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.

Trisaetum Trisae Pinot Noir 2009

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Trisaetum Trisae Pinot Noir 2009

Trisaetum Trisae Pinot Noir 2009

I enjoyed my trip to Canada for a number of reasons, and while time with my family is certainly at the top of the list, I took the opportunity to enjoy some wines that I would have been unable to find in Australia.  Obviously, many of them were Canadian, but Canada imports wines I don’t come across at wine merchants Down Under.  Today’s wine is from the United States, Willamette Valley in Oregon to be more specific, and it’s the Trisaetum Trisae Pinot Noir 2009.

While the first vines in Oregon were planted in the 1840s, production was suspended in 1919 with Prohibition and commercial wine grape planting only resumed in the 1960s.  Pinot Noir was an early favourite, paired with the cool climate and long growing season, and the 1970s saw an influx of winemakers from California as the industry grew.  In a tasting reminiscent of the Judgement of Paris in 1976, an Oregon Pinot Noir from Eyrie Vineyards placed well in the Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades of 1979, drawing international attention to the state.

Other than popping down to Portland to see bands, the entirety of my experience with Oregon consists of a drive from south to north through the western half of the state when I moved from San Francisco to Seattle.  While I didn’t realize it at the time, over the course of two hours in August of 1997, I actually drove the entire length of the Willamette Valley, the area that drains into the Willamette River and which hosts a stretch of Interstate 5.  It is essentially the area from slightly south of Eugene to Portland, bounded by the Oregon Coast Range to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east.

It’s a large American Viticultural Area, established in 1984, though six sub-appellations have been carved out since.  The area as a whole has a cool maritime climate, with the Valley’s western edge being roughly 60km from the Pacific Ocean, though sheltered somewhat by the mountains.  Conditions are generally mild, with cool winters but warm summers, and most of the rainfall being confined to autumn and winter. The area is best understood as a series of hills and valleys, with many favourable instances of east and south facing slopes, rather than as a single uninterrupted valley between the mountain ranges.  Soils are a mix of clay and loams, often with a reddish tinge from iron content.  Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are the champion grapes of the region, though there are plantings across a wide range of varieties including Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Trisaetum was founded in 2003 by Andrea and James Frey and takes its name from their two children, Tristen and Tatum. Their initial vineyard in the sub-appellation Yamhill-Carlton District AVA  was planted in 2005 with Pinot Noir and Riesling by the couple on the site of a former cattle ranch, and has a volcanic component of basalt.  Their second vineyard was planted a few years later, within the Ribbon Ridge AVA, also with Pinot Noir and Riesling.

Their winery was purpose-built at the Ribbon Ridge site, and features a mix of traditional and modern facilities.  It has its own cold room for initially chilling grapes prior to destemming, an extensive fruit sorting facility which allows hand selection of not just bunches but individual berries, and multilevel winemaking which allows the barrel cellar to be gravity fed from the tanks above, reducing the amount of pumping required.  The winery also contains a gallery featuring the work of James Frey, which ranges from abstract painting and photography to sculpture, and features on the labels of some Pinot Noir bottlings.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright with a medium minus ruby colour.  On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium plus intensity and notes of sweet herbs, black cherries and dark chocolate.  On the palate it’s dry with medium acidity, medium plus intensity, medium fine tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium body and medium plus length.  There are notes of black cherries, dark chocolate, black pepper, and savoury herbs.

This is a very good wine.  It has intensity throughout though is still well balanced.  It has some complexity, though I would expect more with an additional year or two of cellaring.  It’s certainly a New World style – very approachable at three years old and the cherry flavours have a fruit sweetness (not residual sugar) – but with the right amount of herbaceousness.  I must admit that it was consumed under favourable circumstances – sharing a fine meal with good friends – but given a choice that’s how I would prefer to drink most wines.

Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel Vintners Blend 2010

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Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel Vintners Blend 2010

Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel Vintners Blend 2010

My drinking career has gone through a number of distinct phases, and I like to think my appreciation of alcoholic beverages has been a cumulative process.  Microbrewery beer was my first love before I moved to single malt whisky and then cocktails, and while of late wine is largely my tipple of choice, I’m now happy drinking any of the above.  This bottle though takes me back to my earliest memories of wine, before I knew the first thing about it, but I did know I liked this one.  Today it’s the Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel Vintners Blend 2010.

I went to university in the San Francisco Bay Area and while I started drinking relatively late, it was a good place for it.  It was home to many good beers, and there was even a local sake brewery with a tasting room open daily 12-6.  Wine was a mystery to me, but the one producer I did enjoy was Ravenswood.  I must admit it was a combination of the label and their slogan “No wimpy wines” that drew me in.  The three ravens in a circle looked to me like a Japanese mon, another fascination of mine at the time, and my young palate found their wines not at all disagreeable.  Fast forward many years later and Ravenswood was one of the producers my wife and I picked to pour at our wedding.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit tricky finding Ravenswood in Australia, which is odd as they’re owned by Constellation Brands, based down here.  There’s a fine producer in the Adelaide Hills that used to be known as Ravenswood Lane, though I believe they are now just known as The Lane.  There’s also been wines of Australia bottled under the California Ravenswood brand (for the US market?), though with three kangaroos instead of ravens.  I remember coming across that label many years ago in the USA, but then had a difficult time finding any corroboration of my recollection until just recently.  (I would love to know the story if anyone cares to tell me about it in the comments.)  However, I couldn’t resist buying a bottle when I was in Canada a couple of weeks ago, instead of sticking exclusively with wines of British Columbia.

Ravenswood was founded by 1976 Joel Peterson, a microbiologist and wine writer, and Reed Foster, a Harvard MBA.  Peterson’s parents were both chemists who had expertise in wine and gourmet food, and he was well versed in European fine wine at an early age.  In 1977 he shifted from San Francisco to Sonoma and lived a double life, working in a hospital lab by day and producing wine the rest of the time, a routine he continued until 1992 after Ravenswood had reached profitability.  The company was subsequently bought by Constellation in 2001, but since the buyout, Peterson has remained with the company, both overseeing production and as a Senior Vice President of Constellation.

The company initially drew attention at a San Francisco tasting in 1979 with a pair of their single vineyard Zinfandels taking the top two prizes.  It’s their signature grape and they have been a champion of it in California, though they also produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Sirah, Merlot, Shiraz, red blends, and Chardonnay.  Their ranges of wines run from single vineyard and icon level offerings, to county specific wines and then wines (such as this one) made of grapes drawn from throughout northern California from over a hundred growers.

Just quickly, in terms of grape and region, this is a varietal Zinfandel and for my write-up of that grape please have a look at when it first appeared here with Rusticana of Langhorne Creek.  As to the region, the company’s address is in Sonoma but this wine is actually just of California generally, which is far too large of a subject for today.  I look forward to writing up Sonoma when I have a wine exclusively from there.

So is there more to this post than a walk down Memory Lane?  I think what I like most about Ravenswood is its unapologetic approach to wine, and that hasn’t changed in the 25 years since I was a student.  They deliver big wines across a wide range of varieties and price points.  While they do make some expensive wines, their prices don’t push the upper limits.  Meanwhile, their entry level wines deliver gusto with the same character, albeit without a more specific sense of place.  It’s not a producer for every palate, and if robust, New World reds aren’t your thing, don’t waste your time.  But if you do want a big wine and you see the three ravens on a bottle, you know you won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of wine in the glass, this wine is clear and bright, with a medium blood red colour and quick legs.  It’s clean and developing on the nose, with medium plus intensity and notes of ripe cherries, sweet spice, pencil lead, some charred steak, and a bit of blood. On the palate it’s dry with medium body, medium acidity, medium plus fine tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium intensity, and medium plus length.  The palate matches the nose with a combination of rich red fruit and meat.

This is a very good wine.  The flavour profile does it for me, and it went perfectly with the bison and steak that I had grilled to go along with it.  (Yes, these notes are from when I was in Canada – bison is a bit thin on the ground in Australia.)  For giving the impression of a big wine, it wasn’t overly intense in colour, intensity or body, which I found somewhat surprising.  I must admit, some of my nostalgia is giving this wine a boost in terms of my perception of it, so if it wasn’t the first wine you enjoyed as a student, good might be the more appropriate measure of quality.  However, I’m savouring the wine and the memories, and will have to look a bit harder in terms of sourcing more within Australia.

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.

Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2006

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Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2006

Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2006

Another shockingly bad bottle photo can mean only one thing, another wine from the Enomatic.  A great way to taste wine, but a horrible way to photograph bottles.  The next time I do such a tasting, I’ll really need to hunt down a bottle that isn’t already in the machine so as to take a slightly better photo.  But as always, this isn’t about the pictures, it’s about the wines, and sometimes the words.  With that I give you the Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2006.

Having written about Pinot Noirs from Australia, France, South Africa and New Zealand, it’s time to turn our attention to the U.S.A. and California in particular.  Los Carneros AVA, or Carneros as it is also known, is a region within northern California that is something of a curiosity within the legal geography of American Viticultural Areas.  I wrote a bit about AVAs when I covered the Bogle Petite Sirah, and again when I wrote about Stags’ Leap.  AVAs typically fall within a single county, in the way that a county is a part of a single state. Carneros is somewhat odd in that it covers an area that is largely within Sonoma county, but partially within Napa county.  Strictly speaking, it is not a sub-appellation of either, but producers are also entitled to use the Sonoma Valley AVA or Napa Valley AVA depending on which part of Carneros they are in.  Just as the Stags Leap AVA is defined by the unique geography within Napa, the Carneros AVA is defined by its unique climate, the first California AVA to be so defined in 1983.

That climate is moderately cool and windy, but cooler and windier than any of the surrounding area.  It is on the lowest hills of the Mayacamas range as they descend toward the San Pablo Bay, the body of water just to the north of the San Francisco Bay.  Unlike much of the rest of Napa and Sonoma, there is little to shield it from the influences of the bays, and fog is a near certainty each morning.  The soils are shallow clay with poor fertility and drainage, though the wind does prevent vineyards from becoming swamps.  Vines struggle under such conditions, which limits yields.  It also demands long ripening times, though that can increase flavour concentration within the grapes.

The region has been something of a rising star with regard to cool climate grapes over the last 30 years, but grapes were initially planted in the 1870s.  Phylloxera essentially shut down grape production in the area a decade or two later until a regeneration effort got underway in 1942 with some success.  However, this was eclipsed by the most recent increase in plantings which began in the 1970s.  Production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay suited to the cool climate put Carneros on the map with both varietal still and blended sparkling wine.  Today, many other varieties are grown, most notably Syrah and Merlot.

It’s probably worth a paragraph to write about Pinot Noir in California.  It is a relative newcomer, as Oregon to the north staked its claim to be the Burgundy of America early on, and it wasn’t until Cabernet Sauvignon had been firmly established in northern California that some producers sought to make use of the cooler regions.  While California is geographically closer to the equator and generally warmer, it does not lack for regions with significant maritime influences.  The cooler areas of Napa and Sonoma counties, as well as areas of Mendocino county to the north and the Central Coast to the south all proved able to produce good examples, for use both as sparkling and still wine.

Etude is a modern producer, established in the 1980s by Tony Soter.  He works with winemaker Jon Priest and viticulturalist Franci Ashton to produce wines of both the Carneros and Napa Valley AVAs.  In the vineyard, blocks are based on the underlying soil rather than on efficient grids.  (That said, looking at the satellite pictures, I see lots of straight lines dividing blocks.)  Unlike most of the surrounding area, the soils themselves are of volcanic origin, and well drained.  Their vineyards are mainly Pinot Noir plantings, which encompass almost twenty different clones, including ten less popular and lower yielding heirloom varieties.  They source Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties from local growers.  In addition to a range of Pinot Noirs (including a rosé) and Cabernet Sauvignons, they have a Pinot Gris, a Pinot Blanc, a Chardonnay and a Malbec.  Their winemaking practices are non-interventionist, so as to highlight their terroir and vineyard practices.

I had not tried a wine from or even heard of Etude before this wine, but from looking through their website they strike me as quirky.  To support such a claim, I put forth two pieces of evidence.  First, they make a brandy from Pinot Noir.  Of course, you may ask,  brandy is made from wine, and what better to use to make a fine brandy than a fine wine?  Except it doesn’t work like that.  Fine brandy, such as Cognac and Armagnac, are made from grapes such as Ugni Blanc and Colombard.  While those grapes can be made into table wine, they are easy to grow, they give generous yields, and are not typically thought of as noble.  Pinot Noir is the opposite on all counts.  You get more value from an Ugni Blanc wine that has been distilled into a brandy than you do from the wine required.  With Pinot Noir, the opposite is true.  So really, making brandy from Pinot Noir is just quirky.  I want to say it’s just wrong, but I’m sure they justify it by saying that they only use the grapes not fit for their wines to make brandy.

Second, they employ a falconer.  A quick tangent to South Africa is required.  I had the pleasure of visiting Constantia, the home of Vin de Constance, one of the most famous sweet wines in the world.  On a tour of the vineyards, our host pointed out what looked to be telephone poles planted amongst the vines.  He then told us that they put them up to attract Steppe Buzzards, a raptor that winters in South Africa and is useful in eating pests that might otherwise eat grapes or vines.  Etude does not leave such things to the whims of migratory flying predators.  Instead they employ a falconer and his/her trained falcons to attack starlings that might want to eat their grapes as they ripen.  Being a carnivore myself, I have no problem with animals eating other animals, but it’s a quirkly middle ground between using bird scarers and a shotgun.

So that’s the region, the grape and the producer, leaving only what’s in the glass.  It’s clear and bright with a medium minus ruby colour and quick legs.  On the nose it’s savoury, green funk and pizza spice – oregano and other dried herbs.  There are also some fresh strawberries.  It show development but isn’t fully developed, and has medium plus intensity.  On the palate I get the berries first – strawberries and sweet red cherries, but also some ash and a bit of pencil lead.  It’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus intensity, medium body, medium fine tannins, and medium plus alcohol.  It’s slightly short with a medium minus length.

While I don’t have a great breadth of Californian Pinot Noir experience against which to compare it, I am confident in classifying this a very good wine.  It has a good balance between fresh fruit and more savoury developed characters.  The acidity is holding up nicely while the tannins are fine and undoubtedly have softed over the years this has spend in bottle.

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.

Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah 2008

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Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah 2008

Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah 2008

This bottle is another case of me seeing an interesting varietal on the shelf in a wine shop and not being able to help myself.  Not so long ago when I was just starting to learn some less obvious things about grapes and wine I learned that Petite Sirah, a wine I knew from the USA, was called Durif in Australia.  I now know that a huge number of grapes change their name from region to region or country to country, but having that one bit of data made me feel like I knew something that was a bit rarefied.  Of course, the more you know, the more you realize how little you know, but I will always treasure that brief point in time where I felt like I was one up on the world in terms of knowing something.  Alas, now that I know nothing, and worse than that, what I thought I knew wasn’t quite right.

So the wine today is in fact one of the aforementioned varietals, the Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah 2008.  Again, from general to specific, this is a wine from the USA, and from California in particular.  However, the grapes are sourced from multiple vineyards across at least two American Viticultural Areas, and in fact two counties, so California is the most specific area of origin that can be put on the label.  The website is much more specific, but I’ll get to that.

At one point I thought I’d have a consistent format in terms of region, grape, producer and then wine.  I’m covering all those points, generally speaking, but I’m going with the topic that’s most interesting for me as the opener.  In this case, it’s the grape, Petite Sirah.  As I mentioned, I had been under the impression that it was another name for Durif, but that’s only part of the story.  DNA profiling from the University of California, Davis in the late 1990s revealed the name was being used by four different grape varieties.  One was Durif, but some vines called Petite Sirah were in fact Syrah, Peloursin, and a Peloursin x Durif crossing.  As I mentioned with regard to the origins of Sauvignon Gris in Chile, confusion over grape varieties is quite common.  I think generally these days if something is labelled Petite Sirah, it’s the same as Durif, but perhaps not always.

So anyway, for Petite Sirah that is also Durif, the variety came into being as a cross between Peloursin and Syrah and was spread throughout southeastern France in the second half of the 19th century.  It was known as resistant to downy mildew but was not seen as a high quality grape.  It has since all but disappeared from France, but is quite common within North and South America, particularly California.  It does well in warm regions, and produces a dark, balanced, tannic red wine.  It’s often blended with Zinfandel, giving some backbone to go with the perfume and fruit.

So, California.  It’s a big place, and they grow wine all over it.  I just so happen to have a map of California’s Winegrowing Regions in front of me, courtesy of the California Wines stand at vinexpo 2011 and it lists 111 AVAs.  (It turns out it’s also online, here.)  However, rather than talk in generalities (or to try to specifically address all 111), I’d rather talk about the AVAs from which these grapes came, Clarksburg and Lodi.  They’re near one another, however, Clarksburg is in Sacramento County while Lodi is in San Joaquin County.  The AVA system in the USA allows the use of county names if grapes are from the same county but different AVAs, but if they’re from different counties, the AVA goes to the state level, hence this is a wine of California.  They’re both not far from Sacramento itself, in what’s broadly termed the Central Valley, though the map I have refers to it as the Inland Valleys region, made up of the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley.  Given that Chile also has a Central Valley, perhaps they want to avoid regional confusion.

I’m sure there are worlds of difference between Clarksburg and Lodi, but for the purposes of this blog I’m going to lump them together.   Both describe themselves as Mediterranean climates with warm days and cool nights, with dry growing seasons and rain during the winter.  Having lived in San Francisco, I can attest to the blast of cool air from the sea that goes straight through the Golden Gate towards Sacramento every evening, blanketing the city in fog and cold air.  Soils range from granitic and rich, through to sandy loams, with heavy clay regions and well-drained stony soils thrown into the mix.  Bogle in particular describes their Clarksburg vineyard as having fertile clay and peat soils, while the Lodi vineyard is of sandy loam.  Both regions feel the influence not only of the cool sea air of the Pacific in the evening, but also the impact of various rivers that run through the area toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Bogle Vineyards is family run operation, with the family having been involved in farming in the area for six generations.  Their first vineyards were planted in the 1970s, and their holdings are now in excess of 1500 acres.  Their website lists 8 varietal wines from vineyards throughout northern California, as well as a Zinfandel/Petite Sirah/Mourvèdre blend and a ‘Port’ from Petite Sirah.  (The EU’s lawyers have not completely conquered California as yet.)

In the glass this wine is a very dark purple, though not so much that it has dark legs.  The nose has a reserved fragrance, with a little perfume and blue fruit coming through.  On the palate, it has a medium plus body, with a very pleasing array of flavours – plums, blueberries and spice, along with some tannins and vanilla from the oak.  I think agreeable is a good term to describe this wine, in that it’s well made and is likable, but it’s not challenging.  There is some acidity, but it doesn’t keep up with the fruit or even the tannins.  That said, it is very easy drinking, and it’s a good value for its price point.  An everyday wine.

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.

Ridge Monte Bello 1992

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Ridge Monte Bello 1992

Ridge Monte Bello 1992

I still need to finish the write-up of the exam, now fading fast as a distant memory.  I also want to write a bit about the upcoming CMS exam.  But you know, I recently celebrated my birthday, and had an awesome bottle of wine, and that’s far more interesting than any other topic on the agenda.

So once upon a time I lived near a wine merchant who had a small but perfectly curated shop in London.  His selection was on the high end of things, and while he also had some value wines for everyday drinking, I suspect he remained in business through a small group of regular customers who picked up a dozen cases of their favourite listed Bordeaux every year as well as the odd case of Krug when they were throwing a party.  While there were wines that he highlighted every week from the New World, they came and went, while the bulk of wines on display week in and week out were almost entirely French.

That said, he always had one or two shelves which had some wine from California, and Ridge was commonly seen on it.  I’m not sure exactly when I noticed he had the Monte Bello 1992 in particular, but it would have been roughly ten years ago.  I bought two bottles, and having had one last year, we opened up this one last night.

So I don’t know a whole lot about the wines of California, despite having spent a fair amount of time there in the days before I cared so much about wine.  I can, however, remember my first bottle of Ridge in the days leading up to the millennium at a restaurant in Colorado.  They had a dozen listed on their extensive wine list, and unfortunately it took the sommelier a few tries to bring out the exact bottle I was after.  However, the effort was worth it in the end.

Ridge is something of a legend in the annals California wine.  The Monte Bello vineyard produced its first vintage in 1892 (which makes this bottle the 100th anniversary), but Ridge Vineyards itself was founded in the 1960s by a group out of Stanford University.  Paul Draper was hired in as the winemaker.  From very humble beginnings, he quickly established Ridge Monte Bello as a world class wine, with the 1971 being featured in the Judgement of Paris tasting.

Ridge makes a number of wines, with the Monte Bello being a Cabernet dominated Bordeaux red blend.  I just had a quick look at their site and was surprised at how many other wines they have – I would have listed their Lytton Springs and Geyserville Zinfandels, but they also have ten other Zinfandels and other varietals with which I’m not yet familiar.  While they do some “estate” wines, the emphasis is very much on single vineyard productions, with each expressing as much about that particular property as possible.  I believe the Monte Bello is still their flagship.

So this bottle, as I said, already had a fair amount of age on it when I picked it up almost a decade ago, and I managed to put it away for another decade.  While in theory I wish I had been able to keep it under better conditions, it was subjected to a cross-equator move, spend some time in storage in a less than ideal environment, and undoubtedly was stood upright for a little too long on at least on occasion.  However, it’s brother bottle that was opened last year had shown well, and I retained high hopes for this one even though it took two attempts to get the entire cork out of the neck.  We had it decanted (we BYO’d this to a restaurant) and as you can see from the side of the bottle there was a fair amount of deposit.

The wine itself was still very dark in colour, with a lovely brick rim.  Over the last few months we’ve tasted a fair amount of wine, but I can’t remember the last time I had one that was a full 20 years old.  So while a recent 10 year old Bordeaux had signs of ageing, the colour of it was nowhere near as brick as this Ridge.

On the nose was a wide spectrum of lovely secondary characters.  There was tobacco, spices, chocolate, and even a hint of coffee.  The fruit wasn’t entirely gone – it had turned into a perfume of sorts.  On the palate was much the same – very rich.  It was so different as compared to drinking a wine when it’s released, that I had to stop myself and actually try to refer to the WSET tasting guide.  Nothing about the acidity or tannins made me consider them, but when I concentrated on both I was glad I did.  The acid was actually still very zingy, and the tannins were definitely there.  I didn’t initially notice either because everything was so perfectly balanced.  I don’t know for how long they had been that way, but the tannins were silky and incredibly well integrated.  An absolute joy to drink.

Having a look at the label, this blend is 80% Cabernet (Sauvignon – pet peeve when people don’t use full variety names), 11% Merlot and 9% Petit Verdot.  I can’t say I could pick out the influences of the constituent parts, but they fit together wonderfully.

I wish I had taken a photo of the back label as well, because the note from Paul Draper from 1994 when it was bottled said something along the lines of it’s fine to drink now, but will continue to develop further complexity over the next 20 years.  That’s quite a bold statement for any winemaker to put out there, but in this case he was absolutely right.  It was such a thrill to open up such a bottle and to have it at just the right time.  And it’s certainly a bit of a wake-up call in terms of having a look through my cellar as to what I should be drinking now lest I let something slip past its peak.