999 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 95
It’s a bit sad to see such a great vintage fallen in the shadow of the magnificent 1997. This was the first wine in this vertical tasting to be slightly closed. With some aeration a lovely bouquet of quite rich and dark berries opened up, at this stage with a slightly smoky oaky aroma. The wine is still very young with marked tannins, young and fresh acidity and a rich, but tight dark fruit. The fact that the aftertaste is so long and packed but yet delicate is very promising for the future. Drink it now thru 2020.

2000 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 93
Again, a quite uneven vintage forced the growers to a strict selection, and again Team Shafer did a great job. The wine shows a quite good intensity, however it doesn’t show the depth of 1999 or 2001. There is a slightly paler and more acidic touch in the fruit, yet some darker qualities with nuances of blackberries and black currant, not very far away from what could be expected in Pomerol. It’s still youthful with a firm tannic structure and a spicy oaky flavor profile, and for sure this wine needs some more bottle age. Drink it 2010 thru 2018.

2001 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 96-97
The 2001 vintage will most likely be a long runner – and it marks a new era of the Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon. All its way from the barrels, this wine has been outstanding, rich and lush, very dark and fruit driven but also well structured with a fresh acidity. Today it is more seamless, elegant and complex, and the just a few years ago more marked oak flavor is now much more integrated, to a better overall finesse. Although there is small notes of a first maturation, the wine is still young a will need several more years before it shows all there is. The finish is long, seductive and offers layers of dark fruits. It’s truly a great wine. Drink it now thru 2026.

2002 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 98
When I tasted this wine just before release, I was so impressed I gave it a perfect score, 100 points. Tasted it several times after that, I’m still impressed, but compared to the glorious 1997 it’s just not that perfect. Needless to say, it’s one of the best wines ever made at the estate, and I guess it will improve to greater complexity (and higher scores?) in the near future. There was a stage when the oak flavor took over – as it didn’t just one year before – and I thought the wine were going out of perfect balance. Today the wine is back where it all started, and it really shows the beauty of the slightly cooler growing season of 2002. It’s so elegant, pure, well balanced, youthful and almost shy, and it took almost two hours in the glass before the wine showed it true personality. This is an outstanding wine with a body and structure that’s almost perfectly balanced. Drink it now thru 2030.

2003 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 93-94
At the moment, the oak is a bit upfront in this very young vintage. However, that’s nothing to worry about, oak is something that will be absorbed by the fruit and with age, and there is still a lot of richness and finesse in the wine. At first, the fruit was overly dominant and lush with sweet notes of dark cherries, and I guess the wine needs some more bottle age to enter a more complex phase. It’s a very good wine, but it will not be one the more classical wines from the estate. Drink it from 2012 thru 2020.

2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 94-96
It’s not really fair to judge such a young wine, no matter how great it is. It boasts of ripe, sweet fruit, and tannins are massive, yet one is able to taste the fantastic structure and balance of it. As in almost all young Napa Valley reds, the oak is very obvious here, but still there is so much more to see. The first impression is that the fruit is very intense, but not overripe as one can expect from a warm vintage such as 2004, but there is enough of acidity, tannins and also minerals to balance the sweetness and alcohol. This is not a wine for immediate consumption – it needs some more bottle age to let all its components to find their right place. It should be keep it in the cellar for another two to four years, and then be drinking well over the next 15 years or so.