You can’t say the Loosen Reserve wines are something new, because as Ernie Loosen describes them, “We are concentrating more on reserve wines, as my great great grandfather did, wines that age for 6 or 8 years. We’ve done a lot of experiments on aging. We ferment and then keep the wine in the barrel as they did in the old days. They had to do it like this, because they had no technology, filtering, fining etc. We discovered that if you do it the old way the wines come together more naturally and seem to have much more ageability.”
The Reserves come only from the best lieu-dits in grand cru (Grosse Lage) vineyards. They spend two years in barrel (the barrels are topped up every month) and three in bottle before release. (There have also been wines that have aged much longer in barrel.) Production is 200 cases each of Sonnenuhr and Würzgarten, just over half that for Prälat.
The special character of these wines is due not only to the aging process, but also to selection in the vineyard. “They are specifically selected only from the millerandaged fruit (with very small seedless berries resulting from incomplete fertilization); the normal berries go into the Grosses Gewächs.”
The extended aging shows another side of Riesling. Ernie describes it as a more Burgundian style, and indeed it is intense and deep and textured rather than light and racy. We tasted the three current releases, the 2015 vintage (released (May 1 this year).
Wehlener Sonnenuhr (Im Laychen) shows a sense of austerity compared to the regular release. There is not only more intensity to the palate but also more counterpoise or herbal notes against the fruits with herbal notes. A greater sense of texture to the palate, makes this really deep. Acidity and sugar are integrated to the point that it seems dry.
Ürziger Würtzgarten (Unterst Pichter) is restrained on the nose. The palate intensifies the spicy herbal impression of Würtzgarten, especially evident on the finish, and the deeply textured palate gives impression of austerity. Beautifully integrated acidity and sugar to point that I would take it for dry in blind tasting.
Erdener Prälat (Alte Reben) comes from 120-year old ungrafted vines. This is intense, a little spicy, very textured, all stone fruits here, really showing mostly as peaches, but the fruits are into the secondary phase showing some maturity. The palate is cut by the sense of austerity on the finish. It can only deepen and strengthen.
Stefan Doktor at Schloss Johannisberg has had a similar idea. “I had a crazy idea and said, what would happen if we aged the wine like they used to a hundred years ago,” he says. “Riesling aged in wood for a long time expresses itself in a new way.” The Gold Label was introduced last year with the 2017 vintage. It ferments in 1,200 liter fuder and ages for 6 months on the full lees, then racking to age on fine lees for another 24 months.”
This may be the forerunner of a movement to age Riesling longer. The Rheingau VDP has just decided to require Grosses Gewächs to age one year longer before release. The 2020 vintage is the last that can be released on September 1 in the year following the vintage. Future vintages will have to wait a further 12 months before release. However, the regulation does not require any particular model for aging: the wine could rest in barrel or tank for the extra year or could be bottled at the same time as before and just wait out the delay. Even in the latter case, this is likely to mean a change in appreciation as Grosses Gewächs can be really restrained and backward on release, and a year’s extra aging in bottle usually makes a significant difference to approachability.
My first impression of Heymann-Löwenstein was dominated by the striking new cellar, a cuboid contemporary building, covered by a skin that has a poem by Neruda (The Ode to Wine, translated into German, and running in stainless steel letters across the front). Next to it is the old house, built in 1899, with cellars underneath. (Actually it was originally occupied by negociants, who used the cellars to age wine that they had purchased; it became a full winery when Heymann-Löwenstein moved there in the nineties.) I asked Sarah Löwenstein whether the contrast between the buildings was some sort of statement, but she explained that because the old house is a listed building, when they got permission for the extension in 2013, the town required them to build it in a modern style.
Her parents established the winery. “They were not happy with the way wine was made in the area and took the iconoclastic approach of vinifying separate vineyards. They started with stainless steel because it doesn’t have a large influence on taste so they could see the characteristics of individual vineyards.” In 1992 they started to use natural fermentation. “It was revolutionary then, it was like playing with the devil,” Sarah says. “In 1999 they decided the wines were too reductive and too tight and they bought the first wood cask. Then they added another cask every year. All come from oak trees grown on slate, but sources vary from Germany to Czechoslovakia.”
“Natural fermentation was tricky at first and we had some stopped fermentations. My father worried about how he could get more energy to motivate the yeast. Because cows make better music when you play them Mozart, he wondered whether yeast would respond and he installed organ pipes at the end of the cellar: they make sound when the wind blows. Sound is the sign of control by Apollo, so there is also a constant flow of water along the floor (Dionysus represents uncontrolled).”
The unusual feature here is that almost all the vineyards on the Terrassen. “My parents had no money to buy a tractor so they had to buy the terraces, which no one else wanted. So we are a bit different, we don’t have the entry-level vineyards, we are lucky to have so many high quality vineyards.”
Schieferterrassen is the relatively (entry-level) wine, from slate terraces (mix of different colors but soils all the same age), a blend from about 10 parcels, always the same, plus some declassified lots from the grand crus. Sarah describes it as premier cru level. “The work is the same as in the grand cru vineyards.” The front label doesn’t mention trocken or even Riesling. “The details, that it’s dry or Riesling, are not important for me, what’s important is the wine.”
There’s a grand series of 6 Grosses Gewächs, with the heart in Ühlen, an amphitheater round the river with three parts, each with different terroir. Blaufüsser Lay at the north is blue slate. Lauben is the middle section, with chalky aspects due to a lot of fossils in the slate, which gives higher pH to the soil. Ühlen Roth Lay is at the south, with hard red slate.
“After fermentation I like to keep the wine on the full lees,” Sarah says. “I sulfur then to stop MLF unless acidity is so high that I don’t need it. The wine stays until March or May and then is racked on to the fine lees until it’s filtered and battled in July.” The three Uhlens spend one year longer aging (with 3 months on full lees followed by 9 months on fine lees). The first to do this was Ühlen Roth Lay, the other two are making the transition as of 2020 – which means they’ll be off the market for a year. “It would be great for all our wines to age longer but it’s not practical.” Sugar levels are low in GG but not below bone dry (4g), but sweetness is not usually directly perceptible, it’s more evident by a roundness that softens the finish.
Many producers have switched to screwcaps for at least the basic wines. The Löwensteins did experiments and decided that that they could not see any adverse effects; “the variation between cork and screw cap is within the range of individual bottle variation for either,” Sarah says. “We switched to screwcaps in 2009, now everything except just a few wines is under screw cap.” We tried a 2012; it was aging beautifully, in fact I would say in oxidative style (blind I would have assumed it was under cork).
The dry wines are great demonstrations of terroir, and the sweet wines move to botrytis with the Auslese. Grapes are sorted in both vineyard and winery. “I don’t want botrytis in my dry wines.” Botrytized grapes go into the Auslese (occasionally BA or TBA). “Recent years have been 100% botrytis for the Auslese – that’s what I prefer. It’s botrytis but it has to be healthy – I don’t like a fungal smell. The refreshing quality even in the BA and TBA is very important for me.”
Tasting Notes on Grosses Gewächs 2019 vintage
Red slate and quartz. Sense of restrained power, not quite austerity, stone and citrus fruits on palate with balanced acidity and citrus lingering on stony finish. A touch of softness suggests some residual sugar, although actually it’s marginal. 90 drink-2028
More of a yellow slate. A slightly softer impression to the nose with a faint hint of spice that follows through to palate. A more mineral impression to the palate, with quite a stony, almost austere finish. 90 drink-2028
Blue slate vineyard. Nice tension, faint sense of spice, balanced acidity with racy edge. Some peaches as well as citrus on the palate, peachy edge to the finish. It’s only just not quite dry, more as a sense of roundness on mouthful than overt sweetness. Relatively forward and more expressive than the two crus from Hatzenport. 91 drink-2029
Ühlen Blaufüsserlay (Winningen)
Hard blue slate. Real sense of tension to nose follows to palate. Citrus palate shows flavor variety (this is all citric compared with the tinge of stone fruits in Röttgen) and there is an austere minerality on the finish, more linear, ending with a touch of bitter lemon. Very flavorful. 92 drink-2030
Ühlen Laubach (Winningen)
Slate with fossils. Subtle mineral impression to nose. More linear impression than Blaufüsserlay. Racy impression to palate with lot of tension, although acidity is balanced. Might describe the acidity as edgy. Palate is restrained citrus with some bare hints of bitter lemon. Sarah describes it as a bit wilder. 92 drink-2031
Ühlen Roth Lay (Winningen)
Hard deep colored red slate. Aged a year longer, so this is due to be released in September. Deeper color. Getting away from racy Riesling to a deeper more textured palate. Stone fruits mingle with citrus, supported by balanced acidity. No impressions of sweetness at all (although tech specs are same as other GGs). Very textured impression to long finish. You could describe it as earthy. 93 drink-2033.
Tasting Notes on Grosses Gewächs 2020 Vintage (from VDP Preview tasting in Wiesbaden)
Kirchberg Nose is quite different from the Winningen GGs, more driven towards minerality, and the palate is more herbal. Nice complexity developing already, this is relatively approachable. There is just a suspicion of residual sugar on the finish. 90, drink-2029
Stolzenberg A slightly more granular texture than Kirchberg, a slightly rounder impression on the palate with more sense of stone fruits than citrus and a hint of spice adding complexity, 91, drink-2030
Röttgen Faint sense of spice to nicely rounded fruits on palate, although residual sugar is less obvious than Kirchberg, showing stone as well as citrus, with impression of white fruits at end. A very fine complex expression, quite close in style to Ühlen Blausfusser Lay. 91 drink-2030
Ühlen Blaufüßer Lay Lovely sense of texture with hints of spice, more advanced than Laubach, not as spicy as Roth Lay, stone fruits ending in citrus on palate, already showing a sense of complexity. 91, drink-2030
Ühlen Laubach Acidity with a lemony edge, flavor variety developing on palate broadens citrus flavors beyond the nose, quite a silky texture, just a suspicion of residual sugar to soften and round out the palate. I would wait a few months to let flavor variety round out further. 90, drink-2030
Ühlen Roth Lay Palate broadens from Ühlen Laubach with a sense of spice in the direct of cinnamon, stone fruits as well as citrus, very attractive and immediately approachable. More sense of complexity than Ühlen Laubach. 92, drink-2030
“My philosophy is to produce wines that are authentic and show the Saar region; you think it’s just the southern part of the Mosel, but that’s wrong, the elevation here is 200m, most vineyards are on the Devonian slate, there is also some volcanic rock, we are surrounded by the mountains,” says Max von Kunow as we begin a marathon tasting at Weingut von Hövel.
“Wine has been made here for 1400 years, and my family has owned the estate since the early nineteenth century,” he says. The range is extensive, from entry-level dry wines to the top Grosses Gewächs, and for the full extent of sweet wines from the Prädikat range. When I ask about the proportion of dry to sweet wine, Max says, “You have asked about sweet but we call the wine fruity. People especially in Germany taste Kabinett and say, ‘it’s sweet,’ I hate this: sweet is not what we produce. We produce 20% dry, 20% medium dry, and 60% fruity.”
The winery practices sustainable viticulture. “We don’t want our vineyard to look like a golf course, we want lots of flowers, it’s only when you have soil with a lot of life that you can produce good grapes. The important thing is to find the right moment to harvest, not too green, not too ripe. We use natural yeast but we are not dogmatic, if the wine needs yeast, we give it yeast.” All the Grosses Gewächs age in 1000 liter fuder.
Max took over from his father in 2011. Production today is 80% Riesling, The dry range starts with a Saar Riesling, and then there are three village wines, Niedermenning, Krettnäch, and Oberemmel. After tasting these from the 2019 vintage (the current release here, while elsewhere it’s mostly 2020), we tasted younger and older vintages of the Grosses Gewächs from Hütte (in Oberemmel, a monopole that is the estate’s largest vineyard with 5.5 ha) and Scharzhofberg (one of the most famous vineyards in the region). The same herbal character runs through all the Scharzhofberg vintages and really beings complexity as a contrast to the fruits. Hütte seems tighter and more saline.
All the Grosses Gewächs really do taste dry or very close to it (as opposed to the slight touch of perceptible sweetness found at many houses which take advantage of the derogation allowing up to 9g/l residual sugar if acidity is high enough). The 2019s are relatively forward, 2017 is beginning to round out, and when you get back to 2015 or 2012, flavors really begin to come out. You see what Max means when he says, “The problem with our wines is that they all need time. We produce wines for long ageing. The first few years the wines show winemaking. Then after a few, 10 years or so, they really return to showing the terroir.”
Moving away from dry wines, the range starts with GL wines (having a couple of grams more sugar than the off-dry Halbtrocken category), and then the Prädikat range. Those herbal impressions in Scharzhofberg continue through the sweet wines to provide a delicious contrast with the fruits; Hütte shows a counterpoise of a slight austerity to offset the fruits. It’s a great range.
Tasting Notes for Rieslings
Niedermenning (trocken), 2019
The most mineral and most racy of the village wines, this really expresses the elegance of the Saar. Acidity is between balanced and crisp. Lots of iron in the soil. 89, drink-2026.
Krettnäch (trocken), 2019
A light nose lads into a palate showing the racy acidity of the Saar. Light citric fruits on palate lead on to saline finish. Devon slate. 89, drink-2025.
Oberemmel (trocken), 2019
Intensely herbal nose leads into spicy palette with peppery notes, backed by balanced acidity, showing citric notes on palate with hints of bitter lemon and lime. 88, drink-2026.
Hütte (Oberemmel), Spätlese trocken, 2008
Nose is only a little more developed than 2012 and shows subtle nutty, buttery hints. The racy acidity is there on the palate, which shows some tertiary notes: not tired yet, but there is a touch of sourness, and the wine is moving into a different, more tertiary flavor spectrum. 11%, 92, drink–2022
Hütte (Oberemmel), GG, 2012
Nose shows some developed notes, not quite tertiary, but moving towards nutty and buttery. Although the racy acidity of the Saar shows on the finish, the palate has really softened, the fruits cut by a touch of bitter lemon on the finish. Delicious sweet/sour catch on finish, even though wine is quite dry. 12%, 92, drink-2025
Hütte (Oberemmel), GG, 2017
The nose shows a little development with some roundness, but the palate is tighter than 2019, with citric notes including bitter lemon reinforcing an impression of salinity on the finish.. The racy acidity makes this seem close to bone dry. Coiled spring waiting to open, needs time to open, and should then become rather elegant. 11.5%, 92, drink 2022-2032
Hütte (Oberemmel), GG, 2019 Already there is some complexity here, with herbal notes to counterpoise fruits that some stone elements as well as citrus. Some residual sugar shows a softness on palate more than direct sweetness although there is just a catch of sugar at the end. Developing relatively quickly, but promising real complexity in a few years. 12%, 91, drink-2028
Scharzhofberg, GG, 2019
Faintly herbal nose, already developing some flavor variety (this seems to be a more quickly developing year). You can just detect that sugar is above 4g. Overlay of savory herbs adds complexity, relatively soft and round for GG in the Saar. This is a forward vintage, 12.5%, 91, drink-2028.
Scharzhofberg, GG, 2018
More austere impression to nose than 2019, some sweet and savory herbs contrast with salinity on the palate, which is already showing complexity. There are beautiful contrasts here, 12.5%, 92, drink-2030.
Scharzhofberg, GG, 2017
This is tight and austere, reflecting the year, but already showing quite a bit of complexity with the typical herbal character of the vineyard coming through the austerity. It is readier to drink than Hütte. There are some faintly nutty notes in the background, 12.5%, 92, drink-2032.
Scharzhofberg, GG, 2015
Some development shows in some nutty buttery notes on the nose. Has really softened on the palate, there are some tertiary notes on the palate. This is the most complex of the flight. Delicious herbal versus fruit contrasts. This is à point, 11.5%, 93, drink-2030.
Saar, GL (off-dry), 2020
Light fragrant nose, just a touch of sweetness on the palate, pretty serviceable for category and price, 87, drink-2023.
Scharzhofberg, GL, 2018
Sweetness is quite evident and you no longer see the herbal character, but there’s a delicious sweet/sour catch at end, 88, drink-2024
Höreck, GL, 2018
Relatively complex for the category, with distinct herbal notes contrasting with the sweetness. This is the most concentrated of the off-dry category (yields only 10 hl/ha). 88, drink-2024.
Saar, Kabinett, 2020
Faint spicy herbal notes on nose, hints of sweet/sour on finish, quite good flavor variety for a generic level. 8%, 88, drink-2025.
Hütte, Kabinett, 2018
Some austere herbal notes to nose. Sweetness is an elegant overlay, citric fruits meld into peaches and apricots, a little on the weighty side for the Saar. 7.5%, 90, drink-2028.
Hütte, Kabinett, 2019
Austere and drier compared with the 2018, unlike the dry wines where 2019 was the most forward, this is the most backward. Lovely contrasts of herbs and fruits, promising complexity to come. 10%, 91, drink-2032.
Scharzhofberg, Kabinett, 2019
Faint herbal impressions lend a note of austerity to the first impression. The herbal character is a lovely contrast to the fruits and the sweetness, really bringing complexity to the Kabinett level. This is more forward and a lot more complex than Hütte. Lovely texture to the palate. 93, drink-2032.
Scharzhofberg, Kabinett, 2020
Faint cereal impressions to nose, more straightforward on palate then 2019, more of a standard Kabinett. 89, drink-2028.
Saar, Kabinett Lilly, 2018
Complex herbal and nutty notes offset the fruits and the sweetness is quite elegant in the background, Plate is quite textured, 91, drink-2030.
Saar, Kabinett S, 2020
More overtly sweet although it comes from the same source as Lilly, here the sweetness dominates the palate. 89, drink-2026.
Hütte, Spätlese, 2018
Faintly austere herbal notes on nose. Sweeter and richer than the Kabinett, deeper fruits, peaches and apricots with citrus more in background, delicious sweet/sour catch on finish. 91, drink-2031.
It is not every day that I get to drink both 50-year-old wine and 100-year-old wine. And no, I did not spit: I enjoyed these wines to the full.
“This is an old wine,” Wilhelm Weil says as he pours the glasses without showing us the label, as we follow a tasting through the 2020 vintage at Weingut Robert Weil with something completely different.
The wine is a dark caramel color and looks and smells sweet with a very mature nose showing honey, figs, caramel, and all the signs of intense botrytis. But it tastes almost dry.
It’s a Cabinet (with a C not a K). “Cabinet was the idea of dry wine in the early part of the twentieth century,” Wilhelm says. “I don’t know exactly, but there was a different view of dry wine then, and I would expect it had about 20g residual sugar.”
I’m sure that it must predate the second world war, and I’m thinking it might be 1937 or 1934 when Wilhelm shows us the label: it is 1921, perhaps the greatest year of the twentieth century. We celebrated its one hundred anniversary.
Botrytized notes dominate the palate, but without the kick of sweetness you usually get with a botrytized wine. It’s quite buttery, with the dryness letting some herbal impressions come through, still lively, and wonderfully elegant.
We then went to dinner with Peter Winter of Siftung Georg Müller. After several current wines, we finished up with the 1971 Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Auslese.
It is now a medium caramel color. The restrained nose shows botrytis, following to a palate which is honeyed, figgy, buttery, with notes of caramel. The palate is now just off-dry. The wine has moved to an almost savory overall impression on the palate with age, but acidity still keeps it lively.
Peter says that not every bottle is this good, and that accords with my own experience of a 1971 Schloss Vollrads Spätlese, where I have been drinking one bottle from a case in my cellar every few years. (I have one bottle left.) There have been some real ups and downs, but the last bottle, a few years ago, was almost dry and quite savory, and contrary to all expectations, the best yet.
Based on the extensive statistical sample of these three instances, my rule of three is that an off-dry wine will taste bone dry after 50 years, a sweet wine at Spätlese level will taste almost dry, and an Auslese will taste off-dry.
This reinforces my view that if you find German wines to be a little sweet at any level (from nominally dry Grosses Gewächs to rather sweet Auslese) just wait a few years for the sweetness to lessen. Of course, it may not be practical to wait 50 or 100 years, but even after 10 years there is some reduction in sweetness, and after 20 years it can be quite substantial.
A certain absence of information on the subject leaves room for much misunderstanding. When I was discussing Grosses Gewächs last week with a sommelier in the Mosel, he advocated a younger vintage on the grounds that “it has more acidity, older vintages lose acidity”. Oh dear. In fact, hydrogen ions (i.e. acidity) have nowhere to go, and acidity does not change much as wine ages. Sweetness on the other hand really declines. The basis for the reduction in sweetness is quite unknown, but the best suggestion I have seen is that sugars might polymerize like tannins and lose sweetness as a result. I wish someone would investigate this scientifically.
Discretion starts right at the front door. The property is identified only by a street number, and a small notice saying, ‘this is not Goosecrest cellars.’ Under the name of State Lane Vineyard, it was originally a family farm providing wine to Beringer for the Private Reserve from 1975 to 1991. The vineyard became infected with phylloxera, and the owners decided to sell; Lou Kapcsándy, a passionate collector of Bordeaux, purchased the estate in 2000. The property is a single block of 20 acres, with the Yountville Cross Road and Napa River as borders. The 15 acres planted with vines are divided into 15 blocks with different soil types. The first wine was made in 2003 and the first commercial release was 2005.
The wines are all based on Bordeaux varieties, except for the one white, a Furmint based on vines that came from Tokaj, a hommage to Lou’s origins (he left Hungary in 1956). Each of the four reds has a core block as its main source, and other sources vary with the year. The Estate Cuvée has been a blend since 2005 (two vintages were 100% Cabernet Sauvignon). “This is the representation of the estate.” The first vintage of Rhapszodia was 2010. It started as a 50:50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and then the Merlot was steadily reduced until it effectively became a Cabernet Franc varietal in 2015. Roberta’s Reserve is usually a blend, but has sometimes been 100% Merlot, coming from blocks along the river where there is more clay. The Grand Vin is the top Cabernet Sauvignon.
The house style is quite reserved. Each of the cuvées shows the characteristic flavor spectrum of its principal (or sole) varietal with its supporting structure almost imperceptibly integrated. Cabernet Franc shows purity, Merlot shows more roundness, Cabernet Sauvignon is structured. Each is a textbook for its type, within the context of the power of Napa. All could be drunk not too long after release, but will benefit from some time to develop.
2017 Estate Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 89%, Merlot 8%, Petit Verdot 3%) Quite reserved aromatics on the black fruit nose, quite a stern impression on the palate, with a slightly crisp edge and a touch of asperity, not quite bitterness, on the finish. Blackberry fruits dominate the palate with a touch of asperity, and you see the freshness, even a touch of salinity. All this gives the impression of a broader-based blend than it really is. 14.2% 90 Drink 2022-2034 2015 Rhapszodia Cabernet Franc Reserved nose is still rather dumb. Nice purity of fruits, makes an unusually elegant impression for Napa Valley, with well-delineated black fruits of ripe Cabernet Franc. Silky tannins are barely evident on finish, perhaps there is a very faint hint of tobacco, before the tannins kick in to show some bitter chocolate and dryness at the end. The palate is moving towards minerality with some cooler-climate impressions. You could drink this now but personally I would wait a year or two. 14.4% 2 Drink -2033 2014 Roberta’s Reserve Merlot (Merlot 97%, Cabernet Franc 3%) Greater roundness to the nose than in the Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc cuvees, slowly releasing black fruit aromatics. Smooth palate shows some flavor variety in what is certainly a reserved style for Merlot; in fact, you might say the house reserve is coming through. Nice sense of delineation to the fruits, although the palate is broader than the Cabernet Franc of Rhapszodia. Tannins are supple on the finish, and you can see the structural support, although there’s no overt bitterness. This is an unusually pure impression of Merlot. 14.4% 92 Drink -2034
2014Grand Vin Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 95%, Merlot 5%) Quite reserved nose shows hints of blackberries. Sweeter and riper impressions than the Merlot or Cabernet Franc varietals, overall more forthcoming. Black fruits are cut by almost crisp acidity. The structure is well integrated, tannins are firm but not obvious, with just a faint touch of bitter chocolate on the finish. This needs time, not so much for tannins to resolve but to let flavor variety develop. 13.9% 94 Drink -2040
Widely regarded as a pioneer winemaker in California, Merry Edwards established a reputation for Pinot Noir at Mount Eden Vineyards in Santa Cruz from 1974, followed by Chardonnay at Matanzas Creek in 1977. When she founded her own winery in 1997, it became a leading source for single-vineyard releases of Pinot Noir. She sold the estate to Roederer in 2019, and stayed on for a year to help the transition. She had already hired Heidi von der Mehden from Cabernet-specialist Arrowood in 2015, with the idea of handing over winemaking to an experienced winemaker who had no preconceptions about Pinot Noir.
When I visited Merry Edwards in 2011, she said: “I probably have two stylistic aims. I like the fruit to come through, I view this as the personality of the wine. And I like to see the texture come through.” The style still holds through two AVA wines and eight single-vineyard releases. The Sonoma Coast is based on purchased fruit from a single vineyard; the Russian River comes from the same vineyards as the individual single-vineyard releases (some in the estate, some from fruit purchased from plots farmed to specification. “We feel that farming is the only way to come to great Pinot and that is what we have based everything on,” Merry said.). Winemaking is similar for all the Pinot Noirs. The AVAs have 45-50% new oak, the single vineyards have 55-60%. (This is down from 55-60% for AVAs and 75-80% for single vineyards, ten years ago.) Wines are usually bottled in August following the vintage, so they spend 10-11 months in barrique.
The Russian River Valley release shows a restrained style with a sense of structure. Coopersmith is the vineyard at the winery that Merry planted in 2001; this is a relatively cooler site. Farther north, Georganne is a warmer vineyard that Merry planted in 2005. Both were planted with the UCD37 clone that she developed at Mount Eden. They show as more refined versions of the AVA wine, a little smoother and deeper on the palate, with greater sense of structural support. The first vineyard she planted was the Meredith Estate in 1997; this gives a more varied impression on the palate and is more elegant.
Olivet Lane is the vineyard with which Merry had the longest association, making wine there for 46 years. The vineyard was planted in 1973, and Merry started making wine from it in the late seventies; it’s now the oldest single vineyard of Pinot Noir in Russian River Valley. In a horizontal tasting of the 2018 single vineyard releases, Olivet Lane offers the greatest sense of sophistication and elegance. When I tasted the 2008 Olivet Lane at the winery in 2011, it seemed to be the most complete of the single-vineyard wines; when I tasted it again this week, it seemed to have reached a peak, and you could see the same potential in the 2018.
From 1998 to 2002, Merry followed her intention of making Pinot Noir focusing on single vineyards, but she had established a reputation with white wines, and then returned to making Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Both show a rich, textured style.
2018 Pinot Noir Restrained nose shows dark fruits. Faintly nutty palate shows soft black fruits with hint of bitter cherries at end. This needs a little time for tannins to lighten. 14.5% 91 Drink 2022-2030
2018Coopersmith Pinot Noir Richer impression than Olivet Lane. Black cherry fruits show on palate with tannins on finish, giving a sense of structure. Some bitterness lingers on the finish, but overall this is softer than Georganne. 14.5% 92 Drink 2023-2033
2018Georganne Pinot Noir Faint spicy notes to nose. Palate shows more grip than Coopersmith, greater sense of dryness from the tannins on the finish and a hint of menthol. Fruits are a little darker and deeper, with good grip on the palate. 14.5% 92 Drink 2024-2034
2018Meredith Estate Pinot Noir Reserved nose, Sweeter but tighter impression on palate than Coopersmith and Georganne with hints of red fruits as well as black. A hint of eucalyptus in background enhances sense of tightness. Precision gives this a sense of elegance. 14.5% 93 Drink 2022-2032
2018Olivet Lane Pinot Noir Lighter color than the Russian River or other single vineyards. Restrained nose shows faintly earthy notes in the background. More sense of tension balancing the fruits than the Russian River Valley AVA release. Mix of red and black fruits on palate are followed by touch of tea-like tannins. This has the most elegant balance of the single vineyard wines. 14.2% 93 Drink 2022-2032
2008Olivet Lane Pinot Noir Some orange showing on rim. Development shows on nose as less primary, more mature fruits, more red than black. With tannins resolving, you can see the elegance of the fruits, soft and ripe, with only a faint hint of dryness at the end. With the tannins resolving and the fruits maturing, this may now be at its peak. 13.9% 93 Drink 2013-2025
2017Olivet Lane Chardonnay Nose shows stone fruits with some exotic overtones, following to a textured palate. This flavorful style offers a fine expression of the typicity of Russian River Valley through the old vines (planted in 1973). Sense of viscosity to palate enhances the long finish. The wine was barrel-fermented, went through MLF, and aged in 40% new barriques. 93 Drink -2028
2019 Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc 55%, Sauvignon Musqué 45%) The wine opens with typical herbaceous overtones tending to asparagus. The palate shows a rich Fumé Blanc style with herbaceous elements returning on finish to cut the richness of the stone and citrus fruits. The flavorful palate is quite viscous and round. The wine was barrel-fermented with 18% new oak and had battonage for 4-6 months. 90 Drink -2025
The first time I visited Dominus, I was warned that rattlesnakes lived in the outer walls, and I’ve approached it cautiously ever since. One of the most striking wineries in the valley, Dominus was constructed under the principle that it should blend invisibly into the landscape. It has an unusual double skin, with an outer construction of stones packed into netting hiding the construction inside—in the valley, it’s sometimes called the stealth winery. It was founded in the historic Napanook vineyard in 1983 by Christian Moueix of Petrus, originally as a partnership, and in 1995 he became the sole owner. Looking through an arch in the center of the building as you approach, it seems to be floating in front of the Mayacamas Mountains.
Christian Moueix has strong views on irrigation, and Dominus is dry farmed. “We’ve never had as much water stress as this year,” manager Tod Mostero says, and the vines are smaller than usual due to the extended drought. “Actually they do better than irrigated vines, because dry farming forces them to make deeper roots with smaller vessels for taking up water,” Tod explains. The vineyard is on an alluvial fan, with its apex opposite the winery at the base of the Mayacamas Mountains. Below the fan is a hard pan of clay, and water flows from the mountains on top of it from April until September. “We’ve even built drains to allow it to go into the creek at the end of the vineyard,” Tod says.
“Our style is more reserved, less obvious, we’re not looking for a fruit bomb,” Tod says. Indeed, Dominus is one of the reserved Cabernet Sauvignon blends from Napa Valley, typically with 80-90% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest split between Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Merlot was included until 2002, but was abandoned because its profile did not really complement the blend. “Now it’s too dry and hot for Merlot.” A second wine, Napanook, was introduced in 1996, with a very similar varietal composition.
“It’s not our concept to make a second wine from left-over lots,” Tod says. There are no designated plots for either cuvée, although wine from the blocks closer to the Mayacamas usually go into Dominus. “Napanook should easier to drink sooner, the wine is a little more friendly and fruit forward. Dominus is more austere and meant to be aged. It takes five years for Napanook to be ready and ten years for Dominus for the fruit to really appear.” Emphasizing the value of aging, there’s an annual release of a library box of Dominus containing 2 bottles from each of 3 vintages: the latest release had 2001, 2008, and 2012.
The difference between Dominus and Napanook when they are young is partly a matter of readiness, but you certainly sense greater complexity in Dominus and more potential for flavor variety as it develops. Personally I would not describe Napanook as ‘approachable’ on release: the structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon flattens the fruits and requires patience. Dominus is yet more reserved, but its extra depth is already evident. These are far from typical wines for Napa Valley, built for potential rather than immediate gratification.
Tasting Notes on the 2018 Vintage
Napanook Deep color with some purple. Fruity black nose with just a touch of lifted blackcurrant aromatics. Pretty reserved on palate, blackberry fruits showing as a little brambly and then some impressions of bitter chocolate on the finish. Even though this is the second wine, it is rather well structured, certainly showing its dominant Cabernet Sauvignon, and still needs time 90 Drink 2023-2035
Nose is more reserved than Napanook with black fruits pushed more into background. Palate certainly shows a resemblance to Napanook, but fruits are less obvious, very black, with blackberries and blackcurrants in the background. Tannins are firm but not aggressive and there’s a touch of tobacco on the long finish, which gives a sense of the complexity to come. This is something a coiled spring waiting to unwind, but it has the structure and the fruits for longevity. It does soften and develop just a little in the glass, emphasizing its greater complexity compared to Napanook. 94 Drink 2025-2040
Cain is located well up Spring Mountain, to the west of St. Helena, with vineyards ranging from 1,400 to 2,100 ft on sedimentary soils. The Cains bought a 550 acre estate on the mountain in 1980, which had mostly been used as sheep pastures. They planted vineyards and constructed a winery. The Cains were joined by Jim and Nancy Meadlock, who took over when the Cains retired in 1991. (Wines can’t be tasted at the winery but can be tasted in St. Helena.)
Cain was originally planted largely on AxR1 in large blocks for each variety, mostly using individual clones. After Chris Howell arrived as winemaker in 1990 (having previously worked in the Médoc) the vineyards had to be replanted because of problems with phylloxera. “I mixed it up a lot so weren’t susceptible to problems affecting particular varieties or clones,” Chris says. “We want diversity not a single clone. The idea of the clone was that everything would mature together. But it leaves wines that are simple.”
Cain Five is not simple. The first vintage for the flagship wine (named because it includes the five Bordeaux varieties, Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec), was 1985. Cabernet Sauvignon is more than half, but the wine gives a strongly structured impression that might lead you to think there is more. The structure dominates the wine when it’s young, to an extent varying with the vintage. Today the 2008 is coming around, the 2012 is more backward, the 2016 is almost ready, and the 2017 is a lighter style because the lots that were picked last were not included because of the fires.
The estate has made two other cuvées. Cain Concept was made from purchased fruit, and states Benchland on the label to indicate that it comes from the valley rather than the mountain. With more lifted aromatics, round black fruits, and chocolaty finish, it’s much more immediately approachable. The difference in style is due solely to sources, as criteria for harvest , and the aging regime, were the same as Cain Five. “We stopped making Concept in 2015,” Chris says. “It might be your favorite wine but it doesn’t reflect our vineyard. There’s no need for us to add to the list of Napa wines.”
The second wine is now based on a different concept. The NV series does not have a vintage label. Each successive release carries an increasing lot number, and is a blend of two successive vintages. It’s lighter than Cain Five on nose and palate, with good freshness, and immediately flavorful fruits tending as much to the red as to the black spectrum. “It’s a definite outlier in the world of Napa,” Chris says. It is 60% Merlot with the rest divided between Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. It includes purchased fruit, and is picked for purpose, starting earlier than Cain Five, and is given less sustained maceration.
Cain leaves no doubt about its origins: the wines are clearly mountain cuvées, with that characteristic sense of tension and reserve. “We picking about three weeks before people who are looking for 100 points (and I still get 14% alcohol),” Chris says. They are very much their own style, and not at all like the caricature of big powerful fruit-bombs from Napa.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Cain Five 2017
This vintage offers a lighter impression than usual, perhaps because the lots picked after the fires (which as the last to pick are the most powerful) were not included. Shows a smoother and fresher style than 2016, with a light impression of still quite tight black fruits on the palate, and a faint tannic bitterness on the finish. It lacks the superficial richness that you can see through the structure of other vintages. In some ways, the trend towards fresh fruits is more Bordeaux-like than other vintages; this feels more like a cool-climate wine, although that’s not a reflection of vintage conditions, but rather of the fact that it contains only the lots to be picked first. “It has the high notes, but lacks the base,” says Christopher Howell. 91 Drink 2026-2038
Cain Five 2016 Black fruit nose with some herbal overtones and faint perfume. This vintage offers a more immediate sense of finding its balance straight away than 2008 or 2012. The mountain reserve is there alright, but the fruits are beginning to come through. The reserve here is due to youth. This is a coiled spring waiting to open. 93 Drink 2025-2037
Cain Five 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon 50%, %, Merlot 20%, Petit Verdot 8%Cabernet Franc 8%, Malbec 5%) Stern nose with reserved black fruits. Very backward, more backward than 2008, with tannins flattening the fruit profile. This is the old style of needing a long time to come around. The structure is not aggressive but it is certainly dominant, and is reinforced by the acidity. This is a really brooding wine. 14.4% 90 Drink 2027-2039 Cain Five 2008 (Cabernet Sauvignon 61%, Merlot 15%, Cabernet Franc 13%, Malbec 6%, Petit Verdot 5%) Expressive black fruit nose with lifted aromatics shows in front, with blackberries and blueberries, and then some more restrained impressions following on the palate. Firm tannins have a touch of bitter chocolate on the finish with a sense of powerful mountain structure. The structure is still (just) dominating the fruits. 92 Drink 2023-2037 Cain Concept 2012 This comes from purchased fruit, mostly in Rutherford, including some Cabernet from the George III vineyard, and Merlot and Cabernet Franc from Carneros. Nose shows some faintly developed aromatics with hints of minerality. Round black fruits on the palate follow to a chocolaty texture on the finish. Lifted aromatics soften the impression of structure; tannins are relatively supple. This if benchland (as marked on the label) as opposed to mountain. 90 Drink -2031
This is a blend of 2015 and 2016. Lighter than Cain Five on nose and palate, nice freshness, immediately flavorful fruits tending as much to the red as to the black spectrum. “It’s a definite outlier in the world of Napa,” Christopher Howell says. It’s more inclined to freshness than power, and like a Bordeaux second wine, is more approachable and does not need so long to age. Not a lot of stuffing, but very pleasant. It is 60% Merlot with the rest divided between Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. 88 Drink -2025
“We are making wines that are in a more restrained style. We want to showcase fruit, not bury it in oak,” says Eric Sussman, adding, “I lived and worked in France for two vintages.” Eric grew up in New York, not in wine, and became interested when he went to agricultural school at Cornell. He started out in viticulture, specializing in organic viticulture in Washington state, then gained experience in Burgundy and Bordeaux, and then was in Sonoma before he started Radio-Coteau (originally with a partner). “When I started in 2002, it was all with purchased grapes, including some from the estate site. I made wine from here from 2002-2007. In 2012 the family offered to sell it to me.”
The winery is an old apple pressing plant near Sebastopol, a bare bones warehouse devoted to fermenting and then aging wine. The estate is about 10 minutes away at Occidental, and consists of a single block, with 20 out of 42 acres planted to vines; there are also apple trees, from which Eric makes several ciders. The ranch dates from 1892, with a house built in 1908 that’s used for tastings. The property is at 800 ft elevation, 8 miles from the ocean. The estate includes a biodynamic farm with goats, chickens, and a flower garden for making preparations. Grapes come about half from the estate and half from purchases. County Line is a second label, all from purchased grapes, introduced in 2003.
The estate grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Riesling. “How can we grow so many grape varieties here?” Eric asks. “The estate is right on top of the ridge on Goldridge soil, there is lots of light, it doesn’t get frost. We’re at the boundary of three AVAs, Russian River Valley, Green Valley, and Sonoma Coast. I label the wines as Sonoma Coast to express the maritime influence; I feel more coastal than Russian River Valley. We tend to pick early and all the Pinots and Chardonnays are under 14%.”
The wines are entirely natural. “We never acidify. The only additive is a bit of sulfur. If we have to do anything to the wine, it doesn’t go into Radio-Coteau.” The Chardonnay goes through MLF, but shows a relatively lean, almost saline style. Pinot Noir uses quite a bit of whole clusters, and shows an interesting reversal of the usual vintage character with a leaner version from 2017 and a rounder version from 2018, both tending to elegance rather than power. The restrained, faintly peppery Syrah reminds me of the northern Rhone. The Board and Batten blend of Syrah and Zinfandel shows an unusual combination of the fruitiness of Zinfandel and the reserve of Syrah. The Lemorel Zinfandel comes from the vines planted in 1946, still growing in gobelet form, and gives a cool-climate impression of the variety, with brambly fruits showing peppery overtones and a finish of bitter chocolate.
Tasting Notes on Current Releases
2020 Riesling Spice notes tending to cinnamon on nose. Bone dry and lemony on palate, very much a New World style. Undeveloped at present (only just bottled) and needs a year for flavor variety to emerge, although already more variety develops in the glass. 88 Drink -2023
Sea Bed 2018 Chardonnay Lean, lemony nose shows freshness, following to a flavorful palate with a good finish. Oak is not evident. It is ready now, as evidence also by a fugitive whiff of tertiary aromas. I wouldn’t call the style mineral so much as fresh, with a faint catch of salinity at the end. 90 Drink -2024
Belay 2017 Pinot Noir Slightly earthy red fruit nose, palate shows mélange of red and black fruits with some subtle earthy notes in background that meld into a faint tannic bitterness on the finish. The aromatics more resemble a French Pinot Noir than the lifted notes often found in Russian River. Feels quite Beaune-ish with a nice sense of crispness, and even a touch of youthful asperity (perhaps from the 30% whole clusters), balancing the fruits. 13.6% 91 Drink 2022-2028
Belay 2018 Pinot Noir Although 2018 was not generally as ripe a vintage as 2017, the 2018 Belay has more rounded and forward fruits than the 2017. Palate shows a touch more viscosity, with ripe fruits tending towards red cherries, and supple tannins better subsumed by the fruits. The smooth palate shows only a hint of tannins just at the end. This feels more Chambolle-ish. 13.0% 92 Drink -2031
Harrison Grade 2016 Syrah Quite fruity nose with some hints of asperity and a faint touch of menthol. Round fruits on palate with a touch of white pepper in a classic northern-Rhone-ish flavor spectrum. Altogether a restrained cool climate style. 89 Drink -2026
Board and Batten 2018 Red This is a proprietary red, usually 70% Syrah and 30% Zinfandel, although the 2018 also includes 5% Pinot Noir. Nose shows slightly lifted fruit-driven aromatics. Some overt richness on the palate is offset by peppery spices and a faint catch of tannin on the finish. 89 Drink -2024
Lemorel 2017 Zinfandel This comes from the vines planted in 1946. Brambly nose shows some spicy impressions. Round blackberry fruits on palate with brambly notes and asperity at the end. Hints of bitter chocolate on the finish. Fruits are supported by good acidity (but not showing the overly piquant character Zinfandel often has). Definitely a (relatively) cool-climate version of Zinfandel, with good sense of flavor variety, and even a touch of tannic dryness. 89 Drink -2029
Is it still true that Kosta Browne has a ‘big’ house style, I asked current winemaker Julien Howsepian. Founded by Dan Kosta and Michael Browne in 2001, the winery became famous for its forceful style for Pinot Noir. “This happened as an accident when some fruit came in at very high (25.2) Brix,” said Dan Kosta, “We made the wine, and it was just perfectly exhilarating. That turned me on to picking fruit when it tasted good, rather than when people are telling me.”
Dan Kosta and Michael Browne sold the winery in 2017, and it moved through some subsequent changes of ownership before ending up with Duckhorn in 2018. “[The big style] is still true,” Julien says, “but we have tightened it to make a more balanced wine with a more sophisticated style. We decided we wanted to fine tune the cellar, but we still have a bold style that is Californian, that is who we are. We want to celebrate California fruit. We’re a little more restrained, but we don’t want to turn our back on what made us successful.”
Located in old apple processing plant that’s part of a development on the outskirts of Sebastopol, where Kosta-Browne is the anchor, production is exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It has broadened from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Lucia with the addition of Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. There are five AVA Pinot Noirs, 1 Chardonnay, and 20 single-vineyard wines (15 Pinot Noirs and 5 Chardonnays).
The late harvest policy for the old style at Kosta Browne often produced wines around 15% alcohol. They did not taste as over the top as the alcohol level might suggest, but there was no mistaking the forceful style. The current releases that I tasted on my visit ranged from 13.4% to 14.4% and in no case was alcohol particularly evident on the palate. It is fair to say they do indeed show a more sophisticated style.
The Russian River Chardonnay (One Hundred Sixteen, named for route 116 that runs through Russian River Valley) shows an underlying richness, but a mix of vessels for fermentation and aging has given it good flavor variety. “We didn’t really develop this style for our Chardonnay until 2015,” says Julien. The main difference moving to the single vineyard El Diablo Chardonnay is the increased sense of refinement. “This is our leanest Chardonnay,” Julian says. “It marks our progress with Chardonnay. We used to pick later, then one year we picked a week earlier, and realized that we’d missed the mark.”
The Pinot Noirs share impressions of earthy red fruits on the palate with an underlying richness cut by a sense of structure partly reflecting some use of whole clusters. The Russian River Valley AVA release has smoky undertones and lifted red fruit aromatics. Gap’s Crown Vineyard from Petaluma Gap is more forceful and intensifies the sense of earthiness, and has more grip on the palate. Free James from a vineyard near the coast gives a more linear, cool-climate impression, with a sense of mountain tension. Moving to Mount Carmel from Santa Rita Hills, the aromatics are higher-toned, and the sense of tension increases. “This is the coolest region we work with,” Julien says. Cerise Vineyard from Anderson Valley is the most concentrated and most tannic release.
The house style remains relatively bold, but fruits are (relatively) more restrained and better balanced by the structure. Refinement increases from AVA to single vineyard, and each single vineyard has a character you can relate to its soil, climate, and region, far from the uniformity of super-ripe fruits. Julien says the wines drink best from 3 to 6-8 years after the vintage.
Tasting the Current Releases
2019 Chardonnay One Hundred Sixteen (Russian River Valley) Fruitful nose with bright fruits tending to citrus contrast with smoky notes from new oak. Nice balance on palate: I wouldn’t call this lean, but it shows a citrus flavor spectrum and is not big or buttery. Some richness comes through the textured palate, which is flavorful. The wine fermented 80% in barriques and 20% in foudres, and aged two thirds in wood, including new French oak, used French oak, and Austrian oak. 13.5% 90 Drink -2025
2018 Chardonnay El Diablo (Russian River Valley) The vineyard is at 500 ft in a warm site on the east of the hill, planted with a tight spacing of the Robert Young and Montrachet clones. The wine ferments and then ages half in foudre and half in barriques; overall there is 48% new French oak and 14% new Austrian oak. Aging lasts 14 months The wine gives a leaner impression than the 116 Chardonnay, starting with its smoky nose. The palate is smoother with a silkier texture. There’s an impression of stone fruits in front with citrus behind. Good acidity supports the fruits. Flavor variety develops slowly in the glass. 13.4% 91 Drink -2018
2019 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley) The predominant source for the AVA release is Bootlegger’s Hill (almost a quarter), with about ten other sources. This vintage used 6% whole clusters and includes about ten clones, It ages in 45% new French oak for 16 months. Complex nose shows earthy notes, smokiness, bright red fruits, and some lifted red fruit aromatics. Smooth silky palate reprises those smoky notes with a sense of tobacco. Silky tannins are barely noticeable on the finish, which leaves a smoky, earthy, tobacco aftertaste. 14.1% 91 Drink -2027
2018Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast) The vineyard is in the Petaluma Gap AVA planted with a variety of heritage and Dijon clones. Fermentation uses 10% whole clusters, with aging in 40% new French oak and 15% concrete to keep freshness. The nose is more forceful and earthier than the Russian River release. The red fruit palate offers a rounder impression but also has more sense of structure. Earthy red fruits on the palate are cut by a touch of tannin on the finish; good grip on the palate. Needs another year for the tannins to soften and allow the fruits to show as earthy strawberries, but already this is the roundest and approachable of the single vineyard Pinot Noirs. 14.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029
2018Mt. Carmel Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills) Aromatic nose is higher-toned than Gap’s Crown from Russian River. Earthy red fruit impressions are poised between strawberries and cherries. Firm tannins are just evident by some bitterness on the finish. You can see the greater use of whole clusters (49%). This has the greatest sense of tension of the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and something approaching a sense of salinity on the finish. 13.5% 92 Drink 2022-2029
2017Free James Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast) The vineyard is at Freestone, very near the coast. The wine aged in almost 50% new French barriques for 22 months. The nose has taut aromatics and a sense of tension. The palate has relatively restrained fruits tending to red cherries, and the sense of tension returns on the palate. Fruits are more linear and there is more of a cool-climate impression than other cuvees. 13.4% 91 Drink -2028
2017 Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley) The wine ferments in a mix of wood and concrete and ages in barriques for 19 months with almost half new oak. Earthy red fruit aromatics show on the nose. This is the densest and most viscous of the releases, the weightiest with the greatest sense of extract, with red fruits supported firm tannins that show a touch of bitterness on the finish. It’s the most tannic of the single vineyard wines. That earthy impression increases in the glass. It would benefit from more time to let the tannins soften. 13.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029