Time to get your tickets, while they last, to these two exclusive events at Flavor! Napa Valley.
From Vineyard to Bottle: Exploring Napa Valley with Iconic Winemaker Heidi Barrett Moderated by wine, food and television star Leslie Hartley-Sbrocco of KQED’s “Check, Please!”, this exclusive seminar and tasting is focused on Heidi’s secrets behind the way she captures the deep, rich and complex flavors of the fruit she works with from premier vineyards in the wines she makes for her La Sirena and Barrett & Barrett labels, as well as other special selections from the highly-touted Napa Valley brands Paradigm, Fantesca, Kenzo Estate and Lamborn Family Vineyards. Thursday, March 23, 2017 2:30 PM – 4:00 PM
Icons Dinner honoring legendary winemaker Heidi Barrett
Celebrate some of our favorite food and wine icons at this exclusive dinner at the Silverado Resort and Spa: A multi-course dinner will be paired with outstanding, rare Napa wines.
Host Chef Jeffrey Jake (Silverado Resort and Spa), Matthew Accarrino (SPQR), Stuart Brioza & Nicole Krasinski (State Bird Provisions and The Progress), Waldy Malouf (CIA), Ken Frank (La Toque) and Michael Schulson (Schulson Collective) Thursday, March 23, 2017 6:00 PM – 10:00 PM
Hope to see you there to celebrate and imbibe! Cheers, Christopher
Located in the northwest corner of Spain, for centuries the Galicia region has been known for its abundance of fresh seafood, gorgeous beaches, plush landscape, and the visual tapestry created by its classic combination of Gothic and Baroque architecture. But more recently, this magnificent maritime province has started gaining more recognition for another one of its treasures: Albariño, one of the worlds most distinctive and delicious white wine grape varieties.
Known for its thick skin, green hue and relatively high juice level, the Albariño grape is primarily grown in granite and sandy loam soils in the Rias Baixas region, located between the famous monastic city of Santiago de Compostela to the north and the Portuguese border to the south. Due to its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, rivers and estuaries (rias in Spanish), the climate is typically mild and often quite damp.
To compensate for these wet conditions and the natural vigor of the Albariño vines, most of the vineyards are trained with a traditional parra system, a seven-foot high canopy hoisted by granite posts quarried locally. This arbor-like arrangement is similar to the pergola system in Italy, which helps vineyard owners circulate air to avoid mildew and spread the leaves in order to capture as much sunlight as possible.
Currently, there are five sub zones of within the Rias Baixas denominacion de origen region established in 1988: Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Soutomaior, and Riberia do Ulla. Within these boundaries, more than 6,500 farmers have planted over 20,000 individual plots—some as small as only a half an acre.
During harvest in September, each producer is focused on creating their won signature style which showcases a balanced amount of ripe fruit flavors, bracing acidity, texture, and freshness on the finish. Thanks to the integration of new technology in the region over the past two decades, the process has been made much easier and the quality has steadily increased. As a result, the number of fine producers in the region tripled from 60 in 1990 to 192 in 2005.
However, it wasn’t until the past decade that the wines from Galicia became widely available in the New World—particularly in the United States, which has quickly become the region’s largest export market. So much like the great Spanish reds from Rioja, Priorat and Riberia del Duero have gained recognition in the international wine market, the same is true in the white wine category as delectable Albariños from Rias Baixas are now giving the fine Rieslings from Germany or Gruner Veltliners from Australia a run for the money with sommelier and consumers across the America.
Exploring the Rias Baixas Style
With these thoughts in mind, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special blind tasting focused on a set of the higher-end offerings from the Rias Baixas ranging from $19.99 to $44.99.
The special guests participating on the panel included: winemakers Michael Havens (Cave Dog Wine), Michael Scorsone (Emmitt Scorsone Wines) and Alex Beloz (Tricycle Wine Co); sommeliers, wine buyers and wine consultants Darvarti Ananda (Basalt Restaurant), Brandon McEntire (Morimoto Napa), Sydney Paris (Massale Vintures), Bob Orlandi (Aabalat Fine and Rare Wines) and Mike Short (formerly of Sonoma & Glen Ellen Markets); our gracious host Don Sebastiani, my colleague Keith Casale, and myself.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-6 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #6 being the lowest. The five imports from Rias Baixas were purchased from K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, www.klwines.com; while the ringer, a domestic Albarino from the Napa District of Carneros, was provided by Michael Havens, who now makes a similar style under his new label www.cavedogwine.com in Napa.
Clockwise (L to R) To prime our palates before the blind tasting, we sampled a special offering of Albarin from Cangas in the Asturias region of Spain, which is known for its cheeses and cider; Classic #SawyerSelfieDeluxe with fellow Albarino tasters (l to r): Keith Casale, Michael Havens, Sydney Paris, Bob Orlandi, Darvarti Ananda, Mike Short, and me; Seafood extravaganza! At lunch, fabulous Albarino pairings prepared by Sonoma-based Chef Jason Meyer; The magnificent of selection of ultra-premium Albarino wines tasted from premiere producers Adegas Valtra, Pazo de Senoras, Do Ferreiro, Palacio de Fefinanes and Forjas de Salnes from the Rias Baixas region of Spain and a library selection of Abrente from the Carneros District of Napa Valley.
Here are the summaries and rankings of the wines we tasted blind:
Details: On the banks of the Mino River across from Portugal; Adegas Valtra is a cutting-edge winery that specializes in farming and working with special strains of Albarino. The oldest strain on the farm is in the Finca Garbato block, which has its own unique microclimate.
Panel descriptors: Slightly green hue with bright and expressive aromas of white spring flowers, tutti fruiti, fresh citrus, mustard seeds and wet stone. Lively flavors of fresh melon, mango, lemon pith, candied pineapple, and hints of raw almonds, dill and white vinegar lead to a long waxy finish. 13%
Group discussion: Overall, the team liked this wine quite a bit, particularly the alluring aromas, fresh fruity flavors, oily texture and vibrant acidity. However, Bob thought the finish was slightly short and not much on the front of the palate. Sydney also thought the wine was slightly astringent. For that reason, he suggested it would be a good pairing with creme fraiche. Keith agreed and made note of the slight hint of residual sugar and petrol he picked up on the mid-palate. The group agreed that it had enough weight to be paired with a fatty fish dish. Group Ranking: #2 of 6 (tied) / Price: $19.99
Pazo de Senorans 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Near the town of Meis in the historic Val do Salnés subzone of Rias Baixas, Pazo de Senorans winery is highlighted by an organically farmed estate vineyard that includes the traditional pergola-style trellis system and granite posts. Many of the grapes they work with are from some of the older vines. As a result, the winery has become one of the most respected Albarino producers in the world.
Panel descriptors: Waxy aromas with notes of ripe stone fruits, anise, wild herbs, smoke, and a drizzle of honey. On the palate, the wine is lean and gritty. Crisp flavors of white peach, pear, lemon, lime, granite, pine, and a delicate finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: For starters, there was a lot going on in this wine. McEntire, for instance, was intrigued by the slight funk factor in the aromas that included decomposing flowers and overripe pineapple and followed through with the slightly tropical notes in the flavor profile. Short felt the nose was faint, he really enjoyed the slightly creamy texture, tart flavors, and crisp finish. While Havens also liked the wine, he detected a high level of SO2, a technique that can hide sweetness. The team agreed that the lean character and burst of bright acidity would make this wine very appealing to people who like the more complex styles of Chablis and Pinot Grigio. Group Ranking: #2 of 6 (tied) / Price: $19.99
Do Ferreiro 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Founded in 1973, Do Ferreiro is one of the older wineries in the Salnés Valley. Along with 10 hectares of organically grown grapes on the estate property, proprietor Gerardo Mendez farms 130 plots in the valley. For the 2014 vintage, the 15-50 year old vines used in this blend are grown on a mixture of sand and granite-based soils. Beyond Albarino, the other specialty of the Do Ferreiro brand is Oruja, a traditional style of brand made with grape pomace. In Spanish, the traditional term aquardiente de oruja means “pomace firewater.”
Panel descriptors: Lovely light emerald hue. Lofty floral aromas of fresh citrus, green apple jolly rancher, fresh herbs, peppercorn, and sea foam. Pronounced flavors of crisp apple, green fig, lime, lemon zest, and fresh pineapple. Full-bodied with round mouthfeel, bright acidity, creamy texture, and touch of sweetness on the finish. 12.5%.
Group discussion: The panel thought this wine was young, generous and sophisticated. Sebastiani liked the floral aromas and racy acidity. Sydney noted the way the flavors integrated with the tension generated by acid and skin contact. Casale thought it was solid, well-balanced, and liked the way it opened up in the glass. The only downside was that it was young and tasted much more complex when we enjoyed the open bottles with lunch. As a group, we agreed it would be fun to taste this wine after a few more years in bottle. Group Ranking: #4 of 6 / Price: $25.99
1583 by Palacio de Fefinanes 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Within the stone walls of a fortress in the coastal resort town of Cambodos, Palacio de Fefinanes was established in 1904. According to proprietor Count Juan Gil Gonzalez de Careaga, who began the commercial venture at the winery in 1985, the key to the Fefinanes brand is purity. To make this happen, the winery procures Albariño grapes from over 50 separate old vine growers. Today, the top fruit is used to make 1583, a very elite high-end offering named after the birth year of the Viscount of Fefinanes, who built the historic Fefinanes castle in 1647. The first vintage of this wine was produced in 1995.
Panel descriptors: Big, weighty, wild, and complex. Deep aromas of butterscotch, fresh citrus, ripe melon, lemon verbena, mint, and mineral. Vibrant fruit flavors of ripe peach, honeydew, cantaloupe, kaffir lime, almonds, and zippy acidity. Silky texture, rich mouthfeel, and lingering notes of roasted nuts, sea salt and enchanting savory notes lead to a long, elegant finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: Beyond the lovely aromas, Scorsone loved the peach and citrus overlay of the flavor profile, as well as the overall balance of the wine. Davarti and Sebastiani both thought it was a great food wine. And McIntire said he’d love to match the complex flavors of the wine with spicy Indian or Vietnamese-style cuisine. Overall, the mastery of this wine is based on how the naturally sweet flavors combined with the high level of crisp acidity and oak aging create a rich and smooth texture. A magnificent wine to drink now or cellar for 5-10 years. Group Ranking: #1 of 6 / Price: $39.99
Details: Of the five subzones of Rias Biaxas, the Salnes Valley is the oldest, largest, and most affected by the cool, wet and damp conditions caused by its close proximity to the ocean. As a result, the wines tend to be soft, round, and often quite salty. Forjas de Salnes is a boutique family-owned winery known for this style. At the high end of their portfolio, the fruit for the Leirana Albarino comes from stately old vines at the Finca Genovera Vineyard, owned by a 90-year old woman and a portion of the vines are 150-200 years old. History in ever sip!
Panel descriptors: Full-body with a pale yellow hue. This expressive wine features sexy aromas of spring flowers, pie crust, stone fruit, citrus, honeycomb, mineral, and sea smoke. On the palate, the flavors are layered with ripe apple, Asian pear, quince, grapefruit pith, nougat, cinnamon, and a harmony of sweet, sour and salty notes on the finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: While the wood influence was more pronounced than the other examples in this flight, the salty character and style of winemaking helped showcase the crisp and clean attributes of this wine. But in the end, everyone had a different view of this high-end offering. Casale and Sebastiani, for instance, used terms like “yeasty,” “earthy” and “salty” in their descriptors. Others felt it was slightly sour and bitter. And while Short liked the well-rounded mouthfeel, he felt the wine needed more acidity to support its weight, especially on the finish. Group Ranking: #5 of 6 / Price: $44.99
Abrente 2012 Albarino, Napa District, Carneros
Thanks to his travels as a young man, Napa Valley-based winemaker Michael Havens has been in love with Albarino long before wines from Rias Baixas hit the US market on a large scale. As a result, he was one of the first winemakers to start working with the grape in the new world. For that reason, he was generous enough to slip a library selection of the Abrente 2012 Albarino, which he made with fruit grown in Carneros, into our blind tasting. Today, Havens bottles his annual releases of Albarino under his Dog Wine Cave label.
Panel descriptors: This special cellar selection has a light hay color with green edges. In the glass, the aromatic notes are bursting at the seams with ripe melon, apricot, lime oil, candied pineapple, petrol, savory herbs, and stones. On the palate, vivacious flavors of ripe peach, golden delicious apple and pineapple combine with hints of yellow heirloom tomatoes, white pepper, and roasted nuts.13%.
Group discussion: After the wines were revealed at the end, Havens said the wine was made in 100% stainless steel tanks with whole clusters that went direct to press and spent three months on the lees (with skins). Despite being a year or two older than the other wines in the blind tasting, the purity of the fruit showed. As a result, the panel was impressed by the wine’s mouthwatering character, generous flavors, vibrant acidity, and the long follow-through on the finish. Overall, a very lovely fruit-forward style of Albarino from America. Group Ranking: #6 of 6 / Price: $24.99
Bodega Vidas 2013 Siete Vidas Albarino, Cangas
Details: Outside of the Rias Baixas region, Albarino is also a popular grape to grow in Cangas, where the grape variety is called Albarin. So to prime our palates, prior to tasting the grouping our team ranked, we sampled this delicious release from Bodega Vidas.
Panel descriptors: Very floral with notes of lavender honey, light mineral, butterscotch, pineapple, and vanillin. Lively flavors of slate, almond, pineapple, white peach and apple. Medium-bodied wine with layers of fruity flavors and lavish texture 12.5%.
Group discussion: Overall, the wine was very well received. Havens liked the complex nose, nice phenolics, and firm structure. The team also liked the wine’s combination of minerality and grainy texture, neutral oak, medium to high acidity, and round mouthfeel. Not ranked / Price: $27.99
On the gastronomical side, Albariños pair nicely with spices, salsas, olives, shellfish, grilled fish, white meats, classic Spanish ham and medium-bodied cheeses. They also work great served chilled as aperitifs or by themselves in the afternoon or evening during the warmer months. For more information about the Rias Baixas region, the producers, finished wines and more food pairings, visit www.riasbaixaswines.com.
Also, stay tuned for our new reports on high-end Champagne and Super Tuscan-style wines coming up in late December and early January. In the meantime, holidays cheers to our great followers and the fabulous winemakers, wine buyers, and sommeliers that have participated on the panels for the Sawyer-Casale Series in 2016. More to come in 2017!
As is the case with any family-owned business, collaborative efforts between older and younger generations can have a huge impact on the success or failure of the brand over time.
As proprietors of the oldest continuously operating family-owned winery in America, a major turning point for the Wente family happened in 1912 when aspiring second generation winegrower Ernest Wente persuaded his father, the winery patriarch Carl H. Wente, to import cuttings of the Chardonnay from the nursery at the University of Montpellier in France.
At the time, the main white grapes planted by the Wentes and other vineyard owners in the rising wine region of Livermore Valley were Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. After getting permission from his father and help from Leon Bonnett of University of California at Davis, Ernest planted the budwood and other cuttings sourced from the nearby Giersburger Winery in Pleasanton.
After forty years of experimentation, the two sources formed the basis of what is now called the Wente Clone of Chardonnay. With the continued success of the clone and fanfare from the media, the plantings of Chardonnay in California increased from 2,700 acres in 1970 to 45,000 acres in 1988. Today, there are almost 100,000 acres of the varietal planted in the state—nearly 80 percent of which is either Wente Clone 4 or special variations of its genetic cousins, including clones 5, 17, 72, 97 and the Hyde-Wente selection.
During that period, Ernest and his brother Herman would go on to establish a reputation as one of the top producers of fine wines in America—including the family’s release of a series of the nation’s first labeled bottles of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon in 1933, long before the term “fighting varietals” became en vogue.
In addition to the original 47 acres purchased by CH Wente in 1883, the family began developing new vineyards on special sites they purchased in Livermore Valley, including the Beyer Ranch, Hayes Ranch and the historic Cresta Blanca property, where the first winery in the valley was founded by Charles Wetmore in 1882. And following the advice of professors at UC Davis, the family was also among the first to invest in cool-climate properties in the cool-climate growing areas that would later become the Arroyo Seco and Monterey appellation of the Central Coast.
Today, the journey continues for the fourth and fifth generations of the family led by siblings Carolyn, Philip and Eric Wente, who took over operations in 1977.
As the first female CEO of the company, Carolyn has gone on to lead the charge of the expansion and growth of the Wente Family Estate portfolio, which now includes the premium brands Wente Vineyards, Murrieta’s Well, Double Decker, Hayes Ranch, and Entwine (a joint project done in association with Food Network). For wine culture, she also played a major role in establishing the Livermore Valley wine country lifestyle by launching Visitors Center and The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in 1986 and The Concert, an annual series that attracts top music performers to the valley.
After graduating from UC Davis in 1975, Carolyn’s brother Philip took over the role as head of operations for the expansion and redevelopment of the Wente family properties. A few years later, he collaborated with Concannon Vineyards and other local winegrowers to make Livermore Valley an appellation in 1982. And in 1990, Philip teamed up with South American winemaker Sergio Traverso to purchase and preserve the historic Murrieta’s Well Estate Vineyard and Winery, where the original cuttings from Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Margaux were planted in the 1880s.
As new estate vineyards came online in the 1980s, Philip and Carolyn’s brother Eric led the global expansion of Wente Family Estate brands, which are now represented in 70 countries around the world. As current Chairman of the Board of Directors for WFE, Eric currently oversees the family’s operations which includes 3,000 acres of vineyards, a Greg Norman-designed championship golf course, an award-winning restaurant, and a sustainably-certified cattle ranch.
In addition to providing guidance and financial support for the Livermore Valley and Arroyo Seco wine commissions, Carolyn, Philip and Eric have each served as president of the California Wine Institute, the largest political policy and wine advocacy organization in the state, which their family helped start more than 80 years ago.
While building exciting new estate brands and preserve the legacy of the family; the strategic decisions, innovations and accomplishments made by these three siblings has opened the doors for new possibilities created by the fifth generation as well.
Embracing the Small Lot concept
Today, the leader of this next generation is Eric and his wife Arel’s son, Karl Wente. Although he worked summers at Wente Vineyards when he was young, Karl’s real journey to becoming the winemaker didn’t start until he enrolled in the Viticulture and Enology programs at UC Davis, after completing his degree in Chemical Engineering at Stanford University.
It was during this informative period that Karl teamed up and his uncle Philip on a unique project focused on exploring the old heritage blocks of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that were that were planted at the estate by the generations before them. In following the classic techniques used by their forefathers, they sampled grapes from the individual vines and tagged the plants with distinctive flavors that set them apart from the rest.
The experience provided Karl with a more personalized perspective on how his family’s heritage clones and other special selections planted on estate properties influence the flavor profiles of the finished wines from vine to the bottle.
“That experience reinforced the simple truth that humans like to chase flavors that are the most yummy,” says Karl in his exclusive interview with The Tasting Panel. “They are moments I will never forget.”
As a result, the budwood from the selected vines was used to develop an exciting new series of estate vineyards. While these young plantings progressed, Karl received his Master degree from UC Davis and spent the following year fine-tuning his winemaker skills, working harvests at Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma County and Brown Brothers in northern Victoria, Australia. After returning back to the Wente Estate in Livermore, he started an innovative series of Small Lot and Nth Degree programs in 2002.
Today, the Wente wine program is firing on all cylinders. In comparison to the larger production wines sold under the Wente Vineyards label, the Small Lot and Nth Degree wines are made on a more boutique scale of 3,000 cases each. For this reason, the fruit for each program is carefully selected by Karl and Philip.
According to Philip, the ultimate goal of the Small Lot program is to create site-driven wines that are expressive, thought-provoking and unique. “Owning our estate means we have the ability to go out and play with the vines in order to take grape quality to a higher level of uniformity, so you are literarily able to touch every cluster before it’s harvested. By doing this in small quantities of 200-300 cases, if the experiential block doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it, you haven’t sacrificed that much.”
From the point of a winemaker, Karl concurs. “My goal is to make each wine separately to showcase its own level of elegance, intensity, and ultimately let the vineyard speak to you,” he says. “As the name of the Nth Degree implies, as a winemaker my job is never done. To me that’s the beauty of growing grapes and making wine. Every vintage is different. And Mother Nature always has the last laugh, so you have to stay on your toes.”
In the Vineyards
To make this happen, the newer vineyards are designed with more attention to detail. In addition to matching the soil, climate conditions and rootstocks with the appropriate varieties and clones; other important changes have included the use of more innovative trellis systems and row orientations, closer vine spacing, sap flow sensors and improved drip irrigation systems, and aerial images to monitor the vines in each individual block.
Over time, these changes have not only improved the health of the vines and the quality of fruit, but also allowed the family to triple or quadruple the vine count per acre.
To preserve and protect the estate properties, the Wentes began developing their own “Farming for the Future” program in the early 1990s. This integrated system of sustainable farming practices is centered around enhancing the vitality of the soils by creating more biodiversity in the vineyards with the use of compost, cover crops, beneficial bugs, bird boxes, as well as innovative recycling techniques, energy and water conservation practices, and other eco-friendly applications to help maintain a harmonious balance between the family’s properties, vineyards, and estate wineries. This foreword thinking approach earned the Wente Family Estates one of the first Certified California Sustainable designations in 2010.
“In making these changes, we basically transformed the whole viticultural system,” says Eric Wente. “After that, the key has been learning how to execute on a yearly basis as the vineyards mature.”
In the cellar
Like the generations before him, Karl does not rest on his laurels in the cellar.
In general, Chardonnay clusters from Arroyo Seco spend an extra month on the vines in comparison to the ones grown around Livermore. This factor, combined with the deep, rich soils in the region made famous by world-class produce and Steinbeck novels, results in more intensive tropical fruits flavors than the slightly leaner and more minerally expressions from the Chardonnays made with fruit from Livermore Valley.
The isolation of these special flavors is based on picking date, lees contact and the use of special oak barrels that complement the signature styles that set the annual releases of the Riva Ranch, Mountain Dew, Nth Degree and Eric’s Small Lot Chardonnays apart from all the rest.
Another inspiring white wine is the Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc, which is named after the legendary winemaker who brought in the original cuttings of the varietal to Livermore Valley from Chateau d’Yquem.
“With Sauvignon Blanc, my point of view is the raw flavors of a small oyster from British Columbia on the halfshell and the intangible burst of mineral and bright acidity that dazzles the palate,” says Karl, who now lives in the house on the Murrieta’s Well property that Mel built in the 1880s.
Granted, this style was not easy to perfect—as proven by Karl’s inaugural vintage in 2002, which he admits was too ripe. Since then, he’s started to pick earlier and the difference shows.
“What I’ve found is that if Sauvignon Blanc tastes perfect on the vine, then you’ve missed the mark by a week,” says Karl. “And although the flavors don’t present themselves right away, they will later express themselves in the glass.”
On Red Winemaking
This focus on perfection carries over to the red wine programs as well.
For starters, Karl has a sign hanging on his wall that reads “Love the wine you’re with.” So in addition to working with classic varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah and Syrah that thrive in the warm climate conditions of Livermore Valley and Pinot Noir grapes grown in cooler-climate area of Arroyo Seco, Karl and Philip have also been experimenting with newer plantings of Malbec, Graciano, Tempranillo, Barbara, Counoise, Grenache and other intriguing red varieties.
“Inevitably, I’m going to touch and fall in love with working with all of these special grapes along with way,” says Karl, with a chuckle.
To increase the level of quality of the fruit, the red grapes are now harvested at night in small increments of a ton or half-ton and sorted on tables before entering the winery. To maximize flavors of each batch, the berries are fermented in small insulated punch-down tanks that allow Karl and his team to easily control the process.
“Realistically, you only have ten days from the time you pick the grapes until you are able to hit the target of color, intensity, stability, the right tannins and mouthfeel,” says Karl. “On top of that, you only get one chance per year. So every decision matters.”
In addition to working with the Small Lot artisan wine series, Karl oversees the production of the larger volume Wente wines that also represent expressions from the estate. For that reason, he’s always happy to receive feedback when he’s out on the road or simply hanging out with customers who are participating at the festive tasting events, concerts, The Winemakers Studio, or culinary experiences hosted at the Wente properties in Livermore.
“To me, feedback is so important. For that reason, I love tasting with anybody that has a point of view. I’ve got thick skin and I know that everyone doesn’t have to love everything. But at the end of the day, a great wine teaches us all lessons.”
Of course, Karl doesn’t do it all this by himself. For the bigger wine projects, his go-to man is Brad Buehler, who has been making wine with Wente family for over 30 years. There are also young rising stars like Andy Ridge and Elizabeth Kester, who were recently promoted to winemakers for Wente Vineyards, and veteran winemaker Robbie Meyers, who Karl first met when he interned at Peter Michaels in Knights Valley, is the head winemaker at Murrieta’s Well.
Karl’s sister Christine is a spokesperson for the company and President of the Wente Foundation for Arts Education, a non-profit organization committed to raising money to support art education programs in Livermore and around the United States. And Philip and Carolyn’s children also work in the wine industry with exciting projects with Constellation Brands, Huneeus Vintners, and Spain wines. And in addition to the production of wine, the Wentes have also earned a reputation for finding the right people to hire for hospitality, sales and marketing, and administrative positions that stay on for the long-haul.
According to Carolyn, it comes down to hard core values. “We work very hard and follow through on what we say we’re going to do. We’re there to help people and respect others. It’s about integrity, sustainability and excellence. Like our parents did, it’s our responsibility to be innovative, building great teams, instilling confidence in our workers, and ultimately create and deliver world-class wines that make Livermore Valley a true wine country destination.”
With Halloween now descending upon us, there are so many merry people dressed as ghosts, ghouls, witches and skeletons to celebrate this sacred holiday. But for some, it’s a real-life occurrence at different times of the year. One of those people is gifted winemaker Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr Winery in St. Helena.
Starr didn’t believe in spirits until 2004. But that changed when she purchased a house in Browns Valley west of Napa. In addition to having a lovely hillside view of the valley, the house also came with a set of spirits who lived near the window in her bedroom.
“They would rattle the window from the inside. God, they were loud!” says Starr during our interactive discussion about ghosts and spirits at Crocker & Starr in mid-October.
After having many encounters with the spirits, Starr discovered her friend was a practicing witch. And after a deep discussion and a few bottles of wine, it was determined that the best method to get rid of the spirits was to use the traditional method of burning sage. The only catch was that she could only invite friends with personalities strong enough to persuade the uninvited guests to return to the spirit world.
Once ready on that fateful night of 2006, the team Starr assembled included herself, the witch, and another friend that couldn’t wait to help the cause. Here’s a summary of the de-ghosting process:
Step 1: Light the sage on fire then blow it out to allow smoke to fill the house. Step 2: Go to all the corners of the house and start telling the spirits what you want them to do. Step 3: Use friendly lines to get your point across. The quotes used included: “This is not your place any longer.” “Go in peace.” “Go be with your others.” “You need to go back to the place where you belong.” “It’s time for you to return to your friends in the spirit world.” Step 4: Cross your fingers and hope for success!
As it turned out, the ritual worked. As a result, Starr and her husband never had another encounter before they sold the house earlier this year.
[Photos: Winemaker Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr says she had spirited encounter inside the old chapel that found a new home on the winery’s estate in St. Helena; The beautiful new Lokoya tasting room on Spring Mountain west of St. Helena; At Freemark Abbey north of St. Helena, there has been a sighting of a ghost that is believed to be Josephine Tychson, the woman winemaker who founded the 16th bonded winery in Napa Valley on the property in 1886; A look at the Crocker & Star wine label.]
That’s the good news. But Starr has also had numerous encounters with spirits at the ancient winery and historic grounds that she and her business partner Charlie Crocker brought back to life when they started the winery in 1997.
According to Starr, every spirit is different. For instance, at the Casali—the old brandy house on the estate which was originally developed by the Dowdell family in the 1890s—the spirits are quite friendly.
“I really believe that the spirit there really had fun with brandy,” she says, as she points towards a classic photo of the people who worked on the property in 1890s. “It’s just a really good ghost. But it definitely has the ability to say when the party is over.”
As an example, Starr told a story about a party that was going sour in the Casali. “Until that point it was a fun gathering, but I think the ghost was done with the crowd. It was at that point that a man started drinking more wine and got in another man’s face. Nothing happened, but everyone decided to leave immediately thereafter. It was the spirit’s version of crowd control,” say Starr, with a chuckle.
On the darker side, another spirit lives in the old chapel on the estate property purchased by the Crocker family in the 1970s.
“Somebody move that cherub and cross closer to the door,” quipped Starr, as we approached the petite white chapel with blue trim. “That spirit in there is not my friend.”
The history behind the building is intriguing. Built with local redwood in 1910, the original home of this quaint chapel was next to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. As a native of the city and with a long family history with the Catholic community, Charlie and his siblings were approached to see if they were interested in providing a new home for this registered chapel. As a result, Charlie was able to relocate building on the southern edge of the estate in the 1990s.
Starr’s haunting experience occurred when she guided a tour for a small group of visitors through the interior of the building a few years ago. It was a very cold morning. So after walking past the four pews on her way towards the pulpit, she vividly remembers seeing beautiful sunlight streaming in through the window facing Howell Mountain to the east.
“I was wearing a long sleeve black sweater and the sunbeams provided a little extra warmth. Then, all of a sudden, I felt a strange vibration on my arm. Upon rolling up the sleeve, a giant black bumblebee came flying out,” she said in a coarse voice.
“There was no way a bumble bee would be buzzing around on such a cold day. Let alone, suddenly appearing in the arm of my sweater. It freaked me out.”
Although Pam’s wedding was held in front of the chapel, she’s never been back inside. “I don’t know what that spirit was thinking. But I’m not going in that building ever again. Obviously I’m still offended by my experience.”
Pam is not alone with ghost stories in Napa Valley.
Another person with some insight is Ted Edwards of Freemark Abbey Winery. Located on the northern side of St. Helena, the historic winery recently went through a marvelous restoration process. In addition to transforming the interior of the old stone building into an expansive tasting room and wine library; the building is also the new home to Two Birds, One Stone, one of the hippest new restaurants in Napa Valley, featuring the tasty delights of star chefs Sang Yoon and Douglas Keane.
Recently, I sat down with Edwards and tasted through a sampling of new releases and library wines while we talked about the intriguing ghost encounters on the property.
As the first woman winemaker in Napa Valley, the original owner Josephine Tychson and her husband moved from San Francisco to St. Helena in the 1880s. After a hard fight with tuberculosis, he passed away. But alas, Josephine moved on to start the 16th bonded winery in Napa Valley in 1886.
The original wines were made in barn structures on the property. In addition to having vineyards around where the current winery stands, there were more also planted on the hillside across the road near the house where Josephine lived until she sold the winery to Italian immigrant Antoine Forni in the late 1890s.
After renamed the winery Lombarda Cellars after the small region of Italy where he grew up, Forni built the original stone building on the property. The construction was started in 1898 and finished in 1906, the same year as the famous San Francisco earthquake.
There are no records of who owned the property after Forni closed the winery at the beginning of prohibition. But Edwards says it’s been suggested that there was “activity” on the property when it was a ghost winery.
In 1939, Charles Freeman, Mark Foster and Abbey Ahern purchased the property and brought it back to life. They renamed it Freemark Abbey, which is a shortened version of their three names scrunched together.
Since joining the team in 1980, Edwards has vivid memories of suspicious creaks and other noises that sounded like footsteps and voices when he would shut off the lights in the cellar late at night. But the most noteworthy occurrence happened when an intern saw a woman walking across the catwalk in the cellar. “It spooked her,” says Edwards.
At the magnificent new Lokoya site on Spring Mountain, winemaker Chris Carpenter said he’s convinced that one of the previous owners still resides in the caves below where the gorgeous new tasting room is located.
Carpenter and vineyard manager Mariano Navarro have also had similar experiences at the ancient stone winery on the historic La Jota Vineyard property on Howell Mountain. The structure was completed in 1898 by Frederick Hess, who made wine on the property until prohibition. But until William and Joan Smith purchased the property in 1974, it too became a ghost winery.
“These old buildings have stories to tell,” says Carpenter, who also noted that more ghost sightings are still pending.
With these thoughts in mind, mark your calendar to be part of Flavor Napa Valley on March 25, 2017. That is the day that Pam Starr, Ted Edwards, Chris Carpenter, myself, and other special guests will rekindle the stories about ghosts and spirits while tasting through a stellar lineup of wines from each of these haunted sites at the special “Ghost Wineries of Napa Valley” at the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America. For more information, visit www.flavornapavalley.com.
For your hedonistic pleasures for the fall and winter months of 2016, here are three new spirited red wine releases from Napa Valley that I recently reviewed.
Freemark Abbey 2013 Merlot, Napa Valley
Although some people believe Merlot is dead, Freemark Abbey winemaker Ted Edwards is the first to say that the noble grape variety is now stronger than ever. The latest example is the Freemark Abbey 2013 Napa Valley Merlot, a spirited blend made primarily with fruit from the Keyes Vineyard on Howell Mountain, Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak, and the Dos Rios and Cardinale vineyards in Yountville. Soft and elegant, this lively wine is bursting at the seams with expressive flavors of dark cherry, ripe berries, milk chocolate, wild herbs, chewy tannins, and deep, rich finish. $34/btl. www.freemarkabbey.com.
Crocker & Starr 2013 Casali 6 Red Wine, St. Helena
As an alternative to the latest offerings from witch’s caldron and eye of newt, try winemaker Pam Starr’s newest offering of the Casali series. In Italian, casali means “farmhouse.” This unique proprietary blend of Malbec and smaller portions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc was inspired by Pam’s visit to the Mendoza region of Argentina in 2012. Luxurious flavors of ripe plum, blueberry, lavender, vanilla, licorice, and cardamom are caressed with a smooth texture, bright acidity, and a long finish. $80/btl. www.crockerstarr.com.
Lokoya 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mt. Veeder
From the Loyoka Appellations Collection from rugged vineyards at elevations of 1,100 to 2,500 feet above the valley. This fantastic new release features deep and dense flavors of briary blackberry, dark cherry, mint, citrus peel, allspice and chocolate truffle supported with chewy tannins, firm structure, and long graceful finish as it opens up in the glass. $375/btl. www.loyoka.com.
In the meantime, on behalf of SawyerSawyer.com, my staff,
and the Sawyer family, Happy Halloween!
For devoted Pinot Noir fans, all roads ultimately lead to the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy, in France. Located between the historic city of Dijon to the north and the border with the Côte de Beaune to the south, this region is the birthplace of the noble Pinot Noir grape that is now grown in regions around the world.
The history of winegrowing in the region dates back to 400 B.C. and the first formal viticultural practices were introduced to the area by the Romans in the 3rd century AD. Around the same time, the larger region was named for the Baltic tribe known as the Burgundians who came to the area to defend against the Germanic tribes moving south.
After earning a reputation for making high-quality red wines with Pinot Noir grapes indigenous to the area; the big turning point came when the physician for Louis XIV proclaimed that wines from Côte de Nuits offered health benefits to those who could get their hands on bottles from the region. Needless to say, the growing popularity of the wines from this region have made Côte de Nuits one of the most famous wine areas in the world.
In comparison to the 18 villages in the Côte de Beaune winegrowing region to the south; there are only 9 villages in Côte de Nuits. But on the flipside, the 24 Grand Crus in the smaller sub-appellations inside its borders are triple the amount found in Côte du Beaune.
Geographically, the region is very small. Running from village to village, the long strip of vineyards running from the hills to the villages and rivers range from 1.5 miles wide to only a ¼ mile at its most narrow points. With the exception of a small batch of white grapes grown in the hamlet of Musigny and a few other tiny sites; Pinot Noir is the exclusive grape of the entire region.
Each site has its own variation of soils. With that in mind, the best grapes are grown on slopes ranging from 800 to 1,000 feet, where the highest concentration of Marl (a combination of clay and limestone with smaller portions of sand and gravel) can be found. For this reason, the term terroir was ultimately defined by the vineyards of Cote de Nuits, especially at the famous grand cru sites that include: Romanée-Conti, La Tache, Richebourg, La Romanée, Romanée-St. Vivant and La Grand Rue around the village of Vosne-Romanée; Echézeaux and Grand Echézeaux around the hamlet of Flagey- Echézeaux; and the small monopole of Clos de Vougeot.
Granted, the limited releases from the grand cru sites of Côte de Nuits are often among the most expensive wines of the world. With these thoughts in mind, the latest study of the Sawyer-Casale series was focused premiers cru wines from the small AOCs of Chambolle-Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin and Morey-St-Denis that make up the cooler northern section of the region.
Each of these small winegrowing areas have their own special strengths. Chambolle-Musigny, for example, is home to 24 premiers crus vineyards and a mixture of soils that create wines known for their floral aromas, concentrated flavors, a subtle layers of spice. Down the road, Gevrey-Chambertin is home to 26 Premiers Crus and 9 Grand Crus, the most of any village in Burgundy. In general, the wines from the region are elegant with plenty of depth and complex flavors. And although it is smaller and overlapped by the Bonnes-Mares region, Morey-St-Denis is home to 20 premiers cru and 4 grand crus. In general, the profiles of wines from this region tend to be more graceful and feminine with more emphasis on texture, acidity, and flavors of red fruits, forest, and earth. In general, high-quality wines from these three regions run from $65-$150, which makes them ideal for sommeliers, retailers and consumers looking to build a collection of ultra-premium wines from Côte de Nuits that give them more bang for the buck.
Tasting is Believing
To investigate these profiles in more detail, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special tasting focused on the 2010, 2012 and 2013 vintages from the revered regions of Gervey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-St-Denis, as well as a hidden gem from Oregon’s Willamette Valley provided by our host Don Sebastiani of Sonoma. All wines from Cote de Nuits were provided by our good friends at Aabalat Fine and Rare Wines in Petaluma, www.aabalat.com.
The special guest participating on the panel included winemakers Ana Moller-Racke of The Donum Estate, Steve MacRostie of MacRostie Winery, TJ Evans of Domaine Carneros, Kurt Beitler of Boheme Wines, Sean Foster of Starmont Wines, David Jelinek of The Prisoner Wine Co., Mike Cox of Schug Winery, David Marchesi of Madrone Vineyards Estate, Michael Scorsone of Emmitt Scorsone Wines, Alex Beloz of Tricycle Wine Co, Don Sebastiani, my colleague Keith Casale and myself.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-7 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #7 being the lowest. Here are summaries and rankings of the wines organized in the order we tasted the wines blind:
Details: As children, Theirry Mortet and his brother Denis grew up farming grapes at the Charles Mortet et Fils, a small domaine owned by their father. When the brand was splint in 1991, the brothers went off to start their own wineries. Today, Thierry works with 4.5 hectars he owns, including Clos Prieur, a special block located in the Gevrey-Chambertin AOC.
Panel descriptors: Dark red hue with a hint of purple with attractive aromas of dried cherry, ripe berries, black tea, wild mushrooms, violet, leather, and crushed rock. In the glass, the entry is tart at first, but opened up during the tasting. Highlights included vibrant notes of raspberry, red plum, stewed cherry, pomegranate, delicate herbs and mineral. Overall, a well-crafted medium-bodied wine, with generous mouthfeel, chalky tannins, bright acidity, and a long, clean finish.
Group discussion: Granted, this is the oldest wine in the tasting. But with that said, the tasting team thought there was a disconnection between the nose and the palate. While much of this was due to the tart flavors which eventually blew off with more time in the glass, the other quirky part was the hard tannins which covered the true flavors of the grapes. Evans, for instance, thought the ripe fruit aromas on the nose were very engaging, but was surprised that the palate was quite sharp, young, and fairly lean. Whereas, Scorsone liked the way that the oak was nicely integrated, but questioned the use of grapeseed tannins to make the wine more powerful than it needed to be. And Cox simply though the tart flavors took away from the balance. Overall, a good wine from Gevrey-Chambertin but not a show stopper. Group Ranking: #6 of 7 / Price: $86.95
Robert Groffier et Fils 2013 Seuvrees, Gevrey-Chambertin
Details: Robert Groffier and his son Serge have earned a reputation for making impact wines with deep flavors that are balanced with the minimal use of fine French oak to express the flavors of the site where the grapes are grown. This is one of those beauties that proves that point and then some.
Panel descriptors: Classic pale red hue. Lovely mixture of earthy and floral aromas highlighted by black and blue fruits, rose petals, pie crust, ruby grapefruit peels, anise, moist soil, and a touch of French cellar funk. On the palate, the flavors are deep and sensual with notes of blueberry, wild strawberry, fresh sage, cocoa, savory spices, and toasty oak. Overall, a very well-structured wine that dazzles the mouth with dense tannins, layers of flavors and admirable length.
Group discussion: Led by layers of earthy notes, there is no doubt this is a classic Burgundy style. With a relatively low pH and high acidity, the wine kept changing in the glass. For that reason, it was a learning experience in liquid form. This process was helped along by the fact that the tannins became more resolved as the wine opened up once it got some air in the glass. In the end the wine was intriguing, complex and generous but not sweet. At under $100/bottle, it’s a great wine to age or explore after decanting for an hour before serving. Group Ranking: #2 of 7 / Price: $88.95
Panel descriptors: Pale ruby hue with fragrant scents of red berries, blue fruits, wet stone, wild herbs, leather and oak spice. In the mouth, the wine offers a nice textured entry with delicate flavors of ripe raspberry; plum, blueberry, sour cherry, cardamom, lavender and baking spices; a soft, velvety texture; moderate to low acidity; firm tannins; and great length at the end.
Group discussion: Another wine that smelled like a classic Pinot Noir-based wine from Burgundy. Besides the generous flavors, the team was also impressed by the great structure and balanced tannins that make it a very food-friendly wine. At under $80, its a great value too. Group Ranking: #3 of 7 / Price: 73.95
Domaine Dujac 2012 Chambolle-Musigny
Details: Founded by Parisian Jacques Seysses in 1968, Dujac has quickly become one the most respected brands in Côte de Nuits. The fruit they get from Chambolle-Musigny is from some of the top vineyards and the finished wines are consistently delicious.
Panel descriptors: Light ruby red hue with hints of purple and strong aromas of a fresh fruit basket, sweet cherry tarts, cola, orange peel, earth, potpourri, wet stone, and spice. Firm entry with rich, ripe and savory flavors of raspberry, cranberry, rhubarb, wild mushrooms, cinnamon, mint Indian spices, and an intriguing hint of roasted green bell pepper on the end. These components were further accentuated by the supple texture, dry tannins, and medium length.
Group discussion: Although the wine was initially reduced, many of the tasters were impressed how this medium-bodied wine opened up in the glass. The group agreed that the strength of the wine was at the front of the palate. For that reason, the flavors start to fade at the mid-point of each sip but compensates for it with wet stone/mineral notes on the finish. In the end, a relatively light wine on its feet but definitely a great example from Chambolle-Musigny and a nice crowd-pleaser to serve to people with a wide range of palates. Group Ranking: #4 of 7 / Price: $106.65
Lucien Le Moine 2013 Clos des Ormes, Morey-St-Denis
Details: Based in Beaune, Lucien Le Moine is a high profile negotiant that sources fruit from the finest regions in Burgundy. In Robert Parker’s Buyers Guide, the wines produced by the company are in the high-ranked category of “excellent.”
Panel descriptors: Enchanting crimson hue and lofty aromas of ripe brambly fruits, roasted coffee, dried herbs, smoked bacon, and heavy use of sweet oak. Bright entry with rich flavors of high tone fruits, dark cherry, blackberry, cranberry, smoked meats, soy sauce, earth, firm tannins, and a touch of bitterness on the edges.
Group discussion: There was no doubt about this being a wine about the winemaker not the vineyard. For starters, the wine was reductive, but got better as the wine opened up. But once you started getting more into the profile, the smoky oak profile overshadowed the core notes of sweet fruit and green olive. On top of that, there was a slight case of volatile acid, which did not balance with the flavor profile or how the wine works on the palate. On the brighter side, the tasting team liked the savory notes of fresh herbs and forest floor that opened up with more sips.. Group Ranking: #7 of 7 / Price: $89.95
Domaine Dujac 2013 Morey-St-Denis
Details: Started from scratch by visionary Jacques Seysses in 1968, Dujac has become one of the special young brands that has helped put the Morey-St-Denis AOC on the map to stay. Meticulous with their use of oak on their premiere crus wines, their signature style from Morey-St-Denis typically has fragrant aromas and lifted fruit flavors that result in wines that get much better with more time in the cellar.
Panel descriptors: Crimson red with perfumed sniffs of fresh rose petals, red fruits, fresh herbs and spice. On the palate, delicate flavors of ripe raspberry, plum, cherry, mineral, chalky palate bright acidity, supple tannins, and great length. Luxury in a glass.
Group discussion: Extremely complex, elegant and refined. Scorsone thought it was soft, seamless, and commented that he enjoyed the wine’s “beautiful breathe of life and vitality in each sip.” Foster loves the elegant appeal of the wine and balance of flavors, mouthfeel, structure, and finish. His conclusion in two words: “seamless” and “yum!” Overall, a dazzling wine and a great example from Morey-St-Denis and the accessible gems Cote de Nuits has to offer in the US market. Group Ranking: #1 of 7 / Price: $124.95
Domaine Drouhin 2014 Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley
Details: What’s a Sawyer-Casale Brown Bag tasting without a little something special thrown into the mix? With that in mind, our fantastic host Don Sebastiani supplied the group with a special treat of the Domaine Drouhin 2014 Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills region in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Drouhin family has been making fantastic wines in Burgundy since the 1880s. For that reason, the establishment of Domaine Drouhin project with 225-acres of vineyards and a cutting-edge gravity flow system on the Dundee Hills in Oregon brought immediate attention to the Willamette Valley in the 1990s. And thanks to the French-Willamette Valley connection, the attention on world-class Pinot Noir has only increased from that point onwards on the West Coast as a whole!
Panel descriptors: Dark red hue with deep aromas of red and black fruits, brown sugar, vanillin, and integrated oak. On the palate, the entry is sweet and assertive with dynamic flavors of fresh raspberry jam, ripe boysenberry and light herbs. Overall, the wine is young, smooth, balanced and coats the mouth with ripe, juicy flavors that lead to a long finish that makes you want to investigate more in the next sip.
Group discussion: From the beginning, the riper fruit was an early clue that this was a New World wine. While the panel felt the weight of the wine was fantastic, there were a few references to confectionary sweetness on the palate caused by the very ripe fruit profile. Theses factors also provided more firmness in the mid-palate but not much acidity. For those reasons, the group felt the wine was more “jammy” and “hedonistic” than the offering from the Cote de Nuits. Group Ranking: #5 of 7 / Price: $45 (Available at www.domainedrouhin.com)
Conclusion: Overall, a terrific showing from the northern AOCs of the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy. All the wines involved in the tasting (including Domaine Drouhin) showed why the unique characteristics of the sites where the grapes are grown determines the complexity of flavors profiles and the ageworthiness of the finished wines from these special cooler climate regions.
Next up: Exploring the unique flavors and aromas of high-profile the unique Albarino grapes grown in the Rias Baixas region of Spain. Just one of the many new reports from the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series to close out the year in style!
It is always a pleasure for me to review previous stories I have contributed to Industry Magazines over the years. Indeed, I learn a lot when writing them, but also have distinctive memories of the trips or tastings involved. Here is an article from a decade ago! Published in The Tasting Panel Magazine, which I still am working with after all this time. Enjoy this read!
The following is a summary from the first wine education event organized by myself and Keith Casale. Please enjoy!
Margaux is known for its producing wines with deep colors, concentrated flavors, firm tannins, and the ability to age in the cellar for decades; Cabernet Sauvignon has become one of the most noble grape varieties grown in many of the top wine regions around the globe.
Until twenty years ago, the origin of this grape was a mystery. That changed in 1997 when a DNA study conducted by Dr. Carole Meridith and her PhD student John Bower at University of California Davis found that the grape was the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. As it turns out, Merlot is also a progeny of Cabernet Franc. From there a true kinship between these three grape varieties became the building block of the famous red wine blends made in the Bordeaux region in southwest France.
The origins of the grape can be traced back to the late 18th century, when the first recorded vines were planted around the new chateaux being developed in the historic Medoc region located between the Gironde Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean and north of the city of Bordeaux The two patriarchs behind this movement were Baron Hector de Brane and his neighbor Armand d’Armailhacq in Paulliac. After selling Chateau Mouton in 1830, Brane went on to plant new vines at the Chateau Brane-Cantenac property located in the nearby commune of Margaux.
Over the next two decades, the success of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown around Margaux would lead to the highest concentration of vineyards to be named as classified growths in 1855. Among the celebrated sites was Chateau Marguax, which became one of the first four vineyards to receive the prestigious first growths status in Medoc.
As a result, Cabernet Sauvignon is often the highest percentage used to make the red blends in Margaux. As a general rule, the flavor profiles commonly include a mixture of black and red berries, currants, chocolate, and French herbs. Smaller portions of Cabernet Franc and Merlot are then used to add more complex flavors, round and supple texture, and smooth the tannins. Depending on the producers, smaller amounts of Petite Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere are sometimes used to add spice, structure and color to the finished blends as well. Over time, these graceful blends have earned a reputation for being more silky and sensual than the more full-bodied style wines made in the neighboring regions of Paulliac, St-Juilen and St-Estephe to the north.
Tasting is Believing
To study these profiles in more detail, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series recently invited a group of winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special tasting focused on current releases from the 2009-2012 vintages of Margaux, as well as a few older vintages provided by the host Don Sebastiani of Sonoma.
The special guest participating on the panel included winemakers Bart Hansen of Dane Cellars/Lasseter Family Wines, David Jelinek of The Prisoner Wine Co., Mike Cox of Schug Winery, Scott Covington of Trione Winery, David Marchesi of Madrone Vineyards Estate, Michael Scorsone of Emmitt Scorsone Wines, Kieran Robinson of Kieran Robinson Wines, and Alex Beloz of Tricycle Wine Co.; Wine Business Monthly editor Cyril Penn; Don Sebastiani; my colleague Keith Casale and myself.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-5 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #5 being the lowest. Here are summaries and rankings of the wines organized in the order we tasted the wines blind:
Chateau Brane-Cantenac 2009 Grand Cru Classé Margaux
Details: In 1855, the Brane-Cantenac estate vineyard became one of the special sites to receive second growth grand cru classe status. Today, the 75 acres of vineyards are divided into 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 4.5% Cabernet Franc and .5% Carmenere. These grapes are grown on a combination of sand and clay with a deep concentration of gravel. The 2009 vintage is a blend of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc made exclusively with the best grapes on the property.
Panel descriptors: In the glass, the attractive color of dark brick with a hint of blue lead to vivid aromas of dark fruits, red candied fruits, tobacco, old leather, cocoa, vanilla, anise, smoked meats and sweet oak. On the palate, the flavors expand with deep notes of dark cherry, black currant, cola, soy, graphite, dark chocolate nibs, dried herbs, and more woody character towards the end. Overall, a well-crafted, medium-bodied wine with bright acidity, chalky tannins, and a long dry finish.
Group discussion: Hansen liked the way the wine opened up with time in the glass and the distinct flavors that set it apart from the rest; Jelinek liked the chewy tannins and generous finish; and both were intrigued by the Asian accents of soy and ponzu sauce that added more tertiary layers of flavor to the wine. Marchesi liked the entry and the way the wine was lean, tight and leafy. And while Cox thought the wine was a little too dry and astringent at first, he liked the way the flavors and texture became smoother with each sip. Group Ranking: #3 of 5
Chateau Dauzac 1982 Grand Cru Classé Margaux
Details: With a rich heritage dating back to grapes planted on the property in the 12th century, Chateau Dauzac is one of the oldest estates in Margaux. After receiving its Cinquieme Grand Cru Classé status in 1855, the winery has become known for producing complex blends typically made with two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon and one-third Merlot. This cellar selection from the 1982 vintage was snuck into the mix by Don Sebastiani, who was also nice enough to share bottles of the 2000 vintage from Chateau Brane-Cantenac and Chateau Labegorce at the lunch that followed the tasting.
Panel descriptors: Light red hue with slight browning around the edge. Musty Old World aromas of dark fruits, wild mushrooms, herbs, pencil lead, celery salt, sherry, mineral, earth, cedar and a slight medicinal quality. As the wine opens up, the flavors emerge with lively notes of plum, anise, spearmint, ash and a dusty character; soft tannins; and a long engaging finish.
Group discussion: While all the panelists thought the wine was an older vintage from the very beginning, Cox liked the weight of the wine and the combination of silky tannins, floral aromas as it opened up, and the smoky notes on the finish. Personally, I thought the wine was fairly lean, but the flavors were extremely concentrated and tasty. Hansen enjoyed the varietal characteristics with bottle age and the long finish. Covington thought it was the most interesting wine of the flight and loved the way it blossomed as it opened up. In the end, the group concluded the finish will only get drier with more time in the bottle. Thus, it needs to be consumed sooner rather than later. But an amazing wine that has aged gracefully over time. Group Ranking: #2 of 5
Details: Chateau Lascombes was another special winery that became classified as a second growth in 1855. After making it through WW II, Alexis Lichine sold the winery to a British brewer in 1971. Today the winery is once again hitting its stride after going through a lull until the mid-1980s. As a departure from the rest of the Cab-based blends in the flight, this offering from the 2010 vintage is 55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot.
Panel descriptors: Deep and dark red hue with fragrant scents of ripe red and black fruits, bay laurel, orange peel, clove, fresh brioche and fine-grained oak. Concentrated flavors of dark cherry, ripe plum, cassis, blackberry pie, mineral, chocolate bark and layers of spice; fine-grained tannins; silky texture; long earthy finish
Group discussion: At first, Hansen thought the wine was young and closed, but felt it expressed itself much better once it got more air. As a team, we felt it was youthful, lively and rewarding. Overall, a nice example from the region with complex flavors, soft tannins, and spicy nuances. Group Ranking: #4 of 5
Chateau Brane-Cantenac 2012 Grand Cru Classé Margaux
Details: When Baron Brane purchased the estate in 1833, the winery was called Brane-Mouton. In 1838 he changed the name to Brane-Cantenac after the small commune that surrounds the property. The 2012 vintage was made with 68% Cabernet Sauvignon and smaller portions of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged for 18 months in 60% new French oak barrels.
Panel descriptors: Brilliant dark purple hue with seductive aromas of ripe fruits, fresh violets, toffee, black tea, vanilla, peppercorns and fine French oak. Luxurious flavors of ripe tree fruits, plum, dark cherry, blueberry, chocolate malt, espresso and cedar. Fantastic balance of silky tannins, bright acidity, firm structure, and lingering finish. A true gem that keeps getting better with more time in the glass.
Group discussion: Jelinek liked the full-body flavor of the wine and the extra character the Cabernet Franc added to the finished blend. On a similar note, Scorsone liked the elegant and refined character of the wine, the soft tannins, and how seamless it tasted from start to finish. Penn felt the flavor profile was enhanced with notes of fresh herbs, cocoa, oak, and how a refreshing burst of vibrant acidity lingered in his mouth after each sip. And Covington simply referred to the wine as the “mind’s eye of Bordeaux.” I couldn’t agree more. Group Ranking: #1 of 5
Chateau Rauzan Ségla 2011 Grand Cru Classé Margaux
Details: The history of this winery can be traced back to 1661, when Pierre Desmezures de Rauzan purchased the Noble House of Gassies in Margaux. At the time, Rauzan was the manager of Chateau Margaux. While building his own family brand, he would later go on to work for Chateau Latour and purchase properties in Paulliac that eventually became the well-known estates of Pichon Lalande and Pichon Baron. The 2011 vintage contains 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot grapes primarily planted on gravel and a small portion of clay.
Panel descriptors: Dark red hue. Taste-tempting aromas of ripe black fruits, red berries, roasted coffee, toasted rye, baking spice, leather, earth and cigar box. Deep flavors of blackberry tarts, fresh currants, black raspberry, wild herbs, bittersweet chocolate truffle, roasted almonds, and layers of spice, earth, and oak. From that point forward, the sweet and salty characteristics of the wine is further enhanced with firm tannins, integrated oak, and a warm spicy finish.
Group discussion: This was by far the most controversial wine on the table. Marchesi liked the firm entry and the expressive flavors of ripe blackberry, black olive, earth, and dried tannins. Cox enjoyed the balance of the sweet fruit, slight astringency, woody character, and the depth of the wine. On the flipside, I felt the fruit was a little too ripe, restrained, and hidden by oak. Scorsone agreed. To him, the wine was too squeaky clean and reductive, with not enough personality and too hot on the finish. And while Robinson liked the ripe dark fruit flavors and chalky tannins, he thought the finish was short and simple. In the end, the panel concluded that the wine was more of an international style instead of focusing on capturing the unique flavors Margaux has to offer. Group Ranking: #5 of 5
Conclusion: The group was very impressed with the lineup of the wines. The ones that stood out the most had deep flavors, balanced tannins, and structure that allow them to age naturally for more than 20 years in the bottle.
Next up: A winemaker’s focus on wines from northern section of the Cotes de Nuit of Burgundy. Stay tuned for more reports from the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series in 2016!
We’ve all seen the billboard driving north on Hwy 101, right? Well Virginia Dare has returned thanks to the direction of Francis Ford Coppola Winery. You can read my brief article about it in Napa Sonoma Magazine, published February of this year.