Sunday, August 26, 2012

Spring Mountain Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons

Not only is Spring Mountain Vineyards one of the most beautiful wine estates in Napa Valley (and California), it’s also a very reliable source of high end but moderate priced wines. The more than 340 hectares large estate climbs from 120 meters of altitude at the foot of Spring Mountain, just next to the town of St Helena, up to 480 meters, and the total planted surface is 91 hectares, divided into 132 different vineyard blocks, some of them on steep, terraced slopes.

A handful wines are made here, a very good, refreshing wine of Sauvignon Blanc with a splash of Sémillon, a surprisingly good Pinot Noir (!), two wines of Syrah and two wines of Cabernet Sauvignon (predominately). It’s the cabernets that are the star of the show. They both offer just everything one can wish for in a mountainside wine. There is density, power, depth, structure, minerality, freshness, finesse and elegance, and, which I see as a great thing, longevity.

The estate itself is old, at least parts of it, but the greatness is of more recent time. It’s owned by Swiss business man Jacob Safra, who bought it bit by bit from 1992 and onwards. I liked the wines already in the late 1990s, but the breakthrough came with the new winemaker Jac Cole in 2003 (all though David Ramey made their 2001 and 2002 vintages), and since then a great deal of the vineyards has been replanted.
   The wines are made in a classic way, small stainless steel tank fermented with 15 days of skin contact, then transferred into French oak barrels to undergo malolactic fermentation and ageing. Just in time for the 2011 vintage, eight brand new Taransaud oak fermenters were installed in the cave, so I think we can see even more perfection in the wines in the vintages to come.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon / 92-93 p
This is an absolutely pure and lovely expression of the terroir of Spring Mountain! The cuvée this year is 97 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and just three percent of Cabernet Franc, and it was raised in 50 percent new French oak barrel for nearly two years. Although very young, it’s already quite complex, the dark and deeply concentrated but yet so elegant nose is not all about fruit (dark cherries and black currants), there’s also lovely notes of cedar, lead, gravel and minerality. On the palate, it’s rich, or rather intense, with a good density without being full bodied or fruit driven. The tannins are marked, but not aggressive, and they are backed up by a good acidity and a vital minerality that tickle the tongue. The alcohol is well balanced, there’s just a slightly warm touch in the end of the finish. It many sense, this is a very classic wine that will turn into what’s normally is described as Bordeaux like, but with a richer fruit.
   I really enjoyed the 2005 vintage, but that’s a big and very tight one that still needs a lot of air before serving it. The 2007 vintage is a step up in elegance and complexity, so I prefer it. If opened young, you should decant it at least one hour before drinking it.
Drink it 2013-2027

2007 Elivette / 93-94 p
The Elivette is the finest and most intense selection here, it also priced higher, 125 dollar compared to 75 dollars for the regular cuvée. In this vintage, the cuvée of this top selection from Spring Mountain Vineyards consists of 84 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 percent of Cabernet Franc and four percent of Petit Verdot. Compared to most reserve wines in Napa Valley, there are no differences in the vinification, it’s the same type of fermentation and ageing in oak, it’s just a pure vineyard lot and barrel selection. The wines is quite a bit more intense, the concentration is more obvious, which adds the sensation of being a more silky and less structured wine, which is not the case. It’s just more of the good stuff to balance and in some way also coat the tannins. I’d give this wine even more air if serving it today, but I’d rather keep it a few more years from now.
Drink it 2013-2027

Monday, August 20, 2012

A brilliant trio from Lioco

IPOB, In Pursuit Of Balance, is a manifest to look for and celebrate totally balanced wines of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, crated in 2011 by master sommelier Rajat Parr of Michael Mina and RN74, and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards in Sonoma Coast.

One of the members is the 10 000 cases young wine company Lioco, founded in 2005 by sommelier Kevin O’Connor (Spago, in Beverly Hills) and wine merchant Matt Licklider (North Berkley Import). Longing for other types of wines than the fruit driven, full bodied and oaky wines that came in fashion during the 1990s, they started out to craft elegant wines with low alcohol, high natural acidity, and a good expression of their terroir.
   They hired John Raytek as their winemaker, purchased Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from cool vineyard sites in Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Chalone and Anderson Valley, and old vine dry farmed Carignane from Redwood Valley in the northern Mendocino, and begun to make a series of fine tuned wines with a true expression of the variety and its birthplace.

The wines are all “hands off made” with early harvested grapes, normally at 21-23 Brix, which end up in wines with alcohol levels at around 12.0 to 13.5 percent. The Chardonnays are slowly whole cluster pressed and then fermented with their natural yeast in either stainless steel tanks or smaller steel drums. There is no oak at all! Due to the high levels of malic acid, all wines are full malolactic, but there’s enough of acidity to make them taste super fresh. They are all bottled after six months on their lees, with just some bâtonnage.
   Chardonnay would be their mayor production, but they also make a series of very fine and elegant Pinot Noirs that shouldn’t been overseen, and a superb old vine Carignane called Indica.
The very good news is that these wines are not expensive, they range from 20-50 dollars!  

This is one of the most thrilling producers of the new age of California winemaking. Don’t miss them!

2010 Russian River Valley Chardonnay / 90 p
This is not a second wine, it’s a wine crafted from two vineyards, one in the central part of Russian River Valley, and one much cooler at Bodega Highway in the southwestern corner of Green Valley. Since the grapes are very slowly whole cluster pressed, the juice is in contact with the skins for almost eight hours, which add a good structure and a touch of golden color. The funny thing is that it reminds me of a more classic wine from Meursault, due to its slightly diacetyl flavor and creamy texture. As in the other wines, there’s a steely touch to it, but there’s so much more complexity than in most of the steel fermented Californian Chardonnays. There are no traces at all of alcohol, and yes, it’s just 12.3 percent. That’s the beauty, and the persuit of balance! This is the first vintage of this 400 case bottling.
Drink it 2012-2016

2010 Chardonnay Demuth Vineyard / 92 p
The Demuth Vineyard is located at 520 meters of altitude in the high end av very cool part of Anderson Valley, north of Roederer Estate. It was planted 40 years ago with the Old Wente clone, and although the vines were planted on their own roots, there are just small signs of phylloxera and the yields are less than 20 hectoliter per hectare. Of all Chardonnays in the line up from Lioco, this is the most astringent and mineral driven one, the most Chablis like if one should compare to the French wines (which normally if a quite stupid and meaningless idea, yet common).
   This is an absolute pure expression of Chardonnay, more marked by its birthplace, the cool climate, which results in a cooler and crisp fruit (lemon, green apples) and high acidity and, the poor slate soil, which add a load of minerality and structure to the wine. Although note the same chalky minerality of Chablis wines, it offers a lovely energy that lingers for a minute, and it’s really delicious. Serve it at 12 degrees Celsius, and with some air in the glass (or decanted 20-30 minutes), it will be even more complex.
Drink it 2012-2020

2010 Chardonnay Hanzell Vineyard / 91 p
The famous Hanzell Vineyard was planted to Chardonnay over 50 years ago, and they have never sold grapes to anyone in the past. Of pure interest to find out how a wine from their grapes in the hands of Lioco, with their minimalistic philosophy, would taste like, they decided to sell some grapes to them in 2010. This wine is made from the clones Old Wente, Robert Young and the Hanzell Selection, harvested at 22.7 Brix. Of the trio, this is the most powerful wine and in that sense it is the “grand cru” of them. It offers a rich and slightly nutty, almost toasty nose with a flinty minerality, its medium bodied and very intensive with a rich and creamy texture, but lively acidity and a tickling minerality. With its 13.4 percent alcohol, it’s quite Burgundian in its structure. It’s a very good wine, that opens up just lovely with decanting, just lika the wines from Burgundy.
Drink it 2012-2016

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A lovely Nebbiolo from Clendenen Family Vineyards

In 2010, only 62 hectares was planted to Nebbiolo in California, and of that just one hectare is found in the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard in the northeastern corner of Santa Maria Valley. The vines were planted in 1994 and gives two wines, the lovely Nebbiolo Bricco Buon Natale and the even more impressive Nebbiolo Punta Esclamativa.

   It is said that it takes a lot of knowledge and wine appreciation to understand the wine world, and to even get close to what a varietal wine or a blend from a specific wine region or even smaller appellation tastes like. In most cases, unless we talk about world class wines from the best winemakers in the world, that precise knowledge isn't there.
   Over the last two decades, when I have travelled the wine world, I have heard thousands of times that "this is our Chablis styled Chardonnay", and "this is so Montrachet-like", and "this is just like the greatest wines of Médoc", och "a great Tempranillo" and, not too often though, "our very finest Barolo-styled Nebbiolo". And in an overwhelming majority of these cases, are there very small similarities, if any at all.
   However, it doesn't take more than a small chat with legendary Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and his more recent Clendenen Family Vineyards, to realize that he knows what he is talking about and that he really knows the world of wine. And if you're not lucky enough to meet him and talk to him, the answer is in the bottle. The guy knows the world of fine wine!

2003 Nebbiolo Punta Esclamativa / 91 p
This is a one hundred percent Nebbiolo from two small lots of nine year old Nebbiolo vines, fermented in small tanks with a total of three weeks of skin contact, then matured in 500 liter French oak barrels during the for Barolo wines typical time of four years. Alcohol level is, according to the label, 13.5 percent, and I have no reason to think that this isn't true. There's no traces of sweet alcohol or alcohol warmth in the taste.
  I poured this wine blind at 15 degrees Celsius in Burgundy shaped glasses to a handful of top sommeliers, and some of them went directly to Nebbiolo. That's a good sign, and I totally understand that. The others placed it in Santa Barbara County, mostly for its intense red fruit flavors, riper fruit and lively acidity, and besides the tannins, they thought it was a great Pinot Noir. Not too bad either, to me Nebbiolo and its great wines from Barolo and Barbaresco is the burgundian wine style of Italy.
   At first, the fruit scent was a bit "warmer" in style, so one sommelier suggested it could be the warmer 2003 vintage in Piedmont, and that both the acidity and tannic structure was a bit leaner than in the Italian wines, and that's a good comment. Still the variety character is there, true and without no doubt very typical. Red fruit, sun ripe raspberries, rose petals, a hint of fine tobacco, even that small note of that rubber I find so attractive in Barolos and Barbarescos, and those characters became much more prominent after some hours in the decanter, to be even more true "Barolo like" after 24 hours in the decanter! There's just a small sweetish note of the oak, but still on a very moderate level, and a slightly riper fruit than in the Piedmontese counterparts.
   Based on the fact that the wine is now nine years old and that it took around a day for it in the decanter to really open up, my guess is that it should age beautifully another decade or even more. Still I think it will be at its best, with all its lovely and already complex aromas, the coming six years from now. Serve it at around 16-17 degrees Celsius, but decant it before!
Drink it 2012-2018