Chardonnay


The brand-spanking-new FEL Wines is a project of Cliff Lede — pronounced “lay-dee” — owner of the Cliff Lede winery in Napa Valley. This Anderson Valley facility, named for the proprietor’s mother, Florence Elsie Lede, is devoted to chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir. Under review today, in this series dedicated to wineries that produce chardonnay and pinot noir, are the FEL Chardonnay 2013 and Pinot Noir 2012; winemaker Ryan Hodgins also produces each variety in a single vineyard version. Both of these wines are clean, ripe and forward — classic California, you might say — but well-balanced and endowed with multiple nuances of earth and minerality appropriate to the grape. Nothing shy here, though the final analysis tends toward elegance (especially for the pinot) as well as dynamism.

These wines were samples for review.
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The FEL Wines Chardonnay 2013, Anderson Valley, spent nine months in neutral French oak barrels and underwent what is described as “very limited” malolactic fermentation, both of which sound perfect to me; keep the oak and malo to a minimum, I say. The color is radiant medium gold; a very pure and intense bouquet of pungent pineapple and grapefruit is infused with cloves and lime peel, hints of jasmine and limestone and a back-tone of slightly woody spice. The wine is ripe, bright and lush, quite dry with its burgeoning elements of chalk, flint and limestone and scintillating acidity; notes of smoke and toffee add intrigue to the citrus and stone-fruit flavors that lean toward tangerine and peach, while a structure that’s dense, chewy and almost tannic segues into a spice-and-mineral-packed finish. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 1,201 cases. Quite a performance. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $28.
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The FEL Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, aged 14 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels, offers a lovely, limpid ruby-magenta hue and beguiling aromas of cranberries and red and black cherries and currants that open to notes of menthol and violets, leather, briers and brambles with hints of graphite and loam; after a few minutes in the glass, the wine emits touches of pomegranate, sassafras and cloves. Reader, you could eat it with a spoon. The supple texture is satin lifted to the supernal mode, though this pinot noir also delivers a slight mineral rasp and after an hour or so builds incrementally layers of soft-grained oak and finely-milled tannins. Bright acidity provides liveliness and propulsive energy through a wine that, however gorgeous its spiced and macerated black and red fruit flavors, feels like an entity of earth, moss, terrain, geology. 14.6 percent alcohol. Production was 2,923 cases. A true marriage of power and elegance. Now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $38.
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The pinot noirs of Kosta Browne Winery regularly earn the highest ratings from reviewers for the big publications, an occurrence that brings a great deal of attention to these highly allocated wines. In fact, the winery’s waiting list comes with a two- to three-year wait for the “Appellation” wines and — I’m not kidding — a five- to six-year wait for the Single Vineyard wines, of which there may be up to 10 separate bottlings depending on the vintage. The idea for the winery was born in 1997 when Dan Kosta and Michael Browne, then working at a restaurant in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, decided to venture into winemaking. They began with a half-ton of pinot noir grapes, a used barrel and a surplus stemmer-crusher. In 2001, Kosta and Browne brought in Chris Costello, from a family involved in commercial real estate and development, as the business end of the enterprise; through the Costello family, the partnership gained contacts, contracts and management acumen. Browne is executive winemaker, with assistant winemakers Jeremiah Timm and Nico Cueva. Kosta Browne draws on vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs in Sonoma County and Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in Monterey County. There is no tasting room, and the winery in Sebastopol is closed to the public.

Under consideration today are two of Kosta Browne’s Appellation wines, the One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012 and the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2012, in this series dedicated to the examination of chardonnay and pinot noir wines from the same producer. These wines were samples for review.
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The Kosta Browne One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley, is a blend of grapes derived from seven vineyards that total 12 different chardonnay clones, the notion being a sort of ideal balance of all the attributes those clones contribute to the wine. It’s named for the Gravenstein Hwy. 116 that cuts through the town of Sebastopol in the Russian River Valley sub-appellation of Green Valley. This AVA is the coolest and foggiest vineyard area of Russian River Valley, situated in the southwest corner where the Pacific Ocean influence is readily apparent. When I tell My Readers that this chardonnay went through barrel-fermentation and aged 15 months in oak, they will respond, “Uh-oh, FK is not going to like this chardonnay.” I’ll admit, though, that I was surprised at how much I liked this wine, and while I don’t normally find words of praise for what I think of as the Bold California Style of Chardonnay, this example was little short of thrilling.

Kosta Browne One Sixteen Chardonnay 2012 was indeed barrel fermented, 93 percent, the other 7 percent being in concrete. The wine did age 15 months, but only in 41 percent new oak. The color is medium gold, and the aromas define this chardonnay as bold, bright and rich, with ripe, slightly caramelized pineapple, grapefruit and mango highlighted by notes of cloves, vanilla, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and — faintly — lime peel and flint. The wine is supple and boisterously fruity and spicy on the palate, with hints of creme brulee, roasted lemon and baked pear. This sensuous panoply is both abetted and balanced by clean, vibrant acidity and a scintillating limestone element. My favorite style of chardonnay? No, but certainly a model of the type that I found surprisingly poised, energetic and delicious. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $58.
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The Kosta Browne Pinot Noir 2012, Sonoma Coast, derives from three vineyards in the south of the Sonoma Coast AVA, lying straight in the path of the Petaluma Wind Gap that allows a distinct maritime influence, and one vineyard in the northwestern coastal area of the AVA. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 46 percent new barrels. The color is medium ruby with an almost transparent rim; the amazingly complex and layered nose offers a seamless amalgam of cloves and menthol, violets and rose hips, with hints of loam, briers and iodine bolstering macerated black and red cherries and currants with a touch of cranberry. On the palate? Imagine supernal satin infused with velvet through which vivid acidity cuts a swath and earthy graphite minerality stakes a supporting claim; the influence of oak and tannin, both feeling slightly sanded and dusty, gradually seeps in, providing firm foundation for spicy black and red fruit flavors that seem ripe and juicy yet spare, elegant, a bit exotic. I re-corked the wine and tried it eight hours later, at which time it had closed down a bit, becoming more reticent, quite dry, with emphasis on structure. Even the next day, now open for more than 24 hours, this pinot noir kept its integrity and balance. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $64.
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The Grant and the Eddie of Grant Eddie Winery in North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, are Grant Ramey and Edward Shulten. Their label was called Ramey Shulten until a letter came from the well-known Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma County that said, in essence, “Oh no, boys, you’re treading on our trademark.” That’s when the brand became Grant Eddie. Ramey, a North Yuba native (on the right in this photo), was for many years the vineyard manager at Renaissance Vineyards and Winery. He began making wine at home from selected sites among the Renaissance hilltop vineyards in 1986. Shulten, originally from the Netherlands, was a well-traveled winemaker and sommelier; he is now winemaker for Renaissance, replacing Gideon Beinstock, who concentrates on his Clos Saron project. Ramey, who knows the acres of Renaissance better than anyone, leases some of the best sections for cabaernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, grenache and other red varieties.

Production is tiny at Grant Eddie, perhaps 700 cases annually, and the quality is very high, especially in the red wines. Alcohol levels are kept below 14 percent; the words “new oak” are not uttered unless in disparagement, though Ramey and Shulten are too polite to be disparaging. Vineyards are tended organically; grapes are fermented naturally and sulfites are kept to a minimum. When I was in California’s Sierra Foothills region back in June, I sat down with Grant Ramey and tasted through a wide range of Grant Eddie wines. I would encourage My Readers to look for the syrahs and the grenache wines particularly, though the zinfandels and cabernets thoroughly reward consideration; the cabernets tend to need five to seven years to shed their tannins. The whites — fewer than 200 cases altogether each year — are highly individual wines that lean toward eccentricity yet are interesting enough to merit a try.

Where are these wines? Distribution is very limited outside California. The wines are available through the website — grantedwinery.com — or if you happen to be in the area, you can find Grant Ramey at local farmer’s markets on weekends. Yes, in the Golden State wineries can offer tastings and sales of wines at these institutions.
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First, the white wines, all made half in French oak, half in stainless steel, the lees stirred once a week for five or six months. The white production at Grant Eddie is so small — about 200 cases altogether — that the wines seem almost superfluous, though because of their individual, even idiosyncratic character they’re worth exploring, especially the Semillon 2012 and the White Pearl from 2010 and ’11.

Semillon 2012. Medium gold color; roasted lemon, yellow plum, figs, leafy and savory; very dry, dusty, notes of loam and limestone; lovely texture, almost lush but cut by tremendous acidity; super attractive for drinking through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $22.
White Pearl 2010, a blend of 60 percent semillon and 40 percent sauvignon blanc that spent seven or eight months in two-to-four-year-old barrels. Medium gold color; very ripe, a little earthy; creamy fig, roasted lemon, a note of dried thyme; hint of creme brulee; quite dry, though, with a lovely moderately lush texture cut by fleet acidity; fairly austere on the finish. Excellent. About $22
White Pearl 2011. Moderate gold color, an idiosyncratic wine, highly individual and not quite fitting into any set of expectations; notes of roasted lemon, lime peel and and slightly over-ripe mango; very spicy, lively; very dry, with a taut acid-and-limestone structure, yet generous, yielding, a bit buxom. Very Good+. About $22.
Chardonnay 2013. Medium gold color; pineapple, grapefruit, mango; florid, bold, fairly tropical; quite dry, very spicy, doesn’t quite hang together. Very Good. About $22.
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Now the reds, first grenache, about 100 cases annually. From Ramey Mountain Vineyard.

Grenache 2011. Dark ruby, opaque; very earthy, briery and loamy; ripe, very spicy, a little wet-dog-funkiness; sweetly
ripe and intense blackberry-blueberry-raspberry flavors; fairly dense and chewy tannins but light on its feet; svelte, supple. Best after 2015, then to 2019 or ’20. Excellent.
Grenache 2010. Deep ruby color; intoxicating evocative bouquet of dried flowers, dried spices, fresh and macerated black and red fruit; clean and incisive, briers and brambles, loamy earthiness and graphite minerality; pinpoint acidity; dusty tannins; a supple, shapely grenache. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent.
Grenache 2007. Medium ruby hue; ripe, warm, spicy, a little fleshy; macerated and slightly roasted red and black currants and plums; lovely texture, sapid, savory; lip-smacking acidity in perfect balance with fruit, oak and gently dusty, leather-clad tannins; great length and tone. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent.

Sangiovese, about 50 cases annually.

Sangiovese 2011. 13.3% alc. Ramey Mountain Vineyard. Dark ruby-purple; wholly tannic, needs three to four years to learn company manners. Very Good+. About $22.
Sangiovese 2007. 13.6% alc. Whitman’s Glen Vineyard. Medium ruby color; raspberries, red and black currants, cloves, orange rind, black tea, hint of olive; fresh, agile, elegant; lovely fluid texture; classic. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent.

Zinfandel, 50 to 60 cases annually.

Zinfandel 2012. 13.9% alc. Ramey Mountain Vineyard. Deep purple with a magenta rim; clean, fresh, lithe; very pure and intense; blackberries, blueberries, black currants with a vein of poignant graphite minerality; perfectly managed tannins for framing and foundation, a little austere on the finish. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $27.
Zinfandel 2007. 13.5% alc. Whitman’s Mountain Vineyard. dark ruby with a garnet rim; ripe, meaty, fleshy, warm, spicy; macerated black fruit; vibrant, resonant structure, lively and vital, drinking beautifully. Through 2017 or ’18. Excellent.

Merlot, from Ramey Mountain Vineyard

Merlot 2011. 13.6% alc. Deep ruby-purple; very minerally, earthy and briery, distinct graphite and iodine element; large-framed, dense, dusty, chewy, fairly muscular tannins and bright acidity; will this evolve into something like merlot or more like cabernet? Try 2016 through 2020 to ’22. Very Good+. About $27.
Merlot 2008. 13.6% alc. Deep ruby-purple color but softer and riper than the ’11, almost luscious, but cut by iron-like tannins and arrow-bright acidity; black currants, blueberries and plums; clove and allspice build in the background over lavender and biter chocolate; needs more time, say 2015 or ’16 through 2018 to ’20. Excellent.

Syrah, this winery’s strength. “Syrah takes a while to even come to the beginning of something,” Ramey told me. You have to work with nature and the demands it makes on you.”

Syrah 2009. 13.7% alc. Ramey Mountain Vineyard. Deep ruby color; incredible concentration and intensity of variety, confidence and purpose, though almost pure graphite and granitic minerality now and draped with dense dusty tannins; youthfully inchoate, needs three or four years to find balance, but the depths of character are apparent. Try from 2015 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $27.
Syrah 2007. 13.8% alc. Whitman’s Mountain Vineyard. Dark ruby with a slightly lighter garnet rim; a tad riper and more approachable than the ’09 but lots of dusty minerality, iron and iodine; the purity and intensity of black fruit are impressive and alluring; quite dry, the finish a bit austere. Now through 2017 to 2020. Excellent.
Ramey Schulten Syrah 2004. 13% alc. Meadow’s Knoll Vineyard. This is beautiful, such depth and layering, such a combination of character and personality, with pinpoint and vibrant fruit, acidity and graphite minerality; such a feeling of poise and expectation, though still huge, dense, chewy, with real edge, grit and glamor. A masterpiece, to drink through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional.

Cabernet sauvignon.

There are two Grant Eddie cabernet sauvignon wines for 2012, one that’s 100 percent cabernet, the second a blend that includes four percent merlot and three percent each cabernet franc and petit verdot. Not necessarily predictably but it turned out that the 100 percent version features an almost pure graphite-granitic-iron-and-iodine character with tannins that are hard, lithe and dusty but not punishing. Give this one until 2018 or ’20 and drink until 2028 or ’30. The alternate rendition is fairly burly and tannic but offers notes of cassis, black cherry, lavender and cloves as concession. Excellent potential for each, and each about $28. The 2009 and 2007, each from Ramey Mountain Vineyard and delivering 13.7 percent alcohol, and not nearly ready to drink, offering penetrating minerality and acidity. Give them three or four more years’ aging.
Let’s go back, however, to the Ramey Schulten Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, a blend of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent syrah and 15 percent each cabernet franc and merlot, for a wine of gorgeous shape and proportion that displays sweetly ripe black and red fruit scents and flavors, evocative spice and mild herbal qualities and deep foundational tannins and resonant acidity for essential structure. This and the Syrah 2004 were the best wines of an extraordinary tasting.

Grant Eddie also produces 75 to 100 cases of port (or port-like) wine every year, made from the classic Douro Valley grapes, of which the inky-purple California Port 2012 is young, bright, vigorous and intensely minerally, with soft elegant tannins (about $33); the Ramey-Schulten 2001 is lightly spiced and macerated, a bit sweet and plummy; and the gently faded Ramey Schulten 1992 — a real treat — offers notes of fruitcake, toffee, figs, cloves and orange zest in supple and mildly tannic structure.
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Here’s a winsome sparkling wine to ease you from Summer into Autumn. The Gérard Bertrand “Cuvée Thomas Jefferson” Brut Rosé 2012 is designated Crémant de Limoux, meaning that it hails from the countryside around the little town of Limoux — pop. 9,781 souls — a commune and subprefecture in the Aude department in the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region. Limoux lies a mere 30 kilometers or 19 miles south of the celebrated castle-city of Carcassonne, nestled in the French foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. Limoux — motto: “We Were First!” — claims its right as the birthplace of sparkling wine, for some reason focusing on the exact year of 1631. Be that as it may, most of the wine produced around Limoux — pronounced lee-MOO — is sparkling, either in the guise of Blanquette de Limoux, made principally from the indigenous mauzac grape, or Crémant de Limoux, which allows chardonnay and chenin blanc in the blend. Why Cuvée Thomas Jefferson? Because when that most Francophile of American presidents died, the only sparkling wines found in his cellar were from — guess! — Limoux.

The Gérard Bertrand “Cuvée Thomas Jefferson” Brut Rosé 2012, Crémant de Limoux, a blend of 70 percent chardonnay, 15 percent chenin blanc and 15 percent pinot noir, displays a very pale onion skin hue and a silvery torrent of tiny glinting bubbles. Faint notes of peaches and spiced pears offer a lightly floral aura and touches of hay and dried field herbs; way in the background there are undertones of orange rind and pomegranate. This is crisp, lively and buoyant on the palate, with cleanly etched acidity and more than a whisper of limestone minerality. On the palate, the wine delivers more citrus than stone-fruit, and it finishes with hints of grapefruit, roasted lemon and flint; it’s dry but with appealing ripeness and fine balance. 12.5 percent alcohol. Charming and delightful. Very Good+. About $22, my purchase.

Imported bu USA Wine West, Sausalito, Calif.

Three Sticks Wines was founded by Bill Price III — get it? his surfer handle was Billy Three Sticks — who also owns one of California’s best-known vineyards, Durell Vineyard, which he purchased in 1998. He co-founded the private equity firm Texas Pacific Group in 1992 and sold his share back to the company in 2007, and that, friends, is a lesson in how you get into the vineyard and winery business. Price is chairman of Kosta Brown Winery and Gary Farrell Winery — you know those names — and has interest in Kistler, another name you know. He met winemaker and fellow-surfer Don Van Staaveren (image at right) in 1996 when TPG acquired Chateau St. Jean from Suntory, and in 2004 Price asked Van Staaveren to come aboard as winemaker at Three Sticks. (I’m condensing history quite a bit here.) The “winery” occupies space in an industrial/warehouse area in Sonoma, a practical measure since no one has to worry about tasting rooms, landscaping, high-end facilities, jazz concerts, picnic grounds, executive chefs and so on, though a great deal of organizational logistics is required. Van Staaveren, who created the sensational Cinq Cepage cabernet sauvignon for Chateau St. Jean, indeed resembles nothing more nor less than a gracefully aging, if slightly craggy, California boy; when I visited Three Sticks in the Summer of 2013, he wore a cast on one arm, the result of a surfing mishap. The wines he creates from the Durell Vineyard and other vineyards are thoughtfully made and embody tremendous personality and character. Unfortunately, they are produced in limited quantities and are available only on an allocation list. They are worth a visit to the winery’s website threestickswines.com to sign up. These examples were samples for review.

This post is the fourth in a series devoted to wines made from two grapes that seem to occur together, chardonnay and pinot noir, on the model of Burgundy.
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The Three Sticks One Sky Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Mountain — the first Three Sticks release for this wine from a vineyard that remains anonymous — was treated in a manner traditional for California chardonnay: barrel fermentation; 14 months aging in French oak barrels, 50 percent new; full malolactic fermentation. The color is medium straw-gold; classic aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit feel infused by quince and ginger, spiced pear and toasted hazelnuts, amid a background of limestone minerality. This is a supremely rich chardonnay, slightly creamy but not buttery or tropical, and its lusciousness is tempered by bright acidity and that scintillating limestone element; citrus and stone-fruit flavors are highlighted by notes of orange marmalade and a hint of grapefruit pith. Altogether, this is a round, supple, mouth-filling chardonnay that displays lovely, if a bit florid, balance and tone. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 222 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $50.
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The winemaker took a completely opposite approach to the Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Origin Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Valley. This wine was fermented in giant concrete egg-shaped vessels and aged 14 months in small steel barrels; not a smidgeon of oak touched it, and it did not go through malolactic. The grapes derived from two areas in the Durell Vineyard, “Old Wente 5,” on a northwest-facing slope of light soil, and “V9,” one of the rockiest and windiest parts of the vineyard. The color is medium straw-gold; the first impression is of something earthy, highly structured, almost tannic in effect, but with a core of remarkable resonance and vitality that animates captivating scents and flavors of quince jam and crystallized ginger, candied grapefruit and spiced pear with hints of lemon oil and lime peel, the whole package conveying the feeling of a lacy transparency of fruit over a dense, almost talc-like texture and a vibrant structure of limestone, damp gravel and chiming acidity. All in all, amazing energy, presence and tone, a wine that gives new meaning to “no-oak chardonnay.” 14.6 percent alcohol. Production was 266 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Exceptional. About $48.
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The Three Sticks Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, Sonoma Coast, took grapes from three blocks of the estate vineyard, all of which greet the sunrise: The Extension, a steep slope that falls mainly east but a little to the south; the Terraces, an area of slightly terraced rows running north-south and with an eastern exposure; Block R, a cool, windy location of light soil with red volcanic deposits that falls on a slight slope to the east. The grapes fermented in open-top vessels, and the wine aged 14 months in French oak barrels, 50 percent new. The color is a translucent and luminous medium ruby hue; beguiling aromas of pomegranate, rhubarb and cranberry are permeated by notes of cloves and allspice, loam, briers and brambles and a hint of graphite; a few moments in the glass bring up hints of smoky red and black cherries, rose petals and sandalwood. This is a substantial pinot noir, blessed with a sense of total confidence and completion, though whatever character it possesses of power and dynamism is complemented by qualities of grace, delicacy and elegance. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 170 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $65.
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Few wineries in Napa Valley and indeed in California are as iconic, both physically and metaphysically, as the Robert Mondavi Winery. Its mission-style facility on Hwy 29 on Napa Valley is unmistakable. The story has often been told of how Robert Mondavi (1913-2008), in a feud with his brother Peter about the operation of the Charles Krug winery, left that business and launched his own winery in 1966, eventually becoming a wine-juggernaut of world-wide innovation and influence. As they say, the rest is history, though the history of the winery related on a timeline on the company’s website skips from 2002 to 2005, omitting the fact that the over-extended family sold the kit-n-kaboodle to Constellation Brands in November 2004 for a billion dollars. The wise move that Constellation made was to retain Genevieve Janssens as director of winemaking, a position she has held since 1997, thus lending a sense of continuity and purpose. Modavi continues to release a dizzying array of products — a rose! a semillon! (neither of which I have seen) — but the concentration is on the varieties that made its name, often produced at levels of “regular” bottlings, single-vineyard and reserve: cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Today, in this series, I consider the Robert Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from 2012.

These wines were samples for review.
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Let’s start with red, this one being my favorite of the pair. The Robert Mondavi Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley, spent 10 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels, and to my mind that’s a lot of new oak for pinot noir. Despite my opinion, however, the grapes soaked up that oak, and the wine came out sleek and satiny; this is no ethereal, evanescent pinot noir, but a wine of substance and bearing. The color is dark ruby with a purple/magenta tinge; aromas of black cherry and raspberry are bolstered by notes of pomegranate and sassafras, oolong tea, graphite and loam, all in all retaining a winsome quality in the earthiness. Nothing winsome on the palate, though; while the texture is wonderfully supple and attractive, and the black and red fruit flavors are deep and delicious, this is a pinot noir that takes its dimensions seriously, as elements of new leather, briers and brambles and slightly woody spice testify. 14.5 percent alcohol. At not quite two years old, the Robert Mondavi Reserve Pinot Noir 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley, is still in its formative years; try from 2015 or ’16 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $60.
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Unfortunately, the Robert Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay 2012, Carneros, Napa Valley, pushes all my wrong buttons as far as the chardonnay grape is concerned. The color is medium straw-gold; with its rich and ripe mango-papaya trajectory, this is more tropical than I would want a chardonnay to be, not even accounting for its creamy elements of lemon curd and lemon tart, its vanilla and nutmeg and touch of lightly buttered cinnamon toast. The wine aged a sensible 10 months in French oak barrels, 58 percent new — that’s the sensible part — but its over-abundant spice and its nuances of toffee and burnt match detract from the grape’s purity of expression, and it lacks by several degrees the minerality to give the wine balance and energy. I know, I know, many of My Readers are going to say, “Well, look, FK, this is an argument about style, not about whether this is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ wine,” and I will reply, “Yes, I’m aware of that fact, but a style of winemaking that obscures the virtues of the grape is folly.” This is, frankly, not a chardonnay that I would choose to drink. 13.5 percent alcohol; that’s a blessing. Now through 2017 or ’18, but Not Recommended. About $40.
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I wrote about Kathleen’s Inman’s wines produced under the Inman Family Wines label last year in October; check out that post for information about the history of the winery and Inman’s philosophy. Suffice to say that in this second entry in my “Pinot and Chardonnay” series, I offer a pair of wines that strike, to my palate, the perfect notes of balance and integration, purity and intensity, power and elegance. These wines were samples for review.
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The Inman Family Chardonnay 2012, Russian River Valley, is not made from estate vines but from grapes purchased from the Pratt-Irwin Lane Vineyard. Native yeast was employed. The wine matures 40 percent in new French oak and 60 percent in small stainless steel barrels, both portions going through malolactic fermentation. The color is pale gold; aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit are highlighted by notes of quince and ginger, jasmine and acacia, limestone and flint. The whole package is characterized by perfect tone and balance, with its spare and elegant qualities poised against scintillating limestone minerality and bright acidity. The kind of chardonnay that makes me happy to drink chardonnay. 11.6 percent alcohol; you read that correctly. Drink now through 2016. Production was 493 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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Allow me to say right here that 21 months in oak seems like doom to pinot noir to me, but the Inman Family OGV Pinot Noir 2011, Russian River Valley, displays, as I said about its stablemate mentioned above, perfect tone and balance of all elements, while retaining, as Kathleen Inman’s pinot noirs tend to do, something wild and exotic. The color is dark to medium ruby-magenta; beguiling and ineffable scents of cranberry, pomegranate and rhubarb are permeated by heartier, earthier notes of briers, brambles and loam, while after a few moments in the glass a whiff of intense black cherry and cloves comes out. On the palate, the wine is warm and spicy, with a wonderfully satiny drape to the texture that’s bolstered by straight-arrow acidity, a hint of graphite minerality and moderate yet certainly present tannins. Another minute or two of swirling and sipping produces touches of rose petals, lilac and sandalwood. Criminy, what a beautiful pinot noir! 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 517 cases. Drink through 2017 to ’19 with roasted chicken, veal or seared duck. Excellent. About $68.
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I started this post as a way of commemorating my 30th anniversary in wine-writing, reached, as My Regular Readers know — bless your little pointy heads and may your tribes increase — early in July. Initially, the concept was “Fifty Great Wines,” but I decided that choosing 50 “great” wines from 30 years of tasting would be an impossible and probably just stupid and futile task. In three decades, I tasted thousands and thousands and more thousands of wines — you writers know how it is — so choosing the 50 “greatest” from this immense group would be a Sisyphian exercise.

Then I realized that what would be more significant anyway would be 50 wines that, as the title states, shaped my palate, the wines that shook me to the core, that shifted my perspective about how wine is made and its various effects, that achieved a level of purity and intensity that befit the divine; the wines, in short, that were not only definitive but created me as a writer. Yes, just that. So I spent the past few weeks combing through dozens of old notebooks, through the electronic archives of the newspaper for which I wrote a weekly column for 20 years and of course through the pages of this blog.

Now let’s be frank about some issues. As a wine reviewer, I am dependent on the practice of samples provided by producers, importers, marketers and (to a lesser extent) local distributors; I depend on the occasional trade tasting, lunch with a touring winemaker, on sponsored travel to wine regions in this country and abroad. You will not, therefore, see a list that emphasizes the great wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, though some are included, more Burgundy than Bordeaux, because I have few opportunities to encounter such wines. Perhaps, however, you will discover here wines that you had forgotten or overlooked; certainly there will be surprises. To those of my wine-writing/blogging/tasting friends who might say, “Cripes, FK, I can’t believe you didn’t put [whatever legendary fabuloso wine] on this list!” I can only reply, “I never had the chance to taste that wine and if you want to send me a bottle, I’ll be grateful but not humbled.” This is about my experience as an individual, as, you might say, a palate.

I benefited early on from the generosity of two people in Memphis, the restaurateur-wine collector John Grisanti and a figure important in wholesale, retail and wine education, Shields Hood. Many of the wines they offered me, exposed me to and sent in my direction truly changed my life and made me what I am today.
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1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley. Purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still, at least in memory, one of the greatest California pinots I ever encountered.

2. Mercurey Clos des Myglands 1971, Faiveley. Tasted at John Grisanti’s private cellar, September 16, 1984. As in “Ah, so that’s what Burgundy is all about.”

3. Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon 1976, Champagne. At a wholesaler’s tasting, with Shields Hood, September 17, 1984.

4. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyards, Alexander Valley. Last week of September, 1984.

5. Chateau La Grange 1926, St Julien Third Growth, Bordeaux. At a special wine dinner at the long-departed American Harvest Restaurant in Germantown, east of Memphis, October 1984. As in, “Ah, so this is what an aged Bordeaux wine is all about.” I love the label.

6. Simi Reserve Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Alexander Valley. My then father-in-law bought a case of this wine at $16 a bottle. High-living in those days. At 10 years old, it was perfect, expressive, eloquent. This was at Christmas dinner, 1984.

7. Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 1971, Grivelet. At John Grisanti’s cellar, June 9, 1985, a great afternoon.

8. Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, Sonoma County. July 27 and 28, 1985. Fine balance, harmony and integration, a sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint. This winery was not renamed for its founder Rodney Strong until after he sold it in 1984.

9. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac, Bordeaux. Definitive for the vintage and the chateau; tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991.

10. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley. Purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50(!); consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986.

11. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley. At a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986.

12. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves, Bordeaux. At a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66.

13. Paul Jaboulet Aîné La Chapelle 1949, Hermitage, Rhone Valley, France. One of a mixed case of wonderful wines I received for annotating a cellar, drunk at a dinner in the Fall of 1988. At 39 years old, one of the best wines I have ever tasted.

14. Beaune Clos des Ursules 1952, Louis Jadot. At lunch with Gagey pere et fils at the maison in Beaune, March 1990. When I mentioned this to a friend back in the U.S., he said, “Oh, yeah, they pull out that wine for all the Americans.” No matter.

15. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983. Tasted in New York, October 1991.

16. Gaja Barbaresco 1955, Piedmont, Italy. Made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991.

17. Chateau Beychevelle 1928, St. Julien Fourth Growth, Bordeaux. At a large tasting of multiple vintages of Chateau Branaire-Ducru and Chateau Beychevelle going back to 1893, with collector Marvin Overton and British writer Clive Coates, in Nashville. This ’28 was even better than the examples from the god-like years of ’47, ’45 and ’29; just writing that sentence made me feel like Michael Broadbent.

18. Freemark Abbey 1978, Napa Valley. At a vertical tasting in Chicago, January 1993.

19. Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Napa Valley. I bought six half-bottles of this splendid perfectly aged cabernet from a FedEx pilot who was divesting his cellar and served them at a dinner party in 1996.

20. Chalone Chardonnay 1981, Monterey. A revelation at almost 15 years old; I bought this and some other California chardonnays from the late ’70s and early ’80s out of a cellar that had been kept at 40 to 45 degrees; tasted with LL and a friend at Cafe Society in Memphis, May 1996.

21. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia. Tasted at the property, October 1998, very young, filled with power and otherworldly grace.

22. Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir 1997, Gippsland, Australia. Tasted in Melbourne, October 1998; they’re not shy with oak at Bass Phillip, but this was a thrilling monument to pinot noir purity and intensity.

23. Clos Apalta 1996, Rapel Valley, Chile, 95 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. The initial release, tasted at the hacienda of Don Pepe Rabat, who owned the oldest merlot vineyard in Chile, with Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and Michel Rolland, April 1998.

24. Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998, Domaine G. Roumier. From the barrel at the property, December 7, 1999, my birthday. The earth seemed to open under my feet.

25. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol, Bordeaux. Barrel sample at the property, December 1999. One of the most profound wines I have ever experienced.

26. Robert Mondavi To Kalon 1 Block Fume Blanc 2000, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

27. Robert Mondavi Marjorie’s Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Oakville District, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

28. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Tasted at the International Pinot Noir Conference, McMinnville, August 2002.

29. Nicolas Joly Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. New York, at La Caravelle, January 2003, with the line-up of Joly’s wines.

30. Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1966, South Australia. At a comprehensive tasting of this iconic wine, 1996 back to 1955, at Spago in L.A., April 2003.

31. Chateau d’Epiré 1964, Savennières Moelleux, Loire Valley, France. At a dinner associated with the Loire Valley Wine Fair, February 2004.

32. Domaine de la Pepière Clos des Briords 1986, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Loire Valley, France. At the estate with proprietor Marc Ollivier, one of the great tasting experiences of my life, February 2004.

33. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001. Tasted in New York, June 2004.

34. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Tasted in New York, March 2006.

35. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996, Champagne, France. Tasted in New York, September 2006; fabulous but not nearly ready to drink.

36. Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru 2004, Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

37. Corton Grand Cru 2002, Domaine Comte Senard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

38. Chateau Montelena The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley. New York, September 2007.

39. Porter-Bass Chardonnay 2004, Russian River Valley. New York, September 2007.

40. Pommard Les Epenots Premier Cru 2004, Dominique Laurent. New York, September 2007.

41. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. Sample for review, tasted at home October 2008. The best first-release cabernet I ever encountered.

42. Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Napa valley. Sample for review, tasted at home December 2008.

43. Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Pettenheim Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 1991, Rheingau, Germany. At the estate, July, 2009.

44. Quinta da Roameira Vintage Porto 2007. In Douro Valley, August 2009, at a comprehensive tasting of the 2007 ports at Niepoort.

45. Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Tasted in Piedmont, January, 2010, with winemaker Giorgio Lavagna and a ragtag gaggle of American bloggers.

46 & 47. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza. Tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010.

48. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998. Purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010, with Imperial Osetra caviar from Petrossian.

49. Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenerg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany. A sample for review, tasted December 2011.

50. Müllen Kinheimen Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. Tasted with Lyle Fass in New York, December 2013.

Well, I already see a couple of wines that I should have included in this roster — Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes, for example — but 50 is a good wholesome round number with an air of closure about it, so let’s leave it alone. And for the future? The process of learning, having our minds changed, our ideas and consciousness expanded never ends. Perhaps there will be candidates for this list from 2014, among them the Clos Saron Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah 2011, Sierra Foothills, made by Gideon Beinstock, and, oddly enough, the Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas, made by Dan Gatlin. We’ll see how I feel in another 30 years.

One of the seemingly natural pairs in terms of wine type, grapes and geography is chardonnay and pinot noir. Doubtless such a perception stems from the conjunction of chardonnay and pinot noir in their Ur-home, their cradle, their altar, in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. It’s the terroir, stupid, a small narrow stretch of low, southeast-facing hills upon which nature, climate and geology have, with mindless yet carefully calibrated precision, wrought exactly the gradations, exposure, drainage, top soil and under-girding layers, wind and weather — the latter being the wild card — to produce some of the world’s legendary vineyards and finest, rarest wines. It’s not surprising, then, that growers and winemakers in other regions of the world consistently seek to emulate that pairing of these grapes.

No place else is Burgundy, of course, so no area can hope to duplicate exactly the terroir or the conditions that prevail there. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, for example, the pinot noir grape performs beautifully among those verdant hills and dales, while chardonnay — not that there’s not good chardonnay — is gradually giving over to pinot blanc, pinot gris and riesling. Many regions in California are amenable to chardonnay and pinot noir: Anderson Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley and other smaller and more isolated areas produce splendid examples of each. It’s not surprising that large producers include both types of wines in their rosters or that small-scale wineries sometimes specialize in just the two.

Today’s post inaugurates a series in which I will be looking at the chardonnay and pinot noir wines of producers in California, sometimes individually, occasionally in groups. There’s a good chance that My Readers have not heard of Gallegos Wines. The close-knit family released its first wines only last year, but its roots in Napa Valley — figuratively and literally — go back three generations. The wine industry in California could not exist without the labor of the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who work in the vineyards and wineries, plant and then tend the vines and grapes through all stages of growth. Increasingly, many of those workers with ties to the land and the industry are starting to make wine too, enough that there’s now a Mexican-American winemakers organization.

Ignacio Gallegos came to California from Michoacan in the 1940s and settled in St. Helena, in Napa Valley, in the mid-1950s. His son, Ignacio II, and grandsons, Eric and Ignacio III, worked in vineyard management and gained the renown that enabled them in 2007 to finally establish their own vineyard management company. Having worked in many of the valley’s finest vineyards, having their own company and with Eric and Ignacio III completing college and courses in viticulture and winemaking, it seemed inevitable that the family would draw on these resources and the grapes from the Rancho de Gallegos estate in the Rutherford bench area, owned by Ignacio II’s brother Maurilio. Gallegos Family Wines produces about 1,000 cases; in addition to the chardonnay and pinot noir reviewed here, there’s a sauvignon blanc, with merlot, petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon coming soon.

These wines were samples for review. Image of Eric, Ignacio II and Ignacio III by Tom Stockwell for the Napa Valley Register.
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The Boekenoogen Vineyard is one of my favorite vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands, and the family that owns and farms the land produces terrific wine from it. The Gallegos Boekenoogen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Lucia Highlands, is a reflection of the greatness of that land. The color is a limpid medium ruby with mulberry undertones; this is exquisite, evanescent, transformational pinot noir that features slightly fleshy aromas of red currants and cherries flecked with mulberries, violets and rose petals, cloves, allspice and sassafras, and notes of rhubarb with briers and brambles for an earthy element; all amounting to perhaps the most alluring and definitive bouquet on a pinot noir that I have encountered this year. The division of oak is 25 percent new French barrels and 75 percent neutral, though I was not informed about the length of aging; I venture to say not excessive, because the oak influence here is subliminal, a subtle and supple shaping force. The texture is delightfully sleek and satiny, supporting smoky black and red cherry and currant flavors that take on a bit of loam and leathery earthiness through the finish; well-knit and integrated tannins round off the package. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Production was 250 cases. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $42.
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The Charmer Vineyard, owned by Ed Beard Jr. and located in the heart of the Yountville AVA, was planted by Ignacio Gallegos and his brothers more than 30 years ago, so they know it well. They produced 125 cases of the Gallegos Charmer Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Yountville, Napa Valley, a wine that sees only 25 percent new French oak barrels and underwent 25 percent malolactic, the natural chemical transformation that turns sharp malic acid into milder and creamier lactic acid; the result is a chardonnay that retains bright acidity and is not a creamy-butter bomb, while maintaining a lithe, supple almost talc-like texture. The color is pale gold; no denying the richness, in aromas and flavors, the slightly caramelized pineapple and grapefruit with top-notes of jasmine, mango and cloves, but elements of flint and damp gravel and a crisp exhilarating character keep it honest and true. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $29.
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I can’t say a great deal about most of these wines, because they were tasted on the fly or at a buffet lunch or dinner during my sojourn in the High Plains AVA (indicated in the map) back in the month of May. And My Readers throughout the country will recognize that the enterprise is inherently unfair in relationship to their curiosity because very few wines produced in the Lone Star State are available beyond its irregular borders. Naturally, this circumstance disturbs winemakers in Texas, because they know that many of the wines that issue from their doors are fine enough to stand up to any in the U.S.A. (No state, of course, has a monopoly on mediocre wines.) Texas has slightly more than 200 wineries; 95 percent of the wine is consumed inside the state. Obviously in a three-day visit, the main purpose being to tour vineyards and interview owners and growers, I could experience only the tiniest fraction of vinous products and those primarily relating to High Plains grapes. Still, I thought that it would be friendly and decent to give a shout-out to the wines that stood above the pack. I’ll say that some of the pricing structure seems inflated, if not downright grandiose. If you’re passing through Texas, however, you might want to investigate some of these wines at retail stores or perhaps visit the wineries. Most will be happy to ship for you if the state you live in allows the practice.
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McPherson Les Copains Rosé 2013, Texas, about $11. A delicate blend of 55 percent cinsault, 30 percent mourvèdre and 15 percent viognier. Kim McPherson is the son of “Doc” McPherson, one of the founders of seminal High Plains winery Llano Estacado, in Lubbock. McPherson Cellars is also in Lubbock and occupies an old Coca-Cola bottling plant from the 1930s. This is one of the best rosés I’ve had all year.
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It’s a consensus ( or fervent hope) in the High Plains of Texas AVA that tempranillo is the grape that will turn the tide and bring national attention to the region, though there’s a back-bench movement for montepulciano. This belief indicates a general segue in High Plains away from “classic” grapes like chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon to grapes that reflect the hot dry climate and its similarity to some areas of Spain, Italy and southern France. I probably tried more wines made from tempranillo grapes (or blends) while I was in High Plains than all the other wines combined; these four were certainly the best:

1. Becker Reserve Tempranillo 2012, about $19
2. Lewis Wines Newsom Vineyard Tempranillo 2011, High Plains. About $32(?). Neal Newsom is a prominent grower in High Plains.
3. Lost Oak Tempranillo 2012, about $33. (The winery is in Burleson, south of Fort Worth.)
4. Inwood Estates Vineyards Cornelious Reserve 2012, 100 percent tempranillo from the Inwood Block at Newsom Vineyards. About $69. (See next entry for more about Inwood.)
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Dan Gatlin is a wine pioneer in Texas, an outspoken and controversial figure. There’s no denying, though, that he is a brilliant winemaker or that his Inwood Estates wines, authentic and highly individual, are difficult to forget once you taste them. Gatlin’s chardonnays undergo no barrel-fermentation or malolactic and have what he called “a brief exposure to oak.” Both the 2012 and ’13 are notable chardonnays, the ’12 deftly balanced between elegance and weight, with prominent stony minerality and hints of pineapple, cloves and baked peaches; the ’13 suave, supple yet a little earthy, almost briery, showing chalky-flint elements. These are from Dallas County; they run about $40. Despite the movement toward Mediterranean basin grapes, cabernet sauvignon is still grown in High Plains; Gatlin’s Inwood Estates Mericana Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Newsom Vineyards, about $70, was definitively the best that I tasted.
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As testament to the affinity of Texas High Plains climate to the grapes of southern France and Spain, I tasted these three wines on every occasion they were offered and kept going back for more. The “Reddy” refers to Vijay Reddy, a prominent grower in High Plains.

1. Bending Branch Reddy Vineyard Mourvèdre 2011, Texas Hill Country, 145 cases, about $28.
2. Brushy Creek Reddy Vineyards Tannat 2008, Texas, about $20.
3. Brushy Creek Rachel’s Reserve Carignane 2010, Martin’s Vineyards, Texas. About $25.
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