Winter has passed, the rainy season has ended and now the wild flowers are blooming amongst the vines that are beginning to bud under the warm California sun. Spring is finally shining in the wine country.
It is a beautiful time of the year to head up to the Napa Valley or Sonoma and see the fields of Mustard Flower, California poppies, and purple lupines. So, I drove up last week and toured through Los Carneros, which spans the south end of both Napa and Sonoma counties. It is the home of some of California’s finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
My first stop was in the southern foothills of the Sonoma Valley, to visit the vineyards of Nicholson Ranch. The Ranch enjoys a combination of soils, sloping hills and a climate that is ideal for producing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah grapes.
All of Nicholson Ranch’s chardonnays are barrel fermented on the lees using natural wild yeasts. This is a labor intensive method of producing wine which requires a nurturing approach to wine making as native wild yeasts can be as unpredictable as they are advantageous to wine making. On the one hand the variances in wild yeasts can add greater complexity to a wine but they can also present a danger of a stuck fermentation, which then presents an environment for all sorts of biological problems that can destroy a wine. The key to success is using native yeasts (as opposed to inoculating them and then using saccharomyces cerevisiae, a fast-acting yeast that thoroughly ferments the wine) is to have a well balanced vineyard) The benefit of natural fermentations is that they can yield a wine with greater complexity due to the multiple strains of yeast that are involved.
Fermenting the wine in the barrels is also more labor intensive than using stainless steel and the extended time on the lees (spent yeast cells) can also add some microbiological challenges. Barrel fermentation is a vinification process in which the wine is fermented in oak casks or oak vats barrels instead of large vats or stainless steel tanks. The fermentation process, tempers the flavors of the wood, imparting lighter flavors of cinnamon, vanilla, or cloves, caramel, butterscotch, toast, smoke or char rather than over whelming “oaky” flavors. Barrel fermentation is more expensive and labor intensive than fermentation in larger tanks but if done right it provides white wines with more complexity, rich creamy flavors, delicate oak characteristics, and better aging capabilities. On the downside, this technique potentially contributes to some loss of primary fruit flavor due to the wine becoming more characterized by the secondary flavors of the fermentation process.
However, if done correctly the result is a gorgeous wine with a full mouth feel and lingers forever. And THAT is exactly what you will find in the Chardonnays at Nicholson Ranch.
I tasted the 2006 Sonoma Valley Estate Chardonnay ($30), the 2005 and 2006 Estate Reserve Chardonnay Cuvee Natalie ($48/$48), the 2006 Pinot Noir Russian River ($42), 2006 Pinot Noir Sonoma Valley Estate ($38), the 2006 Las Madres Syrah ($35) and the 2004 Estate Syrah Sonoma Valley ($40).
Valley of the Moon - Sonoma
My second stop was at Valley of the Moon. The winery and tasting room are surrounded by head pruned gnarly old vines which this time of year resembled small tree or the arthritic hands of an old man. Some of them stand as high as six feet tall. It was a quiet afternoon so I had the opportunity to just hang out with Jack Pilgreen, the wine steward in the tasting room. He was both hospitable and informative, able to answer any questions I had about the wine and the winery.
My first wine was the 2007 Sonoma County Pinot Blanc ($18). Very few wineries in California produced this grape and it is a welcome alternative to the ubiquitous Chardonnay that is at every winery. On the nose I picked up notes honeysuckle, kiwi, pear, tangerine, and apple. This wine has great acidity and a full mouth feel with just a tiny touch of oak. A rare find at this price so I brought one home.
My second wine was the 2007 Sonoma County Syrah ($20). This wine is displays dark black fruits of jammy blackberry followed, black pepper by sweet pipe tobacco followed by secondary characteristics of cedar (think “a hint of cigar box”). This wine is full-bodied flavors with firm but supple tannins followed by a well-balanced finish.
My third in the line up was the 2005 Sonoma Estate Old Vine Zinfandel. I’ve been a big fan of Old Vine Zins for years but it is not unusual for them to very high in alcohol and consequently out of balance. Michael David’s Earthquake Zin from Lodi is a perfect example. The difficulty is maintaining balance between the fruit, acidity, tannins and the alcohol so that the wine has a full mouth feel without the massive amount of heat on the return.
However, Valley of the Moon’s Old Vine Zin, though it is 15% in alcohol, manages to pull it off! Its got loads of blackberries, black pepper a little spice and vanilla, balanced acidity, supple tannins; with a well structured finish.
My next wine was the 2006 Barbara ($22). This one has an awesome nose with loads of concentrated plum, pomegranate, a touch of molasses and sweet tobacco. This is one of the best Barbaras that I have encountered in a long time. I could just sit and smell this wine all day!
My next wine was the 2005 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon. Black currant, plum a touch of black pepper and cocoa. The wine is fruit forward with supported by firm but supple tannins and a balanced finish.
My final wine in the line up was the 2005 Sonoma County Cuvee de La Luna ($35) This is a traditional Bordeaux/Meritage style blend (59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 4% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Franc). Loads of black currant and cherry aromas followed by sage and tobacco on the nose. Dense black cherry and cassis flavors with a slight vanilla and dark chocolate finish. This wine is well balanced, complex and has multiple layers of fruit. There are many wines of this style and this level of quality that sell for twice this price.
Folio Fine Wine Partners - Carneros
My final stop of the day was at Michael Mondavi’s winery. Michael is one of Robert Mondavi’s sons and after the family winery was sold to Constellation Michael started Folio Fine Wine Partners in 2004. This is an interesting approach to a winery as it is both a custom crush facility but also a manager of a collection of exceptional wines from all over the world including California, Spain, Austria and New Zealand. We love sharing high-quality, authentic wines from small wineries. In this manner Folio acts as a wine broker bringing wines to the attention of wholesale distributors who place the brands with retailers and restaurateurs.
In the tasting room I sampled the 2007 Hangtime Chardonnay ($15.99), the 2005 Mayro-Murdick Carneros ($35.99), the 2006 Oberon Merlot ($21.99), the 2006 Oberon Cabernet Sauvignon ($24.99), the Spellbound Petite Syrah ($17.99), and the 2005 Spellbound Old-Vine Zinfandel ($17.99). I thought the Syrah was an exceptional quality and a genuine value at only 18 bucks so I brought a bottle home.
All of these wines were exceptional and the service in the tasting room was polite, courteous, professional and well informed about the winery and the wines. I was also impressed in the stemware made by Senor Frescabaldi, a sort of “one size fits all” that they used for all of the wines which are imported from Italy and sell for $12.00 each.