Friday, December 23, 2011


Manfred Krankl
I could easily write a book about Manfred Krankl, his life, his visions, his vineyards, his art works, and his wines. He is one of the most amazing vignerons of California, and just about everything he does, is special.

He ws born in Austria, but moved to California in 1980 (and he doesn't sound like Arnold at all!) and later opened up the Le Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles, and the La Brea Bakery company, which he sold for 20 million dollars in 2001.
Wine was always part of his life, but it wasn't until 1992 before he produced his first own wine, the 1992 Black and Blue together with Napa Valley winemaker Michael Havens. There was also a small production of wines for his restaurant Le Campanile. Two years later, in 1994, he established his own label Sine Qua Non. The idea was to produce small batches of great wines out of Syrah and Grenache. The production was, and still is, very limited and after just a few years, Manfred Krankl and his Sine Qua Non wines had become well known among wine collectors.

"I didn't have any formal education in growing vines or making wine, I learned it by trying, and now I'm too old for it anyway", he says.

He is one of the most detailed oriented wine makers of California, hence the perfection in his wines, that are huge and packed with super ripe and strictly sorted grapes. Even though he didn't had any vineyards on his own until he planted the now 8.90 hectare Eleven Confession Vineyard in the southern part of the cool Santa Rita Hills, he have always spent a lot of time in the vineyards.
He was lucky already in his first vintage (1994, unfortunately not tasted here) by being able to purchase grapes from famous vineyards like Alban Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard and Stolpman Vineyard. Over the years, new great vineyard sites has been added to the program, like the great Whitehawk Vineyard in Los Alamos. Manfred did always farm the same blocks in each vineyard, hence the even quality over the vintages.
Today Manfred and his wife Elaine Krankl owns  24.10 hectares of vines in three vineyard sites. His first vineyard is Eleven Confession in Santa Rita Hills, a cool valley where he primarily grows Syrah and Grenache, but also some Roussanne and Viognier (which often is blended into the syrah wines).
In 2004 he planted various grape varieties, mostly Syrah and Grenache, but also Petite Sirah, Touriga Nacional, Mourvèdre, Roussanne and Petit Manseng in his beautiful estate in Oak View in the much warmer Ventura County. Today there are three blocks and a total of 12.3 hectares in this Cumulus Vineyard, plus the brand new state of the art winery he moved into for the 2011 harvest.

"Although much bigger and much better planned and easy to work in, it felt a bit unusual and strange after all the years in my old garage winery in Ventura", Manfred says.  

Another vineyard, the now called The Third Twin Vineyard, was added to his estate program in 2010, a total of 6.10 hectares of Syrah and Grenache in Los Alamos close to Whitehawk Vineyard and Stolpman Vineyard just north of Santa Rita Hills. The ranch covers 120 hectares, and according to Manfred, there are several slopes to be planted in the future. With this, he may be one hundred percent estate grown within a few years from now. As of 2011, the only grapes he purchase is the ones from Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley.

The hype around Manfred Krankl mostly comes from the great wines, made in a ripe but still so elegant and extremely well balanced style, and in so small quantities they have been subject for second hand sales at top dollars. One may have to pay a few hundred dollars up toll 500-700 dollars for a bottle!
Another hype around Sine Qua Non is of course the names and labels of the wines. Each wine carries a unique name ("Why give all your children the same name?", Manfred ask you when you ask him about this), and an artistic label, made by Manfred himself. This have not only created a sort of collecting phenomenon, but also inspired other wine producers to do the same. The difference is that Manfred Krankl is a true artist, in that sense Sine Qua Non is one of the most unique wineries of this planet!

The style of his Syrah and Grenache wines is ripe, typical Californian in most ways, yet one may mistake his wines for being the exclusive "La-La's" of Guigal (particularly La Landonne or the more lush La Mouline in warmer vintages). The Sine Qua Non wines are not for those who seeks light bodied wines with high acidity and more terroir than fruit and body.
The wines are crafted from highly ripe grapes, they are mostly destemmed (sometimes by hand) but certain lots are whole cluster fermented in small open top fermenters with manual pigage, or in small cement eggs. Maceration is long, and the ageing takes place in mostly French oak barrels (225 and 500 liters), of which a great proportion are new. Ageing stretches over 18-22 months, until the wines are ready to blend and bottle.   To Manfred, the blending process is the most crucial. All barrels are blind tasted over a number of weeks or even months, and then small trials are made until he and his winemaker have decided how to make the blend.

I have been fortunate to follow the Sine Qua Non wines for more than a decade, I taste them regularly and I have also visited Sine Qua Non and tasted with Manfred a numerous of times. By all means, he is one of the most careful, detailed oriented and uncompromising winemakers in California. Therefore I'm proud and happy to appoint Manfred Krankl as the Winemaker of the Year 2011. 

Vertical of Syrah from Sine-Qua-Non 2008-1995
(all wines tasted in one vertical tasting in 2011)  

2008 B-20 / 95-96 p                
This vintage is a blend of 92 percent Syrah, six percent Grenache and the rest Viognier, and grapes are sourced from the estate vineyards Eleven Confession (all Grenache plus some Syrah) in Santa Rita Hills and Cumulus Vineyards in Ventura County, as well as from Bien Nacido Vineyard (last vintage) in Santa Maria Valley and Whitehawk Vineyard in Los Alamos. They were harvested from 24.0 to 28.4 Brix, and 97 percent av the grapes were destemmed before they were fermented. The wines was then kept in French oak barrels, around 40 percent new and the rest up to four years old, up to 26 months. In this vintage, the alcohol level reached 15.4 percent. A total of 7 920 bottles and 180 magnums were made.
”This was the first of four consecutive vintages, and we didn’t harvest until November 24”, Manfred says. The extra long hang time resulted in a high phenol ripeness, but not overly high sugars, therefore Manfred was vary happy about this harvest. ”However, it will take some years before it start to show it true potential”, he adds. 

Like all young wines from Sine Qua Non, this is compact and full of flavors, and even though there’s abundant of richness of blackberries, blueberries, dark cherries and even toffee, there’s something quite elegant over the nose. It’s not as impressive as some other vintages shown at this stage, but it’s rather av kind fresh elegance to it. Plus, I must say, some sweet and slightly spicy oak notes. On the palate it’s full bodied and rich, initially with some warmth from the alcohol, but giving it half an hour in a decanter, a more elegant structure reveals, and then the alcohol seems to soften a bit. Again, it’s not a powerful wine in that sense warmer and riper vintages are, still there’s a serious structure of tannins to balance the ripe fruit and make the finish totally dry. There’s a fine silky texture and a long finish, but also a youthful wildness that lead me to the conclusion that this wine needs several years in the bottle before it reach its very best balance and drinkability. And patience is always rewarding when it comes to the wines from Sine Qua Non.
Drink it over the next 5-18 years

2007 Labels / 96-97 p
In this vintage, the blend was made up by 89 percent Syrah, seven percent Grenache and the rest Viognier. Grapes were predominately harvested in the two estate vineyards Eleven Confession in Santa Rita Hills and Cumulus Vineyard in Ventura County, but 17 percent of all Syrah came from Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, en the same amount from the great Whitehawk Vineyard in Los Alamos. The wine spent 22 months in French oak barrels, of which 65 percent were new. The alcohol level is 15.3 percent.
”I really like the 2006 vintage, my wines are rich without being exuberant or too concentrated”, Manfred says.

If 2006 Raven was a bit difficult to judge at this young stage, the 2007 Labels is in the same position. They are also quite similar, with a mind blowing richness with abundant of perfectly ripe fruit flavors, yet so restrained and structured. It sounds like a contradiction, but that’s the way these wines are. The nose offers super ripe blueberries, almost like the finest confiture as well as crème de cassis, and it’s mostly about all those charming primary aromas.
With some aeration, some complexity showed, but it took almost 5-6 hours in the decanter before the wine really opened up and showed white pepper, violets and some sweet and spicy notes from the barrels. On the palate it’s ripe, voluptuous, there’s a slight bitterness from the oak and perhaps also from the stems, but it’s almost totally covered up by the richness. Overall it’s an impressive wine that’s far too young to even taste today. I’ll keep my bottles at least three to four more years before I touch them – Labels is a wine for the future.
Drink it over the next 5-20 years

2006 Raven / 97 p
The Raven is made of 93 percent Syrah, five percent Grenache and just two percent Viognier, most of the grapes from the estste vineyard Eleven Confession in Santa Rita Hills. The wine spent 21 months in almost all new French oak barrels, but some of them were larger, 600 liters. This very good vintage, the alcohol reached 15.3 percent.

From a stylistic point of view, Manfred think of 2006 Raven as something inbetween 2002 Papa and 2004 Poker Face, without being as concentrated as the latter.
It’s always hard to find the most elegant nuances in a young powerful wine like Raven, but already in at just one sniff, the greatness in it reveals. And that’s what I very often find in the wines from Sine Qua Non, an unlike most winemakers, Manfred has the talent to craft huge wines and blend them in a way where the richeness and concentration doesn’t end up in overwhelming wines. He is the master in maximizing power and new expensive oak barrels and still stay in balance.
Again aeration is nessicary for this young wine, and then a very fine note of white pepper and ink as well as a slight vegetal fragrance (from the stems) and notes of violts and aloe vera rises throught the compact fruit. On the palate, it's full bodied with an almost viscous texture, packed with ripe fruit and still so rich in its primary fruit flavors that I recommend a few more years of bottle age before it's opened. The tannins are important but well in balance, therefore almost silky. Complexity is not in my tasting notes of today, but I guess it will come in the coming years.
Drink it over the next 5-20 years

2005 Atlantis 1 Fe2O3 / 97-98 p
In this vintage, the blend was made of 93 percent Syrah (around 40 percent from Eleven Confession, almost 30 percent from Whitehawk Vineyard, some 20 percent from Alban Vineyard in Edna Valley, and the rest from Bien Nacido Vineyard), five percent Grenache from Eleven Confession and just two percent Viognier. Around 25 percent of the clusters were kept whole under the fermentation, and the maceration stretched over 17 days. Two thirds new French oak were used, the rest was used French but also a few American oak barrels. The ageing lasted for 22 months. Alcohol level reached 15.7 percent.
This was the first vintage Manfred decided to use three different labels for his wines. ”It is great fun to see how surprised people are when they unwrap the paper the bottles are wrapped in”, he says and laughs.

Although this wine is just a baby, one can clearly see the greatness in it. It’s packed with ripe, slightly sweetish and dense dark fruit flavors (cherries, blueberries and cassis), but there’s also cooler scents of crushed white pepper as well as a spicy touch of the stems, and a touch of new oak. The concentration is obvious, but even though the aromas and flavors are so intense, the wine is actually quite closed. This is more obvious when decanting the wine and one realize that it takes more than 5 hours in the decanter before it really starts to open up.
Man, this wine is really impressive, and its glycerol and silky fruitiness covers the huge but perfectly ripe tannic structure, hence giving the wine an almost velvety texture. At this youthful stage, there’s also a slight spiciness and bitterness from the stems, but that’s just fine.
Overall, there’s so much energy in the wine and taste seems to linger for minutes. As in so many wines from Sine Qua Non, it’s so impressive and good to drink already now. Knowing these wines from several tastings and vertical tastings like this one, I know that the real greatness will show with some more bottle age. The foresight for the most complex taste stretches at least 10-15 years from now. It may well be one of the classic vintages from Sine Qua Non.
Drink it over the next 5-18 years

2004 Poker Face / 98-99 p
In this warm vintage, 96 percent of the blend was Syrah, a third of that from the cooler Eleven Confession Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills and the rest from Whitehawk Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard and Alban Vineyard. The 2.5 percent of Mourvèdre that added spiciness in the blend was sourced from Alta Mesa Vineyard, and the rest is 1.5 percent of Viognier. As always, all varieties and all vineyard blocks were vinified and kept separately throughout the 27 months of ageing in almost 90 percent new French oak (this vintage, 17 barrels made the cut into Poker Face). Alcohol level is 15.5 percent.

As the other young wines, this is almost opaque, unredeemed and massive fruit in a style which, oddly enough, also offers great elegance. Perhaps it is the small nuances of violets that makes the dark sweet cherry fruit so easygoing and, which I like so much, moves the focus from the youthful vanilla and smoky scents from the oak barrels. The nose is really remarkable.
The flavor is as concentrated of seductive cherry, sloe and raspberry fruit with the same elegant fragrance of violets and licorice, and both tannins and acidity gives the wine a serious backbone that promises a slowly evolving life that probably extends until 2025, at the very least. However, already today the superlatives are many, especially the remarkable balance between sheer power and seductive flavors, but with time more complexity will rise out of the dense primary fruit. The fresh acidity, which is so well integrated and balanced in the rich fruit, should not be underestimated - it will help giving the wine a long life. Poker Face is a great wine!
Drink it over the next 5-20 years

2003 Papa / 96 p
This lovely wine is made of 97 percent Syrah, two percent Mourvèdre and one percent Grenache. Grapes were sourced from Whitehawk Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Alban Vineyard, the warmer Shadow Canyon Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County and Alta Mesa Vineyard, and for the first time also from the (now) 8.90 hectare estate vineyard Eleven Confession, planted in 2001 on a plateau above Arita Hills Vineyard (owned by Lafond Winery) in the southern part of Santa Rita Hills. The wine was matured in 90 percent new French oak barrels for 27 months, and as all wines from Sine Qua Non it was bottles without fining or filtration.
”I named this wine in honor of Matias Krankl, my dad, a very ordinary man who grew up in Czech Republic under poor circumstances – he left school after six years to work hard as an apprentice at a shoemaker, thereafter he worked even harder in the coal mines before he got a much safer job as a driver”, Manfred tells. ”Then he married a young and fantastic woman, and 22 years old, he became my father”, he adds.

Dense, youthfully purple and almost opaque, and almost equally massive in its aromas. When you try through the vintages from Sine Qua Non, you realize that Manfred Krankl is masterful in balancing the oak flavors, but in the younger vintages some sweetness, vanilla, slightly roasted and spicy oak flavors will be noted in the sweet and dense fruit. The concentration is huge with loads of ripe and lush fruit, and perfectly pure, in young vintages typically dark cherries, blueberries and blackberries as well as a dash of wild raspberries and a deliciously spicy violet note. Although the taste is so concentrated, full of ripe fruit, alcohol and glycerol to a very silky texture, there is enough of acidity, minerals and tannins to give the taste a great energy. It is not nearly mature and at its peak, not even five hours of decanting is enough to open up all the flavors. Two to three years of maturing would help.
Drink it over the next 2-18 years
2002 Just For The Love Of It / 99-100 p
This is one the best syrahs ever from Sine Qua Non, including the longer aged versions. It was made of 96 percent Syrah and two percent each of Grenache and Viognier. All grapes were sourced from Alban Vineyard in Edna Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, Stolpman Vineyard and White Hawk Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley and just a little from Shadow Canyon Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County. Around 90 percent of the barrels were brand new, and all French. Alcohol level is 15.2 percent.
The name symbolizes the true passion and love for wine that so many – but not all – people show. ”The ones who live their lives from the heart”, Manfred says.

It has always been something special about this wine. When I tried a number of components from barrels at Sine Qua Non in 2003, I realized that Manfred Krankl with this vintage had placed himself on a level among the world's biggest stars. All barrel samples we tasted was outstanding, but Manfred said they lacked that greatness he looks for, and that he achieves by blending different grape varieties, batches of different vinification and from various vineyards. I thought of it then, by tasting several great components, as the finest wine made ​​in the modest shed in downtown Ventura.
The wine is young, still purple, deep and intense, and the nose is rich with a deliciously sweet yet tangy and fresh note of cherries, wild raspberries and strawberries, it is so rich, fruity and deep, as well as earthy and complex, that it almost resembles an astounding cuvée of the best parcelles in Chambertin Grand Cru, added the finest flavor that can come from a pure wine of Grenache. The taste is rich and almost explosive, yet so elegant and vivid in its fruit saturated and tangy style. The oak is perfectly well balanced. Again, I'm impressed by the magnificent balance between pure power and elegance that Manfred is so skilled in capturing.
There is really only one reason not to drink this wine today, and that is that it actually has the potential to evolve for many more years to come.

Drink it over the next 10-15 years

2001 Midnight Oil / 97-98 p
A blend of 96 percent Syrah, 2.5 percent Grenache and 1.5 percent Viognier from Bien Nacido Vineyard, Stolpman Vineyard, Alban Vineyard and Whitehawk Vineyard. Vinification is the same as for the other vintages with around 90 percent of the barrens new. Alcohol level this great vintage didn’t jump over 15 percent, it was ”just” 14.9 percent. The production this year was 950 cases of six bottles.

Ten years old, still young and totally vital! The aroma is open and intense, well stuffed with sun ripe dark berries, blueberries and plums, but also with a really nice touch of lavender and licorice. Compared to the older vintages, one may find traces of the oak barrels in which the wine was brought up, but not more than a shadow of vanilla and grilled bacon (that note disappears after half an hour in the decanter, and instead all focus is set on the magnificent fruit). The flavor is equally intense and deliciously fruity, still quite marked by its tannins and good acidity, which gives a vibrant energy. This oil is one of the finest lubricants Manfred Krankl has given his wine quenching crowd of supporters. Despite the youth, it's absolutely good to drink now, but with a few more years of ageing the balance will be a little more polished, and life from that date extends at least 15 years.
Drink it over the next 15 years

2000 In Flagrante / 96-98 p
In this millennium vintage the Syrah fraction was the lowest of Sine Qua Non wines ever, it was only 88 percent. The rest was ten percent Grenache and two percent Viognier. Grapes came from Alban Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Whitehawk Vineyard and Stolpman Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley. The juice was fermented in stainless steel tanks and was then transferred into French barrels, only 72 percent new, for malolactic fermentation and 19 months of ageing. Again alcohol level stopped at 14.9 percent. A total of 725 cases of six were made of In Flagrante.

Deep, dark purple and still young, but with some deposit which reveals the wine wasn't filtered before bottling. The nose is dense, exuberant and massive with both cool scented and sun ripe and sweet fruit flavors, added with notes of liquorices and lavender, and even if the wine is young and so concentrated, there is also a more earthy hue that adds complexity. The body is still rich with somehow viscous fruit, glycerol and alcohol sweetness, and it took almost two hours of decanting before the aromas and flavors met each other in perfect harmony.
The wine is still young and unredeemed, but with aeration it opened up to a greater complexity with notes of air dried meet, charcuteries and white pepper, yet with the fruit in dominance. If absolute power and stylish elegance manage to find each other, they tend end up in a wine of this caliber. A few hours of aeration in a decanter is recommended, but rather should wine be mature in the bottle for a more few years.
Drink it over the next 10 years

1999 The Marauder / 97 p
One hundred percent Syrah, that’s the deal for the Marauder, and this is the only single Syrah wine made here at Sine Qua Non, ever. Around 40 percent of the grapes came from Alban Vineyard, 36 percent from Bien Nacido Vineyard and 24 percent from Stolpman Vineyard. Fermentation took place in stainless steel tanks and the wine was then transferred into brand new French oak barrels for malolactic fermentation and 17 months of ageing on its lees. ”My racking regime is all depending on each barrel, some barrels will remain unracked, some will be racked one time, others two or even three times”, Manfred says. Alcohol level is 14.9 percent. Only 1 998 bottles was made!

At first this was wine was a bit shy, although the dark and still slightly youthful purple color gives the impression that the wine still should be considered to be a young wine (except the fine sediment that revealed some bottle age). The nose is just lovely, after just some aeration absolutely delicious with both primary fruit aromas (sweet black currants, cherries and sun ripe blackberries) and more complex earthy, spicy and floral (violets) notes. To this, a fine acidity and a good grip of firm but ripe and to a certain extent also matured tannins are added.
Like so many 1999s, this wine shows that the vintage wine is superb and still not yet near to step into full maturity. One or two addition years in the cellar is a good thing, primarily to polish the tannins a bit more, and it will keep well until shortly after its twentieth anniversary.
Drink it over the next 10 years

1998 E-raised / 96-97 p
In this vintage, the cuvée was made of approximately 95 percent Syrah, five percent of Grenache and just a splash of Viognier. The grapes came from Alban Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard and Stolpman Vineyard. The wine was aged in all new French oak barrels for around 20 months, and it was bottled without fining or filtration. In this cooler El Niño vintage, alcohol only reached 14.0 percent.
E? Well, that’s Elaine, Manfred’s charming wife. ”Without whom Sine Qua Non wouldn’t have been flying”, Manfred says.

Thanks to the cool growing season of 1998, this wine has a lively acidity that creates a beautiful and life giving structure. The fruit is brighter, still raspberry like and floral, and in fact almost unrelieved which gives the wine a great elegance, and makes it a little different than most vintages in the lineup. A delicious spicy note of fennel and liquorices root adds complexity. Due to the lighter body, some alcohol warmth is noted, but overall the wine is very elegant and lively. As in all vintages with just some age, the feeling of oak almost non-existent, and with aeration the red fruit flavors was lifted. In the aftertaste it offers an even sweeter, more lush and refined flavor of wild raspberries. Purely in terms of aromas, the E-raised could be seen as a hybrid between high quality burgundies and stylish wine of Grenache from southern France. The 1998 vintage is generally described as weak, or even bad for red wines in California, but in this particular case the wine has developed into a elegant, aromatic and well structured wine!
Drink it over the next 6-8 years

1997 Imposter McCoy / 93 p
Again, Alban Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard and Stolpman Vineyard were the source of the 95 percent of Syrah and five percent of Grenache that made up this vintage. Yields was very small this vintage, and the production was around 2 900 bottles. Alcohol level is 14.9 percent.

This vintage is usually hailed as excellent and even phenomenal in Napa Valley and Sonoma, but down in Santa Barbara 1997 was one of the most difficult vintages in living memory. As in northern California it was hot, and the yields was unusually large, resulting in wines that are both a bit lighter and more fast maturing. This is evident in this wine, which certainly starts great with fine primary fruit aromas, and it even opened up a bit in the glass with some air, however it started to fade a little after a while - and even if the wine landed at a level that in other contexts might be described as really good, 1997 is one of the few weaker cards in the line up from Sine Qua Non. The fruit is a bit sweet, reminiscent of cherry liqueur with notes of blueberries and blackberries, much like a wine from Priorat in Spain, but with air it starts to dry out and thus that roughness becomes somewhat more austere than the other wines. Yet there has enough interesting flavors to the wine to be really good. There are similarities with the great wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which has reached a kind of lap time in their lives. Drink now and until 2015, or something like that.
Drink it over the next 8 years

1996 Against The Wall / 97 p
”This was a very tuff year for us, we really felt we were pushed against the wall, hence the name of this wine”, Manfred says. It is a blend of 92 percent Syrah from Alban Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard and Stolpman Vineyard, and eight percent Grenache from Stolpman Vineyard. After fermentation, as always with the indigenous yeast, the wine was racked into new French and (some) American oak barrels for malolactic fermentation and ageing for 19 months.  Alcohol level is 14.5 percent. The production this year was 3 576 bottles.

The color reveals a slight nuance of maturity, still it is quite dense and yet with a deep, almost purple core. The nose is equally intense, developed in a way that many wine tasters usually describe as Bordeaux like, but there is still a sufficient power and youthful intensity in the fruit, which is both dark and a bit primary sweetish. This leads to the conclusion that this vintage has more to offer in the coming years. Nuances of fennel and licorice adds some complexity. Tannins are vital but mature and almost silky, thanks to the quite rich and slightly sweet fruit flavors and lively acidity, the aftertaste lingers for a minute or so, contributing to  finesse. This is an extremely elegant wine which initially felt almost grenache like in its seductive fruit flavors, but with aeration it develops into a greater finesse. Although a very good wine indeed, I don't believe it will evolve into something much more complex with further ageing.
Drink it over the next 4-5 years

1995 The Other Hand / 94 p
During the 90s, a lot of things changed in California. One thing was the transition from more classic styled wines into riper and fuller bodied wines with higher alcohol. Therefore, I’m not surprised to see that the 1995 vintage from Sine Qua Non only have 13.5 percent alcohol. The blend this year, the second vintage for Sine Qua Non, was 94 percent Syrah and six percent Grenache from Alban Vineyard, Bien Nacido Vineyard and Stolpman Vineyard. The wine was aged in 70 percent new barrels, alls French, for 18 months. A total of 2 100 bottles was made and they was sold in cases of five with one bottle of the grenache.

The color still shows small traces of purple, almost as if the wine is young. The nose is great, intense rather than powerful and still fruit driven with notes of both sweeter dark berries and aromatic red fruits. With some air a more mature side starts to show, with complex secondary and earthy aromas of sous bois, cedar tree and tobacco. An almost fennel like spiciness and a floral nuance is still there to create excitement. The taste is medium full with dark fruit flavors and notes of violets, the tannins are ripe but still adds some resistance in the rich and slightly viscous mouth feeling, but giving the wine more aeration the age starts to show in the aftertaste, which now begins to show some signs of drying out. I'd love to find another bottle so drink again, then just decanted prior to serving it, just because it is so complex.
Drink it over the next 4-5 years

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A unique flavor from the past!

According the harvest reports, there’s only 93 hectares of the Mission grape in production in California. To find a wine made from it is not easy and to find a unique and very good wine from it, it almost unlikely. Yet there is one.
   The Mission grape was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards in the end of the sixteenth century. They took if from the Canary Islands, where it is known as Listán Negra, en local variety of average quality and low interest. However, this is a variety that can make a drinkable wine in dry and warm regions.

   The Spanish conquistadors brought cuttings of Listán Negra to plant in their new colonies, but it didn’t thrive in the warm and humid climate in the Caribbean, where the Spanish sugar canes did much better. When the Spanish soldiers conquered Mexico, they tried again to plant the cuttings, and here it worked much better. They used the wine for sacramental purposes at the mission stations the Jesuits priests founded, hence the new name Mission for this particular variety. When northern California stood in line to be christened, the Spanish priests build 21 missions stations from San Diego in the south, to the town of Sonoma in the north, and they planted this Mission grape for their sacramental wines.
   In the mid of century, when California had become an independent state belonging to the United States of America, viticulture evolved and wines started to be made of European grape varieties, Vitis vinifiera. The Mission grape went out of fashion, and the few vineyards that were left, was abandoned either due to the phylloxera in the late 1800s, or under the Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. 

When Deborah Hall and her (now) late husband bought an estate in the northern part of Santa Rita Hills in 1994, they did it with a dream of planting some vineyards. On their estate, they found a slope with old, gnarly vines that obviously hadn’t been taken care of for decades. They didn’t know what kind of vines it was, so they sent samples to UC Davis, where they via DNA identified the vines as Mission. Deborah later found out, through a quite in dept research, that the vineyard had been planted by the monks of Purisima Mission Station further west in the valley, but most likely were abandoned during Prohibition.
   In the hands of Deborah, these precious vines has since then been carefully taken care of. In addition to the 1.20 hectares of Mission they found (they are widely spaced, and some of vines are dead, so vineyard is not worth more than a third of that acreage), Deborah have planted another 0.40 hectare of Mission from cuttings of these old vines.
   Besides this unique wine, Deborah is also producing some pinots and her winery is called Gypsy Canyon. You should really look this winery up.
   Paul Lato is her consulting winemaker and the first vintage of the Mission wine was 2001, of the pinots 2003.

NV Ancient Vine Angelica Doña Marcelina’s Vineyard  / 92 p
This unique wine is made from 100 percent of old vine Mission, planted in 1887 in the Dõna Marcelina’s Vineyard in the northern part of Santa Rita Hills. Grapes are harvested at full ripeness, whole cluster pressed and the juice is then allowed to sit in a small tank overnight to become totally clear. Then the juice is fermented until it reaches around ten percent alcohol, and then a neutral brandy with 95 percent alcohol strength is added for the fermentation to stop. That leaves a fortified wine with around 17 percent of alcohol and some 90 grams of residual sugar per liter. Since the Jesuit priests didn’t use new oak barrels in the past, this wine has been kept in small older barrels, which are only filled to 60 percent for oxygen to allow an oxidation during the three years of maturation the wine gets.
   The wine is golden amber of medium intensity, on the nose it’s rich and very complex with notes of honey, dried fruit, almonds and walnuts, it’s actually reminiscent of a slightly drier style of Madeira or the mosctels of Setúbal in Portugal. On the palate, it’s medium bodied but quite intense, as fortified wine normally are, and it combines a delicious sweetness with a good rather than fresh acidity, and there’s also a mild (and positive) bitterness from the slight oxidation the three years of barrel ageing has given. The complex notes of honey and walnuts are there, as well as a sweetish touch of Sultana raisins. It’s a lovely wine, one of a kind, and it one of the very few classical styled fortified wines of California.
   Sadly, the production is very limited, and normally Deborah bottles somewhere between 25 and 50 cases of half bottles every year. It doesn’t come cheap – around 140 dollar including tax, but then the wine is a rare reminder of the history of the wine country of California.
   It should be served at around 14-15 degrees Celsius to cheeses or not to sweet deserts. It can hold up a few weeks in the opened bottle, so it’s no rush finishing the bottle. 
Drink it within 10 years

Friday, December 16, 2011

Lively and lovely sauvignons from Dragonette Cellars

Dragonette Cellars is a newcomer on the Santa Barbara wine scene, and a good one. The winery was founded in 2005 by the wine loving brothers John and Steve Dragonette and Brandon Sparks-Gillis, whom they met in Los Angeles when buying wines from the store he worked in then. “We became friends, and soon we realized we shared the same passion for wines, the same ideas, and also the dream of making our own wines”, Brandon says.

All good things are three, so the trio joined forces and worked hard to establish their own label. Brandon, who had a history in several Santa Barbara County wineries, again took the role as intern at several wineries, among them Sine Qua Non, to add knowledge and experience.
   Dragonette Cellars have their own small winery in Lompoc, just as so many other small handcraft wineries in the region. They follow the traditional methods in making their wines, either whole cluster or fully destemmed grapes, a few days of cold soak, then fermentation with the native yeast in small, around one ton open bins, utilizing pigeage for gentle extraction. French oak barrels are used, and luckily, the amount of new oak is moderate.
   The annual production has now reached around 3 000 cases, and that’s a level that Brandon is comfortable with. Three types of wines are made, a couple of lively wines of Sauvignon Blanc, a range of intense and seductive wines of Pinot Noir and a few wines of Rhône varietals. Focused should be at the sauvignons and pinots, that’s the real deal at Dragonette Cellars.

2010 Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc / 87 p
This is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc from three single vineyards, the Vogelzang and Grassini in the inland appellation Happy Canyon and the Refugio Ranch on the slopes of Santa Ynez Mountains. The great thing about this wine is its absolute purity rather than complexity – few wines of Sauvignon Blanc are complex in the sense chardonnays or cabernets can be. Around 60 percent of the juice is slowly fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel, the rest is fermented and raised in French oak barrels, of which just a few percent are new. Therefore pure varietal flavors and freshness is the personality of this wine. As expected, the nose is intense and highly aromatic with nuances of green apples, gooseberries and citrus, and there’s also a fine floral note here. On the palate, it is light to medium bodied, totally dry with a lively acidity that almost give the taste a tannic structure, and as the nose, it’s very aromatic.
   It’s a lovely wine to drink as a refreshing aperitif, or to be served to lighter dishes of steamed or seared white fish with lemon juice and olive oil, or greens or fresh herbs. Serve it at around 10-12 degrees Celsius, not more chilled that that.
Drink it 2011-2015

2010 Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Sauvignon Blanc / 89 p
Again, one hundred percent Sauvignon Blanc, and again grapes are sourced from Vogelzang Vineyard and Grassini Vineyard in Happy Canyon of Santa Ynez Valley. The difference is that this cuvée is the top selection of grapes from the best blocks in these vineyards, also the vinification is different. The juice is fermented in 225 and 500 liter French oak barrels, just some new, and after malolaktisk fermentation the wines has been kept on the fine lees for around ten to eleven months to gain some weight and texture.
   Not surprisingly, this wine is richer and broader with more depths and length. Still it is as intense and aromatic as the Santa Ynez Valley version, however much more polished and actually, yes, complex. It’s not really Bordeaux like, it too rich and fruit forward for that, but it’s more in that direction than in any other. The oak has given the wine a certain vanilla flavor and viscosity, but this is by no means a wine where the oak is overly obvious. If the regular bottling should be drunk young and slightly chilled, this one can med poured at 10-14 degrees Celsius to deliver more of its richness, and be kept in the cellar for a number of years. Try this wine with seared scallops, grilled lobster or not too spicy Thai food.
Drink it 2011-2018

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Four vintages of Syrah from Zaca Mesa

Zaca Mesa Winery is a classic, a Rhône Ranger with a long and well established reputation. Yet they seem to be overshadowed by more recent producers, not because one is better or worse than the other, rather a common fact in California that newly established wineries are more interesting. To me, that’s a very strange mentality, especially in United States where history, as I’m told over and over again on my trips around California, is a missing part of the wine culture. So, when there is a history, why not be proud of it? Why not look back in the recent past, and check out how well certain wines age?
This is what I do on a regular basis, vertical tasting will tell you a lot of the quality and consistency of a winery or a particular wine. Today I revisited Zaca Mesa to taste some older vintages of their prestige wine, the Syrah.

Four vintages, all good ones, were tasted and the overall impression is that the wine has been very consistent over the years. There are some changes from the 1996 vintage to the 2008, such as a slightly different proportion of Viognier (from 20 percent in the 1996 vintage, to just a few percent in the more recent vintages). Also the grapes have been sourced from different blocks in the vineyard. Another detail differs, the alcohol. As in most wines in California, alcohol level has increased since mid 90s, in this case from 13.5 percent to 14.5. This is a quite common change in alcohol level in California during this period.
The overall impression is that the Syrah from Zaca Mesa Winery evolves very slowly, and to a very complex wine, and that’s good news to anyone who drinks their wines within days or even hours after purchase, which unfortunately is the most common, in United States as elsewhere.

2008 Syrah / 90-92 p
This is the current vintage, and it is of course young, riper and richer than the other I tasted. Since the vintage was short of Viognier, this wine is made exclusively of Syrah, at least almost. Instead of adding Viognier grapes, there was a co fermentation with the skins from Viognier, so I wasn’t too surprised to find a quite floral and spicy note from Viognier. Besides that, the fruit is ripe and dark scented, and the earthy and spicy notes, not very different from what the French calls garrigue, are quite evident. On the palate it is rich and almost full bodied, intense and quite silky, still the tannins are youthful and firm, and there’s also a good but not overly lively acidity. This is a very good wine, a bit riper than most of the vintages I have tasted from Zaca Mesa, but it is very well balanced.
Serving it today, it should be decanted at least 30-45 minutes before serving it. Based on the fine evolution of the older vintages, some more years of bottle age would be a better choice.
Drink it 2012-2028

2001 Syrah / 92 p
The 2001 vintage was considered to be great all over California. This wine is just another example of that, and the wine is impressive. I was so surprised to find see, that this wine is ten years old. There’s still a lot of primary fruit aromas of dark and sweetish berries here, but the spicy notes of liquorice and garrigue (just a little of that) and also of charcuteries adds the type of complexity one wish to see in a great syrah with age (or in this case, just some age). On the palate it’s still quite youthful, there’s still some primary fruit sweetness and the tannins are still young and firm, and overall it is reminiscent of the 1999 vintage, although this 2001 is bit more concentrated with riper fruit.
Even though it’s ten years old, it still benefits from some more years in bottle, or at least half an hour of decanting, and of course to be poured in a big glass and served with a hearty dish of grilled beef or with venison.
Drink it 2011-2021

1999 Syrah / 92 p
As in the 2001 vintage, there’s just a few percent of Viognier in this blend, still that addition is notable. The vintage itself is great, and the wine is a very good example of the vintage. Although the wine has kept some primary fruit aromas, it’s more to it than fruit. This is a very complex wine that offers fine notes of sweet tobacco, sous bois, dried French herbs, and charcuteries, and overall the nose is very well balanced. It’s medium intense on the palate, rich in flavor but totally dry in a way that’s more closed rather than on its way to dry out, because there god length to it. It is surpisingly fresh to be twelve years old, and it’s absolutely delicious. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to follow it in the glass more than ten minutes, but over that short time, it opened up a bit. I would have loved to follow it over an hour in a decanter.
Drink it 2011-2019

1996 Syrah90 p
Fifteen years old but not old, I wrote in my notebook. This is lighter wine the the younger ones, and both the vintage and the fact that this wine consists of 20 percent Viognier, explains that pretty well. If the younger wines could be described as being bluish in the fruit, this one is more to red fruits. The yellow scented tropical fruit notes from Viognier are gone by now, but there’s a fine spiciness and very elegant secondary aromas here, but, no oxidation at all. I have recently tasted a lot of “great 1996 cabernets from famous wineries in Napa Valley” that wasn’t as fresh and well kept as this syrah! Tannins are still there to give the wine a good structure, but they are mature and almost velvety. This lovely wine surprised me, it’s elegant rather than full bodied and rich, and that’s this wine’s greatest assets.
It’s no hurry to drink the last bottles of this wine, but I doubt it will gain more complexity from further ageing.
Drink it 2011-2016

Friday, December 2, 2011

The 2008 Le Caprice from Peter Michael Winery

Peter Michael Winery now produces four pinots, with Le Moulin Rouge of fruit bought from the Pisoni Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands, as the first made (1997). The demand for pinots was one reason for them to add a few more pinots to the program, but the main reason was of course the love of Pinot Noir as a grape variety. In 2007 they started to buy grapes from the Reuling Vineyard close to Forestville in Russian River Valley (which is also classified as Sonoma Coast fruit). In this second vintage, the grapes are also sourced from that vineyard, but from 2009 they will only use fruit from their estate Seaview Vineyard far out in Sonoma Coast. With 2009 vintage, another two pinots was added to the wine list, the Clos du Ciel from the southernmost block in the vineyard with the least coastal climatic influence, and the Ma Danseuse, from the coldest block in the same vineyard.
All these wines are made in the same way, with totally destemmed grapes, four to five days of cold soak and then fermented with the indigenous yeast in small open top fermenters of stainless steel. During the fermentation and post maceration, pigeage is utilized twice a day. The wine is then transferred into 228 liter French oak barrels from Damy and Louis Latour, around 50 percent new, for malolactic fermentation and elevage during 15 months.  Alcohol levels are around 14.0 to 14.5 percent.

2008 Le Caprice / 91 p
As always with the pinots from Peter Michael Winery, this one has a quite deep cherry red color with nuances of purple, but with a slightly paler rim. On the nose, it offers a youthful, pure and intense fruit aroma, quite ripe, still fresh and lively. At first it's a bit closed, but with just 5-10 minutes in the glass, it starts to open up. However, it doesn't have the finest and most seductive notes, and no floral qualities, this is much more about sweet cherries and ripe wild raspberries, and it's delicious. Even though winemaker Nick Morlet uses 50 percent new French oak for the elevage, the oak is very well integrated, almost totally absorbed by the fruit.
However, I find a slight trace of smokiness on the nose, but by no means at a level that substantially impaired the scent. I'm quite convinced that it derives from the smoke from the bush fires that haunted the Mendocino wine growers during some weeks in August. The smoke was pushed out to the sea from southern Mendocino, but was sucked back into the coastline of Sonoma. In some coastal vineyards, one may find small traces of smoke taint, and I guess this is what I find here.
On the palate, it's medium bodied, lively and fresh and of course fruit forward and almost sweetish. Tannins are fine, ripe and silky, alcohol notable but not too strong. Again, the oak stands in the shadow of the fruit, and there's just a small spiciness from it that adds some complexity. At this stage, I find the wine to be too young to really show complexity, at least the finish is quite closed.
It didn't really open up in the glass during the 30 minutes I had it, and even though it's a lovely and quite charming, but quite rich wine, it doesn't have the fragrance of a great pinot.
I'd keep it for a year or two, and serve it at 15 degrees Celsius.
Drink it 2013-2018

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Captured by Kapcsándy’s 2008s

Since the inaugural vintage, I’ve been impressed by the wines of Lou Kapcsándy and his estate just outside of Yountville. Lou, who founded a construction company in Seattle, came in contact with the American wine business when he built the winery for Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest in Washington.

The Kapcsándy family moved to California in 1962, and wine slowly became a more important part of the daily life for Lou and his wife Roberta. At that time, there wasn’t too many wineries up and running, but Lou visited the very few that were operation in Napa Valley and Sonoma at the time. Later on, in 1998, he started to import fine wines from France, mostly from Bordeaux, and from his homeland Hungary.

For many years, he had been a huge fan of the Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Beringer, and he noted that the Cabernet grapes from the State Lane Vineyard in Yountville very often constituted a significant part of the blend. When he sectrely heard that this vineyard was for sale in 2000, he put a bid on it and bought it. At the time, the vineyard was heavily hit by phylloxera, and Beringer, who since 1975 had a 30 year long lease on farming the vineyard, had cancelled the contract already in 1999, with a new contract to buy grapes the remaining five years.
The truth is that Beringer had wanted to buy the vineyard and replant it, if they had been given such an offer. Instead Lou Kapcsándy bought the vineyard before Beringen knew if was out for sale.
When Lou Kapcsándy took over, he planted the vineyard according to Bordelaise methods, with higher density and lower trained vines, he also changed the row orientation to obtain a more optimal effect of the sun and the airflow. He also made deep analysis on the soil, so he could plant the right grape variety and clone in the perfect matching soil.
The result has since the first vintage 2003 been remarkable, and the wines from Kapcsándy are already now among the finest produced in Napa Valley. Behind that quality and style, one finds a small state of the art and ultra clean winery, a sorting of grapes that is unparalleled, and an ambition that is sky high. Only French oak barrels of the finest quality are used.
Alcohol levels were a bit higher in the 2008 vintage compared to previous vintages, and I hope this was an exception from the rule. Neither Lou Kapcsándy nor his winemaker Denis Malbec is very keen on high alcohol levels, they opt for a maximum strength of 14.5 percent, but most often the alcohol is normally in the range of 13.5 to 14.0 percent.

I must say that these wines are among the finest ever made at this estate. Still I can’t get the outstanding 2007s from my memory. I just tasted the 2007 State Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (below called "Grand Vin" in the 2008 vintage), which an absolutely stunning effort and a wine of great complexity, although still very youthful and marked by its classical structure. To be honest, you don’t have to look for any given vintage to find pleasure here, you just have to work hard find any bottle at all. And when you do, you’d better buy it.
The total production is around 4 000 cases of wine per year, and every single bottle comes from their own 6.50 hectare State Lane Vineyard.

2008 Endre / 90 p
According to Lou Kapcsándy, this is not a second wine, but another wine. “We put as much efforts in this wine as in the other wines, it’s just a wine with a lighter and more fruity body and leaner palate, made to be enjoyed earlier”, winemaker Denis malbec told me on my last visit at the estate. It’s a blend of about 55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot, 15 percent Cabernet Franc and a splash of Petit Verdot, all grapes from the estate vineyard. The wine was matured in French oak barrels, 80 percent new, for about 20 months.
As the intention was explained to me, this wine is clean and fruit forward with a sweet dark berry scent, quite elegant and easy to drink thanks to its lean texture with just a fine tannic structure. Style wise it’s related to the more serious wines (sorry for this comment, Denis) of Kapcsándy, but it doesn’t have the weight or the mid palate, or the intensity of flavor or the length. However, it’s good and very drinkable wine.
Drink it 2012-2018

2008 Estate Cuvée / 95 p
The estate cuvée is made to display the personality of the site, and the blend will vary quite a bit from year to year. In this vintage, the wine is made of 68 percent Cabernet Sauvignon (a relatively high proportion), 22 percent Merlot and five percent each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It was bottled after 20 months in 70 percent new French oak barrels.
Color is young, dark purple and almost opaque. Although it’s just a baby, the nose is open and offers a great bouquet of ultra pure, sweet and intense dark berry fruit with loads of cassis and blackberries, still it’s overall a very elegant wine with a youthful oak sweetness. What I really liked when I tasted it, and had it in the glass for around 20 minutes, was how slow but well it developed in the glass. Don’t forget it’s a very young wine, it’s should be (and it is) packed with primary aromas, yet I almost wrote complexity in my first tasting notes. On the palate, it is rich with that same purity I always find in the wines from Kapcsándy, they really can afford to use only the very best grapes, therefore the texture is lush and silky and just held together with a very fine tannic structure. The oak is well integrated, although at this stage just a bit toasty. Consider the youth of this wine, the finish is very long, and delicious.
Drinking it in the coming few years, I’d give it at least one hour in the decanter, and I’d pour it in large Bordeaux glasses. But I recommend a few more years of bottle age, and then the true complexity will be there.
Drink it 2013-2028

2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Grand Vin / 98-100 p
This is another absolutely stunning effort of this wine, just like the 2007 vintage of it. In this vintage the blend was 87 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, five percent each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and just three percent of Petit Verdot. It was kept in French oak barrels, 85 percent new, for around 20 months.
As the Estate Cuvée, the color is dark, almost opaque, but the rest is quite different although you’ll see the house style. First of all, the nose is just stunning, totally amazing in its intensity and concentration, which however doesn’t make the wine overblown in any sense. On the contrary it’s so elegant thanks to its purity and freshness, and in contrast to the Estate Cuvée, there are already those complex Bordeaux like notes of cedar, lead pencil and grassiness (which is not unripness, but a quality sign on a perfect harvest decision). Still the fruit is dark, a bit sweetish and just lovely. On the palate it’s very rich with a great intensity, good mid palate and lingering aftertaste, it is well held together by the firm but perfectly ripe tannic structure, and thanks to the acidity the taste is fresh. Neither oak nor alcohol stands out, which is another sign of a very great wine, but there is s slight oak bitterness in the very finish of the taste, which is totally natural is a young wine like this.
As for the Estate Cuvée, some more years of bottle age is recommended, and the serving recommendations are the same. This wine though, would most likely live much longer.
Since it was only made in 400 cases, and Robert Parker gave it a perfect 100 point score, it will be very hard to find. However, it’s well worth trying!
Drink it 2014-2038

2008 Roberta’s Blend / 98 p
I have said many times that the Roberta’s Blend is one of the very best Merlot wines in the world. This vintage is another proof of that statement. In this vintage, there’s just four percent of Cabernet Franc in the blend, and the wine was raised in brand new French oak barrels for 18 months. “This vintage may well be the best we’ve achieved so far”, Lou Kapcsándy said when we tasted the wine together, and I’m willing to agree. As in the others wines, color is impressive, as is the nose. It boasts of dark ripe fruit, loads of blueberries, blackberries and cassis, and there’s also a very fine note of hazelnuts and dark chocolate from the oak, that marries just perfect with the fruit. On the palate, it’s richer than the Grand Vin, still the structure is there to make it totally dry and perfectly well balanced, and it’s just a wonderful wine with a great intensity and energy, and it will be a lolely wine to keep at least ten years to see how the complexity evolves over the years.
Serving recommendation is the same as for the other wines.
Drink it 2012-2033

2008 Vino del Sol / 95 p
This is a fun little sweet wine, made in a different way than in the 2007 vintage, when it was made entirely from dehydrated Merlot grapes from Roberta’s Block. In this vintage, it’s a blend of 47 percent Merlot, 34 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Cabernet Franc and four percent of Petit Verdot. The grapes were crished and fermented in steel tanks to around five to seven percent of alcohol before a neutral local brandy was added to stop the fermentation and leave around 90 grams of residual sugar in the wine and out the alcohol strength at 17.6 percent.
This port styled wine is lovely, loaded with sweet and delicious flavors of sun ripe blueberries, black currants and blackberries, and although it’s high in alcohol, it’s much smoother than most ports. Acidity is fine rather than lively, but it gives some needed freshness to the taste. I find it to be a delicious that I’d love to serve at around 16-18 degrees Celsius in medium size glasses to matured blue cheeses, or (which I prefer myself) to rich chocolate desserts.
Drink it 2011-2020