Edible Monterey Bay

ON THE VINE: BERNARDUS WINERY

grapes
Estate grapes, about to be harvested.

BERNARDUS WINERY

A passion for food-friendly,
French-style vintages

BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA

About half an hour’s drive from the Bernardus tasting room in Carmel Valley Village, Bernardus Winery and two of its estate vineyards can be found in the Cachagua Hills amidst the oaks and chaparral.

Winemaker Dean De Korth and Vineyard Manager Matt Shea are the zany duo who have been striving to perfect Bernardus wines since teaming up six years ago, and it’s obvious they are having a blast in the process.

Harvesting of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes was finally underway the sunny afternoon I arrived to tour the winery. It was December 7th and possibly the latest Cab harvest in California. Hardly any leaves were left on the vines.

“I look for the seeds to turn brown and we were waiting for the skins to begin breaking down, which softens the tannins and reduces vegetable flavors,” says De Korth. There is a fine line between ripeness and rot, but once the decision to harvest is made a team of pickers swoops in and crates of grapes are unloaded onto a conveyor belt in front of the redwood winery for sorting and de-stemming before going into one of the fermentation tanks inside.

At an altitude of about 1,200 feet, the two Cachagua vineyards provide unusual growing conditions. Temperatures get as hot as the Central Valley in the daytime, but since the coast is relatively close nighttime temperatures can really drop. There is frequently a 50° difference between night and day. Afternoon winds coming up from the ocean keep the grapes dry and reduce mildew.

“Cool overnight temperatures impart intensity and complexity,” De Korth says. “In places where it’s always hot you get those overripe jammy flavors with in-your-face high alcohol content.” Bernardus’s “Bordeaux style” wines aim to seduce you with sophisticated subtlety. They are generally about 14% alcohol, rather than the 16% common in many Napa Cabs. “Like a lean racing machine,”says De Korth, with a nod to the Dutch owner Bernardus

“Ben” Pon’s former career as a race car driver.

The seven-acre Featherbow vineyard and the 41-acre Marinus vineyard down the road are both in the Carmel Valley AVA. They are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot. Shea has built an enormous composting system using pomace from the winery and restaurant wastes to mulch the vines. He also grows legumes in the vineyards as a cover crop and plants by the phases of the moon.

“I like to draw on the best practices from organic, biodynamic and sustainable gardening,” says Shea, who studied horticulture and sustainable vegetable production at Oregon State University. While the vineyards are not certified organic, Shea says there has been no pesticide use since he arrived.

The soil is shale and sandstone rocks, sufficiently poor that the vines grow deep roots and struggle a little to produce the fruit. There are also seven acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes planted around Bernardus Lodge in what is called Ingrid’s Vineyard, a tiny estate vineyard named for the owner’s wife. Additional grapes are purchased under agreements with selected growers Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni in the nearby Santa Lucia Highlands region and Michael Griva in the Arroyo Seco AVA—all of whom produce grapes that are in great demand throughout California.

Yields from the 2011 harvest were 10%–20% below normal, due to cool spring weather and late rains, but that helps concentrate flavors. “Every year nature rolls the dice,” Shea says. “But I think it’s going to be a great year for us. Up north there was too much autumn rain, but here we dodged the bullet.” Judging by barrel tastings of 2011 Merlot and Chardonnay, he is probably right.

Inside the winery it’s clear that no expense has been spared in the quest to make fine European-style wines in California. One huge room is filled with 18 Bordeaux holding tanks, not stainless steel as in most wineries, but commissioned in France and made of 10-foot slats of clear French oak, holding between 1,000 and 2,000 gallons each. The tanks are 20 years old so no longer impart flavor, but are used for fermentation and blending.

Each vineyard, varietal and harvest is aged separately in another huge room of the winery stacked with some 2,000 60-gallon barrels made exclusively of French oak.

“Mr. Pon said no American oak,” the winemaker explained, describing it as too pungent. “We want oak to assimilate into the wine in a refined way.” About a third of the barrels are replaced each year at a cost to the winery of half a million dollars.

De Korth, who was educated at the Lycée Viti-Vinicol in Beaune, Burgundy, and at the University of Dijon, is well versed in French techniques. He spends much of his time in the spring and fall tasting and blending wine from the various batches to get the desired effect.

“When I make a wine I have a picture in my mind and I try to build towards that image by trying to select the noble flavors like cassis or black cherry and minimize the ignoble flavors,” he says. De Korth’s talents are apparent in the label’s flagship wine Marinus— a silky Meritage blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grown on the Marinus Estate vineyard. He is also justifiably proud of two 2007 Pinot Noirs, one made with grapes harvested from Ingrid’s Vineyard on the premises of Bernardus Lodge and the other made with grapes from Rosella’s Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. All the reds make great pairings with Chef Cal Stamenov’s gourmet food at Bernardus Lodge. On the tasting menu, sommelier Mark Buzan often pairs Rosella Pinot Noir with duck breast and Marinus with Wagyu beef dishes.

Of the whites, the 2009 Monterey County Chardonnay is the winery’s best-selling bottle. It is minerally instead of oaky, which seems to be what customers are looking for these days.

Bernardus’s 2010 Griva Sauvignon Blanc was selected as one of the year’s top 100 wines by the San Francisco Chronicle. With grapes from Michael Griva, it was made in the dry New Zealand style, coldfermented in stainless steel. De Korth modestly says he made a varietally correct wine that smells and tastes just like the grape. Chronicle reviewers said, “Think of it as a greyhound, capturing the best of the variety’s lean, green side: padron pepper, bay laurel and verbena all play a role amid the racy fruit.” My less-trained palate found it crisp, slightly citrusy and delicious.

Bernardus winery is not open to the public, but the friendly tasting room in Carmel Valley Village is a good place to learn more. Exceptionally well-informed staff like to share their knowledge not only about Bernardus Wines and Carmel Valley wines, but also about the acclaimed Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, which is gaining more recognition with every vintage.

testing wine
Taste Test: De Korth tries the new vintage

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