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Sangiovese Games and Power of Words

January 11, 2022 6 comments

Okay, folks, this might be the scariest post I have ever written. This might lead to unsubscribes, unfollows, ostracism, and public shaming. Well, it is what it is.

Here it comes, my confession.

I don’t know how Sangiovese tastes like.

Here, I said it. You heard me right, and I can repeat. I do not know how Sangiovese tastes like.

Still here? Okay, then I would like to ask for a chance to explain.

I know how Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like. Whether it is produced in Bordeaux, California, Australia or Tuscany, I still expect to find cassis, maybe eucalyptus, maybe mint, maybe bell peppers.

I know how Pinot Noir tastes like. No matter whether it comes from Burgundy, South Africa, Oregon, New Zealand, or California, I still expect to find cherries, maybe plums, maybe violets, maybe some smoke.

I can continue – I know how Chardonnay tastes like (from anywhere), I know how Riesling tastes like (from anywhere), I know how Sauvignon Blanc tastes like (from anywhere). I still don’t know how Sangiovese tastes like.

While we are talking grapes, we are also talking about the power of words. As soon as we hear Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, we have an instant mental image, set our expectations, and the first sip of wine is judged against that mental image. Of course, we make regional adjustments – Pinot Noir from Oregon might offer dark chocolate, espresso, and mocha in addition to the cherries, but cherries will be there. Bordeaux (okay, it is usually a blend, so this might be a bad example) is expected to be leaner that’s California Cab, but it will still show that cassis core. And I still have no clue how Sangiovese should taste like.

I know how Brunello tastes. It is 100% Sangiovese, but it has its own unique taste profile with layers of tart cherries and cherry pits framed by oak notes and firm tannins. I know how Vino Nobile de Montepulciano tastes. It is also 100% Sangiovese, with tart cherries usually weaved around a core of acidity. I know how Chianti typically tastes. It has to be at least 80% Sangiovese, plus other grapes, and it will have the cherries usually surrounded by leather and tobacco.

Brunello, Vino Nobile, Chianti are renditions of Sangiovese, but they are references only to themselves. When I hear any of these names, I know what to expect. But I still don’t know how Sangiovese tastes like.

I don’t know if you ever had a chance to experience Shafer Firebreak. This wine used to be made from California Sangiovese (92%) with the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon (8%), the percentages are representative of the last vintage which was in 2003 (Sangiovese plantings were removed after that). This wine had nothing in common with any of the Italian Sangiovese renditions, but instead had a smoke, espresso, and powerful dark fruit. A very memorable rendition of Sangiovese – but not referenceable.

You might be annoyed at this point by me constantly repeating “I don’t know how Sangiovese tastes like” and wondering where I might be going with that. So this post was triggered by a few events. Last year, I got a few samples of Sangiovese from Castello di Amorosa. When I tasted them, they were reminiscent of Chianti, and I even had to open a bottle of Cecchi Chianti, which is an outstanding producer making Sangiovese wines with exemplary regional expressions, to compare. I also tasted a bottle of California Sangiovese which had only a name of Sangiovese, but really tasted more like a fruit compote mixed with a fruit cake. As the end result I realized that I have no idea how Sangiovese actually should taste like – and here I am, pondering at the subject with you, my dear reader (I hope someone is still reading this, eh?)

So let me take you a bit further with a few of the tasting notes and references.

First, I have to say that I probably found what can be considered a reference Sangiovese. Two years ago I had an opportunity to taste a range of wines from Cecchi, and one of the wines was called Sangiovese Toscana IGT. It was not Chianti of any kind, it was pretty much an unadulterated rendition of a pure Sangiovese from the motherland, from Tuscany, which was not even aged in oak, only 2 months in the bottle. Here are the notes:

2018 Cecchi Sangiovese Toscana IGP (13% ABV, $10)
Dark ruby
Cherries, coriander, sage
Light, bright, fresh cherries, crisp acidity, sweet basil, refreshing.
8+, can be perfect even on a summer day, but I can’t complain on a winter day either. Unique and different.

The wine was absolutely spectacular in its pristine beauty and an absolute steal for the money. Ever since I tasted this wine it became my reference for how pure Sangiovese might take like.

Now, the peculiar California Sangiovese I mentioned before was the 2017 Seghesio Venom. 100% Sangiovese from Rattlesnake Hill in Alexander Valley, 14.9% ABV, $55. Seghesio is a Zinfandel specialist, and they are good at that. If this wine would be called Zinfandel, I would have no issue with it. But under Sangiovese name, it makes me only wonder what possessed Seghesio to make a wine like that. A fruit compote with a bit of a structure doesn’t equate to Sangiovese in any shape and form. And at the price, if you just want to drink a California wine, it might be fine, but if you are looking for Sangiovese, just look elsewhere.

Well, you don’t need to look too far. Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley is really focusing on bringing their Italian heritage to wines they craft in California. Yesterday I talked about their range of Pinot Noir wines, which was excellent. Their California Sangiovese can probably be called a glorious success as I even had to open a bottle of classic Chianti to compare the notes.

I tasted two Sangiovese wines from Castello di Amorosa (for the history of the Castello, which is very fascinating, I would like to refer you to the link I included above).

2017 Castello di Amorosa Sangiovese Napa Valley (14.7% ABV, $36)
Dark garnet
Plums, cherries, baking spices
Plums, tart cherries, light tannins, medium body, good structure, a hint of leather.
8-/8, it is reminiscent of the Chianti, nicely approachable, but will improve with time, judging by the late tannins on the finish on the second day.

2018 Castello di Amorosa Voyager Vineyard Sangiovese Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $45, single vineyard)
Dark garnet
Smoke, granite, gunflint, tobacco, dark fruit, Very promising.
Tobacco, baking spices, cut through acidity, medium body. Very unusual. Needs a bit of time.
Tart cherries, a hint of vanilla, bright acidity. Reminiscent of Chianti, but not as earthy
8-

And then I opened a bottle of Cecchi Chianti and was pleasantly surprised how successful Castello di Amorosa was with their Californian Sangiovese rendition.

2017 Cecchi Chianti DOCG (13% ABV, $14)
Dark garnet
Herbs with a hint of cherries
Tart cherries, good acidity, fresh berry profile, medium body. Was earthy upon opening, but mellowed out after a few hours in the open bottle.
8-, easy to drink, nice.

As you can tell, the wines are similar, and I would call it a very successful effort.

Well, I still don’t know how Sangiovese should taste like, because this is all in the words. Unless we taste blind, we are bound by the power of words, and therefore our excitement and disappointment are fully dependent on those words. Was the Venom a bad wine? No, but it is an utter disappointment when called a Sangiovese. Thanks to Castello di Amorosa successfully offering a saving grace. While I still don’t know how Sangiovese should taste like, I’m willing to continue the quest for the tastiest rendition.

If you are still with me – thank you for reading and cheers.

Californian Stars, Italian Flair

January 10, 2022 1 comment

Californian stars.

Of course, we are talking about wines and grapes. What would those be?

I recently called California Cabernet Sauvignon a king. We can safely designate Chardonnay as a queen. But who would you call a prince? Capricious, spiky, moody royalty? Whatever grape you think of, the correct answer is Pinot Noir, because this is the grape I mostly would like to talk about today. And tell me if you think Pinot Noir is not qualified for the role of the royal prince – finicky, demanding, and unpredictable.

Okay, we got our stars for the day. Now, the Italian flair. How would you add the Italian flair to the Californian grapes?

There are a few options. For example, you can call your sparkling wine a Spumante. Or you can call your winery Castello, and build it in the form of a medieval Italian castle. You can also make wines out of Sangiovese – but this we will discuss later. Anyway, as you can see, you got options.

Vittorio Sattui, an Italian immigrant, founded St. Helena Wine Cellars in 1885. The business had to be closed due to the prohibition in 1920, but the Sattui family continued living at the winery. In 1975, Dario Sattui, great-grandson of Vittorio, restarted the family business by opening V. Sattui winery in St. Helena.

After finishing college, Dario traveled around Europe and became obsessed with medieval castles, monasteries, farmhouses. In 1993, Dario found the next home for his future winery – 171 acres parcel near Calistoga. In 1994, the construction began initially for the 8,500 sq. ft building without cellars. That slowly morphed into a 121,000 sq. ft. 13th-century Tuscan castle with 107 rooms, drawbridge, five towers, high defensive ramparts, courtyards and loggias, a chapel, stables, an armory, and even a torture chamber. Lots of bricks and artifacts were delivered directly from Europe to ensure the full authenticity of the castle. Castello de Amorosa (Castle of Love) opened its doors to visitors in 2007 after 15 years of construction.

I was fortunate enough to visit the Castello di Amorosa in 2017 as part of the Wine Bloggers Conference 2017 in Santa Rosa, so I can share (inundate is a better word, of course) my first-hand impressions:

 

 

Thinking about misbehaving? Might not be recommended:

Touring the cellars:

The ceiling of the room where we had our tasting in 2017:

A bit of education – Napa Valley Regions:

Castello di Amorosa works with 14 vineyards, most of them in Napa and Sonoma, out of which 6 are estate vineyards. The focus of winemaking is on showcasing each individual terroir and on the small-batch production.

I had an opportunity to taste a range of Pinot Noir expressions from Castello di Amorosa, and I have to honestly say that I was very much impressed with what I found in my glass.

First, two sparkling wines, both produced using the classic method.

2017 Castello di Amorosa Spumante del Castello Brut Napa Valley (12.5% ABV, $39, 73% Chardonnay, 27% Pinot Noir)
Light Golden, fine bubbles
Toasted bread, apples, gunflint
Toasted bread, Granny Smith apples, more gunflint, great minerality, a touch of sweetness, bigger body than typical champagne.
8, excellent,

2017 Castello di Amorosa Spumante del Castello Brut Rosé Napa Valley (12.5% ABV, $49, 100% Pinot Noir)
Salmon pink, fine mousse
Steely strawberries, a hint of toast
Dry, crisp, strawberries, clean acidity, good minerality
8, excellent

Next up, Rosé. The grapes for this wine come from the Green Valley area in the Russian River Valley AVA, and the wine is partially aged in concrete egg. I had an opportunity to taste both 2019 and 2020 vintages over a few months timeframe, and you can see that my tasting notes are almost identical for both wines. Somehow I missed including this wine into my 2021 top wines list, which makes me upset – this was one of the best Rosé wines and wines overall that I tasted during 2021.

2019 Castello di Amorosa Rosato Cresta d’Oro Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley (13.6% ABV, $39, 100% Pinot Noir)
Light bright pink
Fresh ripe sweet strawberries, good intensity, inviting
Beautiful ripe strawberries, a touch of lemon, clean acidity, impeccable balance. Wow.
9-/9, one of the best Rosé I ever had. Just wow.

2020 Castello di Amorosa Rosato Cresta d’Oro Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley (12.5% ABV, $39, 100% Pinot Noir)
Light bright pink
Fresh strawberries, a touch of herbs, crisp, inviting, and invigorating
Beautiful ripe strawberries, a touch of lemon, clean acidity, impeccable balance. Wow.
9, one of the best Rosé I ever had. Just wow. Superb.

Last up – Pinot Noir from Morning Dew Ranch in Anderson Valley. This vineyard was purchased in 2015 from Burt Williams, founder of the iconic William Selyem Winery. The 12-acre vineyard is in a very cool microclimate and divided into 9 blocks of Pinot Noir planted with DRC, 115, 777, Rochioli, 23, and 828 clones. All the blocks and clones give quite a bit of room to experiment to the winemaking team.

2018 Castello di Amorosa Morning Dew Ranch Pinot Noir Anderson Valley (13.1% ABV, $75, 11 months in Burgundian oak barrels)
Dark ruby
Somewhat unexpressive on the first day, a hint of fruit
Closed up, concentrated, dark fruit, not amazing
Classic Pinot on the second day – iodine, violets, underbrush
Beautifully elegant on the palate – good acidity, smoke, tobacco, fresh berries, cherries, firm structure combined with medium body, medium-long finish.
8+ second day, super-enjoyable.

Here you go, my friends – a little Italian oasis – scratch that – a large Italian Castle in the middle of Napa Valley, producing magnificent California wines. Castello di Amorosa is definitely a unique travel destination and a must-visit if you are ever in the area.

Rethinking Grenache with Wines of Cariñena

January 9, 2022 2 comments

I love how the wine world affords us endless learning opportunities – as long as we are willing to learn, of course. Wine is an indelible part of the culture, thus learning about wine extends our understanding and appreciation of the world.

More often than not we simply focus on what’s in the glass – is it tasty, what is that peculiar flavor, do I want another sip or another glass. That is exactly how it should be – after all, wine is just grape juice. But if we are willing to take a step back, think about the wine in the glass, maybe read an article somewhere online or attend a webinar (which usually doesn’t cost anything), in addition to getting hedonistic pleasure from what is in the glass we might also get fascinated by the history and its strong connection to the wine.

The webinar I’m talking about here today took place almost a year ago (yes, I already confessed that I have a lot of catching up to do), but it is still worth talking about.

Cariñena is not the oldest winemaking region in the world, but with the first vineyards planted by the Romans around 50 BC, it is definitely old enough. As you can see on the map, Cariñena is located in the Aragon region in Spain. Before Spain became Spain in the last quarter of the 15th century, the Kingdom of Aragon held tremendous power in the 14th-15th centuries over a large portion of present-day eastern Spain, parts of what is now southern France, the Balearic Islands, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, Southern Italy and parts of Greece (source: Wikipedia). While this all should interest the historians, this is also relevant to our wine story. In 1415, King Ferdinand I of Aragon declared a preference for Cariñena wines “above all others.” The red wines of Cariñena were made out of Grenache, better known in Spain as Garnacha, and also known under one of its early synonyms as Tinto Aragonés (red of Aragon).

An interesting sidebar here for you: Sardinia claims that Grenache, locally known as Cannonau, originated in the island. It is entirely possible that it is actually true, and maybe Grenache made it from Sardinia to Cariñena where it became so famous – we have to leave it to the grape historians and detectives to unravel.

Going back to the Aragon Kingdom, what I never realized is that political influence is not limited to laws, money, and goods – the vines are also a subject of political influence. The Kingdom of Aragon presided over its territories and pushed down not only the laws but also grapevines, helping to spread Grenache into all kingdom-controlled territories. Grenache plantings appeared all over Spain, in Souther Rhone and Languedoc, and other areas. Way later, in the 18th century, Grenache also made it to Australia and South and North America, to become one the most planted red grapes in the world.

What is interesting about Grenache is that it doesn’t have its own varietal character. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have bell pepper and cassis. Syrah has its signature black pepper. Grenache doesn’t have its signature profile. It perfectly adapts to a place, becoming a conduit for the terroir. For example, if you ever had Grenache from Washington (No Girls Grenache would be an excellent specimen), and some of the most classic Spanish Grenache such as Alto Moncayo, you would know the tremendous difference in taste profile – Grenache from Washington perfectly conveys the “liquid rock” of mostly volcanic soils, where Alto Moncayo would offer layers of dark chocolate and succulent berries – literally two wines from the different planets.

Source: Cariñena Wines

Cariñena is a perfect region for the grape growing – protected by the mountains, it offers long dry summers, cold winters, and very little rain, making the grapes work hard. Cariñena is also a mountainous region, with the majority of the vineyards located at the 1,300 to 2,800 feet elevation – that creates a significant diurnal variation which helps grapes to concentrate flavor. This rather harsh climate also plays a role of a great defender against vine diseases – while most of Europe was devastated by phylloxera in the late 19th century, Cariñena was largely unaffected.

A few more interesting facts about Cariñena. In 1909, King Alfonso XIII of Spain awarded Cariñena a city charter for their growers’ role in helping European vineyards recover from the phylloxera blight. The quality of Cariñena wines was also recognized in modern times when in 1932 it became the second wine region in Spain to receive the status of DO (Denomination of Origin) – the first one was Rioja. And Cariñena is the only region in Spain that has an eponymous grape – Cariñena, better known in the rest of Spain as Mazuelo and Carignan in the rest of the world. Cariñena is another native red grape grown in that region.

In 2016, Wine Enthusiast named Cariñena The Region To Watch, which since then became a slogan for the region, focusing on promoting its wines around the world.

As part of the webinar, I had an opportunity to taste two wines that are well representative of the capabilities of the region.

First wine was produced by Bodega San Valero. Bodega San Valero just celebrated 75 years, formed in 1944 by 66 partners. Today, Bodega San Valero works with 500 growers who farm 9,000 acres of vineyards, which represents 30% of the Cariñena DO. They also use 20,000 French and American oak barrels to produce the wines, and 100% of production is done on the property. I wrote about a number of Bodega San Valero wines in this blog, their Particular Grenache being one of my favorite Grenache renditions. This time, I had an opportunity to taste the 2016 Bodega San Valero Celebrity Grenache Old Vines Cariñena DO (14% ABV, $12.99). The wine had blackberries and chalk on the nose, with a hint of dried herbs. After about an hour in the open bottle, the wine became round, with dark fruit, strawberries, and blackberries, pronounced minerality and a touch of chocolate, crisp acidity, and mouthwatering finish. This was rather a food wine, but still nice and easy to drink.

While Grandes Vinos is taking its roots from a number of Cariñena cooperatives beginning from the 1950s, it was officially born in 1997. The cooperative comprises 700 winegrowers, farming more than 11,000 acres of vineyards spawning over 14 Cariñena districts and growing 10 grape varieties. Grandes Vinos produces wine under 9 different wine ranges. One of those wine types is called Igulp and it is a lightly sparkling grape beverage distributed in beer bottles – I would love to try that.

The wine I tried this time was from the Monasterio de las Viñas range. Monasterio de las Viñas pays homage to the actual monastery built by Cistercian monks in the 11th century, in a privileged place of the Sierra de Aguarón, well known for both their spirituality and high quality of their wines.

2013 Monasterio de las Viñas Gran Reserva Cariñena DO (13.5% ABV, $21.99, blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo, Cariñena, and Cabernet Sauvignon, 24 months in the barrels) had an uplifting, vinous nose, inviting and complex – it was creating great expectations about the wine. On the palate, the wine offered red and black fruit, round, good minerality, perfectly balanced, and perfectly integrated. Easy to drink and dangerous.

This was a great learning experience, making me take another look at the wines and try to see just past of what is in the glass. Let’s drink to the learning experiences of our lives, and may you never stop learning. Cheers!

 

Passion and Pinot Updates: Bells Up Winery

January 6, 2022 1 comment

And then we arrived at “micro-boutique, un-domaine” Bells Up Winery, our final stop of the Oregon wine country touring.

Out of 13 wineries profiled in the Stories of Passion and Pinot series, Bells Up is the youngest one, having been founded in 2013, with the first vineyard plantings of Pinot Noir going into the ground in 2014. Despite being a young winery, Dave (the winemaker) and Sara (the Boss) Specter have a clear vision as to where they are going with their distinctly un-domaine wine – if you are curious why I keep saying “un-domaine”, I would like to direct you to the (virtual) interview I did with Dave in 2019 – he explains the concept of un-domaine very well.

Everything is distinctly un-domaine (see, you need to read that interview) at Bells Up. The vineyard with a gentle slope, the winery right in the middle of the vineyard, a simple but elegantly appointed tasting room with lots of fresh flowers and beautiful views of the vineyards. Here you go – pictures, pictures, pictures:

 

 

After admiring all the views we proceeded with lunch and tasting. Our lunch was prepared by Sara and while it was somewhat of a simplistic summer chicken salad, the amazing part was that this salad perfectly paired with the majority of wines we tasted – if you ever tried pairing the salad with wine, you would have to agree that achieving great pairing is very far from easy.

As I mentioned, Dave and Sara have a clear vision of the future direction for Bells Up. While Bells Up estate vineyard will be mostly planted with Pinot Noir, and by 2022 Bells Up plans to be at 100% estate fruit for all Pinot Noir bottlings, they have a clear plan for making Bells Up unique and different – growing and producing Pinot Blanc instead of the more commonly available Pinot Gris; being first in Willamette Valley with Seyval Blanc plantings; planting (out of all grapes!) a little known Italian grape Scioppettino; already offering Syrah and adding Cabernet Sauvignon in the 2020 vintage. “Unique and different” is a good description, in my opinion.

 

Before we talk about wines I would like to mention that none of the wine names you will see below are random. All the names have connections to the classical music pieces under the same name, and every choice of the name has an explanation as to why the particular piece was selected to connect with a given wine. If you are interested, there is even a Spotify playlist that includes all of the relevant music pieces – you can find that list directly on the Bells Up Our Wines page.

We started our tasting with Pinot Blanc:

2020 Bells Up Rhapsody Pinot Blanc Willamette Valley ($32)
Great complexity, lemon, gunflint
Great acidity, lemon, clean, crisp, refreshing
Perfect pairing with summer chicken salad
8, Excellent

We almost had to beg Dave to let us Seyval Blanc which was practically sold out. As a curiously interesting fact, Seyval Blanc plantings had to be protected by the net, as it happened that birds loved the grapes too.

2020 Bells Up Helios Seyval Blanc Estate Chehalem Mountains AVA ($40)
Gunflint, minerality,
Clean fruit, Meyer lemon, good acidity, good creaminess
Great with summer chicken salad.
8

Next up was Pinot Noir Rosé, the first Pinot Noir wine entirely produced from the estate fruit:

2020 Bells Up Prelude Pinot Noir Rosé Estate Chehalem Mountains AVA ($28)
Strawberries, nice minerality
Strawberries, bigger body than Provence, good acidity, perfect balance.
8-

We followed up with the selection of Bells Up Pinot Noir wines:

2018 Bells Up Titan Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($44)
Plums, violets, sandalwood
Crisp, clean, crunchy cranberry profile, a hint of cranberries, good acidity on the finish.
8-

2019 Bells Up Candide Pinot Noir Reserve Chehalem Mountains AVA ($54, 12 months in French oak)
Floral, nutmeg, warm spices
Cherries, cut through acidity, black pepper, perfect balance, delicious
8

2019 Bells Up Villanelle Pinot Noire Reserve Tonnelier Vineyard Yamhill-Carlton AVA ($58, 12 months in French oak, final vintage)
Blackberry/raspberry, Marionberry
Cassis leaves, light crunchy cherries, well-integrated tannins, good acidity on the finish, delicious.
8

2019 Bells Up Jupiter Estate Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains AVA ($48, 12 months in French Oak)
Underbrush, summer forest, cherries, a touch of tobacco
Crunchy cherries, clean, fresh, delicious
8

While this is not a video, here is Dave talking about Bells Up wines:

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Bells Up Syrah was served with an amazing seedless grape pie. As Sara explained, everyone gives wines as presents in Willamette Valley, but tasty grape pie is almost equivalent to the hard currency when exchanging gifts with neighbors. As I said, the pie was superb, and to think that sweet pie would pair with Walla Walla Syrah? I really wouldn’t – and I would be mistaken.

2019 Bells Up Firebird Syrah Summit View Vineyard Walla Walla Valley AVA ($52, 12 months in French oak)
Blueberries and blackberries on the nose
Berries all the way, nicely balanced
8, Amazing pairing with seedless grape pie with cardamom

Again, we almost had to twist Dave’s arm to let us taste the future release of Cabernet Sauvignon:

2020 Bells Up New World Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Summit View Vineyard Walla Walla Valley AVA ($68, 12 months in French oak, barrel sample)
A hint of green bell pepper
Cassis, a hint of black pepper on the finish, good, round, smoky undertones.
8-

Here you have the summary of our “un-domaine” experience – an excellent set of wines and super-friendly hosts. If you will find yourself touring Willamette Valley, add Bells Up winery to your “must visit” list.

This is the last update in the Passion and Pinot series. For now, that is.

Until next time…

This post is a part of the Stories of Passion and Pinot series – click the link for more stories…

 

American Pleasures #6: A Tale of Two Cabs

January 4, 2022 2 comments

Wine should give you pleasure – there is no point in drinking the wine if it does not. Lately, I had a number of samples of American wines, that were the delicious standouts – one after another, making me even wonder if someone cursed my palate. I enjoyed all of those wines so much that I decided to designate a new series to them – the American Pleasures. 

California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Magical words for any wine connoisseur. Out of more than 100 grape varieties used in wine production in California, I would safely bet that Cabernet Sauvignon clout exceeds that of Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, and even including Pinot Noir in this list is a stretch. Cabernet Sauvignon is The One of California wines (if you are willing to disprove this with actual numbers, I will be happy to publish a correction, but until someone will step forward, this stands as unquestionable truth).

While we can agree that California Cabernet Sauvignon is an object of craving for uncounted many, it also should be recognized as an object of controversy. How do I mean it? Easy. There are probably 50 or so producers whose wines are impossible to get, due to both availability and pricing – you have to be on the mailing list with a waiting list stretching for 20 years or so, and once you get there you should be willing to pay $500++ per bottle of wine you will need to wait for another 10-15 years to enjoy. Alternatively, you need to be prepared to pay an upward of $500 per bottle and scour the internet daily looking for those special bottles.

On the flip side, you can join most of us walking into the wine store asking (begging?) for a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon under $20, trying not to notice the poorly hidden smirk on the face of the salesperson, who knows that we are on the quest for the impossible. If you like Cabernet Sauvignon and not buying those wines from your expense account, I’m sure you can relate to the experience firsthand. Even $50 per bottle doesn’t come with any guarantees. But – that number gives us hope. Yes, folks, it is possible to find a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon under $50. Let’s talk about it.

Lots of my wine learning and discoveries are linked to unimitable wine educator Kevin Zraly and his Windows on the World Wine School. I remember one of the lessons where we were talking about California Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the wines was particularly good, and I remember Kevin remarking that the wine was produced by Louis M Martini, who doesn’t charge nearly enough for the quality of the wines they produce. That reference got engraved in my memory literally forever, and Louis M Martini became somewhat of the safe bet when looking for reasonably priced and consistent California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Louis M Martiny winery was founded in 1922 when Prohibition was already in full swing. It was actually known as L.M. Martini Grape Products Company and was focused on the production of sacramental wines and concentrate for home winemaking. In 1933, expecting that Prohibition will end, the new winery building was constructed north of the town of Napa. This was the actual beginning of the Louis M Martini winery and pioneering role of the Martini family in the Californian wine industry, helping to establish Napa Valley Vintners Association in 1943, being one of the first to use wind machines to prevent frost in the vineyards, and being one of the first to bottle varietal Merlot in 1970.

Louis M Martini offers a substantial range of wines today, going way beyond standard Sonoma and Napa Cabernet Sauvignon offerings, including Cabernet Sauvignon from some of the best regions in Napa Valley such as Stagecoach Vineyard and Howell Mountain, as well as a number of Merlot, Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel wines – unfortunately, most of those are priced well beyond the $50 we are talking about today. Sill, there is Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which can be found at around $15, and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon around $35. The Napa Valley bottling I tasted was simply outstanding with or without any regard to the price:

2016 Louis M Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (15.1% ABV, $40)
Garnet
Cassis, eucalyptus, baking spices
Roll of your tongue smooth, velvety, fresh cassis, perfectly ripe fruit but over, firm structure, long finish.
8+/9-, excellent, classic California Cabernet Sauvignon

If Louis M Martini can be called an iconic winery, then our next winery can be only referred to as the most iconic winery in Napa Valley. Charles Krug winery, established in 1861 in Napa Valley by Prussian immigrant Charles Krug was the very first winery in Napa Valley, the 540 acres estate which Charles Krug received via marriage. In 1943, an immigrant family from Italy, Mondavi, purchased the Charles Krug estate which had been run by the family now in 4th generation.

Charles Krug winery also offers a good number of wines, including Chardonnay, Malbec, Merlot, Zinfandel, and others, with Cabernet Sauvignon still being a flagship offering, including clonal selections (one of the Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon wines is called X Clone as it is produced as a blend of 10 Cabernet Sauvignon clones). I always wanted to try the Charles Krug wines, and finally, I was able to do so:

2017 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (14.1% ABV, $39, 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 3% Petite Sirah)
Dark garnet
Blueberry, blueberry jam, dark chocolate, pipe tobacco
A touch of nutmeg and cloves, much crispier on the second day, firm tannins, firm structure, good acidity.
8-/8, definite improvement on the second day.

Comparing these two Cabernet Sauvignon wines, Louis M Martini was a perfect pop and pour example, which is ultra rare among California Cabernet Sauvignon, where Charles Krug bottling definitely needed time.

Here you are, my friends. If you are looking for a good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon under $50, there is still hope!

Passion and Pinot Updates: Utopia Vineyard

January 3, 2022 1 comment

And then we arrived in Utopia.

When your destination is called Utopia Vineyard, poking some fun is irresistible, isn’t it?

Upon our arrival to Utopia Vineyard in Ribbon Ridge AVA, we were warmly greeted by Dan Warnshuis, proprietor and winemaker, who poured us a glass of Utopia Pinot Noir Blanc (yep, a white wine made out of Pinot Noir) and took us on the tour of the vineyard, glass in hand. After speaking with Dan virtually about a year ago, it was definitely a pleasure to shake hands and move from the virtual to the real world where things can be touched and smelled.

Utopia Vineyard looks different from Le Cadeau and Lenné – no fighting with the rocks here. Gentle slope elevation of only 20 feet from top to bottom makes it easier to tend for grapes. Utopia Vineyard is farmed using Sustainable Organic practices and was L.I.V.E. certified in 2008. Dan practices dry farming and uses cover crops every second row – in normal conditions though. Summer 2021 was so dry and hot that by the second week in August when we visited, all of the cover crops were removed so it will not compete with vines for access to water. The grapes looked perfectly healthy and beautiful despite the hot weather – you can see it for yourself in the pictures below.

I don’t know how the actual utopia should look like, but I find these vineyard views pretty compelling:



There are 12 clones of Pinot Noir growing at Utopia Vineyard – one of the wines we tasted was made out of all 12 clones. There are also 3 clones of Chardonnay growing there, planted in 2010. Talking about “fashionable wines”, Utopia Vineyard doesn’t produce sparkling wines, but Dan makes Pinot Noir Blanc, a white wine from the red grapes, which we tasted upon arrival, and also had the pleasure of tasting it directly from the barrel (all notes below).

In 2018, Dan acquired additional 35 acres of land not far from Utopia Vineyard’s original location. That parcel of land also had a 5,500 sq. ft building which by the time of our arrival 3 years after the acquisition was fully converted into a state-of-the-art winery. We stopped by the winery a few times during our visit, and what was the most mind-boggling to me was that Dan was pretty much operating everything at the winery just by himself – moving barrels, emptying tanks, and so on. His son-in-law comes to help during the harvest, but otherwise, Dan is a one-man operation.

This additional property also hosts a freshly constructed log cabin which is called exactly that – Utopia Vineyard Log Cabin, which offers beautiful accommodations and spectacular views:






We visited Utopia Vineyard over two evenings and had some delicious food and tasted through a substantial range of Utopia Vineyard wines. I also learned about an interesting berry I never heard of before – Marionberry, which is a type of blackberry, which we tasted in the form of delicious pie – I wish this is something I can find here on the East coast. Marionberry takes its name from Marion County in Oregon, where it was selected in 1956 as a cross between Chehalem and Olallie blackberries.

Time to talk about wines – here are my notes:

2018 Utopia Bliss Pinot Noir Blanc Ribbon Ridge AVA ($45)
The nose of the buckwheat, yellow plums
Plums on the palate, good balance, good acidity, asks for food
8-

2015 Utopia Vineyard Chardonnay Estate Ribbon Ridge AVA ($45)
Nice, delicate, a hint of vanilla
A touch of vanilla, Golden delicious apples, good acidity
7+/8-

I mentioned before that we had an opportunity to taste some wines directly from the barrel.

2020 Chardonnay was outstanding, fresh apples and lemon, clean acidity, perfectly clean, vibrant, and balanced. If I would have an opportunity, I would drink this wine just like that.

2020 Pinot Noir Blanc from the barrel was even more exciting – a touch of toasted bread, a touch of fresh fruit, perfect minerality, vibrant, clean, full of energy. Again, I would love to drink this wine just like that.

2015 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge AVA ($55) – all 12 clones are used
Plums, cherries, a touch of iodine
Clean, crisp, plums, cherries and cranberries, good acidity
8, excellent

2014 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge AVA ($55)
A touch of sapidity, mushrooms,
Plums, round, soft, clean
8-

2013 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge AVA ($55)
Mushrooms, forest floor, underbrush
Earthy, restrained, plums, clean, round
8-

2017 Utopia Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge AVA ($48)
Sweet plums, violets
Raspberries, red berries, round.
7+

2015 Utopia Vineyard Pinot Noir Clone 777 Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA ($65)
Violets, sweet plums, iodine
7+

2016 Utopia Paradise Pinot Noir Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA ($75)
Original 2002 plantings.
Mushrooms, underbrush, violets
Clean, ripe cherries, pepper, medium body,
8, excellent

I was also excited to try a late harvest Riesling which was absolutely delicious:

2016 Utopia Late Harvest Riesling Chateau Bianca Vineyard Willamette Valley AVA ($40)
Beautiful apricots, a touch of honey, clean acidity, good balance. Delicious.
8

Talking to Dan we learned that 99 percent of the sales at the winery are direct to consumers, via the wine club and visitors. Dan also has a few customers who like to take his wines as a private label. Dan is very much involved with philanthropy, supporting the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, The Hampton Opera center in Portland, OR, making wine donations, offering cabin stays, and more.

Utopia Vineyard offers something for everyone – if you will find yourself visiting Portland, you might want to take a 30 minutes trip southwest of Portland and find your utopia there. Or better yet, just stay in the cabin – everything else might be optional.

This post is a part of the Stories of Passion and Pinot series – click the link for more stories…

Passion and Pinot Updates: Lenné Estate

December 30, 2021 3 comments

Out of the 13 Oregon wineries profiled to the date in the Stories of Passion and Pinot series, Lenné Estate stands aside. I had my first encounter with Steve Lutz and Lenné Estate in 2014, two years before the Stories of Passion and Pinot series was born, when Steve participated in the #WineChat event on Twitter. This is when I heard for the first time about Peavine soils, a mixture of clay and rocks, and Steve’s relentless, passionate pursuit of Pinot Noir winemaking in the place where it seems no vine can ever grow – read this original post to see what I mean. This passion I learned about while “listening” to Steve for the first time, the passion for the finicky grape became the reason for the name of the series.

When I spoke (virtually) to Steve in 2016 (you can find this conversation here), I learned a lot more about all the hard work establishing the vineyard, about Kill Hill, and about the wines which Steve produces, so when we arrived at Lenné Estate with Carl Giavanti, I felt like I knew Steve for a long time, and almost felt at home in the vineyard.

It is one thing to listen to someone talking about the soil, and it is totally different when you look at it (you can touch it too if you want) and think “how anything, really anything can grow in this soil”? Dry farming, no irrigation, and then you look at the soil – and you look at the grapes which it perfectly produces, and you can only say “wow”. I can tell you that out of the number of vineyards we already visited during the trip, the grapes at Lenné looked the best – tight bunches, beautiful colors of veraison, just a pleasure to look at.

More grapes:

We took a walk to the top of Kill Hill, and I can tell you that it was one steep walk. But the views from the vineyard were nothing short of spectacular.






Yes, it is steep!

We talked about winemaking, and Steve mentioned that he typically prefers using commercial yeasts, because they produce more reliable and predictable results – however, he is not foreign to the idea of indigenous yeast, as we tasted in one of the wines. When we spoke back in 2016, Steve was not very big on producing white wines – I was happy to see that he changed his mind and now offers Lenné Estate Chardonnay. However, more as an exception to the rule at this point, Steve is still not ready to produce sparkling wines – however, I hope that this will change at some point – we will have to see.

After the walk, we went back to the tasting room, where Steve set up a full tasting, including the charcuterie and cheese boards.

View from the tasting room

We started tasting with the Chardonnay, which was excellent

2019 Lenné Estate Scarlett’s Reserve Chardonnay Yamhill-Carlton AVA ($58)
A touch of honey, herbs, restrained
Crisp acidity, fresh, bright, Granny Smith apples, a touch of vanilla, creamy, excellent
8

Next, of course, we moved to the Pinot Noirs, where we tasted the whole range – here are tasting notes for the wines including some additional comments regarding the vintage and winemaking:

2017 Lenné Estate South Slope Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton AVA ($55)
Hot vintage with a big fruit set
Beautiful nose of sweet cherries and raspberries
Wow, red fruit all the way, cut through acidity, perfect balance
9-, superb

2016 Lenné Estate South Slope Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton AVA ($55)
Early vintage, cool August, harvest done by mid-September
Cherries, sage, floral notes
Clean, tart cherries, warm notes, good acidity,
8-

2018 Lenné Estate Sad Jack 777 Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton AVA ($55)
Indigenous yeast, spontaneous malolactic
Tart cherries, a hint of cherry pie, savory note
Tart cherries, clean, balanced, crisp, superb
8+

2018 Lenné Estate Karen’s Pommard Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton AVA ($60)
Commercial yeast and forced malolactic
Cherry, cherry pie, sweet oak
Tart cherries, dark fruit, good balance, well integrated tannins
8

The last wine was a culmination point of the tasting. “Cinq Élus” means “five chosen”, which in the case of this wine means five best barrels and 5 clones. The wine was simply superb:

2018 Lenné Estate Cinq Élus Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton AVA ($85)
5 best barrels from the vintage, 5 clones
The succulent nose of red and black berries, distant hint of gunflint, herbs, great complexity
Restrained, cherries, layered, complex, perfectly integrated, tannins come through on the finish, superb
9-

While we were tasting the wines, we also talked about blind tasting events which Steve runs at the winery, where attendees get an opportunity, for example, to compare Oregon Pinot Noir with the Burgundy, or Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir with Dundee Hills Pinot Noir and so on – here you can see what blind tastings are offered. Steve also leads European wine cruises where everything revolves around food and wine, as you can imagine – here you can find information about those.

On the Lenné Estate website, there is also an interesting section called Vintage Charts. Here you can find general information regarding the suggested drinking window for Oregon Pinot Noir in general, as well as particular recommendations specifically pertaining to the Lenné Estate wines.

There you are, my friends. If you are looking for mature, confident, and simply delicious Oregon Pinot Noir, you don’t need to look further than Lenné Estate.

But we are not done here yet. More Passion and Pinot updates are coming – stay tuned…

This post is a part of the Stories of Passion and Pinot series – click the link for more stories…

Passion and Pinot Updates: Youngberg Hill Vineyard

December 29, 2021 2 comments

I virtually met with Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill Vineyards in September of 2016. Now, 5 years later, I was able to actually shake his hand, listen to the stories face to face and taste the latest wines.

We arrived at the winery in the morning and went on to meet Wayne at the winery building, which also serves as Bed and Breakfast. The views from the terrace of that building were simply incredible – I walked around trying to snap as many pictures as I could.





After meeting Wayne, we went on a tour of the estate. Actually, we drove around the vineyards in the baggie which Wayne was driving. Again, more of the beautiful views all around. We also got to meet a few of the cute animals which call Youngberg Hill home.

At the Youngberg Hill estate, it is all about the Bailey family – Wayne, his wife Nicolette, and daughters Natasha, Jordan, and Aspen. The Youngberg Hill vineyards were first planted in 1989 when the estate was founded, 12 acres of Pinot Noir vines. These 12 acres are divided into two blocks – 7 acres of Natasha block at the altitude of 600 feet on marine sediment soils, and 5 acres of Jordan block on volcanic soils at the altitude of 800 feet. There is 2 degrees difference in average temperatures between these two blocks, and as the Jordan block is a little bit cooler, the grapes usually ripen later than the ones on Natasha Block, with about 10 days difference in pick time.

Aspen block was first planted in 2006 with 5 acres of Pinot Gris. In 2014, half of the block (2.5 acres) was grafted over to Chardonnay. In 2008, Bailey’s block was planted with 3 acres of Pinot Noir, at 700 feet altitude and predominantly volcanic soils.

When we spoke back in 2016, 20 acres of vineyards were planted on the 50 acres estate. I asked Wayne if he has any plans to add additional plantings, and got a simple “no” answer. Well, I guess the old adage of “never say never” is perfectly at play here, as in 2018, 3 acres of Wayne’s World block was planted with two more clones of Pinot Noir, bringing a total to 5 clones, if I’m not mistaken. This block was planted mostly on marine sediment soils at an altitude between 500 and 600 feet.

Here you can see a sample of the soils at Youngberg Hill Vineyards.

After we finished the tour, it was time to taste the wines.

I was happy that we started our tasting with the sparkling wine – this is almost something you now expect from Oregon wineries. Similar to the sparkling wine we had at Le Cadeau, this wine was also made with first-pass grapes. The wine spent 2.5 years on the lees, so it is called the Extended Tirage sparkling.

2018 Youngberg Hill Vineyards Extended Tirage Sparkling Eola-Amity AVA (12.5% ABV, $55)
A touch of apple and vanilla
Crisp apple notes, fresh, good acidity, good body, delicious. Lingering acidity on the finish
8, excellent

Next, again to my delight, we had a couple of Chardonnays:

2019 Youngberg Hill Vineyards Aspen Chardonnay McMinnville AVA (12% ABV, $45)
Beautiful nose of apples, vanilla, and a touch of honey
Crisp, clean, great acidity, wow.
8, it would be amazing with age

Another change at the Youngberg Hill Vineyards since we last spoke was the new wine label introduced in 2019 – Bailey Family Wines. Bailey Family wines comprise a selection of the best plots and barrels. In addition to sparkling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, the Bailey Family wines range also includes Grenache sourced from the Rogue Valley. We tasted the latest vintage of Bailey Family Chardonnay which was superb:

2018 Bailey Family Chardonnay McMinnville AVA Willamette Valley (13.4% ABV, $85)
Herbal notes, a touch of butter, honey, minerality
Great complexity, mouthwatering acidity, lean, green apples, a touch of sage. Perfect balance
8/8+

Next, we had the pleasure of going through the selection of the Pinot Noir wines, both current vintages from Natasha and Jordan blocks, as well as reserve wine, Nicolette’s Select:

2018 Youngberg Hill Vineyards Natasha Block Pinot Noir McMinnville AVA (14% ABV, $60)
Ripe cherries and cranberries
Restrained, tart cherries, firm structure, dusty palate, excellent balance.
8+

2018 Youngberg Hill Vineyards Jordan’s Block Pinot Noir McMinnville AVA (13.8% ABV, $60)
Cherries and violets
Bright popping ripe cherries, good acidity, perfect balance.
Both [Natasha Block and Jordan Block] are built for the long haul.
8+

2015 Youngberg Hill Vineyards Nicolette’s Select Pinot Noir McMinnville AVA (14.1% ABV, $85)
Great bouquet on the nose, cherries, pencil shavings, underbrush
Wow, an interplay of cherries, cranberries, mushrooms, dusty palate, layered, balanced
9-, superb.

I keep going back to our 2016 conversation with Wayne. While preparing the interview questions I learned that Youngberg Hill produces a really unique wine – Pinot Port, as it was called – a Port-style wine made out of Pinot Noir grapes, something which I never heard of before. So now, being at the winery, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to taste the Pinot Port. Wayne was somewhat hesitant about it, as I don’t believe he is making this wine anymore, but I had my wish granted and had a sip of this delicious beverage:

NV Youngberg Hill Vineyards Pinot Port (19% ABV, $NA, 25 cases produced)
Nicely aged wine, dried fruit, good balance, very pleasant

There you are, my friends. Another story of Passion and Pinot, with the Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay, and bubbles) of truly a world-class, and in its own, Oregon style. These wines are worth seeking, and if you want to spend a few days in the wine country, surrounded by incredible views and delicious wines, that Inn at the Youngberg Hill sounds really, really attractive.

I got more of the Passion and Pinot updates to share with you, so until the next time…

This post is a part of the Stories of Passion and Pinot series – click the link for more stories…

American Pleasures #5: Burgundy in California, or the Wonders of Pop’n’Pour

December 22, 2021 Leave a comment

Wine should give you pleasure – there is no point in drinking the wine if it does not. Lately, I had a number of samples of American wines, that were the delicious standouts – one after another, making me even wonder if someone cursed my palate. I enjoyed all of those wines so much that I decided to designate a new series to them – the American Pleasures. 

Burgundy in California. Nonsense, right? Burgundy is located in France, and the last thing you want to hear is a review of Hearty Burgundy, proudly produced by Gallo (believe it or not, but you can still buy this wine at about $9 for 1.5L – a great deal, huh?). Rest assured – Gallo is the last wine I want to ever discuss on this blog. I would like, however, to talk about Burgundy’s star grape varieties, which are also working amazingly well in California – yes, you got it – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

California produces a lot of wine (#4 in the world, with 248 million cases in 2018), using a lot of different grapes – no matter where those grapes are typically from – from Clairette Blanc to Viura to Nebbiolo to Grenache to Tempranillo, you should expect to find them all in Californian wines. Aside from all of the abundance, there are some grapes that can be called California superstars.

With the white grapes, it is easy – Chardonnay clearly steals the show. California made Chardonnay its own way back, with Chateau Montelena already proving its prowess to the whole world by winning Judgement of Paris in 1976. Chardonnay’s style changed and changed again since those early days of success, and when you are opening a bottle of California Chardonnay today, very often you don’t know what to expect – too much butter, too little butter, too much oak, no oak. Most importantly, you have no guarantees that you will enjoy that bottle.

Speaking about red grapes, ask a wine lover to name the most famous California red grape, and I’m sure 9 out of 10 will say Cabernet Sauvignon. I love California Cabernet Sauvignon as much as every one of those 9 out of 10 people. But based on my experience, the majority of the California Cabernet Sauvignon need time and time again to mellow down, to transform, to become truly enjoyable, and not just “drink the label and keep smiling” type of beverages. California Pinot Noir typically give you a lot more hope for finding the delicious Pop’n’Pour wines. And don’t forget – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay – it is the pleasure we are looking for here, so “pop, pour, drink, and ask for a second glass” is a sequence of events we are hoping for in here.

Here is a collection of the well-known wines I had the pleasure of enjoying – and have been blown away by the Pop’n’Pour quality, truly.

Domaine Anderson takes its roots from 1981, when Jean-Claude Rouzaud, patriarch of the Louis Roederer family came across Anderson Valley along the Mendocino coast in California, in search of the perfect spot to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Today, Domaine Anderson continues to be run by the Roederer family, farming organically and biodynamically 50 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards. Here are 3 wines I had an opportunity to taste which were all just a perfection from the moment they were poured into the glass:

2017 Domaine Anderson Chardonnay (13.5% ABV, $30)
Light golden
Touch of honey, a hint of smoke, minerality
Clean acidity, tart lemon, a touch of smoke, texturally present, medium-plus body, earthy underpinning.
8/8+, this wine screams Chablis to me. Superb.

2015 Domain Anderson Pinot Noir Anderson Valley (13.8% ABV, $39.99, 15 months in French oak barrels, 19% new)
Dark ruby
Smoke, violets, earthy notes
Nicely restrained, good minerality, a touch of tart cherries
8, delicious

2017 Domaine Anderson Pinot Noir Anderson Valley (13.6% ABV, $45, 15 months in French oak barrels, 8% new)
Dark Ruby
Stewed plums, smoke, earthy undertones
Plums, cherries, lavender, tar, smoke, sweet tobacco, crisp, fresh, clean acidity, excellent balance
8, nicely restrained Pinot Noir, not over the board.

Merry Edwards Winery needs no introduction to wine lovers. Bright and noticeable labels always stand out on the shelf, it is hard to miss them. Merry Edwards’s sole focus is on the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, which was first produced in 1999 (vintage 1997) – but she is also well known for her Sauvignon Blanc which was first produced in 2001. In addition to the passionate pursuit of Pinot Noir, Merry Edwards is also very passionate about sustainability, which is fully embraced at the winery and in the vineyards – you can read more about sustainability philosophy here.

2017 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Meredith Estate Russian River Valley Sonoma County (14.5% ABV, $68)
Dark Garnet
Sage, tar, coffee, eucalyptus, freshly crushed dark berries
Tart, fresh cherries, crisp acidity, bright, invigorating
8, very uncalifornian, more Italian than anything else.

Considering how widely available La Crema wines are, I always made an effort to avoid them as “mass-produced”. After I tasted the wine, I completely changed my opinion – the wines might be produced in large quantities, but these are well-made wines. Also, the winery website has lots of good and well-presented information.

2017 La Crema Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast (13.5% ABV, $25)
Dark intense Ruby
Plums, fresh herbs, mineral undertones
Ripe fresh plums, mint, a touch of stewed strawberries, good acidity, good balance. Interestingly spicy finish.
8-, nice

Landmark Vineyards was founded in 1974 by a group of people that included Damaris Deere Ford, the great-great-granddaughter of John Deere. In 1991, Damaris Deere Ford, now a sole proprietor of the Landmark Vineyards, focused exclusively on the production of Chardonnay and released the first vintage of the flagship Overlook Chardonnay. In 1993, Helen Turley started working as a consulting winemaker helping to create the Landmark’s signature style. Two years later, Landmark released the first vintage of its Pinot Noir under the name of Great Detour. In 2016, Landmark Vineyards extended into the Russian River Valley via the acquisition of the Hop Kiln Estate – and this was one of the wines I had an opportunity to taste.

2018 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay Sonoma County (14.3% ABV, $27)
Light golden
Vanilla, apple, lemon
Vanilla, a touch of butter, golden delicious apples, citrus profile, roll-off-your-tongue round, excellent balance, delicious
8/8+, excellent

2017 Landmark Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands (14.3% ABV, $45, 14 months in French oak, 35% new)
Dark ruby
Plums, dirt, forest floor
Plums, cherries, tobacco, iodine, short finish, good acidity, good balance.
8-, excellent and classic

2017 Landmark Vineyards Pinot Noir Hop Kiln Vineyard Russian River Valley (14.5% ABV, $40, aged in 40% new French oak)
Intense ruby
Cherries, underbrush, the nose says Oregon with dark intensity
Tart cherries, dark chocolate, tobacco, complex bouquet
8/8+, superb.

Here are you – a collection of delicious Pop’n’Pour American Pleasures. And don’t worry, I have a lot more wines to share with you. Cheers!

A Quick Trip To California With Chalk Hill Estates

December 21, 2021 Leave a comment

Have wine, will travel!

Let’s start with the question – equally eternal and pointless, but always fun – does size matter? Yes, of course, it does.

Now, a follow-up question – is bigger always better? Remember, this is still a wine blog, so please have the right perspective here.

While you are thinking about it, let me share what I learned from one and only Kevin Zraly during his Windows on the World Wine School class.

Kevin asked everyone to imagine a circle – let’s say, it would be California. Now let’s imagine a smaller circle inside of this one – let’s say, now it is Napa Valley. The wines from Napa Valley are better than the wines from the whole of California (I’m not doing any particular comparisons, just a general bottle of California appellation wine versus a general bottle of Napa Valley wine – there always will be exceptions, but this is not what we are concerned with right now).

Next, let’s place even a smaller circle inside of the Napa Valley – how about Oakville, one of the best appellations in Napa. Oakville designated wines should be (on average) better than Napa Valley designated wines, would you agree? But how about nesting next smaller circle inside – To-Kalon Vineyard, one of the most coveted vineyards in the whole of California? To-Kalon designated wines are some of the most sought-after wines in California, so the tendency is clear – the smaller circles get, the better wine should become. We don’t even have to stop at the vineyard level – we can continue to the blocks and plots, but I think you got the point.

So now, what is your answer to the question? Yes, when it comes to the wine appellations, smaller is usually better – but of course, don’t apply this logic when someone is asking if you would prefer a standard bottle of Screaming Eagle as your present, or if you would prefer a Jeroboam.

The Chalk Hill AVA (AVA is an abbreviation for the American Viticultural Area) is a tiny sliver of land located in the northeast corner of Russian River Valley AVA on the border with Alexander Valley AVA. The area is so small that it was first discovered by Fred Furth from his plane, while he was flying over the Russian River. Fred started the Chalk Hill Estates winery in 1972, and in 1983, the Chalk Hill area received the status of the AVA.

Chalk Hill’s name comes from the white chalk volcanic soils prevalent in the area. While Chalk Hill is a sub-appellation of the Rissian River Valley, it is warmer and has a lesser amount of fog, but more of the cooling breeze. Chalk Hill AVA is best known for its classically Californian grapes – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Malbec, Syrah, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel are also successfully growing there.

Chalk Hill Estate is a 1,300 acres property, with 350 acres of vineyards, planted vertically on the valley slopes. Chalk Hill Estate was acquired in 2010 from its original owner, Fred Furth, by Bill Foley, a successful financier turned vigneron, who smartly and successfully amassed a good number of famous California wineries under his Foley Family Wines brand. Actually, after the acquisition, Chalk Hill became home for the Foley family. Courtney Foley, the youngest daughter of Bill and Carol Foley, grew up surrounded by the beauty of Chalk Hill Estate, where now she became a winemaker working together with her dad.

Chalk Hill Estate vineyards are sustainably farmed, with a focus on soil and water conservation. Lots of work had been done in the vineyards to research how well different clones grow in the different sections of the vineyards, with particular emphasis on Chardonnay clones. To demonstrate the results of the study, Chalk Hill even produces a special Chalk Hill Clonal Collection set of wines.

I had an opportunity to try two of the Chalk Hill Estate latest release wines:

2019 Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay Chalk Hill AVA (14.9% ABV, $45, 11 months in French oak, 40% new)
Light golden
A hint of gunflint, lemon, herbs
Butter, vanilla, good acidity, bitter undertones
7+, over-extracted for me, but I’m sure someone might like the raw power

2018 Chalk Hill Estate Red Chalk Hill AVA (15.5% ABV, $70, 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Malbec, 10% Petit Verdot, 2% Carménère, 21 months in French oak, 61% new)
Dark garnet
Cassis, pure cassis
Beautiful crunchy cassis, cherries, eucalyptus, a hint of espresso, well noticeable but not overbearing tannins, good balance, full-body, long finish.
8+, excellent

Somehow, the Chalk Hill Chardonnay is not made for me (this is not my first encounter with the wine, but the results are identical every time). The Estate Red was a pure delight, though.

And now it is time to conclude our trip. I hope you enjoyed a brief visit to the beautiful Chalk Hill Estate – next time, I’m sure it is worth a hands-on experience. Cheers!

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