Saturday, January 1, 2011

Greg LaFollette renaissance


It’s an honor to name Greg LaFollette the California Wine Report Winemaker of the Year 2010. Greg is very skilled and a well respected winemaker who has worked in the business for two decades. With degrees in biology, chemistry and food science, he left UC Davis in 1991 to work with research in the laboratory at Beaulieu Vineyards. Here he got the opportunity to meet and work with the legendary wine consultant André Tchelistcheff.
Winemaking led him to Australia, where he worked at Yarra Ridge for a while. After that he came back to Napa Valley and Beaulieu Vineyard, then Jarvis and later on Kendall-Jackson. Greg’s main focus were now Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and he was very close to break through on his own with these varieties, when he was appointed as the winemaker at the newly established Flowers Vineyards out in the true Sonoma Coast in 1996.
Over the coming years, Flowers gained a cult status, and Greg LaFollette was now a name to watch. It was during these years, the idea of making wines under an own label came. In 2001, Greg LaFollette and his friend Greg Bjornstad founded their own label Tandem. With contracts in some of the finest vineyards in Sonoma, they started to craft some very interesting wines out of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as tiny amounts of Pinot Meunier and Sangiovese (which was a very good wine!).
While making his own wines at a custom crush winery in Sebastopol, he was also hired by the new owners of De Loach Vineyards in Russian River Valley to introduce natural farming and biodynamical techniques, as well as restore and improve the quality if their wines. He didn’t only bring his skills to De Loach Vineyards, he also introduced a wide range of exciting single vineyard wines in their portfolio. By then, De Loach Vineyard was, more than in the past, a winery to count on.
A few years ago he left De Loach Vineyards to focus more on his own label, as well as consultant for other wineries. One of them was Quivera Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, where he introduced biodynamical principles in their farming. This also resulted in big a step forward for Greg LaFollette when the owners or Quivira Vineyards, Pete and Terri Kight, bought Greg’s label Tandem in 2008 and reorganized it to LaFollette Wines. “For me it was great”, Greg told me. “Now I can focus on the vineyards and the wines – I don’t have to take care of either administration or sales”.
The new LaFollette portfolio is based on the same first class vineyards in Sonoma that Greg worked with in the past, but the wines seems to be a bit more distinct. It’s truly a renaissance for Greg LaFollette.

2009 Chardonnay Lorenzo Vineyard / 94 p
This is a great expression of 100 percent Chardonnay from the renowned 4.05 hectare Lorenzo vineyard, which was planted with (today) not specified clones back in 1974 and 1975. The vineyard itself is great, but wouldn’t have been well known unless Helen Turley made it famous under her prestigious label Marcassin in the 90s. This wine, though, is much better and far more complex. With a pH of 3.31, and no adjustment of acidity, the wine has sufficient amount of acidity to balance out any bitterness there may be from the 40 percent new French oak used for the upbringing of this wine.
Color is, of course by the young age of the wine, very pale, but clear and bright. There are a lot of things this Californian chardonnay isn’t – like big, sweet, oaky and overly alcoholic. No, this wine combines the finest of California terroir with the wise hands and skills of a smart winemaker. Greg really knows what he’s doing, and in this bottling his skills transform the grapes into something extremely lovely, and complex. The nose reveals a pure, cool and not too ripe fruit quality, but with “not too ripe” I actually mean – the nose is exceptional in its cooler style, with lemon peels, citrus, golden apples and crunchy pears. To be very honest without bragging about my frequent trips to the greatest estates in Burgundy two to three times per year, I find this wine to be quite burgundian like! However, there’s no chalky mineral aroma or flavor, but there’s enough structure in the wine for it to be described as very classic! The oak, in this wine very well integrated, is also a bit more spicy than in its burgundian counterparts.
Drink it 2010-2019.

2009 Chardonnay Manchester Ridge / 91-92 p
Located 600 meters above sea level on the first ridge from the Ocean in Mendocino, is really a challenge to work with. It ripens very late – in this vintage Greg harvested the grapes November 4, at 20.8 Brix! It covers 12.15 hectares and is planted various clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and in this wine there’s only the Clone 809, which is also called Chardonay Musqué. And you can tell, it adds floral and spicy notes to the wine. What Greg does, is to use a certain yeast strain to break down the linalool, the ester that give this floral note, and therefore it’s not as floral as it would have been. However, he let the juice cold soak with the skins for 32 hours during the press to extract that aroma as well as structure, and you’ll find some very fine and gentle tannins in the wine.
It’s a very interesting and elegant and highly aromatic wine with the expected floral notes as well as citrus and just a texture rather than flavor of the oak (it’s fermented and kept in neutral French oak). On the palate, its medium bodied, very fresh and lively with just a touch of tannins, and the same floral notes and fresh citrus flavors as on the nose, and the aftertaste lingers for a while. It’s good, very good, but it’s nothing for those who enjoy big, ripe, buttery and oaky American chardonnays.
Drink it 2011-2017.

2009 Pinot Noir Van der Camp Vineyard / 92-93 p
Originally planted as a sparkling wine vineyard, the Van de Kamp vineyard has turned out to be an outstanding source of Pinot Noir for still red wine. This wine is a true example to that. Color is medium high and at first the nose is a bit closed. After a few minutes in the glass, it starts to open up, and reveals a medium high intensity with a very sophisticated fruit that combines darker sweet and sour cherries with sweet raspberries. There’s also a very fine earthy note that adds complexity, and overall it’s more European in style that typical Californian – not that this is always preferred or regarded as better – after all, the wine comes from California – it’s just the impression I’d like to share. And, to be very honest, it’s just lovely. As always the wines from Van der Kamp Vineyard has a good structure of tannins and lively acidity (which is a good asset when making sparkling wines), so the wine benefit from a few years of cellaring. I kept the open bottle and tasted the wine over a period of four days, and it was just in the fourth day it lost its brightness and intensity. Day two, it actually tasted better and more complex than it did a first!
Drink it 2011-2025.

2008 Pinot Noir DuNah Vineyard / 92 p
As a consulting winemaker, Greg made wine for many wineries and families. One of them was Rick and Diane DuNah between 2003 and 2008. Their vineyard, just about four hectares in size, is situated in the cool southern eastern area of Sonoma Coast of Petaluma Gap, overlooking Cotati and San Francisco (on a clear day). It was planted in 1998 with Pinot Noir of Dijon 115, 667 and 777 clones and some Chardonnay, and prior to making their own wine all grapes were sold off to Flowers. The 2008 vintage marked the last vintage under their own label, but Greg continued to make wine from their grapes, under the LaFollette label.
“Compared to what Rick and Diane wanted, I harvest my grapes almost ten days earlier at lower Brix and pH, therefore my wine is a bit brighter and more elegant, and I also use less new oak on this wine, approximately e third compared to 40 or sometimes ever 50 percent”, Grey says. This has resulted in a much more elegant and perfumed wine.
The nose is very elegant but intense, absolutely pure with fine notes of red berries, rhubarb and blood orange, and there’s also a touch of charcuteries that adds spice and complexity. The oak is well integrated and supple, acidity as fresh and lively as expected, and the aftertaste light and elegant without any sweetness, alcohol or oak bitterness. It’s a truly lovely wine to be enjoyed by those who prefer elegance to power.
Drink it 2011-2018.

2009 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard / 91-92 p
As for the chardonnay, the grapes for this Sangiacomo bottling, comes from the cooler western part of the vineyard, and it’s made from the clones Swan, Dijon 777 and just a little bit of Dijon 114. Vinification is the same as for the other pinots. On the nose, the wine offers a wide range of red berries, also a slight red floral note, just a slight spiciness of the oak, and a kind of wild earthiness that Greg often refer to as “sauvage”, and that might derive from the Dijon 14 clone (if I’m correct), which adds an interesting energy to the wine. On the palate, there is a fine sweetness (I often find it in the wine from this site) which is perfectly well balanced with a lively acidity, the texture of the oak, and a good but ripe and well balanced tannic structure that will help this wine to age.
Drink it 2011-2019.

2009 Pinot Meunier Van der Kamp Vineyard / 90 p
The Pinot Meunier section in this vineyard was planted in 1959 and 1960, and these are the oldest vine of that champagne variety in California. I find it very interesting and exciting that Greg actually makes a varietal wine out of it – it’s rarely seen elsewhere on Planet Wine. The grapes are whole cluster fermented in closed stainless steel tanks (almost the maceration carbonique method) with its natural yeast. It’s a fine wine for sure, but it doesn’t offer the same complexity as the pinots, still you’ll find floral notes, raspberries, strawberries, a good acidity, just a hint of earthy notes (from the stems, I guess) and a fine tannic structure in your tasting notes. In this vintage, Greg made just 48 cases. It’s a fun wine to pour in a blind tasting, but I’d rather finish it with a roasted chicken or some veal with mushrooms. Serve it as the pinots, at 15-16 degrees Celsius in a burgundy glass.
Drink it 2011-2017.

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