Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Oct 11th – Part Two
Sonomania and Red RavesOct 9, 2014
by David Lawrason with notes from Sara d’Amato and John Szabo MS
Today’s publishing date coincides with the arrival of the Sonoma County Vintners wine fair in Toronto, and the WineAlign team will be there. But while we evidently can’t publish additional Sonoma wine recommendations on time in the traditional fashion, we’ve set up an instagram account where we’ll be posting pics of more great picks from the County: http://instagram.com/winealign. Follow the link to see what else we’ve unearthed; availability and price will be included.
It’s almost needless to say that the number of wines at the Sonoma exposition far outstrips the number that are actually, or ever will be, available at the LCBO. I only point that out to say I still find that as irritating as I always have – 30 years later. But despite the retail bunker erected by our one-shop-fits-all monopoly, the Sonoma winemaker delegations keep coming back – and thanks for that. It is something the Sonoma Wineries Association has done diligently over many years as a brand building exercise. And that’s an important exercise when you live next door to world famous Napa Valley.
So what is the Sonoma brand – the difference-maker? They like to promote Sonoma’s geographic and varietal diversity – an easy catch phrase. But it is an over-used idea, and not really all that useful in a hyper-diverse world. So what really leaps to front of mind for Sonoma here in 2014?
Well for me it is chardonnay. The rest of California could stop making chardonnay without causing me any grief, because Sonoma finds a sweet spot offering bright tree fruit, freshness, some firm acidity yet California suppleness and warmth. In the coolest coastal regions you can find leaner, more mineral driven Burgundy-inspired styles, but if I want that style I will buy Burgundy, or Niagara or Prince Edward County chardonnays. With Sonoma chards I am still looking for some California fruit generosity tempered by just-right freshness and tension (and not too much oak).
Where goes good chardonnay, so goes good pinot noir, and I must say that personally I love drinking the aromatically lofty, texturally rich Sonoma pinot noirs – a bit deeper in colour, with riper often raspberry-scented fruit aromas decked out in the finest new oak spice and vanillin and perhaps a hint of evergreen from the coniferous coastal environment. They are also fairly soft and warm, but the best also trail some minerality and acidity. This is the profile of the many Carneros and Russian River pinots, with the tautness of the latter increasing as sites move into the Sonoma Coast. But as with chardonnay I am not expressly seeking Burgundian stone-sucking minerality in Sonoma pinot; I want California fruit richness too.
Beyond this dynamic duo the brand of Sonoma becomes more fractured. I do anticipate good things from zinfandels coming out of the warmer Dry Creek Valley, but again there are many other sites across the state that also produce very good zins so Sonoma is not so special in this regard. There are also some impressive Bordeaux reds from the warm sites of the Alexander and Knights Valleys, with especially good examples coming from the hilltops. They have a bit more tension than most Napa cabs, but their main attraction is better value, simply because they are not Napa. And that’s about where I start to run out of solid ideas about what Sonoma is. To me it is simply the best one-two chardonnay-pinot punch in California.
Beyond the Sonoma selections below, we have come up with an intriguing selection of other reds. We assembled our white picks and Piedmont reviews in Part One last week.
Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names or bottle images below. You can also find the complete list of each VINTAGES release under Wine >> New Releases. Remember, however, that to access this list and to read all of the reviews you do need to subscribe (only $40/year). Paid subscribers get immediate access to new reviews, while non-paid members do not see reviews until 60 days later. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!
Flowers 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($64.95)
John Szabo – Flowers’ vineyards are perched on the coastal ridges facing the Pacific in the far out, “true” Sonoma Coast, one of the first sites planted in the area in 1991, and they’ve been leaders ever since. The 2012 is an elegant, stylish, firm and fresh, ripe and concentrated wine with well-measured wood and tight acids, the way we like them.
David Lawrason – This is quintessential, brilliant, layered subtle chardonnay with centering acidity and minerality. Pricy but a benchmark, with the wherewithal that makes the best Burgundies intriguing, plus a bit of bravado.
Sara d’Amato – This Burgundian styled chardonnay climate features lovely vibrancy, structure and harmony. Refined and sophisticated for the classiest of affairs.
Benziger 2012 Chardonnay Sonoma County ($19.95)
David Lawrason – This is the best value Sonoma selection, white or red on the release, and I chalk that up to organic-based winemaking philosophy, even though the label avoids using the term while delivering lots of green-speak. This is a well-integrated, balanced, enjoyable wine with well-tailored California opulence.
John Szabo – Long time followers of organic/biodynamic and sustainable winegrowing, Benziger is a reliable name for balanced and elegant wines. This is a particularly well-priced chardonnay in the realm of oft-inflated California pricing, stylish, savoury, and judiciously oaked, hitting a fine balance between fruit and spice on a well-proportioned frame.
Pahlmeyer 2011 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($100.95)
David Lawrason – Some might gasp and/or guffaw at the price, but this Sonoma pinot borders on perfection. It’s a very modern, typical Californian take on pinot, and done very well, with impressive poise for its size and excellent to outstanding length. It is everything I love about Sonoma pinot, if sadly I can’t afford it. Those who can will be pleased.
Sara d’Amato – The cooler vintage was beneficial to this lovely pinot noir brimming with cherry, crab apple, bramble and cedar. An elegant, new world style with a broad palate and exceptional length. Grace and refinement best characterize this incarnation of Pahlmeyer’s pricey pinot noir.
Kunde 2012 Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley ($23.95)
John Szabo – Zach Long is the highly competent winemaking steward of the Kunde Family’s considerable estate in the Sonoma Valley AVA, now in the hands of the fifth generation. This is the entry-level version, but it’s a wholly satisfying, generously proportioned example that should appeal widely. It’s a bit boozy at 14.7% alcohol declared, but it works within the context of large-scaled wine.
David Lawrason – This is a generous, ripe zin that has some chocolate-ness, but it is not overly confected. It is full, sweet and sour with some tension and even minerality. Following on a very good value Kunde Chardonnay last time out I am paying more attention to this property.
Ridge 2012 Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley ($52.95)
Sara d’Amato – The 115-year-old vines of the Lytton Springs property are used to produce some pretty impressive, high-caliber wines which feature little manipulation and pure, honest and expressive fruit. The 2012 is elegant and lingering with pretty herbal notes and forest fruit and makes for an undeniably memorable experience.
John Szabo – An excellent vintage for Ridge’s Lytton Springs zinfandel blend, 2012 has yielded an open and pure wine in the hands of non-interventionist of Paul Draper, with full palate, woolly tannins (un/minimally filtered) and great length. I appreciate the purity and forthrightness here – there’s no winemaking artifice, just fine, fermented grapes.
Ravenswood 2011 Old Vine Zinfandel, Sonoma County, ($21.95)
Sara d’Amato – Ravenswood is a pioneer of California’s signature grape and continues to champion this varietal – still their most successful product. Here is a very characteristic and honest example of pure zinfandel with plenty of succulence and vibrant acids to balance the fleshy fruit.
Decoy 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County ($33.95)
John Szabo – A second wine of sorts from Duckhorn, the Decoy cabernet over-delivers in the category in the excellent 2012 vintage. This has some grit and substance and a solid range of flavours. Best 2014-2022
Monte Del Frá 2013 Bardolino, Veneto, Italy ($13.95)
David Lawrason – It’s back! One of my all-time favourite easy drinking, lively reds– a lightweight Veneto that effortlessly diagrams the purity and freshness this northern region can render – without getting all fussed up in rispasso-ness. Some lessons here. Killer price – I might consider a case.
Adelsheim 2012 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($34.95)
David Lawrason – Here is the best Adelsheim I can recall, and that’s saying something as David Adelsheim was an Oregon pinot pioneer who I interviewed in Toronto in the 90s. Impressive depth and energy here most of all, if not yet elegant, refined and ethereal. But that too may appear in a couple of years.
Carabella 2011 Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($37.95)
John Szabo – It was a toss-up between two fine Oregon pinots in this release (the other was the 2012 Adelsheim, $34.95) and both are fine, though the edge goes to this ambitious, fullish, natural-feeling pinot noir. It’s not perfectly limpid and aromatics are slightly muddled, though it’s all the more characterful for it. The palate delivers substantial flavour and depth, and I like the raw, honest feel. Best 2014-2023.
Domaine Clos De Sixte 2011 Lirac, Rhone, France, ($24.95)
Sara d’Amato – Lirac is a large appellation in the southern Rhone close to Tavel that produces some exceptional value. Their reds and roses are largely GSM (grenache-syrah-mourvedre) based such as this rather polished example. Sophisticated with concentration and complexity well above the norm.
Bodega Noemía 2012 A Lisa, Patagonia, Argentina ($24.95)
David Lawrason – This is from one of the most far-flung corners of the biodynamic wine world in lower Patagonia (half way to the Atlantic Ocean) along the Rio Negro – and it’s terrific. Very zesty, vibrant and quite particular. Powerful jammy flavours.
Viña Tarapacá 2012 Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile ($17.95)
David Lawrason – Great power, piquancy and complexity here – an amazing cab fireworks display for $18! It hails from a massive single estate in the middle Maipo where winemaking is overseen by Californian Ed Flaherty. No country is doing cab this good for this price. Would be a good buy at $30. For the cellar.
Henry Of Pelham 2012 Reserve Baco Noir, Ontario ($24.95)
David Lawrason – This may be the closest Ontario will ever come to making southern Rhone red – rugged, complex, voluminous. Is there is a quiet baco revolution afoot at H of P? The 2013 “regular” baco on the general list is also dandy.
Lealtanza 2009 Reserva, Rioja, Spain ($20.95)
David Lawrason – Rioja is such a confused patchwork of ideas. This wine gets closest to the spirit of this maritime-continental region – a lighter fresh and fruity wine nicely framed by spicy wood and some earthiness. Not too much extraction, not too much oak resin and vanillin. Not too firm, not too soft. Well handled in a warmer vintage.
To read reviews all our reviews from the bountiful October 11 release subscribers can follow the links below. And I wish you a bountiful Thanksgiving weekend. For those of you in Toronto, don’t miss the chance to join the WineAlign team at the ROM on October 16th. It’s WineAlign’s inaugural Champions Tasting where you get the opportunity to taste only the top award wining wines from The Nationals and The Worlds.
VP of Wine
From VINTAGES October 11th release:
Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!