Sonoma Diary 4: The Style Continues at Merry Edwards under Roederer

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.

Just off the Gravenstein highway, manicured vineyards surround the Merry Edwards winery.

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.

Tasting Notes

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

2018 Coopersmith 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

2018 Georganne 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

2018 Meredith 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

2018 Olivet 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

2008 Olivet 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

2017 Olivet 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

Sonoma Diary 3: A Restrained European Aesthetic at Radio-Coteau

“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 winery is in an old apple-processing plant near Sebastopol, and the estate is a few miles away, higher up, at Occidental.

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

Sonoma Diary 2: A More Sophisticated Style at Kosta Browne

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).

Kosta Browne is in an old apple-processing plant in The Barlow, a development on the outskirts of Sebastopol

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

2018 Gap’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

2018 Mt. 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

2017 Free 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

Napa Diary Day 13: Mountain Wines and Others from Chappellet

“For us the holy grail is a wine that technically has a lot of tannin but tastes soft,” winemaker Philip Titus says as we taste the flagship Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, when he returned to Chappellet as chief winemaker in 1990 (he had previously been at the winery as assistant winemaker) his first mandate from Don Chappellet was to soften the mountain tannins in Chappellet Cabernet.

Chappellet is venerable as one of the first wineries to be built in Napa after Prohibition, in 1967 (one year after Mondavi). Driving up the narrow access road from Lake Hennessy, deep into the woods, it feels quite isolated. Covering 700 acres, the estate extends well beyond the 100 acres of vineyards, which range from 1000 to 1700 feet, just above the fog line. The winery was in the shape of a striking pyramid, but a new winery was built just behind it in 2014, and now the pyramid is mostly filled with barriques. There were already vines on the property when it was purchased, but there was a lot of Chenin Blanc. Following a replanting program in the nineties, most of the vineyard today is Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety for which Chappellet is best known.

The pyramidal building has been renovated.

Some Chenin Blanc was restored in 2006 and now makes the one white wine from the estate. “There was Chardonnay here, but in the early 90s I was aware it was too warm for Chardonnay. We pulled it out and went farther south. Eventually we ended up in Petaluma Gap in Sonoma.” The Chardonnay is one of the Grower Collection series of wines, which come from named vineyards aside from the Chappellet estate. The series also includes Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. It’s fair to say these wines show a different character from the bold fruity style of Cabernet for which Chappellet is known, and reflect a cooler-climate style.

“The Signature Cabernet really gets back to what we’ve been doing for the last 54 years, Philip says. “It should be ready to drink, has to be stylistically approachable, but needs the ability to age.” It started out as 100% varietal, but now is a blend with 75-85% Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot and Malbec. “We didn’t find that blending with Cabernet Franc improved the wine,” Philips says, but he had gained experience with Petit Verdot and Malbec when his father planted them at his family vineyard in the 1970s. (Philip and his brother were skeptical, but their father said: you’ll need them one day.) Signature comes mostly from the estate, but also includes grapes from neighbors, and reflects its mountain origins in a sense of tension. Current vintages seem to have a more mineral style than the bolder vintages of the past.

The latest Cabernet Sauvignon cuvée is the 100% varietal Hideaway Vineyard, which comes from a plot just on the other side of Pritchard Hill. The first vintage was 2016. The terroir is different from the rest of the Chappellet vineyards, and has very shallow, rocky, red volcanic soil. It shows great purity of Cabernet fruits, with slightly lifted aromatics conveying a sense of precision.

“Pritchard Hill is the top wine. Everything we do revolves around this wine,” Philip says. It’s a vineyard selection followed by a barrel selection. A bigger wine, with long aging potential, it ages in 100% new oak compared to Signature’s 50%. Like Signature, it started as a varietal but now is a blend. It has impressive depth and density and needs several years to begin to show its quality.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes

2019 Signature Chenin Blanc
Fruity nose, citrus overtones, ripe fruits but with slightly tart finish. Smooth and full of flavor, lives up to its name as a signature wine. “This is a very simply made wine,” Philip Titus says, “to keep brightness and minerality.” It’s aged half in neutral barriques and half in tank. 13.7%   Chappellet 89 Drink -2025

2019  Petaluma Gap Calesa Vineyard Chardonnay
Barrel fermented with 30% new oak and going 100% through MLF. Nose gives a lean mineral impression with only faint traces of oak. More aromatic on the palate than expected from the nose, although stopping short of exotic fruits (this was fermented at low temperature). The palate is more phenolic than mineral with a long finish. The phenolic or floral impressions are due to the range of clones in the vineyard, which tend to high production of terpenes.  90  Drink -2026

2018 Russian River Valley, Apple Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir

This comes from the cool area of Green Valley. Nose opens with hints of earthy notes and red cherry fruits. It’s earthy on the palate, which shows quite bright red cherry fruits with just a touch of tannic bitterness at the end to show the structure. It’s a very clear, precise style for Russian River, with well-delineated fruits. It’s full of flavor and beginning to develop. “This is what I like about Russian River Valley,” Philip Titus says, “a richer deeper style of Pinot Noir.” It ages in 45% new barriques.    90 Drink -2028

2018 Napa Cabernet Franc (Cabernet Franc 75%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%, Malbec 6%, Petit Verdot 4%)

Nose offers sense of chocolate and tobacco, following to palate which shows some breadth with furry tannins on the finish–softer than the precision and structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Starts out quite primary but Philip Titus says it should start to develop secondary characters after 6-8 years.    91 Drink -2033.


2018 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%%, Petit Verdot 10%, Malbec 5%)
Quite a restrained nose leads into smooth palate with tannins giving a chocolaty texture and just a touch of bitter chocolate at the end. The lean character of the fruits shows the influence of volcanic soils and the elevation of the vineyards. Palate inclines towards herbal or mineral notes. This can be enjoyed now but will really come out in a few years.    92 Drink -2034

2018 Hideaway Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (100%)
Chocolate notes overlay very pure black Cabernet fruits, with tannins showing as bitter chocolate on the finish. Aromatics are a little more lifted compared with the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s still very young, flavor variety has yet to develop, but it conveys a great sense of volcanic tension and purity of Cabernet fruits. It shows a mountain structure now but will become smooth and silky as it ages. It ages in 100% new oak.    94 Drink 2024-2039
2017 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
Black inky color. Stern nose shows deep black fruits. This is a rich, big wine, with a chocolaty texture that carries its high tannins well. Fruits show as blackberries with hints of blueberries, but aromatics haven’t come out fully yet. Finish is very long with some breadth on the palate. Already it shows a seamless quality that I expect to be reflected in layers of flavor as it develops    94 Drink 2027-2045

Napa Diary Day 11: From Europe to Napa at Grgich

“Everything is understated at Grgich, which is not necessarily the most popular style,” Ivo Jeramaz says. Ivo is Mike Grgich’s nephew, and came from Croatia to join his uncle when Mike set up his own winery in 1977. “What kind of wine do we want to make?” Ivo asks. “We want authentic wine… We are European, we believe in terroir not winemaking; winemakers are not artists. Of course, we have to be skillful, not to spoil the grapes, we like to say we raise our wines rather than make them.”

How have things changed at Grgich since I last visited, I asked. “The biggest change of my career was seeing the effects of regenerative farming. We’ve been organic for 20 years and became biodynamic in 2003, and we switched to regenerative farming in 2019. A major difference between organic and regenerative farming is not tilling the soil. I am fascinated by the microbes in the soil. Tilling means the microbes get killed by surface heat.” It’s too early to see all the effects, but Ivo says that already it’s been possible to reduce spraying for mildew by half.

In each of the major varieties, Grgich makes a range of styles. Essence is a top Sauvignon Blanc, made conventionally by whole cluster pressing, fermented in stainless steel, and then aged in neutral foudres. Skin Fermented is a new approach, treating the grapes like red wine winemaking, with fermentation including the skins (like an orange wine, but with maceration not long enough to get orange-like effects); the first vintage is about to be released. Essence is flavorful and the skin fermentation adds the sort of richness usually associated with barrel fermentation and new oak, but without the impressions of oak. 

“I judge Chardonnay on its minerality,” Ivo says, but he is a good enough winemaker to produce Chardonnay from Carneros, aged in neutral foudres resulting in a leaner style tending to salinity, as well as the Paris Commemorative Tasting Chardonnay from Napa, which is an attempt to reproduce the style of wine that Mike Grgich made at Château Montelena that won the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. This is fat, rich, and buttery, showing the use of new barriques. Chardonnay has become more precise since Ivo eliminated use of sulfur before fermentation and allows the phenols to oxidize. “They drop out and this reduces bitterness” he says.

“I would like our Cabernet to have more polished tannins,” Ivo says, and he has switched from racking the wine off immediately after malolactic fermentation to leaving it in the same barrel for 6 months before racking. The longer contact with the lees makes for more refined tannins. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Yountville, Rutherford, and Calistoga, including small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and has an approachable style with the slightly lifted aromatics that are typical of Napa. The Rutherford Cabernet is 100% varietal from the vineyard at the winery.

Grgich has a 25 acre vineyard in Yountville that has some of the oldest Cabernet in Napa, consisting of the Inglenook clone planted on St. George rootstock in 1959. This makes the Yountville Old Vines cuvée, a dark, brooding wine that is a real vin de garde; it may need several years to come around, but it gives the impression it will last for ever.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes

Sauvignon Blanc

2020  Napa Valley Skin Fermented
Quite a reduced nose. Rich impression on palate with powerful sense of granular texture, more viscosity than Essence. Palate inclines to stone fruits. 92 Drink -2025

2019 Napa Valley Essence

Faintly reduced nose. Palate is full of flavor, more stone fruits than citrus (with some apricot impressions), very smooth on palate, faint sense of bitterness lends support on finish.    91 Drink -2025

2013 Napa Valley Essence
Faintly nutty notes have developed with age and the palate is richer than the current vintage. but the wine has stayed fresh. Fruits are mature moving towards beeswax (giving something of the impression you get from some Semillon, even though this is100% Sauvignon Blanc). Certainly makes Ivo’s point that Sauvignon Blanc can age.    91 Drink -2023

Chardonnay

2018 Carneros (Miljenkos Selection)
Lean style is quite Burgundian, with good acidity enhancing sense of salinity. The salinity has refreshing more-ish quality. Plays to elegance rather than power.    90 Drink -2027

2018 Napa Valley 
Label says Napa but Ivo says the grapes come from Carneros. Sweet ripe impressions with typical viscosity of Carneros. Good acidity with a touch of lime and a hint of exotic fruits. The ripe fruit character is certainly Napa but it’s not overblown. I suspect the exotic notes will take over with aging. 14.1%   Napa21 89 Drink -2025

2018 Napa (Paris Tasting Commemorative)
Restrained nose. Palate shows its acidity on opening. Rich fat style with impression that development will start quite soon. Already shows some faintly nutty impressions.    89 Drink -2024

2014 Carneros (Miljenkos Selection)
More restrained nose and an altogether leaner style than the Paris Napa cuvee. More a sense of salinity than minerality to the palate, still fresh, with lots of flavor variety, and still time to go. 14.1%    91 Drink -2023

2014 Napa (Paris Tasting Commemorative)
This has a typically Napa texture, fat and buttery, and you can see the effects of aging in barriques with some new oak, although the oak is no longer not directly obvious. The nose becomes a little nutty as it develops in the glass. Hints of tertiary notes on the palate suggest it is time to drink up. It’s a bit obvious. 14.1%    89 Drink -2021

Cabernet Sauvignon

2016  Yountville Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon

Round ripe black fruit nose with hint of piquancy. Deep intense blackberry palate with brambly fruits showing good freshness, and some bitter aromatics at the end. This really needs time for the tannins to resolve.    92 Drink 2026-2041

2013 Yountville Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon
Reserved nose with smoky notes on top of black fruits. Has softened only marginally by comparison with 2016 (although this vintage had the highest IPT ever recorded). Tannins are still suppressing the fruits on the palate, but you can see the intensity behind. Actually the palate is relatively soft with a long aftertaste, but the finish is still a bit bitter. Still a few years off being ready.    92 Drink 2024-2039

2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Faintly smoky notes and some mineral overtones on nose lead into brambly blackberry fruits. Nice sense of freshness with lifted aromatics showing black fruits tending towards cassis.   91 Drink -2030

2009  Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Softer impression to the nose than 2010, with minerality pushed more in the background. Smooth, ripe, and round on palate with soft viscous impression on finish. Not so aromatically lifted on palate, although fruits still in direction of blackcurrants.   91 Drink -2031

Napa Diary Day 7: Hyde Estate and Hyde de Villaine

Arriving at Hyde Estate in Carneros, there was a cool breeze blowing, and it felt about 10 degrees cooler than it had when we left St. Helena farther up the valley 30 minutes earlier. True to form, the wines showed more of a cool-climate impression than those from up valley.

Larry Hyde started with 50 acres for growing grapes in 1979 and built Hyde Vineyard into one of the most prestigious sites in Carneros, selling grapes to more than 40 producers. In 2005 he purchased an apple orchard close by, and in 2006 he planted it to Pinot Noir. “The project was launched specifically with making wine at the estate in mind,” says Larry’s son, Chris. There are 3 acres of Pinot Noir and 15 acres of Chardonnay.  More recently he purchased another vineyard in Carneros which is planted with Syrah, Merlot, Viognier, Cabernet Franc.

The Hyde Estate winery is in the middle of the vineyard in Carneros

The winery (small and practical along bare-bones warehouse lines) was built from 2014 to 2017, when Alberto Rodriguez came from Patz and Hall as winemaker. Pinot Noir is by the far the best known variety here, but there are also varietal estate wines of Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, and Viognier. The wines age for 11 months in barriques with 25% new oak. The Chardonnay is rich with sweet fruit impressions and notes of exotic fruits, the Pinot is quite aromatic with earthy red fruits backed by crisp acidity, and the Syrah has impressions of the light style of the Northern Rhône. 

Larry is also a partner with DRC’s Aubert de Villaine, a relative by marriage, in Napa’s HdV Wines, which sources its grapes from Hyde Vineyard. The project started in 2000, and the winery was built in 2003, a practical building with the appearance of warehouse. It’s located just outside downtown Napa, at the start of the Silverado Trail, and is surrounded by a 24 acre vineyard, which is managed by the team at Hyde, but the grapes are sold off. The focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The Hyde de Villaine winery is just outside Napa, but sources its grapes from Hyde Estate in Carneros

Chardonnay is barrel fermented, with 15-20% new oak, and no battonage. It stays on the lees for 11 months and then spends 4 months in stainless steel. It’s 60-70% Wente and the rest is Calera by clonal origin. The style is one of the most Burgundian I have encountered in Napa; in terms of comparisons with Burgundy, there are mineral impressions like Puligny Montrachet when young.

Pinot Noir comes from two sources: Ysabel is the exceptional cuvée that’s not from Carneros, but comes from a 1400 ft high plot on Sonoma Mountain. It gives a much stronger impression of cool-climate origins than the Ygnacio Pinot Noir from Carneros, which is rounder and more aromatic and quite Beaune-ish. The Syrah, Californio, has rounded fruits supported by elegant tannins much in the style of the Northern Rhône. Bonne Cousine is a Bordeaux blend, varying quite a bit with vintage, but typically a bit more than half Merlot and a bit less than half Cabernet Sauvignon.

Grapes sources are similar for the two producers, but the wines are distinct, although Chris Hyde says, “HDV has had an impact on our own winemaking. We farm for the site, we get a little more acid.” The Chardonnay at HdV has a more eurocentric style while at Hyde it shows the typical richness of Carneros, the Pinot Noir from Hyde is more distinctly cool-climate than the Ygnacio from HdV, and the Syrah from both has an elegance far more like the Rhône than like Shiraz from the New World.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting of Hyde Estate 2017

Chardonnay
Rich with sweet fruit impressions and notes of exotic fruits, Attractive and approachable, with the fruits becoming more linear as it develops in the glass. 89 Drink -2024

Pinot Noir
Quite aromatic nose shows red cherries and raspberries, with strawberries in the background. Crisp acidity follows to hints of earthy strawberries on palate. The aromatics are quite earthy, but the overall impression shows freshness of Carneros, emphasized by some tea-like tannins on the finish. 90 Drink 2022-2030

Syrah
Somewhat stern nose leads into crisp palate with light impressions of the Northern Rhone. Tannic structure shows in slight touch of bitterness on finish, with some tea-like tannins giving impression of striving for ripeness. Fruits round out nicely in glass and seem increasingly like the Northern Rhone. The palate is moving in an attractively spicy direction. 90 Drink -2028


Tasting at Hyde de Villaine

2018 Chardonnay
Fresh nose with subtle fruits shows a resemblance with Burgundy, with hints of minerality that point towards Puligny Montrachet. Nice density, well balanced fruits and acidity, some hints of citrus and gunflint. Very fine balance. 92 Drink -2029

2015 Chardonnay
Faint notes of exotic fruits show development with touch of asperity. Fresh palate shows greater density and viscosity compared with 2018, rounder and richer. The exotic hints become fainter in the glass as the palate moves more towards minerality. The texture and overall impression reminds me a little of Corton Charlemagne. 91 Drink -2025

Ysabel (Sonoma Mountain) 2018 Pinot Noir
There’s a definite cool-climate impression, with the earthy strawberry fruits showing a touch of asperity. The dry earthy finish gives this quite a lean character. (Fruits come from a site at 1400 ft elevation.) The vineyard is surrounded by redwood trees, and it’s possible that this is response for a cedary impression on the palate. 89 Drink 2023-2031

Ygnacio 2018 Pinot Noir
Reflecting its origins in Carneros, rounder and more aromatic than Ysabel. Ripeness on the palate shows against a touch of young tea-like tannins drying the finish, with greater sense of viscosity. Still needs more time, and may become generous and elegant. It seems quite Beaune-ish. 90 Drink 2022-2032

Californio 2016 Syrah
Nicely rounded impression on nose follows through to elegant palate supported by fine, silky tannins. Purity of fruits really comes through. The elegance and fine texture remind me of the Northern Rhone 14.3% 91 Drink -2031

Napa Diary Day 6: Stony Hill – from Chardonnay to Cabernet

It’s all change at Stony Hill, an icon in Napa Valley for its early production of Chardonnay. Fred and Eleanor McCrea purchased the property in 1943 and planted their first Chardonnay in 1947. The first vintage, produced in a lean style without malolactic fermentation, was 1952. Even today, after a half century of changes in fashion, it remains one of Napa Valley’s best-known Chardonnays. although its style lives up to the name of the winery, stony and lean, the antithesis of the caricature of rich, fat, buttery Chardonnay that more often typifies Napa. “Fred’s objective  was to produce Chardonnay that would do well after ten years,” says Laurie Taboulet, the estate manager since Gaylon Lawrence bought the estate in 2020. Jamie Motley came as winemaker from Pax Mahle.

The address on St. Helena Highway North is deceptive. The estate is actually an enclave within the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park (the winery was founded before the park), several miles up a steep, twisting road to the winery, which at 800 ft elevation is in the center of the vineyards, which rise up to 1500 ft, all above the fog line. This may not be the most isolated winery in Napa Valley, but it’s certainly a contender. Soils have more clay around the winery, and become volcanic and quite ferrous as indicated by a redder color as you go up to the top. The woods were burned by the Glass Fire but the vineyards escaped.

The winery was originally built as a house for the McRea’s in 1952.

Long time winemaker Mike Chelini used short elevage and the wine was bottled the June after harvest. Wine was aged only in used barriques, and MLF was blocked. Jamie plans to use longer elevage and to age wines in a mix of demi-muids and foudres of Austrian oak from Stockinger, as well as some cement. New oak will remain light, but may be a bit higher during the transition period.

The style of the Chardonnay is distinctly reserved, more stony than mineral. The herbal edge of young vintages gives an impression of austerity. There isn’t much development in the first couple of years, but after about six years the style opens out, and the herbal character of young vintages segues into a sense of garrigue, releasing more mature flavors inclined towards a citrus spectrum, with a delicious delicacy. This for me is the peak. Flavor intensifies and the palate becomes more viscous for another few years, until the wine begins to tire.

The Cabernet Sauvignon (either 100% varietal or close to it) is an eye opener, one of the very few Cabernets in Napa where I might hesitate in a blind tasting as to whether its origins were New World or European. The first year was 2009. Even a young vintage such as 2017 shows a distinctly restrained style, silky and elegant (if I wanted to compare with Bordeaux, St. Julien would come to mind). Ten years after the vintage, the style of the 2010 shows the tension of mountain tannins without the aggression that characterizes many mountain Cabernets. These are very much food wines, and left me persuaded that Stony Hill has the potential to produce Cabernets that will rival its reputation of Chardonnay.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes of a Chardonnay Vertical

2018 
Stony with austere impressions on palate. Very dry impression with just a faint lift at end. Flavor variety hasn’t started to develop yet, but there’s a sense of a coiled spring waiting to unwind. 13.5%   91 Drink -2030

2017 
Palate hasn’t really started to develop yet, acidity melds into hints of piquancy as it opens in the glass. The austere stony character really lives up to the name of the vineyard. A slightly nutty aftertaste promises complexity to come. 13.5%    92 Drink -2030

2015 
Fresh nose still offers some herbal impressions. Development shows as softness on palate, tending to salinity rather than minerality, with a real impression of delicacy. The palate has really come into balance now with mature citrus fruits and a faint viscosity. This is the perfect point of balance, retaining freshness but showing development. It’s the roundest of the vintages of the past decade. 13.0%    92 Drink -2025

2012 
Distinctly more golden color than younger wines. Greater sense of viscosity cuts the austere impression on palate, bringing more roundness with age, and a sense of the garrigue has come with development. Intensity picks up in the glass.    89 Drink -2023

Tasting Notes on Cabernet Sauvignon

2017 
Fresh herbal impressions on nose retain the familar house style from the Chardonnay. This impresses as a restrained Eurocentric style. Fruits are already showing flavor variety and are balanced by light silky tannins. I would not have difficulty in believing this smooth style came from Bordeaux.    93 Drink -2031 2010

 2010
Fruits show as more red than black on nose, with faintly piquant developed character. Silky palate shows maturing red and black fruits, showing the restraint and tension of mountain fruits but without the tension of mountain tannins. This is very much a food wine. 13.5% 91 Driuk -2033

Judgment of Paris Wines: Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap

It seems ironic that on the day of the referendum in Britain, the Judgment of Paris tasting should be revisited in London. To celebrate the famous tasting of 1976—it doesn’t seem like 40 years ago—Chateau Montelena (which won the Chardonnay tasting with its 1973) and Stag’s Leap Winery (which won the red tasting) presented current and older vintages in London.

Today’s Chardonnay from Montelena comes from the Oak Knoll vineyard near the winery, but current winemaker, Matt Crafton revealed that the winning 1973 “was not at all a terroir wine. It came from grapes that were purchased to fit Montelena’s stylistic objectives, sources were all over the place.” Half of the grapes came from Russian River in Sonoma Valley, some came from Calistoga (the hot end of Napa valley), and a small proportion from Oak Knoll. What price terroir if this could beat Meursaults and Puligny Montrachets?

The question in my mind going through the 2001 and 2009 vintages of Montelena’s Chardonnay, three Cabernet Sauvignons from 2013 to 2005, and five vintages of Stag’s Leap SLV vineyard from 2013 to 1983, was whether their origins would be any more obvious in a blind tasting today than they were at the 1976 tasting in Paris. It has always seemed to me that the importance of the Judgment of Paris isn’t at all who “won,” but rather that the French judges were completely unable to distinguish whether the wines were Cabernet-based blends from Bordeaux compared with varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from California, or Chardonnays from Napa compared with Burgundy. That speaks to the success of the winemakers of the time in emulating French style.

SLVToday wines are richer all round, California has found its own style, and often enough the winemakers of Europe are trying to emulate New World richness. I think it’s fair to say that both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Winery have relatively restrained styles for California: there is not much New World exuberance here. The Montelena Chardonnays remind me a bit of Meursault, but show more body and alcohol. I’m not sure I really see enough interesting development with age–but then with premox cutting off the lifespan of white Burgundy, I don’t very often see it there either. The Cabernets seem to get leaner as they age.

The Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon tasted in Paris in 1976 was the forerunner of today’s single vineyard bottlings. The two famous vineyards are adjacent but different in character. “Fay’s vineyard is softer and more perfumed, more elegant,” says current winemaker Marcus Notaro, “SLV is a bigger wine.” In another era, I might have said that Fay is more feminine and SLV more masculine. Spanning thirty years, the SLV vintages at this week’s tasting showed a common stylistic thread, with slightly spicy, slightly herbal overtones to the fruits. I would say they’re as much in the European tradition as in the New World mold, except that alcohol is higher and there’s a sense of warmth, for me showing as almost exotic fruit flavors, which suggests they don’t come from France. Would I confidently distinguish Fay Vineyard and SLV in a blind tasting with, say, Margaux and Pauillac? I’m not so sure.

A Perspective on Canadian Wine

Most people probably know Canadian wine only through the prism of its famous ice wine, but actually Canada has around 12,000 ha of vineyards (mostly in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula) roughly equivalent in total to Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Most production is dry wine, with sparkling wine and ice wine a small proportion. A tasting at Canada House in London offered a rare opportunity to get a bead on whether this is a successful endeavor.

The wines were almost all VQA (Canada’s appellation system), so this is a look at the high end. I do think they’ve made a mistake in defining the VQAs in great detail at this stage, with ten sub-appellations in Niagara, for example, confusing rather than enlightening.

Living on the East coast of the United States, I am inclined to regard Canada as the frozen North, or anyway, distinctly cool climate, so I am frankly confused by the somewhat optimistic descriptions of climate by the Wine Council of Ontario. An amusing chart of annual temperatures in various wine growing regions appears to show that Bordeaux is warmer than the Languedoc and that Niagara is warmer than Bordeaux, which leaves me feeling somewhat sceptical.

Looking at weather station data, I place Niagara between Alsace and the Mosel. It is a little bit warmer in British Columbia, and there is certainly significant variation between the ends of Okanagan Valley as it extends for more than a hundred miles from north to south, but I am surprised to see the southern part described as warmer than Napa on the basis of degree days, as weather station data in the midpoint of the southern part suggest to me that temperatures are quite close to Alsace. Perhaps I am not paying sufficient attention to variations between microclimates.

Tasting the wines, the climate that most often comes to mind for comparison would be the Loire. With Riesling and Chardonnay as the main focus, but also a fair proportion of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Viognier, the impression is distinctly cool climate.

Most Chardonnays at the tasting had too much oak for my taste, even though the stated usage of new oak was usually quite moderate. Even allowing for youthful character, I’m not certain there’s enough fruit to carry the oak. My impression of the Chardonnays from Niagara is that the citrus palate can be a bit too much driven by lemon. It’s fair to say that the style is European rather than New World, but given the cool climate character of the wines, I would suggest that Chablis would be a better model than the Côte d’Or, and the question should be how much (old) oak to use together with stainless steel, rather than what proportion of the oak (with many wines barrel fermented) should be new. With prices often around or above $35, competitiveness seems an issue.

Curiously given the cool climate impression, I was not generally impressed with the Rieslings. My main complaint is the style: Riesling character is often obscured by a significant level of residual sugar. I did not find a single dry Riesling. I’m inclined to wonder whether, if you can’t successfully make a dry wine, you should plant a different variety, but I suppose you might say that the best Canadian Rieslings do show a nice aperitif style.

Given the cool climate impression made by the whites, the successful production of reds is quite surprising, especially the focus on Bordeaux varieties rather than those more usually associated with cooler climates. Among them, Cabernet Franc appears to be the variety of choice for single varietal wines, and although there are certainly some creditable wines showing good varietal typicity, I find many to be on the edge for ripeness. Certainly the style is much more European than New World­—the Loire would be the obvious comparison. The best Merlots or Bordeaux blends seem more like the Médoc than the Right Bank of Bordeaux in style.

To my surprise, Syrah outshines Cabernet Franc in Okanagan Valley. The Syrahs are evidently cool climate in character, definitely Syrah not Shiraz, in a fresh style with some elegance, which should mature in a savory direction; nothing with the full force impression of the New World. They remind me of the Northern Rhone in a cool year.

There are some successful Pinot Noirs in both British Columbia and Ontario, presenting somewhat along the lines of Sancerre or Germany. The difficulty is to bring out classic typicity in these cool climates, but the best are Pinot-ish in a light style.

Some producers are now making single vineyard wines. Is it worth it? It’s an interesting question whether at this stage of development the best terroirs have been well enough defined to produce reliably better wine every year or whether a better model would be to make cuvées from the best lots. There’s also the question of whether they are competitive at price points pushing beyond those of the estate bottlings.

Favorites at the tasting

Sparkling wine, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia: Benjamin Bridge, 2008

This is called the Methode Classique Brut Reserve to emphasize the connection with Champagne: it comes from 61% Chardonnay and 39% Pinot Noir. It follows the tradition of Champagne with a faintly toasty nose showing some hints of citrus. Nice balance on palate with an appley impression. Flavors are relatively forceful.   11.5% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Painted Rocks Winery, 2013

Lovely fruits in a restrained style, fresh and elegant with beautiful balance, a touch of pepper at the end. A textbook Syrah in a slightly tight style.   14.9% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Burrowing Owl Vineyards, 2013

Black fruit impression on nose with hints of blueberries. Light style is quite Rhone-like on palate, nice clean fruits with faint buttery hints at end, more successful than the Bordeaux varieties. 14.5% 89

Pinot Noir, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula: Hidden Bench, Felseck Vineyard, 2013

Nicely rounded red fruits with faintly minty overtones bringing a slight herbal impression to the nose. Quite a sweet ripe impression on palate with touch of spice at the end. Slight viscosity on palate brings to mind the style of Pinot Noir in Germany.   12.7% 88

Cabernet Franc, Creek Shores, Niagara Peninsula: Tawse Family Winery, Van Bers Vineyard, 2012

Nose shows some faint tobacco and chocolate, with palate following with typically herbal notes of Cabernet Franc. Dry tobacco-ish finish. Does it have enough fruit to stand up when the tannins resolve?   13.0% 88

Chardonnay, Niagara: Norman Hardie Winery, Cuvee L, 2012

More restrained nose than Hardie’s other Chardonnay cuvees but some oak does show through. Nice balance on palate between oak and slightly lemony fruits. Follows Chablis in style.   12.4% 88

Viognier, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Blasted Church Vineyards, 2014

Barrel fermented with some new oak. Faintly perfumed nose with the perfume somewhat clearer on palate. Fry impression to finish short of phenolic. Nice long finish on which you can just see the oak.   13.0% 89

Designer Oak Labels

It used to be so simple. Wine would complete its alcoholic fermentation and be transferred into barrels, more or less new according to the strength of the year. The source of the oak would most likely be the nearest forest; you might worry a little bit about how much the oak had been toasted.

Today the degree of toast is tightly controlled, sometimes using infrared rather than mere simple fire, and is reproducible. “We at Taransaud know what medium toast is, we measure it by time and temperature, but some people still use color, which is very variable,” says Jean-Pierre Giraud. Toast was the elephant in the room at the afternoon session of Taransaud’s seminar for the Institute of Masters of Wine: it was rarely mentioned directly, but I suspect that it was the main determinative factor in barrels that had been designed for very specific purposes.

I was fascinated by the concept that a barrel could be designed directly to handle higher alcohol wines. I’ve had the view for some time that the problem with high alcohol wines is not just the higher alcohol, but a generally higher level of extraction, which makes them fatiguing to drink (although sometimes apparently performing better at tastings). I hadn’t followed through to ask the corollary question: when and where does the higher extraction take place and could it be changed?

Alcohol is a solvent, and perhaps its most obvious effect is on maceration: different tannins are extracted by pre-fermentation maceration (when there is no alcohol) from post-fermentation maceration (when alcohol is present). But the question implicit in Taransaud’s design of a barrel for higher alcohol wines is whether there will be differences in extraction during élevage of a 15% alcohol wine from a 13% alcohol wine, and whether the barrel can be adjusted to equalize the effects.

The starting point is that alcohol affects the perception of other components in the wine, reports Dominique de Beauregard of Taransaud. It masks some components, especially fruit aromas, and exacerbates others, in particular herbaceous elements. Higher alcohol extracts more toast aromas, making the wine seem heavier and more tannic. (From this I would guess that some of the adjustment to higher alcohol involves reducing the toast.) So Taransaud have developed a barrel – the working name is the A+ – which is intended to enhance fruit to compensate for the effect of higher alcohol.

I thought the blind tasting of Izquierdo 2010 from Ribera del Duero, matured in either a regular barrel or an A+ barrel, was inconclusive. In the regular barrel, the wine was tinged with savage, even animal, notes, and the finish seemed harsh and bitter. These problems were ameliorated by an impression of more fruit and a softer palate with the A+ barrel, but the wine was still pretty biting with a burning finish. I am sorry, but once you have reached 15.5% alcohol, I’m not convinced that any change in the élevage is going to bring the wine back to a reasonable balance.

The next special effect was a barrel intended to “reveal Chardonnay’s typicity and quality.” I think an issue’s going begging here, however. What is the typicity of Chardonnay? I think of it as the chameleon grape, capable of flinty minerality in Chablis, nutty overtones in Meursault, steeliness in Puligny, butter and vanillin in Napa, tropical fruits in South America. If ever there was a grape that responds to the winemaker, this is it!

Be that as it may, it seems that Taransaud, firmly centered in France, sees minerality and tension as the objective for Chardonnay. (So do I.) They wouldn’t say what is special or different about the PFC barrel that is their prototype for Chardonnay, except that the wood was carefully selected for grain, seasoning, and toasting. (This is somewhat along the lines of a phrase often found in scientific papers to which I take strong exception. “We performed the experiment carefully.” Well, yes, how else would you perform it?) Anyway, I certainly see the merit of the notion that perhaps oak should be different for Chardonnay from Pinot Noir or from Cabernet Sauvignon. However, I wasn’t persuaded by the results of this particular experiment. A Domaine François Lumpp 2011 Givry in a traditional barrel had a nose and palate showing a nice combination of citrus fruits and oak overtones, smooth and well integrated. The PFC barrel seemed to give a more muted impression and I thought I got a fugitive touch of high toned aromatics on the nose, with the acidity standing out to make the palate seem a bit disjointed. This is clearly a work in progress.

Egg-shaped fermenters are all the rage at biodynamic producers, who feel that the shape encourages a natural fluid movement that reduces the need for intervention. This is something that could presumably be measured, although I haven’t yet seen any attempt at objective judgment. Egg-shaped fermenters come in cement and now Taransaud have introduced one in wood, called the Ovum. The blind tasting was a comparison of Domaine de Chevalier 2011, 100% Sauvignon Blanc, given six months in conventional 225 liter barrels, 400 liter barrels, or a 2000 liter Ovum.

Now the problem here from my point of view is that we are not comparing like with like. The main effect is surely going to be the different ratio of surface area to volume, which is greatest in the 225 liter barrel, about 20% less in the 400 liter barrel, and only about half in the 2000 liter container. (And a further complication is that in barrels the inside is usually toasted but the heads are not.) For this to be a significant test of shape, we would need to compare a barrel or a cylinder of 2000 liters with the Ovum.

Anyway, the blind tasting to my mind validated the idea that they have learned something in the past couple of hundred years about the best containers for maturing white wine. The traditional barrel gave a classic impression, with a typical citrus fruit spectrum tinged with oak, becoming soft and ripe in the glass. The 400 liter barrel gave a much less oaky impression, with the citrus fruits coming to the fore. The Ovum gave a grassier wine with more zest, fresher and purer, but less interesting. When the audience was asked to vote for their preference, the choice was interestingly for the 400 liter, but I think that did not make sufficient allowance for the fact that the wine is very young and normally would have many more months to mature before tasting. Allowing for that, my preference was for the traditional barrique.

The final tasting was a test of Taransaud’s T5 barrel. All we could learn about this was that the wood is seasoned for five years, it comes from French oak with a very tight grain, and there is a special toasting procedure on an open fire at low intensity. Oh, and a barrel costs about €1200 compared to the usual €700. It’s intended to bring refinement to the wine. The test tasting was of Château Beauregard (Pomerol) 2009 matured in either a standard barrel or a T5 barrel. There was definitely a difference. The classic barrel produced a wine that was rich and fruity with oak that was relatively subdued on the nose but more evident on the palate, in fact it was quite dominant. Slowly emerging fruit gave a youthful impression of needing quite a bit more time. The T5 sample was more subdued, almost closed on the nose, with the fruits initially seeming sweeter and riper, and better integrated, on the palate. It gave the impression that it will be ready to drink a year or two sooner than the wine from the classic barrique. All of the winemakers – some of whom are using T5 barrels – said they preferred it. But this tasting was not done blind. I hate to spoil the party, but I wonder whether this is like malolactic fermentation in barrel: the question is whether it is a short-term effect or will persist? Will the two wines be any different in five or ten years’ time?

I really admire the efforts to go behind simply turning out high quality barrels into examining all the factors that influence the effects of wood on the wine, and asking how and which changes should be made for different situations. Just as Riedel has created a perception that we should no longer use the same glasses to taste all wines, it makes me wonder whether in years to come, we will look back and wonder at the primitive nature of the idea that oak barrels might be generic for all wines.