Thu 15 Apr 2010
Perennially one of the best wines for summertime drinking is Heller Estate’s Chenin Blanc. The winery in California’s Carmel Valley, in Monterey County, southeast of the town of Carmel, is operated on rigorous organic terms, and its wines are not only organic but vegan, meaning that no animal products such as eggs or milk were used in fining, the process by which an innocuous substance is introduced to the wine to help precipitate solid particles to the bottom of a barrel or tank. Heller uses the traditional bentonite — Education Alert! — an absorbent clay (aluminum phyllosilicate) that has an astonishing number of industrial and medicinal uses, from the drilling and engineering industries, to a wide range of ceramics applications that include sand casting and rocket nozzles, to skin creams, laxatives and (paradoxically) cat litter.
Those with long memories may recall that Heller Estate occupies the old Durney Vineyards, first planted in 1968. Heller’s winemaker is Rich Tanguay.
Anyway, the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2008, which is drinking beautifully now, is a blend of 90 percent chenin blanc grapes and 10 percent riesling, or, as the winery notes say “Johannesburg Riesling.” Actually — another Education Alert! — the term “Johannisberg (proper spelling) Riesling” was phased out on Jan. 1, 2006 by the U.S. Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau aka TTB. American wine labels must now say “Riesling” or, for some reason “White Riesling,” as if there’s a lot of red riesling around to confuse us. Anyway, with no more digressions, as the winery’s hillside vineyards (1200 to 1500 feet elevation) have matured, the proportion of chenin blanc in the wine has increased; 10 years ago, the blend was more on the lines of 75 percent chenin blanc to 25 percent riesling. For 2008, the wine bursts with notes of honeydew melon, mango and litchee, with more subtle hints of straw, dried thyme, peach and tangerine; a few minutes in the glass bring up a hint of jasmine. Acidity that’s taut as a bow string keeps the wine lithe and lively, though the texture is a pleasing combination of crispness and slight lushness, and flavors of apple, roasted pears and softly spiced and macerated peaches are bolstered with a finishing touch of grapefruit bitterness. Serve as an aperitif or with moderately spicy seafood dishes. Excellent. About $25.
Heller makes a minute quantity of pinot noir; based on the Heller Pinot Noir 2007, Carmel Valley, I wish they made more, because this is frankly exquisite. The color is medium ruby with a pale violet rim. Aromas of black cherry, red currant and plum are wreathed with hints of nutmeg and cloves and a touch of something wild, like mulberry and rose petals. Bright acidity cuts a swath on the palate, holding a steady course through warm, smoky cherry and currant flavors ensconced in a seductive satiny texture that remains airy and elevating. Hints of clean damp earth and a kind of mossy-mushroomy quality lend a sense of true Burgundian character over undertones of slate-like minerality so chiseled that they feel transparent. Oak from 13 months in French barrels, 35 percent new, gently shapes the wine, providing subtlety and suppleness. Above all, this pinot noir exudes spareness and elegance and finely-tuned poise. The alcohol level is a modest 13.5 percent. 154 cases were produced. Excellent. About $50.
The petit verdot grape is not often made into its own wine, finding its purpose primarily in Bordeaux-style blends with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Even in Bordeaux, its natural habitat, petit verdot is not planted as much as it was 50 years ago. Still, a few wineries keep the faith, and Heller is one. The Heller Estate Petit Verdot 2007, Carmel Valley, doesn’t offer much in the way of elegance or poise; instead, it’s robust, earthy and succulent, virtues not to be denigrated when you have a steak sizzling on the grill or a rack of ribs slumbering in the smoker. The deep-purple colored wine opens with a dark fusillade of black pepper, blackberry and currant permeated by baking spice, graphite and bitter chocolate; gradually notes of lavender and lilacs, briers and brambles emerge. This is all rich, juicy, brambly black fruit in the mouth, an opulent sensation tempered by rousing acidity, dense chewy slightly dusty tannins and well-wrought oak, from 18 months in French barrels, 60 percent new. Give the wine a few more minutes, and it begins to smolder with wood smoke and bacon fat. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Production was 170 cases. Quite a performance — if you like wines that perform rather than simply exist — though I would be happier if it cost under $30. Excellent. About $50.
These wines were samples for review.