February 14, 2017 – Yes, we have a few more weeks of winter ahead, but when you live in the Monterey Bay are, you’re surrounded by an endless season of things that bloom. And you’re surrounded by wine—that just keeps getting better.
Having the opportunity to taste a variety of the latest wine releases from the local vintners at a trade tasting is always a treat. It’s made all the more intriguing when you can actually talk to the winemakers about what they’re doing, what they’re excited about and what they’re planning for the future.
For example, it was awesome to see the wines from Ian and Heather Brand taking a new kind of shape, with the rollout of the I. Brand & Family label that will include exciting new things like Bates Ranch Cab Franc and Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon from two of the most highly sought after vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Gianni Abate from Chalone says he was finally breathing after the 2016 harvest: the heat, the fires, the drought–you name it–major stress factors no matter where you are growing grapes, but especially in a toasty spot like Chalone. He feels relatively confident he’s getting closer to picking the grapes at their optimal ripeness, which is significantly south of where they had been picked in the recent past. He’s definitely looking at going lower on Brix next harvest, as he dials in the balance. It’s a real adjustment after so many years of dealing with SLH fruit.
Matt Shea from Bernardus was straight up about the 2016 vintage, saying that all the wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands were just fine, but the same could not be said for grapes from Carmel Valley. When in doubt, just don’t do it. Smoke taint is something you can throw a whole lot of money at and never get rid of it. Sometimes, you make it worse. His philosophy is that it’s better not to make wine at all then to make something you personally wouldn’t drink.
We talked about the fact that many wineries claimed to have had grapes tested after the 2016 fires and the results came back “fine.” He believes this could potentially be contributed to the way results are interpreted: or, it could simply be alternative facts.
The threshold for detecting smoke taint differs from person to person, just as does the threshold for uncovering cork taint, brett or volatile acidity. When there’s enough smoke taint to alert the sensitive noses of sommeliers and super tasters, what’s the point in claiming the average person won’t notice? Especially when the problem generally gets worse over time, as I’ve experienced with wines from the 2008 vintage from several impacted regions.
While you might not mind it in Syrah, the way smoke builds up in Pinot as it bottle ages will remind you of licking an ashtray. In Chardonnay, it’s like you put the whole butt right in the glass, which was the classy way some of the steely-lipped, trucker-mouthed waitresses I used to work with back in Boston would extinguish their cigarettes at the end of break. With a look that would eviscerate a lobster.
Jim and Judy Schultz are delighted to have new sources of Chardonnay from the SLH, in particular the Escolle Vineyard, and they also scored some Pinot from an older block of vines at Chalone. Although there’s no place like home, and nothing quite like their Estate Pinots and Chardonnays, it’s educational to see how the same winemaking method yields completely different results with fruit from other growing regions.
Here are a dozen wines from the tasting I’d highly recommend to anyone with a passion for exploring.
Bernardus – 2015 Sauvignon Blanc. Always a good choice, this wine has picked up a pleasing texture and more pineapple after a year of bottle aging.
Blair 2014 Delfina’s Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco. To say that Jeffrey Blair nailed this one would be an understatement. Barrel-fermented in Francois Frere and Seguin Moreau barrels, its toasty butterscotch core is accented by buttery crusted apple pie with macadamia nuts and a squeeze of lemon cream.
Caraccioli Cellars – 2016 Rosé. While we are crazy about their bubbles, the new rosé, available in personal fun size of 500ml as well as a 1.5, this rosy pink punch of pinot and chardonnay is a glorious smack of raspberry candy and bubblegum. Forget the teacup poodle: this is the wine you want to pack in your purse.
Chalone – 2013 Chardonnay. Although not made by new winemaker, Gianni Abate, this wine still demonstrates the distinctive nature of this storied place. Rich, abundantly textural and brimming over with butterscotch and toasted hazelnuts, this is pure catnip to a Chardonnay lover. We can’t wait to taste Gianni’s renditions.
Brand – 2106 La Marea Albariño. Surging with underripe nectarines, this wine from an ancient Arroyo Seco seabed delivers classic salinity and razor sharp acidity.
Brand & Family – 2015 Enz Mourvedre, San Benito. I do love the incomparable spicy-raciness of a good Mourvèdre, framed by smoked meat, blueberry and tobacco. This is aces.
Testarossa 2014 Dos Rubios Pinot Noir, SLH. More savory than fruity, and more peppery than other Pinots from winemaker Bill Brosseau’s cellar, this has distinctively assertive tannin to accentuate the herbaceous streak of basil and green peppercorn.
Windy Oaks 2015 Chardonnay, SLH Escolle. Crazy hints of smoke hit you on the nose, making you suspect new oak, but it’s all one and two year used. Such an inviting texture, melding gooseberry with smoky lime and pineapple guava: these grapes definitely could have gone full on tropical if left to hang longer. So glad they were caught in a delicious stage of arrested development.
Windy Oaks 2014 Chalone Pinot Noir. This is absolutely stunning stuff from a block of the Chalone estate originally planted by Dick Graff to the Chalone and Swan clones. It’s a classic Burgundian style treasure trove of tea, rose petals, dried cherries and incense. This shows what picking early at Chalone can achieve.
Wrath 2014 Estate Chardonnay. A joy to explore aromatically, this Chardonnay delivers baked golden apples with golden raisins, lemongrass and fennel seed. As much a joy to drink, this wine walks the tightrope of minimalism, with ample apple tart and poached pear, silky fine-tuned tannins and hibiscus tea. Just the right amount of oak (30%) keeps its toes en pointe.
Wrath 2014 Pommard 4 & 777 Pinot Noir, Estate, San Saba Vineyard. Dialing in the nuances of clones is not something every wine maker has the patience to do repeatedly, but thankfully, Sabrine Rodems is not just patient, she’s perserverant. This Pinot rewards patience with its earthy, lavender and forest floor aromas and a decidedly peaty persistence on the palate.
Wrath 2014 Tondre Grapefields Pinot. Sabrine just nails this vineyard: it is so distinctive in its bigness. Wild plum, porcini, cedar, cinnamon stick, tea, root beer and cola are the main actors here. Annette Danzer’s 2014 Cima Collina Tondre hails the same bigness, with perhaps a bit more ripeness. But that earthy, weightiness persists.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.