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.