Carmel Valley

I keep reading that there has been a general toning down of oak in chardonnay wines produced in California, but you wouldn’t know it from the wines I taste, of which I offer today a selection of 16. I’ve uttered these sentences before, and I’ll probably utter them many more times before I close the computer a final time and drag my weary fingers to the catacombs, and I don’t care if you’re tired of reading them; to wit: If a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, it has too much oak. AND: Oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible. Oak barrels are instruments, and they should not define a wine or establish its character; definition and character derive from the vineyard and the grape. It traduces every aspect of common sense that winemakers would want to send out into the world and into the grasp of innocent consumers chardonnays that taste as if they were made from liquid sawdust, yet many chardonnay wines feel exactly like that … and they’re not cheap. To those who say, “But, FK, plenty of people like their chardonnays to smell and taste like oak,” my reply is “Fine, start your own blog. Call it” This, however, is my blog, and on this blog we abhor wines that obliterate the purity and intensity of the grape and the authority of the vineyard through the heavy-handed agency of oak barrels.

Anyway, the scorecard today reads Excellent, 4; Very Good+, 5; Very Good, 1; Good, 1; Not Recommended 5. Among the Not Recommended chardonnay’s but also earning an Excellent rating are three from La Rochelle, a winery I admire for its individuality and willingness to take risks, though that’s a stance that to my palate doesn’t always work, as you can see. Still, I would rather a winery extend itself and skate sometimes over the edge than produce more bland innocuous “me-too” wines.

As usual in these Weekend Wine Notes (previously Weekend Wine Sips and before that Friday Wine Sips), I eschew reams of technical, geographical, geological, climatic and historical data for quick incisive reviews designed to pique your interest, if not, in some cases, whet your palate. Enjoy! (Or not.)

Artesa Chardonnay 2011, Carneros. 13.8% alc. Pale gold color; clean and fresh, touches of apple and pear, hint of pineapple; quite spicy, smooth and supple, not creamy or viscous, “just right” as Goldilocks said; almost savory in its slightly roasted fruit qualities and modulated spicy aspects; bright acidity, and the limestone and flint elements and sense of oak expand through the finish. Nicely-made. Very Good+. About $20.
Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2010, Carneros Napa Valley. 14.9% alc. A bold and powerful expression of the grape but balanced and integrated; bright medium gold color; pineapple and grapefruit, ginger and quince, hint of cloves; wet stones and flint mineral element that grows as the moments pass; no doubt about the oak but it contributes creaminess to the mid-palate, a supple texture and spice; long spice-and-mineral-packed finish; tremendous tone and presence. 14.9% alc. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $55.
Cuvaison Estate Grown Chardonnay 2011, Carneros Napa Valley. 13.5% alc. The last Carneros Chardonnay I reviewed from Cuvaison was the 2007; I rated it “Excellent.” Not this example. Pale to medium gold color; bright, bold, ripe, spicy; you feel the oak from the moment you take a sip; grapefruit and pineapple, notes of lemon and lemon curd; plays a subtle floral card; plenty of acid and limestone minerality; supple texture at first but it feels as if the wine stiffens and becomes slightly unyielding with oak, which coats the palate and leave an astringent sensation in the mouth. Perhaps a year or two will help. Good only. About $25.
Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. First note: “Man, that’s a lot of wood.” & it goes on from there. Medium gold color; insistently spicy and cloying; austere and astringent oak dries the palate unpleasantly; like drinking liquid sawdust. Not recommended and consistent with my reviews of Davis Bynum chardonnay (and pinot noir) from previous vintages. About $30.
Dry Creek Vineyard Foggy Oaks Chardonnay 2010, Russian River valley. 13.5% alc. Medium gold color; apples, pears and grapefruit, undercurrent of pineapple, moderately spicy, firm foundation of gunflint and limestone; lovely balance and poise, shaped by vibrant acidity and a burgeoning oak element that provides a modulating quality to the wine’s richness. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $20, signifying Great Value.
Ferrari-Carano Tre Terre Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. “Vineyard Select Limited Production.” Bright medium gold color; banana and mango, baked grapefruit and pineapple, cloves and smoke; big, deep, rich and savory; bacon fat, ginger, lemon balm, have mercy; feels like multiple layers of limestone and flint-like minerality; a bit daunting and needs a little nuance and elegance, but not over-oaked, not cloying. Perhaps it needs a year of age. Very Good+. About $32.
Gallo Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley. 14.1% alc. 87% Laguna Vineyard, 13% Del Rio Vineyard. I always thought the winemaker’s thumbprint — in this case Gina Gallo, whose name is on the front label twice — was too heavy on this wine; bright medium gold color; rich, warm, spicy, almost dense and chewy for a chardonnay; very ripe citrus and tropical scents and flavors; butterscotch, vanilla, cloves — what is this, a dessert cart? the oak and spice elements are overwhelming; so unbalanced. Not Recommended. About $30.
Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay 2010, Russian River Valley. 14.2% alc. Pale gold color; fresh, clean, bright; pungent with cloves, slightly roasted peaches and yellow plums melded with pineapple and grapefruit with a whiff of white pepper; smoky oak, smoky caramel around the edges, quite dry yet feels innately balanced. Now through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $35.

Perhaps we really are in Spring now, or even tending toward Summer, and while it may be banal to say it — or merely a trope of the winewriting and reviewing gig — I think people are looking for lighter wines that provide delight as well as flavor. In fact, if you’re grilling shrimp or making chicken or tuna salad, an appropriate wine to uncork would be the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, from Carmel Valley in Monterey County, a blend of 87 percent organically grown chenin blanc and 13 percent riesling, made all in stainless steel. The color is pale gold with a faint green shimmer; the bouquet, well, you could swim in the bouquet or dab it behind your ears, this winsome and pert amalgam of prickly and briery ripe peach and pear with intensely pungent elements of camellia and lilac with a back note of lavender and a burgeoning hint of limestone. True to its principal grape, in the mouth there’s a touch of hay and yellow plum along with those spiced pear and peach flavors, while the limestone and flint minerality expands from mid-palate back and crisp acidity keeps the wine lively and appealing. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2013. I always look forward to this wine. Excellent. About $23.

A sample for review, as I am required to inform you by ruling of the Federal Trade Commission, an injunction that does not apply to print media.

I stayed one night at Holman Ranch last September, and the serenity and beauty of the place — the stillness, the magnitude of stars in the night sky — cannot be emphasized too much. Deep in the hills of Carmel Valley, inland and south of Monterey Bay, Holman Ranch occupies land bestowed upon the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo — hence, later, Carmel Valley — during the reign of Spain in these lands. After the mission properties were secularized, the area passed through many owners until in 1928, a Spanish-style hacienda was built and the ranch became an outpost or retreat for Hollywood stars and producers. Clarence Holman, of the Holman Department Store family in Pacific Grove, acquired the ranch in the 1940s and with business-like acumen transformed it from a private hideaway to a resort, which was still popular with Hollywood’s elite. Present owners Thomas and Jarman Lowder, who purchased Holman Ranch from Dorothy McEwen in 2006, restored the facility, the original hacienda, the quaint cabins and the grounds to full operation and comfort.

If you Google “Holman Ranch” you’ll see that the property’s raison d’etre focuses on events and meetings but particularly weddings. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a more spectacular setting for tying the matrimonial knot. For my purposes, however, it’s more important that Holman Ranch produces small quantities of well-made wines (and olive oil), samples of which were recently sent to me. I found the white wines and the rosé to be engaging and highly drinkable, while the two pinot noirs bordered on exquisite. Search though I did in the brochures that accompanied the wines and on the Holman Ranch website, I found no mention of a winemaker; surely credit must be given when it is earned. All these wines are designated “Estate Grown.”
Holman Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. This sleek sauvignon blanc offers a pale gold color and beguiling aromas of lime peel and grapefruit, roasted lemon, hints of thyme and tarragon and a lift of lemongrass. An element of limestone minerality produces a whiff of gunflint and also, in the mouth, bolsters citrus flavors lightly touched with fig and fresh-mown grass, all tied together with brisk acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. 224 cases. Quite charming, but drink up. Very Good+. About $20.

Holman Ranch Pinot Gris 2011, Carmel Valley. The color is very pale straw; pure apples and pears pour from the glass, imbued with notes of cloves and lime peel, camellia and jasmine. The wine is quite dry, crisp and zesty, eminently refreshing; citrus and pear flavors are bolstered by a burgeoning limestone and flint element, leading to some austerity through the spicy and slightly steely finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. 323 cases. Very Good+. About $20.

Holman Ranch Chardonnay 2010, Carmel Valley. This is an elegant and stylish chardonnay, from its pale straw-gold color, to its spare citrus and stone fruit scents and flavors, to its hints of jasmine and honeysuckle and dried herbs; there’s a bright undercurrent of crisp acidity and a distinct influence of limestone minerality. The wine is tasty, well-balanced and integrated but a little delicate (especially for a barrel-fermented chardonnay), so its match will be more delicate hors-d’oeuvre and seafood entrees. 12.5 percent alcohol. 205 cases. Very Good+. About $28.

Holman Ranch rosé of Pinot Noir 2011, Carmel Valley. Here’s a superior rosé whose brilliant hue of raspberry-tourmaline at least esthetically enhances its aromas of strawberry, watermelon and rose petals; its raspberry-watermelon flavors permeated by hints of pomegranate, cloves and (barely) cinnamon; its appealing touch of dried thyme and limestone minerality; its pert, thirst-quenching acidity. 12.5 percent alcohol. 144 cases. Drink through the end of 2013. Very Good+. About $22.
Holman Ranch Pinot Noir 2010, Carmel Valley. The enchanting hue is medium ruby-garnet; aromas of black cherries, mulberries and red plums are infused with notes of sassafras, pomegranate, cloves and a hint of rhubarb. This pinot noir evinces a lovely lightness of being at the same time as it embodies intensity of black and red fruit flavors and an exquisite satiny texture. A few minutes in the glass bring in touches of smoke and graphite; the finish is medium-length, supple and subtle. 12.5 percent alcohol. 500 cases. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $33.
Holman Ranch Heather’s Hill Pinot Noir 2011, Carmel Valley. The color is radiant medium ruby; the whole aura is warm, ripe and spicy, the display is impeccably balanced. Notes of spiced and macerated red currants, black raspberries and cranberries open to hints of cloves and cola. The wine is earthy, with elements of briers and brambles under flavors of red and black currants and cherries, yet it’s elegant, silky, integrated. After 30 or 40 minutes, you feel increasing dryness as the oak and mild tannins assert themselves, but overall this is beautifully made pinot noir. 14 percent alcohol. 444 cases. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $37.