What is a “Single Vineyard” Wine?

There certainly is a lot of information on wine labels and you will frequently see the name of a specific vineyard.Nunes Vineyard on harvest day 2006 This means the wine is a single vineyard or vineyard designated wine and, along with featuring the name on the label, there are other considerations that go along with it. If there is a vineyard name on the label then 95% of the grapes that made that wine have to be from that vineyard

To me that’s important because it means the grapes that make up the wine in the bottle have come from one clearly identifiable location.  And when it comes to wine this tells us that there has been more consistent soil, climate, vineyard management and all of the other things that go into growing grapes and producing good wine.  The French term this terroir – and for more about that you can read this previous post.

I know this gets a little geeky so why should it matter to you?  Well, the rule of thumb is that the more tightly defined and controlled the growing environment, the greater the opportunity to make the best wine from the grapes.  If you buy into the idea that great wine begins in the vineyard, which I do, then it’s something to know and care about as you get further into wine.

And it can make you a smart wine buyer.  Makes sense to me.

There are many single vineyard wines on the shelves – it’s become a common practice to isolate the source of the grapes in order to highlight greater potential quality. But some growers and winemakers go even further and designate down to the specific block of vines within the vineyard or even the specific clone of vine that is being used, and there are more of those appearing on the shelves too.

What does that mean in practice? It’s what Fred Nunes does with his Pinot Noir at St. Rose Winery and Nunes Vineyards in Sonoma.  Fred not only makes his wine under the St. Rose label, designated as “Nunes Vineyard” but further identifies “Ten Block” and “777” to show the Pinot Noir comes from a selection of the ten different blocks of Pinot vines within the vineyard or exclusively from the vines of the 777 clone of Pinot Noir.  nunes-10

Both are terrific and you can taste a difference.

His vineyard is also the source of high quality fruit for other winemakers, so it’s possible to find “Nunes Vineyard” wines not made by Fred – like the Matrix Pinot Noir pictured here.10_29681-36062_F

One final point: not all single vineyard wines are “Estate” wines. If it says “Estate” on the label it means the producer/winery must own or lease the vineyards providing the grapes. So, while all of the St. Rose wines are Estate wines, you don’t see the word “estate” on the Matrix label.

It’s easy to get caught up in the jargon of wine, but there are some basic things that will help you become a smarter buyer and add confidence to the wine selection decisions you make at the retailer or when you’re at the dinner table.  Knowing what’s behind the info on the label is one of those basic things.

Our thanks to Fred and Wendy at Nunes Vineyards and St. Rose Winery for providing the photo of Fred checking his Pinot Noir!

Something About Sonoma

There’s just something special about Sonoma.  Every time I have been there I felt it.  Maybe it’s that drive over the Golden Gate that begins to fire me up. Or it’s making the turn out of Marin County and into the flats bordering San Pablo Bay and the low rolling hills that mark the beginning of the Los Carneros area.  But each time I cross that county line it’s like I’ve arrived at a place that I am meant to be.  Don’t get me wrong, I adore the Napa Valley, positively savor the Central Coast, but there’s just something special about Sonoma.  I think it’s the diversity of the experience and the wine.

Sonoma is a collection of (GEEK ALERT) mesoclimates. Mesoclimate refers to the climate in a pretty small area, like a vineyard.  By the way, climate is what happens over time, weather is what basically is happening now.  It might be surprising to you that there can be significant climate variation in parcels of vineyard land that are even right next to each other. It’s not unique to Sonoma that mesoclimates influence the grapes and the wine.  But Sonoma has a very wide variety of these mesoclimates due to its geology and the configuration of the hills, streams, mountains and, most importantly, the influences of the bordering Pacific Ocean to the west and the cooling winds of San Pablo Bay to the south.  So all of these mesoclimates are a big reason there are terrific Cabernet Sauvignon in the Alexander Valley, stylish Pinot Noir from the Russian River, juicy Zinfandel from Dry Creek, delightful Chardonnay from just about everywhere, Syrah coming into its own on the Sonoma Coast and world class bubbly from Green Valley – get the picture?  There are fifteen subregions in Sonoma County and each one seems to put its own stamp on the wine.

The other magical thing about Sonoma County is that its a great place to get back in touch with yourself, whether you’re sitting in a lovely restaurant on the square in the old mission city of Sonoma or in the quaint charm of Healdsburg, hiking through Jack London State Park in Kenwood or floating on a tube down the Russian River under the bridge at Guerneville.  Hey, we even went skydiving over the vineyards near Cloverdale! (Really).

Whatever you do, and wherever you do it in Sonoma, there’s all that wonderful wine to sip along the way.  Here’s a handy link to the Sonoma County Vintners Association for lots of info and for an interactive map

Since you may not be in Sonoma anytime soon, here’s a Sonoma six pack to give you a virtual visit.

2010 Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut $40
Traditional method sparkler that will light up your taste buds.  Zippy and flavorful with a supple finish. From the Green Valley AVA.

2012 Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley $26
Blackberry and spice from the heart of Dry Creek. Organically and biodynamically farmed estate grapes.

2013 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay $25
Medium bodied and delightful Sonoma County chard. Citrus and stone fruit.

2012 St. Francis Merlot, Sonoma Valley $20
Drinkable and versatile… tastes like a chocolate covered cherry.

2012 Matrix Estate Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley $38
Juicy plum and berry with great balance.

2013 Rodney Strong Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley $20
Tasty everyday Cabernet that’s full and ripe. One of my midweek Cabs.

Sipping More Chardonnay Lately

I’ve been sipping more Chardonnay lately.  It wasn’t like I was boycotting it or anything like that, but my taste buds were wandering into different varietals.  True, there seemed to be too much “typical” Chardonnay being made – you know, the rounded, buttery and oaky style that was dominating those from California and Australia.  There were also delightfully more acidic and less woody ones too, especially from France.  But Chardonnay just fell off of my radar.  Since I was actually missing it I’ve set about to remedy that!

I’m delighted that the trend has been away from the big style and back to capturing more nuance.  And I am becoming particularly fond of the “unoaked” styles.  Unoaked Chardonnay are fermented and aged in either older, neutral oak barrels that don’t impart any of the woodiness or in stainless steel.  The reason I’m fond of these is that I think they are more versatile with food.  Unless the food has a lot of butter or cream, or is a richly flavored seafood like lobster or scallops, the unoaked Chardonnay are an easier complement to chicken or fish for me – typically they are higher in acid and have not undergone malolactic fermentation.

Wine Geek Alert: Malolactic fermentation is a secondary process where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid.  It’s a common practice for red wines but Chardonnay is usually the only white treated this way.  This results in the “buttery” taste description.  It gives it that big, more full bodied feel in your mouth.

Back to oak – don’t get me wrong, I don’t think oak barrel aging is bad for Chardonnay.  To me it’s just a question of degree.  The amount of flavor added by oak can vary greatly depending on the type of oak, the toast of the barrel and its age.  So winemakers have lots of room to play.  Oak generally adds flavors of vanilla, caramel or a toasty, woody quality.  Newer barrels add more; older less.  French oak is finer grained and adds less than American or Eastern European barrels.  But let’s get back to sipping.

In general there is often a noticeable flavor of peach or pear common to Chardonnay. However, Chardonnay from the warmer growing areas in the US, like   Sonoma and Napa Valley appellations  such as Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, Calistoga, Dry Creek and others, as well as Australia, tend to be more tropical fruit forward – think pineapple and melon.  Those from cooler areas like Monterey and Carneros, the Sonoma Coast and France tend more to apple or citrusy flavors and are usually more acidic.

There are magnificent Chardonnay’s from Burgundy – arguably the best in the world.  These are nuanced and many are age-worthy and will increase in complexity over time.  Chablis, which is the northern-most  area of Burgundy, brings us terrific Chardonnay which also have a flinty minerality to them due to the very cool growing conditions and the unique clay soil of the vineyards there.

Chardonnay is one of the most popular wines in the world and can suit every taste.  I’m making it a point to sample and sip my way through as many as possible!  Why don’t you join me?

Everyday Sip
Talbot 2013 Kali Hart Chardonnay, Estate Grown $16
Medium bodied and lively with melon. A little bit of oak.

2013 Yalumba Series Y South Australia Unwooded Chardonnay $10
Fresh and peachy. Simple and easy to drink.

2012 Mer Soliel Silver Unoaked Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands Monterey $20
Chablis-like with crispiness and minerality.

Guest Sip
2012 Miner Chardonnay Napa Valley $30
Yum.  Great balance between weight, fruit and oak.

2012 Chateau de Maligny Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume $36
Apple and citrus with classic Chablis minerality.

Splurge Sip
2011 Domaine Louis Latour Meursault Charmes $55
Lovely white peach. I’ve loved Meursault since visiting ages ago and enjoying this wine with garlicy frogs legs!

2012 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay Napa $65
Tropical and intense.  A mouthful that has many layers.

Sipping Sonoma

Truth be told, I’ve never visited a “wine country” I didn’t like.  But each time I start wandering around Sonoma there seems to be an extra tugging at my sleeve when it’s time to leave.

About a half hour from the Golden Gate, as I cross from Marin County into Sonoma’s part of the Carneros area, I feel my energy rise and I know that I am once again entering one of my favorite places in the USA.  Sonoma is a wine country destination that can do that to you.  It’s widely diverse in terms of topography, the  soils that nourish the vines and multiple mesoclimates that bring out the best in many of our favorite wine varieties.  Sonoma County is strongly influenced by the lengthy Pacific coastline and the cooling breezes that work their way inland but also by the sun drenched valleys that dapple the landscape. Not only is this absolutely lovely geography just to enjoy on its own, but the diversity means that Sonoma offers us wonderful wine choices.

Within the county there are areas most specifically identified with all of the major varietals:  From the cool rolling hills of Carneros and the meandering slopes of the Russian River it’s Pinot Noir.  The Pinots from Carneros tend to be brighter berry flavored and those from the Russian River darker with plum or black cherry flavors. Up in Dry Creek it’s jammy and spicy Zinfandel that leads the way.  Through the Sonoma Valley there is a lot of Chardonnay along with Merlot and Cab. And up in the Alexander Valley you’ll find more Cabernet and Zin.  The point is its all there!  The Sonoma County Vintners website is a great resource to plan your adventure with lots of suggested tasting routes and links to the wineries. Here’s a link  http://sonomawine.com  to get you going.  There are also some really fun events throughout the year so you can plan a visit for just about any time – and there’s always just enjoying tasty restaurants or chilling at a quaint B&B or small inn.

Over the years I have been fortunate to spend quite a bit of time traipsing through the vines in Sonoma and have visited many wineries, but with about 450 of them in the county I know I still have my work cut out for me!  Here are wineries from some of the Sonoma AVAs (designated wine areas) where I’ve enjoyed sipping .  There are others too – but I can’t get everything into one posting on SIPS!

Los Carneros: Schug, Gloria Ferrer
Sonoma Valley: Landmark. Gundlach Bunschu, St. Francis, Chateau St. Jean, B.R. Cohn
Russian River: Matrix, Gary Farrell, Dutton Goldfield, Merry Edwards, Martinelli, Holdredge
Green Valley: Iron Horse
Dry Creek: Ferrari Carano, Mill Creek, Papapietro Perry
Alexander Valley: Jordan

By the way, the remaining Sonoma AVAs, which stands for American Viticultural Area, are: Knights Valley, Sonoma Coast, Bennett Valley, Chalk Hill, Fort Ross – Seaview, Moon Mountain, Northern Sonoma, Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak, Rockpile, and Sonoma Mountain.  You may find these, as well as the ones shown above, on the label of Sonoma County wines if at least 85% of the grapes in that wine are from the area designated.

Some Sonoma Sips:

Everyday Sips
Gunlach Bundschu 2012 Mountain Cuvee $15
Red blend that’s great for anytime

2012 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay $20
Medium bodied and a consistent winner in my book. Pineapple and citrus.

Guest Sips
Matrix 2012 Nunes Vineyard Pinot Noir $42
Lush single vineyard sip from the Russian River.  Have spent time with Fred Nunes walking his vineyard!

Jordan 2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $45
Always tasty with ripe forward blackberry fruitiness. Ready to drink now and enjoy.

Iron Horse 2010 Classic Vintage Brut $40
Pour the bubbly. Classic style made in the traditional way with aging on the lees (as done for the best bubbly) before release, it lights up your taste buds.

Splurge Sips
Chateau St. Jean 2010 Cinq Cepages $60
A modest splurge for a Bordeaux style wine that is boldly driven by the Cabernet in the blend.

Much Maligned Merlot

I feel sorry for Merlot.  Here’s a grape that is one of the most widely planted in the world which you’ll find in some of the best wine made and yet it’s completely dissed.  You would think this grape the French call the “little blackbird” would get more respect.  Those of you of a certain age can insert your favorite  Rodney Dangerfield saying here (mine, by the way is “Come on. While we’re young!” from Caddyshack, but I digress).

Merlot had turned into a bar pour as in “I’ll have the Merlot” since people viewed it as a step up from “I’ll have a glass of red.”  To be sure, there was a lot of very average, grapey, flabby merlot out there on the shelves – then the movie Sideways came out in 2004 and really trashed it.  Merlot’s reputation and sales plummeted and, worse yet, it became very uncool.  Ironically, the star wine of the movie was not the Pinot Noir that the characters gushed about, but the long-saved and much anticipated bottle that the lead, Miles, was just waiting for the right moment to drink.  It was mostly Merlot!  The wine, Cheval Blanc, from the right bank of Bordeaux between the villages of Pomerol and St. Emilion is comprised of a blend that is half Merlot.

But, hey folks, that was eleven years ago!  Its time to get past it and rediscover Merlot.  It’s time to R-E-S-P-E-C-T (insert your favorite Aretha song here) Merlot.  And it’s ready to drink now.  Merlot is usually soft and approachable, with no bitterness or sharpness.

Merlot is the most planted grape in France, but usually you have to know the village or region to know what you are buying.  The home of Merlot is the so-called Right Bank of Bordeaux, which is to the east of that city. Look for the names Pomerol, St. Emilion, Fronsac, Blaye, Cotes de Bourg, Castillon and their combinations on the label.  These wines are typically blends that are mostly Merlot. They tend to be less fruit in your face dominant than American Merlot and a little more astringent or tannic (which people describe as tight).  American and other new world Merlot usually are very fruit driven, meaning that you’ll find lush flavors of dark cherry, blueberry or plum and often some chocolate mocha when you take a sip.

You can enjoy Merlot with lots of foods.  My personal favorites are a cheddar cheeseburger or some thick pork chops right off the grill.  And it’s out there in all price ranges.  If you want to buy the Cheval Blanc (the latest vintage is about $500 per bottle), let me know and I’ll be right over – but there’s lots to choose from between $10 and $25, with some truly exceptional wines up to about $60.

Everyday Sip:  2012 Columbia Crest “H3” Horse Heaven Hills Merlot, Columbia Valley $12
A lot of wine for this price. Horse Haven Hills is a subregion of the Columbia Valley putting out some outstanding wines. Black cherries and cocoa.  Easy to drink and versatile.

Guest Sip:  2012 Ferrari Carano Merlot, Sonoma County $25
Dark fruit with a little vanilla accent. Lush wine that’s very food friendly.

Splurge Sip:  2012 Pride Mountain Vineyards  Merlot $60
With apologies to Emeril – BAM!  This is a big juicy Merlot that shows off what this grape can be.  Bold plummy fruitiness with a dash of mocha.  Ripe and full bodied.