Sonoma is, in fact, a large region. Most people, including myself, would probably think of Sonoma as Napa’s quieter, more rural, more familial, ‘little brother’.
West of Napa, across the Mayacamas mountain range is Sonoma Valley around the city of Sonoma that perhaps does play this role, with the more Northerly zone towards Healdsburg incorporating the relatively large Russian River Valley, home to much Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Dry Creek Valley, West of Healdsburg, the source of much old-vine Zinfandel.
But Sonoma County stretches a lot further than that, with Sonoma Coast running up from the mouth of Russian River, up the steep-sided hills a handful of miles from the Pacific Ocean, that march North towards Mendocino. Here, very cool-climate expressions are found, especially of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
With the addition of inland zones like Alexander Valley, uplands like Moon Mountain and Sonoma Mountain, and of course Sonoma’s portion of Bay-fog-cooled Carneros in the South of the County, Sonoma is a highly diverse region.
What is true, however, is the familial feel of the place, compared with the grandeur and tourist power of Napa – with perhaps Francis Ford Coppola’s large, Sonoma winery-cum-Hollywood-resort being the exception that proves this rule.
These can helpfully be split into 3 groups, starting with Zinfandel producers, of whom there are several, perhaps reflecting how much I like well-made, old-vine, field-blend Zinfandels:
- Ridge Vineyards: Lytton Springs near Healdsburg, and Geyserville in Alexander Valley are the Sonoma jewels in Ridge Vineyards’ extensive Zinfandel portfolio, and indeed in old-vine California Zinfandels. My own, in-depth profile of Ridge, with detail on Zin winemaking can be found here
- Bedrock Vineyards: Morgan Twain-Peterson and I became MWs on the same day. I tasted his wines first at graduation and they really stood out. And again at a couple of MW winemaker tastings. And finally at the masterclass in his family’s Bedrock vineyard. Morgan is a master of creating multi-layered, structured, complex wines out of Zinfandel vines with trunks thicker than the span of my hands. The Semillon was very good too
- Turley: in a riper style than Bedrock, Turley also specialise in finely-crafted, complex, old-vine Zin field blends. This shone through in the masterclass wines
- Bucklin: Will Bucklin’s old-vine Zin wines deserve special mention, not only for being really good, but also for being exceptional value at under $40 a bottle
- Ravenswood: long-time champions of Zinfandel, though a large producer, Ravenswood still deserve kudos for making respectable entry-level Zinfandels and very good, reserve bottlings, with longevity and depth
- A. Rafanelli: visited back in 2004, Rafanelli is a small, family producer in Dry Creek Valley, whose Zinfandels I found convincing then (and whose vineyards adorn my homepage [link]). It would be fascinating to put them alongside the likes of Bedrock and Ridge today, and see if I hold the same view
- Martinelli: also visited in 2004, just to the tasting room in Russian River Valley. Their Zinfandels were certainly intense, with Giuseppe & Luisa coming in at 16.6% ABV. But I thought good, back then. Again, interesting to compare 14 years later!
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir makers:
- Ramey: David Ramey’s eponymous winery makes ripe but pure, balanced, sophisticated Chardonnay including single vineyards in the Russian River Valley, most recently a Rochioli Vineyard-designated wine – the first producer to do so other than Rochioli themselves. Not cheap, but very fine wines
- DuMOL: Like Ramey, ripe, but finely-crafted Chardonnays, especially their Sonoma Coast Estate bottling
- Kutch (C, PN, Sonoma C)
- Iron Horse: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-based, traditional method sparkling wines, that blend extended lees-ageing with a core of fruit ripeness, characteristic of Russian River Valley, with a refreshing briskness of acidity
- Stonestreet: Jackson Family Wines’ Alexander Valley outpost, which I discovered by wandering into their Healdsburg tasting room and tasting a good chunk of the range. Without taking formal notes, I enjoyed their Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc, which I later found out from winemaker Lisa Valtenbergs, was inspired by her visit to Australia’s Hunter Valley. Their single-vineyard Chardonnays made a strong impression for me, with taut minerality from higher altitude, ridgeline exposure. Hope I can find them in UK
- Failla: very impressive 2015s shown at the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir masterclass, that captured the perfumed elegance of the grape, with the brightness of acidity and suppleness of tannic structure
- Hirsch Vineyards: growers, with extensive, ridge-top vineyards high in the Sonoma Coast hills of Fort Ross-Seaview. Jasmine Hirsch became an early participant in In Pursuit of Balance. As such their wines do divide opinion somewhat, skating close to the edge of underripe in their leanness, as well as some use of stems giving their Pinot Noirs marked herbal overtones. When the wines hit sufficient ripeness, though their minerality and mouth-watering acidities can be very good
- Littorai: Ted Lemon has a long track-record for well-made, cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from vineyards in Sonoma Coast and up into Mendocino. His wines that we tasted were certainly fine
- Peay: Primarily growers in Sonoma Coast, whose grapes are sought-after, but whose own wines can be pretty good – especially their most recent release of Pinot Noir from the Scallop Shelf vineyard
- Donelan Family: their Cuvée Keltie Syrah, from vineyards across Sonoma County, showed a classy style of Syrah from several recent vintages back to 2011
- Laurel Glen: their Cabernet Sauvignon, with the freshness and balance of altitude from vineyards in the Sonoma Mountain AVA, was also repeatedly impressive across multiple vintages from 2015 to 2006
Carneros (Sonoma): most Southerly and low-lying, running down to San Pablo Bay, the Western, Sonoma County sector of Carneros, whose climate is significantly cooled by Bay fogs that block or reduce Sunlight significantly during the morning. Cool-ish climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with notable sparkling wine production, like the Napa side.
Sonoma Valley: to the North of Carneros and Sonoma city, the relatively narrow Valley runs North-west, sandwiched between the Mayacamas on the East and Sonoma Mountain to the West, and gets progressively warmer inland. Includes 3 notable Zinfandel vineyards – Bedrock, Monte Rosso and Pagani Ranch.
Sonoma Mountain: between 400 and 1,200ft on the North and Eastern flanks of Sonoma Mountain only, overlooking Sonoma Vallye. The AVA can definitively ripen Cabernet in warmer, Eastern sections sheltered from fog, whilst Northern parts, cooled by proximity to the Petaluma Gap are focused on mountain Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Russian River Valley: surprisingly large AVA extending along the flanks of the Russian River to the West of Sonoma Valley, and spreading out on both sides. I have generally found Pinot Noirs from here to be ripe and soft, with the area perhaps too warm for the fickle variety, whereas Chardonnay can cope with the warmer climes and produce ripe, but more successful wines.
Dry Creek Valley: North of Healdsburg, this compact, valley is only lightly fog-influenced, making it relatively hot and perfect for Zinfandel. It is super-rural and a very attractive place, with a plethora of nice wineries, not least Ridge’s famed Lytton Springs estate.
Alexander Valley: further inland, over the Eastern watershed of Dry Creek is the broader Alexander Valley, which is less densely filled with wineries, but does include Ridge’s equally-famed Geyserville Zinfandel estate. Cabernet Sauvignon is actually the most-planted variety, with a fair chunk of Chardonnay too.
Sonoma Coast: into the wilderness of scrubby oak and pine forests, clinging to steep, grass-covered hillsides, North of the Russian River estuary and on the doorstep of the Pacific Ocean, with scattered vineyards tucked away in flatter areas, often on or around ridge-lines. Distinctly cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with the odd bit of interesting, cool-climate Syrah.
Fort Ross-Seaview: a sub-AVA in the heart of Sonoma Coast, with its boundary specifically defined by the average fog line – all of the AVA is above 920ft altitude, so sits above the fog, to allow better ripening, but still with the long growing season and high diurnal temperature variations that altitude brings. At their best, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays with tension and finesse that are very different from the ripe, Russian River Valley norm.
- Day 5.1-5.2: Majestic masterclass tasting of old-vine Zinfandel in Bedrock Vineyard then lunch
- Day 5.3-5.4: Walkaround tasting of Sonoma paired-vintages then dinner at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery / Hollywood museum
- Day 6.1-6.2: Elaine Chukan Brown’s informative masterclass on Chardonnay history in California then lunch with the producers at La Crema Winery
- Day 6.3: Geoff Kruth MS’s masterclass selection of ‘California Cool’ wines
- Day 6.4: California sparkling wines at Sunset over the Pacific
- Day 6.5: A missed-opportunity of a blind tasting experience with a truly blind professor
- Day 6.6: Pinot Noir-themed dinner with Sonoma Coast producers at Timber Cove
- Day 7.1: California Coastal masterclass focusing on Pinot Noir
- Day 7.2-7.3: Presidential-style visit to the hilltop ridge blocks of Hirsch then lunch in the vineyard
Morgan Twain-Peterson MW led a panel discussion and masterclass on Sonoma’s old vine heritage, with his father Joel Peterson (Ravenswood founder, now owner of Bedrock and winemaker for Once and Future), Bob Biale (Biale, born and raised in Napa, making wine from family vineyards from 1991), Will Bucklin (Bucklin and Old Hill Ranch vineyard owner, planted 1880s onwards) and Tegan Passalaqua (Director of Winemaking for Turley, who specialise in old vine Zinfandel and organically farmed, across 50 vineyards).
The masterclass presented powerful evidence of the quality that able winegrowers can achieve from California’s old vine heritage, especially from Zinfandel. Morgan’s Bedrock Heritage 2016 from 120-year old vines stole that particular show, but there were no duff wines in the line-up, with Turley’s Fredericks Vineyard 2016 and Once and Future Bedrock 2016 close behind.
What is more, these wines often present exceptional value for money – with particular mention for both of Will Bucklin’s wines. The very fine Zinfandel-led red blend, Bucklin Ancient 2016 is priced at just $34, while the spectacular, 78% Grenache 2016 from Old Hill Ranch is a mere $38. Almost all the wines were $50 or less a bottle and none even close to the $100 ‘minimum’ for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to be taken ‘seriously’.
Bedrock is in the heart of one of the original California winegrowing regions from around 1850, so has depth of old vine heritage. By the 1880s, Sonoma Valley was heavily planted – 4,800 acres – when Phylloxera arrived. It also adopted resistant rootstocks early, so some of the oldest rootstock-planted vineyards in the world are in the AVA, mainly on St George. Lenoir was also used in Pagani Ranch and Old Hill.
Most of the old blocks are interplanted field blends, with Zinfandel at the heart. Bedrock was originally planted in 1854 by General William Tecumpseh Sherman, but was acquired by Senator Hurst in 1887 and most of the old plantings were made in 1888.
The owner prior to Joel Peterson planted vines more recently and trained them to Geneva Double Curtain, but higher from the ground, so deer didn’t eat the grapes, and to Merlot and Cabernet. The grapes are OK, because the soil isn’t rich enough to cope with GDC in the conventional sense, thereby actually reducing vigour and productivity compared with most GDC.
Joel Peterson used the proceeds of selling Ravenswood to acquire the vineyard in 2004, before it could be ripped out and replanted with Cabernet. As the vineyard is cooler than expected, so expresses baking spice tones and keeps some freshness, rather than creating big, powerful expressions. Once and Future is Joel’s new project, to make small, hand-crafted wines rather than 1m case mass-production, focusing on older vineyards.
The vineyard had been heavily sprayed up till then, but it has been weened to dry-farming and near-organics, with more sustainable elements. That included decompacting tractor pressed soil, planting replenishing 7 types of clover cover-crops and barley, crimping by roller rather than cutting, and initial heavy composting (2,000 tons on 33Ha). A 1% increase in organic matter can add over 16,000 gallons / acre water holding, so this also allowed removal of irrigation, even in severe drought.
A downside is increases in voles that can girdle vines and gophers that eat roots, so young vine treatment has less cover and crimping. Also, with persistent insect pests, the need to use pesticide as an option means they are not aiming for organic certification.
Labour costs are up 57% in 5 years, so methods for weed control by self-regulation have been adopted, as well as insect predator encouragement.
Zinfandel transformed into a wine for drinking after Prohibition and the vinification for longevity was forgotten. Avoiding overripeness, to keep freshness and minerality, then extract enough in fermentation, generates ageable Zinfandel. Today, <$14 Zinfandel is tanking, but >$14 is growing. Zinfandel fans both buy it and actually drink it too. Zin is also growing faster than any other variety in direct-to-consumer sales, and is number 3 behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
One of the big challenges is when to pick, as the old vines with varying levels of viral infection have even greater than usual variation in ripeness within Zinfandel bunches, coupled with different interplanted vines that ripen very differently. Joel’s view is to get to an ‘average’ ripeness in a parcel that is good enough, and accept the character of some overripe and some fresher, greener berries to give acidity and herbal characters, as part of the Zinfandel style. A cluster with average 25°Brix could include berries within it ranging from 19°Brix to 31°Brix, according to Tegan’s own analysis.
Old Hill Ranch was founded in 1851 in a similar zone to Bedrock, but was replanted in the 1880s with around 34 varieties. It gets a constant breeze that keeps disease pressure down. It is picked in 2 tranches. The early-picked includes the early ripeners like Zinfandel and unusually Mourvèdre. 10 days later, the ‘mixed black’ are picked.
Pagani Ranch and Monte Rosso are at higher elevations in the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas mountains that separate Sonoma from Napa. Monte Rosso is at 800ft. Pagani Ranch is 72 acres, 30 of which are over 100 years of age, including some Lenoir – a teinturier variety sometimes used as a rootstock. Fredericks vineyard has 20 acres over 100 years of age.
Once and Future, Bedrock Zinfandel Sonoma Valley 2016 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Higher proportion of Zinfandel by careful block selection, along with mixed black fruit – 85% Zinfandel. 128 year old vines, planted 8 x 8ft and head-pruned. Wild yeast fermentation in open, redwood fermenters. 30% new French oak for 14 months. 6.1 g/L TA, pH 3.74, 14.7% ABV. $49.95 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep purple
N: Floral, baking spice and dusty earth. Orange touch to ripe, mixed red fruit
P: Brisk acidity. Spicy. Some dried garrigue herb. Peppery, medium-firm tannins. Saline tang. Warming, but long, spicy-dusty finish. Medium body
Turley, Bedrock Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma County 2016 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah. 5-day cold soak with pumpover. Wild yeast 4 week fermentation with pumpover, then 2 weeks on skins to manage tannins that can be powerful. Press to 80% French and 20% American barrels, 20% new. 6.1 g/L TA, pH 3.82, 15.8% ABV. $38 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid ruby, with some purple glints
N: Dusty, fresh earth tones. Orange and violet. Cinnamon tones. Dried herb background touch. Broad and complex. Red cherry fruit
P: Peppery tang to ripe blackberry fruit. Smoky touch. Salty. Bright acidity. Medium body. Peppery, firm, but ripe tannins. Slightly warming, but long and savoury finish
Biale, Bedrock Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma County 2016 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Mostly Zinfandel, with some mixed black varieties. Bob considers Zin somewhat Pinot-like and uses some similar techniques to Burgundy. Dry-farmed block, mostly planted in 1880s, picked mid-September. 4 day cold soak at 50°F. High proportion of whole berries due to a new destemmer. Wild-yeast fermented but finished with commercial yeast to avoid sticking at the end of fermentation and reaching completion, with 2-3 punchdowns / day. Pressed into 20% new, 228L French oak to complete MLF then age 11 months. 14.8% ABV. $52 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid ruby, with some purple glints
N: Riper, slightly jammy blackberry fruit. Some black and white pepper. Dried thyme tone. Subtle cinnamon-oak tones
P: Full-bodied, rich, ripe blackberry fruit. Salt and pepper spice. Fine, moderate tannins. Savoury, crushed rock touches. Elegant, perfumed finish. Long
Bedrock Wine Company, Heritage Red Blend Sonoma Valley 2016 (18+ / 20; 96+ / 100)
50% Zinfandel, 20% Carignan, 4% Mourvèdre, 26% field-blend of 24 other varieties. 120 year old vines, planted 1888, on rocky soils in Sonoma Valley, with high pH and potassium. Destemmed. Wild-yeast fermentation. 20-25% new French oak 228L to 600 gallon foudres. $50 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-purple
N: Dusty, fresh earth notes. Some cocoa touches and mocha. Subtle cinnamon-clove. Crushed rock. Hint of orange. Very deep and complex
P: Dusty, fresh earth and spice. Firm, velvet tannins. Salty. Rich. Dense blackberry. Dried herb finish. Long
Ravenswood, Single Vineyard Designate ‘16 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley 2016 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Old Hill Ranch fruit, planted 1880 on clay loam, with at least 75% Zinfandel, which needed to be varietally-labelled for marketing. Wild yeast fermentation in small, open fermenters with manual punchdown over 10 days’ skin contact. 5.6 g/L TA, pH 3.68, 14.8% ABV. $39 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Dried, mixed herbs, sandy-crushed rock minerality. Very savoury entry. Cordite touch. Orange and baked blackberries. Complex
P: Dense, blue and blackberry baked fruit. Spice, crushed rock and clove. Black pepper, salt and some alcohol warmth finish. Firm, slightly grainy tannins. Long. Impressive
Bucklin, Ancient Red Blend Sonoma Valley 2016 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Mostly Zinfandel, then 25-30% Grenache, then Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir, plus 23 other varieties, co-fermented. 12 acres of the oldest vines over 100 years of age. 17-18 months in 20-25% new French oak. 15% ABV. $34 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-purple
N: Sandalwood and camphor. Cinnamon-clove. Orange. Mellow. Ripe black fruit beneath. Expressive and different
P: Precise, ripe blackberry. Then mixed spices of clove and sandalwood. Firm, slightly wild tannins, but in a velvet texture. Full bodied and rich. Long and spicy finish, albeit a bit warming
Bucklin, Old Hill Ranch Grenache Sonoma Valley 2016 (18+ / 20; 96+ / 100)
78% Grenache, 9% Syrah, 9% Carignan, 4% Alicante Bouschet. Selected harvest from the oldest, 135-year old vines. Grenache has been genetically tested, but appears to be a darker-coloured clone. Co-fermented to produce 2-3 barrels a year. 15% ABV. $38 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black, with a narrow purple rim
N: Slightly baked black, broad fruit. Dried herb overtones. Hint of bacon fat and some black pepper
P: Jammy broad black fruit. Dense and compact, firm to high tannins. Full-bodied. Graphite and crushed rock. Powerful, peppery and long
Bedrock Wine Company, Monte Rosso Zinfandel Sonoma Valley 2016 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Over 350 acres, planted on red, volcanic, Mt Veeder soils in the Mayacamas. 90+% Zinfandel. Night warmth from the inversion layer accelerates ripening. Can have high malic acid, so MLF can convert pH from 3.25 to 3.75, therefore early picking for higher TA can be helpful. $75 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Dusty-earthy with some crushed rock (Geosmin??). Spicy sandalwood
P: Juicy, crisp acidity, with some firmness. Herbal and mixed ripeness fruit. Some apple. Peppery, grainy, fairly-firm tannins. Moderately-long
Turley, Fredericks Zinfandel Sonoma Valley 2016 (17.5+ / 20; 95+ / 100)
Planted 1937 at 900ft altitude in Mayacamas. Contoured rows of varying width. Head trained and organically farmed. Picked at pH 3.2 and pH 3.88 after fermentation. 6.2 g/L TA. $45 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby, with purple glints
N: Camphor and dark fruit. Deep. White pepper. Complex. Some orange peel. Dried herb tones and some fresh fruit
P: Supple, rich, mixed berry fruit. Firm to high, mouthcoating tannins. Needs time. Structured and dense. Bright not brisk acidity. Long, spicy, sweet fruit finish. Some warmth through the finish
Biale, Pagani Ranch Zinfandel Sonoma County 2016 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Zinfandel with Alicante Bouschet, Lenoir, Petite Sirah and Grand Noir, planted in 1880s and 1920s. 4 day cold soak at 50F. Fermented with 2-3 punchdowns / day. Pressed into 20% new 228L French oak for MLF, then 16 months ageing. 14.6% ABV. $52 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-purple
N: Clove and white pepper. Creamy oak tone. Ripe mixed black fruit beneath
P: Brisk acidity. Supple and smooth textured, full-bodied. Jammy blackberry and blueberry. Firm, fine tannins. Long, raspberry finish. Appealing
The masterclass tasting was followed by authentic Mexican food, served with a broader array of wines. For the avoidance of doubts about ageworthiness – if any remained after the previous day’s Geyserville and Lytton demonstration – a couple of 20+ year old old-vine Zinfandel blends were thrown in for good measure, that Joel Peterson made at Ravenswood. Both the Ravenswood Old Hill Ranch 1993 and the Ravenswood 1995 were outstanding and far from old.
Amongst the other wines, there was a sneaky appearance of a Napa Cabernet from Oak Knoll, but the majority showcased different dimensions of Sonoma County – including a rather fine example of Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon – Turley’s Montecillo 2013 from Sonoma Valley vines planted in the 1960s. Likewise, Bedrock’s Cuvée Karatas Semillon 2016 from the USA’s oldest plantings, was an unexpected and convincing treat.
Ravenswood, Old Hill Ranch 1993 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Extra wine. Decanted. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium brick
N: Black tea, some herb, old leather and dried, spicy chilli
P: Rich, spiced, dried fruit. Sweet tones. Warming. Fresh and old leather, with black tea. Long
Ravenswood, Reserve? 1995 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
Extra wine. Decanted. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium garnet
N: Black tea, fresh leather, dried strawberry fruit. Dusty, fresh earth mineral tones
P: Chilli spice, meaty, peppery, spicy strawberry. Long
Bedrock, Alta Vista Gewurztraminer Moon Mountain 2016 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
2.5 acres, dry-farmed. ??% ABV. $45 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale lemon
N: Spicy musk. Bright citrus
P: Mid-weight citrus and some lychee. Moderate length
Bedrock, Cuvée Karatas Semillon Sonoma Valley 2016 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Oldest Semillon in the USA. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium lemon
N: Meaty tones then lemongrass scent with some wax. White pepper and almond toast
P: Waxy tones over ripe lemon and lemongrass. Lanolin. Nutty. Long and saline, with a creamy finish
Black Stallion, Gaspare Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Oak Knoll 2014 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Heavy bottle. Some Sonoma volcanics in this Napa mountain vineyard, with Magnesium deficiency. Also Pierce’s Disease present, suppressing vine vigour. 5.7 g/L TA, pH 3.68, 15.7% ABV. $75 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-purple
N: Candied, floral, ripe cassis. Cinnamon-clove oak. Polished. Vanilla perfume
P: Polished, ripe cassis. Sweet but fine. Medium-firm, very fine-grained tannins. Chocolate finish. Very Napa, but holds its 15.7% ABV quite well
Concannon Vineyard, Mother Vine Cabernet Sauvignon Livermore Valley 2015 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
88% Cabernet Sauvignon mostly from Mother Vine Vineyard, 12% Petite Sirah from neighbouring vineyard. 6.9 g/L TA, pH 3.62, 14.1% ABV. $50 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby-purple
N: Jammy cassis and black cherry. Vanilla cream and baking spice oak
P: Plush, ripe, sweet and jammy blackcurrant. Spiced. Moderate, ripe tannins. Easy
Louis M. Martini, Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley 2014 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Red volcanic soils at 1,300ft, West-facing, low-yielding vines. Hand-harvested and sorted. 3-day cold soak then fermentation in open-top vats. Separate blocks to 72% new French, 16% new American and 13% neutral oak, for MLF then 26 months’ ageing, before blending. 2 g/L RS, 6.4 g/L TA, pH 3.54, 15.5% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby with some purple glints, and marked legs
N: Jammy black and red fruit. Kirsch. Vanilla-clove oak
P: Thick, rich, sweet, slightly baked black cherry. Spice. Dark chocolate. Long, but warming finish. Big, with soft acidity. Moderate, ripe tannins
Turley, Montecillo Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley 2013 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Head-trained at 1,800ft altitude, planted 1960. ??% ABV. $100 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Peppery with ripe capsicum, grilled meat and ripe cassis. Toasty oak. Integral
P: Ripe, medium-full bodied, fine-boned cassis. Ripe, fine, mouthcoating, firm tannins. Dark chocolate. Long
Bucklin, Mixed Blacks Red Blend Sonoma Valley 2016 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
“Mixed blacks” so 30 varieties, not including Zinfandel. ??% ABV. $38 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Dense, ripe, blue, scented fruit. Some jammy blackberry. Lots of chilli and black pepper
P: Sweet. Very spicy. Fairly firm, chalky tannins. Warming finish
Biale, Monte Rosso Zinfandel Moon Mountain 2016 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Red volcanic soils at 1,300ft, West-facing, low-yielding vines. 4-day cold soak at 50F. Fermentation with 2-3 punchdowns / day. Pressed to 20% new 228L French oak for MLF then 16 months ageing. 14.4% ABV. $68 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium purple
N: Ripe, mixed red fruit. Some herb. White pepper and rose tones
P: Medium-full body. Bright acidity. Peppery, fine, moderate tannins. Medium-long
We were hosted at Hollywood directorial legend, Francis Ford Coppola’s eponymous winery in Sonoma for a walkaround tasting where 20 Sonoma producers brought 2 versions of the same wine – an older vintage and the latest vintage or a barrel sample of it, for comparative tastings.
The winery itself is something of an anomaly in Sonoma, given its size and its parallel role as a resort – much more in the style of Napa grandeur with a slight Disney (or perhaps Hollywood) edge.
That feel is reinforced by the on-site museum of props, models, scripts and other memorabilia from the Godfather, Apocalypse Now and Coppola’s other movies, plus his actual 5 Oscars, Golden Globes and Palme d’Or!
As for the wines there were a couple of standouts – Donelan’s 2014 and 2016 Keltie Syrahs were nicely perfumed and structured, while the Sonoma Mountain 2014 and 2015 Cabernet Sauvignons from Laurel Glen both had freshness to match their density.
Donelan Family Wines, Cuvée Keltie Syrah Sonoma County 2014 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Blend of 4 vineyards, with more robust parcels from older plots: Kobler (Green Valley AVA), Steiner Ranch (Bennet Valley AVA), Obsidian (Knight’s Valley AVA) and Richards Family (Sonoma Valley AVA). 80% whole-bunch, small-batch fermentation. Natural MLF. 21 months in older oak. 14.4% ABV. $90 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Perfumed rose. White pepper. Subtle clove. Raspberry and blueberry
P: Supple entry. Black pepper and liquorice. Rose floral. Fairly firm, peppery tannins. Dry, spicy finish. Some alcohol warmth
Donelan Family Wines, Cuvée Keltie Syrah Sonoma County 2016 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Blend of 4 vineyards, with more robust parcels from older plots: Kobler (Green Valley AVA), Steiner Ranch (Bennet Valley AVA), Obsidian (Knight’s Valley AVA) and Richards Family (Sonoma Valley AVA). 100% whole-bunch, small-batch fermentation. Natural MLF. Neutral, old oak maturation. Bottled 2 months before and will be matured for 2 more years before release. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-purple
N: More overt stem-herb. Game meat. Elegant
P: Orange and violets. Blackberry. Spicy. Firm, grainy tannins. Long and perfumed finish
Dry Creek Vineyard, The Mariner Red Blend Dry Creek Valley 2013 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 8% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc. Estate and hillside plots around Dry Creek Vineyard, including DCV9 Endeavour. 20+ year old vines on red, iron-rich soils, yielding 2-3t / acre. 10-15 day fermentation at 85F, with 2 pumpovers / day. 6.8 g/L TA, pH 3.72, 14.5% ABV. $45 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby-purple
N: Clove-cedar oak. Fresh leather and meaty tone. Some floral touches and leaf to dense black fruit
P: Inky, jammy black cherry. Spice. Firm, chalky tannins
Dry Creek Vineyard, The Mariner Red Blend Dry Creek Valley 2016 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 7% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Franc. More moderate, even ripening season than 2013. Estate and hillside plots around Dry Creek Vineyard, including DCV9 Endeavour. 20+ year old vines on red, iron-rich soils, yielding 2-3t / acre. 10-15 day fermentation at 85F, with 2 pumpovers / day. Bottled June. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Scented, floral violets. Ripe blackcurrant. Background cinnamon
P: Medium bodied. Ripe cassis. Bright acidity. Firm, grainy but not green tannins. Perfumed, medium-long to long finish
Francis Ford Coppola, Director’s Cut Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2015 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot. Red volcanic soils on Eastern hillsides, with alluvial gravel fans on valley floor plots and rocky clay-loam on Western hillsides. 15 months in 40% new French and American oak. 5.7 g/L TA, pH 3.7, 14.6% ABV. $25 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-ruby
N: Cooked cassis and blackberry. Toasted cinnamon and cedar touches
P: Cooked, creamy cassis and blackberry. Sweet. Moderately-firm, chalky tannins. Creamy, medium-long finish
Francis Ford Coppola, Director’s Cut Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2016 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-purple
N: Floral and subtly toasty cedar. Smoky tones. Toasted cinnamon and coconut
P: Ripe and sweet cassis with good freshness. Peppery-chalky, fairly firm tannins. Some leafy pyrazine. Sweet, perfumed, medium-long to long finish
Laurel Glen Vineyard, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain 2014 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
100% proprietary clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, planted on East-facing slopes above the fog line, on rocky, well-drained, low-yielding soils. Organic certified since 2014. 50% new Taransaud French oak. 14.4% ABV. $75 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: Jammy raspberry. Toasted tobacco. Cocoa, clove and some fresh leather
P: Ripe, slightly roasted blackberry. Gentle spice. Some cedar. Long
Laurel Glen Vineyard, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain 2015 (17.5+ / 20; 95+ / 100)
100% proprietary clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, planted on East-facing slopes above the fog line, on rocky, well-drained, low-yielding soils. Organic certified since 2014. 50% new Taransaud French oak. Just bottled. To be released in 1 year. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-purple, with a narrow rim
N: Focused, ripe cassis and black cherry. Clove oak. Primary. Inky and scented
P: Precise, polished, ripe cassis. Brisk acidity. Chalky, firm tannins. Inky blueberry. Crushed rock, long finish
Pedroncelli, Bushnell Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2016 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
Owned by 3rd generation Pedroncelli family member for 50 years, on Eastern hillsides of Dry Creek Valley. Stainless steel fermentation with daily pumpovers, then 16 months in 35-40% new American oak barrels. 5.85 g/L TA, pH 3.84, 16.1% ABV. $25 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep purple
N: Ripe, jammy, raspberry and some bacon fat. Black pepper. Subtle vanilla-cinnamon. Some fresh earth. Savoury overtone
P: Bright acidity. Allspice, blackpepper, some dark chocolate. Firm, mouthcoating tannins. Medium-long, with a warming finish
Pedroncelli, Bushnell Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2017 [barrel sample] (15 / 20; 86 / 100)
3.3 g/L RS, ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Marked vanilla-banana oak. Some VA lift
P: Sweet, dense, plummy-raisin. Cinnamon. Baked. Fairly-firm, furry tannins
Schug Carneros, Estate Grown Chardonnay Carneros (Sonoma) 2016 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
26% Block 7 – clones 41 and 77, 21% Block 2 – clone 4, 19% Block 3 – FIV3 Wente clone, 17% Block 5 – G9V5 Wente clone, 17% Block 1 – clone 17, planted 1989. Barrel fermented then aged sur lie without MLF, for 7 months in 50% new French oak barrels. 7.2 g/L TA, pH 3.44, 14.1% ABV. $45 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale gold
N: Creamy, toasty-nutty oak. Classic California / Sonoma Chardonnay
P: Full body. Oily. Creamy, ripe pineapple and passionfruit. Fairly-long, creamy finish
Seghesio, Old Vine Zinfandel Alexander and Dry Creek Valley 2014 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
92% Zinfandel, 8% Petite Sirah. Head-pruned, average 70 year old vines (minimum 50 year old), with lower yields, leaf-plucked and week shoot fruit removal. Small-batch, open top fermentation, with hand punch-downs, and 9-day maceration. MLF. 15 months in French oak, with 2 rackings. 14.8% ABV. $40 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep purple
N: Tar, dried herb, black pepper and some dried tobacco. Very ripe black and blue fruit
P: Brisk acidity
Seghesio, Old Vine Zinfandel Alexander and Dry Creek Valley 2016 [barrel sample] (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
Harvest end-August to end-September. Bigger cropping vintage as a result of the drought ending. Sorting tables to exclude rose and raisined fruit. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep purple
N: More overt clove-cinnamon. Orange touch. Earthy. Some TCA?
P: Dark chocolate, spice, blackberry jam. Liquorice. Creamy. Some saltiness. Fairly-firm, fine tannins. Decent length
The walkaround tasting was followed by a formal, sit-down dinner in the winery, accompanied by a wide-range of unusual or older vintage wines by Sonoma Valley Vintners producers, including several older vintages of wines at the walkaround tasting.
The oddities included my first ever Trousseau Gris and a slightly Bretty Barbera, planted in 2008. But these were more novelties than great wines. The standouts were, once again Donelan’s Cuvée Keltie – the 2011 this time, along with Laurel Glen’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon once again demonstrating the freshness of mountain altitude.
By contrast, the warmer, valley-floor, Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1983 was interesting for its age, but riper and clumsier in its execution. Francis Ford Coppola’s 2015 Archimedes Cabernet Sauvignon did, however, give the host winery a look-in, with a classic, but not overdone, California Cabernet Sauvignon.
Buena Vista, Count’s Selection Trousseau Gris Russian River Valley 2017 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
5.06 g/L TA, pH 3.27, 13.5% ABV. $28 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale gold
N: Musk spice, ripe pear and guava. Nutty and vegetal
P: Ripe pear and green apple. Some musk spice. Some gentle phenolics. Apple finish. Simple
Kanzler Vineyards, Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2012 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
??% ABV. $45 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium ruby-garnet
N: Compote strawberry. Spice. Soft fruit. Broad. Some herbal lift and cinnamon
P: Sweet, cooked strawberry. Spice. Soft acidity. Light-moderate, soft tannins. Medium finish with heat
Edaphos, Madhavan Vineyard Barbera Sonoma Valley 2015 (15.5 / 20; 88 / 100)
4 acres in a Moon Mountain volcanic caldera, on West-facing, boulder-strewn soils, planted in 2008. Head-trained and dry-farmed. Aged in oak puncheons. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep purple
N: Meaty. Spicy. Leather. Black pepper. Brett?
P: Brisk acidity. CO2. Spicy. Fairly firm, chalky tannins. Blackberry. Dried herb
Aperture / Devil Proof Vineyards, Malbec Rockpile Ridge 2015 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
100% Malbec, planted at 1,100ft in late 1980s and dry farmed. Night harvest. Barrel fermented in 100% new French oak. ??% ABV. $149 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby-purple
N: Stewed, slightly oxidative, dried black cherry fruit. Grilled meat and clove oak
P: Dried and macerated, cooked blackberry. Some black pepper and grilled meat. Firm to high, robust tannins. Hot finish
Donelan Family Wines, Cuvée Keltie Syrah Sonoma County 2011 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
14.4% ABV. $55 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Liquorice, black olive. White pepper. Floral, scented, ripe blueberry
P: Plush, rich, ripe blueberry and black pepper. Firm, chalky tannins. Black olive. Filling. Long
Seghesio, Old Vine Zinfandel Sonoma County 2009 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
??% ABV. $35 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby-garnet
N: Creamy caramel-vanilla. Cinnamon. Liqueur and dried strawberry and chocolate. Black tea and meat development. Black pepper
P: Rich, stewed and conserved red berries. Fairly-firm, fairly-fine tannins. Spicy and sweet. Longish, savoury-spicy finish
Dry Creek Vineyard, David S Stare Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley 1983 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-garnet, with a brick rim
N: Lifted tobacco leaf, capsicum, dried herb and black tea. Cedar-toast oak
P: Dense. Full bodied. Rounded. Ripe, slightly baked, dried cassis. Black tea. Toasted tobacco. Long, perfumed finish. A bit clumsy
Laurel Glen Vineyard, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain 2006 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
14.5% ABV. $60 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep garnet
N: Black tea and mellow cedar. Cigar box. Herbal capsicum lift. Graphite mineral. Old tobacco
P: Tobacco. Spicy, dark chocolate oak and smoky cassis. Firm, chalky tannins. Bright acidity. Good, slightly warming length
Pedroncelli, Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley 2013 (15.5 / 20; 88 / 100)
14.7% ABV. $15 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby-purple
N: Old leather and cedar with stewed cassis. Clove and cinnamon spice. Some dusty mineral
P: Plush, polished, baked and spicy black cherry. Warming alcohol through the medium-long finish. Fairly fine tannins. Pretty good value for $15
Rodney Strong, Reserve Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2011 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
Magnum. Extra wine. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep gold
N: Toasted hazelnut. Dried yellow peach with corn-cob and fresh passionfruit. Nutty-buttery. Clove
P: Rich, sweet, passionfruit and yellow peach. Clove and baking spice. Full body. Buttery. Medium-long. Classic California Chardonnay
Francis Ford Coppola, Archimedes Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2015 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Red volcanic soils with shale, alluvial valley-floor fans, and steep, rocky, clay-loam soils. Fermentation with pumpover. 20 months in 75% new French oak. 5.6 g/L RS, pH 3.72, 15% ABV. $120 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Focused, jammy black cherry. Vanilla-cinnamon. Clove. Sweet. Pure and focused
P: Ripe, jammy, cassis and black cherry. Precise. Fine, ripe, firm tannins. Fair freshness. Very California, but not overdone
Elaine Chukan Brown led this masterclass without the producers, exploring the different styles of Chardonnay fine wines, as they evolved over time in California.
Before that, we were introduced to Jackson Family Wines’ sustainability programme, which strongly includes both the social / community and the economic dimensions of sustainability. So making the business case for sustainability is a key tenet. They therefore measure waste, water, energy and carbon footprint, to help set goals and to build the business case.
Energy is about reducing intensity of use and increasing renewables. They currently have 7MW / 9M kWh of solar power installed. For water, they use 4 gallons process water / gallon wine vs 9 when they started measuring, and less than the 6-9 typical for the industry.
Carbon reduction has primarily been through lightweighting bottles, because 50% of the business’ footprint sits there. Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, which is around half of their 3m case annual production, had a 1oz weight reduction that reduced cost by $1m and CO2 by 12%.
They’re also testing reduction of tilling and increasing soil organic matter to sequester carbon in the vineyard, to get 6-10% soil organic matter. Finally, chemical capturing of fermentation CO2 to make chalk that can be returned to the vineyard as lime (or put to non-vineyard uses) is being experimented on in conjunction with UC Davis.
Vineyard water use involves monitoring water conditions of each vine itself, to make high-precision deficit irrigation, through sap-flow measurement at specific locations within each vineyard. Soil organic matter increases will also help water retention. For waste, they’re targeting becoming a zero waste business.
The vineyards themselves were also interesting – showcasing not only the Lyre dual-canopy training system, but also the Y-shaped trellising to make it work:
Welcome wine by the vineyard
La Crema, Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley 2015 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
Pre-tasting wine in Saralee’s vineyard, before the tasting. Jackson Family Wines. 100% whole bunch pressed. Cold-settled overnight. Barrel fermentation in 30% new French oak. MLF. 9 months in oak with battonage every 3 weeks. 5.6 g/L TA, pH 3.52, 14.5% ABV. $36 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale gold
N: Rich, creamy-buttery, with attractive mealy oak, some tropical pineapple and passionfruit, and ripe melon
P: Full bodied, with bright, melon and passionfruit, and mealy oak. Oily lees texture. Medium-long. Attractive and easy
Elaine discussed how Chardonnay can give something of the history of California wines overall. She believes California Chardonnay has been one of the ‘gifts’ of California to the wine world, along with Zinfandel and ‘mountain’ Cabernet Sauvignon that was a category created in California in the 1970s. Specifically that’s bringing varietally-labelled Chardonnay to the world, which began in California in 1936.
California’s Chardonnay vineyard history has been progression to the coast and to altitude. In the cellar, this has been a tension between flavour and weight. The tasting was arranged in the order of progression of styles, in 3 sets of 3. The first group was ‘the Founders’, the second ‘the Evolutionaries’ and finally ‘the Contemporaries’, reflecting waves of development. While other Chardonnays have made impacts, but the wines shown were from wineries that have made changes to the paradigm and who care about legacy.
Chardonnay first arrived in Livermore, at La Presta Blanca, in 1882, with cuttings from Meursault. In 1896, Paul Masson brought cuttings from Louis Latour, and planted in his Livermore vineyard, before transferring to the Paul Masson Vineyard in Santa Cruz Mountains.
Finally, Wente brought in Montpellier cuttings in 1912 and added to that some cuttings from the original La Presta Blanca vineyard, to plant the Wente vineyard. In the 1950s, Wente progressively selected their best material, which UC Davis discovered, and took and propagated the Wente selection. After treatment to remove viruses, UC Davis Clone 4 was created, with the old, untreated vines destroyed.
During Prohibition, almost all Chardonnay was grafted over to ‘hardy black’ varieties, with only Wente and Paul Masson vineyards remaining in any scale, with Paul Masson bought by Martin Reyes who started labelling as Chardonnay in 1936. Further, with the approach of World War 2, availability of European wines falls rapidly, creating more attention on California wines for the domestic market. Frank Shoemaker reinforced varietal labelling through this and in 1986, use of labels like ‘Chablis’ was banned internationally, with some domestic sales still existing through ‘grandfathering’.
In 1947, on Spring Mountain Stony Hill then Mayacamas plant the first Napa Chardonnay. Stony Hill, unusually, established itself as a white wine house and used virused original Wente clones alongside Inglenook Riesling cuttings, 30% of which turned out to be Chardonnay.
In 1956, Hanzell took cuttings from Stony Hill to establish their Chardonnay plantings. Nevertheless, low yields and small plantings prevented it registering on any grape reports. In the 1970s, Chardonnay finally takes hold after Mike Grgich’s Chateau Montelena wins the Judgement of Paris and the cost of production falls below sales price. At this time, varietal labelling has become the domestic norm. By 2000, Chardonnay became the most planted variety in California.
In the 1980s, following Robert Mondavi’s 1966 adoption of stainless steel, temperature controlled fermentation, most ferments were done this way as it was believed to be the only safe way to do so and create clean wines, and green, clean juice was the norm, even if that created problems later with managing primary, bitter phenolics. Barrels were used for maturation, rather than fermentation. With economics working, a grower market became established, so grapes could be bought and non-estate wines made.
With the category established, the second phase of winemakers, after 1976, then were working with know-how established, and were taking inspiration from others more than making it up themselves. Many were young graduates who went straight into head winemaker roles due to a lot of investment in vines and wineries, but not enough winemakers trained. Many then looked to Burgundy to understand it better and to get ideas for what to do. David Ramey was influenced by Puligny, John Kongsgaard by Meursault and Montrachet, and DuMOL by St Aubin.
Ramey could be described as a ‘technician’ and did more studies whilst at Stone Hill, such as how to ferment well in barrels, resulting in its re-introduction, and he was able to establish his own winery in 1996. He was also the first person in California to use whole-bunch pressing to reduce primary phenolics, by avoiding crushing. Also, immediately, he adopted the Burgundian model by releasing single vineyard wines.
Kongsgaard did study at UC Davis, but took a more intuitive approach over technical, coming back from Burgundy in 1986, creating the first uninoculated, barrel-fermented and long-matured, unfined and unfiltered Chardonnay in California, at Newton. They also gave him French Cabernets and Chardonnays to drink and make notes on each day, as well as paying for trips to France to get experience, hence the French influence. His son, Alex, is progressively taking over and making some adjustments.
DuMOL was founded in 1996, making big, full and expressive wines with plenty of winemaking dominance that were the stereotype. Until buying their first vineyard in 2003, when Andy, the owner, decided he didn’t like his own wines too much and realised the importance of vineyard selection and vineyard work. He visited St. Aubin and saw the low trained, high-density vines there. The estate vineyard was planted at 9,000 vines / Ha planting, to reduce direct sunlight by inter-row shading, and cropped at 3t / acre, or 45HL / Ha.
The third wave of winemakers had both knowhow and established models. These winemakers therefore had the choice of ‘what wine do I want to make?’, giving them different choices and perspectives. John Reytek at Ceritas focused on single-vineyard expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Matthiasson started in 2003.
Amongst the wines, the phenolics of the ‘old school’ were notable, but so was a core of savoury minerality that worked well, especially in the Grgich Hills Miljenko’s Selection Chardonnay 2014, from the Napa side of Carneros.
The Evolutionaries had the highs and lows – both Ramey Ritchie Vineyard 2015 in Russian River and DuMOL Estate 2015 from Sonoma Coast carried freshness with finely-crafted, oak-matured, ripe stone fruit character.
Then came Kongsgaard – all $200 a bottle of it; lovely aromatics with intrigue…then a whopping 15% ABV (and likely more) alcohol burn that blew through the fat, rich, heavy palate, detracting from its potential.
The freshness of Santa Cruz Mountains shone through amongst the Contemporaries, in Ceritas’ lean, minerally, dense and tense, Trout Gulch Chardonnay 2015.
Flight 1: Founders
Stony Hill, Estate Chardonnay Napa Valley 2010 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
First vintage 1957. Winemaking is the same as then, which was to be low aromatics until 10 years in bottle. Same winemaker since 1972, who learned from the original founder and follows his approach. Estate vines, 18-26 years old, 1,000-1,600ft on the Western side of Napa, planted on AxR1 and St George. Cool vintage, picked at a target of 23.5 Brix. No MLF. 10 months in old French oak, without battonage. 80ppm total SO2, 6.9 g/L TA, pH 3.37, 13% ABV. $40 / bottle RRP
A: Deep gold
N: Stony spice, white peach and vegetal tones. Some struck match and flint. Neutral
P: Stony textured, with some grip. Slightly dusty / dirty mid palate tone. Flinty and spiced. Lean lemon and yellow apple. Brisk acidity. Un-Californian. Medium-long. Some saltiness.
Hanzell, Estate Chardonnay Sonoma Valley 2011 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Estate vines, Wente and Hanzell clones on St George, planted 1953 on volcanic and clay loam – Hanzell’s Ambassador block is the oldest vines in California, and is occasionally bottled separately in higher-yield vintages. High elevations on Moon Mountain, with significant Bay influence. Originally bought grapes until estate vines were matured. First, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks in the world were installed in Hanzell. Style evolved in 1980s to add barrel portion, as originally all fermented in stainless steel at 50-60F. Crushed and skin contact for 3 hours before pressing to 25%, 100% new oak barrels and 75% stainless steel for fermentation, then only the barrel portion to MLF with lees stirring for 12 months. Stainless steel portion transferred to large, old oak for 1 year. Then all portions blended and 6 months in stainless steel. 6.8 g/L TA, pH 3.3, 14.5% ABV. $78 / bottle RRP
A: Mid-deep gold
N: Ripe, not over-ripe stone fruit, some passion fruit, with nutty-creamy oak overtones. Sandalwood. Dusty mineral touches
P: Full bodied. Creamy tones but with a firmness and salinity that cuts through the richness. Ripe pear and some passionfruit tropical notes. Some phenolic chew. Bright to brisk acidity. Warming, but good length finish
Grgich Hills, Miljenko’s Selection Chardonnay Carneros 2014 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Mike Grgich made Montelena in a very technical way, with temperature controlled fermentation and so on. Then he left in 1977 to found Grgich Hills and switched winemaking philosophy, such as using brown juice not green juice. Now made by nephew Ivo, but with Mike’s close guidance. Ivo’s idea to launch this Cuvée in 2012. Organic. Whole bunch pressed without SO2 to give brown juice. Cool, slow fermentation in 900-1,500L French foundres that were new in 2012, followed by 11 months in the same oak. No MLF. 6.9 g/L TA, pH 3.22, 14.1% ABV. $60 / bottle RRP
A: Deep lemon-gold
N: Flinty-stony. Lime and grapefruit peel, gently toasted almond. Fumey, smoky, flinty savouriness. Fresh-squeezed citrus over pineapple tones
P: Chewy touch to salty, chalky mineral. Quite ripe pear and some passionfruit mid-palate concentration. Smoky, flinty, long finish
Flight 2: Evolutionaries
Ramey, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Wide-spaced, Old Wente clone vines on sandy Goldridge loam, planted 1972 on AxR1. Small yield vintage. Whole bunch press direct to barrels for wild yeast fermentation then MLF with battonage. 18 months in 25% new French oak. Fined with bentonite for texture and mouthfeel, then settled in tank. 14.5% ABV. $65 / bottle RRP
A: Mid lemon-gold
N: Ripe lemon and fairly ripe yellow peach. Caramel, with some mealy, baking spice oak with flint mineral and a hint of struck match
P: Ripe and rich, slightly sweet, caramel-toned white peach. Rich and full, but with a balancing bright acidity. Warming finish that detracts from the balance, but little phenolic grip
Kongsgaard, The Judge Chardonnay Napa Valley 2016 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Stonecrest Vineyard, The Judge plot, on volcanic soils at 400ft, planted 15-30 years ago. Made by son, Alex, who wanted to farm this difficult, stony plot. Barrel fermented then 20 months in 80% new oak; originally 100% new and 24 months. <3 g/L RS, 5.5 g/L TA, pH 3.45, 15% ABV. $200 / bottle RRP
A: Mid-deep lemon-gold
N: Rich, broad, buttered macadamia. Some flint tones. Quite restrained peach and ripe pear fruit. Hazelnut and allspice. Has restraint, despite its alcoholic ripeness. Intriguing
P: Full body. Oily. Buttery tones. Sweet and alcohol spice. Cooked peach. Quite hot finish that really takes away from the interest on the nose. Long though
DuMOL, Estate Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2015 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
Mt Eden and Hyde-Wente clones on 420A and Riparia Gloire. 12 year old vines at 1.4kg / vine (45HL / Ha). Dry farmed, organic on high-iron sandstone. Whole bunch pressed to barrel for 4-week wild yeast fermentation then 6-month, 100% MLF. 12 months in 33% new French oak with 6 months on lees. <1 g/L RS, 7.1 g/L TA, pH 3.2, 14.4% ABV. $65 / bottle RRP
A: Mid lemon-gold
N: Nicely balanced dusty mineral and baking spice oak – very integrated oak. Pineapple and ripe melon. Some fennel-herb tones
P: Crisp acidity. Lift and life to smoky and spicy, ripe lemon citrus. Spicy, mineral and pepper. Long finish, with only moderate warmth
Flight 3: Contemporaries
Ceritas, Trout Gulch Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2015 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
2.5 miles from Pacific, Old Wente clones planted 1971 at 600ft, on marine soils with uplifted sandstone. Cool to cold and wind-exposed. Oldest own-root vineyard in the area. Steel slopes. Whole clusters crushed, then pressed cold without SO2 addition. Rack to 5-6 year old barrel with plenty of solids for wild-yeast fermentation. Full MLF then 60-80ppm sulfur. No battonage for 12 months in barrel. 8.1 g/L TA, pH 3.05, 12.3% ABV. $55 / bottle RRP
A: Mid-deep gold, with some green glints
N: Flint and crushed rock. Dusty. Lean, smoky pineapple and lemon. Baking spice. Bold but not bold fruit
P: Full-bodied, but not so rich. Chewy phenolics at the finish. Firm, crisp acidity with some pineapple to lemon citrus. Creamy mid-palate but a forceful, phenolic finish. Very different take on Chardonnay in several ways
Matthiasson, Michael Mara Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2013 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Clone 4 in Michael Mara vineyard, West of Sonoma at the foot of mountains on cascaded rocks and volcanic soil, with valley floor loam, planted 2003. 70% early and 30% late harvest. Light whole bunch press then 24-hour settling before barrel fermentation, with 2nd pick juice added to 1st, part way through. 100% MLF, then 18 months in 20% new oak. 6.2 g/L TA, pH 3.48, 12.9% ABV. $55 / bottle RRP
A: Deep lemon, with some haze
N: Curry leaf tones – as Martin Williamson noted, actually could be Brett, with some leatheriness – then baking spice and rich melon fruit. Flinty. Some greengage. Broad and rich, but spicy-savoury over super-ripe fruit
P: Ripe citrus and some yellow melon. Spicy, flinty-smoky mid-palate. Creamy touches with some hints of butter. Bright acidity maximum. Warming finish, but long
Enfield, Heron Lake Chardonnay Wild Horse Valley Napa 2014 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
High-elevation inland valley that crosses Napa. 40% of the vineyard lost due to wild-fires causing netting to melt and girdle vines, killing them. Very shallow, rocky volcanic soils with cool coastal climate. 2.25t / acre. Previously foot-trodden before pressing, but disease pressure in 2014 led to whole bunch pressing to barrel for wild-yeast fermentation and 100% MLF, followed by 16 months on lees. Unfined, unfiltered. pH 3.22, 13.2% ABV. $35 / bottle RRP
A: Mid lemon-gold
N: Cashew nut oak. Some dusty mineral. Delicate, slightly floral yellow melon fruit
P: Crisp, ripe lemon. Some chalky texture and a bit of flint. Touch of nutty almond. Medium-long finish
At lunch, a range of wines were available to taste from across California, including from the producers whose Chardonnays were shown in the morning masterclass. These were reds and whites, younger and older vintages, and conventional and unusual grape varieties. Each producer gave a short introduction.
But it was the classics that stood out, and from producers whose fine Chardonnays we had already seen, including the older 2013 Ramey Ritchie Chardonnay, alongside a nicely-matured Grgich Hills 2005 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Matthiasson’s youthful 2015 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.
Finally, one producer not in the Chardonnay masterclass showed a classical aromatic style, but with the freshness and liveliness of a vineyard right by the Pacific Ocean – Kutch Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2016, which will likely improve as well.
Enfield, Snake Ridge Ranch Tempranillo Amador County 2013 (14.5 / 20; 84 / 100)
Extra wine. 7 barrels made. 13.6% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Funky, fresh leather and Brett. Perfumed red cherry
P: Chewy, firm to high, wild tannins. Red cherry and Bretty leather. Fair length
Grgich Hills, Yountville Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2005 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Extra wine. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep garnet
N: Smoky, old leather, graphite, crushed rock. Old tobacco and some capsicum touches. Slightly baked, dried cassis. Clove
P: Ripe and dense, spicy, slightly baked, cassis and plum. Velvet texture, with ripe tannins. Good length. A point
Black Stallion, Poseidon Vineyard Chardonnay Napa Valley 2016 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Near San Pablo Bay, on clay and loam. MLF. 48% new French and Hungarian oak. 5.3 g/L TA, pH 3.45, 15% ABV. $35 / bottle RRP
A: Pale lemon
N: Creamy, vanilla, butter and baking spice. Ripe, not overripe melon. Bright and nicely integrated
P: Full body. Creamy caramel oak and baking spice. Bright, not brisk acidity. Integral, blanched almond. Good length, but a warming finish
Grgich Hills, 40th Anniversary Estate Chardonnay Carneros (Napa) 2014 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
One-off wine to celebrate 40 years. Organic. Fermentation and aged 10 months in 70% new, 60 gallon French oak. 6.8 g/L TA, pH 3.23, 14.1% ABV. $40 / bottle RRP
A: Mid lemon
N: Slightly reductive. Flinty-smoky, then mealy oak and ripe pear & pineapple
P: Full and ripe white peach & pear. Chalky touch. Some spicy oak and cream. Mineral. Brisk. Decent length
Jackson Estate, Camelot Highlands Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley 2016 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
Own-rooted, 40+ year old, clone A Chardonnay, on sedimentary rock soils with chalk and limestone fragments. Fermented and aged 9.5 months on lees in 41%, M+ toast, French oak. 6.3 g/L TA, pH 3.39, 14.5% ABV. $30 / bottle RRP
A: Mid lemon
N: Popcorn. Almond. Baking spice. Ripe, yellow peach. Buttery
P: Rich, ripe, yellow peach. Baking spice. Oily, buttery. Spicy finish. A bit old-fashioned and caramelised
Kutch, Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2016 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Bohan Vineyard, 3 miles from Pacific, planted early-1970s on own roots. Whole-bunch pressed then 24 hours oxidation, then wild-yeast fermentation in 25% new French oak, followed by natural MLF. 12 months in oak, on lees, without racking, then 6 months in tank. 12.5% ABV. $40 / bottle RRP
A: Pale lemon, with a slight haze
N: Nutty, hazelnut oak. Some baking spice. Ripe, white peach. Some faint grass touches. Touch of struck match
P: Brisk to crisp, ripe lemon and apple. Lively. Baking spice. Some chalkiness. Quite tight. Creamy, long finish
Ramey, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2013 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Wide-spaced, Old Wente clone vines on sandy Goldridge loam, planted 1972 on AxR1. Small yield vintage. Whole bunch press direct to barrels for wild yeast fermentation then MLF with battonage. 18 months in 30% new French oak. Fined with bentonite for texture and mouthfeel, then settled in tank. 14.5% ABV. $65 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium lemon, with lots of legs
N: Toasty-spicy oak. Nutty. Crushed rock. Subtle melon fruit beneath
P: Pure, fine and dense. Salty touch. Creamy-buttery. Flinty. Medium-full body. Brisk acidity. Slightly warming, but good length
Wente Vineyards, Riva Ranch Chardonnay Arroyo Seco 2016 (15 / 20; 86 / 100)
South-west of Santa Lucia Highlands. 5.3 g/L TA, pH 3.57, 14.5% ABV. $22 / bottle RRP
A: Pale gold
N: Popcorn. Broad, slightly vegetal, pear and pineapple. Some barrel nuttiness
P: Bright pineapple. Rich. Bruised yellow peach. Straightforward, with a caramel finish
DuMOL, Estate Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2015 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Calera, Swan, Pommard and 943 clones. 16 months in 50% new French oak. ??% ABV. $80 / bottle RRP
A: Mid-deep purple
N: Crunchy blue fruit. Some herb. Slightly baked / jammy. Clove and hints of cordite, but mostly sweet fruit. Touch of dust
P: Spicy red cherry and blueberry. Brisk acidity. Light-moderate, peppery tannins. Warming, fair-length finish. Ripe style, but with some freshness
Matthiasson, Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 (17.5+ / 20; 95+ / 100)
6 vineyards in 3 AVAs. Low temperature fermentation with 2 pumpovers / day, for 3 weeks. Pressed at dryness and blended. 20 months in <20% new French oak. 6.5 g/L TA, pH 3.75, 13.1% ABV. $60 / bottle RRP
A: Deep purple
N: Plum, some violet. Slightly baked. Inky and dense. Gentle herbal overtones. Tobacco tones
P: Brisk acidity. Firm, chalky tannins. Some chalky minerality. Ripe cassis. Long. Youthful
Geoff Kruth MS took us through a masterclass of cutting-edge California wines, at the Timber Cove resort in relatively-remote, Northern Sonoma Coast, right on the Pacific Ocean.
This wood-built seafront hotel is several miles up the coast into the hilly wilds North of the surprisingly-wide mouth of the Russian River.
At Geoff’s upfront admission, this session was defined by “wines I like, that I think are cool, that are exciting and that may have bigger potential down the road”, as much as that defines ‘cool’. They happen to be cool-climate sites.
He explained that skin-contact whites are trendy for the press and for hip restaurants, but not growing for the general consumer. One notable trend in finer wine-focused, on-trade places is less for high-point, high-score wines at high prices, and more for mid-priced, $50-75 restaurant-priced bottles with good stories. Stories are, for the new generation, more significant than varieties or brands, and hip and trendy consumers at the cutting edge have interest in different and alternative varieties. The question remains whether any will reach the wider public.
Rose continues to be important and is still growing. Currently, dry, pale roses are dominant, so perhaps deeper roses (and pale reds) will be the next big thing in the rose sector, as a reaction to where we are today.
For me, though an interesting selection with the likes of Trousseau Gris and Vermentino, the overall, intrinsic quality of each wine wasn’t huge. No massive misses, but not huge hits either. The two wines I liked most, funnily enough, were Geoff’s own Lost and Found wines – the brisk, Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay 2017 (16.5, 92) and a last-minute substitution of his youthful Sonoma Mountain Syrah 2017 (16+, 91+).
Jolie-Laide, Fanucchi Wood Road Trousseau Gris Russian River Valley 2017 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
Trousseau originally imported as a Port wine grape (Bastardo), which mutated into Gris. Pick around 20 Brix. Whole bunches, foot-trodden then left on skins for 3 day cold soak. Pressed to concrete and neutral puncheons for fermentation to dryness. Partial MLF. 6 months in neutral barriques. 15ppm free SO2 at bottling. $22 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium onion skin
N: Spicy, ripe, wild strawberry. Nutty and slightly toasty. Quite aromatic. Gris, not Rose wine. Some ripe pear
P: Smoky-spicy. Ripe pear and pepper spice. Brisk, racy acidity. Medium-long, very spicy finish, with some gentle phenolic grip
Tatomer, Grüner Veltliner Edna Valley 2016 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Volcanic soils, with marl, quartz and limestone. No MLF. 85% stainless steel and 15% large acacia maturation. No MLF. <1 g/L RS, 13% ABV. $28 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium lemon
N: Creamy, honey-floral tones to gentle white pepper. Some chalky mineral. Pear fruit
P: Brisk acidity. Chalky-flinty mineral. Pear with gentle white pepper. Medium-long
Ryme, “Hers” Vermentino Carneros (Sonoma) 2017 (15.5 / 20; 88 / 100)
Las Brisas vineyard at the convergence of San Pablo Bay and Petaluma Gap, on sandy soils. “His” is the husband’s version with skins and “Hers” the low-phenolic version that Megan wanted to make. “Hers” sells better, and there is more of it. 6t / acre. Whole bunch pressed and settled. Clean juice to 50% neutral French oak barrels and 50% stainless steel for wild-yeast fermentation. Natural MLF in barrels but none in stainless steel. Racked and bottled. 11.9% ABV, $25 / bottle RRP. c. $10-15 / glass in Bay Area on trade.
A: Pale lemon-gold
N: Lifted, lemon rind and fennel. Subtle, dusty almond; nutty oak. Savoury overtones
P: Mid-weight, with just a little gap in the mid-palate. Brisk acidity. Lemon-rind and waxy herbal tones. Curiously, slightly warming tone to the mid-length finish
Hanzell, Sebella Chardonnay Sonoma County 2017 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Younger vines on Hanzell estate, plus bought-in grapes from cooler Sonoma County. Long, slow tank fermentation. No MLF. 6 months in neutral French oak. 7.6 g/L TA, pH 3.3, 13.7% ABV. $36 / bottle RRP
A: Pale lemon
N: Slightly surprising, fresh leather tone. Then pear and melon, with some subtle baking spice. Lifted, white flower note
P: Brisk to crisp green apple, with floral tones and chalky, flinty mineral. Some salinity. Has more depth than ‘unoaked’ chardonnay. Spicy, slightly warming finish
Lost and Found, Chardonnay Sonoma Mountain 2017 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Wente selection, near Sonoma Gap. Small berries. 1 acre. Fairly warm vintage. Whole bunch pressed to 9 barrels (1 new) for wild-yeast fermentation then MLF. Later SO2 addition to metabolise diacetyl. Stirred 2-3 times during elevage. No acidification. pH 3.3-3.4, 13.7% ABV. $35 / bottle RRP
N: Broad, nutty aromatics. Some herbal, fennel seed and lemon citrus. Touch of pineapple, but subtle. Dusty mineral
P: Juicy, vibrant acidity. Chalky texture. Cordite and clove background tones. Crushed rock. Ripe pear. Slightly warming, medium-long, creamy, butter-touched finish
Krater Cellars, Barsotti Vineyard Gamay Noir El Dorado 2017 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
Porphyry and granite rocky soils, similar to Beaujolais at 2,600ft altitude in the Sierra Foothills, near American River Canyon, towards Sacramento. 1.2t total fruit, creating 50-100 cases. Whole bunch fermentation with 5-day carbonic maceration. Then foot-trodden, before 10 day, wild-yeast fermentation. 5 months in neutral oak. 3 barrels made. 0.8 g/L RS, 6.3 g/L TA, pH 3.3, 12.8% ABV. $28 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Roasted tone to dense berry fruit. Jammy. Focused but simple
P: Juicy, slightly jammy blackberry and red cherry. Moderate to firm, but, sandy, slightly stemmy tannins. Touch of fresh leather. Medium, perfumed finish
RAEN, Royal St. Robert Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (16+ / 20; 91+ / 100)
Research in Agriculture and Enology Naturally. Carlo Mondavi, Robert’s grandson. Barrel selection from multiple vineyards. 80% whole bunch, wild-yeast fermentation. No fining or filtration. 13% ABV. $69 / bottle RRP – standard for a region where 1-1.5t / acre yields drive $7,000 / ton typical fruit costs.
A: Pale ruby, with some haze
N: Floral violets and ripe blue fruit. Stem-herb lift. Gentle spice
P: Peppery blueberry and smoky, crushed rock tone. Quite firm, grainy tannins. Some orange peel and spice, with quite good length
Ceritas, Elliot Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Monopole 2016 (15.5+ / 20; 89+ / 100)
Supposed to be Hellenthal, but substituted for the next door vineyard. Near Hirsch. 60% whole bunch fermentation. 16 months in 25% new oak. 13.1% ABV. $75 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Focused, ripe blackberry, with subtle stem-herb. Scented orange peel and
P: Chewy, firm, grainy tannins. Herbal mid-palate. Medium-full-bodied. Jammy strawberry. Spice. Bright, not brisk acidity. Creamy, fairly long finish
Lost and Found, Syrah Sonoma Mountain 2017 (16+ / 20; 91+ / 100)
Substituted for Jaime Motley Mondeuse, which did not arrive, and what Geoff had in his car! Same vineyard as Chardonnay. Foot trodden. Wild yeast fermentation. Neutral oak maturation. 13.5% ABV. 25ppm free SO2 at bottling. $35-40 / bottle RRP
A: Deep black-purple
N: Saturated black olive and old leather, with some liquorice lift. Touches of black pepper. Ripe, brooding blackberry fruit beneath
P: Bright to brisk acidity. Lots of medicinal, liquorice and black olive. Firm to high, grainy-peppery tannins. Some orange lift through the finish
Arbor Roberts, Que Syrah Vineyard Syrah Sonoma Coast 2014 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
Oldest Syrah on Sonoma Coast. Syrah Noir clone planted at 850ft altitude, on Goldridge schist, shale and fractured mudstone. 13% ABV. $90 / bottle RRP
A: Deep purple
N: Closed. Green peppercorns. Some black pepper. Fresh leather. Crushed rock. Green olive. Cool
P: Crisp acidity. Raspberry, with some ripeness. Herb and black pepper. Curiously sour-sweet. Firm, grainy tannins. Chewy finish. Hard work. Where will this go?
Megan Hill of Iron Horse and Nicole Hitchcock of J Vineyards introduced 2 each of their sparkling wines, as we watched the Sun set over the Pacific. This was a spectacular early-evening interlude, before a ‘blind tasting’ and dinner. Much photography was done!
The Iron Horse wines – especially the Joy! Green Valley-Russian River Valley 2004 – were the superior, but at $110 and $275, so they should be. Enjoyable, nevertheless.
Wines at Sun-down
Iron Horse, Brut LD Green Valley / Russian River Valley 2010 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay. Gentle, whole bunch press. 5 g/L RS, 7.9 g/L TA, pH 3.1, 13.5% ABV. $110 / bottle RRP
A: Pale lemon, fine bead
N: Some candied lemon, but with subtle, integrated, toasted brioche and some nuttiness akin to barrel fermetation
P: Fine mousse, with a prickly texture. Firm acidity. Chalky. Toasted lees notes to bright green apple. Spice. Oyster shell mineral finish. Fine and long
Iron Horse, Joy! Green Valley / Russian River Valley 2004 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
68% Pinot Noir, 32% Chardonnay. 8 g/L RS, 7.3 g/L TA, pH 2.88, 13.5% ABV. $275 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium lemon-gold
N: Marked toasty brioche and butter lees. Flint. Citrus fruit beneath
P: Dense, brioche buttered toast. Hazelnut, suggestive of barrel fermentation. Very fine, precise mousse. Long and fine
J Vineyards, Brut Rose Russian River Valley NV (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
58% Pinot Noir, 32% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Meunier. Hand harvested. Whole bunch press, with some Pinot Noir skin contact. Reserve wines blended and pure cane sugar for dosage. 30 months on lees. 15 g/L RS, 8.3 g/L TA, pH 3.18, 12.5% ABV. $33 / bottle RRP
A: Pale salmon
N: Toasty-rubbery. Reductive phase. Nutty. Some red cherry skin to citrus
P: Spiky mousse. Dry. Crunchy texture. Some bitterness. Flint and strawberry. Medium-long
J Vineyards, Brut Russian River Valley 2009 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
52% Pinot Noir, 44% Chardonnay, 4% Pinot Meunier. Whole bunch press. Stainless steel fermentation. Bottled 2010. Aged 5 years then dosage with barrel-aged reserve wines added. 12 g/L RS, 9 g/L TA, pH 3.11, 12.5% ABV. $125 / bottle RRP
A: Mid lemon, lively bead
N: Toasty, spicy lees. Some flint. Creamy. Spiky touch. Green citrus fruit
P: Quite sweet entry. Loose-knit. Toasty lees and ripe orchard fruit. Long, lemon-rind laced finish
We spent an hour, entirely blindfolded, in the company of Dr Henry “Hoby” Wedler, a sensory scientist from UC Davis, and his colleague Justin Vallandingham. Hoby, who is himself entirely blind, wanted to bring us into his world, and remove the potentially-biasing sense of sight from wine tasting, to focus on smell, taste and texture.
This should have been a great session, but I will be honest and say that I got less out of it than perhaps I could (should?) have. Hoby began with an introduction that was perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, just to say more-or-less that taking sight away and focusing on smell, taste and touch gives an important perspective on wine. After a fairly long day, and starting to feel a little hungry at between 7 and 8pm, he kinda lost me.
We did then smell 3 prepared aromas / flavours – limonene (apparently a blend of alpha and beta), which we all identified, then rocks in water (which does actually have a very faint aroma), and finally tobacco in water. That was followed by tasting 8 wines – not easy to do physically blind – and in some cases then eating some pre-prepared cheeses and meats.
I took only rough notes – again not easy to do blind, but they are legible – so to summarise, the first wine was clearly Chardonnay; the second Sauvignon Blanc, though I think oaked. There then followed a sequence of reds, including Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet blends. The final pair both had pretty hot, alcoholic finishes, with the last one apparently 16.1% ABV…
A bit of a missed-opportunity, but interesting enough.
Dinner wines focused on Pinot Noir primarily, with a few Chardonnays and others thrown in, all of which were from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast or further North again, in Mendocino County. I did my best to get around most of the array of wines on the tables, whilst we dined ‘family style’ (i.e. with sharing platters).
Peay were kind enough to bring both 2015 and 2005 of their Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot Noir, though it was the 2015 that stood out, and not just of the pair. Kudos once more to Geoff Kruth MS, whose 2014 Lost and Found Russian River Pinot Noir was very fine. Chardonnay legend, Steve Kistler brought his Occidental Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth Pinot Noir, which was well done too – as it should be for $145 – albeit a little roasted and warming.
Finally, Anthill Farms showed what Syrah can do in Sonoma Coast with their structured, but classically perfumed Peters Vineyard 2016, from a vineyard interplanted with Viognier.
Ceritas, Charles Heintz Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2016 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
12 months in neutral oak then 4-6 months in stainless steel. 8.2 g/L TA, pH 3.15, 12.9% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP
A: Very pale gold
N: Baking spice. Gunflint. Lime and passionfruit. Chilli spice
P: Racy acidity. Hard. Quite hard work. Flinty. Medium-long finish
Alma Fria, Holtermann Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
115, 777, 828 and Pommard clones. 15% whole-bunch fermentation. 12 months in 25% new French oak. 13.3% ABV. $50 / bottle RRP
A: Mid ruby, with a broad rim
N: Camphor, stem-herb tones and jammy raspberry
P: Bright and ripe raspberry. Good freshness. Peppery tannins. Slightly warming finish
Anthill Farms, Comptche Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir Mendocino County 2016 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
Mainly Swan clone, on complex, Franciscan sandy-clay, dry-farmed at 2t / acre. Harvest at 22-23 Brix. 40% whole-bunch, with 12-14 day cold-soak with 1 punchdown / day, followed by fermentation. Fermentation completed in 15% new oak barrels. 13.2% ABV. $48 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Floral, ripe, scented strawberry and red cherry. Clove-cinnamon and blueberry emerges
P: Black cherry liqueur fruit. Baking spice. Fairly-firm, grainy tannins. Fat and warming
Drew, Estate Ranch Field Selections Pinot Noir Mendocino Ridge 2015 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Organic, at 1,250ft, 3 miles from Pacific, on 20% slope. 7.5 g/L TA, pH 3.3, 13.5% ABV. $60 / bottle RRP
A: Medium ruby, with some purple glints
N: Compote raspberry. Leafy herb. Ripe but some balancing, stony mineral. Baking spice
P: Crisp, racy acidity. Cranberry and ripe raspberry. Flint. Fairly-firm, grainy tannins. A little green on the finish, but interesting
Freeman Vineyard, Yu-Ki Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2015 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
114, 667, 828, Marisfield (23) and Wadenswil (2A) clones, planted at 1,000ft, 5 miles from Pacific, at 1t / acre. 5-day cold soak in open-top fermenters, then fermented with 1-3 punchdowns / day. Barrel matured. 13.7% ABV. $45 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Jammy but focused raspberry. Some blue fruit. Cordite and flint. Clove-allspice savouriness
P: Sweet blackberry, then bright acidity. Nice spice. Moderate, fine tannins. Warming, fair-length finish
J Vineyards, Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2016 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
Foggy Bend, Eastside Knoll, Bot Tie, Canfield, MacMurray Ranch vineyards, planted with 2A, 113, 115, 667, 777, 828, 943, Rochioli, Swan and Pommard clones, on Zamora, Arbuckle and Goldridge soils. Hand-harvested. Destemmed. 5-day cold soak then 7-10 day wild and inoculated yeast fermentation in 3-10t open-top vats. MLF in 30% new French oak, then maturation, followed by blending. 5.3 g/L TA, pH 3.7, 14.3% ABV. $40 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Jammy strawberry. Some dried herb. Vanilla and cinnamon-clove
P: Sweet. Ripe. Jammy raspberry. Clove. Bitter tang. Moderate, grainy tannins
Lost and Found, Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2014 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
113, 777 and Jackson 16 clones, vinified separately. Majority 777 and Jackson 16 destemmed with 113 whole-bunch, wild-yeast fermented. Natural MLF. 10 months in 2-5 year old French oak before blending. 2 years in bottle pre-release. 13.4% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby-garnet
N: Scented rose, ripe red cherry. Delicate clove and some orange peel or coriander seed. Delicate
P: Brisk to crisp, pure, ripe not overripe red cherry and cranberry fruit. Fine, moderate tannins. Good length, with a touch of warmth
Lutum, Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2013 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
9-50% slopes on rocky, well-drained, Goulding-Toomes Complex soils. Harvested on 2 different nights to optimise ripeness. Destemmed. 5-day cold soak. Fermented then pressed to 33% new French oak for 15 months. Racked and bottled, unfiltered. 13.9% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP
A: Very pale ruby, with a rose rim
N: Scented rose, crunchy but ripe cranberry. Baking spice. Leafy. Baked raspberry
P: Sweet blackberry entry. Savoury leaf, spice and warming alcohol. Fairly-firm, grainy tannins. Medium-long finish
Occidental, Bodega Headlands Cuvée Elizabeth Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
Made by Steve Kistler. Wild-yeast fermentation. Free-run wine transferred to 25% new, Francois Freres barrels. Natural MLF. No fining or filtration. Minimal SO2. 13.2% ABV. $145 / bottle RRP
A: Mid ruby, with a vibrant colour
N: Allspice, beetroot, some rose petals. Ripe, dense, blackberry
P: Vibrant acidity. Ripe raspberry. Herb tone. Stemmy, fairly-firm tannins. Herbal tone to medium-long finish
Patz & Hall, Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2015 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
667 and 777 clones planted on rolling hills at 400ft, on Goldridge gravelly loam. Wild and cultured-yeast fermentation. MLF in 50% new French oak. No fining or filtration. ??% ABV. $60 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Nutty oak. Cinnamon-clove. Curry spice. Black-cherry fruit. Some roasted tones
P: Hint of fresh leather or brett? Ripe blackberry. Chilli spice. Clove. Ripe and warming finish. Moderate, fine tannins
Peay Vineyards, Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2015 (17.5+ / 20; 95+ / 100)
58% Pommard, 23% 115, 10% 777, 5% Swan, 2% Mt Eden, 2% 667, planted at 600ft, 3 miles from Pacific. 96% destemmed. 11 months on lees in 32% new French oak. No fining or filtration. 5.7 g/L TA, pH 3.54, 13.2% ABV. $60 / bottle RRP
A: Mid-deep ruby, with a broad, rosy rim
N: Clove-cinnamon, nicely wrapped around pure cranberry. Sweet vanilla. Orange peel tang
P: Brisk to crisp acidity. Juicy raspberry and cranberry fruit. Flinty, stony mid-palate. Fairly-firm, chalky tannins. Some clove. Needs time. Fine
Peay Vineyards, Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2005 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Extra wine. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium garnet
N: Toasted spice, coffee, some caramelised clove. Fresh earth. Scented, dried peels and cherry
P: Ripe, sweet, dried red cherry. Spicy, hot alcohol. Moderate acidity. Truffle finish
Radio-Côteau, Dierke Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2013 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
Organic. 16 months in barrel. 12 months in bottle, pre-release. ??% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP
A: Pale ruby-garnet
N: Subtle stems. Fresh smoky blackberry. Chilli and clove spice. Toasted spices. Savoury-meaty
P: Brisk to crisp acidity. Spicy black and red cherry. Rocky chilli. Hot, roasted coffee finish
Scherrer, Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2013 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
14.5% ABV. $48 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby-garnet with a broad rim
N: Chocolate-cinnamon oak. Chilli and allspice. Sweet. Rich. Caramelised
P: Strawberry jam. Caramel. Chilli spice. Firm, grainy tannins. Overextracted. Hot, bitter finish
Anthill Farms, Peters Vineyard Syrah Sonoma Coast 2016 (16.5+ / 20; 93+ / 100)
Syrah interplanted with Viognier. Harvested late – November. 60% whole-bunch fermentation. No MLF. 16-17 months in neutral oak before bottling. 13.7% ABV. $32 / bottle RRP
A: Mid-deep ruby-purple
N: Liquorice, white pepper, bacon fat. Floral violet tones
P: Inky blueberry. White pepper. Firm to high, chalky tannins. Liquorice-medicinal. Medium-long to long
Jasmine Hirsch of the eponymous Sonoma Coast estate led a panel discussion on the cool, coastal climate of California, joined by Ehren Jordan (Failla), Chantal Forthun (Flowers) and the legendary cool-climate pioneer, Ted Lemon of Littorai.
Hirsch was founded in 1980. Littorai was founded further North in Mendocino county, around Anderson Valley, and dedicated primarily to Pinot Noir, with 20% Chardonnay. Failla was established in 1998. Flowers bought land in 1989 and was first planted 1991, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
First plantings were in 1972, of Zinfandel, made by Nick Bellon as an alternative income stream to sheep farming. In 1974, he added Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. The first crop was sold to Searidge, whose wine gained some attention and brought focus on the region. With only 47 years’ experience, the current group of growers are now only just in the position of being able to learn from the mistakes made by the first generation of planting and vinification.
The region has, for a long time, been a polyculture, with ranching and other farming interspersed with vineyards, but much of the countryside is unfarmed space. Fort Ross-Seaview AVA has 500 acres planted in 27,500 acres of land, for example.
Anderson Valley is the oldest AVA, since 1983. Established by Roederer in 1982 as they sought extreme climates for sparkling production. The AVA is 60,000 acres in total size, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer are the main grapes. Despite its remoteness, there are 30 wineries. The Valley is transverse and open to the Pacific, therefore cooled, with most vineyards on the valley hillsides.
Sonoma Coast was approved in 1987 as an AVA, primarily for marketing purposes, without any obvious viticultural purposes, to allow Estate to be used on bottling when labelling law changed, requiring vineyards to be within the same AVA as the winery, to give the word Estate. The AVA is 500,000 acres and covers Russian River Valley and others, pre-dating “no-overlapping AVAs” laws.
West Sonoma Coast Vintners was established to promote the wines of the ‘true’ or extreme Sonoma Coast, with a principal purpose to petition for a West Sonoma Coast AVA. The TTF have approved it, but it is awaiting Treasury approval. Approval requires a submission covering climate, geology, history and other elements to become established, though viticultural practices and grape varieties are not part of the petition.
Unfortunately, some members will sit outside the AVA boundaries because of the ‘no overlapping’ rule, so the proposal is as good as they could get – being a sub-AVA of Sonoma Coast. This is 120,000 acres.
Fort Ross-Seaview is a sub-AVA applied for in 2002 and approved in 2011, of 500 acres, or 6% of the total Sonoma Coast. This has a 920 foot lower altitude boundary, which represents the average daytime fog line position, above which temperatures are higher and ripening better.
Hirsch owns 1,000 acres including many in the AVA, but only with 50 planted and 30 more that could be planted, as a result of steep hillsides and environmental regulation constraints. Much of their plantings are therefore on ridge tops. On the San Andreas fault, many microclimates exist, depending on where the fog can reach. Unusually, Littorai and Failla buy some grapes from Hirsch, on a per acre basis not a per ton, supporting Hirsch in difficult vintages and sharing the benefits.
Other sub-AVAs include Freestone-Occidental, Sebastopol Hills, Green Valley and Annapolis.
The tasting was run from North to South, in a different order than the tasting book. We began with most Northerly Cerise vineyard in Anderson Valley. Failla’s Peay was 2nd. Hirsch’s wines were 3rd and 4th. West from Hirsch is on the first ridgeline of Fort Ross, closest to the ocean, where Flowers planted and we tasted theirs 5th and 6th. Pivot, then Platt rounded out the tasting.
Collectively, this was a tasting of some very fine wines. Stylistically, the Hirsch wines run close to the ‘too lean’ wind, but just pulled it off, with the 2016 Hirsch West Ridge Pinot Noir the pick of the pair.
It was Failla’s pair that came top of the class though, with just a little more ripeness to balance the acidity and structure, to reach that effortless, floral harmony between fine-boned tannins, refreshment, integral oak and intensity of fruit. Bravo to Ehren Jordan and team on the Failla Platt Vineyard 2016 – essence of Pinot Noir.
That’s not to say that Ted Lemon and Chantal Forthun didn’t show very good wines. Littorai 2016 Cerise Vineyard from Anderson Valley up North could go somewhere interesting over time, while Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge 2016 manages to carry off its more prominent oak coat with style.
Hirsch, West Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (17.5+ / 20; 95+ / 100)
Hedged vines. Leafroll virus-infected Mt Eden clones, with Swan and Pommard-Wadenswil clones. Virus reduces sugar production. 55% whole bunch fermentation. Maturation in 14% new oak. 12.6% ABV. $80 / bottle RRP
A: Pale ruby-purple
N: Griotte fruit. Smoky, rocky mineral. Some stem-herb overtones. Nutty oak
P: Crisp acidity. Chalky, firm tannins. Youthful cranberry and some thyme herbal lift through the long finish. Needs time
Hirsch, East Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (17++ / 20; 94++ / 100)
Warmer site. Steep slope with little mid-slope top-soil. Significant planting on AxR1, but still farming on it. Low vigour, delivering 1t / acre normally – 0.25t / acre in 2015. Concentrated but lean. Marginal economic viability and currently replanting 2 of the 6 acres with Phylloxera. Mt Eden, Swan and Pommard-Wadenswil clones. 48% whole bunch fermentation. Maturation in 25% new oak. 12% ABV. $85 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby-rose
N: Flinty-slate mineral. Delicate scent over restrained, chalky raspberry. Oyster shell
P: Tight, crisp to high acidity. Firm, chalky, grippy tannins. Raspberry. Flint and oyster shell. Perfumed finish. Really needs time to unwind
Littorai, The Pivot Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
667, 114, 777, Swan, Calera and proprietary clones on Goldridge loam over marine sandstone, planted 2004. Organic materials and biodynamic methods but not certified. 30% whole bunch fermentation. 16 months in 25% new oak. 13.4% ABV. $90 / bottle RRP
A: Pale purple
N: Orange lift to ripe strawberry. Milk chocolate oak. Some slate mineral
P: Mouthcoating, firm, peppery tannins. Quite full-bodied. Brisk acidity holds balance. Red cherry. Long-ish
Littorai, Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2016 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Cerise is 800-1,000ft above Boonville, where Ted specified rootstocks and clones. Mountainside that juts into Anderson Valley and into the fog line, so ripens much later than Ted expected. David Bruce (Martin Ray), 667, 777 and 2 proprietary clones, on shallow clay-loam over shale and serpentine, with some marine sandstone, planted 1998. 2004 first vintage. 32% whole bunch fermentation. 16 months in 25% new French oak. 12.7% ABV. $85 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-mid purple
N: Dusty, slightly dried thyme herb. Rose soap and cinnamon delicate tones. Slate mineral. Floral strawberry, ripe not overripe fruit
P: Crisp acidity. Crunchy, ripe cranberry and strawberry. Moderate, gently grainy, ripe tannins. Delicately perfumed finish, with a medium-long to long finish
Failla, Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
Windswept, cool site near the Petaluma Gap. 3 weeks later harvest than Hirsch due to lower elevation. 31 acre vineyard in western hills near Sebastopol, 5 miles from Pacific, at 425-800ft. South-west facing, sandy Goldridge loam soils. 60% whole bunch, wild-yeast fermentation. 16 months in 20% new French oak. No fining or filtration. 5.8 g/L TA, pH 3.62, 13.1% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP
A: Pale ruby-rose
N: Rose-floral aromatic lift. Fresh strawberry and cherry. Flinty-slaty mineral complexity
P: Brisk to crisp acidity. Lifted, precise, floral tones. Compact, ripe tannins. Floral-stony, long finish
Failla, Peay Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
2nd tasted. 4 miles from Pacific, at 800ft. One of the Western-most sites in Sonoma County. Pacific coolness and proximity gives a bigger challenge of setting commercially-viable volumes of fruit at flowering, due to wind, cold and wetness, than actually ripening. Altitude therefore gets the vines above the fog line. In a bad year, 0.06t / acre or <3HL / Ha. 2t / acre is good; Littorai plan on average 1.75t /Ha. 10-14 days later ripening than Hirsch vineyards. 66% 777, 33% 115 clonal selection. 50-55% whole bunch, wild-yeast fermentation. 11 months in 25% new French 225L oak. No fining or filtration. 6.2 g/L TA, pH 3.52, 13.2% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP
N: Clove-camphor lift to stem-herb, violets and blueberry fruit. Dusty mineral
P: Raspberry and blueberry. Peppery, fairly-firm tannins that are starting to resolve. Clove tones. Long and perfumed finish
Flowers, Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Flat ridge top. Lots of agricultural studies had to be done before planting. 21 acres planted 2/3 Chardonnay and 1/3 Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir at tight, 1 x 1m planting on an East-facing slopes up to 37%. Swan, 115, Calera and 2A planted – mostly spicy Calera and Swan – at 1,150-1,400ft. Biodynamic and hand vineyard work. 5% whole bunch. 8-day 50°F cold-soak. Wild-yeast fermentation with 25 days total maceration. Free run wine matured for 15 months in 25% new French oak. No fining or filtration. 5.7 g/L TA, pH 3.5, 13.5% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Roasted spice and clove. Dark and spicy. Gentle leafiness with ripe red cherry and blackberry fruit. Crushed rock
P: Rich. Ripe red cherry and blackberry. Clove and toasted spice. Ripe, medium-firm tannins that are going velvety. Warming touch to the finish. Blend of elegance of tannins and power of flavour
Flowers, Seaview Ridge Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Undulating red hills with volcanic material on schist. More Dijon clone planting. Closer to the ocean than Camp Meeting Ridge, so has more extremes. 44 acres of 400 under vine. Swan, 115, Calera and 2A planted at 1,150-1,400ft. Biodynamic. 0% whole bunch in 2016. 8-day 50°F cold-soak. Wild-yeast fermentation with 25 days total maceration. Free run wine matured for 15 months in 25% new French oak. No fining or filtration. 5.7 g/L TA, pH 3.5, 13.5% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP
A: Pale ruby
N: More muted, crushed rock and chalk. Camphor. Cranberry
P: Cranberry and ripe strawberry. Chalky, fairly-firm tannins. Orange peel and cinnamon-clove, long finish
We decamped from Timber Cove and headed into the hills, to visit Hirsch’s vineyards and experience the region first-hand. With steep, winding, narrow roads, including some that were un-metalled, minibuses were not possible, let alone a full-blown coach. Instead, we travelled Presidential-style, in a full motorcade…
Jasmine then led a visit to Hirsch’s estate vineyards, with a walk-around tasting of Hirsch wines in the vineyard, between Chardonnay Block 10 and Block 8 of Pinot Noir, just in front of the West Ridge. The first ridge-line separates Hirsch from the Pacific, to create an intermediate climate. Tractors are used for inter-vine mowing and spraying, but all vine-pruning and adjustments are by hand. Slopes can be steep, but not too steep for tractors.
Chardonnay was planted in 1994 with the intention of planting Nebbiolo, but Williams-Selyem persuaded him to Chardonnay. After that the grapes were sold to Kistler. Kistler suggesting converting to a quad-armed cordon like Lyre, to spread over-vigorous growth, opened the canopy to reduce disease and increased yield.
Block 8 was planted in 1993 with Pommard and Wadensfield clones as a field-blend. This is the only single-parcel made as a wine. Originally cordon-spur trained, but switched to cane pruning with VSP – as all are Hirsch’s vineyards. With such significant pruning wounds, Eutypa dieback has become a problem. With the Chardonnay vines, new trunks are being grown, which will be switched to when they are established and before the Eutypa gets too deep into the main, existing trunks.
Block 6, planted for Littorai, was test-converted to organics – and now to biodynamics. Early year growth is slower, but maturation has been longer and better activity through ripening and harvest. Previously, vegetative growth was continuing as veraison had begun, splitting the vines’ focus. Now, ripening appears to be more even with biodynamics.
Wines in the vineyard
Hirsch, Estate Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2016 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Pressed to 25% new French and Austrian oak for barrel fermentation followed by MLF, with minimal lees stirring. Racked to stainless steel tank with lees. 12.9% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP
A: Pale lemon
N: Grilled toast reduction. Spiced. Clove and ripe apple.
P: Crisp, chalky, ripe orchard fruit and some baking spice. Tight. Elegant. Good length. Leesy richness. Hint of saltiness
Hirsch, Block 8 Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
100% Pommard-Wadenswil field-blend. 42% whole bunch fermentation. Maturation in 22% new oak. 13.4% ABV. $95 / bottle RRP
A: Pale purple
N: Blue and blackberry, rose scented fruit. Pepper spice and stem-herb lift. Crushed rock and touches of clove
P: Crisp acidity. Pure blueberry fruit. Crunchy. Clove and moderately-firm, grainy tannins. Fresh and bright.
A real pleasure was then to drive to another of Hirsch’s vineyards, for a meal of fantastically fresh charcuterie, pates and cheeses, interspersed with baked chicken, at long tables set out under a canopy in the lane between two vineyard blocks. Yet another spectacular, atmospheric place to eat, drink and be merry.
We were joined again by Jasmine, Ted, Ehren, Chantal and Anthony Filiberti, winemaker at Hirsch and Anthill Farms. Jasmine had put particular attention to the menu, including personally selecting the suite of cheeses from her favourite, artisan cheesemaker and bringing them to the temporary catering area, set up at the Hirsch winery.
In several cases, it was an opportunity to taste these producers’ Chardonnays, following the morning’s Pinot-focused masterclass, as well as older examples of some of their wines. Here, the Hirsch East Ridge Pinot Noir 2009 was the finest wine, young or old; Pinot or Chardonnay. Littorai’s 2007 Charles Heintz Chardonnay was the best of the older whites, but Failla Keefer Ranch 2016 was the best Chardonnay overall.
Anthill Farms, Peugeot Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2016 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Head-trained, in the middle of Russian River, planted on Huichica faded brown soils. Picked on acidity. Matured cool, in barrels. Bottled 14 months after harvest. 14.1% ABV. $46 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale lemon
N: Floral vanilla and butter. Lemongrass and lemon peel
P: Brisk acidity. Some chalk. Buttery texture. Ripe lemon. Warming finish but decent length
Failla, Keefer Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2016 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
2A, Swan, Calera and 777 clones planted at 1,400-1,850ft in 1998. Biodynamic. Wild-yeast fermentation. Natural MLF. 11 months in 15% new French oak, 20% concrete egg and 10% stainless steel. No fining or filtration. 7.5 g/L TA, pH 3.38, 13.9% ABV. $45 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale lemon
N: Delicately scented, precise, ripe pear with some jasmine-like scent, then baking spice hints
P: Ripe lemon-citrus, lemongrass, gentle baking spice. Creamy mid-palate. Harmonious, brisk acidity. Good length
Flowers, Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2008 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
Old Wente and Dijon clonal selections, planted at 1,150-1,400ft, on West-facing slopes. Whole-bunch pressed. Wild-yeast fermentation with regular battonage. 12 months in 54% new French oak. 5.9 g/L RS, pH 3.54, 14.2% ABV. $50 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium lemon
N: Buttery-caramel oak. Baking spice. Old cream. Oxidative tones. Old pear
P: Full-bodied, buttery, rich. Ripe white peach. Big and bold.
Littorai, Charles Heinz Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2007 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Wente clones, planted at 800ft on Goldridge loam over Franciscan shale, in 1983. Whole bunch pressed. Settled overnight. Wild-yeast, barrel fermentation in 25-30% new oak. Natural MLF. 11 months in barrel with minimal battonage, then stainless steel before bottling. 13.7% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid lemon
N: Vegetal cabbage. Flint. Old almond. Some popcorn. Ripe lemon peel. Cinnamon
P: Full bodied. Oily. Rich. Baking spice. Fair acidity. Creamy, almond finish
Flowers, Rose of Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2017 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
Rocky, well-drained soils. Whole-bunch pressed into small stainless steel tanks. Settled. Wild-yeast fermentation. Partial MLF. Stainless steel and neutral French oak maturation. 6.6 g/L TA, pH 3.33, 13% ABV. $32 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale salmon
N: Toasty-creamy. Spice and fresh earth. Ripe scented strawberry
P: Sweet fruit – pear and delicate strawberry. Brisk acidity. Rich. Works well with Reblochon-style cheese. Medium-length
Failla, Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2009 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Goldridge, Hugo, Boomer and Yorkville soils, at 1,500ft, above fog line. Wild-yeast fermentation. 11 months in 30% new French oak. No fining or filtration. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium garnet; some haze
N: White truffle. Some truffle and oxidative tones. Dried red fruit
P: Brisk acidity. Grippy, moderate tannins. Sweet, dried red cherry. Some herb to the mid-long finish
Hirsch, East Ridge Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2009 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
50% Mt Eden, 38% Pommard, 12% Swan clones. 6.6 g/L TA, pH 3.46, 13.8% ABV. $80 / bottle RRP
A: Pale-medium garnet
N: Pronounced spice. Some lift to drying, ripe strawberry. Clove and earthy spice. Blackberry too
P: Blackberry. Fresh acidity gives verve. Peppery, moderate tannins. Stony mid-palate. A little warming, but fine length
Littorai, Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2004 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
Pommard, Swan and 114 clones, planted at 1,200-1,550ft, on Hugo-Josephine complex, shale and greenstone soils, in 1995. Cold soak. Wild-yeast fermentation with punchdowns and pumpovers. ??% ABV. $125 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid ruby-garnet
N: Deep, ripe, dried blackberry. Sweet, dried fruit. Some VA tones. Spicy clove oak and camphor. Some black truffle touches
P: Dried fruit and spice. Rich. Full. Warming. Chewy, fairly firm tannins. Warming finish. Baked red and black fruit. Broad