Fri 9 Sep 2011
In most European wine regions, place matters. That’s why in Burgundy, for example, and in the Rhone Valley, in Germany, in much of Italy, the term most prominently displayed on a label will be the name of a village or commune, often accompanied by the name of a vineyard. The name of the estate, producer or winery will be in smaller print at the bottom of the label or off to the side or up on a neck label. The implication is that the most crucial factor in producing a great wine is not the human hand and mind, as helpful as they might be, but great terroir, that is, all the geographical, geological and climatic elements, whether as large as the weather patterns or minute as a worm or deep as the soil and bedrock, that influence the vineyard, the vines and the grapes.
When the 19th Century wine pioneers in California were growing grapes and making wine, they often labeled their products in such a way that American consumers would relate them to European counterparts, though these resemblances were often based more on romance than reality. Thus the Claret and Hock, the Burgundy (made from anything except pinot noir) and Sauterne (without the final “s”), the Chianti and French Colombard and Chablis — remember Gallo’s Chablis Blanc, in case you couldn’t tell it was white? — that graced the tables of American for many decades of the 20th Century. After Prohibition, however, and especially after World War II, producers in California began to evince independence from Europe and pride in their own achievements by highlighting the names of their wineries and the principal grape in the wine on bottles, thus giving birth to the varietal labeling that dominates the New World wine industries today and has even crossed back over the Atlantic to show up in Europe. “Hock” image from weimax.com.
So, I’m fascinated by the label for this wine, because it’s an attempt to market an American wine based not on the name of the winery or producer and not on the name of the grape but — on the model of much of Europe — on the name of a federally-recognized vineyard region or American Viticultural Area, as the official term expresses it. Notice, in fact, how much the label resembles a label of a Premier Cru vineyard Burgundy (as in the Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses above).
The most prominent feature on this label is Red Mountain, granted AVA status by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in 2001. Red Mountain, not so much a mountain as a steep, long southwest-facing slope of deep gravelly soil, lies within the Yakima Valley AVA, which is part of the sprawling Columbia Valley AVA; with only about 600 acres under cultivation, Red Mountain, known for its distinctively tannic and minerally cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, wines of grain and substance, is the smallest of Washington state’s grape-growing regions. It’s close to Benton City — “A Tuscany Sort of Place” — pop. 2,800. The application for AVA recognition was initiated by Hedges Family Estate and supported by Kiona Vineyards, Blackwood Canyon Vintners, Sandhill Winery, Seth Ryan Winery and Terra Blanca Winery.
The proprietors of Hedges Family Estate are Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges, who married in 1976 — she is from France’s Champagne region, he is from eastern Washington — and in 1986 launched American Wine Trade Inc. to export wine to Europe. The first wine from Hedges Cellars came in 1987, after which the couple segued toward vineyard acquisition and the founding of a real facility. Winemaker for Hedges is Tom Hedges’ brother Pete.
So, the label of the wine in question is from the Hedges stable. While Hedges produces other wines from the Red Mountain appellation, the name of the winery and the grapes take precedence on the labels, as is typical with American wines. This one, however, modeled, as I said, on certain French examples, is produced by Descendants Liegeois Dumont — seen at the bottom of the label — a combination of the two names of Anne-Marie Hedges’ family in Champagne. Under “Red Mountain” is the name of the vineyard — Les Gosses — and under that the special name for this production “Cuvée Marcel Dupont,” Anne-Marie Hedges’ grandfather, and, finally and modestly, Descendants Liegeois Dumont.
A major difference between the Red Mountain “Les Gosses” designation on this wine and, for example, Chambolle-Musigny “Les Amoureuses” is the sense of history and reputation. All lovers of fine wine know that Chambolle-Musigny is one of the stellar wine villages of the Cote de Nuit section of Burgundy and that Les Amoureuses is a Premier Cru vineyard (deserving elevation to Grand Cru status) whose renown stretches back to the 19th Century. Forgive my bluntness, but who the hell knows anything about Red Mountain?
Marketing California wines or American wines generally, I think, would be difficult, though more successful, theoretically, if the AVA indicated is very well-known for the quality of the wines in produces, focused on particular grape varieties, or small and fairly unique. Nobody is going to buy a wine based on the words Central Coast or North Coast displayed prominently on the label; the scope is too vast, the identifying characteristics too vague, the quality too variable. (The same argument is true, of course, for huge, tractless regions like the Loire Valley or just Toscana.) I mean, I would be interested in a pinot noir that boldly announced its terroir as Santa Lucia Highlands or Santa Rita Hills or cabernet sauvignon whose label was emblazoned with Mount Veeder or Howell Mountain. And if some brash producer featured the seldom-seen Fair Play AVA (in the Sierra Foothills) as the paramount element in its label design, I would probably take a chance on it, if only because it’s very small — only 350 acres of vines — and because it’s the highest elevation AVA in California. (Yeah, I had to look it up.)
I may be taking the label of the Red Mountain “Les Gosses” Cuvée Marcel Dupont 2009, Descendants Liegeois Dupont, way too seriously; there’s a good chance that this homage to French practices on the part of the Hedges family is purely whimsical. Still, and despite earlier caveats, I applaud this tiny effort at place-based nomenclature.
The wine, by the way, is superb. One hundred percent syrah — a grape that takes to the Red Mountain terrain the way fondant icing snuggles up to a petit four — it aged 14 months in a combination of American (65%), French (30%) and Hungarian (5%) oak, half new barrels, half neutral. Heady aromas of mint and eucalyptus, black currants and blueberries are woven with briers and brambles, earth and slate; a few minutes in the glass bring up traces of cloves and sandalwood, smoke and ash and moss, rose petals, potpourri and bitter chocolate. Right, try to stop sniffing that. In the mouth, the wine is dense and chewy, an impermeable sifting of finely-milled tannins, burnished wood and polished granitic elements that gradually unveil deep spicy and floral roots that support ripe and macerated black and blue fruit flavors in a package that’s quite fresh and vibrant and ultimately beautifully balanced and integrated. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. 986 cases. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $25; I paid $30 in Memphis.