Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Karia Chardonnay 2009

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Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Karia Chardonnay 2009

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Karia Chardonnay 2009

Politics has no place in this blog, but I couldn’t help notice that there were quite a few people talking about the USA yesterday.  So in the spirit of trying to stay topical, I have a wine from California, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Karia Chardonnay 2009.

I wrote about Stag’s Leap, Stags’ Leap and Stags Leap back in April, but here’s a quick recap.  There is a set of peaks in Napa, California that is commonly known as Stags Leap Palisades after a local legend involving an elusive deer.  Two wineries in the region were founded in the same year and had competing claims to the name.  After some wrangling, they settled on Stag’s Leap for one and Stags’ Leap for the other (note the apostrophe), with the area as a whole eventually being recognized as the Stags Leap District American Viticultural Area.  The producer I reviewed in April was Stags’ Leap, which is perhaps slightly less famous than its neighbour, but more commonly found in Australia because it is owned by Treasury Wine Estates.  Today, we’re on to the one more likely to be the topic in wine studies.

Stag’s Leap, or as it is more properly known Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, was established in 1970 by Warren Winiarski as the Napa Valley was emerging from its Prohibition induced slumber.  Time spent in Naples and work at Robert Mondavi’s winery motivated Winiarski to found his own winery.  He produced his first vintage in 1972 with the help of Andre Tchelistcheff, described in the Oxford Companion to Wine as “founding father of the modern California wine industry”.

The second vintage of 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the wines picked for a tasting  in 1976 by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant based in Paris (and now something of an institution in the British wine trade).  Now commonly known as the Judgement of Paris and the subject of books and a film, wines of California were tasted blind alongside red wines of Bordeaux and Burgundian whites by highly regarded French judges.  Much to the dismay of some of the judges, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon was picked as the top red and Chateau Montelena (also of Napa) as the top white, beating out counterparts from some of the finest French producers.  While largely dismissed in France, the tasting proved a turning point in establishing Napa as a source of high quality wine.  While the significance has been debated and contested ever since, subsequent tastings of the same wines have shown the Californian reds at least as age worthy as their French rivals.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars expanded from the initial Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.) by purchasing first the neighbouring Fay vineyard from Michael Fay, another Napa legend, and then the Arcadia vineyard from Mike Grgich, winemaker at the aforementioned Chateau Montelena.  The winery and most of the vineyards were sold in 2007 by Winiarski, 79 at the time, to Chateau Ste. Michelle of Washington and Marchesi Antinori Srl (of Super Tuscan fame) in 2007.

Today the company produces estate and single vineyard wines, including the Cabernets Sauvignon Cask 23, S.L.V and Fay as well as the Arcadia Chardonnay.  They also produce wines from fruit sourced throughout Napa, including their Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot, a Sauvignon Blanc and this Chardonnay.

While I’ve written about both California and Chardonnay many times, this is the first California Chardonnay to grace this blog, so it deserves a word or two.  California’s wine history dates back to the 19th century, but Chardonnay didn’t start to make its mark until much later.  The earliest plantings date from the 1800s but it wasn’t until a century later that the variety began to be popularized and then mushroomed after the Judgement of Paris in 1976, becoming the most widely planted grape in California.  While styles ranged from warm climate, fruity, tank fermented versions to butterscotch, barrel fermented wines, California Chardonnays initially established themselves with a reputation for being big and unsubtle.  As the industry matured, more refined styles emerged, and examples may be found to suit most tastes.  This wine is in something of a moderate style, with ageing being split 1/3rd in steel and 2/3rds in oak, with only a portion of the wine undergoing malolactic fermentation.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a pale lemon yellow colour and quick, thin legs.  On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium plus intensity, and aromas of oak, lemon, green apple, some floral notes, and a hint of melon.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus alcohol, medium plus intensity, medium body, and medium plus length.  The oak was very strong initially when the wine was likely too cold, but much better after some time, with citrus emerging as well as more of the floral and melon notes from the nose. Subsequently some grapefruit and honey characters emerged.

This is a very good wine.  It is well balanced, with the acidity, alcohol and intensity all being fairly strong.  The flavour profile is very pleasing and fresh, despite it being a three year old white wine, and the slight honey note gives a hint as to how this wine may continue to improve with time.

Clos Du Val Napa Valley Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

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Clos Du Val Napa Valley Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Clos Du Val Napa Valley Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

I would like to wish all my readers Happy 4th of July, that is Independence Day!  While I am situated in Australia, I am and will always remain an American.  I don’t know if I’ll be moving back home while there is so much left of the world to explore, but it’s nice to visit, particularly on holidays not celebrated so much internationally, such as today and Thanksgiving (which yes, I know, is celebrated in Canada, though not on the same day).  And since getting back to the USA this year is somewhat inconvenient, I’m celebrating my pursuit of Happiness by opening a bottle of Clos Du Val Napa Valley Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2004.

It is difficult to source a good range of wine from the USA in Australia.  A few producers are imported, but it’s just the tiniest fraction of what’s available in California.  Of the half-dozen wines from the USA that I’ve covered, I’ve only bought two here – the other four I either picked up in London or in California.  I can understand why – there’s no shortage of New World style wines produced locally, and available with a different rate of tax so they’re much more affordable.  Still, while I love Australian wines, I also like having choices.

In this case, I did have some choices, as I had this bottle delivered to the hotel of an Australian friend who was visiting California, and he kindly brought it back for me.  I picked it because I had just been reading up on the Judgement of Paris and wanted a wine from one of the producers who represented California.  I will save a fuller description of that historic event for some other time, but just quickly it was a tasting in Paris organized by then young British wine merchant Steven Spurrier (now a hugely respected gentleman of the wine trade) which pitted some top wines of California against their red Bordeaux and white Burgundy counterparts.  Tasted blind by French judges, the top red was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the top white Chateau Montelena, both of California.  Clos Du Val was one of the Californian reds with its very first vintage, and this is the successor to the wine tasted then, some 32 vintages later.

Given its role in establishing California on the world stage as being capable of producing fine wines to compete with the best of France, it’s somewhat ironic that Clos Du Val was founded by two Frenchmen, John Goelet and Bernard Portet.  They set about to produce top quality wine in the style of Bordeaux and spent two years searching for suitable terrior. Portlet concluded that what would become the Stags Leap AVA was just the place, and in 1972 Goelet bought 150 acres and the two of them established the winery.  Shortly thereafter they expanded to include vineyards in nearby, though much cooler, Los Carneros for the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Many vintages and awards later, they produce two lines of varietal wine at different price points, a collection of smaller volume Winemaker’s Signature wines, as well as this, their flagship.

I wrote a bit about the Stags Leap District when I covered Stags’ Leap so I won’t go into any more detail than that, except to point out that the Stags’ Leap wine was classified from the greater Napa Valley, meaning not enough of the fruit in the wine came from the District itself, while this wine is in fact classified from Stags Leap District AVA.  Likewise, we’ve seen these grape varieties before.  And as with the two other Cabernet Sauvignon based wines from California, this is also a blend, with 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot.

As to this wine itself, in the glass it is clear and bright, with a deep ruby colour, beginning to transition to blood red.  It has quick, thin legs with some colour in them.  On the nose, it’s clean with medium plus intensity, a developing character with notes of sweet spice, both fresh and dried black fruits, plums and currants, plus a bit of gingerbread.  On the palate it’s dry, with notes of cocoa powder, sweet spice, dried blackcurrant, and red meat. It has medium plus acidity, medium plus very fine, velvety tannins, medium plus body, medium alcohol, a medium plus flavour intensity, and medium plus length with a cranberry finish.

While all men are created equal, such is not the case for wines.  This wine is excellent – a delicious, well balanced, strong wine, but not overpowering. There’s a great depth of flavour, and not a note out of place.  It’s also very fresh for a wine almost 8 years old.  It has good typicity, well almost – I wish every California Cabernet tasted like this, and I wish I didn’t have to bring them into Australia personally.

Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

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Stags' Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

Stags' Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

I know what you’re thinking.  The photo on the left is looking especially bad, even by the low photography standards of the blog, and for that I apologize.  However, there’s a good reason for that, and it’s that the bottle pictured is in an Enomatic.  No, it’s not a shield designed to obscure bottle shots to the point that they can barely be recognized, though it obviously does a good job at that.  So even if you can barely make out that the photo is of a bottle of wine, please take my word that it is the Stags’ Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2006.

But before I say anything about the wine, a few words about the Enomatic.  It looks like a glass fronted wine display case.  For each bottle there’s a control panel with a spout for dispensing the wine.  Inside the case, each bottle is hooked up to a series of tubes which draw out wine while replacing it with nitrogen, allowing the wine to be served without exposing the remaining contents of the bottle to oxygen.  The control panel allows a serving size to be selected, typically a taste, a half glass or a full glass.  In conjunction with this, there can also be a magnetic card reader, enabling self-service for people to use cards to pay for their drinks (typically on a pre- or post-paid model, not with actual credit cards).  I’ve seen wine bars with dozens of bottles in a series of Enomatics for self-service, others where they use them to keep by the glass bottles fresh, and the tasting today is brought to you from a bottle shop that has an ever changing selection of 8 bottles available for tasting.

Right, back to the badly pictured Stags’ Leap, and the inevitable explanation of which winery produces this wine, as there are two similarly named wineries.  This is Stags’ Leap Winery, founded by Carl Doumani, known for (among other things) Petite Sirah, and it has its apostrophe after the second “s” in “Stags’”.  The other winery is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, founded by Warren Winiarski, known for (among other things) Cabernet Sauvignon and the Judgement of Paris, and it has its apostrophe between the “g” and the “s” in “Stag’s”.  In addition to names, the two wineries were both founded in the early 1970s in a corner of the Napa Valley in California which is now the Stags Leap District American Viticultural Area (AVA).  Yes, it’s confusing, and being California, the issue had to be resolved with a lawsuit that determined both producers were entitled to use the name of the region.  Apparently upon resolution the two producers were on such good terms they co-produced a wine called “Accord”.

The estate itself is fairly old (by California standards) and grapes were first grown there in the 1880s.  The property was built up with a manor house in the 1890s and served as a country retreat in the 1920s.  While Prohibition put an end to wine production, grapes continued to be grown though were largely sold to other producers until the property was purchased and improved by the aforementioned Carl Doumani in the early 1970s.  It is now part of Treasury Wine Estates, which I described when I wrote about the Heemskerk Abel’s Tempest.  While some of the vines were planted as recently as 2000, there is a block called Ne Cede Malis that dates back to the 1930s.  Largely Petite Sirah, that block is a field blend planting containing fifteen other varieties, and it used to make a wine that bears its name.

Stags (no apostrophe) Leap District AVA is a small region within the Napa Valley AVA, one of 16 such sub-AVAs.  Named for the original estate, it is six miles north of the town of Napa and home to twenty wineries.  It was established as an AVA in 1989 based on specific characters of the soil which sets it apart from the rest of Napa.  While it shares the loam and clay sediments with the rest of the river valley, it is supplemented by volcanic soil erosion from the Vaca Mountains, in particular the Stags Leap Palisades.  The area is somewhat cooler than its nearest neighbours as it is directly in the path of wind and fog from the San Pablo Bay.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted variety, though a wide range of Bordeaux and Rhône varieties round out the reds, and Chardonnay is not uncommon.

I’ve covered two Californian Cabernet Sauvignon blends, from Ridge and Dominus, but since each of those wines were more about the producer than about the grape, it’s worth talking a bit about Cabernet Sauvignon in the context of California, Napa in particular.  What is now California has produced grapes for wine for over two centuries, starting with Spanish missionaries and hence the Mission grape which was a mainstay for 80 years.  European varieties found their way to California in the early 19th century, but production didn’t really pick up until the influx of people for the Gold Rush in the middle of the century.  However, after a boom that included a surge in plantings as the European wine industry was reeling from phylloxera, things went into decline when phylloxera and Prohibition both hit grape growers hard.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that wine production really picked up, in particular with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, both of which had previously had very little acreage under vine.  While Cabernet Sauvignon had found a home in Napa in the 1880s and was regarded as a good match for the climate and soil, it wasn’t until nearly a century later that it emerged as a sought after, high quality wine.  It was a wine from this era, and from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars specifically, that scored highest in a landmark tasting in Paris where wines from California were tasted blind against their counterparts from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

This wine, while certainly containing estate grapes, is classified as Napa Valley AVA so it likely contains at least 16% grapes from growers outside Stags Leap District AVA.  The fruit is hand picked, fermented over 3-4 weeks in closed fermenters, and matured in French oak (half new) for 19 months before bottling.

In the glass, this wine is dark brick red, with thin quick legs.  It has notes of red currant, pomegranate, plum, and sweet spice. It’s developing, with medium plus intensity.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus fine tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium body, medium plus acidity, medium plus intensity, and notes of pencil lead, cranberry, currant, and sour plum.  It has a medium plus length and a tart plum finish.

This is a very good wine.  It has what I can only describe as a weird mix of flavours, but that’s not to say it’s disjointed.  It’s a big wine in terms of intensity, acidity, alcohol and tannins, but the body has a refined texture that brings elegance to the mix.  It’s a shame there aren’t more wine from California available here, and I hope to try their Ne Cede Malis field blend at some point, but for now I’ll just be grateful that this one somehow made its way to me.

Dominus Estate Napa Valley Napanook Vineyard 1996

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Dominus Estate Napa Valley Napanook Vineyard 1996

Dominus Estate Napa Valley Napanook Vineyard 1996

It’s Valentine’s Day which calls for something special. In this case, it’s a bottle I’ve been holding on to for a while and it’s time to crack it open. This bottle of Dominus Estate Napa Valley Napanook Vineyard 1996 should be just about ready to drink.

I should write about Napa Valley AVA and Yountville, I should write about the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Cabernet Franc, the Petit Verdot, and the Merlot, I should stick to my region, grape, producer, wine format, but this is Dominus, and that’s much more interesting right now. If I’m good, I’ll go back and put in a meaningful paragraph or two for each, but really, it’s Dominus (and it’s Valentine’s Day, so I have things I need to be doing).

Dominus Estate is quite the winery, with a long history and an impressive reputation. The vineyards date to 1836, which for an American vineyard, especially in California, is exceedingly old. In 1982 Christian Moueix entered into a partnership to develop the site, which had provided premium grapes for some of Napa’s iconic wines throughout much of the 20th century, and then in 1995 he took sole ownership of the property. Moueix’s family has been famous in the French wine trade for decades, and in addition to Dominus Estates, he manages Château Pétrus which Jancis Robinson describes as the most famous wine of Pomerol and the most expensive of Bordeaux.

So if you were in charge of Château Pétrus and had just taken ownership of an excellent winery in Napa, what would you do? Build a winery, right? And who would you get to design it? How about Herzog and de Meuron, the Swiss architects who went on to design the new Tate Modern in what had been the Bankside Power Station in London (which is possibly my favourite building in the world). More recently they designed the Beijing National Stadium, better known as The Bird’s Nest. The winery is pretty amazing – it’s worth checking out some pictures if you haven’t seen it before.

Dominus Estate makes two wines, Dominus which is has produced since 1983 and a second wine, Napanook, which was first released in 1996. The label on Dominus has been pretty standard since 1991, and featured the words “Napanook Vineyard” diagonally from the bottom left to the upper right through to 1996, the vintage year of this bottle. In 1996, there was some confusion between the premier label, Dominus, with “Napanook Vineyard” across the label, and the second wine, Napanook. As a result, the following year that confusing text was changed to “Estate Bottled”.

This wine is a treasure. It’s a deep garnet in the glass, and when I decanted it there was very little sediment, even though the bottle had been stood up for a few days. The nose is fairly intense with lots of tobacco and green herbs as well as some stewed currants. The palate is very rich – more tobacco, but also red meat, rich spice, and concentrated black fruit. The tannins are smooth and fully integrated and there is an underlying zest of acidity that keeps the wine feeling fresh despite the nearly 14 years in bottle. This wine was perfect with slow cooked beef cheeks, and didn’t let up when we were on to dark chocolate ganache bars with ice cream.