Category Archives: Wine

Wine and Cheese 2017

 

At a recent visit to the Sonoma County Artisan Cheese Festival, we were strolling through the books section.  Pointing to a book entitled, “Cheese and Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing and Enjoying”, by Janet Fletcher, I declared it as the best book of its kind on the market.

“So you like that book’” a woman said, as she approached us, “well, I wrote it.”

Janet Fletcher has written for several magazines including Bon Appetit and Food and Wine. She is a food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written

“Wine and Cheese” by Janet Fletcher

several books such as the aforementioned.  “Cheese and Wine” lists cheeses throughout the world, in alphabetical order.  For each, it provides pronunciation, type of cheese (cow, goat, sheep), country of origin, information about the cheese’s history, taste, and texture and, finally, wines that work.   It was a pleasure to meet Ms. Fletcher and tell her firsthand how much I appreciate her writing.

Her book was in full use as I prepared for another cheese and wine tasting to support ArtStart, a local Santa Rosa-based non-

Janet Fletcher

profit that supports high school artists by providing work opportunities in creating public murals and other projects.  There would be repeat donors participating, so this year’s event must be unique and different than earlier years. The following menu highlights the adventure in store for this years guests.

#1: 2014 Bollig Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese (Mosel/Germany)

Comte – France (raw cow’s milk)

During a recent visit, I discovered that Comte’ is the largest selling cheese in France.  Made from co-operative diaries using milk exclusively from large Montbeliard cows,

Comte’

I enjoyed the smooth texture and brown butter flavors.  Comte’ is a perfect balance between sweet, salty and tart.

I chose a reliable favorite, the 2014 Bollig Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese, to pair with the Comte’.  Don’t let the long, fancy name intimidate you.  This rich riesling, from the Mosel region of Germany, is available at some wine shops and on-line for about twenty dollars.  My first taste of this wine, over a decade ago, served as an introduction to the mineral/metallic/petrol/wet stone flavor of a fine German riesling.

Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese 2012

The German word spatlese (spat-LAY-see) literally translates to “late harvest,” but should not be confused with the late harvest dessert wines produced in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Montbeliard cows

With regard to flavor and richness, Spatlese riesling sits between the more austere Kabinett (ca-bin-net) and sweeter Auslese (aus-LAY-see) styles, the later equal to our late harvest wines.  The Bollig Lehnert is always distinctive, but never overpowering.

#2: Auteur Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2013 (Sonoma)

   “Mount Tam” – Cowgirl Cheese Co. (pasteurized cow milk)

This is an all-Sonoma County pairing that features a complex, non malolactically

Auteur Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2013

fermented California chardonnay from respected winemaker Ken Juhasz, with an elegant, buttery triple-creme cheese with earthy mushroom flavors. Cowgirl Cheese Company, maker of the popular “Red Hawk,” dedicates this cheese to Mount Tamalpias in Marin County, a popular place to harvest fresh, wild mushrooms, abundant this year due to heavy rainfall.

Many of the vineyards within the Sonoma Coast appellation are located at higher elevations, above the fog line, producing

Cowgirl Creamery “Mt. Tam” triple-cream cheese

distinctive flavors.  This chardonnay is austere with mineral elements that did not compete with the creamy cheese, but added hints of orange peel and honeysuckle to the mix.

#3:  2013 Seasmoke “Southing” Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills/Santa Barbara County)

#4:  2012 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Yamhill Cuvee (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

Monte Enebro – Spain (pasteurized goat milk)

Point Reyes Toma -Sonoma County (pasteurized cow milk)

When it comes to pairing cheese with pinot noir, the opportunities are so abundant that

Sea Smoke Pinot Noir “Soutwihing” 2013

I can’t restrain myself.  To show the range of pinot noir, I selected one from the southernmost appellation, the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County and the Yamhill appellation in the most northern region of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, both premier releases awarded 92-points from Wine Spectator magazine.

Sea smoke Cellars produces three low-yield pinot noir releases

Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Yamhill Cuvee’ 2012

each year, available to a few select restaurants in southern California and allocation list members only.  The 2013 “Southing” expresses smokey flavors of red fruit, cinnamon and vanilla that pairs well with both cheeses, especially the dense, buttery and herbaceous flavors of the Monte Enebro.

Monte Enebro cheese

Equally creamy and buttery, the Point Reyes Toma was new to my palate and a good fit with the caramel and mocha notes expressed on the finish of the Domaine Serene Pinot Noir.  The Monte Enebro is available on-line through sites like “Igourmet,” while the Toma is seasonally available at fine cheese shops.

Known primarily for fine pinot noir releases, Domaine Serene

Toma

recently received accolades by placing a new chardonnay in the third spot in Wine Spectator’s list of the most exciting wines of 2016.

#5:  Tablas Creek Vineyard Tannat Paso Robles 2010

Rogue River Creamery “Smokey Blue” – southern Oregon (certified sustainable cow’s milk)

This was, by far, the most difficult pairing of the event. Tannat is a rare French grape

Rogue River Creamery “Smokey Blue”

that is generally used to give texture and deep earthy flavors when blended with other, more fruity varietals.  Tablas Creek of Paso Robles, arguably the finest producer of Rhone wines outside of the Rhone Valley, released this 100% tannat that has been in my cellar for five years, softening its harsh tannins. Luckily, I found this seasonal, gluten-free “Smokey

Tablas Creek Tannat 2010

Blue” with with deep earthy flavors of hazelnuts, caramel and candied bacon, one of the few cheeses that could stand up to this aged tannat

#6:  Hall “Eighteen Seventy-Three Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (Napa Valley)

Abbaye de Belloc – France/Basque (pasteurized sheep’s milk)

Rutherford-based Hall Wines, in the Napa Valley, annually produce some of the highest rated cabernet sauvignon in California.  I knew this wine had been given a 93-point

HALL Cabernet Sauvignon Eighteen Seventy-Three 2103

rating by Wine Spectator, but did not expect that it would be included in their top 100 list of 2106 releases.  The “1873” retails for $80 per bottle, a moderate price for Hall Wines whose other cabernets range from $100 to $280 per bottle.

Surprisingly, my research of Abbaye de Belloc, a sheep’s cheese from the Basque region of the French Pyrenees Mountains,

Abbaye de Belloc

described it to be a good pair with cabernet sauvignon.  It is made in the Abbaye de Notre Dame de Belloc by monks and contains milk exclusively from the red-nosed Manech sheep, who look like a round bowl of fuzzy wool with skinny legs protruding out the bottom.  This cheese has a rich, buttery, fine texture with caramelized brown sugar flavor.  It is

Red-nosed Manech sheep

dense with a creamy, off-white color and the wine seems to have a “liquefaction effect” that breaks it down, nicely coating your tongue and throat.  It is somewhat difficult to find, but the effort is rewarding.

Thanks, again Janet Fletcher.  A desire to support ArtStart is my motivation and “Wine and Cheese,” among other books, gave me the choices to assemble another pairing event.  We will do it again next year.  Meanwhile, I have discovered some new and unique cheeses to enjoy with my wines throughout the next year.

 

 


An Afternoon At Flora Springs

 

My friend Jon began an internship with Flora Springs Winery in the heart of the Napa Valley and invited me in for a tour and a tasting.  The plan was to buy a bottle of sauvignon blanc, grab some sandwiches at the neighboring Dean and DeLucca and picnic in a nearby vineyard before tasting their extensive palate of wines.  This sounded like a nice Sunday afternoon in the Napa Valley; sunshine, a great albacore tuna salad sandwich paired with the creamy texture and mineral

an estate vineyard

finish of the 2015 Flora Springs Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($25). With annual production exceeding 3,600 cases, this estate wine uses two different clones including the musque clone, fermented in stainless steel and aged on its lees in oak barrels with many stirrings.  Hence, we find creamy, complex flavors.

I first became aware of Flora Springs Winery in the mid-nineties through their flagship blend, “Trilogy” which has become a classic “meritage,” defining Bordeaux blends from California soil. If fact, “Trilogy” was first created over thirty years ago when successfully blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet blanc, malbec and petit verdot in California was a new thing. The result

Flora Springs “Trilogy” – a classic CA meritage

of a good vintage, the 2012 Flora Springs “Trilogy” Napa Valley ($90), aged for 22 months, achieves elegance through expressive aromas and rich texture with dark cherry and berry flavors, some spice and a nice finish. My first memory of this wine was being shocked at the $40 price.  Now at $90 per bottle, it is indicative of the increasing market value of Napa Valley wines.

Although Flora Springs Winery was first established in 1978, the land has an auspicious history dating back more than a century. The first vineyards were planted on sixty acres in the late 1800s by Scottish immigrants James and William Renne, the first known owners of the land. Later, a fire destroyed the wine-press and all their cooperage, leading them to sell the property to pursue other dreams.

Over the ensuing years, property ownership changed several times during which the vineyards were re-planted with phylloxera-resistant stock.  Phylloxera is a microscopic insect that attacks the roots and leaves of vines and destroyed entire vineyards in California and France throughout the

Flora Springs tasting facility

late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The only known cure is grafting the vines with stock resistant to the disease.  Admist dealing with pests in the vineyards, Prohibition became law in 1920 and this and many wineries were literally abandoned.

Louis Martini purchased the property in 1933, replaced the old structure with a new one and operated the winery until 1977 when it was purchased by Jerry and Flora Komes. The next year, their children, John and Carrie Komes and Julie and Pat Garvey, founded Flora Springs Winery, naming it after their mother and the natural springs on the property. The winery will

indoor tasting space

celebrate its 40th birthday in 2017.

Our afternoon tasting on the patio began with two releases, one white and one red, from their Family Estate Wines and

The tasters

evolved, through the “2012 Trilogy” to a series of five premium, high-priced, single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon with tremendous ratings, a special surprise given guests of staff.  With ten percent of its juice aged in concrete tanks, the medium-bodied 2014 Flora Springs Family Select Chardonnay ($35) is a beautifully balanced wine, lightly oaken, with flavors of fresh pear and subtle tropical fruit through the finish.  It is a very nice Chardonnay among many great options within the $30-40 price range. The red, from local sustainably-farmed vineyards, the 2014 Flora Springs Napa

Flora Springs Merlot

Valley Merlot ($30) was nicely balanced with notes of sweet spice like vanilla, a good value for merlot lovers.

Basking in the diffused sunlight under colorful stretched screens, our journey through these impressive single-vineyard Cabernet, priced far beyond my budget, was a special treat.  It began with the 100% 2013 Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) from a sloping, benched vineyard near the winery.  Awarded 94-points by Wine Enthusiast magazine, it is most amply defined with “warm notes of blackberry pie, crème de cassis, coffee liquor and maraschino cherries that slowly evolve into a decadent core of melted bittersweet chocolate inflected with vanilla bean.”  It is as good as it sounds.

The Renne Reserve Vineyard in the St. Helena appellation is one of the finest blocks within their 550 acres.  After 22 months in new French oak, the 2013 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Renne

Flora Springs Single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon releases

Reserve ($150) has an impressive bouquet followed by complex flavors of black currants and coffee with a rich mouthfeel.  The lingering spice finish sets this Cabernet apart from the others, awarded 95-points by Wine Advocate

The next wine comes from the nearby Oakville appellation, known for limestone and granite soils.  The 2103 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Holy Smoke Vineyard ($125) displays firm tannins with intense black cherry, licorice and cinnamon spice on the palate.  James Suckling awarded this low production release a 94-point rating, citing nice chocolate nuances through the finish.  The most balanced and finely structured wine of the day was the 2013

Flora Springs “Wild Boar Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon

Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Wild Boar Vineyard ($125)from the

Pope Valley, east of the Napa Valley where elevations rise to 1,200 feet.  For me, the “Wild Boar” was the best that we tasted, expressing complex and robust flavors of ripened currants, plum, cherry, vanilla and caramel.  The tannins are firm, but rich and plush.

Remotely located in the Stag’s Leap District along the Silverado Trail, the organically-farmed “Out Of Sight” Vineyard produces dense fruit for the 2013 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Out Of Sight Vineyard ($125), a wine with vivid aromas of wild berries and layered tastes of vanilla and spice, woven within concentrated fruit.  Smooth tannins are present throughout creating a wine that they claim will be optimum for the next 12-15 years.

Flora’s Legacy Wines are remarkable, low-yield releases that honor the matriarch and namesake of the winery, Flora Komes.  One wine of depth, the 2014 Flora’s Legacy Chardonnay ($70), was our last tasting of the afternoon.

Flora Springs “Flora’s Legacy” Chardonnay

Again there is very impressive competition with other chardonnay at this price.  That being said, this wine, after 50% malolactic fermentation and aging sur lee with weekly stirrings, reveals rich, concentrated fruit flavors of orange marmalade, pear, jasmine and ginger.  The nice mineral finish sets it in the company of many superb California chardonnay releases.

The one wine not available for tasting boasts a total production of one barrel (25 cases).  Combining 50% juice from the Renne Reserve Vineyard in St. Helena and 50% from the Rutherford Hillside Vineyard in neighboring Rutherford, the sold out 2014 Flora Springs St. Rutherford

Flora Springs St. Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon ($300), aged 22 months in French oak, is their premiere wine.  We were told that the Renne brings the berry and fruit flavors and the Rutherford the earthiness and spice nuances.  How can my palate miss something that it hasn’t ever experienced?  Maybe another time. The high demand for wines in this price-range is still amazing to me.

Clearly, Flora Springs Winery has moved beyond their first-rate flagship wine, “Trilogy,”  to become one of the finest

Flora Springs vineyard

producers in the Napa Valley.  When I learned about the 40% discount made available to staff and their guests, I had to re-think purchasing a bottle.  Expressing thanks to the tasting staff, I invested in my palate by purchasing a 2013 Wild Boar single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon for $75.  It sits in my cellar waiting for a special occasion with special friends. We had a wonderful afternoon at Flora Springs Winery, located along Highway 29, south of the town of St. Helena, which has been named one of the “Best Napa Wineries To Visit” by Food and Wine Magazine and is great place to taste some of the best wines the valley has to offer.


Margaux, by chance?

 

After sleeping in St. Emilion during the last few nights of a month in France, we dedicated the next day to exploring nearby Bordeaux and the renown wine appellations to the north of the city.   Famous regions along the Left Bank of the Gironde River, like Haut-Médoc, Saint Julien and Paulliac, were at our fingertips but I was focused on

Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux

Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux, the Grand Madame of them all.    A bottle of their Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux sells  for thousands of dollars and has been in the discussion as the world’s finest wine for more than a century.  We understood that time-consuming post-harvest activities were at peak and any chance of tasting required connections and months of planning.  “I just want to be there,” I said, trying to maintain reasonable expectations, “to see it, to touch a vine,”  Karen, remembering that I had followed her into three Cro-Magnon caves in Les Eyzies-De-Tayac days before, was supportive.  “Let’s do it,” she answered, “I’m in.”  We try to be conscious and supportive of each other’s passions.  For us, the concept first became instilled after listening to the 1977 Joni Mitchell song, “Jericho”:  “I’ll try to keep myself open up to you and approve your self-expression/I need that too/I need your confidence and the gift of your extra time/ In return, I’ll give you mine”/

Chateau Margaux wine production buildings

Chateau Margaux wine production buildings

Although fairly commonplace today, these were poignant thoughts in 1977, for two twenty-somethings trying to make a go of it.   Today, thirty-nine years later, it’s more about managing round-a-bouts and reminiscing of the anniversary dinner with a bottle of Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992, a gift from the parents of our German exchange student.   Karen would stop eating sugar shortly after and forfeit the enjoyment of wine.  If these were her last two glasses, what a way to go out.  Her apt description of “liquid velvet” remains a standard by which I compare good wines today.

The central city of Bordeaux was being victimized by its own progress.  Road

Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux

construction and the ensuing congestion was everywhere.  Thanks to modern-day GPS, we were able to maneuver our way through and, more importantly, master the round-a-bouts.  During a previous visit, entering a round-a-bout was quickly followed by a female voice on the GPS directing us to, “Re-route.”   This time, improved technology and graphics, along with experience, neutralized our stress level.  Streets soon turned into country roads that connected the small viticultural villages, a calming transition into a world that defies progress.  Royalty resides here but essentially these people are farmers from families that have worked this land for centuries.  The marbleized skies, poplar trees silhouetted by the afternoon sun and freshly harvested vines created the autumn Bordeaux landscape that I had always imagined.

The tiny village of Margaux was on the horizon.  Looking in the distance, I recognized the steeple of an old church, one that I had seen in photographs of the Chateau property.  I turned the wheel abruptly, veering off to a side road.  “What are we doing now, isn’t the village straight ahead?” Karen’s question made me realize that I hadn’t been too forthcoming about my new plan  “The village can wait,  I think Chateau Margaux is less than a mile from here and I want to get as close as we can,” I said, hoping for even a distant glance.

Suddenly, we came upon a vineyard near mustard-colored production buildings.  Vines

In a field of cosmos

In a field of cosmos

tend to look alike, but these were surrounded on two sides by a thirty-foot swath of multi-colored Cosmos, creating a Jackson Pollack-type border surrounding the uniformity of the vineyard.  As we stopped to take pictures, I noticed numerous cars passing by that seemed to access a large grass and dirt field about a quarter-mile away, then stop and park. Something was going on.  I could see other landmarks from the Chateau and knew we were close.

We entered the field strewn with uniformly parked cars looking like we belonged.   It

Chateau Margaux grounds

Chateau Margaux grounds

was a small, eclectic crowd that were leaving their vehicles and strolling along a poplar-lined path toward the Chateau’s entrance.  Karen fit right in with her fashionable jeans, tweed blazer and scarf while my orange sneakers, matched with faded jeans and gray cashmere sweater, may have eventually outed us as outliers.   However, we did leave our car and casually stroll onto the estate, immediately coming upon the Chateau Margaux mansion. On display behind iron gates, looking like it had in photographs over the

years, it defined grandeur, elegance and tradition.  Staff was working in the courtyards of the freshly painted production buildings on immaculately manicured pavement.  These building clusters resembled the backlot of a Hollywood film studio more than a working winery.

Soon we were walking on neatly trimmed, rustic paths that directed us and others

Chateau Margaux grounds

Chateau Margaux grounds

through a grove of large trees and over a stone bridge spanning a small canal.  One man, with large, working hands, wearing old jeans and a white starched shirt, unbuttoned to reveal his chest, strolled with a young woman in a navy business suit, struggling to walk with four-inch heels.  Another young couple looked very Goth with tight black pants and many piercings.  The moment was surreal, walking through the grounds of the world’s most iconic and private winery with no idea where we were going or what we may find when we got there.

Once across the bridge, we came upon another grove of the same Cosmos that framed a

stone building at Chateau Margaux

stone building at Chateau Margaux

large one-storied stone building with several  framed window openings, each with a small crowd gathered outside.  This was definitely where everyone was going.  We thought we were blending into the crowd as we looked into one of the windows to discover an elegant luncheon setting for about one hundred and fifty people with white linen tables cloths and napkins,  porcelain dinnerware, sculpted silver and five crystal wine glasses at each place.  We had seen settings like this before, but never of this size.

“May I help you?” said the nice looking forty-something man in a tailored black suit and open blue shirt, as he approached Karen.   We were busted.  She described our little sojourn and he patiently explained that we were at the Chateau Margaux Harvest

Discussing wine at the Chateau

Discussing wine at the Chateau

Luncheon, an annual event to celebrate the harvest and honor all the local vineyard owners and staff that contribute grapes and/or land toward each vintage.  This famous luncheon is both very exclusive and very local.

During our brief  conversation, I informed the gentleman of our Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992.  “I hope you still have it,” he said, “the 1992s are peaking now.”  “No”, I answered, slumping my shoulders, “we drank it,”  adding, “But, it was damn good in 1995.”  Karen repeated her “liquid velvet” metaphor and thanked  him.  “We don’t want to crash your luncheon any more than we already have,” she said.  Speak for yourself, I thought.   We said good-bye and he reminded us to walk by the mansion on our way out.  At Chateau Margaux, even being bounced from an exclusive event is done with distinction.

Karen in Margaux

Karen in Margaux

My day visiting wineries in the Bordeaux region was over.  No other experience could match this one.  During a late lunch at a boutique hotel in the village, we  stared out at the vineyard, then looked across the table at each other and smiled.  Feeling exhilarated and mischievous, we knew that this would always be a good story and a great memory among many.


Wine Spectator’s Top Wines of 2016

 

Envelopes, please. ’Tis the season for Wine Spectator magazine to release their Top 100 Exciting Wines Of 2016, an annual tradition since 1988.  Although there are other reputable lists, the Spectator’s Top 100 is like the Oscars, much suspense, but if one reads the monthly, many of them are not surprises.  Differing from their standard reviews, this list has a criteria, one that needs to be understood for the whole thing to make sense.  Wines are ranked by the editors based upon quality (wines with 90-point

Lewis Cellars and vineyard

Lewis Cellars and vineyard

or above ratings only), value (cost), availability and excitement, the last criteria rumored to generate the most spirited discussions. This may explain why the Hartford Family Zinfandel Russian River Valley Old Vine 2014 (93-pt/$38) was ranked #10 on the list and the A. Clape Cornas (96-pt/$120) number 87.  I can go to nearby Healdsburg to taste and purchase our local zinfandel while the French Rhone blend is more expensive, more difficult to find and won’t be ready for drinking until 2020.

With the criteria in mind, the magazine has selected the Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013

Napa Valley 2013 (95pt/$90) as the seventh Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon to be named Wine Of The Year in its nearly three decade history. The Lewis’ cabernets have been on the radar of wine experts since their inaugural vintage, the best ones deemed and recognized as special.  This wine has been named to Wine Spectator and other periodicals Top 100 and Top 10 lists on many occasions.

Randy Lewis was a former Formula One and Indy 500 race car driver

Randy, Debbie and Dennis Lewis

Randy, Debbie and Dennis Lewis

.  A crash into the wall during trials in the early nineties helped channel racing partners Randy and Debbie Lewis into winemaking partners, releasing their first vintage in 1994. Lewis is known for being patient with the vines, preferring the grapes fully ripened.  The result has been rich, elegant, lengthy wines and the 2013 vintage, described by Senior Editor James Laube as “a hedonistic wine experience from a spectacular vintage,” apparently, is one of their best.

The other top ten wines are equally interesting featuring two Oregon releases in the top five, whites from Bordeaux, a more obscure Italian region, a historic vineyard, a history family and a consistently good blend from California.

I am quite familiar with the Domaine Serene Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, especially their 2012 vintage pinot noir releases.  Owners Ken and Grace Evenstad, who have produced fine pinot noir grapes for years, began in 2010 to combine choice barrels

Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Rserve 2014

Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Rserve 2014

from single vineyards to create the Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Reserve 2014 (95-pt/$55), Wine Spectator’s #2 wine. I am intrigued by descriptions of minerality with layered and lengthy flavors, all pointing to elements of a Burgundian white. From a terrific winery, this wine will soon be in my search engine. It is back to back Oregon releases with the #3 Beaux Frères Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Beaux Frères Vineyard 2014 (95-pt/$90)from a respected producer, also from the northern

Evenstad Vineyard

Evenstad Vineyard

Willamette Valley.  Senior Editor Harvey Steiman’s characterization of “supple, expressive and multilayered flavors” is enough to peak my interest.

That two Bordeaux wines placed in the Top 10 is somewhat normal, the fact that they are both white wines is anything but.

The #4 Château Climens Barsac 2013 (97-pt/$68) is a sweet wine made from

Chateau Climens Barsac 2103

Chateau Climens Barsac 2103

semillon grapes, produced at a biodynamically farmed, certified organic winery located south of Bordeaux along the left bank of the Gironde River, north of the famous Sauternes region.  The first Barsac named to the Top 10, this wine used only sémillon grapes infected with Botrytis cinerea, the “noble rot” and is described as balanced, with ample stone and tropical fruit flavors and a creamy mouthfeel.

A few miles south of Bordeaux lies the Pessac-Léognan appellation, the home of the #9 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Pessac-Léognan White 2013 (96-pt/$106), a highly rated, expensive blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris and sémillon. Senior editor James Molesworth’s descriptive words like “gorgeous,” “opulent,” “shortbread,” “white peach,” and “tarragon-laced” are, indeed, exciting.

In the late 1950s, four Stanford Research Institute scientists purchased an old winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 2300 feet on Monte Bello Ridge high above the current technologies of Cupertino. Years later, the Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz

Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Mountains 1971 helped re-shape the wine industry by placing fifth in the 1976 Paris tasting, then ranking first in the 2006 Reprise Tasting, judging the aged versions of the original vintages.  Described as an old-school cabernet, the Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 (94-pt/$175) adds merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot to take its place among our finest meritage blends.

From the Piedmont region, produced with a co-operative managed by Aldo Vacca, the #5 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011 (96-pt/$59) comes from an appellation that is

Produttori del Barbaresco Asili Reserve 2011

Produttori del Barbaresco Asili Reserve 2011

smaller than Barolo and the wines are accessible sooner. Asili is one of nine single vineyards that lies atop the hills where it’s generally cooler. Fermented in stainless steel after the malolactic process, it is highly reviewed for concentrated, elegantly balanced flavors and is the best value within the Top

vineyard_4047544_1600

Asili Vineyard, Barbaresco, Italy

10. The sangiovese-dominant #8 Antinori Toscana Tignanello 2013(95-pt/$105) comes from a pioneering winery who was a leader in introducing French varietals to the Tuscan varietals, labeling them “Super Tuscans.”  The addition of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc is said to add ”power, depth and structure.”  Always consisting of the same blend, this is the highest rated vintage from IGT Toscana designated Tignanello Vineyard, over one hundred acres high above sea level.

The Orin Swift Winery, founded in 1998 is derived from winemaker Dave Phinney,s fathers middle and mother’s maiden names.  I have enjoyed his zinfandel-based “The Prisoner” wine for years, a brand he sold in 2010 to concentrate on new blends with

Orin Swift "Machete" 2013

Orin Swift “Machete” 2013

names that include “Papillon,” “Machete” and “Abstract.”  I was pleased when the #6 Orin Swift Machete California 2014 (94-pt/$48) received such lofty recognition.  Having tasted previous vintages, this is a big, earthy wine with ample tannins and rich flavors.  A good value, but now harder to find.

California dominated the list with 21 wines and after the addition of ten more from the Pacific Northwest (Oregon-4, Washington-6) and one from the Fingerlakes region of New York, the #70 Ravines Riesling Fingerlakes dry 2014 (90-pt/$18), the US contributed 32 wines.  France provided 16 releases, divided evenly throughout their diverse regions and Italy placed 18 wines, mostly from Tuscany. Spain was the only other country in double figures with 10 wines, including two standards from the Haro wine loop in northern Rioja that we visited in 2010. Returning to the list are the #22 Cune Rioja Gran Reserva 2010 (94-pt/$33), after the vintage 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva was named the 2013 Wine of the Year and the #65 La Rioja Alta Rioja 904 Gran Reserva 2007 (93-pt/$55), both good values.

Tzora Judean Hills White 2014

Tzora Judean Hills White 2014

Israeli winemakers are beginning to show their diversity by setting two wines, a red and a white, into the fold.  A kosher chardonnay-sauvignon blanc blend, the #79 Tzora Judean Hills White 2014 (92-pt/$30)relies on winemaker Eran Pick and his world of experience for the complex flavors and and the north region #93 Galil Mountain Yiron Galilee 2013 (92-pt/$32), the winery’s flagship release,  blending cabernet

Yiron Vineyard, Galil Mountain

Yiron Vineyard, Galil Mountain

sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot.

The 2016 list is filled with old veterans, a few grace or have graced my cellar.  Having long described it as my favorite food-pairing sauvignon blanc, the #17 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley 2014 (93-pt/$32) signals an extraordinary vintage.  I have enjoyed single-vineyard zinfandel from Paso Robles’ Ueberroth Vineyard since the mid-1990s when grapes were

2013 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

2013 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

sourced to the now defunct Martin Weyrich Winery. Turley has continued to honor it with the #20 Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Ueberroth Vineyard 2013 (94-pt/$48).  Ancient vines and limestone slopes are the key to the vineyard’s rich expressions.

I savor each vintage of the Sojourn Cellars pinot noir from Gap’s Crown Vineyard in the cold, breezy Petaluma Gap. The #35 Sojourn Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2014 (94-pt/$59) caught the Spectator’s attention with a high rating and moderate price.  We recently shared a bottle of the #47 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013 (94-pt/$80) with friends,

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013

pairing it with an Abbaye de Belloc cheese from southern France.  It has the depth, balance and richness expected from Hall, but this one is their most moderately priced.

I am actively searching for the #31 Tenshen White Central Coast 2015 (92-pt/$20), celebrating its second appearance on the list. In fact, the wine has appeared in

Tenshen White Central Coast 2015

Tenshen White Central Coast 2015

periodicals and is generating excitement for winemakers Joey Tensley and Alex Guarachi.  From a white Rhone blend of viognier, roussanne,grenache blanc with a touch of chardonnay, we expect it all:  body, texture and expressive, balanced flavors.

South America was well represented with seven wines total from Chile and Argentina, including a wine that meets all the criteria and I feel compelled to mention, the #74 Bodega Norton Malbec Mendoza Reserva 2014 (90-pt/$19).  Retailing for less than $20, each vintage of this nicely structured wine from the Mendoza region of Argentina seems to be readily available in most wine outlets and, in the best years, extolled as an exciting wine.

Finally. a special mention goes to Sonoma County, especially the Russian River Valley appellation that contributed six wines.  Known for pinot noir and cool climate chardonnay, the 2016 releases expressed more diversity than normal with two zinfandels and a sauvignon blanc in the top 20 and one each of syrah, chardonnay and pinot noir. The Russian River Valley appellation is a leader among leaders.


A Tasting in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

 

The opportunity to experience the extraordinary blends in France’s Chateauneuf-du-

vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Pape is a rare treat for anyone serious about wine.  Blessed with near perfect terroir and climate, the area is always in the discussion of the world’s best appellation.  Nearly all the 280 wineries in Chateauneuf-du-Pape are owned by small families, not the case in Bordeaux or Burgundy.  There are thirteen grapes approved for the appellation by the governing AOC, which also requires that they are all hand-pruned, hand-picked and essentially dry-farmed, allowing two irrigations per season during drought years.  The famous “La Mistral” winds blow 100 days per year, a benefit during wet vintages and a challenge in dry ones.  The production of rose’ or sparkling wine is also prohibited in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, allowing winemakers to focus on the best blend of grapes that most align with the terroir.

Translated “the Pope’s new castle” or “Chateau of the Popes,” Chateauneuf-du-Pape became a significant winemaking region in the 14th Century after the papacy was relocated to the town of Avignon.  The “Avignon Popes” appreciated their

Chateau de Vaudieu

Chateau de Vaudieu

wine and were first to promote viticulture in this area, 10 miles northeast of their palace residence.  It’s esteemed terroir has continued to produce superb local wines for eight centuries and is still revered today. With all the acclaim that Chateauneuf-du-Pape gets, one would expect them to be promoting tourism.  They do not. It is authentic, a relatively small area with family farmers doing what they have done for centuries, create near perfect wines.

October was a busy month for winemakers, following up on the recent harvest.  It was off-season and our time was limited, so we chose Saint Charles Cave,in the heart of the village, for our first tasting. Located in a 13th Century cave, Saint Charles represents

Tasting in Saint Charles Cave

Tasting in Saint Charles Cave

many of the producers and offers selections of the best the region has to offer.  In addition, it also houses the La Cour Des Papes Restaurant that could extend our experience through mid-afternoon. Sitting on wooden benches in the cave, our young, knowledgeable host began to take us through his selection of wines from the region.

The Château de Vaudieu is one of the genuine 18th Century castles left in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, operated by the Brechet Family since the mid-1980s.  Described as “a real mosaic of terroirs,” the vast vineyards of the Chateau represent very distinct micro-climates and elevations. Our tasting at Saint 3efcc0ec2827a487028818f55a178c90Charles Cave began with the Chateau de Vaudieu Blanc 2012 ($32), a mostly grenache blanc and roussanne blend that expressed a complex bouquet and rich citrus and mineral notes on the palate.  The varietals were fermented separately in oak and stainless steel to form a dry wine that would be a perfect pair with seafood or shellfish.

The grenache dominant 2011 Clos Saint Jean Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($35-40), our second pour, is a classic wine from the region, full-bodied, dry, herbal with deep fruit and savory flavors. The grenache is aged in cement tanks while the syrah, clos-saint-jean-chateauneuf-du-pape-rhone-france-10675487mourvedre and bits of other varietals get the benefit of oak.  Brothers Vincent and Pascal Maurel took over the winery from their father in 2003 and have produced very good vintages since.  Robert Parker awarded this one, that I found online at klwines.com, with a 92-point score.

Covered by the famous diluvial red pebbles that protect them from the dry climate and La Mistral winds, the vineyards at Chateau Maucoil are said to consist of all chateau-maucoil-chateauneuf-du-pape-rhone-france-10293833tChateauneuf-du-Pape soil types.  The 2011 Chateau Maucoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($30-40) is an old vine grenache dominant blend that adds 20% syrah, 10% mourvedre and cinsault, very fruit forward and balanced.  This wine is produced only when the vintage is good and the 2011 was a very good one.

Our next wine was a big, earthy release, the only one created by the Barrot Family, long-standing growers producing 5,000 cases annually on 16 hectares in the appellation, divided among 24 different parcels.  The 2011 Domaine Lucien Barrot et Fils Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($50), with 80% grenache, 10% syrah and five percent each cinsault and mourvedre, is made whole cluster, fermenting in large cement vats before aging up to 36 months in oak. Significant aromas of spices, herbs and earth are followed by deep, dried cherries and anise flavors of great length.

Their family has farmed the land since the 17th Century, but Domaine du Pegau was 160164lformed in 1987 by father, daughter team, Paul and Laurence Ferard. The grenache dominant Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reservee 2013 ($70), our next wine,is produced whole cluster and was the most masculine wine that we tasted. Aromas of ripe fruits and pepper precede rich, earthy flavors with soft tannins on the finish.  All the major periodicals rate this wine in the 90-95 point range.

From another family with local roots dating back to the 17th Century, the Chateau de la Gardine was established in 1945 by Gaston Brunel, producing great red Rhone blends and a special roussanne-dominant white, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Château de la Gardine Cuvée des Générations Marie-Léoncie 2013 ($30).  The 60-year old

The "Gardine Bottle"

The “Gardine Bottle”

vines lay atop limestone soil and, with early rains followed by a warm 2013 summer, the roussanne was allowed to fully ripen, creating a rich, buttery texture and full flavors. Although there is no malolactic fermentation, the wine is fermented and aged in new French oak. Many wineries in Chateauneuf-Du-Pape can be identified by the shape of their unique bottles and this wine is exclusively released in the “Gardine bottle,” broad at the bottom with long, narrow neck. Counter to tasting wine in the States, it is tradition in Chateauneuf-du-Pape to end with a white blend and this one was memorable.  Approximately 70% of the Chateau’s wine is exported, so these wines can probably be found with a little effort.  The group was enamored by all six wines and immediately discussed shipping a case home to the US. Soon, our practical sensibilities prevailed and we settled on a 2011 Chateau Maurcoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape to accompany our lunch.

Lunch at La Cour Des Papes was both distinct and memorable. Firstly, the large dining table is in the chef’s kitchen and guests are welcome to stand, roam and question the chef while he is cooking. The partly set menu in French was intriguing with dishes described as “filet de Canette e au marine au soja et champignons” or “Hachis parmentier d’epaule d’agneau et sa sauce de Chateauneuf-du-Pape” that were translated fullsizerenderto “Filet of female duckling, pickled and raw with soy beans and mushrooms” and “Shepherd’s Pie with lamb and Chateauneuf-du-Pape sauce.” I opted for the raw duckling entree and “Cabillau” or codfish with butter and saffron as my “plat” or main course.  Our chef, Julien, was not only patient with our questions, but serenaded us with song and entertained us with his humor throughout the entire meal that included a rich crème brûlée’ dessert.

La Cour Des Papes also offer cooking classes where patrons can learn new dishes that they prepare for their own meal. Our once in a lifetime luncheon was a bit extravagant but the Browns Valley Fork and Cork Society, six people strong, saved their pennies and were ready.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other nearby towns located between the cities of Avignon andimg_3780 Orange boasts nearly 8,000 acres of vineyards and produces as much wine as any other region in France.  Those lucky enough to visit the area will be rewarded with beauty, history and the ability to purchase these remarkable wines at local prices.  They are a bargain as long as you drink them locally.


Chateau de Beaucastel

 

Two-hundred forty-thousand contiguous vines, dry-farmed, hand pruned and picked, in the middle of France’s famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation is what defines the family owned Chateau de Beaucastel, the region’s largest.  Eighty-percent of the

270,000 bottles produced annually are exported to the United States and Canada and

Chateau de Beaucastel

Chateau de Beaucastel

they contain iconic French Rhone wines for discerning palates.  Traveling through the region in October, we had the opportunity to visit Chateau de Beaucastel to tour their vineyards and production facility before tasting current and past releases.

The estate includes a quarter of a million vines that, aside from being cultivated by hand, are all organically grown and de-stemmed before fermentation.  The Chateau produce and use all thirteen grapes permitted by the governing AOC, seven white and six red.  The white grapes, namely roussanne, picpoul, muscardin, picardan, clairette and bourboulenc, are fermented in separate rooms from the red grapes, mostly in large concrete tanks with

Diluvial deposits (stones) in the vineyards

Diluvial deposits (stones) in the vineyards

tile floors.  Among the red grapes, syrah and mourvedre are aged in oak, grenache, vaccarese, terret noir, cinsault and couniose in similar concrete tanks. All varietals are fermented separately and blended only after the malolactic fermentation process is completed for each, giving the wine a softer, more balanced mouthfeel.

While visiting the estate, we soon understood that we were visiting French Rhone royalty, one that has been a force among the world’s magnificent Rhone blends for the past

barrel room at Chateau de Beaucastel

barrel room at Chateau de Beaucastel

107 years.  The bottles in the cellars are enigmatic, the huge, meticulous barrel rooms look like they belong in Architectural Digest and each of the tall concrete vats had beautiful tile flooring. After seeing the immaculate grounds, we were assured there were no shortcuts at Chateau de Beaucastel.

In 1687, the land where the Chateau exists today was given to Pierre Beaucastel by Louis XIV after he converted to Catholicism. In 1909, Pierre Tramier transferred ownership of the property to his son-in-law, Pierre Perrin who established the Chateau de Beaucastel.  Pierre’s son Jacque

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012

Perrin took over operations shortly after and spearheaded its growth and reputation until 1978 when it was transferred to his children who collaboratively operate the estate today. The recently released Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012 ($617), is a very serious wine produced only during great vintages, that pays respect to the long-time winemaker and innovator.  The experts have rated this wine in the high nineties and I will just have to take their word for it.

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Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2015

We began the tasting with the Chateau’s only white release, using all permitted varietals.  The Chateau de Beaucastel Chateaunuef-du-Pape Blanc 2015 ($70) will be released in January 2017, ready for consumption and peaking within the first two years. They had experienced more heat and less rain in 2015 that allowed the roussanne, 80% of the blend, to fully ripen.  Small amounts of grenache blanc, picardan, clairette and bourboulenc help add a beautiful golden color with the stone fruits and spice on the nose and nice mineral notes on the finish.  The estate describes the terroir as “molasses seabed of the Miocene period covered by diluvial deposits (rolled pebbles)”.  The diluvial deposits are actually medium reddish stones, two-inches in diameter, that covered the soils throughout the vineyard. Representing the limited plantings of the white varietals, the nicely structured, balanced “Blanc” is not excitable, but subtle and elegant.

Out to the west, the vineyards are dissected by a small, but significant road. Any vines located outside the road are not within the Chateauneuf-du-Pape boundaries and cannot, according to AOC regulations, be identified with the name.  Therefore, the

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du rhone

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du rhone

Chateau created the Condoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone blend to give these grapes a home.  A grenache, mourvedre, syrah (GSM) blend with 20% cinsault added, the Condoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone Rouge 2013 was rich with wild berry flavors and hints of pepper and herbs. This was another refined and balanced release.

The white varietals across the road produce the Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone Blanc 2014 with a zesty, citrus quality, revealing apples flavors mid-palate. A blend of marsanne, viognier, clairette and bourboulenc, aged half in oak, half in steel, this is one for the patio on a summer evening. Bourboulenc is a white grape grown in southern France, primarily the Rhone, Provence and Lanquedoc. Its challenge is that it is a late-ripening grape that must be fully ripened to achieve full body, citrus aromas and smoky flavors it is known for.

The flagship release of the estate is the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, considered an adolescent until it is aged 20 years or more. Today we tasted a flight of the 2013, 2007 and 2001 vintages, each with very distinctive structure and flavors.

101438lThe young Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2013 ($60), mostly grenache and mourvedre has concentrated berry flavors with some nice spice throughout. Our host said that it would take another 4-5 years before the wine is taken seriously, but the balance and structure was already evident. The vintage 2007 was a great one for the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation and the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2007 ($90-100), awarded 96-pt by Wine Spectator, expressed a deep ruby color and delivered loads of spice, licorice and burnt wood flavors on the palate, more earthy than the recent release. We missed the 2005 vintage that was #8 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2008 with a 98-pt rating.

Although still described as a young wine, the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2001 ($60-75) was balanced with a very earthy quality that set it apart from the other two. With an aromatic nose, the wine was complex and spicy with flavors of licorice, roasted herbs and, what was described as “cigar box”. Aside from the main three varietals, the 2001 vintage adds counoise, cinsault and a small percentage of other red and white grapes.  This wine began to express what an aged Chateau de Beaucastel wine could taste like and it was for serious consumers.

The presence of the Chateau de Beaucastel in the United States goes far beyond importing their wines. The well-respected Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles,

perrin_la_route_menant_au_chateau_de_beaucastel_2_jpg_11453 producer of terrific Rhone-style wines is a 30-year partnership between the Perrin and Haas families.  Attracted to the limestone laden soils and similar climate to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the partnership purchased land in 1989 and imported clones from the French estate.  Today, Tablas Creek, similar to the patriarch, produces Rhone blends from their “Espirit de Beaucastel” and “Cotes de Tablas” labels. Tablas Creek Winery is organic and sustainable and their wines are well-rated, best represented by the 2006 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Paso Robles (93-pt/$45) that was named #50 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2008.  The Mourvedre, grenache, syrah and counoise blend is full-bodied with earthy flavors of ripened berries and nutmeg.  The best example of Rhone-style wines outside of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is Paso Robles, centrally located for access by all Californians.

Another partnership with the Miraval estate in Provence, owned by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, produces the Jolie-Pitt and Perrin Cotes de Provence Rose’ Miraval

Chateau Miraval 2015

Chateau Miraval 2015

2012 ($25)that landed the 84th spot on the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2013 list, leading their marketing staff to hail it as the world’s best. There is a bit of uncertainty about future vintages but we were told that Brad is mostly involved.

Visiting the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation in southern

The vines are manicured by hand

The vines are manicured by hand

France is a special treat for anyone serious about wine.  But, the opportunity to spend time at a historical and refined producer like Chateau de Beaucastel, to observe their methods and facilities, is truly a memorable learning experience.


“Zen for Zin”: The Wines of Carol Shelton

 

Speaking with an iconic winemaker, one that strives to create a zinfandel for every palate, I asked her to describe her wines in one word. In the small lunch room at her northwest Santa Rosa production facility, Carol Shelton responded, “Balance.”  Within a few minutes I would agree with her answer after tasting a zinfandel flight, each from distinct vineyards throughout the state.  With Wine Spectator magazine including her 2011 Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” Zinfandel (90pt/$19)on their 2014 Top 100 wines list, there has been increase attention to her releases.

Carol Shelton "Wild Thing" Zinfandel

Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” Zinfandel

Carol Shelton believes that the long journey to becoming a

Carol Shelton

Carol Shelton

winemaker and owning a winery began with an “identify the scent” game her mother played when she was a young girl.  Later, as an English student at UC Davis, the scent of a Sonoma County barrel room persuaded her to change career goals and complete a degree in Enology.

Her early career began working with winemakers in California and Australia, later returning to Sonoma County where she worked at Rodney Strong and 19 years with Windsor, honing her style and concentrating on the zinfandel varietal.  Carol has not missed a harvest since 1978 and in 2000, she and her husband founded Carol Shelton Wines, selling barrel futures to finance the bottles for the first vintage.

Like other successful winemakers, one of the main factors in her success is the ability to discover and partner with exceptional vineyards throughout the state.  She sources grapes from Mendocino County, the Alexander Valley, Lodi and Paso Robles. In

Florence Vineyard

Florence Vineyard

addition to the premier Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys in Sonoma County, she has discovered vineyards in the Fountaingrove District in north Santa Rosa and as far south as the old vines of the Lopez Vineyard, located where Highways 210 and 15 intersect in Rancho Cucamonga, south of Los Angeles.

Rancho Cucamonga’s dry-farmed Jose Lopez Vineyard, sourcing grapes for the 2014 Carol Shelton “Monga” Old Vine Zinfandel Cucamonga Valley ($19) was established nearly

2013 Carol Shelton "Monga Zin" Zinfandel Cucamonga Valley

2013 Carol Shelton “Monga Zin” Zinfandel Cucamonga Valley

a Century ago and is currently certified organic. Located adjacent to two major freeways, these vines define the tough conditions that zinfandel can thrive in.  From the Florence Vineyard in the Rockpile AVA, high above Lake Sonoma, the 2013 Carol Shelton “Rocky Reserve” Zinfandel ($35) is a fragrant wine with rich earth and mineral elements and nicely balanced fruit and spice throughout. The addition of petite sirah (14%) adds depth to this wine.  The last of our zinfandel flight peaked my interest because the grapes were sourced from a vineyard in the new Fountaingrove District AVA in north Santa Rosa, minutes from my home. The PeaceLand Vineyard, a translation of the German owners name, Friedland, sits in a fairly wild setting, overlooking at city of 160,000 people.  With seven-percent petite sirah added, I found the 2013 Carol Shelton “Peaceland” Zinfandel($30) to be the richest, most jammy of the three.  Spice flavors and hints of chocolate enhance the complexity of this wine that will age gracefully.

We actually began our tasting with three current white wines including a wonderful

Rhone blend.  Known for craft zinfandel, Carol has created a complex, layered white wine that will pair well with shellfish, scallops, fish and even some chicken dishes. A blend of grenache blanc, roussane, viognier and marsanne, sourced from Paso Robles

2013 Carol Shelton "Coquille Blanc"

2013 Carol Shelton “Coquille Blanc”

vineyards, the 2014 Carol Shelton Coquille Blanc ($24) delivers floral, stone fruit aromas and tart, but creamy, balanced flavors.  This “coquille” is deserving of its consistent 90-point ratings.

Shelton’s quest for obscure vineyards led her Auburn, CA in Placer County where the Damiano Vineyard is burrowed into the heat and elevation of the foothills.  The 2014 Carol Shelton Viognier ($20) delivers a full expression of fruit, both mango and grapefruit, soft and tart. Produced in both oak barrels and stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, it is regularly stirred sur lee to add a creamy texture. Part of her wild yeast selections, the 2014 Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” Chardonnay ($18), with small amounts of viognier, muscadelle, sauvignon blanc and roussane, fermented equally in oak and stainless steel, is a crisp and balanced wine, sourced from Mendocino County.  Carol recommends Thai food as a nice pairing.

In addition to the numerous accolades and awards for her wines, Carol has been personally recognized as the San Francisco Chronicle 2005 Winemaker of the Year and is one of eight designated Pioneer Women of Winemaking in Sonoma County, a list that includes iconic names like Merry Edwards and Helen Turley.

2014 Crol Shelton "Wild Thing" Rendezvous Rose'

2014 Crol Shelton “Wild Thing” Rendezvous Rose’

Carol also dabbles in red varietals other than zinfandel and the best way to begin tasting them is the 2014 Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” Rendezvous Rose’ ($15), a blend of mostly old vine carignane with a little viognier. A full-bodied, food friendly, dark pink wine, the “Rendezvous” is crisp and dry with cranberry, strawberry and watermelon on the nose and palate.

No one is certain, but it is common belief that the first carignane vines were planted at the dry-farmed Oat Valley

Oat Valley Vineyard

Oat Valley Vineyard

Vineyard in the Alexander Valley around 1890.  Carol used these grapes when she was making wine at Windsor and now has them back to craft her own style. In winemaking, “brix” measures the concentration of sucrose by percentage of the mass.  Shelton feels that the brix in carignane must reach 25% to unleash the complex flavors which explains why her 2012 Carol Shelton Old Vine Carignane Oat Valley Vineyard ($28) is at 25.7%.  With two-percent each of petite sirah and

2012 Carol Shelton Old Vine Carignane

2012 Carol Shelton Old Vine Carignane

alicante bouschet added for good measure, the flavors are creamy and smoky with spice, fruit and at bit of chocolate at the end.  This is a bold wine with multi-layered flavors and is a good value for the price.

The well-known Rockpile Vineyard has been the source of grapes for many fine wines throughout the region.  A unique micro-climate and hard work from many people resulted in a recent AVA designation for the area.  The Rockpile AVA vineyards are at 1,000-2,000 foot elevation above Lake Sonoma.  They enjoy full morning sun and cool afternoon breezes off the lake, the opposite of the nearby Russian River Valley AVA.  As one of my favorite varietals that combines

Rockpile Vineyard

Rockpile Vineyard

complexity and accessibility, the 100% 2012 Carol Shelton Petite Sirah, Rockpile Vineyard ($40) does not disappoint with black pepper spice, concentrated, aromatic blue and black berry flavors and heavy oak influences.  The flavors are intricate, but balanced after 20 months aging in the barrel.

Describing the opportunity to obtain a ton of cabernet sauvignon grapes from the esteemed Showket Vineyard in Napa valley’s Oakville District, Carol poured a taste of her 2009 Carol Shelton Napa Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($50), a 100% cabernet sauvignon, all from a specific vineyard, aged 26 months in 100% new French oak. The depth and flavors of this wine seem to be ever ending and include herbs, currants, tobacco with some vanilla creme at the finish.

Zinfandel grapes seem to adapt well to late harvest, maintaining some structure before they begin to rot and turn to sugar.  Once again, Carol has achieved balance and complexity in her 2014 Carol

2014 Carol Shelton "Black Magic" Late Harvest Zinfandel

2014 Carol Shelton “Black Magic” Late Harvest Zinfandel

Shelton “Black Magic” Late Harvest Zinfandel ($20), even with a brix of 31.7%, six-percent residual sugar and 15.4% alcohol. After admiring the deep color, I enjoyed the jammy flavors and texture, the not too sweetness and more vanilla at the finish.  The wine is a perfect pair with savory cheeses or the most decadent chocolate dessert imaginable. The “Black Magic” label replicates the “Wild Thing” image in purple, black and white and glows in the dark.  It is an impressive gift for someone who enjoys late harvest wines.

I thoroughly enjoyed Carol Shelton’s wines and she was true to her word that balance is what best defines them.  Her focus is zinfandel and unique vineyard partnerships throughout California, but the white and other red varietal wines deserve equal attention from wine consumers.  There are hundreds, maybe thousands of good wineries in California.  If one were to drink Carol Shelton Wines exclusively, they would have a well-rounded experience.  I don’t often recommend joining wine clubs, but would make an exception because of her diverse releases.

Carol feels that “wine has a responsibility to be entertaining” as she strives to create a zinfandel for every palate. Her wines emerge from distinct vineyards and a small production facility in Santa Rosa, but her reputation is expanding and worth exploring on your own.