Red and Fresh: Tasting the 2020 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

Gravel is a word used in conjunction with some of wine’s most hallowed ground. The gravelly clays of Bordeaux’s Left Bank produce bottles bearing vaunted names such as Haut-Brion, Latour, Lafite, Mouton, and Margaux.

After the example set by Bordeaux, alluvial soils are prized the world over for winegrowing, though only a few regions have used them to such great advantage. One of the other areas that has exploited its alluvium for fame and fortune can be found on the eastern side of New Zealand’s North Island.

There, where Heretaunga Plains back up against the foothills of the Kaweka mountains, the vineyards sprawl in wide swaths, interrupted by small streams and hillocks buffeted by breezes off of Hawke’s Bay, in a region that has been dubbed the Gimblett Gravels.

Don’t Call it an Appellation

It might surprise many to know it, but the New Zealand government only formally developed and legalized its geographical indications, or wine appellations, in 2016. This despite more than 100 years of winegrowing history and a modern wine industry that has grown steadily since the 1960s.

When the government did define the country’s wine regions, they chose to do so only with a broad brush, defining a mere 18 GIs, and ignoring the many sub-regional designations that had been in place for decades prior.

In fact, winegrowers in New Zealand have long been frustrated with the lack of clearly defined appellations in the country, which is why in 2001 a bunch of growers got together and defined the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association.

Like other sub-regions of the area, such as Havelock and Esk Valley, people have been referring to the Gimblett Gravels as a distinct winegrowing area for decades. Without the benefit of a governmental designation, the folks at the GGWA did the next best thing. They went ahead and defined it themselves, exactly the same way that the government might have done.

The growers in the area sat down, argued for a long time about what should truly define the region, and then forged a consensus about the boundaries and definition of their place. Interestingly, they settled on defining the boundaries of the Gimblett Gravels strictly based on soil geology.

While Gimblett Gravels® is a registered commercial trademark managed by its winegrowers association, it is managed with the same (or more) rigor as many standard appellations around the world. If you want to have the words Gimblett Gravels on your wine label, you have to have a vineyard within the boundaries of the designated region, with 95% of the vineyard area having any of three defined soil types, and 95% of the fruit needs to have come from within the district.

Red and Fresh: Tasting the 2020 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

The “map” of the district has been drawn to only include the three types of gravelly silt and loam laid down by the Ngaruroro River and observes no other political, geographical, or property ownership distinctions, a point that the Gimblett Gravels Association likes to suggest lends something of a simple purity to their efforts. If you’ve got the soils, you’re in (provided you want to pay membership dues). If you don’t, you’re out.

There are around 1975 acres of vineyards that fall within the Gimblett Gravels zone, the vast majority of those (close to 90%) planted to red grapes, with Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties dominant.

While moderated by the nearby ocean, Hawke’s Bay is the warmest of all New Zealand’s wine regions, and the Gimblett Gravels might easily be described as the warmest bits of Hawke’s Bay.

This shorthand, however, somewhat obscures the fact that “warm” for New Zealand is fairly temperate for most other wine regions. Compared to Paso Robles or the Douro, Hawke’s Bay still comes across as pretty cool, and you can easily find corresponding flavor signatures in the wines, especially the Syrahs.

Red and Fresh: Tasting the 2020 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

An Idyllic Vintage

In a world where it seems like every year we’re hearing of some vintage disaster in one place or another, a normal growing year feels like a blessing. In fact, 2020 in the Hawke’s Bay region was near perfect, if only just slightly warmer than usual. No adverse weather events affected the growing season or harvest, allowing winemakers the rare luxury of making the wines they wanted to make.

That is, once they were allowed to make it.

Despite avoiding the fate of much of the world when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand was unable to keep the virus out of the country entirely, and when it did rear its head, the government dealt with it swiftly and severely.

This meant total lockdowns when cases appeared, which they did right around the time of harvest in 2020. Thankfully, special dispensation was given to winemakers, allowing them to harvest and process their fruit, saving a perfect vintage from a near-perfect disaster.

This meant total lockdowns when cases appeared, which they did right around the time of harvest in 2020. Thankfully, special dispensation was given to winemakers, allowing them to harvest and process their fruit, saving a perfect vintage from a near-perfect disaster.

Red and Fresh: Tasting the 2020 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

The Ideal Case

For the past 12 years, the winemakers in the Gimblett Gravels Association have been putting together a case of wines (selected via blind tasting by the Australian Master of Wine Andrew Caillard), to send out to journalists and critics around the world as an example of what the vintage was like in the region.

This is now the second year I’ve been receiving this vintage selection from the region and I remain impressed with the idea, and with the wines, which are uniformly delicious. More regions around the world should consider offering such snapshots to journalists who don’t have the chance to visit as often as they’d like.

So here’s what 2020 tastes like in the Gimblett Gravels.

Tasting Notes

Be aware that some of these wines are made in such small quantities that they don’t end up in the United States. In other cases, the 2020 vintage of these wines has not made the journey to these shores. The purchase links below will therefore take you to any and all vintages of the wine that are for sale, including the 2020s when they become available.

2020 Church Road “1 – Single Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and hints of cola. In the mouth, exuberant and bright cherry flavors mix with a hint of floral perfume and tangy sour cherry notes that accompany boisterous acidity. This is just a cherry party in your mouth. Light, suede soft tannins and some dried herb and sweet oak notes make sure this isn’t all fruit all the time, but this slot machine is definitely coming up all cherries. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75.

2020 Church Road “1 – Single Vineyard” Malbec, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass with purple highlights, this wine smells of blueberries and blackberries. In the mouth, juicy blueberry and blackberry fruit is shot through with powdery, stony tannins and topped off with floral and dried herb notes. Excellent acidity and wonderful length, this wine soars across the palate. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75.

2020 Esk Valley “Artisanal Collection” Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plum, blueberry, and black cherry. In the mouth, wonderfully vibrant black cherry, black tea, and dark plum flavors have a meaty-umami kick to them as well as a bright citrus peel acidity that lingers through a long finish. Fleecy tannins offer a light touch, leaving a faint sensation of muddy river water in the aromatic finish. A blend of 44% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 26% Malbec. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2020 Elephant Hill Winery “Stone” Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
An inky, opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and earth. In the mouth, rich black cherry, cola, and black plum notes mix with hints of dried herbs and potting soil. Dark and rich but without feeling heavy. The tannins are very fine and tight, but not aggressive. I suspect this wine will blossom nicely over the next 10 years. A blend of 50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap Score: around 9. Cost: $50.

2020 Elephant Hill Winery “Heironymous” Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, a touch of oiled leather, and meat. In the mouth, savory notes of black cherry and blackberry mix with a more bloody, meaty character that resolves to something faintly saline. This salinity, combined with the very good acidity makes for a mouthwatering package. Faint tannins. A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Malbec, and 20% Merlot. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $80.

2020 Babich “Single Vineyard – Winemaker’s Reserve” Merlot, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black plum and cola. In the mouth, plum, cola, and cherry flavors are bright with juicy acidity as faint, fleecy tannins caress the palate. Excellent acidity and length, leaving hints of citrus peel and dried herbs in the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.

2020 Trinity Hill “The Gimblett” Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, black cherry, black plum, and blackberry. In the mouth, extremely juicy flack cherry and blackberry flavors are shot through with excellent citrus peel acidity as wispy tannins caress the palate. Dried herbs and bright citrus oil mark the finish. Excellent. A blend of 50% Cabernet Franc, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 17% Merlot. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2020 Squawking Magpie “The Stoned Crow” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberries and dried flowers. In the mouth, the wine proves almost explosively juicy, with ripe and under-ripe blackberries offering a tangy, juicy, mouthwatering dance across the palate. Hints of dried herbs and flowers linger in the finish as the salivary glands kick into overdrive. Impressive. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35.

2020 Stonecroft “Reserve” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blueberry and black cherry. In the mouth, juicy blueberry and blackberry fruit have an astonishing minty freshness to them and a wonderful powdered stone tannic texture that fills the mouth. Excellent acidity keeps everything juicy and bright. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35.

2020 Craggy Range “Le Sol” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberries, blueberries, and fried pancetta. In the mouth, faintly saline flavors of blackberry and dashi mix with blueberries and dried herbs. Fleecy, muscular tannins squeeze the palate slightly, as excellent acidity carries the wine through a long finish. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $90. click to buy.

2020 Trinity Hill “Homage” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberries and blueberries. In the mouth, cool, stony flavors of blackberry and blueberry are backed by a fine-grained, powdered stone tannic spinal column that remains quite supple. Excellent acidity brings notes of citrus peel and dried herbs into the finish, and keeps the wine quite fresh and juicy. Regal and poised. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $95. click to buy.

2020 Mission Estate Winery Jewelstone Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and cigar box, with dark red fruit underneath. In the mouth, pipe tobacco, black cherry, and plum mix with espresso and a touch of leather. Muscular, fine-grained tannins are slightly drying in the mouth. This wine needs a little time to integrate. Good acidity, with hints of green herbs lingering in the finish. A blend of 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

Images courtesy of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing Association.

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Discover the Rustic Charms of Pineau d’Aunis

One of the trends in the wine world that I’ve been happiest to see in recent years is the surge in interest in lighter-bodied red wines. Chillable reds are the thing these days, and this has people discovering the delights of grapes such as Pais, or rediscovering the pleasures of grapes like Gamay.

Red grapes that make (or can make, if treated right) lighter-bodied wines can be found everywhere around the globe, but that doesn’t mean they’re popular or populous. Occasionally you’ll find an entire region dedicated to these grapes, such as the fabulous duo of Poulsard and Trousseau in the Jura, Nerello Mascalese on Sicily’s Mount Etna, or the predominance of Pais and Carignan in Chile’s Itata Valley.

Perhaps more often though, these wines are somewhat obscure, made from indigenous grape varieties that, if not coveted, are certainly known and appreciated in their local area and have been for some time. Often only the very best examples or the products of the most ambitious producers make it out onto the international markets where curious wine lovers may come across them thanks to the work of dedicated importers.

Such is the fate of a grape I have come to love named Pineau d’Aunis, which has long languished at some level of obscurity in the Loire Valley. Just how obscure is this grape? So obscure that it comes not just from the Loire Valley, but from the Loir Valley.

Quite confusingly, one of the main tributaries of the Loire River is named the Loir River, which merges with its better-known sibling just south of the city of Angers in the Anjou region of France. The Loir flows roughly parallel with Loire but about 20-30 miles farther north in France. Through its middle section, it bisects two wine regions, Coteaux-du-Vendômois and Coteaux-du-Loir, both of which feature the Pineau d’Aunis grape in both rosé and red wine forms.

This past spring I visited the Loire as part of a press trip for the Loire Millésime event, and had a chance to taste through a whole bunch of Pineau d’Aunis.

Ancient But Mysterious

A drawing of Pineau d’Aunis, erroneously labeled Chenin Noir

We don’t know a lot about the Pineau d’Aunis grape, other than it seems quite old, and is clearly related from a DNA perspective to Sauvignon Blanc and, like that grape, probably originated in or near the Loire Valley.

The word Pineau appears in writings from that area as far back as 1183 according to the encyclopedic Wine Grapes. However, Chenin Blanc has also been referred to as Pineau de la Loire (and Pineau d’Aunis was long called Chenin Noir), perhaps because Chenin was erroneously thought at one point to be a white mutation of Pineau d’Aunis, though DNA analysis proves this, as well as any relation to Pinot Noir, definitively false.

About 1100 acres of Pineau d’Aunis currently exist in the Loire, but that’s a significant increase from what some commentators claim was a low of a mere 40 acres in 1973, most having been replanted with the better-known and more commercially successful Cabernet Franc.

Thankfully, the grape never lost its strongest adherents, and now has become even slightly fashionable, enough that plantings are increasing, if slowly. The last time it was fashionable was back in the 13th Century when it was supposedly a favorite of King Henry III in England, so much so that some theorize that England’s love affair with French “Claret” might have begun not with a red wine made of Cabernet, but one made of Pineau d’Aunis.

These days, Pineau seems to be made primarily by tiny individual producers or small local cooperatives like the Cave du Vendômois. Not many bottles make it to the US, but those that do are invariably decent, and often are good values.

Bright Fresh Spicy Fruity

In its pink form, Pineau d’Aunis has a zippy, crisp quality that will appeal to anyone who enjoys their pink wines lean and energetic. They often feature berry and citrus notes, great acidity, and a reasonable dose of minerality. I’ve never had an aged Pineau d’Aunis rosé but I suspect they might age beautifully.

In its darker form, Pineau d’Aunis wines can be quite profound, despite remaining relatively light-bodied. The grape can have some serious tannins if not handled well, and some of the lower-scoring reds below reflect somewhat unbalanced, aggressive tannins that are likely responsible for the grape’s more rustic reputation.

But when handled gently, and not overly extracted, Pineau d’Aunis offers a wonderful set of aromatics that include spice and incense, occasionally pepper, along with dried flowers. These are layered on bright forest berry flavors like elderberry or huckleberry, sticking more to the red end of the fruit spectrum than black. Provided they are not over-oaked or over-extracted, they can benefit from a slight chill, offering a refreshing but complex character and unique personality.

Tasting Notes

Apologies in advance for the fact that these wines aren’t easy to find. I tend to buy bottles of Pineau d’Aunis whenever they cross my path, and suggest you do the same.

Pineau d’Aunis Rosé

Discover the Rustic Charms of Pineau d’Aunis

2021 Cave du Vendômois “Le Cocagne” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rosé, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light peachy pink in color, this wine smells of wet felt and citrus peel. In the mouth, wonderfully bright citrus peel, crabapple, and watermelon rind flavors have a fantastic deep stony minerality and great, mouthwatering acidity. Crisp and clean, with a sour, mouthwatering citrus note in the finish and a bit of salinity. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $14. click to buy.

2021 Cave du Vendômois “Le Carillon de Vendôme” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rosé, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale peachy pink in color, this wine smells of wet stone, citrus, and herbs. In the mouth, deeply stony delicate flavors of citrus peel, peach, crabapple, and seawater have a wonderful savory quality with lovely citrus and floral overtones. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20.

2021 Domaine Lelais “Poivre Rose” Coteaux-du-Loir Rosé, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light ruby with hints of orange, this wine smells of orange peel and a touch of potpourri. In the mouth, creamsicle flavors are bright with rosehip acidity and hints of saffron in the finish. Excellent and zippy. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: around 9. Cost: 5.90 €

2021 Domaine Colin “Gris Bodin” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rosé, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale peachy pink in the glass, this wine smells of watermelon, peach, and orange peel. In the mouth, brisk orange peel, raspberry, and citrus peel flavors have a nice bright juiciness to them. Crisp and nicely mineral with a nice citrusy acidic kick. Demeter-certified biodynamic. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: around 9. Cost: 10 €

2021 Domaine de Cézin “Domaine” Coteaux-du-Loir Rosé, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Palest peachy pink in color, this wine smells of white flowers, peach, orange peel, and hibiscus. In the mouth, silky flavors of citrus peel, peach, and strawberry have a nice bright saline quality and excellent acidity. Juicy and zippy. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: around 9. Cost: $15.

2021 Domaine de La Raderie Coteaux-du-Loir Rosé, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale peachy pink in color, this wine smells of citrus peel and rosehips. In the mouth, very bright kumquat and citrus peel notes mix with a hint of fresh apricot and rosehip. Sour, mouthwatering acidity makes for a juicy, even racy finish with saline undertones. Delicious. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $18.

2021 Domaine du Four À Chaux “Benjamin” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rosé, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale peach in the glass, this wine smells of citrus peel and a hint of unripe cantaloupe. In the mouth, there’s a slight petillance but that doesn’t bother me, as racy, citrus peel and crabapple flavors are tangy and bright. Excellent acidity. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: 5.50 €

2021 Domaine Colin “Gris Jeunes Vignes” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rosé, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Pale peachy pink in the glass, this wine smells of citrus and wet stones. In the mouth, peachy and unripe apple flavors are juicy and bright with good acidity and there’s a hint of slight bitterness in the finish. Demeter-certified biodynamic. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: around 8.5. Cost: 8.50 €

Pineau d’Aunis Rouge

Discover the Rustic Charms of Pineau d’Aunis

2019 Domaine Patrice Colin “Intuition” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers and huckleberries. In the mouth, huckleberries and dried flowers are wrapped in fleecy tannins as notes of blood orange and incense and fresh flowers soar through a long finish. Outstanding and utterly compelling. Demeter-certified biodynamic. 100% Pineau d’Aunis from vines planted in 1890. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $40.

2020 Jean Marie Renvoisé “Aunis” Coteaux-du-Loir Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of wet leaves and dried flowers with a hint of huckleberries. In the mouth, juicy and bright dried flowers, crabapple, and huckleberry notes are light and citrus-driven with lightly muscular tannins providing structure and support. Deep minerality and bright acidity, made in a lighter style. Quite delicious. In conversion to organic. This is one of my gold standard wines for the grape variety. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $22.

2020 Domaine de Cézin “Janus” Coteaux-du-Loir Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor and pine duff. In the mouth, juicy flavors of slightly saline/dashi-infused huckleberry and plum are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins but the fruit and the juicy citrusy acidity shine through as that savory dashi note lingers in the finish. Very tasty. This wine is only 60% Pinot d’Aunis, the rest is a blend of Côt (Malbec), Cabernet Franc, and Gamay. Score: around 9. Cost: $23.

2020 Domaine de Cézin “Génération IV” Coteaux-du-Loir Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers and freshly chopped herbs. In the mouth, juicy flavors of fresh herbs, dried flowers, huckleberries, and plums mix with chopped fresh herbs and a touch of wet earth. Supple, muscular tannins flex a bit as the wine finishes with just a touch of citrus peel. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: around 9. Cost: 7.60 €

2020 Domaine Patrice Colin “Les Vignes d’Emilien Colin” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers and huckleberry jam, and a hint of forest floor. In the mouth, beautiful huckleberry flavors are wrapped in a thick fleecy blanket of tannins that accompany notes of incense and dried flowers along with a lovely earthiness. Excellent acidity and deep stoniness. Demeter-certified biodynamic. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: around 9. Cost: 14 €

2020 Cave du Vendômois “Le Haut des Coutis” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of huckleberry and wet earth. In the mouth, deeply earthy notes of huckleberry and raspberry are wrapped in a thick muscular fist of tannins that squeeze tightly as the wine heads for an earthy finish. Excellent acidity keeps the wine quite fresh. But the tannins need time to unwind. Made without added sulfites. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: 9 €

2021 Domaine Lelais “Les quatre épices” Coteaux-du-Loir Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of forest floor and forest berries. In the mouth, cherry, black raspberry, and huckleberry flavors are draped in a flannel sheet of tannins as notes of plum and huckleberry linger in the finish. Good acidity. Contains 10% Gamay and 5% Côt, the local name for Malbec. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: 6.90 €

2020 Cave du Vendômois “Grillé d’Aunis” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of wet earth and forest floor. In the mouth, saline notes of plum and huckleberry are nestled into a downy pillow of powdery tannins that coat the mouth. Good acidity and wonderful stony depths. Notes of river mud linger in the finish. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $36

2020 Domaine Gigou Coteaux-du-Loir Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of wet leaves and forest floor. In the mouth, huckleberries and dried flowers are wrapped in a leathery throw of tannins as earth and deep stony minerality linger through the finish with hints of dried flowers. Needs a little time for the tannins to relax. Made with organic grapes. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: around 8.5. Cost: 10.50 €

2020 Ariane & Co “Picrochole” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, cherries, and a hint of licorice. In the mouth, putty-like tannins wrap around a core of cherry and huckleberry flavors suffused with a darker prune quality. Good acidity. Made with organic grapes. 100% Pineau d’Aunis. Score: around 8.5. Cost: 16.00 €

2020 Domaine de La Raderie “L’Aunis” Coteaux-du-Loir Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light to Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet earth, huckleberries, and dried flowers. In the mouth, muscular tannins wrap around a juicy core of huckleberry, plum, and a touch of blueberry. The tannins are quite strong here and need time to mellow. Good acidity. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: 10 €

2021 Domaine du Four À Chaux “Benjamin” Coteaux-du-Vendômois Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet leaves and plum, with hints of incense In the mouth, leathery tannins wrap around a core of huckleberry and earth. Good acidity and a hint of citrus in the finish. The tannins sit very thick on the tongue. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: 5.70 €

2020 Domaine de Bellivière “Rouge-Gorge” Coteaux-du-Loir Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of a just extinguished candle and dried flowers. In the mouth, massive, muscular tannins coat the mouth and tightly grip a core of huckleberry and plum flavors that have good acidity. Unfortunately, the tannins here are just too massive to allow the enjoyment of the fruit that sits embedded within. Made with organic grapes. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: 22.50 €

MV Domaine de Cézin “Berc’Au” Coteaux-du-Loir Rouge, Touraine, Loire Valley, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of oak and fruit. In the mouth, flavors of oak overwhelm and outshine the huckleberry and plum fruit, leaving their drying tannins in their wake. A blend of 2017 and 2018 vintages. Score: around 7.5. Cost: 32.00 €

Featured image of the Coteaux-du-Loir couresty of Vallée du Loir Tourism – Vignoble Chahaignes © JP Berlose

The post Discover the Rustic Charms of Pineau d’Aunis appeared first on Vinography.

As Phelps Enters a New Era, A Look Back at Insignia

The wine world (OK, California) is abuzz over the acquisition of Joseph Phelps Vineyards by luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. While the sale price was not disclosed, rumors put the dollar figure anywhere from $500 million to more than $800 million for the Phelps brand and its attendant 525 acres of land in both Napa and Sonoma.

Phelps will join a portfolio that already includes Domaine Chandon, Newton Vineyard, and a sizeable chunk of Colgin Cellars.

The crown jewel in the Phelps portfolio has long been its Insignia wine, a Bordeaux style blend that has steadily held its place among the top wines produced in Napa each vintage that aren’t only available through a mailing list.

At between $250 and $315 in price and produced in quantities that allow it to be sold all over the world, Insignia no doubt represents a significant opportunity in the minds of the estate’s new owners. It has been a wine produced exclusively with estate fruit since 2004, but there’s no reason that has to continue. A carefully managed 25% increase in Insignia’s production without a loss in quality would make this purchase a home run for LVMH.

The Joseph Phelps Winery in Napa

California’s First Proprietary Red

Joseph Phelps loved wine, but he came to Napa first to build wineries for other people rather than himself. In the early 1970s, when Phelps was still running his construction business, there were less than three dozen wineries in Napa. On one of his trips, Phelps stumbled across a 670-acre cattle ranch for sale, and he decided to take the plunge. He purchased fruit in 1973 to make a Cabernet, a Riesling, and a Pinot, and set about building himself a winery.

In 1974 Phelps bought fruit of several varieties from Steltzner vineyards and it was so good that Phelps and Walter Schug, the winemaker he had hired by that point, decided to keep all those grapes together, add in a little Merlot he got from the Eisele Vineyard, and blend them to make a single wine separate from the rest of production. For some time, the wine sat in bottles without labels as Phelps figured out what to do with it.

Phelps famously held a contest among friends and family to come up with a name for a wine that he adamantly didn’t want to call a “reserve” or anything predictable along those lines. A few days later while shaving, Joe came up with the name Insignia and ended up winning his own contest.

These days, the two-word phrase “Proprietary Red” has a distinctive cachet in Napa and is almost always associated with a three-digit price tag. Even while Joseph Phelps didn’t use that specific phrase to describe his new Bordeaux-style blend, it was the first of such wines in Napa Valley, and indeed in California as a whole, its blend changing every year as dictated by the conditions of the season and the intuition of the winemaker.

While that approach to crafting a wine now seems quite commonplace, at the time it was somewhat radical in a valley where the two dominant approaches were either field blends of “mixed blacks” or bottling mono-varietals.

Insignia usually features a significant portion of Cabernet Sauvignon, sometimes as much as 95%, but at least 14 vintages between 1974 and now have had less than 75% Cabernet. Merlot, Petite Verdot, and Cabernet Franc are often blending components, as well as Malbec.

As Phelps Enters a New Era, A Look Back at Insignia
The entryway to the Napa winery.

The grapes for Insignia are fully destemmed and cold-soaked before being inoculated with yeasts and nutrients and then fermented in steel tanks separated by source and grape variety. The tanks feature automatic pumpovers which have been used in lieu of punch-downs since 2007. The winemaking team, led by Ashley Hepworth, has been experimenting with co-fermentation of some varieties, but most things are kept separate until blending.

After fermentation completes, the wines go into 100% new French oak barrels, with the final blend being made relatively early on in the Spring after malolactic conversion finishes. The finished blend spends 24 months in barrel, as it has ever since the 1997 vintage, with typically 4 to 5 rackings during that time.

“I’m not looking at composition in the blend,” said Hepworth at a tasting featuring many of the wines I’ve reviewed below. “We look at all the lots and start tasting. The base is usually simple and then the blend just works itself out. When we get down to the end, tasting the outliers, Insignia is just the best wine left standing.”

That usually means a blend that isn’t far off from the proportions of the estate’s best plantings, but there have been exceptions. “One year we almost did a wine that was 20% Petite Verdot,” admitted Hepworth, “but we decided it would be too much of a stylistic deviation.”

Hepworth, who says she blends for mouthfeel and flavor and assumes the aromas will take care of themselves, has established a consistent architecture for Insignia over the last 15 or so years. The wine is broad-shouldered, rich without being jammy, and generally walks the fine line between early accessibility and age-worthy structure. One thing I like about Hepworth’s approach is that she’s not afraid to let a little of the vintage character show in the wine.

The Road Ahead

This is far from LVMH’s first rodeo, and the conglomerate has a pretty impeccable track record of success buying brands and managing to help them excel (as opposed to ruining them through ham-fisted management). Fans of Insignia and other Phelps wines probably have little reason for concern, except perhaps for the inevitable raising of prices, which no matter how much anyone says isn’t the plan, always ends up happening.

While it’s always bittersweet to see a multi-generational family brand sold to a big corporation, it’s hard to imagine a better home for one of Napa’s most iconic brands.

As Phelps Enters a New Era, A Look Back at Insignia

Tasting Notes

In some cases, I have multiple tasting notes from different occasions of tasting some of the historic vintages of this wine, so I have provided both notes because as folks in the industry like to say, after 30 years there are no great wines, only great bottles.

As Phelps Enters a New Era, A Look Back at Insignia

1976 Joseph Phelps Insignia Red Wine, Napa Valley
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of farmyard and cherry and chocolate. In the mouth, cherry, cedar, and tobacco flavors all mix with just a hint of farmyard (likely a touch of Brettanomyces) that thankfully doesn’t overwhelm the fruit. Lovely acidity and powdery-but-muscular tannins. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

1976 Joseph Phelps Red Wine, Napa Valley
Medium to dark cloudy ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cocoa powder, cedar, cherries, and mint. In the mouth, sweet dried cherries, leather, cedar, and mint have a wonderful aromatic sweetness with notes of anise. Great acidity and very faint tannins, great length, and outstanding character. Fades over the course of two hours, but at its height, magnificent. 85 cases made. Aged in large oak barrels, some of which were Yugoslavian oak. Cost $20 on release. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 9.5

1985 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Medium to dark bright ruby in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor, eucalyptus, wet earth, and raisins with a hint of vegemite. In the mouth, juicy cherry and raisin flavors mix with mint and cocoa powder. Excellent acidity, tight, still-muscular tannins, with hints of forest floor in the finish. This was the first vintage using the Las Rocas vineyard in Stag’s Leap, which has become the typical backbone of the Insignia blend. It also contained Cabernet from Eisele, Cabernet Franc from Markham, and fruit from Skellenger, To Kalon, Vine Hill, and Stanton. Aged primarily in older puncheons and fined with egg whites. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 9. Cost: $476. click to buy.

1989 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
A strong medium ruby in the glass, showing the time dilation effects of such a large format bottle, this wine smells of dried herbs and leather. In the mouth, the wine is tight and angular, with a SweetTart sourness of cherry and leather and herbs. Not the best of vintages thanks to rain during harvest, and, well, it shows. Tasted out of a 5-liter bottle. Score: between 8 and 8.5.

1998 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar, and cigar box. In the mouth, black cherry, black plum, dark chocolate, and a hint of mint have a wonderful supple tannic muscle to them with gorgeous length and depth.  Powdery tannins, earth, and dried fennel seeds waft across the palate in higher registers. There’s a long licorice finish.  This was supposed to be a very difficult rainy year, but this wine doesn’t betray that in the slightest. Almost 80% of the fruit in this wine came from the estate, most of it picked very late, into October. Aged in 100% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Tasted out of magnum. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. click to buy.

2004 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black plum and sweet dark chocolate with a hint of vanilla. In the mouth, juicy bright black cherry and cola flavors mix with tobacco and cedar. There’s a faint aromatic sweetness to the wine and a slight sense of alcoholic heat in the wine. Suede-like tannins. Great length. This is the first year that this wine is made from 100% estate fruit. The hot year led to small berries, some shrivel, and 20-40% lower yields than normal. Picked in September. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.

2005 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dark earth and dark chocolate with deep black cherry fruit. In the mouth, rich and dark black cherry and black plum mix with bittersweet chocolate. Deep billowy tannins support and provide structure to the fruit which lingers for a long time in the finish. Gorgeous. Deep. Powerful. Good acidity. A plentiful harvest in a cooler year. This is the first vintage from the Soscol vineyard in south Napa. Tasted out of magnum. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $240. click to buy.

2006 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Deep, inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, chocolate, and espresso. In the mouth, bright black cherry and cola flavors are juicy and bright and shot through with a hint of espresso and vanilla. Muscular, putty-like tannins provide structure and support and great acidity. Broad and expansive, with a great finish featuring notes of cola and black cherry and a wonderful grapey note. This growing season featured huge heat spikes in the summer and an extended period of veraison. It ended up being 95% Cabernet, 5% Petite Verdot. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $240. click to buy.

2007 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of dark cherry, carob, and a bit of forest floor. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and cassis flavors have a high-toned note welded to a darker deeper black plum, burnt espresso, and earth quality. Powdery tannins add structure to the wine and linger with a wet earth quality in the finish. There’s a weightlessness to this wine that is quite impressive. Picked early September through early October. It was a drier year, with smaller cluster weights. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $370. click to buy.

2008 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and a hint of raisin with dried herbs. In the mouth, chocolate-covered raisins and black plum flavors have a dried quality, exacerbated by drying tannins. Good acidity, with powerful powdery, mouth coating tannins that have a muscular quality. There’s a bitter note in the finish. This was a warmer year, an early harvest, and a bigger vintage. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy.

2009 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of high-toned black cherry and cola. In the mouth, black cherry and cola flavors have a super juicy aspect with great acidity. Deep powdery tannins have a thickness to them that is quite powerful and will bear some time integrating with the wine. Shorter across the palate with an earthy aspect in the finish. Most fruit was picked before the rains this year. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.

2010 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Dark, inky garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and black plum with a nice herbal note behind them. In the mouth, rich and broad black cherry and cocoa powder flavors are backed by supple, muscular, leathery tannins that are still aggressive at this point in the wine’s evolution. Gorgeous acidity and great balance and depth. Broad-shouldered and still young and primary. Fantastic flavors of cassis and violets linger in the finish, thanks in part to the Petite Verdot, which is at a much higher percentage in this vintage than in others, a useful in cold wet years such as this one because it ripens early. Score: between 9.5 and 10. 14.5% alcohol. Cost: $245. click to buy.

As Phelps Enters a New Era, A Look Back at Insignia

2011 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed herbs, green pepper, and bing cherry. In the mouth, fantastic acidity makes the wine quite bright and juicy, with mouthwatering flavors of cherry and herbs and wet earth with a hint of toasty oak. The massive tannins are big and chunky, and the fruit is a bit thinner than in past years but still quite tasty. Much smaller amounts of wine were made in this exceptionally rainy vintage. The acidity in this means it is built for the long haul and it will keep getting better for a decade or more. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $240. click to buy.

2012 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Deep inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of toasted oak and black cherry, and cocoa powder. In the mouth, sweet cherry fruit has a very bright acidity that is mouthwatering and juicy. Tobacco and espresso notes seem welded to the supple, smooth muscle skein of tannins. Notes of nutty oak, mocha, and cherry linger in the finish. The oak is more present than I’d like in this wine, but it is still delicious and will reward a decade or two of aging. This is the first vintage since 2000 that has all 5 of the Bordeaux grape varieties in it. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $220. click to buy.

2013 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry, and a hint of oak. In the mouth, muscular, hulking tannins enclose black cherry and cassis flavors in a tight fist. A massive, tight wine, this needs a couple of decades in the bottle for its black cherry, cassis, and espresso flavors to broaden and soften. This is the 40th vintage of Insignia. The vintage featured early bud break, early bloom, and early harvest. And the wine was given much less maceration time than normal, yet it still ended up with the tannins it did. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $325. click to buy.

Images courtesy of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Top Insignia photograph © Briana Marie Photography.

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Red Mountain Aristocracy: The Wines of Col Solare

By now, it is something of a well-trodden path in the world of wine. A long-standing European wine family begins to cast its eyes farther afield for new projects in which to invest, discovers a site in America, and sets about creating a new wine brand. The Spanish have done it, the French have done it, and so have the Italians.

The story of how Marchese Piero Antinori ended up establishing a winery in Washington State, however, owes its genesis to a Russian. Specifically, the legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who convinced Antinori to take a look at the state during a period when Tchelistcheff was serving as a consultant for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Antinori would eventually enter into an equal partnership with Ste. Michelle to found Col Solare Winery, a project that from its inaugural 1995 vintage would help set a new bar for what Washington was capable of when it came to fine Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Antinori family brought a decidedly restrained and refined sensibility to the partnership, while Ste. Michelle brought unparalleled knowledge of the region and its growing conditions, resulting in an exceptional portfolio of wines that has remarkably only seemed to get better over time.

In 2007 the brand built itself a winery in the Red Mountain AVA of Yakima Valley (where it had been sourcing fruit for some time), and now comfortably represents one of the pinnacles of that region’s winemaking, having switched to all Red Mountain fruit starting in the 2012 vintage.

Red Mountain, of course, is a tiny, extremely warm AVA in eastern Washington that features deep, powdery soils laid down by the cataclysmic Missoula Floods on top of volcanic basalt. These desert soils are somewhat surprisingly calcareous, thanks to the presence of caliche, which is a sediment of calcium carbonate that coats many of the loose rocks within the soil. With an incredible amount of sunlight modulated somewhat by wind effects and diurnal shifts, as well as its unique, nutrient-poor soils, Red Mountain produces some of Washington’s best Bordeaux varieties, and increasingly some of its best Rhône-style wines as well. I recently covered Red Mountain in-depth for Jancis Robinson’s website, for those that are interested.

Looking over the estate vineyard from the Col Solare winery

While Ste. Michelle Wine Estates was eventually sold to Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, and then sold again late last year to the private equity firm Sycamore Partners, Antinori continues to maintain its 50% ownership in the project. Renzo Cotarella, the chief enologist and chief executive officer of Marchesi Antinori, visits at least twice a year and continues to be directly involved in the crafting of each vintage, which is accomplished by winemaker Darel Allwine and enologist Stephanie Cohen.

This past fall, I sat down with Cohen to taste through a bunch of vintages and hear how things were going in the wake of having new partners in the enterprise.

“As opposed to Altria seeming to look at every move we make, these new partners really seem to trust us,” she said. “They understand wine is an investment and a longer-term thing.”

That would be a very good thing, indeed, for a winery that is seemingly operating at the top of its game.

Cohen explained that the winemaking follows about as classic a model as you might imagine. With a custom-designed winery built to function entirely by gravity, including all racking, the hand-harvested grapes are fermented separately in steel tanks with inoculated yeasts. Some tanks will have a little saignee bled off to concentrate the wine, fining is rarely if ever done, and a very coarse filtration is done to remove any “chunks” of sediment before bottling. The flagship red spends 22 months in oak.

Originally, Col Solare made only a single wine, but in recent years the winery has expanded its portfolio in small increments. It now also makes a second tier of wines under the label “Shining Hill” which is the English translation of the winery’s Italian name.

The winery’s “Tenuta” bottling, launched in 2016, represents the very best blocks in each vintage is made the same way with the addition of barrel fermentation for anywhere between 35% and 50% of the final blend, which is limited to 7 barrels (175 cases of wine) each year. It also spends 22 months in barrel.

The team is currently experimenting with adding concrete tanks to the mix as well.

In addition to the winery’s main Cabernet Sauvignon blend and the Tenuta bottling, the winery makes tiny amounts of some other wines for their mailing list customers that Cohen describes as an opportunity for herself and Darel to “have some fun and change it up a bit.”

These include a “Collector Series” that often highlight specific growers, sites, or unique blends, and a “Component Series” that showcase individual single grape varieties that often end up in the Cabernet blends.

Red Mountain Aristocracy: The Wines of Col Solare
The winery and its iconic bell tower

I can remember the first time I tasted a Col Solare wine, which brought me up short as I was making my way through hundreds of wines at the annual Taste Washington trade fair. This was before the winery had narrowed its focus on Red Mountain fruit.

Even then, though, the winery had managed to arrive at a particularly regal interpretation of Cabernet Sauvignon, one that balanced power and finesse beautifully, without the overt flavor of oak. These wines are always wonderfully bright with acidity, and generally feature velvety, carefully managed tannins, making for relatively accessible drinking in their youth, but also enough structure to age beautifully.

These days I try to avoid resorting to the metaphors of “Old World” and “New World” when describing wine as I find them increasingly inadequate, but in this case it seems fitting to describe Col Solare’s wines as walking the fine line between these supposed outposts of wine style. They are undeniably rich in fruit and demonstrate the warmth that characterizes the desert landscape from which they come. But they also show a restraint and elegance of winemaking that sometimes eludes West Coast winemakers who can overdue a sense of power and polish, often through excessive and overt oak programs.

In short, I adore these wines, and believe they are among some of the better red wines made on the West Coast, standing easily in the company of top bottlings from Napa and Sonoma, but at much, much, much lower prices. I’d put the 2018 bottling up against anything from Napa in the $300-$500 price range and expect it to hold its own beautifully.

Tasting Notes

Red Mountain Aristocracy: The Wines of Col Solare

2014 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar, dried cherries and plums. In the mouth, juicy cherry and plum flavors are shot through with cedar and dried herbs and flowers. Faint, powdery tannins wrap around the core of fruit with lovely citrusy acidity that lingers in the finish, along with hints of dried herbs and licorice. Supple, velvety tannins and overall quite lovely. A blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 4% Merlot, and 2% Syrah. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2015 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, cassis and black cherry tinged with dried herbs and what I can only describe as pulverized purple Smartees candy. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, cassis, and candied violets mix with dried herbs under a fleecy blanket of tannins. Quite aromatic. This vintage was a rare 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2016 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit with a touch of green herbs. In the mouth, the wine has classic Cabernet character with supple, fine-grained tannins grasping a core of cherry and cedar, with hints of cola and floral notes, but overall a wonderful purity of cherry flavors. Gorgeous. Contains 6% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 . Cost: $65. click to buy.

2017 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and a touch of cocoa powder and green herbs. In the mouth, incredibly juicy cherry cola flavors are held firmly in a tight muscular tannic grip, slightly more aggressive and rough hewn than the usual tannins, thanks to a challenging year. Delicious cherry flavors mix with cola and licorice as the wine finishes long, and the tannins squeeze hard. Contains 3% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 . Cost: $75. click to buy.

2018 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and dried herbs and flowers with a hint of cola. In the mouth, muscular, fine-grained tannins wrap around a core of gorgeous, almost crystalline cherry and floral flavors. Fantastic acidity. The tannins, which were aggressive at first, mellow a bit in the finish, as floral and cherry notes soar through a long finish. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2019 Col Solare “Collectors Series – Kiona Vineyards” Syrah, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass with purple highlights this wine smells of flowers and cassis. In the mouth, lovely blackberry and cassis flavors lean towards candied blueberries as the wine soars through a gorgeously long finish. Lovely stony underbelly with fine-grained tannins. A faint saline note makes for an extra mouthwatering quality, along with great acidity. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9.5.

Red Mountain Aristocracy: The Wines of Col Solare

2018 Col Solare “Component Series” Syrah, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, gorgeously polished flavors of cassis and black cherry are nestled into a fleecy blanket of tannins with hints of herbs and citrus peel offering bright grace notes as the wine soars through a long finish. Excellent acidity and some nice wet pavement notes This fruit comes from the estate vineyard. Includes 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $95. click to buy.

2018 Col Solare “Component Series” Malbec, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, sage, and brambly blueberry. In the mouth, juicy blueberry, blackberry and a hint of woodsmoke mix under a dusty blanket of tannins that coat the mouth. Excellent acidity. This is 100% Estate fruit. They have 1-2 acres of Malbec. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $95.

2018 Col Solare “Tenuta” Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar, herbs and flowers. In the mouth, the wine is expansive and bright with a suede throw of tannins draped over juicy cherry and black cherry fruit that gushes with acidity. Hints of dried flowers and beautiful cherry fruit linger in the long finish. Interestingly this flagship bottling is coming across as slightly more open and accessible than the standard Col Solare bottling, whose tannins are a little more aggressive and closed at this point. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $175.

Red Mountain Aristocracy: The Wines of Col Solare
The afternoon sun in the winery’s courtyard.

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Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

In a country filled with utterly spectacular wine regions, the Gimblett Gravels district of Hawke’s Bay can’t compete for the most picturesque. But this little patchwork of vineyards laid over the alluvium of an old stony riverbed has clearly established itself as one of New Zealand’s most distinctive terroirs.

That’s not to say, of course, that the Gimblett Gravels aren’t beautiful. The Heretaunga Plains back up against the foothills of the Kaweka mountains, and the green vineyards spread here and there, interrupted by small streams and hillocks. Like almost everywhere in New Zealand, it’s damn pretty.

But the real magic of the Gravels manifests in the wines: the spectacular Syrahs and other red wines that grow there, with their refined balance of energy, power, and freshness.

Don’t Call it an Appellation

While the Gimblett Gravels is commonly recognized as a sub-region of Hawke’s Bay, along with several other areas, such as Havelock and Esk Valley, like those other sub-regions, the Gimblett Gravels is not a legally defined geographical indication of New Zealand established by the government. It’s not an appellation, or rather, it’s only a commercial one.

Gimblett Gravels® a registered commercial trademark managed by the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association. If you want to have the words Gimblett Gravels on your wine label, you have to have a vineyard within the boundaries of the designated region, with 95% of the vineyard area having any of three defined soil types, and 95% of the fruit needs to have come from within the district.

Interestingly, the boundaries of the Gimblett Gravels district have been defined strictly based on soil geology and no other factors. While the region’s name and qualifications have been defined by private enterprise, so to speak, the district itself has been defined purely from a geologic standpoint.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

Specifically, the Gimblett Gravels are three types of gravelly silt and loam laid down by the Ngaruroro River, and not the Taupo pumice sands which are the other dominant soil type nearby.

The “map” of the district has been drawn to only include these gravelly soils, and observes no other political, geographical, or property ownership distinctions, a point that the Gimblett Gravels Association likes to suggest lends something of a simple purity to their efforts. If you’ve got the soils, you’re in (provided you want to pay membership dues). If you don’t, you’re out.

There are around 1975 acres of vineyards that fall within the Gimblett Gravels zone, the vast majority of those (close to 90%) planted to red grapes, with Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties dominant.

Between the gravelly soils and the maritime climate (the region is less than 10 miles from the ocean) comparisons with Bordeaux are often made, though generally Hawke’s Bay sees milder weather than Bordeaux.

In fact, Hawke’s Bay is the warmest of all New Zealand’s wine regions, and the Gimblett Gravels might easily be described as the warmest bits of Hawke’s Bay. This shorthand, however, somewhat obscures the fact that “warm” for New Zealand is fairly temperate for most other wine regions. Compared to Paso Robles or the Douro, Hawke’s Bay still comes across as pretty cool, and you can easily find corresponding flavor signatures in the wines, especially the Syrahs.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

I Could Drink a Case of You

Apparently, for the past 11 years, the winemakers in the Gimblett Gravels Association have been putting together a case of wines, selected by an independent third party (this year, it was Australian Master of Wine Andrew Caillard), to send out to journalists and critics around the world as an example of what the vintage was like in the region.

I’ve been receiving wine samples for nearly 18 years now, and this is the first time I’ve gotten a box of wine quite like this. I’ve certainly received a case of this, or a case of that, over the years. Sometimes a producer wants to send me all their wines. Sometimes a regional marketing body wants to send me a bunch of samples. Sometimes I’ve asked for a example set of wines from a particular place or of a certain style. But all those 12-bottle boxes, even when from different producers, are usually dictated by by an importer’s portfolio, or what an associations inventory of samples is at the moment. I can’t recall ever getting a collection of wines deliberately selected to be standard-bearers for an entire region and vintage where quality was the sole selection criteria.

It’s frankly a brilliant idea, especially for smaller, farther-flung wine regions that don’t necessarily get regular annual visits from a large number of journalists around the world. I’ve only managed to visit the Hawke’s Bay region twice in the last 15 years or so, and while I get an occasional sample of this or that from the region, I don’t have the opportunity to taste widely on a regular basis.

This box of 12 wines from the 2019 vintage was, therefore, a particularly appealing prospect when it arrived on my doorstep.

The 2019 vintage was pretty good, say the folks from the region. The year was mostly without incident, despite being overall warmer and wetter than average.

The growing season started with a fairly wet and warm spring, which resulted in some shatter during flowering, which reduced yields for the year by an estimated 15-20%. Summer lacked any of the damaging hail that can sometimes plague the region, though thunderstorms brought more moisture and some disease pressure as a result as temperatures warmed towards fall. As autumn progressed, things dried out nicely and the weather stayed quite temperate, allowing an unhurried harvest and excellent maturation time.

I found the wines generally to be well-balanced, with the refined tannins and good acid levels that can be achieved when winemakers get to work a harvest without much pressure.

Tasting through these bottles was frankly a delight, and made me miss New Zealand terribly. I hope to return before too long, though exactly how long that will be may be more up to COVID than it is up to me.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

Tasting Notes:

Be aware that in many cases, the 2019 vintage of these wines have not yet made it to America’s shores. The purchase links below, will therefore take you to any and all vintages of the wine that are for sale, including the 2019s when they become available.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

2019 Elephant Hill “Heironymus” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of smoked meats and a touch of barnyard. In the mouth, black cherry, plum, and dusty earth flavors have a touch of leather and dashi that seem to me to be a little bit of the Brettanomyces yeast, albeit an amount that adds a grace note rather than being a dominant flaw. Nice acidity and length, and I enjoy the saline quality of the wine. A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc, and 11% Merlot. Aged 25 months in 67% new French oak. 13.5% alcohol. 435 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2019 Pask “Declaration” Merlot, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of plum, plum skin, and cocoa powder. In the mouth, bright plum and cherry flavors are shot through with cedar and oak along with touches of cocoa powder and cola. Good acidity and length. Spends 16 months in 50% new French oak. 13% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Trinity Hill “The Gimblett” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet earth, black cherry, and forest floor. In the mouth, savory notes of earth and black cherry mix with cola and licorice as faint, powdery tannins add texture and muscle. Excellent acidity. A darker brooding flavor profile, but with elegance thanks to the acidity and faint tannins. Lovely dried herbal notes linger in the finish. A blend of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon and 43% Cabernet Franc and 3% Tempranillo that spends 20 months in 53% new French Oak. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2019 Squawking Magpie “Stoned Crow” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry, black pepper, and white pepper. In the mouth, juicy and bright blackberry and blueberry fruit mix with dried herbs and a touch of white pepper for a classic cool-climate profile. Excellent acidity and barely perceptible tannins. Elegant and lovely. Aged for 18 months in 30% new French oak. 13.7% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

2019 Squawking Magpie “The Nest” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and plum with hints of cola nut. In the mouth, cherry and tobacco notes mix with cola and a touch of plum skin amidst bright acidity and the faint grip of powdery tannins. Bright and tasty. A blend of 58% Merlot,17% Cabernet Franc, and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in 30% new French oak for 18 months. 13.9% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Mission “Jewelstone” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry and dried herbs with a touch of white pepper. In the mouth, silky-textured flavors of blackberry and white pepper mix with dried herbs and a touch of licorice root. Excellent acidity and the finest, powdery tannins that can barely be felt round out the package. Elegant, with the white pepper and herbs dominating the finish. Spends 12 months in 23% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2019 Esk Valley Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry, plum, and crushed stones. In the mouth, wonderfully stony flavors of cherry, plum, and a touch of earth are wrapped in a faint fleecy blanket of tannins. Wonderfully stony, with bright acidity keeping the fruit fresh and snappy. A blend of 47% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Malbec fermented in concrete and aged in 10% new French Oak for 12 months. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2019 Esk Valley “Great Dirt River Gravels” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black plum and black cherry. In the mouth, cherry, blueberry, and cola flavors are wrapped in a light suede blanket of tannins as excellent acidity brings a nice citrus peel note to the wine. Faint herbal notes linger in the finish with a beautiful roasted and candied nut quality. A blend of 39% Merlot, 31% Malbec, and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 19 months in 45% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2019 Mission “Jewelstone – Antoine” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, chopped green herbs, and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, juicy flavors of cherry and plum have a faintly salty savory note as chopped green herbs and tobacco leaf come into the picture. Exceedingly fine tannins coat the mouth and have an athletic musculature. Lovely aromatic finish. Very regal wine. A blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot that spends 12 months in 40% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $33. click to buy.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

2019 Smith & Sheth “Cru Heretaunga” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black fruits and white pepper. In the mouth, wonderfully saline flavors of blackberry bramble mix with white pepper and chopped green herbs amidst boisterous acidity that keeps the whole package crunchy and lean. Woody green notes that suggest some whole-cluster fermentation linger in the finish. Barely perceptible tannins. Lovely. Spends 14 months in 35% new French oak. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.

2019 Craggy Range “Gimblett Gravels Vineyard” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blueberries and white pepper. In the mouth. Juicy and bright blueberry, blackberry, and white pepper flavors have fantastic acidity and a stony minerality that is really very pretty. Faint, powdery tannins have a wispy quality, hanging back and letting the fruit do the talking. 100% Syrah aged for 14 months in 25% new French oak. 13.3% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Craggy Range “Le Sol” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark purple in color, this wine smells of blueberries, smoked meats, wet stone, and a hint of white pepper. In the mouth, deeply stony flavors of blueberry and blackberry are juicy and bright with excellent acidity and a touch of the sourness of unripe blackberries. Faint, powdery tannins hang in a haze through the mouth as blackberry and a touch of sour cherry linger in the finish. 100% Syrah that spends 17 months in 38% new French oak. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap and in a heavier bottle than it needs to be, weighing 1.6 kg when full (as opposed to their normal bottle, which weighs 1.3 kg full). Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

The post Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection appeared first on Vinography.

Tasting Natural Beauty: The Wines of Rippon

When I was first learning the little bit of Japanese that I speak, I was interested in adjectives. Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I always want to know how to describe something effectively. My explorations of Japanese gardens, temples, and the deeply aesthetic crafts of that culture all but required me to know how to describe something as beautiful. That Japanese word is kirei. You would use it to describe a flower, a painting, or your lover.

But there’s another word for beauty that is reserved for things that transcend normal beauty and touch something deeper in us. The best translation of utsukushii I ever heard was “sublime” but that only captures part of the soul-stirring, divine beauty that I’ve seen my Japanese friends trying to describe when explaining the word to me.

If you’re a wine lover, there’s one place in the world that captures this essence more than any other. For shorthand, I personally refer to it as the most beautiful vineyard in the world. I’d almost be prepared to defend that claim with my fists. But that doesn’t really do it justice. No, utsukushii seems to be about right for Rippon.

A Place of Refuge

When you ask Nick Mills to tell you the story of Rippon, he tells you the story of the place. He’s not likely to begin with himself growing up on the family farm. It takes him a while to get to the 4 generations of his family that lived and worked on the edge of Wanaka Lake in the mountains of Central Otago. The establishment of Wanaka as sheep station in the mid-1860s isn’t far back enough, nor are the seasonal encampments of the native Maori people. No, when Nick Mills talks about the land under his (usually) bare feet, he starts at the very beginning.

“If New Zealand came up out of the ocean, whatever came here had to fly or to swim,” he says. “Maybe we had two bats and a seal. But no grazing mammals. What we did end up having were flightless chickens, and a lot of things happened out of that.”

Mills goes on to explain how predations by the native Moa helped many of the early plants of New Zealand to divaricate, or to form structures where their soft fleshy bits were on the inside, while their outsides got tough, stiff, and spiny. Many a bush-wacker in New Zealand has learned first-hand the uncompfortable results of divarication.

‘This is a hard land,’ says Mills. ‘A rough and tumble place that isn’t easy to live. There aren’t many carbohydrates, and there aren’t big animals to hunt.’ The implications for the native Maori being the absence of thick pelts to deal with the cold, and the need to have access to the coast to fish. Which means, mostly, they stayed out of the chilly mountains.

‘This,’ he says, sweeping his arm to take in one of the most stunning landscapes you’ll ever hope to see, ‘was summer camp. The Maori used to come up to these inland hinterlands to collect pounamu [greenstone] and hunt for game. The families would stay here by the lake, and while the men hunted, the women would teach their children hunting, fishing, and gathering. It’s a place of rest and education. Wanaka and wananga have the same root: school, workshop, education.’

Mills is unflinching as he goes on to describe the tumultuous history of the place his family calls home—the ambush and eating of the southern Maori by the northern island war chief Te Puoho, the retaliation and massacre by the southern tribes, the European settlement and parcellation of native lands—but eventually he arrives at the point where most winemakers would begin their story: the 100 years that the Mills family has spent as farmers on this little patch of ground.

This history, in a way, tells you almost everything you need to know about Nick Mills and the depth at which he feels his connection to the place from which he coaxes some of New Zealand’s most profound wines. It’s an awareness of place that transcends the scale of human lifetimes, and an appreciation for everything that has gone into producing the soil he works, since the beginning of time.

“It’s a piece of land first. I see it as a unique individual. The craft is about the land,” he says. “It’s about looking after that land, which is what us humans have to stand behind right now.”

It’s also what humans literally have to stand upon. Mills once spoke perhaps one of the most profound narratives I’ve heard about wine a number of years ago at the New Zealand Pinot Noir event in Wellington, as he explained his understanding of the Maori term turangawaewae, which literally translates to “a place to put your feet,” but is infinitely more personal and complex, as you will appreciate if you click that link.

Tasting Natural Beauty: The Wines of Rippon

The Shaping of Rippon

The family farm gradually became the family vineyard, beginning in the 1970s.

“Dad went off to World War II in submarines,” says Mills. “He came back via Portugal. He saw schist in the Douro and when he came home, he noticed the resemblance and basically started planting everything he could find, even while people were telling him nothing would work. I remember taking cuttings during many of my school holidays.”

From the 25 varieties that Rolf “Tinker” Mills planted, roughly 80% on their own roots, six varieties ended up being the right ones for the sloping hills of decomposed schist kept just a little bit warm by the lake: Pinot Noir, Gamay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, and Osteiner. The latter is an exceedingly rare cross between Riesling and Sylvaner of which there are perhaps 2 hectares grown in the world, one of which is at Rippon.

When Nick and his wife Jo took over from his father in 2003, the vineyard already had nearly 30 years of dry-farmed, organic cultivation, without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. The younger Mills immediately began the process of converting to biodynamics, which was accomplished in short order.

Tasting Natural Beauty: The Wines of Rippon
The schist at Rippon

Apart from selecting the vines and maintaining the health of the soils, Mills tries to let the place shape the wines. He’s lucky enough to have been born someplace quite suited for it.

Lake Wanaka sits in a small basin within the Southern Alps mountain range in the center of New Zealand’s south island. The Central Otago wine region is the only part of the country that can be said to have a continental (as opposed to coastal) climate, with hot summers, cold winters, and a noticeable lack of rainfall. While the Roaring Forties (strong westerly weather fronts between the 40th and 50th southern parallels) bring massive amounts of rain to the western coast of New Zealand’s south island, the alpen rain shadow keeps most of that moisture from the interior.

The lake itself is a large thermal mass that further moderates the temperature, giving the plants just that little bit of extra warmth they need to avoid the hardest freezes of the winter. Consequently there’s less diurnal shift than in other parts of Central Otago, and Mills says his grapes tend to ripen with lower potential alcohol than in other regions of the South Island, and ultimately yield paler, less intensely pigmented grapes.

The massive outcrops of decomposing schist provide a mineral-rich, inorganic substrate for the vine roots to explore, with shallow topsoils of glacial and alluvial origin adding yet more rock to the mix.

And then, of course, there’s the view. What vine wouldn’t thrive on that alone?

Tasting Natural Beauty: The Wines of Rippon
Looking across Rippon towards Lake Wanaka in mid-summer

Listening For the Land’s Voice

Since taking over from his father in 2003, Mills has had a singular focus when it comes to winemaking: allowing the place he lives to express itself through wine.

As you might expect for a long-time biodynamic producer, nothing is added to Rippon wines save a small amount of sulfur. The grapes, if they are crushed, are crushed by foot, and the whites ferment in horizontal fermenters to maximize lees contact. There’s no temperature control.

In years when Mills believes the fruit from his oldest vines is totally pristine, he will make wines without any added sulfur at all, labeling those wines “bequest.”

“Sometimes nature grants us the opportunity to make something special,” says Mills. “We’ve been bequeathed an opportunity, and we don’t take it for granted. The only way we’ll make a so-called ‘natural wine’ is if we can make a truly fine wine naturally. In 2013 and 2016 everything came together like that.”

Mills has strong feelings about winemaking, something he has long done intuitively, rather than by any standard formula. If the Gewürztraminer ferments finish early, he’ll sometimes throw the lees into the Riesling fermenter. He’s been known to take a hose tocapture the carbon dioxide coming off one fermenter and then bubble it through another wine just beginning to ferment. To Mills, flavor is not nearly as important as texture.

“Fruit is what gets the bird to eat the seed. It’s what brings us to the wine, of course,” says Mills. “That’s important, but the truth of the fruit is the seed, the genetic material the vine can issue. The transmission to seed is very important, you might say it’s the whole purpose of terroir. You can’t really taste and smell a seed. But seeds make form and shape. I’m really driven much more by dry matter and texture and elasticity than I am by smells and flavors. This is what dry-farming, and own-rooted vines do—they drive energy into the skins and seeds of the grape.”

He continues, “For me wine is a digestive. It’s for the human body. Sure, aromatics and olfactory stimulus are brilliant, but that’s not so important.Keynotes, esters, aromatics, they aren’t the healthy stuff.. Wine is a tonic. It’s something you’re giving to your body, it needs amino acids broken down to glutamates. When we first had wine, wine was a food. You bought it, drank it until it became vinegar and then you used that too. I would rather have a wine that is about digestion than one that is about olfactory stimulus.”

Mills makes his wines in a relatively compact, modest cellar that honestly isn’t much more than a shack. Separate blocks of the vineyard are picked and fermented separately. Each fermenter or batch of wine is given a name starting with a sequential letter of the alphabet, and then each barrel of wine from that fermenter gets a corresponding unique name, often a play on words. When I visited the “Easter” fermenter had spawned barrels named “Bunny” and “Island” while the Jack fermenter begat “O Lantern” and “Knife.”

Most of the fruit from the main vineyard, Tinkers Field, gets blended together and simply becomes a Rippon “Mature Vine” wine, with the younger vines bottled separately under the moniker “Jeunesse.” A small block of the oldest vines is labeled as “Tinker’s Field” each year, and another block is bottled separately as “Emma’s Block,” named after the Nick’s great-great-great grandmother, who was the first in the family to take the surname Mills.

More Than Beauty in a Bottle

I adore the wines of New Zealand, but Rippon’s wines hold a special place in my heart. I won’t demean the uniqueness of the place by trying to find some analogy to convey the special quality of the site that Mills has made his life’s work. There simply is no place like Rippon, and there are no other wines like Rippon in New Zealand, or the world.

This isn’t a revelatory statement. In the upper echelons of the wine world, it’s pretty well accepted that Rippon stands apart.

But that doesn’t mean Mills has an easy time selling his wines.

“It’s like we’re starting with a severe handicap,” muses Mills. “It makes me grumpy. I know where our wines sit in the context of the world. I’ve traveled, I’ve tasted, I’ve worked, and I know just how well these wines express their place. Yet somehow, in many places, we’re not taken as seriously as wines from the ‘Old World.’ I sometimes think it’s unfortunate that New Zealand has that word ‘New’ in it.’

Don’t get him started on geographic prejudice.

“Honestly, sometimes I have sommeliers tell me that they ‘don’t do southern hemisphere wines,’ as if it’s a real thing instead of some imaginary line humans invented. This craft is universal, and my peers don’t have a country. We’re all just people who believe in growing the soil and guiding the living tissue of that soil into something we can taste or feel.”

When someone who appreciates the qualities of his wine still won’t buy it, Mills feels it like a gut-punch.

“This isn’t for me. It’s far beyond us. It’s not about building our brand. There’s greater things at stake here than whether people buy the wine or not. Rippon is a piece of land that is worth holding on to, worth protecting. It warrants the care we’re giving it over generations. But in order for people to look after a piece of land the market has to stand behind them. All that brand stuff is fine and good, but at a deeper level, this is about giving people the ability to make a living and stay on the land, to help it reach its potential through the culture that is developed on it.”

It’s not hard to sense the depth of Mills’ passion in the wines themselves. They are as honest as they are complex, seemingly unvarnished while also being incredibly refined. They don’t wear makeup because they don’t need any, lacking any pretentions towards perfection.

I’ve enoyed Rippon’s wines for years, but I hadn’t had older vintages until my visit, and they were frankly revelatory. These are wines that age incredibly well, blossoming into technicolor auroras of flavor and aroma, irrespective of Mills’ focus on texture. As if the beauty was there, just waiting to emerge.

“I’m just receiving the information we’ve been given by the land, and issuing it through a craft,” says Mills. “The place sends us in a certain way. For me this is doing justice to the farm and to the place.”

If there were ever any wine that could do justice to the sublime beauty of a place, it’s a bottle of Rippon.

Tasting Natural Beauty: The Wines of Rippon
Nick and Jo Mills

Tasting Notes

These wines are made in very small quantities, and not all wines make it to the US. Pretty much only the current release wines are findable online. I have provided links to buy where available. The wines are imported by Wine Dogs Imports.

2018 Rippon “Mature Vine” Riesling, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Light straw-gold in color, this wine smells of tangerine zest and tangerine oil. In the mouth, pear and orange peel mix with a touch of baked apple and the sneaky brightness of grapefruit that emerges as the wine moves across the palate. Excellent acidity and distinctive character. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2014 Rippon “Mature Vine” Riesling, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Light blonde in color, this wine smells of mandarin zest, Asian pears, and honeysuckle. In the mouth, gorgeously stony flavors of wet chalkboard, pink grapefruit pith, and mandarin oranges have a bright honeysuckle sweetness as they head through a long finish. Stupendous acidity. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $32.

2013 Rippon “Mature Vine” Riesling, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Pale blonde in color, this wine smells of mandarin zest and a hint of paraffin and Asian pear. In the mouth, delicate flavors of mandarin zest and lemon pith mix with crushed stone. Softer acidity than the ’14 vintage, with a beautiful liquid stone quality. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $32.

2019 Rippon Gewurztraminer, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Pale straw in color, this wine smells of orange peel and unripe peaches. In the mouth, crisp orange peel, citrus pith, and faint peachy and lychee flavors are backed by stony brightness and good acidity. There’s a light tannic chalkiness to the texture. Lean for the variety, and quite easy to drink. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2016 Rippon Gewurztraminer, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and dried orange peel. In the mouth, crushed stone, orange peel, and a hint of lychee are welded to a chalky, tannic backbone. Good acidity and bright. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $32.

2016 Rippon Osteiner, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, Asian pear, and white flowers. In the mouth, a bright lemony explosion in the mouth gushes with pink grapefruit and lemon juice. Fantastic brightness and juiciness. Love it. 23-year-old, own-rooted, dry-farmed vines of the variety known as Osteiner, which is a cross between Riesling and Sylvaner. 11.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $32.

Tasting Natural Beauty: The Wines of Rippon

2017 Rippon “Mature Vine” Pinot Noir, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, dried herbs and flowers mix with raspberry and redcurrant flavors shot through with a touch of cedar. Earthier notes add a dusty quality, while the faintest of gauzy tannins caress the mouth. Fantastic acidity leaves a wonderful citrusy brightness in the finish along with a hint of dusty earth. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2013 Rippon “Mature Vine” Pinot Noir, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet earth and forest berries. In the mouth, gorgeous savory cherry and raspberry flavors are shot through with a hint of citrus peel. Fantastic acidity keeps the wine lush and fresh across the palate, emphasizing the wet-chalkboard minerality and letting the berry, herb, and floral notes soar for a long time in the finish. Powdery tannins, beautifully fine. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90.

2012 Rippon “Mature Vine” Pinot Noir, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers and raspberries and forest floor. In the mouth, juicy, bright raspberry and redcurrant flavors have a deep crushed stone and forest floor backbone. Powdery tannins billow around the edges of the mouth as the fantastic acidity makes the wine dance across the palate. Lovely dried herb and citrus peel notes linger in the finish along with that pulverized rock that is so enthralling. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90.

2010 Rippon “Mature Vine” Pinot Noir, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of fantastically perfumed dried flowers, forest floor, and crushed mixed berries. In the mouth, juicy mulberry and black raspberry fruit seems strained through crystalline quartz (or schist as the case may be) as it soars through an incredibly perfumed finish. Deeply mineral, with fantastic acidity and muscular tannins that are starting to lounge their way into a beautiful structural support for the fruit. Hints of dried herbs linger in the finish with citric notes. Stunning. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $90.

2008 Rippon “Mature Vine” Pinot Noir, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Light to medium ruby in the glass with still a hint of purple, this wine smells of red apple skin, raisins, dried cherries, and forest floor. In the mouth, sweet raspberry and cherry fruit mix with cedar, nutmeg, and dried red apple skin for a beautifully mouthwatering mélange of fruit and spice and earth. Is this wine at its peak? I don’t know. But I love the heights it takes me to. Utterly compelling, complex, and commanding attention. 13.5% alcohol. (Tasted out of 375ml) Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $90.

2013 Rippon “Emma’s Block” Pinot Noir, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of dried herbs, dried flowers, and forest berries. In the mouth, gorgeous wet-chalkboard minerality underlies pure and clear flavors of raspberry, mulberry, and redcurrant. Dried flowers and herbs soar through the finish while powdery tannins grip the edges of the mouth. Fantastic length. Amazing acidity. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $100.

2013 Rippon “Tinker’s Field” Pinot Noir, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor and berries. In the mouth, very tightly wound flavors of black raspberry and raspberry leaf have a muscular tannic structure to them that speaks of the need for time to mature in the bottle. Excellent acidity and length with notes of green herbs lingering in the finish with a deep pure wet pavement minerality. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $100.

2013 Rippon “Tinker’s Bequest” Pinot Noir, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich forest berries and deep loam. In the mouth, gorgeously bright and pure mulberry and cranberry flavors seem strained through powdered rock. There’s definitely a hint of the carbonic grapeyness you’d find in Beaujolais, but with the depth and complexity of Pinot fruit. Fine-grained muscular tannins persist for a long time in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $120.

2015 Rippon Gamay, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright mulberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth, stony flavors of mulberry and cherry, and strawberry have a wonderful fine powdery tannic skein to them and bright juicy core thanks to excellent acidity. Incredibly easy to drink and beautifully balanced. 28-year-old vines – 12 rows in Tinker’s Field – somewhere between 30 and 80 cases made each year. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60.

The post Tasting Natural Beauty: The Wines of Rippon appeared first on Vinography.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

Given all the fuss that has been made about Pinot Noir in the post-Sideways era, you would think that Mendocino’s Anderson Valley might have eked out a bit more mindshare in the brains of wine lovers, along with the attention being given to other sources of great Pinot right now, such as Santa Barbara, the Sonoma Coast, and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

But somehow, this tiny wine region’s reputation, not to mention awareness, for consumers remains throttled by at least two main natural constraints: being an hour farther from San Francisco than Russian River Valley wine country (decidedly not on a major thoroughfare), and the dearth of fancy places to stay and eat when you’re done with your day of wine tasting.

Those in the know (or simply intrepid enough) who venture over the Yorkville Highlands and down into the idyllic, quiet green of Anderson Valley can discover something that most of the state’s top winemakers have known for years. It’s one of the best places to grow Pinot Noir on the planet.

Lichen Winery in Booneville, photographed by Seth Lowe.

A World Apart

Every time I make my way down the winding curves of Highway 128 into Anderson Valley, I am struck by just how different it feels from the wide-open river flats and hills of the Sonoma appellations from which I came. The light is different, the scale of the landscape is different. There’s an arboreal intimacy to Anderson Valley unlike any other place in California Wine Country.

Only 1 mile across and roughly 15 miles long, bounded to the northeast and southwest by heavily wooded ridges, this little valley carved by the Navarro River feels diminutive, precious, and a little wild—like you’ve discovered someplace secretly special.

Compared to just about any other California coastal wine region, that’s almost certainly true. Distinctly more rural, less populated, and less wealthy than other coastal wine country destinations, Anderson Valley sports less than 150 hotel rooms and a mere 8 sit-down restaurants (two of which only serve breakfast and lunch).

This little valley carved by the Navarro River feels diminutive, precious, and a little wild—like you’ve discovered someplace secretly special.

Local zoning laws prevent short-term rentals and make the creation of grand winery architectural statements (let alone buildings with multiple stories) all but impossible. The lack of city-like infrastructure for water and sewage, not to mention internet and electricity, dramatically limits whatever growth the strict local laws and preferences might allow.

Anderson Valley towns are more like villages, and the wineries more like farms with tasting rooms than thriving tourist destinations. In a way, the valley has managed to preserve a sense of how California’s wine country used to be, before wine and wine tourism became big business. Because, for the most part, wine is not yet big business in Anderson Valley.

While the sparkling winery Roederer Estate farms 620 acres of vineyards in the valley, and Jackson Family Wines farms more than 300, most people own less than 20 acres of vineyards, and 1/3 of the vineyard properties in the valley are less than 5 acres in size.

The entire AVA is a mere 2500 acres, split among roughly 90 different vineyards. Roughly 30 wineries make their home in the valley, while the grapes from the 2017 vintage were purchased and bottled by more than 110 wineries located outside the valley.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley
Looking northwest towards the coast on the southern edge of Anderson Valley

A Long Quiet History

The Anderson Valley was first planted with grapes in 1894 by Italian immigrants who came over the hill and settled in the valley named after early pioneer Walter Anderson, who arrived in 1851. And while wine was certainly made in the valley during the early part of the 20th century, things didn’t really get going until after the repeal of Prohibition.

New vineyards were planted by farmers in the 1940s and 1950s, with middling results, often due to poor choice of grape varieties. But the first real efforts to make wine in the valley weren’t until 1964 when Dr. Donald Edmeades, a physician from Southern California, planted 24 acres of grapes under a sign that read “Edmeades’ Folly.”

Edmeades was joined by the Husch family a few years later, and the modern era of Anderson Valley wine was born. Navarro Vineyards started in the early 1970s, and as these three made better and better wines, the industry’s reputation and population grew.

Several well-known Anderson Valley names arrived in the 1980s, including Milla Handley, who, as one of the first women to graduate with an Enology degree from UC Davis, got her first job working for Edmeades.

But the most significant event of those times was the entrance of Champagne Louis Roederer in 1982, who cannily recognized that the unusually cool valley was perfect for the high-acid, early-picked grapes needed for sparkling wine.

For a long while (and, it might well be argued, still to this day) the best Anderson Valley wines, in particular, Pinot Noirs, were usually made by wineries located outside the valley.

Around this time, the region applied for and received its American Viticultural Area designation, listing 6 wineries, 16 vineyards, and 582 acres under vine.

The Roederer purchase had a seismic impact on the valley (and frankly on California wine as a whole), resulting in a significant influx of new wineries and the planting of many more vineyards in the 80s and 90s. By then, these vineyards tended to be focused on either a more Germanic (or Alsatian) angle, with Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris, or, alternatively, on Pinot Noir.

Thanks to pioneering efforts in the 1980s by names such as Williams-Selyem and Merry Edwards, California Pinot Noir had become “a thing.” In the early 1990s, many of those who were (or who would become) the most famous names in California Pinot Noir began sourcing grapes from Anderson Valley or occasionally purchasing vineyards outright.

Despite increasingly appearing on the labels of wines costing $100 or more, Anderson Valley remained something of a sleepy little slice of wine country.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

The Journey to Quality

Like many emerging wine regions, especially those that are slow to attract wine tourism, the wines of Anderson Valley were fairly mixed in quality up until quite recently. A few early pioneers in the region such as Navarro Vineyards and Handley Cellars made high-quality wines as far back as the late 1980s, but the journey of Anderson Valley has been something of a slow emergence from being little more than a cottage industry.

For a long while (and, it might well be argued, still to this day) the best Anderson Valley wines, in particular Pinot Noirs, were usually made by wineries located outside the valley.

While the demand for grapes from the likes of Williams-Selyem, Littorai, Copain, Peay, and others encouraged quality farming and increased acreage in the 1990s, little of the winemaking knowledge from those efforts made its way back to the local producers.

“It took a long time for the local wine community to be a majority populated by people with a) formal wine training, b) knowledge of the wines of the world, and c) access to the world of information about wine that the internet has made available,” says Thom Elkjer, an author and journalist who has lived in Anderson Valley since 2001 and now spends half his time working as the valley’s sole ambulance driver.

Even by 2005 or 2006, when I began to taste California wines extensively and regularly, there were still a lot of fairly poor wines made in Anderson Valley, both among the Alsatian varieties as well as in Pinot Noir.

That is true no longer.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley
The Maggie Hawk Vineyard

Hey, Neighbor

Jackson Family Wines purchased the original Edmeades property in 1988 and went on to purchase several other vineyard plots over the years, culminating in the purchase of Balo Vineyards in 2019. In addition, the company bought Copain Wines and Siduri Wines in recent years, both of which owned no vineyards but sourced fruit from Anderson Valley.

Jackson Family now owns and farms more than 300 acres in the valley, with fruit going to a number of their wine labels, including the exclusively Anderson Valley wines of Maggy Hawk, a brand started by Jess Jackson’s wife Barbara Banke in 2007.

Anderson Valley has always been the refuge of people who want to get away from everyone else.

When Jackson and Banke first came to town, they were treated much like any large corporate outsider who arrives in the cloistered and quirky Anderson Valley. Which is to say, they were pretty much seen as Satan incarnate.

Anderson Valley has always been the refuge of people who want to get away from everyone else. Indeed, the Anderson family from whose name the valley derives moved there to get away from the people flooding the Sacramento area during the gold rush of the 1850s.

By 1900 or so, the largely counter-culture residents had developed an extensive slang vocabulary, known as Boontling, which has continued to evolve over the years. Now more a local legend than a serviceable argot, Boontling is still spoken by a few die-hard locals in the town of Boonville.

“Mendocino is not a place people come to fit in or go along,” says Elkjer. “People come up here to escape regulation and do their own thing.”

Needless to say, the locals didn’t take too kindly to the Jackson Family at first, but after twenty years of being a relatively upstanding member of the community, they’ve gained a little social capital, which is just what Gilian Handelman needed for her latest project.

Handelman is Vice President of Education at Jackson Family Wines. A former enologist and a former director of marketing and education for Wine & Spirits magazine, Handelman is both amazingly connected in the world of California wine and insatiably curious.

“Did you know that Anderson Valley has one of the lowest prices per ton for Pinot Noir of anywhere in coastal California?” says Handelman. “Only Monterey county is lower than us. I found that very surprising.”

Sparked by this fact and a long-standing passion for underdogs, Handelman conducted surveys of what sommeliers across the country thought of Anderson Valley, and the comments that came back were “all over the map.”

What this meant to her is that unlike other wine regions (she points to the Willamette Valley as a prime example) Anderson Valley has not told its story very well.

In fact, thought Handelman, Anderson Valley doesn’t even know what its story is.

Getting to Know the Neighborhoods

For years, locals in Anderson Valley have had nicknames for different sections of the valley. The farthest northern, fog-laden reaches out towards the coast that are among some of the coldest vineyards sites in California are known as the Deep End. Further south up the valley towards Philo, but still heavily foggy and cold, is a neighborhood called Poleeko, which is how you say Philo in Boontling.

Around Philo, the valley narrows considerably, and this pinch point, along with a raised ridge just to the south, tends to stop the advance of the coastal fog.

This effect is so pronounced that the temperature differences on either side of Philo put Poleeko and the Deep end into the coldest, Region I classification of wine-growing climates (known as the Winkler Scale), while on the other side, the large neighborhood known as Boonville falls into Region II (more like the Russian River Valley, or the Coombsville AVA in Napa).

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley
A map of the “neighborhoods” generated by Gilian Handelman, looking northwest towards the Pacific.

The remaining neighborhoods are the Western Ridges and Eastern Ridges, which even at their Northwestern extremes often sit above the coastal fog and receive significantly more sun.

These neighborhoods were the closest thing Handelman found to any systematic understanding of the valley as a whole, so that’s where she began. With the aplomb of someone who knows how to do serious enological research on terroir, she began a campaign to convince local winemakers to do a scientific study of whether these neighborhoods actually meant anything in terms of the wines the valley produced.

“I basically sent a note to everyone in the valley saying we’d like to explore the terroir better and consider ways of studying it so we can all speak with a unified voice,” says Handelman. “We told everyone to show up with a barrel sample of 2017 wines from a neutral barrel, and then we lined them up from North to South and tasted through them. About 45 people showed up, probably half of them just to find out what those crazy Jackson Family people were up to. But some were genuinely curious.”

It was a haphazard tasting and was more about building trust than anything else. The group discussed getting weather station data, digging soil pits, and more. Of course, there was also controversy.

Some people believed that identifying sub-regional differences could be an important part of telling the valley’s story and learning about the terroir. Others worried that focusing on such differences has the potential to dilute the broader Anderson Valley story. A few others suggested the neighborhoods weren’t actually aligned with the true factors that shaped the nature of the valley’s wines.

In the end, though, Handleman sensed some enthusiasm, even if slightly tepid, for the idea of such a study.

But then the pandemic hit, and things got wonky. Handelman managed to get some weather data, but couldn’t find anyone to crunch it. The soil scientists who had said they’d dig some pits and do analysis for free weren’t returning e-mails or phone calls.

But even amidst all the craziness, in 2020 Handelman managed to convince 18 producers to harvest grapes from various neighborhoods at roughly the same sugar levels, and then to make the wines exactly the same way, using the same yeasts, the same barrels, and the same winemaking protocols.

The tastings so far and the data they have yielded are still preliminary, but some of the variables such as perceived tannin levels, acidity, and body aren’t showing clear correlations to neighborhoods.

Definitive results, however, aren’t what Handelman was shooting for. “I think most importantly, [the study] has gotten us talking and tasting more together. The valley has been tight-knit forever, and there’s been some of the ‘you’re an outsider’ thing going on. But being together, tasting together, talking about each other’s wines, influencing each other? That’s the glue that helps you develop the terroir story. Part of terroir is cultural.”

Unmatched Potential

It’s been several years since I’ve tasted more than 20 or 30 Anderson Valley wines in a sitting, so I was particularly excited by the prospect of getting to taste more than 100 of them, thanks to the generosity of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association.

Just for fun, the tasting was organized to group the wines according to the neighborhoods in the valley, in the event that I or the other journalist present were able to glean something from that context.

While in all honesty I was likely biased against discovering clear sub-regional signatures from the start (having participated in many different tastings along these lines in California), I can say with certainty that no clear pattern or characteristic emerged that might clearly distinguish one neighborhood from another. At least to my palate.

It is my personal belief that there are too many variables at play (harvest date, grape chemistry, yeast type, maceration duration, stem inclusion, pressing strength, barrel regime, cellar temperature, oxygen exposure, racking regimen, just to name a few) for commercial wines to clearly demonstrate differences across sub-regions as small as those in Anderson Valley. Which is why, of course, Handelman is doing her terroir study with as many of these variables controlled as possible.

I’m also likely in the camp with those who believe that the neighborhoods are probably all wrong anyway in terms of what might actually drive serious differences in wine style. Leaving aside the important fact that these neighborhoods have nothing to do with soil types within the valley, they also don’t really distinguish between elevations. Upper hillside fruit in a given region is going to perform very differently than valley floor fruit, just to select one variable of many.

Something is going on in Anderson Valley, and it’s pretty damn exciting.

My tasting of 170+ Anderson Valley wines didn’t yield much in terms of conclusions about sub-regionality. But it did yield some pretty strong conclusions about just how far things have come in the valley when it comes to wine quality.

Frankly, I was very impressed with the overall level of quality across the board with these wines. Even six or eight years ago, a tasting like this would have had a lot of wines in it that had issues — faults, clunky winemaking, egregious use of new oak, ripeness problems, and more. Such flaws were remarkably absent from this tasting. Instead, the wines were almost uniformly of high quality, and many were nuanced and excellent.

What’s more, I genuinely liked a large majority of the wines. Had I done a tasting of Napa Valley Cabernets, Dry Creek Zinfandels, or Paso Robles Rhone Blends, it’s far from certain that I would have liked as many wines as I did in this one.

Something is going on in Anderson Valley, and it’s pretty damn exciting.

Even leaving aside the wines made by superstar wineries located elsewhere, the advancement of quality, with Pinot Noir in particular couldn’t be more evident. While the varied micro-climates of the valley continue to yield wines that range from ethereal and delicate to more robust and powerful, Anderson Valley’s resident winemakers seem to have acquired a confident restraint and an appreciation for subtlety. Put another way, the winemakers of Anderson Valley have gotten a lot better at letting the place do the talking.

“Part of what’s happening, I think,” says Handelman, “is that we’re seeing a younger generation taking over in the valley, and these folks are experimenting more, with more stems, less new wood, earlier picks—all of those things that a younger mindset in the Pinot universe has been pushing towards. And those practices are now more widely revered, adopted, and shared. The valley is evolving.”

“Everything’s more professional, is the simplest thing you can say,” adds Elkjer, “but that touches everything. Just take farming for example. There’s three vineyard management companies, if my numbers are correct, that farm about half the appellation. They’re taking some direction from owners in a few cases, but largely they’re relying on very smart [outside] people’s advice. The bozo farming of the past has gone right out the window.”

So perhaps we are entering the golden age of Anderson Valley wine. The real question is whether the region can, or even wants to take things to the next level.

Poised for Progress

By my calculations, roughly 140 producers in Northern California make Anderson Valley designated wines. Yet the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association has only 64 winery members. The operating budget of the organization is so small that it has a hard time paying its staff what they are worth, and relies heavily on volunteer work to make ends meet. Never mind doing something like putting on a roadshow of top wines for sommeliers in New York.

In some ways, the counter-culture, introverted, scrappy rural sensibilities of Anderson Valley may be holding the region back from greater fame.

While the valley might be ready for its moment in the spotlight from the standpoint of wine quality, it’s not ready for prime time yet when it comes to building a brand for the region and marketing that brand in the crowded public square of the wine industry.

In some ways, the counter-culture, introverted, scrappy rural sensibilities of Anderson Valley may be holding the region back from greater fame.

“There’s a scarcity consciousness here that makes things like marketing a luxury,” says Elkjer.

On the one hand, that’s not such a bad thing if you’re a serious Pinot-file or a Riesling nut. For now, you can still pick up an absolutely killer bottle of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir for $30 to $45. Wine of the same quality from the Sonoma Coast or Russian River Valley would probably cost you $60 or more. The idea that there are great Anderson Valley Rieslings and Gewürztraminers to be had under $20 is almost shocking in this day and age.

But in order to truly grow and flourish, Anderson Valley needs more attention. It needs more visitors. It needs more mindshare among consumers.

The Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association recently went through some serious upheaval, leading to something of a house cleaning, and the installation of a promising new Executive Director who brings a level of professionalism to a position that has been held in the past simply by well-meaning winegrowers who wanted to help.

A clear vision and strategy are great starting points. So is better organization and collaboration. But what the region really needs to take things to the next level is more money. For starters, the Winegrowers Association needs to raise its annual dues.

While there are a few big players in the region who can do more (and some are doing a lot already), it’s really the many small producers, many of whom can’t be bothered to even be members of the winegrowers association, that could make all the difference.

If you’re a winery that makes Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and you’re not a part of the Winegrowers Association, it’s time to join. Help the tide rise and lift all the boats.

Anderson Valley wines are ready to compete at the next level of excellence. The question remains whether the people behind them are ready to do what it takes to make that leap.

No matter what, though, there has never been a better time to go discover some great wine in Anderson Valley.

Trust me when I say it’s definitely worth the drive.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley
The tasting lineup.

Tasting Notes

Notes on more than 170 different Anderson Valley Wines follow below. The wines are listed by color in descending order of their scores, and roughly grouped by variety within each score band. Most of these wines were provided as part of the large, focused tasting shown above that took place over 2 days in early July 2021. Some of the wines below were press samples sent to me at a later date and most were tasted between July and the date of publication.

Sparkling Wines

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2015 Roederer Estate “l’Ermitage Brut” Champagne Blend
Pale gold in the glass, with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of salty sea air, buttered toast, and apples. In the mouth, a silky, voluminous mousse delivers wonderfully bright lemon peel and apple flavors mix with toasted brioche and seawater as beautiful saline lemon notes linger in the finish. Fabulous acidity. 12.5% alcohol Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2013 Lichen Estate “Grand Cuvee” Blanc de Noirs Sparkling Wine
Pale greenish-gold in color, with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of toasted brioche and lemon oil. In the mouth, apple, and crabapple mix with toasted sourdough, seawater. Crisp, but with some lovely toasted bread notes, too. Mouthwatering. Disgorged in August of 2019. 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Gris. 10 g/l. 60 months on the lees. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $85 click to buy.

2016 Lichen Estate “Blanc de Gris” Sparkling Pinot Gris
Palest greenish-gold in the glass, with extremely tiny bubbles, this wine smells of apples and pears and white flowers. In the mouth, a soft velvety mousse delivers flavors of apple and pear and white flowers with a faint tangy sweetness that is quite charming. 32 months on the lees. 100% Pinot Gris. 11 g/l dosage. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2015 Handley Cellars Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine
Palest greenish gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and lemon pith. In the mouth, some wonderfully steely and stony lemon pith, green apple, and sea air flavors have a gorgeous minerality. Quite pretty. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $56 click to buy.

MV Roederer Estate “Brut Library Reserve” Brut Sparkling Wine
Pale gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of lemon and apples. In the mouth, a moderately coarse mousse delivers apple and lemon flavors mixed with a hint of orange peel and butterscotch. Excellent acidity, with a faint bitterness and salinity in the finish. Disgorged in 2018. 12 g/l dosage. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35

2017 Reeve Wines “Kiser Vineyard” Blanc de Noir Sparkling Wine
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, butterscotch, buttered toast. In the mouth, toasted brioche, lemon oil, and golden apple flavors have a nice cut to them thanks to excellent acidity and a very low 1g/l dosage, there’s also a hint of herbs that evoke a touch of marijuana to this wine. Chalky notes linger in the finish. Very nice. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $85

2013 Roederer Estate “l’Ermitage Brut” Rosé Champagne Blend
Light to medium peachy-bronze in color with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of mulling spices and dried citrus peel. In the mouth, an expansive, silky mousse fills the mouth with flavors of bitter orange, candied citrus, seawater, and yeasty, toasty bread. Distinctly savory with a dried herb note that lingers with citrus peel in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2018 Bravium “Wiley Vineyard” Blanc de Noir – Brut Nature Sparkling Wine
Palest peach in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of crabapples and citrus peel. In the mouth, apples and citrus peel and a nice saline character also offer some raspberry notes. Despite being called a blanc de noirs, this wine has some color to it, that might lead you to call it a rosé. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50

2016 Lichen Estate Brut Rose Sparkling Wine
Palest peach in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of berries and cantaloupe. In the mouth, juicy berry and citrus flavors have a nice candied orange peel quality. Excellent acidity. 100% Pinot Noir with 2.5% still Pinot Noir for color. 32 months on the lees. 11 g/l dosage. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50 click to buy.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley
County Line “Beads” Pet-Nat

2020 County Line Vineyards “Orfin Lotts – Beads” Rosé of Pinot Noir Pet-Nat
A cloudy, peachy pink in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of peach yogurt and berries. In the mouth, juicy and bright flavors of berries, peaches, and Ranier cherries are lifted across the palate on a surprisingly expansive mousse, which leaves a faint impression of sweetness on the palate. While the nose is slightly funky here, the rest of the wine is quite clean, with just the barest tang in the finish. Quite tasty. 12% alcohol. Closed with a crown cap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $36. click to buy.

NV Roederer Estate “Brut” Rosé Champagne Blend
A light peach color in the glass with medium bubbles, this wine smells of strawberries and citrus peel with a hint of warm hay. In the mouth, a silky, voluminous mousse lifts flavors of berries, citrus peel, and herbs across the palate with a lovely aromatic sweetness that cruises to a nicely dry finish with a saline kick. Incredibly easy to drink, with great acidity. 12.5% alcohol Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $29. click to buy.

MV Scharffenberger Cellars “Black Label” Brut Sparkling Wine
Pale greenish-gold in color, with moderately fine bubbles, this wine smells of green and golden apples. In the mouth, apple and citrus pith mix with white flowers and a faint sourish star fruit quality. Good acidity, faint bitterness in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25 click to buy.

NV Roederer Estate “Brut” Champagne Blend
Light gold in the glass with medium bubbles, this wine smells of freshly cut apples and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, a smooth and fluffy mousse delivers flavors of apples, pears, a hint of citrus peel, and just a touch of buttery salinity. The finish is just faintly bitter. Still seems to be the best value sparkling wine made in California. 12.5% alcohol Score: around 8.5. Cost: $23. click to buy.

2015 Toulouse Vineyards “Goose Bubbles” Brut Sparkling Wine
Pale greenish gold in the glass, with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of green apple and white flowers. In the mouth, green apples, sweet celery, and white flower flavors are bright and crisp, and fruity. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $48

2019 Bee Hunter “Method Rurale” (aka PetNat) Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine
A faintly cloudy, pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of chamomile and honey. In the mouth, a faint effervescence delivers flavors of apples and some citrus pith with a sourish acidophilous tang in the finish. 12.4% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $??

2017 Goldeneye Brut Rose Sparkling Wine
Palest peach in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of baked apples and orange pith. In the mouth, raspberry jam and orange marmalade mix with a faint sweetness have less acidity than I would like. 4 g/l dosage. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $65

2017 Pennyroyal Farm “Blanc de Noir” Blanc de Noir Sparkling Wine
Palest greenish gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of green apples and white flowers. In the mouth, fairly sweet green apple and white flowers recall prosecco. Clean and bright and doubtless crowd-pleasing, but a little sweet for me. 10g/l dosage. 12% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $4

White Wines

BETWEEN 9 and 9.5
2017 Bee Hunter “Filigreen Farms” Pinot Gris
Pale straw in the glass, this wine smells of chamomile and poached pear. In the mouth, bright pear and lemon flavors mix with yellow herbs and a wonderful, yes, bee pollen note that lingers in the finish. Excellent acidity and length. Quite delicious. I suspect there’s a little residual sugar here, but it’s definitely to this wine’s benefit. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2018 Lichen Estate “Noir” Pinot Noir Blanc
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of Ranier cherries and white flowers. In the mouth, Ranier cherry and floral notes have a bright juiciness to them and a faint tannic texture that adds complexity. Notes of cherry linger in the finish. Excellent acidity. 12.5% alcohol Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $32 click to buy.

AROUND 9
2014 Bee Hunter “Late Harvest” Riesling
Light yellow gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of honey and orange peel. In the mouth, flavors of honey and citrus pith mix with blood orange and white flowers. Despite being labeled late harvest, this wine has remarkably little overt sweetness. Very unusual and compelling. This tastes a bit like a Spatlese or Auslese trocken. Unfortunately, this vineyard was mistakenly sprayed with a chemical that killed the vineyard, so it is no more. 9.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $32 click to buy.

2019 Handley Cellars Pinot Gris
Palest straw, nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith and pears. In the mouth, crisp and clean flavors of pear and white flowers have a nice hint of minerality as a light tannic grip lingers in the finish along with floral and Asian pear notes. 13.6% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $24 click to buy.

2019 Lichen Estate Pinot Gris
Pale straw in color, this wine smells of pears and sweet cream with a touch of honeysuckle. In the mouth, there’s a faint sweetness and notes of white flowers, pears, and sweet cream. Nice acidity keeps the wine crisp and juicy across the palate, and there’s a sweetish note in the finish suggesting a little residual sugar. 2.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $29 click to buy.

2019 Maggie Hawk Pinot Noir Blanc
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and citrus pith. In the mouth, bright berry and citrus peel mix with Ranier cherries and a touch of tropical fruit. Excellent acidity and brightness, with a faint salinity. Quite delicious. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $57 click to buy.

2020 Navarro Vineyards “Edelzwicker” White Blend
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, pears, and a hint of lychee. In the mouth, lightly sweet flavors of white flowers, lychee, and Asian pear have a nice juicy brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Lovely balance, and very classic in its expression. A lovely aperitif wine. A blend of 40% Pinot Gris, 28% Riesling, and 32% Gewurztraminer. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $19.5 click to buy.

2019 Phillips Hill Riesling
Pale greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and mandarin orange zest. In the mouth, wonderfully bright Asian pear and mandarin orange flavors mix with a hint of aromatic herbs. Excellent acidity, and wonderful balance, with only an aromatic sweetness. I think there might be some sugar there, but like all really good Rieslings, it’s balanced by enough acidity that the wine doesn’t taste sweet. 12.6% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26

2019 Toulouse Vineyards Gewurztraminer
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine has an incredible floral perfume with hints of tuberose and orange peel. In the mouth, juicy and bright orange peel and very strong lychee flavors keep the mouth watering thanks to excellent acidity. Quite delicious. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $28 click to buy.

2018 Rhys Vineyards “Bearwallow Vineyard” Chardonnay
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of bee pollen, lemon pith, and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, Meyer lemon curd and pink grapefruit flavors are silky and suffused with notes of white flowers. Delicate acidity. Named after the shale soil series in the vineyard: Wolfey-Bearwallow). 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $90 click to buy.

2018 Copain “Skycrest Vineyard” Chardonnay
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and lemon pith. In the mouth, wonderfully bright citrus pith and lemon curd flavors have a hint of vanilla and a wonderful floral citrus pith finish. Bright, juicy, and delicious. 13.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $55

2018 Drew “Bahl Briney” Chardonnay
Pale yellow-gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of white flowers and lemon pith. In the mouth, lemon and apple flavors have a nice crystalline brightness to them and a faint hint of lemongrass, lemon, and orange oil in the finish. Excellent acidity and length. 13% alcohol Score: around 9. Cost: $33 click to buy.

2019 Dupuis “Ferrington Vineyard” Chardonnay
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, lemon juice, and white flowers. In the mouth, wonderfully bright lemon curd and lemon pith flavors mix with pink grapefruit and a hint of vanilla. Foot trodden and then aged in neutral barrels. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $52 click to buy.

BETWEEN 8.5 and 9
2018 Foursight Wines “Charles Vineyard” Semillon
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied lemon peel and yellow herbs. In the mouth, candied lemon, chamomile, and bee pollen flavors mix with a hint of citrus pith, and a faint aromatic sweetness that lingers in the finish. Very pretty.13.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $29 click to buy.

2019 Handley Cellars “Estate Vineyard” Gewurztraminer
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle, jasmine, and candied orange peel. In the mouth, silky flavors of orange peel and orange blossom have a nice citrus snap thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a trace of bitterness and a tiny bit of heat in the finish, but the flavors are super compelling. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $26 click to buy.

2018 Lichen Estate “Les Pinots” White Blend
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied orange peels and mulling spices. In the mouth, citrus peel and berry notes have a bitter/sweet quality to them that is fairly compelling. Hints of pear and citrus peel linger in the finish. Excellent acidity. A blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Gris. 11.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $32 click to buy.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2020 Pennyroyal Farms “Pinotrio” White Blend
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of Ranier cherry, pear, and citrus peel. In the mouth, citrus peel, cherry, and Asian pear flavors have a nice crispness thanks to excellent acidity. There’s also a faint tannic grip to the wine that adds complexity with texture. Quite pretty, though with a distinct off-dry, light sweetness to it. An unusual blend of 39% Pinot Blanc, 38% Pinot Noir, and 27% Pinot Gris. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $33 click to buy.

2019 Phillips Hill Gewurztraminer
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of orange blossom water and floral aromas. In the mouth, faintly sweet orange blossom and lychee notes have decent acidity and crispness. There’s a faint bitterness in the finish like pear skin. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $19 click to buy.

2018 Rhys Vineyards “Alesia” Chardonnay
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and a touch of Meyer lemon blossom. In the mouth, lemon juice, lemon pith, and pink grapefruit flavors have a brisk zippiness thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of citrus pith linger in the finish. Mouthwatering. 12.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2018 Maggy Hawk “Skycrest Vineyard” Chardonnay
Light gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of lemon curd and cold cream. In the mouth, silky flavors of lemon curd and cold cream have a nice zippy brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity. Lemon peel and a touch of herbs linger in the finish. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $65 click to buy.

2019 Radio-Coteau “Savoy Vineyard” Chardonnay
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon and grapefruit pith with a hint of buttered popcorn. In the mouth, silky flavors of lemon curd, melted butter, and a hint of pineapple are rich and sensual, but missing just a little kick of acidity that would make them more exciting to me. I’d love this wine to have a little more edge. But it’s hard to argue with the flavors. Unfiltered. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $52. click to buy.

AROUND 8.5
2020 Fathers+Daughters Cellars “Ferrington Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lime and lemon pith. In the mouth, lemon and lime pith and juice have a nice crisp brightness and a faintly chalky pithiness that lingers in the finish. Excellent acidity. Quite refreshing, if slightly on the austere side.12.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25

2019 Goldeneye Winery “Randolph Block” Gewurztraminer
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of orange blossom and honey. In the mouth, silky flavors of orange blossom water and orange peel are clean and want to be crisp, but don’t quite have enough acidity to pull it off. It’s hard to argue with the flavors, however. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40.

2020 Navarro Vineyards “Cuvèe Traditional” Gewurztraminer
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of orange peel and white flowers. In the mouth, lychee, orange peel, and a touch of citrus pith have a nice crisp brightness and a lightly chalky tannic texture. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20.

2019 Reeve Wines “Vonarburg Vineyard” Riesling
Pale gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of tangerine and white flowers. In the mouth, a slightly austere wet chalkboard quality underlies citrus and floral notes. There’s a chalky quality to the finish. Quite dry. 12% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $38.

2018 Copain “Dupratt” Chardonnay
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of oak and lemon pith. In the mouth, lemon curd, vanilla, and the toasty notes of oak have a nice clarity and brightness to them, thanks to very good acidity. Silky and smooth on the palate, I wish I tasted less wood here. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2019 FEL Wines Chardonnay
Pale greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and a touch of orange peel. In the mouth, lemon curd and a hint of orange zest mix with a faint hint of pineapple and vanilla in the finish. Very good acidity and length. 3.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $32 click to buy.

2019 FEL Wines “Savoy Vineyard” Chardonnay
Light gold in color with a hint of green, this wine smells of lemon curd and pineapple and white flowers. In the mouth, crisp and juicy lemon curd, vanilla, and a touch of oak mix with pineapple and some additional tropical fruit flavors. Excellent acidity keeps the wine bouncy, though there’s a touch of heat in the finish. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $48.

2018 Meyer Cellars “Donnelley Creek” Chardonnay
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and oak. In the mouth, lemon and golden apple flavors mix with toasted oak and a hint of white flowers. Good acidity and length. I wish I tasted less wood. 13.6% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $32 click to buy.

2018 Kosta Browne “Cerise Vineyard” Chardonnay
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon curd and lemon pith. In the mouth, lean and bright flavors of lemon zest, grapefruit pith, and a hint of toasty, nutty oak have excellent acidity but leave a slightly bitter note in the finish. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $110 click to buy.

BETWEEN 8 and 8.5
2019 Bravium Chardonnay
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of lemon pith and a hint of Play-Doh. In the mouth, lemon pith, citrus peel, and a touch of cold cream are bright with decent acidity. Citrus pith and hints of bitter orange linger in the finish. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $25 click to buy.

2018 Domaine Anderson “Estate” Chardonnay
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied lemon peel and a hint of apple skin. In the mouth, apple skin, lemon juice, and a touch of bitter herbs have a nice brightness thanks to decent acidity. The herbal and citrus peel astringency lingers in the finish. 13.1% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $30 click to buy.

2020 FEL Wines Pinot Gris
Pale straw in the glass, this wine smells of pear and pear skin with a hint of dried herbs. In the mouth, pear and pear skin flavors have a faint bitterness to them, along with the sweetness of the fruit. A hint of citrus oil comes into the finish. Decent acidity and length. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $28 click to buy.

2019 Foursight Wines “Charles Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of citrus peel and pith. In the mouth, crisp lemon and lime flavors have a faint pithy bitterness as they head to the finish. Good acidity. 12.7% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $29 click to buy.

2018 Handley Cellars “Estate Vineyard” Chardonnay
Pale to light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and tropical fruits. In the mouth, silky flavors of lemon, pineapple, and tropical fruit cocktail lean slightly towards the bitterness of orange peel in the finish. Decent acidity. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $28 click to buy.

2020 Husch Vineyards “Dry” Gewurztraminer
Palest greenish-gold in color, almost colorless, this wine smells of orange peel and white flowers. In the mouth, the wine is restrained, with orange peel and lychee flavors mixed with an Asian-pear-skin bitterness. Comes across as slightly dilute. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $16 click to buy.

2020 Pennyroyal Farm Sauvignon Blanc
Palest greenish-gold, nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and pear and a hint of candied lime. In the mouth, lime and green apple and pear flavors have a faint sweetness to them, with decent acidity. There’s also a creaminess to this wine that is unexpected. 12.9% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $25.

2020 Read Holland Wines “Wiley Vineyard” Riesling
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of honeysuckle and green apples. In the mouth, tart green apple and floral notes have a mouthwatering quality thanks to excellent acidity. Very green in quality, with a hint of celery of vegetal note along with the green apple skin in the finish. 12.8% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $30.

2019 Husch Vineyards “Vine One” Chardonnay
Palest straw, to the point of being nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of sweet floral notes that have a hint of bubble gum to them. In the mouth, linalool and floral notes are somewhat confection-like, backed by decent acidity. Comes across as slightly candied, with a tiny bit of heat in the finish. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $20.

2019 Pennyroyal Farms “Hammer Olsen Vineyard” Chardonnay
Pale to light gold in color, this wine smells of slightly yeasty lemon and pineapple aromas. In the mouth, lemon, some bitter herbs, and citrus pith have a slightly yeasty note to them, with a touch of oak on the finish. 13.1% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $35.

2020 Philo Ridge Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied green apple and gooseberries. In the mouth, green apple flavors are slightly candied and a little flat, missing some acidity and crispness that would make it more vivacious. The flavors are good, however. 13.2% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $20.

BELOW 8
2020 Fathers+Daughters Cellars “Ferrington Vineyard” Chardonnay
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells unusually of herbal oils, alfalfa, and citrus pith. In the mouth, citrus pith and herbal notes make for an unusual character. Slightly odd. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 7.5 and 8.

Pink Wines

2019 Foursight Wines Rosé of Pinot Noir
A pale peach in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and watermelon rind. In the mouth, bright raspberry and strawberry fruit have a brilliant, bright snap thanks to excellent acidity. Faint aromatic sweetness on the finish with a hint of citrus peel. Delicious. 13.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2020 Navarro Vineyards Rosé of Pinot Noir
Pale baby pink in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, strawberries, and raspberries. In the mouth, lean and bright berry and citrus flavors have a fantastic, mouthwatering brightness to them, with hints of citrus peel and a faint savory herbal note that adds some complexity. Excellent. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $22 click to buy.

2020 County Line Vineyards “Elke Home Ranch” Rosé of Pinot Noir
Palest peachy-pink in the glass, this wine smells of citrus zest and floral notes with a hint of marijuana resin. In the mouth, zingy and bright citrus peel and strawberry flavors have a nice silky, even creamy texture and lovely pastry cream overtones complete the finish. Very pretty. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2020 Pennyroyal Farm Rosé of Pinot Noir
Pale baby pink in color, this wine smells of hibiscus and cranberry. In the mouth, cranberry and rosehip flavors have a nice juiciness to them and a lovely silky texture. Very good acidity and length. 13.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $25.

2020 Lula Cellars Rosé of Pinot Noir
Pale baby pink in the glass, this wine smells of red berries and citrus peel. In the mouth, berry and citrus peel flavors have a nice bounce thanks to very good acidity. Silky and slightly weighty on the palate. Clean and bright. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $36 click to buy.

2020 Toulouse Vineyards Rosé of Pinot Noir
Pale peachy pink in color, this wine smells of watermelon and a hint of radish. In the mouth, berry and watermelon fruit flavors are subtle and soft, with a faint woody radish note to the wine. Decent acidity. 13.6% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $28 click to buy.

Red Wines

AROUND 9.5
2018 Drew “Wendling Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers and black raspberries. In the mouth, crystalline flavors of raspberry and dried flowers are wedded to a stony earthy core of this wine. Wonderful floral notes linger in the finish. Fantastic acidity and purity.Outstanding purity and complexity. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70 click to buy.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2019 Drew “Fog-Eater” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of intensely perfumed raspberry and floral aromas. In the mouth, raspberry, and redcurrant flavors are bright and mouthwatering with fantastic acidity. Hints of floral and citrus peel linger in the finish, along with a stony note that is quite compelling. Barely perceptible tannins. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2019 Willams-Selyem “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet with purple highlights, this wine smells of cherries and floral perfume. In the mouth, wonderfully bright cherry and raspberry flavors are bursting with juicy acidity as citrus peel and a hint of bergamot oil linger in the long finish. Barely perceptible tannins. Delicious, fresh, and incredibly aromatic. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.

2019 Willams-Selyem “Ferrington Vineyard” Pinot Noir
A faintly hazy, medium-to-dark garnet color with purple highlights, this wine smells of intensely juicy and sweet raspberry aromas. In the mouth, that intensity continues with positively mouthwatering flavors of candied raspberries and faint floral notes. Wonderfully perfumed, with only barely perceptible tannins. Fantastic acidity carries through a long finish scented with orange peel. Simply bursting with flavor. 13.6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $100. click to buy.

BETWEEN 9 and 9.5
2016 Bee Hunter “Angel Camp” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and dusty dried herbs. In the mouth, the wine has a nice savory dried herb and dusty road flavor, with a core of cherry and raspberry fruit. Hints of redwood bark linger in the finish with a hint of bitterness. But then, just when you think you’ve experienced everything this wine has to offer a wash of floral perfume enters the finish and blows your mind. Excellent acidity.14.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80.

2017 Copain “Edmeades” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry compote. In the mouth, juicy and bright cherry and raspberry fruit flavors are dusted with faint tannins and touched with a hint of citrus peel and dried flowers. Very pretty, with excellent acidity and length. 13.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $59 click to buy.

2019 Failla Wines “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries and raspberry leaf with a hint of woody stems. In the mouth, wonderfully silky flavors of raspberries, dried herbs, and dried flowers have a wonderful electricity to them thanks to fantastic acidity. Hints of herbs ad citrus peel linger in the finish along with faint, grippy tannins. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2018 Foursight Wines “Zero New Oak” Pinot Noir
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and raspberry leaf. In the mouth, gorgeously bright raspberry and redcurrant flavors mix with sour cherry and a faintly saline quality that, combined with the excellent acidity, makes for a mouthwatering, totally delicious package. Outstanding. 13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $44.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2019 Foursight Wines “Clone 05” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry, sour cherry, and floral aromas. In the mouth, juicy and bright raspberry pastilles and a hint of strawberry mix with floral notes and excellent acidity. Perhaps missing some depth and complexity but who wouldn’t love the positively vivacious bright raspberry fruit here? Faint, powdery tannins tickle the edges of the palate. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $57.

2017 Kosta Browne “Cerise Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of ripe cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, raspberry and cherry notes mix with a hint of dried herbs and cedar. Silky, nicely balanced, with excellent acidity and barely perceptible tannins. Quite pretty. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $150. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and sour cherry and a hint of resinous herb. In the mouth, juicy raspberry, sour cherry, and redcurrant flavors mix with citrus peel and a touch of herbs. Excellent acidity keeps the saliva flowing as does a faint salinity. Delicious. 13.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $61 click to buy.

2018 Phillips Hill Winery “Day Ranch” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass with purple highlights, this wine smells of dried flowers and black raspberries. In the mouth, juicy cherry and black raspberry flavors are mouthwatering thanks to excellent acidity. That floral quality continues with dried flowers that linger through the finish. Faint muscular tannins. 13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $47 click to buy.

2018 Read Holland “Deep End” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry, and citrus oil. In the mouth, juicy cherry and raspberry fruit is tinged with cedar and a nice earthy undertone. Excellent acidity leaves citrus peel and dried herbs lingering in the long finish. 13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60 click to buy.

2018 Reeve Wines “Wendling Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit and a hint of dried flowers. In the mouth, exceptionally juicy cherry and raspberry fruit flavors have a citrus peel kick and excellent, mouthwatering acidity. Faint, powdery tannins linger with hints of dried flowers in the finish. Very pretty. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2018 Rhys Vineyards “Bearwallow Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine smells of earth and candied redcurrant. In the mouth, raspberry and redcurrant flavors are fantastically juicy with hints of dried flowers and cedar. Fantastic acidity keeps the wine bright and zippy, as notes of candied orange peel linger in the finish. Layered and delicate with barely perceptible tannins. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90 click to buy.

2018 Boonville Road “Broken Leg Vineyard” Syrah
A cloudy dark garnet in the glass, this wine makes the mouth water right from the very first sniff of white pepper and charred steak layered over black cherry and blackberry. In the mouth, beautiful white and black pepper flavors mix with blackberry and black cherry that have an almost saline quality. Soft, leathery tannins buff the edges of the mouth. Gloriously cool-climate in aspect, and refreshing with its mere 13.9% alcohol, this wine has excellent acidity and balance. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2019 Rivers-Marie “Bearwallow Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of bright cherry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, gorgeous cherry and cranberry flavors are silky and juicy with fantastic acidity and possess a lovely purity. Faint dried floral and herbal notes surface in the finish. Definitely leans towards the rich side of Pinot, but wonderfully lithe and bright. Only the faintest of tannic textures. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.

2018 Gros Ventre “Cerise Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and dried herbs with a hint of cedar. In the mouth, lovely raspberry and redcurrant flavors are wrapped in a gauzy blanket of tannins, as dried herbs and dried flower notes float across the palate and sour cherry lingers with a note of citrus peel in the finish. Thrillingly bright acidity and a lovely texture. 13.6% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $62. click to buy.

2018 Arista “Ferrington Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cranberries. In the mouth, flavors of raspberry and cranberry are zingy and bright thanks to fantastic acidity, while faint tannins brush the edges of the palate and citrus peel notes linger in the finish with a hint of forest floor. Quite delicious. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.

2018 Papapietro Perry “Charles Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium ruby in the glass with garnet highlights, this wine smells of cedar and raspberries. In the mouth, bright raspberry and pomegranate flavors have a lovely aromatic sweetness to them and excellent acidity. Faint, gauzy tannins buff the edges of the mouth, while hints of raspberry pastilles linger in the finish. Lovely and finessed. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.

AROUND 9
2017 Bee Hunter “Wentzel Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass with ruby at the rim, this wine smells of tart sour cherry and raspberries with a hint of pennyroyal. In the mouth, raspberry, redcurrant, and sour cherry fruit make for a tangy, mouthwatering experience with hints of dried herbs and citrus peel that linger in the finish. There’s a nice stony underbelly to this wine, accentuated by chalk-dust tannins.13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $60.

2014 Bee Hunter “Wiley Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium ruby with a hint of brick at the rim, this wine smells of dried apples and dates and dried herbs. In the mouth, silky flavors of raspberry and dried herbs mix with citrus peel and dried apple. Unusual and distinctive, and starting to show some of its secondary aged characteristics. Excellent acidity.13.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $60.

2017 Copain “Les Voisins” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth, silky flavors of cherry and raspberry mix with a darker, earthier carob note that blends with the faint dusty dried herbs on the palate. Barely perceptible tannins. Very good acidity. Pretty. 13.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $42 click to buy.

2019 Dupuis “Wendling” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry and earth. In the mouth, cherry and slightly meaty umami flavors mix with hints of herbs and citrus. Very good acidity, but could be brighter.13.9% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $57 click to buy.

2017 Dutton-Goldfield “Angel Camp Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and dried flowers. In the mouth, raspberry and cherry flavors have a snappy brightness thanks to excellent acidity and a nice dusty road and dried herb underbelly that is very pretty. Faint, grippy tannins add structure to the wine and linger in the finish with a hint of citrus peel. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $62 click to buy.

2018 Foursight Wines “Charles Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and mulling spices. In the mouth, bright raspberry fruit has a deliciously bright juiciness thanks to excellent acidity. Faint, powdery tannins grip the edges of the palate as hints of cedar and citrus peel linger in the finish. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $52 click to buy.

2017 Handley Cellars “Helluva Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium ruby in the glass with garnet highlights, this wine smells of cherry and cedar and dried flowers. In the mouth, bright and juicy cherry and raspberry fruit flavors are shot through with dried herbs and citrus peel, with hints of dried apple and floral tones emerging on the finish. Powdery but muscular tannins and excellent acidity. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2017 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of ripe cherry fruit. In the mouth, ripe cherry and cedar notes are zingy with excellent acidity that brings an orange peel quality to the finish along with raspberries and nearly imperceptible tannins. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $100 click to buy.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2018 Lula Cellars Pinot Noir
Medium garnet with purple highlights, this wine smells of intense cherry and cranberry aromas matched with a hint of sinsemilla. In the mouth, bright and slightly candied flavors of cherry and raspberry are shimmering and pure and very juicy thanks to excellent acidity. A vibrant, juicy wine that many will love for its fruit expression. Faintest tannins. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2019 Lussier “Cote de Boont” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of floral and raspberry aromas. In the mouth, raspberry, herbs, and a very stony quality are quite compelling, draped as they are in gauzy tannins. A savory, earthy, herbal note lingers in the finish with a hint of oak. 13.6% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40.

2019 Lussier “Roma’s Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light ruby in color with garnet highlights, this wine smells of raspberry and redcurrant and dirt. In the mouth, very stony, crunchy, lean flavors of raspberry and redcurrant mix with herbs and florals as slightly muscular tannins grip the palate. Excellent acidity. 13.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2018 Maggy Hawk “Afleet” Pinot Noir
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cranberry fruit with a hint of dried herbs. In the mouth, bright raspberry fruit is dusted with powdery tannins and the scents of dried herbs and orange peel. Excellent acidity keeps the wine bright and juicy. Hints of cedar enter the finish. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65 click to buy.

2018 Maggy Hawk “Unforgettable” Pinot Noir
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and pomegranate. In the mouth sweetish cherry and pomegranate flavors have a wonderful brightness thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a hint of herbs and the tiniest hint of fresh jalapeño greenness in the finish, along with faint tannins. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65 click to buy.

2018 Meyer Cellars “Monument Tree” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs and muddy earth and white miso with a hint of raspberry. In the mouth, raspberry and dried herbs, cedar, and road dust all combine for a fairly savory combination with a hint of oak that lingers in the finish. Faint, dusty tannins. Interesting and distinctive.12.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $56 click to buy.

2018 Navarro Vineyards “Deep End” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass with a hint of a haze to it, this wine smells of raspberry and lavender. In the mouth, that floral quality continues with raspberry and cedar notes underneath. Excellent acidity and dusty, fine-grained tannins. Savory herbal notes in the finish. Gives the impression of honesty, as opposed to flashy winemaking. Lovely.14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $55 click to buy.

2018 Navarro Vineyards “Methode a l’Ancienne” Pinot Noir
Light garnet in the glass but headed towards ruby, this wine smells of crushed dried herbs and dried flowers. In the mouth, faint but athletic tannins wrap around a core of savory herbs, red berries, and road dust, even as bright acidity brings in notes of citrus peel and blood orange. Quite delicious, especially for those who appreciate the savory side of Pinot Noir. I know from experience that this wine ages beautifully for decades. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35 click to buy.

2018 Pennyroyal Farm Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry. In the mouth, somewhat stony cherry and raspberry flavors have a nice crystalline clarity to them, thanks in part to excellent acidity. Hints of fresh herbs garland the finish. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $39.

2018 Reeve Wines “Rhoda” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of slightly meaty cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, raspberry and raspberry leaf flavors have a nice brightness thanks to excellent acidity, along with fairly muscular tannins for a Pinot. Notes of dried flowers and a hint of umami linger in the finish. 13.6% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $48 click to buy.

2018 Reeve Wines “Kiser Vineyard Suitcase Block” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and redcurrant. In the mouth, raspberry and redcurrant flavors mix with sour cherry for a tart, lean vibrancy. Fantastic acidity keeps the mouth watering, as fairly muscular tannins grip the palate. There’s boisterous energy to this wine, and a citrus-saline kick in the finish. Quite tasty. 12.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2018 Rhys Vineyards “Porcupine Hill” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry fruit and a touch of orange peel. In the mouth, raspberry, orange peel, and redcurrant flavors mix with dried herbs and a touch of earth. Excellent acidity, silky texture, and the faintest of powdery tannins. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $105 click to buy.

2018 Siduri “Edmeades Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherries. In the mouth, bright cherry and sour cherry fruit have a muscular, powdery tannic texture and bright citrusy acidity that keeps things vibrant on the palate. Quite tasty. 14.2% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $55.

2017 Smith Story Wine Cellars “The Boonies” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cedar. In the mouth, bright raspberry, cedar, and orange peel flavors are wrapped in a suede blanket of tannins. Excellent acidity and length. Very pretty. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $58 click to buy.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2017 Smith Story Wine Cellars “Helluva Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet raspberry pastilles and herbs de Provence. In the mouth, bright raspberry fruit is juicy and lean, but carried on a silky texture, with wispy tannins that tighten the corners of the mouth. Hints of herbs and citrus peel hang in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $48 click to buy.

2018 Smith Story Wine Cellars “Helluva Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and floral scents. In the mouth, bright raspberry, black raspberry, and floral flavors have a nice brightness to them and great acidity. Somewhat surprisingly muscular tannins coat the mouth and put a slight squeeze on the palate through the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $48 click to buy.

2019 Weatherborne Wine Corp Pinot Noir
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of floral cherry and raspberry aromas. In the mouth, raspberry and cherry flavors have a nice tinge of violets to them with gorgeous acidity and gauzy tannins that coat the mouth. Excellent acidity and balance. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2019 Wentworth Vineyard and Ranch “Nash Mill Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and herbs. In the mouth, bright raspberry and herb flavors are wrapped in a powdery haze of tannins that stiffen slightly as the wine finishes with hints of orange peel and dried herbs. Quite juicy and delicious with excellent acidity. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $75 click to buy.

2018 Radio-Coteau “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, wonderfully bright cherry and raspberry fruit have a faint earthiness to them, along with a hint of toasted oak and vanilla. Wonderfully balanced between richness of fruit and brightness of acidity, with hints of bitter green herbs lingering in the finish. Barely perceptible tannins. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2018 Cakebread Cellars “Annahala Ranch” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and cedar. In the mouth, raspberry and cherry flavors blend under a suede blanket of tannins. Good, citrusy acidity keeps things bright, even as some earthier notes creep into the finish, leaving things nicely savory. Ages in 33% new French oak. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.  

BETWEEN 8.5 and 9
2019 Bravium “Wiley Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of crushed herbs, wet wood, and the floral aromas that suggest whole clusters. In the mouth, raspberry, herbs, and green wood flavors have a silky texture and faint but muscular tannins. I’d like slightly more acidity here if I could get it. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40 click to buy.

Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley

2019 Dupuis “Le Benedict” Pinot Noir
Medium to dark garnet in the glass with a purplish cast, this wine smells of black cherry and black raspberry. In the mouth, rich black raspberry and cherry flavors are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins. Excellent citrus-peel acidity keeps the darker, richer flavors from being too thick, but there’s a brooding, denser quality to this wine. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $49 click to buy.

2019 FEL Wines Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry and pomegranate. In the mouth, cranberry, pomegranate, and raspberry fruit flavors have a nice brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Faint, powdery tannins gain strength as the wine finishes, with notes of citrus peel and cedar lingering on the palate. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40 click to buy.

2018 Goldeneye Winery Pinot Noir
Medium garnet with purple highlights, this wine smells of bright cherry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, bright and juicy cherry fruit is rich and pure with a nice cedar and dried herbs note that emerges in the finish, along with a hint of orange peel. Excellent acidity. On the rich side of Pinot, but so well balanced by acidity it’s hard not to be charmed. There’s a tiny bit of heat on the finish, however. 14.6% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $58 click to buy.

2017 Handley Cellars “Estate” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty roads, dried herbs, cherry, and a hint of carob. In the mouth, cherry and cranberry flavors mix with mulling spices and road dust. Fine-grained tannins add texture around the edges of the mouth. Good acidity. Definitely more on the savory side. 13.3% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2019 Lichen Estate “Moonglow” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and floral notes. In the mouth, raspberry and black raspberry flavors have a nice stony underbelly and thick, powdery tannins that flex their muscles as the wine heads to the finish with hints of dried flowers. Excellent acidity. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $39 click to buy.

2019 Littorai “Les Larmes” Pinot Noir
A light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry fruit with a hint of dried herbs. In the mouth, cherry, raspberry, and hints of cedar are bright with good acidity. Dusty tannins add some texture to the wine and savory notes of dried herbs linger in the finish. Excellent acidity, but perhaps not as complex as it could be. This is basically all the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir that didn’t make it into vineyard-designated bottlings at Littorai. 12% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $60 click to buy.

2019 Lussier “Golden Fleece” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of earth and raspberries. In the mouth, deeply earthy raspberry flavors are shot through with green herbs and road dust. Muscular, mouth-coating tannins make for a fairly brawny expression of Pinot Noir. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2017 Pangloss “Charles Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cedar and raspberry, and redcurrant. In the mouth, raspberry and cherry flavors have a nice gauzy tannic texture and hints of dried flowers and herbs. Good (but could have better) acidity. 14.3% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $63 click to buy.

2018 Philo Ridge Vineyards “Philo Ridge Vineyards” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet cedar and raspberry, and dried herbs. In the mouth, raspberry, redcurrant, and dried herb flavors are dusted with powdery tannins and a touch of citrus peel. Dried herbs linger in the finish. Good acidity. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $32 click to buy.

2018 Rhys Vineyards “Alesia” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of redwood bark, cherry, and cranberry. In the mouth, bright cranberry and raspberry flavors have a faintly candied note to them, but are enlivened with excellent acidity and shot through with a faint dried herbal note. Fresh and juicy. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2018 Toulouse Vineyards Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs and raspberries. In the mouth, savory notes of dried herbs mix with raspberry and redcurrant as dusty tannins coat the nooks and crannies of the mouth, gaining strength as the wine finishes with dried herbs and road dust. Good acidity.14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $42 click to buy

2019 Twomey Cellars “Monument Tree” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry, raspberry leaf, and miso paste. In the mouth, slightly saline flavors of raspberry and cherry mix with a hint of nutmeg and white miso. Herbs and a touch of dried citrus peel linger in the finish. Faint, dusty tannins. 14.3% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $68 click to buy.

2018 Walt Wines “Blue Jay” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry jam. In the mouth, sweetish, bright candied raspberries mix with a hint of citrus and cedar. Decent acidity, but a tiny bit of alcoholic heat creeps into the finish. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $38 click to buy.

2019 Wentworth Vineyard and Ranch Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and raspberry leaf. In the mouth, bright raspberry and green herbal flavors have a nice brightness thanks to excellent acidity which leaves a touch of grapefruit pith in the finish. Faint, dusty tannins. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2018 Dupuis Wines “Baker Ranch” Syrah
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberries and struck match. In the mouth, crunchy blackberry and blueberry flavors crackle with bright acidity and are shot through with green herbs and notes of black pepper that linger in the finish. Nice balance between fruit and savory qualities. Fermented with whole clusters and native yeasts, then aged in neutral oak barrels. Comes from a vineyard high up on the southern ridge of Anderson Valley at 1200 feet of elevation. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $47 click to buy.

AROUND 8.5
2017 Baxter “Valenti Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cedar. In the mouth cedar and cherry and raspberry flavors mix with an angular slightly bitter quality. Excellent acidity, with herbal notes on the finish. Lightly muscular tannins. Feels slightly compressed. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $52 click to buy.

2017 Baxter “Langley Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, plum, and black raspberry. In the mouth, somewhat heady flavors of black raspberry and dried herbs and flowers have a fleecy tannic texture, with some drying of the mouth. To me it the texture feels like too much oak influence in this wine, though the flavors of oak are relatively minor notes at this point. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $52 click to buy.

2018 Bee Hunter Wine Pinot Noir
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and plum and herbs. In the mouth, plum and cherry flavors have a dark, dusty earthiness to them, with notes of cedar and sawdust. Good acidity, with citrus peel lingering in the finish. 14.3% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $42 click to buy.

2019 Bravium Pinot Noir
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet wood and herbs with red berries. In the mouth, cedar, green herbs, and woody-stemmy flavors mix with cherry and candied raspberry notes. Very good acidity, with sneaky muscular tannins that show up with some squeeze in the finish. 13.1% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $32 click to buy.

2018 Cakebread Cellars “Two Creeks Vineyards” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of struck match and raspberries. In the mouth, raspberries, and cherries mix with dried herbs and some dusty earth. Good acidity and a nice herbal freshness to the finish. Leave alone for a while, or decant to get past the reduction. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2018 Cakebread Cellars “Apple Barn Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of struck match and cherry fruit. With some time and air, that reduction aroma dissipates. In the mouth, cherry and raspberry fruit flavors have a nice fleecy tannic texture to them and hints of herbs and citrus that linger in the finish with a nice umami note. Ages in 40% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.  

2018 Fathers+Daughters Cellars “Vineyard Select: Roma’s” Pinot Noir
Light ruby in the glass with some garnet highlights, this wine smells of red apple skin, mulling spices, and potpourri. In the mouth, lean raspberry and dried herbs mix with potpourri and mixed dried herbs for a savory mouthful that features a lot of dried orange peel. Very good acidity. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $45.

2019 FEL Wines “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and black plum. In the mouth, sweetish notes of black cherry and raspberry mix with a hint of dried herbs. Powdery, mouth-coating tannins gain stiffness as the wine finishes. Good acidity.13.8% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $70 click to buy.

2019 Hartford Family Winery “Velvet Sisters” Pinot Noir
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers including lavender, and dark cherry fruit. In the mouth, slightly sweet cherry and black raspberry fruit has a nice brightness thanks to very good acidity, but also a sweet density that will appeal to those who like their Pinots dark and intense. Well balanced, though, for all that richness. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $70 click to buy.

2018 Husch Vineyards Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of candied raspberries and cherry. In the mouth, lightly bitter notes of cedar and licorice wrap around a core of sweetish cherry fruit. Faint tannins. Decent acidity. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25 click to buy.

2018 Lichen Estate Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of earth and cherries. In the mouth, fairly round flavors of cherry and earth have a somber, subdued quality, draped as they are in a thick, muscular blanket of tannins. Decent acidity keeps things moving along across the palate, but there’s a darker, muddier quality to this wine that will appeal to those looking for the savory side of Pinot. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $65 click to buy.

2017 Pangloss Cellars Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry aromas with a hint of dried herbs. In the mouth, cherry and cranberry fruit is a little flat on the palate, and wants more acidity. Nice flavors, with a cedar-citrus note at the end, but I would like it to be brighter. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40 click to buy.

2016 Philo Ridge Vineyards “Helluva Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium ruby in the glass with orange at the rim, this wine smells of raisins, dried apples, and mulling spices. In the mouth, dried apples, dried cherries, and mulling spices mix with dried orange peel and herbs. Very bright acidity keeps things fresh, but this wine is showing a lot of aged characteristics at the moment. Time to drink up. 14.1% alcohol. 110 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $32.

2017 Texture Wines “Ferrington Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and cherry and a hint of manure. In the mouth, that faintly barnyard quality continues with cherry and raspberry fruit, along with faint herbal notes. Peanut-buttery tannins. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $48 click to buy.

2018 Thomas T Thomas Vineyards “Buster’s Hill” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry compote and cedar and herbs. In the mouth, cherry and raspberry fruit mixes with dried herbs and citrus peel as bright acidity keeps things vibrant. Muscular tannins. A hint of astringency in the finish. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $85.

2019 Twomey Cellars Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass with purple highlights, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, cherry and cranberry fruit are wrapped in a skein of fine-grained tannins. Decent acidity, but not enough to keep the flavors from feeling slightly flat. A slight hint of carob creeps into this wine, along with dried herbs that linger in the finish. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2018 Walt Wines “The Corners” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherries and a hint of cola. In the mouth, sweet lush cherry fruit is dusted with faint tannins and heads to a citrus-tinged finish that also has some alcoholic heat, thanks in part to this wine’s prodigious 15.2% alcohol. Slightly lower in acidity than I would like. Fairly plush. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2016 Woodenhead “Wiley Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cedar and cranberry with chopped green herbs. In the mouth, roasted fig and red apple skin mix with raspberry jam and notes of wet earth. Good acidity leaves notes of orange peel in the finish, along with the faint suede of tannins. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $60 click to buy.

BETWEEN 8 and 8.5
2018 Goldeneye Winery “Gowan Creek” Pinot Noir
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich cherry compote, prunes, and oak. In the mouth, dark plummy and cherry flavors mix with cedar and the vanilla of oak. Muscular, slightly drying tannins. Good acidity. Dark and ripe and too much of both for me. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $88 click to buy.

2019 Hartford Family Winery “Muldune Trail” Pinot Noir
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry cordials. In the mouth, rich and sweet cherry and slightly bitter herbs mix with cedar and tacky, muscular tannins. Good acidity, but comes across as a bit too brawny. 15% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $70 click to buy.

2017 La Crema Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and cherries. In the mouth, somewhat flat cherry flavors mix with cedar and hints of herbs. Faint tannins buff the edges of the mouth. Needs more acidity and more complexity, but there’s nothing wrong with these flavors. 14.4% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2017 Pennyroyal Farm Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earth and cherry and a hint of manure. In the mouth, a bit of barnyard mixes with saline flavors of cherry and black plum. Herbs linger in the finish with fine-grained tannins. Good acidity. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $39.

2018 Siduri Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, with purple highlights, this wine smells of cherry and even darker berry flavors. In the mouth, a touch of raisin character mixes with cherry and cranberry compote. Faint, putty-like tannins. Decent acidity. Slightly overripe for my palate. 14.2% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $40 click to buy.

2018 Smith Story Wine Cellars “The Boonies” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of dried herbs and oak. In the mouth, raspberry and dried herb flavors are oak-inflected and feel a bit squeezed on the palate. Muscular tannins coat the mouth. A bit too much wood influence here for me. 12.7% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $65 click to buy.

2017 Texture Wines “Wendling Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass with purple highlights, this wine smells of cherry and black raspberry fruit. In the mouth, there’s a slightly muted quality to the wine, with cherry and raspberry flavors wrapped in a muscular skein of tannins. Decent acidity but somehow not as expressive as it could be. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $ click to buy.

2018 Thomas T Thomas Vineyards “Reserve” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cedar. In the mouth, earthy cherry and cedar flavors are wrapped in a muscular fist of tannins that give this wine, despite bright acidity, a sort of brawny character. Earthy finish. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $80.

2019 Twomey Cellars “Bearman Bend” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry fruit. In the mouth, silky and rich flavors of cherry and raspberry jam don’t have quite enough acidity to keep them from feeling a little flat on the palate, while thick muscular tannins coat the mouth. A bit ripe for my taste.14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $??

AROUND 8
2018 Baxter “Ferrington Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of oak and red fruits. In the mouth, spicy oak notes mix with raspberry and sour cherry flavors that are vibrant thanks to very good acidity. Muscular, powerful tannins squeeze the palate and dry out the mouth. Too much wood here, which is felt in texture more than flavor. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $56 click to buy.

2018 Domaine Anderson “Estate” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in color with purple highlights, this wine smells of cassis and raspberries. In the mouth, somewhat angular tangy flavors of black cherry and raspberry have a faint sourness to them. Putty-like tannins, sharp acidity. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2018 Husch Vineyards “Knoll” Pinot Noir
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry compote. In the mouth, cherry and tamarind flavors are slightly muted and compressed, with notes of oak hanging around the edges. Bitter finish. Decent acidity. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $42 click to buy.

2019 Lula Cellars “Lula Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of very ripe dark cherry and black raspberry fruit. In the mouth, rich black cherry fruit is tinged with oak and wrapped in stiff, mouth-drying tannins that also seem to come from wood. Perfumed fruit struggles to shine against the weight of the oak. 14% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $65 click to buy.

The post Poised for Greatness: Tasting The Evolution of Anderson Valley appeared first on Vinography.

The Soul of Refinement: Recent & Upcoming Releases from Corison Winery, Napa

There most definitely was a time, not so long ago, when you couldn’t begin an article about one of Napa’s greatest winemakers with the phrase “Cathy Corison needs no introduction.” But now, I wonder. The combination of interest in women winemakers, an increasing emphasis on balance in California wine, and the decline of the ParkTator hegemony have resulted in Cathy Corison finally getting the attention she so rightly deserves, both in terms of media mentions and increasingly high scores for her wines.

Regular readers will know I’ve been a fan of Corison and her wines for a long time, and since I’ve written extensively about her (most recently after a 25-year retrospective of her wines) I’m not going to tell her full story today. Instead, I’m going to share my thoughts on some of her recently released wines, specifically the 2016, 2017, and 2018 vintages.

Three Excellent Vintages

The 2016 growing season started early in Napa, with a very warm April and after some typical heat in June, the season almost seemed to get cooler as time went on, with no serious heat spikes. And then, as is sometimes typical, things got warmer as harvest approached but without extremes. It’s something of a fleshy vintage for Napa in general, though with Corison picking earlier than most of her peers, it simply means a lovely vintage for her wines.

The winter preceding the 2017 growing season was quite wet, especially relative to the drought conditions that set in between 2012 and 2015. After a relatively uneventful Spring, the weather began to warm considerably as August transitioned to September, and then some serious heat settled in and made for a highly compressed harvest for Corison to avoid losing the acidity that she seeks to retain in her fruit.

Corison describes the 2018 vintage as perhaps the “darkest, inkiest” vintage she can remember, as moderate weather stretched from a perfectly undisturbed flowering in spring to a leisurely harvest, with cool nights all along retaining acidity and allowing a smooth and slow maturation of the fruit. Of course, when other people say “inky” you might start to imagine 15.5% alcohol, opaque wines that slip across the palate like olive oil. Corison’s 2018 wines clock in at 13.7% alcohol with fantastic acidity.

The Barn at Corison Winery

Patience is a Virtue

I tell most people that they should really drink Corison’s wines after a minimum of five years, but optimally after about 10 years. The old-school style of these wines deeply rewards time in the bottle. That’s not to say these wines aren’t delicious out of the gate. As you can see from the tasting notes below, they absolutely are. But the real magic with Corison Cabernet comes from the secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors that can only come with time in the cellar. I wouldn’t necessarily make the same recommendation for a lot of Napa Cabernets, many of which (especially the higher-alcohol wines) I find drink at their best within the 2-5 year timeframe when you can revel in their richness of fruit.

With Corison’s wines, though, it’s the refinement of fruit over time with dried flowers, pencil shavings, aromatic herbs, cedar, and cigar box flavors and aromas that truly demonstrates the potential of the vineyards that Cathy farms, and the style with which she crafts her wines.

So if you’re going to buy these wines, I recommend buying them in multiples of three. Drink one if you have to in the next 2 years, drink one between 5 and 7 years later, and save the last one for 10 years or more. You can thank me later.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting Corison’s wine, you’re missing out on one of the most consistently excellent wines made in Napa.

Here’s a photo I took of Cathy amidst her oeuvre, so to speak.

The Soul of Refinement: Recent & Upcoming Releases from Corison Winery, Napa

Tasting Notes

2016 Corison Winery “Kronos Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty earth, dried herbs, and dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously refined notes of black cherry and cassis mix with dried flowers and road dust. The texture here is lovely, with delicate, fine-grained tannins that billow like gauze in the mouth, as the juicy berry flavors get a tinge of citrus peel brightness as they finish but also a savory, salinity that adds an umami kick to this wine. Fantastic acidity. Delicious now but in 5-10 years, watch out. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $210. click to buy.

2016 Corison Winery “Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherries, blackcurrants, dried flowers, and dried fennel seeds. In the mouth, juicy blackcurrant and black cherry flavors have a tangy sour cherry note as hints of dried flowers and herbs creep into the mouthwatering finish. Fantastic acidity and the faintest of fleecy tannins. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. click to buy.

2017 Corison Winery “Helios – Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, St. Helena, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of plum and plum skin with hints of dried green herbs. In the mouth, juicy plum skin, sour cherry, and dried flowers are bursting with bright acidity and shot through with dried green herbs. Lovely faint powdery tannins give some structure to the wine, but this is largely just mouthwatering juiciness. Very light on its feet and easy to drink. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.

2017 Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and blackberries. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and blackberry fruit is shot through with lightly muscular tannins and fantastic acidity that leaves a sour cherry, mouthwatering quality to the wine. Young yet, and likely to improve for the next 10 years. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $99. click to buy.      

2018 Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, black cherry, blackcurrants, and lavender. In the mouth, intense blackcurrant and dried herb notes are juicy with fantastic acidity and savory with hints of dried flowers. A hint of salinity creeps into the finish along with a dusty earth note. Powdery tannins flex their muscles on the edges of the palate. While this is tasty right now, I’d leave it alone for 5 years to start getting the true magic here. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $99. (this wine is due to be released on 9/1/21 – click to buy.      

2018 Corison Winery “Helios – Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Franc, St. Helena, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty earth, black plum, and black cherry. In the mouth, incredibly juicy flavors of black plum, cherry, and citrus oil pucker the mouth with fantastic, mouthwatering acidity. Faint tannins and hints of dried herbs and flowers add texture and complexity to this wine. This is young and quite primary at the moment but will blossom even more with time. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $110. This wine is due to be released on 10/1/21 – click to buy.    

2018 Corison Winery “Sunbasket Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Dark purple in color, this wine smells of black plum and black cherry. In the mouth, muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and blackcurrant with the tangy brightness of plum skin that makes the mouth water. Hints of dried flowers and licorice linger in the finish. This one definitely needs some time in the bottle, but I predict it will be fantastic in a few years. 13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. This wine is due to be released on 11/1/21 – click to buy.      

Some images courtesy of Corison Wines.

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Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle

Earlier this year, I wrote up an extensive report on many of the new (to me) producers of Napa Valley wines. One of the most interesting of those was a new wine brand called La Pelle, which also (as I noted in the original piece) has some of the most stunning visual branding I’ve ever seen from a winery.

La Pelle is a collaboration between Maayan Koschitzky, a partner in the winemaking consultancy Atelier Melka, and Miguel Luna and Pete Richmond, who are partners in the Silverado Farming Company.

The company started almost as a joke, resulting from Luna’s experience working a harvest in Bordeaux at Chateau de Fieuzal as an intern fresh out of winemaking school.

“When you go to work at a winery in France you think it’s going to be romantic but it’s really hard work,” says Luna. “All I did all day long was dig out tanks,” referring to the messy and backbreaking work of shoveling the must (leftover skins and seeds) out of the fermentation tanks after they have been drained.

“I asked them how you say ‘shovel’ in French,” laughs Luna, “and then I told them one day I’m going to start a winery called Domaine de La Pelle.”

While it was a fun joke with his French bosses, the name lodged somewhere in Luna’s head and was there waiting for the perfect opportunity. That opportunity turned out to be a 2016 conversation between Luna and Koschitzky who, after two years of deepening friendship were kicking around the idea of doing something together.

“If you think about it,” says Koschitzky, “the shovel is the only tool that you use both in the vineyard and in the winery.”

The Team

The three founding partners represent an unusual synthesis of experience. Luna is a first-generation child of immigrants who worked his first harvest at age 14, the year after his father brought the family from Mexico in 1996. Luna’s father had been working the harvest in Napa since 1968.

Luna graduated from St. Helena High School, like many children of immigrants, while simultaneously working in the vineyards. After his girlfriend pushed him to continue his education, he went first to junior college (which took 5 years while working full time in vineyards), and then transferred to the Viticulture and Enology program at UC Davis. After graduation, Luna got his first jobs working in cellars, but also went back to work part-time for Silverado Farming, where he had done some previous work before heading to Davis.

“Pete eventually asked me to come on full-time,” says Luna, who faced the tough decision of whether to focus on winemaking or viticulture. “His pitch was that if I came back full-time, he’d support me with a label.”

So Luna started as a full-time vineyard management employee at Silverado Farming Company in 2015, and Richmond came on as a partner when La Pelle launched in 2016. Luna was made a partner at Silverado in 2017.

From left to right: Maayan Koschitzky, Pete Richmond, and Miguel Luna of La Pelle Wines.

Maayan Koschitzky is an Israeli-born winemaker who comes to his job with a degree in viticulture, rather than enology.

“It’s crazy,” says Koschitzky, “Miguel and I are always laughing about how he has a degree in enology and I don’t, but I’m the winemaker with a degree in viticulture.”

Koschitzky, who also has a background in Engineering, worked his first harvest in Israel in 2004 and spent 7 years there before moving to Napa and landing assistant winemaking jobs at some big-name wineries, such as Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle.

In 2014, he was hired as an Assistant Winemaker for superstar winemaking consultant Philippe Melka’s company, Atelier Melka. Melka would go on to make him Director of Winemaking in 2016, and a full partner in 2019.

A Perfect Solution

Starting a Napa wine brand is pretty tough for non-billionaires. Especially if you want to make top-tier, single-vineyard wines.

“Maayan and I both have similar day jobs with high-end clients,” says Luna. “We get to do exactly what we think is best in every way. That’s what you get to do with an estate-model winery.”

“We’re both earning a living,” continues Luna, “but if we want to have our own project with similar levels of freedom it’s pretty hard. If you’re just buying fruit, you’re trusting the farming company. But since we own the farming company, we know exactly what’s being done.”

“We’re sort of modern-day vignerons,” chuckles Luna, “We’re doing everything from the farming to the winemaking, but we can do it affordably with our day jobs.”

Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle
The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Boutique, ‘Affordable,’ Classic

The La Pelle lineup began with a Napa Cabernet, a Reserve Napa Cabernet, and the Sauvignon Blanc. It then expanded to include the three single-vineyard-designate Cabernets, as well as a Chardonnay from Bien Nacido Vineyards, after the trio managed to get ahold of fruit from the 1973-planted, own-rooted Chardonnay.

Koschitzky says there will soon be a “Block X” Syrah from Bien Nacido in the lineup as well.

“Our goal is to be about 2000 cases, and to sell somewhere between 50 and 70 percent DTC [direct-to-consumer].”

So far, so good. The 2018 single-vineyard Cabernets which I review below sold out to their mailing-list customers within 2 weeks.

Despite the pedigrees behind the partners and the vineyard sites (which could command far higher prices), prices for the La Pelle wines look quite attractive, at least for Napa.

“A lot of the wines we make for our clients we can’t afford to buy ourselves,” says Luna.

Their Napa Valley Cabernet sells for $75, the Reserve for $175, while the single-vineyard Cabernets are $125 apiece (sold primarily in 3 packs of either the same wine or all three different wines).

From a winemaking perspective, Koschitzky has taken a decidedly classic approach, threading the needle between truly old-school and the rich styles of modern luxury Cabernet. The grapes are picked for moderate alcohols (their entry-level and single-vineyard Cabernets are 14.5% or less, while the Reserve is made in a slightly richer style and ends up around 14.8%).

The farming is a mix of organic and sustainable, depending on the vineyard, though Luna and Koschitzky would love for it to be 100% organic. Luna says Silverado stopped using Roundup three years ago on all of their vineyards, and has bought 2000 sheep to help with weeds.

The wines are excellent across the board, but the single-vineyard Cabernets are quite fantastic, especially at prices that are below many of the lower-priced or second-label Cabernets from upper-echelon producers in Napa.

This is a brand to watch for sure. And not just because it’s hard to stop staring at those stunning labels.

Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle
The three-pack of single-vineyard Cabernets, with their textured photo labels, each showing the soil of the vineyard in the bottle.

Tasting Notes

2018 La Pelle “Red Hen Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, tobacco, dusty road, and dried flowers and herbs. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, cassis, and a touch of citrus peel are dusted with muscular but extremely fine-grained tannins. Gorgeous, supple, balanced, and bright. With a long finish of dried sage and dusty road. Organically farmed. 14.5% alcohol. 150 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.

2018 La Pelle “Alluvium Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena, Napa, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet black cherry, cassis, and cola. In the mouth, rich black cherry and blackberry flavors are bursting with acidity, wrapped in a thin, gauzy skein of tannins that flexes its muscles over time. Bright cassis and black cherry linger with the earthy tannins long in the mouth. Powerful and broader shouldered than the Red Hen. Planted in 1981. Expansive. 14.5% alcohol. 150 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.

2018 La Pelle “Ceniza Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California
Inky opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, chopped green herbs, and cola. In the mouth, rich and bright cola and black cherry flavors are enclosed in a thick fist of tannins. Excellent acidity, hints of dry herbs on the finish, massive, with a touch of heat. Chewy tannins linger. Most heavily structured of the three, and needs some time. The vines were planted in 2001. 14.5% alcohol. 150 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.         

And just as a bonus, here are my notes on the very unusual Sauvignon Blanc that the team makes, which will be released for sale on August 5, 2021, after quite a bit of time aging on the lees (read the note and you’ll see why).

2019 La Pelle Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, lemon pith, and a touch of pastry cream and grapefruit. In the mouth, the wine is…. positively screaming with acidity. Amazing lemon pith and lemon juice profile mix with some crushed shell and seawater. Mouthwatering and unbelievably bright. This ain’t your standard Napa Sauvignon Blanc. It’s waaaaay better. Some will find it austere, but others, a breath of fresh air in the universe of largely unremarkable California Sauvignon Blanc. Made from a vineyard planted in 1981, and farmed to keep the fruit lean and ready for an early pick. Spent 18 months in barrel, 30% of which were new. A mere 11% alcohol. 275 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. To be released on August 5th, 2021.

Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle
The Sauvignon Blanc

Images courtesy of La Pelle Wines. Shovel image and the portrait of partners by photographer Suzanne Becker Bronk.

The post Three Men, One Shovel: The Single-Vineyard Cabernets of La Pelle appeared first on Vinography.

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité

The year was 1995. Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke were riding high on the wave of success that had propelled Kendall-Jackson from upstart wine producer to become something of a giant in the American wine business.

Like other American producers of a certain scale, Jackson and Banke began to build relationships outside the United States, and at the time, the place to do that was VinExpo, the biannual wine exhibition held in Bordeaux. During her inaugural visit, Banke, who spoke excellent French, was introduced by a mutual friend to Pierre Seillan, a barrel-chested, big-fisted former rugby player from Gascony.

Seillan, who grew up amongst his family’s small vineyards, vegetables, and livestock was, at the time, managing several Bordeaux estates for the Quancard family across Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. Banke and Seillan hit it off, eventually leading her to visit his family farm, in addition to some of the vineyards he managed in Bordeaux.

“She said that if I had the chance, I should come to California, and she would introduce me to her husband,” recalls Seillan, who managed to arrange a trip with his wife two years later.

“She introduced me to Jess and I immediately realized that he didn’t speak French, and my English was horrible,” laughs Seillan. “I had spent only about 7 months in Temecula at that point and so mostly I spoke Spanglish, but we managed. He said, ‘Pierre, I want to take you to see my vineyards, what are you doing tomorrow?'”

When Seillan indicated that he and his wife were free, Jackson said, “Great, we have to take our jet down to Cambria, so you can come along.”

The next day, when Seillan and his wife boarded the couple’s private jet, Jackson asked the pilot if he knew where he was going, and the pilot said, “Yes, sir, we’re headed to Cambria.”

“No,” said Jess, “We’re going north.”

“It turns out he had decided to show me every single one of his vineyards, from Mendocino down to Santa Barbara,” says Seillan. “He said that he wanted just he and I in the front two seats, and he had brought maps, and marking pens, and what proceeded from there was one of the most remarkable lessons in viticulture of my life. We sat on one side of the plane and then the other, and it was amazing. I quickly understood the vision of this man, his passion, and his generosity.”

Seillan, Jackson, and Banke would spend two or three days in this fashion before the Seillans returned to France.

A Great Start

“A few months later Jess called me,” recalls Seillan, “and asked me if I would consider doing something with him in California. ‘I don’t see why not,’ I said. What do you have in mind?”

Jackson, it seems, had been thinking. “He said, ‘We have Cabernet and Pinot Noir in California, but in Bordeaux, you’re making great wines with Merlot, so maybe we can do something like that here'” recalls Seillan.

This point in the conversation has had many retellings since then.

“Jess asked, ‘Do you think you can make a wine as good as Petrus in California?'” says Seillan. “I told him, ‘As good, I don’t know, but why not better?'”

Seillan was hesitant, however. “I told Jess, ‘I can do something with you, but I know your company is huge,'” says Seillan. “‘I don’t want to do just a copy of Bordeaux. If I am there with you I need to have carte blanche to decide what I want to do, to make the real style of California wine. I want to capture the real message of the soil. I want vineyards that are a minimum of 15 years old with no influence of fertilizer. I want full control of viticulture, from farming to irrigation to pruning. If I am going to come for something it has to be serious.'”

Jackson was only too happy to agree.

Seillan had just turned 47 years old, had 25 vintages worth of experience under his belt, and finally felt ready to embark on a project that could exploit every ounce of knowledge and experience he had gained up until that point.

“So we signed a contract in 1997,” recalls Seillan, “and I thought I’d give it 5 to 8 years to see how it works out.”

The new partners named their project Vérité, the French word for truth, and Seillan immediately set about cherry-picking the Jackson Family portfolio of vineyards for individual vineyard blocks that he believed had the potential to make great wine.

After months of walking vineyards, he arrived at nearly 50 vineyard blocks spread across roughly a dozen of Jackson’s vineyards in four Sonoma appellations: Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, Alexander Valley, and Bennett Valley.

And then he told Jackson that he needed to plant a few more.

Seillan had a vision for making a quintessential Sonoma wine that was a radical departure from what he had spent the last 20 years pursuing in Bordeaux.

The wines of Vérité are currently assembled from 54 individual vineyard blocks of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec spread across a dozen vineyards in 4 different AVAs (American Viticultural Areas).

Some of the many soils that make up Vérité’s palette

Style Over Site

“I call this a micro-cru philosophy,” explains Seillan. “It’s about creating a wine’s architecture through the expression of balance. Each wine has a center of gravity that is given from the place and the vintage. But every vintage is a different style in a different place. When you are working with micro-crus, you have the opportunity to rebalance that center of gravity, to maintain a continuity of elegance and finesse, even in a bad vintage. In a difficult vintage, we decrease the proportion of fruit from cooler places. In a warm vintage, we increase the proportion of fruit from the cool places to rebalance the acidity of the whole.”

“We like to say that we don’t take the best, we make the best,” adds his daughter and co-winemaker for the past few years, Helene Seillan. “There is no ideal block or exposition or site. It’s a synergy of all the lots that creates these wines.”

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité
A view across the vineyard next to the winery in Sonoma’s Chalk Hill appellation.

In some ways, this approach runs counter to the prevailing trends of winemaking in California. In the past two decades, winemakers have doubled down on individual sites and their sometimes obscure grape varieties in an attempt to convey a singular expression of terroir. A tiny producer farming her 2.5 acres of Pinot Meunier in the hills above Mendocino might be the apotheosis of such a philosophy. One person, one vineyard, one grape variety, all with a transparency to the conditions of a particular vintage.

Vérité is different. “You can have a great vintage, you can have a bad vintage, but the style is above the vintage,” explains Pierre.

The same might be said of a Champagne such as Krug “Grande Cuvée” or Dom Perignon, both of which are known for sometimes blending upwards of 200 different lots to create the final wine. Each is an expression of the broader place that is Champagne, while conveying a reliably distinctive interpretation of the region that has become known as their “house style.”

In the case of Vérité, the place is Sonoma, but the style is Seillan. Yet unlike the example of Champagne, Seillan shapes the character of the wine not just in the cellar, but quite actively in the vineyard as well, preferring the moniker of vigneron to winemaker.

He is out in the vineyards daily, working with the Jackson Family vineyard crews, many of whom have the same or longer tenures on the job than Seillan himself.

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité
Seillan in the vineyard

Seillan remains deeply connected to his roots in Gascony, and given the opportunity will speak at length about the importance of having grown up in a place where nearly everything he ate and drank as a child came from his family’s property.

“There is an important relationship between dirt, family, and spirit,” says Seillan. “It’s the base of my passion. It started when I was 16 and I decided I wanted to work on the farm, and this passion has never stopped. Even at 70, the more I learn the more I know I need to learn, and when there’s more to know you have this crazy desire to continue as long as God gives you life.”

With the 2017s now on sale, Vérité has just released its 20th vintage, which seemed a fine occasion to sit down with Seillan and his daughter and look back on the rise of what is indisputably one of California’s greatest wines.

Or three of California’s greatest wines, as the case may be.

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité

The Wondrous Trio

The original conception of Vérité involved the making of a single iconic wine based on Merlot, but right out of the gate, Seillan made two.

The first, “La Muse,” was indeed Merlot dominant, but with the inaugural vintage being 1998 (one of the coldest, wettest, nastiest vintages in California history) the Merlot wasn’t in the greatest shape. The Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, looked fine, and so Seillan decided to make a wine that he called “La Joie.”

Cabernet Franc had long fascinated Seillan, ever since his first job making wine in the Loire Valley for Château Targé. But the Cab Franc that Jackson had was not being farmed correctly in Seillan’s opinion. Seillan worked on the vineyard for two years, and in 2000, he added a third wine to the portfolio, a Cabernet Franc-led blend named “Le Desir.”

In any given vintage, each of Vérité’s three wines expresses a distinct personality. The particularly careful taster may be able to pick out the same wine across multiple vintages, looking for the telltale herbaceousness and floral notes of Cabernet Franc, the plummy round notes of Merlot, or the slightly more muscular tannins of cherry-driven Cabernet Sauvignon.

Beyond their conceptual identities anchored to a primary variety, no formula exists for each wine, which is constructed through the meticulous tasting and blending that Seillan and his daughter do for each vintage.

“It’s all by feel and by tasting,” admits Helene. “We’re the opposite of scholarly. We don’t have a book, we lose all our notes, we’re very unorganized. My dad, when he writes, he writes all over the table, and then he forgets. The recipe is lost every year, thank goodness. It’s a bit scary without rules, but it is also something of a relief.”

“Instinct and passion are better than any protocol,” proclaims Pierre. He describes his evaluation of each block’s wines in terms of three types of synergy: “Positive synergy which increases quality, neutral synergy — which increases volume only, or negative synergy which decreases quality.” His goal, from wine growing to blending, is always to maximize positive synergy.

A New Winery Awaits

One of the truisms of the wine world I have come to recognize is that some of the greatest wines come from the most humble of cellars. In this, Vérité’s modestly functional winery joins many others around the world in proving that it ain’t about the equipment.

It’s a little shocking that one of the crown jewels of the Jackson Family portfolio has never had a home commensurate with the prestige of the wines themselves. But an afternoon spent with Seillan offers hints as to the fact that he may have had other priorities.

“He will not leave a room without turning out the lights,” says Helene. “We work with less budget than many winemakers [in the portfolio]. We’ve had the worst winery. We don’t even have temperature control. Carte blanche didn’t mean blank checks, it meant making decisions. But you don’t need beautiful tanks to make 100-point wines, you just need lots of water to clean. It’s like kitchens. Nobody cooks these days but they have these gorgeous kitchens in America. But what my grandmother is able to create in her little nothing of a kitchen in France…” she sighs.

After 23 vintages, Vérité is finally getting a remodel, however.

Construction is mostly complete on a brand new and quite expansive barrel cellar and hospitality center designed by Seillan’s son, Nicolas.

Seillan sternly informed me that we weren’t allowed inside, and then without missing a beat, beckoned me to follow him into the vast, French-style Ranch building that will showcase three or four vintages worth of barrels in a classic Bordeaux style, replete with lighting effects, massive barn doors, and soaring ceilings. Following the completion of the barrel cellar, the winery itself will be rebuilt.

Assembling Greatness

Elegance. Finesse. Softness. Delicacy. Complexity. Balance.

These are the words that Seillan and his daughter have in mind when they approach their winemaking, and they are astonishingly good at achieving them.

With the exception of an optical sorting machine, which was employed starting with the 2008 vintage, little has changed at the winery in 20 years with regards to how the wines are made.

Each of the 54 vineyard blocks are kept separate through the winemaking process. Each is inoculated with the same yeast, and the lots are carefully watched and tasted as they progress through their fermentation and extraction.

“There is so much power here [in California] in everything that we pick,” says Helene, “Everything great can easily become a negative if you don’t know when to stop doing something. We have to find balance and get the best of each lot. We have this saying that you can easily make a mule into a racehorse. Our final wines are a synergy between different lots. When you’re blending 100 different components, something that seems weak and acidic can actually bring balance in the final blend.”

Free-run juice and press fractions are kept separate, barreled down, and then at a certain point, when the winemaking duo feel the wine is ready, the extensive blending trials begin. To the extent that some vineyard blocks yield more than one barrel of wine, and the separation of the different runs from the press, there are usually more than 100 different lots to manage at the beginning of the blending process.

Wood Worth the Effort

While the winery itself may be modest, the barrels that fill it are anything but. Jess Jackson was an early pioneer in vertical integration, at least when it came to production. He purchased a small stave mill in France in 1994 as a way of reducing his costs while improving the quality of his barrels (some long-time California winemakers suggest that the barrels on offer from French coopers in the early Nineties were not exactly the cream of the crop).

Jackson’s barrel operation has grown from an initial set of 10 employees to more than 150 today.

Seillan quickly moved to exploit this asset of his parent company, crafting a custom barrel program for himself that would be the envy of almost any winery. Indeed, he suggests he may be the only winery in the world that selects and controls every single piece of wood he uses from tree all the way to barrel.

The raw wood (as uncut trees) is purchased three years in advance at auction from 14 different French forests and one in Germany. It is cut to Seillan’s specifications, shaped into staves, and aged in the forests surrounding the mill for 24 to 36 months, after which it is made into barrels, each piece of which can be traced back to the individual tree it came from.

The long air drying, tight grain, and non-aggressive toasting regime that Seillan specifies means that he can use 100% new oak on his wines without introducing significant oak flavors and aromas.

Sonoma’s Secret Star

Let’s face it. When it comes to California Cabernet, the Napa name outshines all others. Many consumers don’t even know Sonoma County can produce world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, as the region has long been better known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or even Zinfandel.

This despite the fact that Vérité has been racking up impressive 100-point scores from critics for two decades. Yet these wines most definitely do not have, and may never have, the “cult” status accorded to Napa wines such as Harlan, Scarecrow, Colgin, Screaming Eagle, and others.

While out of reach for most wine lovers including me, Vérité’s prices remain significantly lower than the top tier of these highly-allocated Napa wines. With no desire to cast aspersions at the former, given the choice of one bottle of Screaming Eagle for $800 or two bottles of Vérité for the same price, there’s no question I would choose the latter.

The three Vérité wines are each simply spectacular, and easily among the very best wines produced in California each vintage. What’s more, along with a few other wines I write about with equal exuberance, their existence all but destroys arguments that somehow Bordeaux grape varieties grown in California are really only ready for harvest at alcohol levels now approaching or above 15%.

I’m not dogmatic in the least about alcohol levels in wine, but given the choice between two wines of power, grace, and elegance, one at 14.2% alcohol and one at 15.6% I’m going to go for the 14.2% wine every time.

But in a way, that’s a false dichotomy, because most of the Cabernets I taste with regularity at 15.5% alcohol are super-ripe, often over-extracted, usually over-oaked, and fundamentally imbalanced.

Compared to those kinds of wines, Vérité seems all the more remarkable for its restraint, freshness, and finesse.

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité

But Could They Be Better?

It seems a silly question to ask whether one of the highest-scoring wines in the world (and some of my absolute favorite California wines each vintage) could be better, but at the risk of being presumptuous, I’m going to suggest (with the ease afforded a critic who is not a maker) that they could.

Leaving aside the cellar, which will remain modest for only a short while longer, and the (already solar-powered and low water usage) winery which is next up for an overhaul, there are things that more ambitious wineries out there do in the service of quality, with excellent results, that Vérité could be doing.

Let’s start with farming.

Driving up to the Vérité winery, I was fairly dismayed to see the vine rows in the front of the property flanked on either side by ugly orange strips of dying weeds that clearly mark the application of a serious herbicide. When I asked Seillan and his daughter about this, I was told unequivocally that they do not use Roundup, but clearly the vineyard out front had been treated with something strong.

While Seillan describes minimized inputs to the vineyard (keeping irrigation to a minimum and eschewing fertilizer) and the winery sports a Sustainable certification, as best I can tell, the vineyards are farmed rather conventionally, though clearly to Seillan’s exacting specifications. I’d love to see what these wines could be like if all their vineyards were farmed organically, let alone biodynamically.

But even before the expensive and lengthy process of converting to organic, the fact that this winery does not have its own, dedicated vineyard crew strikes me as a missed opportunity.

“I’d love to have my own crew just for Vérité,” Helene confides as we discuss farming.

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité
Helene in the vineyard

She goes on to explain that the Jackson Family approach involves a dedicated crew for all the vineyards in a given appellation. While many of these folks have been working the same vineyard rows for decades, often under Seillan’s tutelage, the fact that he has to interface with five different vineyard crews (the large and complex Alexander Mountain Estate group of vineyards has its own separate crew) seems to be an inefficiency unthinkable at any other $400-a-bottle boutique winery.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the winery’s use of very heavy glass bottles, which while connoting luxury in today’s marketplace, are one of the most significant contributors to any winery’s carbon footprint, owing to their manufacturing process, but especially their weight in shipping.

Every high-end winery in California needs to take a hard look at their bottle weights and decide whether they care more about appearances or the planet.

The Next 20 Years

When contemplating a retrospective of twenty vintages with a 70-year-old winemaker who has been grooming his daughter as an assistant for almost a decade, discussions of the future inevitably arise.

“Retirement?” scoffs Seillan in response to my question. “I don’t know this word. We have the chance to have just one life. After almost 25 years here I am still discovering this country.”

In a more thoughtful moment, later in the conversation, Seillan returns to what he holds most dear in contemplating what comes next.

“I am just a tool of this place,” says the man who has in the past referred to himself as a servant of the soil. “I hope these wines will sing even when I am no longer here, but I would like to be a part of the conclusion of my definition of what is a great terroir. Twenty, thirty, even fifty years is very short, and we must be humble as we face the future. Will the future generations have the depth to receive the simplicity and instinct of the soil, and what I call my passion as a terroiriste? This is my hope. It is never finished.”

As the vigneron not only for Vérité but also for Jackson Family’s properties in Tuscany, Bordeaux, and their Anakota estate in Knights Valley, Seillan shows no sign of slowing down. Helene, however, seems to be in lockstep with her father when it comes to Vérité.

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité

“Even when I leave this world, it will continue with Helene,” says Seillan definitively. “She is my top right and left hand assistant, and is bringing to me a different approach, sensibility, palate and spirit.”

Having tasted some wines Helene made before fully assuming her duties at her father’s side, I can say that she is a formidable winemaker in her own right. I have little doubt as to the likely continuity of excellence when Seillan finally decides it’s time to return home to Gascony for what he says will be his final act.

Unsurprisingly, will involve a lot of puttering around in a vineyard.

La Muse Tasting Notes

1998 Vérité Winery “La Muse” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dusty roads and chocolate-covered raisins. In the mouth, juicy acidity brightens flavors of dried cherries, prunes, and cedar with notes of dried flowers and a touch of pencil shavings. Wonderfully juicy and quite delicious with aromatically sweet echoes of fruit still very much alive in the wine. Faint, wispy tannins caress the edges of the mouth. Notes of licorice root linger in the finish. There’s an ethereal, mysterious quality to this wine that makes it utterly compelling. This is the winery’s inaugural wine, made in one of the most difficult vintages in California history, and inarguably, a triumph. A blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $850 or so, if you can find it.

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité

2002 Vérité Winery “La Muse” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Very dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dark earth and cedar, with hints of cocoa powder and stewed prunes. In the mouth, the wine has a sort of brooding power, with prune and dried black cherry flavors mixed with deep earthy notes. The remnants of muscular tannins keep the wine structured, but they are ghosts of their former burly selves. Excellent acidity and depth, with the fruit fading a bit more than in the 1998. Savory, with notes of licorice root and Chinese medicine in the finish. A blend of 92.5% Merlot, 7.2% Cabernet Franc, 0.3% Malbec. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.

2005 Vérité Winery “La Muse” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Very dark ruby in color, with just a hint of purple in the highlights, this wine smells of dried flowers, black cherries, and new oak. In the mouth, sandpapery tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and plum fruit that is shot through with the texture and flavor of wood. The tannins are slightly drying, and overall this is not as well integrated as it could be. The wine feels a bit compressed at this stage of its evolution, and I’m not sure if it will ever achieve the seamlessness that is typical of these wines, but I haven’t given up hope yet, as the wine has many admirable qualities, among which are wonderfully lush fruits. Very good acidity. A blend of 88% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2007 Vérité Winery “La Muse” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet oak, cherry, and plum. In the mouth, bright plum flavors have the tartness of plum skin still, as extremely juicy acidity makes the fruit boisterous while notes of herbs and dried flowers hover in the background. Muscular tannins grip the core of fruit and linger along with notes of sawdust. This wine will no doubt continue to blossom with time. A blend of 85% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec. 14.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $900. click to buy.

2009 Vérité Winery “La Muse” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black plum, black cherry, and a hint of pencil lead. In the mouth, muscular tannins wrap around a juicy, mouthwatering core of black plum and graphite. The wood here is much better integrated than the 2005 and 2007. Still has some lovely freshness as green herbs linger in the finish with excellent acidity. This one is built for the long haul, give it 10 years and watch it soar. Extremely impressive. A blend of 85% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $400. click to buy.

2011 Vérité Winery “La Muse” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, black cherry, plum, and the vanilla of oak with just a hint of green bell pepper. In the mouth, wonderfully bright herbal notes mix with plum, green bell pepper, and a touch of jalapeño. Excellent acidity keeps things very fresh, and the tannins, while muscular, are quite fine-grained. Notes of mint linger in the finish giving this wine a fantastic freshness and lift. Expressive, layered, and quite stunning. I predict this wine will continue to improve for several years as I don’t think it is at its peak. A blend of 89% Merlot, 7% Malbec, 5% Cabernet Franc. 14.3% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2015 Vérité Winery “La Muse” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dusty roads, dark fruit, new oak, and cigar box. In the mouth, juicy plum and cherry flavors mix with new oak, wrapped in muscular tannins that are extremely fine-grained. Fantastic acidity keeps the wine quite fresh through a finish scented with dried herbs and cola. A blend of 90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec. 14.7% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $400. click to buy.

2017 Vérité Winery “La Muse” Merlot, Sonoma County, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of carob, plum, and black cherry. in the mouth, rich flavors of plum and cherry mix with cedar and dried flowers. Expansive and broad, the wine is wrapped in a gauzy throw of tannins and enlivened with beautifully bright acidity. Effortless and gorgeous, the wine moves across the palate as a seamless whole, leaving scents of dried flowers and herbs in its wake. The goal has always been to make this wine 100% Merlot, but it inevitably has some other varieties in it. This year, however, Seillan achieved his goal, and the wine is solely Merlot. And what a Merlot…Quite likely the single best 100% Merlot I’ve ever had from California. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $410. click to buy.

La Joie Tasting Notes

1998 Vérité Winery “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of pencil shavings and cigar box, and red fruits. In the mouth, incredibly juicy flavors of cedar, cherry, and a hint of lavender positively burst with acidity. Gorgeous, supple, fine-grained tannins caress the edges of the mouth as fantastic mouthwatering acidity puts the tastebuds into overdrive. This is a perfectly complete wine, just entering its third phase of aging and singing at full voice. What a song it is. Astonishingly good. A blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot. Again, this is the first vintage produced by Seillan, and made in-part because of the immense challenges of the cold and rainy year, which made ripening Merlot quite difficult. 14.1% alcohol. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $250. click to buy.

2001 Vérité Winery “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of incense and black cherry, dried flowers, and herbs. In the mouth, gorgeous acidity brings flavors of dried black cherries, licorice, and dried flowers to life. Incredibly fine-grained, supple tannins wrap around a core of fruit that is still juicy. Notes of cola and cedar linger in the finish with a touch of alcoholic heat, but not enough to mar what is overall a fantastic wine. A blend of 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet Franc. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité

2006 Vérité Winery “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky ruby in the glass, with a hint of garnet at the rim, this wine smells of new oak, cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, flavors of cassis and black cherry are held tightly in a muscular fist of tannins that slightly dry the mouth, despite being fine-grained and supple. Good acidity. There’s a surprisingly primary grapey quality to the fruit of this wine despite being 15 years old at this point. With its acidity and tannic structure, it will continue to age well for several more years. A blend of 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec. 14.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $250. click to buy.

2010 Vérité Winery “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of pencil shavings and cherries. In the mouth, spicy cedar and incense flavors mix with bright cherry and sour cherry fruit that is positively mouthwatering as hulking powdery tannins flex their muscles in the background. Brawny yet wonderfully balanced, with very well integrated wood. Built for the long haul, this wine has many more years ahead of it and I predict will blossom (just as the ’98 has) into something transcendent. Already spectacular. A blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, and 5% Cabernet Franc. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2011 Vérité Winery “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of tobacco leaf, green herbs, and a touch of green bell pepper. In the mouth, juicy cherry and cola flavors are bright with acidity and wrapped in a taut, suede-sheet of tannins. Delicious but missing just a hair of the depth of sibling vintages, which seems a ridiculous quibble given how stunning this wine tastes. Notes of dried flowers linger in the finish. A blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, and 3% Malbec. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2014 Vérité Winery “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, earth, pencil shavings, and dried herbs. In the mouth, tight, muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry fruit tinged with the tart flavors of plum skin and cola. Notes of licorice root linger in the finish, which has a minty freshness, thanks in part to fantastic acidity. Quite seamless and sensuous. Fantastic. A blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2015 Vérité “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, lush, velvety flavors of cherry, green herbs, and dark plums are smooth and supple as they move across the palate. Excellent acidity, powdery faint tannins, and impeccable balance. This is a poised, regal wine with confidence and grace. Herbal notes linger in the finish with a touch of licorice. A blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2016 Vérité Winery “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky, opaque purple in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, earth, and aromatic herbs. In the mouth, black cherry, lavender, and earth flavors are nestled into a suede blanket of luxurious, fine-grained tannins. Gorgeous dried herbal notes balance the fruit but leave the wine ultimately slightly savory in the mouth, much to its benefit, even as notes of dried flowers and a touch of new oak linger in the finish. A regal wine, with incredible poise. A blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2017 Vérité Winery “La Joie” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of slightly smoky black plum and cherry aromas with a hint of cedar behind them. In the mouth, gorgeously juicy cherry and plum flavors are shot through with cedar and Mexican chocolate, and just the barest hint of struck match or charred oak. Supple, fine-grained tannins wrap around the core of the fruit, and excellent acidity keeps the flavors fresh in the mouth. Notes of sawdust and dried flowers linger in the finish. Fantastic. A blend of 80% Cabernet Franc, 17% Merlot, and 3% Malbec. 13.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $410. click to buy.

Le Désir Tasting Notes

2000 Vérité Winery “Le Desir” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Very dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a swoon-worthy meaty, umami-like nose with aromas of bacon, graphite and herbs, chocolate, and cherry. In the mouth, flavors of cherry and sour cherry have a wonderful brightness, thanks to excellent acidity, and a gorgeous length. Fine-grained tannins caress the edge of the mouth, as a purple SweetTart sourness makes the mouth water. Notes of flowers and sour cherries linger in the finish with a touch of minty herbs. Fantastically juicy and utterly compelling. A blend of 51% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Franc, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $225. click to buy.

Striving for Perfection and Finding Truth: Tasting 20 Years of Vérité

2002 Vérité Winery “Le Desir” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky ruby in color, this wine smells of black cherry, mole, and something even darker, like vegemite. In the mouth, extremely juicy flavors of chocolate, hazelnut spread, and cola have wonderful brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Extremely supple, suede-like tannins linger in the finish with notes of cola and berry. Gorgeous, with a supremely alluring dark mysteriousness. A blend of 53% Merlot, 41% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $220. click to buy.

2004 Vérité Winery “Le Desir” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Very dark ruby in color, this wine smells of dusty roads, green bell pepper, and plum with a wonderful floral quality that emerges with time. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy plum and cherry flavors are shot through with green bell pepper and green herbs giving the wine a wonderful freshness. Extremely fine-grained tannins flex their muscles around the edges of the palate, while notes of cola nut and cocoa powder linger in the finish. Outstanding balance and deliciousness. A blend of 49% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Franc, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.7% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $270. click to buy.

2008 Vérité Winery “Le Desir” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of new oak, cola, and plum. In the mouth, the wine is very fresh, with juicy acidity and wonderful green herbal notes that merge with the plummy and cherry fruit. Muscular tannins begin to squeeze the fruit through the mid-palate and continue their pressure through the finish which is oak inflected. Perhaps just a touch too much wood influence showing here at this point in the wine’s evolution, or for the particulars of this vintage. The tannins need to be scraped off my teeth. Perhaps some more time will knit everything together a bit more and soften the tannins a bit. A blend of 61% Cabernet Franc, 31% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $400. click to buy.

2012 Vérité Winery “Le Desir” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, earth, and crushed nuts. In the mouth, muscular tannins grip a core of black cherry and black plum fruit that is juicy with excellent acidity. There’s a darker potting soil note underneath the fruit that merges with a woody licorice quality in the finish along with hints of chopped herbs. The tannins come in for a big squeeze in the finish, slightly drying the mouth. It’s hard not to love the classic Cabernet Franc profile of herb and nut-inflected fruit. Fantastic. A blend of 64% Cabernet Franc, 24% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Malbec. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $300. click to buy.

2014 Vérité Winery “Le Desir” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine has a wonderfully savory cedar, Chinese herbs, and dark plum aroma. In the mouth, savory, earthy notes of plum and cocoa powder mix with dried sage and other herbs. Muscular, fleecy tannins grip the palate, as notes of dried herbs and plum skin linger in the finish. Excellent acidity and length. A young wine yet, with lots of life ahead of it, but utterly delicious now. A blend of 53% Cabernet Franc, 22% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Malbec. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $400. click to buy.

2015 Vérité Winery “Le Desir” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Inky opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plum and cola, crushed nuts, dried flowers, and a touch of new oak. In the mouth, extremely supple tannins wrap around a core of plum and cherry fruit with just a hint of strawberry brightness. Cola nut and touches of dried herbs linger in the finish. There’s a seamlessness to this wine that is quite pretty, with the fine-grained tannins swirling about the palate and the fruit leaning towards the savory side especially in the finish. A blend of 64% Cabernet Franc, 27% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Malbec. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.

2017 Vérité Winery “Le Desir” Red Blend, Sonoma County, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of cherries, green herbs, and a touch of struck flint and espresso. In the mouth, expansive, rich flavors of cherry and chopped green herbs, cocoa powder and licorice have a weightless bounce to them thanks to fantastic acidity. Powdery tannins fill every nook and cranny of the mouth with the velvety feel of the finest beach sand. Stunning floral aromatics linger through the finish with beautifully integrated oak. This is an outstanding wine that proves definitively you don’t have to harvest your grapes at 16% to achieve the power and flavor that Cabernet can achieve when treated right. Phenomenal. A blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot, and 4% Petit Verdot. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $410. click to buy.

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