Pontotoc Vineyard Estate Tempranillo 2012

A bit of a pre-release note for this wine; as at this tasting, it had been bottled about two weeks.

In speaking with the winemaker, Don Pullum, about this wine and the 2012 vintage generally, it seems the defining character that year was a forwardness of bright berry flavours. In response to this, Don kept a portion of the finished wine in tank, rather than barrel, to preserve some of that character through to bottling time.

An interesting approach and one that has certainly translated to incredibly bright primary fruit flavours in this wine. I left this a couple of days after I first tasted it; predictably, this led to a diminution of fruit and an increase in savoury flavours, whereupon this wine’s DNA becomes a lot clearer. There’s certainly a family resemblance to the initial estate release. Pleasing transparency into vintage, though.

Aromas begin with a plume of smoke wound around bright red fruit. At present, it opens almost entirely fruit-driven but gains a lot of complexity with air. The nose begins to show a range of dusty, floral, grassy aromas; the whole reminds me of walking through a lush field on a very hot day. It’s difficult for me not to think of the vineyard itself, which often bakes in forty degree heat and which smells not unlike this wine, in spirit if not in fact.

The palate is sweetly fruited and, in this quite, is different from the 2011. It’s a much more up front wine at this stage of its life, throwing red fruit in your face the moment you sip it. As a result, it’s a lot more accessible than the earlier wine, and I can see a lot of people preferring it for this reason. The fact that it has gained savouriness with air suggests it will head in this direction with bottle age, and I feel the wine will benefit from some short term cellaring at least, to build some of these flavours.

From what I tasted of the 2013 ferments and finished wine, the current vintage’s release will sit part way between the 2011 and 2012 wines, with both a good deal of savouriness and sweet fruit. I’m happy to have worked on that wine.

Note: For the 2013 vintage, I was an intern with Don Pullum, the maker of this wine.

Pontotoc Vineyard
Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Pontotoc Vineyard Smoothing Iron Mountain 2011

All three wines in the Pontotoc range are named after landmarks visible from the winery. One is the vineyard itself, another the San Fernando Academy, the ruins of which stand right at the winery’s front door. This one has a grander parent, a gentle beast of a mountain in the Hill Country that rises gently above Pontotoc and that looks vaguely like a smoothing iron. Driving around Llano and Mason Counties, one can’t avoid seeing this rounded landform on the horizon, putting us all into some kind of perspective.

This particular blend is what I jokingly call a Super Texan: a cross between Tempranillo, a variety that seems to do really well in the Hill Country, and Cabernet, the prestige import. Of all the wines in Pontotoc Vineyard’s 2011 portfolio, this will probably taste the most familiar to those without any exposure to Texan wines. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends entirely on one’s point of view.

To my palate, the Cabernet component has tamed some of the estate vineyard’s natural exhuberance; the aroma here is dusty, with hints of Cabernet leaf, showing dark fruit and lightly coconutty oak. Compared to the straight 2011 Tempranillo, this tastes a smidge darker and less angular, with perhaps less fruit and more savoury elements.

In the mouth, lots of coffee and milk chocolate, dusty Cabernet fruit with some flashes of brighter berries. It’s vibrant and fresh-tasting, though again a more adult, streamlined wine than the straight Tempranillo. Palate structure is a highlight, with fine tannins and enough acid to carry the finish but not constrict the mid-palate. There’s also a lovely biscuit-like flavour that I especially like.

Wines from this region aren’t naturally built up or full bodied; rather, their value lies in elegance, transparency and freshness. However, I imagine there’s a demand for more robust styles that can stand up to the equally robust foods of the region. This wine should meet that need well, as it’s a touch more structured and darker in flavour profile, despite its inevitably moderate body.

Note: For the 2013 vintage, I was an intern with Don Pullum, the maker of this wine.

Pontotoc Vineyard
Price: $US30
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Pontotoc Vineyard Estate Tempranillo 2011

Although the Pontotoc Vineyard had been producing for many years, its fruit going to other wineries, this bottling is the first under the Pontotoc label, and the first of a planned line of estate Tempranillos. It’s the current release and there are a few cases left.

An impressive first release by any measure. This smells and tastes strikingly savoury, with aroma notes of hessian, dusty roads, sweet hay, underpinned by red fruits and sweet tobacco. It’s quite expressive and high toned, with a floral vibe that sets it apart from meatier expressions of Tempranillo.

The palate is again very savoury and only medium bodied. There’s an interesting mouthfeel at work, sort of slippery and rounded, though not without textural dimensions. More tobacco, savoury red fruits, hints of creamy oak (though not too much of an influence here), along with a delicious coffeed finish. A dusty, dirty impression on the palate strikes me as very Old World, and indeed this is quite restrained in terms of sweet fruit character. It all seems to me highly varietal. Tannins are chunky and sweet when they arrive.

This is a quiet, adult wine; anything but a showstopper, yet full of gentle charms nonetheless.

Note: I am currently an intern with Don Pullum, the maker of this wine.

Pontotoc Vineyard
Price: $US30
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Sandstone Cellars X 2009

80% Syrah, 15% Touriga, 5% Nebbiolo.

Syrah, or Shiraz as I have labelled the ferment at Pontotoc Vineyard, features fairly regularly in Texas Hill Country wines. As a representative of the country that owns this grape, I’m naturally curious to see how it translates to an even hotter, dryer climate than we typically subject it to. This wine also contains a bit of Touriga Nacional and Nebbiolo, which is, at the very least, unexpected.

This wine is all about tannin; fine, rich tannin that blankets the tongue from mid-palate onwards. Syrah provides the dominant flavour components, which in this context means bright, red fruit, a bit of chocolate and a lot of floral notes. There’s also a gentle spiciness that lifts the flavour profile and adds layers of complexity.

This is a gentle wine to smell and taste, which is ironic given its abundance of firm, fine tannin. The whole is medium bodied at most, and at this stage it tastes entirely primary. More red fruits, spice, tea leaf and bitter chocolate. As with the aroma, this wine’s palate gives the impression of being built in layers, one placed softly over the next until a complete flavour profile is constructed. There’s a soft prettiness to this that I really admire.

While tasting, I wished for more strangeness from this wine, an odd note or something structural to mark this as more eccentric. Perhaps my reaction to it comes from a certain familiarity with its flavour profile, given my background with Shiraz-based wines. To be sure, this is very far from any Australian wine I can think of in terms of palate structure and character, but compared to some other Sandstone wines, its flavours are less challenging, and more immediately understandable.

Note: I am currently an intern with Don Pullum, the maker of this wine.

Sandstone Cellars
Price: $US35
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Sandstone Cellars IX 2009

75% Tempranillo and 25% Touriga Nacional.

This wine is particularly interesting to me because it’s a blend of the two red varieties that seem to be emerging in this part of Texas as the most promising viticulturally and when vinified. In fact, more than one winemaker here has called Tempranillo the red grape of Texas. All this on the basis of a very few years’ experience; I guess the results have been pretty striking.

This isn’t without challenges; for starters, neither grape is typically as cuddly as Syrah, nor as immediately understandable as Cabernet Sauvignon. Both can be savoury, angular and meaty, with fairly demonstrative structures. Things become interesting, though, when you place these characters up against Texas terroir, which tends to produce lighter, more elegant wines.

I reckon the Sandstone Cellars IX is a pretty good demonstration of what happens. This is indeed a medium bodied wine, its colour wanting a bit for density. So far so typical. Then you smell it and are struck by how demanding this wine is. There are few concessions to inexperience here; this is a stridently angular, adult wine, full of umami-type aromas like soy and roast meat, along with sweet tobacco and snapped twig. There are occasionally hints of bright red fruit that tease one by shining clearly then quickly disappearing into the wine’s mesh of savouriness.

In the mouth, a repeat of the aroma profile’s predominantly savoury notes, with lovely fruit (dark this time) and sweet, sweet tannins. Indeed, this is a very structured wine, and despite its vintage shows no obvious evidence of bottle age. The aroma’s tensions resolve nicely in the mouth, and I particularly like the way flavours bounce from slightly sweet to firmly savoury and back again.

There are certainly more approachable wines in the Sandstone library, as there are in tasting rooms throughout this region, but for distinctiveness of character this is second only to the Sandstone Cellars III.

Note: I am currently an intern with Don Pullum, the maker of this wine.

Sandstone Cellars
Price: $US35
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Sandstone Cellars III 2006

A blend of 52% Mourvèdre, 21% Primitivo, 16% Grenache, 10% Touriga and 1% Tempranillo. Chris has previously written about this wine, and his note strikes me as both an accurate representation of the wine and a prescient expression of the excitement that I’m feeling as I work my way through Texas Hill Country. Of all the Sandstone Cellars wines I’ve so far tasted (and there have been a few), this presents perhaps the most distinctive flavour profile, a fact for which its most important constituents (Mourvèdre and Primitivo) must be responsible.

At first taste, this is more Zinfandel than anything else: it has a liqueurous spiciness I associate with the variety, as well as characteristic power and density. It throws such a wide range of aromas, though, so many of which are dustier, darker and more sinister, that Mourvèdre’s influence becomes more and more clear. Notes of camphor, aniseed, dark fruit and spice all intermingle, as well as a leathery note that is surely part bottle age. No shortage of complexity, then, in this highly distinctive aroma profile.

The palate is amazingly dense and impactful, yet never rises above being medium bodied. This both strikes me as very Texan and very new; indeed, I can’t think of too many wines I’ve tasted that house this particular set of muscular, dark flavours within such an elegant frame. The flavour, in fact, suggests port at times, perhaps due to the Touriga. Tannins are chunky and thick when they appear, which they do quite far back in the wine’s line.

This is elegant, delicious, distinctive and ageing gracefully. More than all that, though, it’s a milestone in the invention of Texas, Texas Hill Country and Mason County wine.

Note: I am currently an intern with Don Pullum, the maker of this wine.

Sandstone Cellars
Price: $40
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Coturri Freiburg Vineyard Zinfandel 2008

Natural winemaking in Sonoma County pretty much starts and ends with Coturri. In a region full of squeaky clean, commercially styled wines, Tony Coturri’s laissez-faire approach in the winery comes as a breath of fresh air. I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Tony recently, where we discussed his approach, heritage Sonoma wine styles and much else besides. His way with Zinfandel is especially successful, I think. He allows the wine to ferment wild and, often, this results in an amount of residual sugar once fermentation is complete. He feels this is the manner in which Zinfandel was once made in the region and, despite it being noticeably sweet on the mid-palate, considers it a good food wine.

I tend to agree and, in this, his Zinfandels remind me of Australian Shiraz VP, which I’ve always thought is a great wine with savoury food (and not just chocolate). Like a good Shiraz VP, this is extremely aromatic. The nose is rich, spiced and fruitcake-like, screaming of Zinfandel all the way. Its complexity is heady, with interesting biscuity notes and some greenness too, which is typical of this unevenly ripening variety. This isn’t a fresh fruit style. Rather, its aromas remind me of Old World styles that involve extended barrel maturation, in that their focus is on flavours that show some development.

The palate is a striking mixture of off-dry fruit and biscuity flavours, its line seeming sweet before finishing clean and dry. Structure is beautifully balanced, especially acid, while tannins are dusty and firm enough to prevent the wine’s flavours from cloying. It has power and richness and, like a German Riesling, seems to magically balance its residual sweetness with just the right amount of structure.

A strikingly unusual wine style, this is quite delicious and calls out for a big hunk of hard cheese and sourdough bread.

Coturri Winery
Price: $NA (not yet released)
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

MacPhail Family Wines Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010

When at the MacPhail cellar door, I was especially interested to acquire two contrasting Pinots for later tasting, and purchased this as well as the Gap’s Crown Vineyard wine on the recommendation of Assistant Winemaker William Weese. The two vineyards are near to each other, but the wines to which they give rise are quite different. While the Gap’s Crown wine is a luscious, fruit-forward expression of Pinot, this brings structure to the fore and prefers a flavour profile with more prominent savouriness.

That said, it shares much stylistically with other Pinots I have recently tasted from various AVAs within Sonoma County; that is, it’s a relatively large scale wine. Aromatically, it’s very expressive and quite dark, with a thread of minerality that takes dark berry fruit into quite different territory from the Gap’s Crown. It’s sappy and slightly medicinal; totally varietal, in fact, yet at the same time rich and plush. No wonder Pinots from Sonoma have found such a receptive audience; this is Pinot for Zinfandel drinkers, a gateway to different flavours without the challenge of excessively light colour or body.

The palate is quite sappy and fresh, with noticeably more structure (both acid and tannin) than the Gap’s Crown. Unlike the latter wine, this is tighter through the middle palate, avoiding excess broadness and keeping things brisk, though full. The after palate lightens, perhaps too much, before fresh tannins bring the finish to a close. This isn’t a wine that penetrates aggressively the back of the mouth, but it does in fact have good length in its gentle manner.

It’s difficult to generalise on the basis of two bottles, from a difficult vintage to boot, but there are clear differences between these two labels and I’m excited to find a producer so intent on illuminating special sites through this most transparent of red grape varieties.

MacPhail Family Wines
Price: $US49
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

MacPhail Family Wines Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010

The first of two Pinots I picked up at MacPhail’s cellar door this week. While in Sonoma, I’ve been especially curious to explore the various AVAs producing Pinot, so different is it in style from French, Australian and Kiwi wines. I was aware of a reputation for big, “dry red” Pinots from the area, and it’s true that most of the Pinots I’ve tasted have been larger in scale. Yet they often show excellent varietal character in terms of flavour, and their scale and luxe presents its own appeal. I’m open to the style.

This is a particularly plush example. As such, it shares something with some older school Central Otago Pinots, though without their, at times, highly extracted structure. I was a little concerned when I opened this, as it showed a fair bit of stink initially. This, however, blew off quickly, leaving behind a clean wine. First impressions are of plush red berry fruit. There’s no mistaking this for anything other than Pinot, though, as it presents a distinctive sappiness along with its fruit, as well as sweet, fragranced undergrowth. That said, it never wavers from its rich, fruit forward nature. The only note that distracts here is a hint of overripeness. I understand there was a very hot period towards harvest in 2010 that may account for this influence.

The palate is predictably full and rich. On entry, soft and immediate, moving to a fleshy middle palate that fills the mouth with red fruits. Acid is only moderately bright, giving a broadness to the mid-palate that some may dislike; soft tannins don’t do much to give the wine shape either. This, though, is a lush style and, for me, lower acid is a valid expression of this fruit; a more highly acidified wine may well have seemed forced. As a drink now style, I like the palate’s soft, supple feel. Still present is that slightly overripe fruit note which detracts from an otherwise correct, straightforward pinot flavour profile. The line is even, with no dips or surges.

Is it great Pinot? Not in any conventional sense, but at the same time it’s a pleasure to find a Pinot made in this style that isn’t either cheap or lacking in character. A fruit bomb for sure, and a bloody good one.

MacPhail Family Wines
Price: $US49
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc 2012

One of the more puzzling experiences of my recent tasting foray into Russian River Valley (and more specifically Green Valley) wine has been the stylistic diversity and, at times, highly variable quality of Sauvignon Blanc produced in the region. It runs the gamut from Kiwi-inspired styles to insipid dry whites to this Merry Edwards wine, stylistically by far the most resolved of any I have tried from the region.

I was quite looking forward to visiting to Merry Edwards Winery, it having received some solid recommendations, but nothing could have prepared me for the brutally efficient cellar door experience, which is as close to a drive by tasting as I have seen. The wines, though, were without exception intriguing, and by far the best of my day’s tasting in Green Valley. A Pinot specialist, the portfolio contains several single vineyard Pinots and this one Sauvignon Blanc. After extended tasting, some of the 2010 Pinots made less of an impression than they did at first, fading rather more quickly than I thought they might, but this wine impressed from beginning to end. It’s a multi-clonal blend, including 20% Sauvignon Musqué, that is barrel fermented and aged with lees stirring to build weight and texture. What pleases me about it, though, is that it retains outstanding freshness and character; that is, it always plays to the variety’s strengths.

The nose is quite pungent, with aromas of tropical fruit and sharper gooseberry. It’s fresh but rounded, lacking the sharp bite of a Marlborough style. In place of this incisiveness is a smoother sense of generosity and greater complexity in the form of some mineral edges and fresh herbs.

In the mouth, this is happily acid driven but with a fullness on the middle palate that softens some of its linearity. Tropical, herbal, mineral flavours echo the nose, with some good weight and texture through the after palate. This has good line and surprising length for the variety. It’s not particularly funky in flavour or texture, but it has oodles more interest than a more straightforwardly made wine, and I feel this is a particularly good style for Sauvignon Blanc if one is to turn one’s back on the highly aromatic, stainless steel approach.

Good fruit, obviously, and particularly well handled.

Merry Edwards Winery
Price: $US32
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail