John Szabo’s Buyers’ Guide: California Wine Fair Highlights

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

These picks were whittled down from over 60 samples of currently available or incoming wines. The Ontario agents are listed for each wine; prices subject to change. Follow the wine links for complete reviews and to see if these wines are available near you. I’ve posted a separate feature article on the State of California pinot and reviews of some of the state’s top bottlings. Although the specific wines reviewed are as widely available as white unicorns, all of the producers on the list and their other cuvees are worth tracking down.

Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut ($33.95, Airen Imports) – A toasty, yeasty, pleasantly doughy release for this California sparkling stalwart, with pleasant appley fruit and mid-weight, fresh, lively, dry palate. Solid length.

Wente Vineyards 2014 Morning Fog Chardonnay, Livermore Valley ($17.95, Churchill Cellars) – A pleasantly open and aromatic, sweet wood tinged, floral and soft chardonnay with wide appeal. Everything is nicely in place. Drink now.

Grgich Hills Cellar 2012 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($67.95, Rogers & Co.) – A tight and sharp Napa chardonnay in the house style, particularly well chiseled in this warm vintage, still hanging on to tight, reductive, flinty, grapefruit aromatics. There’s terrific tension and genuine length, not to mention complexity, even if this is still 2-3 years away from prime enjoyment. Wood, stones and fruit are seamlessly integrated. Terrific, savoury, highly sapid wine. Tasted in June 2015 and April 2016.

Flowers 2014 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast ($64.95, Rogers & Co.) – Made from a blend of mostly purchased fruit, predominantly from the far west of Sonoma County (Sonoma Coast) and some declassified estate lots, recently bottled. The 2014 vintage fell during the heart of the drought in northern California, the third consecutive low rain year. Vines started their cycle early, resulting in a long growing season and harvest beginning in early September. “Quality was exceptional,” says winemaker Dave Keatly, yielding an “opulent chardonnay, but with great acids”. 20% new wood is used, though a portion is also aged in stainless. I find this fragrant and very attractive, featuring ripe lemon and lemon blossom aromas/flavours. Wood is not a major factor, though beneath the ripe fruit lies a gentle range of baking spice. There’s plenty of mid-palate richness, and length is very good to excellent. A fine follow-up to the (also excellent) 2013, best after 2017. Tasted January 2016 and April 2016.

Esser Wines 2014 Chardonnay, Monterey County ($19.95, Noble Estates) – A significantly improved wine over the previous vintage, Esser has shifted from vaguely sweet and overripe, to a pleasantly tight, smoky-flinty, fresh and pure expression of chardonnay, of modest depth and length, but pure, easy-drinking and refreshing. A genuine cool climate style, rendered well.

Etude 2012 Pinot Noir Grace Benoist Ranch, Carneros ($49.00 at the SAQ, Treasury Wine Estates) – From Etude’s ranch in the rolling hills of Carneros, this 2012 pinot is a generous and dark fruit-flavoured wine, on the more plush and generous side of the grape’s range of expression, offering both richness and concentration in a full, satisfying style all around. Wood is still noted in the sweet dark spice notes, so I’d give this another 2-3 years to resolve and mellow. Bold and generous all in all.

Schug Carneros Estate 2014 Pinot Noir, Carneros ($45.00, Lifford) – A lighter, leaner, more pale and savoury expression of pinot noir, in the typical house style of Schug, succulent and saliva-inducing. I appreciate the restraint and the firm acid profile of this wine, anchored on light, dusty (stem?) tannins and no small measure of saltiness. Very good to excellent length.

Marimar Estate 2013 Mas Cavalls Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($36.75, Family Wine Merchants) – A pinot that hails from the warmer, further inland part of the Sonoma Coast AVA, and it shows in this generous but balanced example from the reliable house of Marimar Torres. This is nicely pitched and firm, juicy and ripe without excess, with excellent length. I like the savoury side of this wine, the gentle salinity, and the lengthy finish. Lovely stuff.

Daou Vineyards 2013 Mayote, Adelaida District, Paso Robles ($174.95, The Vine Agency) – 45% Syrah, 43% cabernet sauvignon, 12% petit verdot. A Paso wine of uncommon depth and complexity from steep slopes at 2,200 feet elevation, offering a wide range of savoury herbal notes, ripe but not raisined fruit, especially considering the almost unnoticed 15.2% alcohol. The density, richness and concentration is particularly obvious – a wine of evident ambition, structure, power and complexity, like most California ‘Mountain’ wines. Tuck this in the cellar for 3-5 years minimum – this is not an easy-drinking, fruity California wine.

Duckhorn 2012 Three Palms Merlot, Napa Valley ($99, Rogers & Co.) – The iconic Three Palms Merlot finds an elegant balance of richness and concentration here in 2012, with fine grained tannins, balanced alcohol and acids, and genuine long-lasting finish. This is clearly a wine of class, pedigree and elegance, with a great future ahead even if it’s delicious now. One of the state’s top merlots to be sure.

Long Meadow Ranch 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($85.00, Profile Wine Group) – Here’s a fine, firm, gritty and honest Napa cabernet, with succulent acids and tight but still fruity and fleshy texture. I like the savoury depth and the dark, swarthy character – a wine with great personality and depth. Drink now, but better in 3-5 years to be sure.

Raymond Family Classic (Boisset) 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast ($19.95, Charton-Hobbs) – This is a nicely forward, ripe dark fruit flavoured cabernet from areas north of San Francisco, bold, fruity, plush and easy-drinking yet with a bit of grip and substance. A solid value in the California constellation, without being overtly commercial, and ready to drink.

Stags’ Leap Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($49.95, Treasury Wine Estates) – Firm, tight and gritty, this wine is not for the fans of plush and cuddly cabernet, but it has all of the savoriness and the tight, dusty texture that makes this grape so well suited to salted protein dishes, not to say T-Bone on the grill. Very good length. A very solid vintage for Stags’ Leap.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2013 Stag’s Leap Vineyard (SLV) Cabernet Sauvignon, 40th Anniversary Vintage, Napa Valley ($125, Profile Wine Group) – The iconic SLV vineyard delivers a gritty, firm, densely packed and savoury, succulent 2013 cabernet, with ample flesh and dark fruit on the palate, a broad range of cacao-infected wood spice and long, saliva-inducing finish. This is a commanding, ripe but balanced, nicely anchored wine, one of the best from SLV in recent memory.

Kenwood Vineyards 2012 Jack London Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($39.95, Corby) – This is a very fine vintage for the Jack London Cabernet, balanced, savoury- succulent, with that extra dimension, depth and length of the very best wine. Wood has been well managed and the concentration and complexity are genuine. Top stuff.

Archimedes (Francis Ford Coppola) 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($77.95, Noble Estates) – A dense and rich, concentrated, gritty and firm cabernet, one of the most juicy and savoury in the Coppola range. I like the tight-knit tannins, the succulent acids, and the very good to excellent length. Nice stuff.

Silver Oak Cellars 2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($125.95, Halpern) – I have to say that the 2011 Silver Oak Alexander Valley stood out from a long range of California cabernets tasted alongside. It has such genuine acids, balance, and succulent, savoury character. Yes of course the new American oak stands out in the profile even at this developing stage (100% American oak, and new), but there’s no doubt it will integrate as time wears on, and wears down its blunt force. There’s no contesting the length and richness of flavor – obtained without recourse to raisined/overripe fruit, just low yielding, carefully cultivated grapes. I love the lingering, salty finish. Best after 2021. Tasted April 2016.

Heitz Wine Cellars 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley ($192.00, Lifford) – Dense, ripe, ultra dark-fruit scented and tinged with eucalyptus in the classic Martha’s Vineyard style, the 2005 has already shed a great deal of its tannic cloak, evident in the copious sediment observed in the glass. Flavours have shifted into the sotolone category, which is to say, maple syrup and sweet caramel, like great old fortified wine burnished by time. Excellent length and depth – a wine of obvious history, pedigree and complexity. Ready to drink, or wait another decade if you wish.

That’s all for this report. See you over the next bottle.


John Szabo MS

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