Thu 11 Apr 2013
One of the best-known vineyards in Sonoma County, if not California, is the Durell Vineyard, perched at the cusp of three appellations, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and Carneros, just a toe-hold in the latter, but entitled to a Sonoma Coast designation. Dedicated primarily to chardonnay and pinot noir, this vineyard supplies grapes to such labels as (perhaps most famously) Kistler, Chateau St. Jean, Patz & Hall and Robert Craig, as well as Saxon Brown, Loring, Three Sticks, Armida, Auteur and others. Ed Durell, a food broker in San Francisco, acquired the land in 1977, intending to raise cattle but planted vines instead, and, as it turns out, this area, just at the foot of the Sonoma Mountains, was prime soil and climate for those grapes. In 1998, Durell sold the 200-acre vineyard, by now a prestigious site, to Bill and Ellie Price. Bill Price, a cofounder of TPG Capital, which bought Beringer Wine Estates and sold it to Fosters and if that’s not a great introduction to the wine business I don’t know what is, and Ellie Price divorced in 2001 but each retains ownership of Durell Vineyard.
Ellie Price replanted 8.5 acres around the old farmhouse in 2005, renaming the area Ranch House Block; those grapes are now devoted to the Dunstan label, named for St. Dunstan (909-998), Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, canonized in 1029 and patron saint of goldsmiths and silversmiths; because he had worked as a blacksmith and, according to legend, shod the devil, the horseshoe is often his symbol. Dunstan is operated by Ellie Price and her partner Chris Towt (image at right); winemaker is Kenneth Juhasz.
I found these wines (samples for review), a chardonnay and pinot noir from 2010, to be extraordinary examples of the purity and intensity of which each of these grapes is capable. Juhasz doesn’t play around with oak; the regimen is rigorous but not soul-destroying, and after at first being skeptical of the program I was won by the remarkable detail and dimension of each wine, by their confidence and aplomb as well as their ultimately beautiful expressions of a grape variety and a significant place.
The Dunstan Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast, is Old Wente clone selection, meaning that it was made from vines that derive from cuttings brought from the University of Montpellier in 1912 by Carl Wente, who founded the family estate in Livermore in 1883. This well-known clone spread throughout California and helped fuel the state’s burgeoning production of chardonnay wines in the 1940s and ’50s at such pioneering properties as Stony Hill, Louis M. Martini and Hanzell. The wine is a bright green-gold color with a mild brassy tint; the bouquet is a bountiful and extremely flattering amalgam of papaya and mango, slightly roasted pineapple and grapefruit, with cloves and nutmeg and hints of lightly buttered brioche, delicately spicy oak — 14 months French oak, 50 percent new barrels — and, at the edges, a discreet tide of limestone. When you take a sip, you realize what a powerhouse this chardonnay is, though one that marries finesse and elegance to dimension and dynamism. Flavors of pears, peaches and pineapples are fully supported by a dense and chewy texture that manages to be supple and expressive, while bright acidity and a plangent limestone element lend a lively character that borders on scintillating. 14.2 percent alcohol. 391 cases. Obviously delectable (and a little formidable) now but built to last, say 2016 to ’18. I’ll go Exceptional. About $40.
The color of the Dunstan Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, is radiant medium ruby with a slightly lighter rim. Aromas of sassafras, pomegranate, cloves and cranberry nestle in a broader range of spiced and macerated black and red cherries and currants, deepened by intriguing notes of charred violets and ashes of roses. If you can tear yourself away from that rhapsodic panoply, you find a pinot noir that’s quite satiny and graceful yet very dry; like its stablemate, it aged 14 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, and for the first hour or so, I thought that regimen produced a shade too much wood influence in the wine. In the wonderful way that can happen, however, when you give a wine enough time and air, the oak receded by several degrees (remaining firmly in the background structure) and allowed the spareness, elegance and ineffability that I consider essential to great pinot noir to insinuate themselves (and brought in hints of cinnamon and fruitcake). Still, this is surprisingly tannic for a pinot, and a serious wine in its foundational elements of earth, briers, flint and graphite; there’s a lot of subtle power and energy here, but, as I said, that power does not detract from the wine’s ultimate suavity and style. 14.1 percent alcohol. 291 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Again, I have to go with an Exceptional rating. About $50.