Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant Réserve 2010

On my first day at Bonny Doon Vineyard, I helped to wash and fill several hundred glass carboys with 2012 Le Cigare Volant. On my second and third days, we washed and filled several hundred more. While doing this work, it occurred to me more than once that maturing wine in this manner had better be worth the effort.

As it turned out, the timing of my visit to Bonny Doon coincided with this annual event, reserved for the very top wines of the estate (the reserve Le Cigare Volant and reserve Le Cigare Blanc). The first step in preparing the carboys for the 2012 Le Cigare Volant was to decant from them the 2010 vintage, which went to tank and, later in the week, to bottle. I assisted with bottling the ’10 and was given a freshly bottled example to taste. I wasn’t sure how the wine would show, given the many phases through which it had passed in just a few days, but found it already-enjoyable with its essential character intact.

The point of ageing these wines on lees in carboys, it seems, is to create for them a highly anaerobic/reductive environment in which freshness can be maintained and desirable flavours developed. On tasting, I was especially interested to see what, if anything, I might discern in the wine from this method of cellaring, and it seems to me the most striking influence is a savoury minerality that asserts itself through the latter half of the wine’s line. This creates for the wine’s palate a nice sweet-savoury narrative. It begins with almost-plush red berries and spice, deceptively friendly given the progressively more savoury countenance the wine adopts from mid-palate onwards. There begins notes of dried meat, minerals and a range of quite subtle reductive components (of the struck match and smoke sort) that create an impression of seriousness and detail. Tannins are fine and firm, meshing well with the after palate’s angularity of flavour.

Although it’s difficult to assess a wine so recently bottled, I do feel the way in which it was raised has contributed a distinctive character to the wine. These more savoury influences add further sophistication and interest to a wine that already benefits from pretty, restrained fruit aromas and flavours. I will look out for this when it’s released.

Bonny Doon Vineyard
Price: $NA
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Gift

Ridge Monte Bello 2008

During my recent visit with Chris, I was lucky enough to taste several vintages of Monte Bello, Ridge’s flagship Cabernet blend. Not a single bottling was less than excellent, and I found exciting transparency as to vintage conditions across years.

This particular bottle was tasted in a lineup that included Grosset Gaia, Penfolds Bin 707, wines from Cayuse, Clonakilla and more. In other words, some stiff competition. It jumped out at me immediately, though, as the most appealing wine in the moment, and I couldn’t get enough of its power and layers of flavour.

Some wines leap lithely into the mouth, placing flavour delicately and with finesse. This isn’t one of those wines. New World Cabernet this most definitely is, and joyously so. This has presence in the mouth, real impact and body, but it’s only mid-weight, and its charisma instead comes from density of flavour combined with a cascade of notes that land on top of each other, both sweet and savoury, meshing and building down the line.

Texture weaves in and out of these flavours and is an integral experience of the wine; I wouldn’t say it’s forbiddingly tannic, but there’s a firm framework of acid and gloriously luxurious tannin within which this wine’s components rest. All in balance and certainly with a few years ahead of it yet. More than any one thing, though, this wine just begged to be tasted again and again when the other wines in the lineup had said all they had to say.

Is it a matter of absolute quality? No more than in art or friendship.

Ridge
Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

The Scholium Project Michael Faraday 2010

I have no interest in diminishing the role of viticulturist and winemaker through my practice of wine writing. Making wine is an inherently interventionist process; a simple fact, but one worth repeating in an age where we deify a nature curiously devoid of people and fetishise a past of naive wholesomeness. The right degree of intervention is, of course, vastly contested, and guiding principles like “minimal intervention” are both hopelessly reductive and damagingly misleading. Many wines benefit from extensive work in the winery which, when done with sensitivity and skill, helps to illuminate the underlying qualities of the fruit and create a more complete wine. To the deniers, I simply direct you to unwooded Chardonnay.

Intervention oughtn’t, however, be the focus of a sophisticated criticism of wine. Viticultural techniques and winemaking operations are means to an end, and it’s in connecting those means to the achieved end where a truly interesting conversation about wine is located. In other words, we judge a wine with reference to why it was made, how it was made and what it tastes like.

Straightforward commercial styles yield easily to this analysis, made as they are to be both technically sound and easily accessible. No faults and plenty of fruit? Check. To effortlessly produce these wines in large quantities is one end point of many New World wine industries, and represents a collective achievement I respect enormously. But these wines are often boring to drink, boring to write about and, as such, contain little to engage one’s interest critically. Monumental efforts in the service of bland ends.

Jumping to the other end of the spectrum we have producers like The Scholium Project, who seem determined to (re)invent, discover and pervert conventional notions of wine style. It’s part punk, part hipster and, as an enterprise, vastly more interesting than yet another clean Cabernet. Especially daring are experiments with wine faults, something Scholium seems to explore with its white portfolio in particular.

Clearly, then, not styles for those without a certain tolerance for winemaking eccentricity. There’s a slight urge I feel to celebrate these wines simply for existing, and I do believe there’s value in an ongoing curiosity about how wine ought to taste. In a way, though, by requiring a greater role of the winemaker, these styles expose themselves to greater criticism. When production decisions are so obvious, they become very large targets for the critic.

This wine goes further than the 2009 the sylphs in its focus on aldehydes and its suppression of primary fruit. Indeed, the distorted but complete view of fruit in the sylphs is here reduced to remnant flashes of flavour; slight darts of citrus, peach and minerality. So thick is its blanket of nutty, sherry-like aromas and flavours that few other elements make it out alive. Yet it’s curiously lacking in freshness too, not at all like a good flor sherry. There’s structure here, but somehow the flavour profile suggests a sort of stasis, like wading through mud.

Clearly, the defining act of winemaking was to allow the wine to sit on ullage for a year or so, developing the nutty aldehydic notes that so emphatically dominate this wine. The consequences of this choice are so significant they come to define the entire flavour profile. That’s ballsy winemaking.

One must ask at this point, though: does allowing the wine to develop so oxidatively illuminate the fruit’s underlying qualities? Do the winemaking inputs help to achieve balance? Is this a wine of beauty?

For me, the answer is no in all cases. I believe the style has a precedent in the wines of Jacques Selosse, but what might work in Champagne seems less successful in the world of Sonoma Chardonnay. Drinking this wine is an exercise in frustration. It’s not totally without beauty; there are beguiling flashes of minerality and fruit, bright and pristine enough to suggest some exceptional raw material. Yet I resent having to fight for these moments, and I regret not knowing what the fruit might have made if handled more sympathetically.

As with all the Scholium wines I’ve tasted recently, this is made with clear intent and conviction, qualities I applaud. It takes guts to be so bold in the winery, a domain that is too often about avoiding faults and too rarely about chasing a vision. That this wine ultimately fails, though disappointing, is perhaps unavoidable in a project so intent on experimentation.

The Scholium Project
Price: $US75
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Cayuse Armada Vineyard Syrah 2009

A true sense of discovery is one of the most exciting and, for we jaded drinkers, rarest pleasures in wine, especially when it concerns an object of some familiarity like Shiraz. There are any number of sound, delicious expressions of this variety around the world, some more distinctive than others. But to stumble across a region that seems capable of something truly new is rare. With this Cayuse wine, I feel confident that Walla Walla, in Washington state, is one such region.

This isn’t the first Cayuse wine I’ve tried. Several years ago, Chris shared the Cailloux Syrah with me and, looking back on my notes, I was quite blown away by it. Since being in the States again, I’ve tasted two further Cayuse wines, of which this is the second (and best). They are unified by an entirely peculiar flavour profile, filled with savouriness and angularity, spiced but not warm, full but not plush. Winemaking seems consistently clever, with oak and reduction used delicately to season cores of distinctive fruit flavour.

This particular wine, though showing a consistency of regional and house style, blows the roof off in terms of layered complexity. It’s terrifically vibrant, with aromas of dark berries, meat, spice and reduction, each well balanced with respect to the whole. It’s both sinewy and muscular, bouncing between an almost floral dimension to the depths of savouriness and back again, like a fragrance no-one would dare make. So pure, so elegant.

The palate maintains form, a certain heft being offset by the wine’s fundamentally angular set of flavours. This is a big wine, but it’s not a blockbuster, and this balance between body and delicacy is a key pleasure. There’s real definition here, each group of flavours shooting down the line with clarity and freshness. Palate structure is firm without undue assertiveness; the focus here is very much on a kaleidoscopic flavour profile, moving from sweet to savoury, almost-plush to linear. It’s quite a performance.

Tasting this wine was an invigorating experience, like immersing one’s self in a novel that yields a new pleasure with each page. I will be watching Walla Walla Syrah.

Cayuse Vineyards
Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

The Scholium Project Chuey Cab 2009

There’s a particular type of wine in which I have an inherent interest; they form part of, for lack of a better term, what I’ll call the postmodern wine project. These are bottlings that draw on a particular view of wine history, elevating practices that have, over time, become outmoded, and attempting to illuminate in modern form things we may have lost from our experience of drinking wine. This project can sometimes take generous form, as in the Mountain X wines, or be somewhat more retaliatory tone, as in this one.

The idea here is to reclaim a not-long-lost style of Napa Cabernet that is earlier picked and more elegant in effect. Those who lived through unripe Australian Cabernets from the 80s may shake their heads at this folly, but I am pleased to note this wine, though it shows signs of a certain greeness, is far from the leaf bombs that Coonawarra was churning out those decades ago. At 14.24% ABV it’s not exactly a lean wine in terms of alcohol, and there is a core of ripe fruit here that supports more questionable edges of green.

To focus on ripeness, though, is perhaps missing the point of this wine, which achieves obvious, genuine elegance. Sure, it comes at the cost of some green tannins and a slightly lean (though purely fruited) mid-palate, but I’m not prepared to dismiss this wine on the basis of pulling back ripeness to provide a different view of the fruit. This seems a sophisticated attempt to do something different and beautiful that engages with a (real or imagined) past. And it’s a very good wine, even when judged by conventional markers like complexity, balance and line. Would I prefer it without a smattering of green tannins on the finish? Unequivocally, yes. Do they ruin the wine? Absolutely not.

Another fascinating Scholium wine.

The Scholium Project
Price: $US85
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

The Scholium Project the sylphs 2009

About three days ago I arrived in San Diego, a place I haven’t visited since 1997 when I was here on a student exchange. What a year. I had come to finish my science degree at UCSD, and I did indeed do that. But my fondest memories are of life outside school.

For the first couple of weeks back then, I wasn’t even 21 years old, so was legally unable to enter any of the bars that, as a fourth year university student, I had become rather too accustomed to frequenting in Australia. No matter; my birthday soon ticked around, the school year started, and my time here flew by in a haze of perfect weather, minimal study and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of great beaches.

The intervening years have brought many things, one of which is my friendship with Christopher Pratt, co-publisher of Full Pour and all-around awesome guy. A few years ago, Chris and his partner made San Diego home, and the city has beckoned ever since. Finally, in my year of wine, I’m here again.

Amongst the many Californian wines I’ve been keen to try, few are higher on the list than The Scholium Project’s various bottlings. Chris has written about these in some detail on Full Pour, and I encourage you to browse through the archives to familiarise yourself with what must surely be one of the more intriguing producers working in California at the moment. We’ve already tasted several over the past few days, and none have been less than interesting. This, though, stands out for its sheer perversity.

This is what might happen if you turn Chardonnay inside out. Everything about it seems designed to test one’s idea of what varietal Chardonnay ought to taste like, from its emphasis on flavours that ordinarily sit at the edges to its radical re-rendering of some clearly beautiful fruit. The nose shoves things like nutty aldehydes, salt spray, Mexican candy and your grandmother’s stash of sherry (thanks Chris for that image) right into the foreground; fruit becomes utterly secondary to aromas that are ordinarily used sparingly to add complexity and depth, and that might reasonably be considered faults if too prominent. But do conventional ideas of balance apply when a wine is so determinedly styled to challenge those conventions?

The palate reveals a core of fruit that seems radically distorted yet weirdly beautiful, like trying to see a peach through glass bricks. This styling strikes me as cubist in its reconceptualisation of expected flavours. This extends to palate structure too; weight is much lighter than expected and lacking the sort of flesh one might associate with Chardonnay from California. Flavours aren’t quite as sweet as the nose suggests, although no amount of fiddling can completely rob the fruit here of a certain lusciousness. Texture becomes rough through the back palate, and complexity of flavour is unmitigated from front to back.

In some ways, I’ve no idea what to make of this wine in quality terms. It’s full of intent, shows good fruit and is vastly provocative, stylistically. Does that make it a good wine? Do regular indicators of quality even apply? I’m not sure, but I love that it poses the question.

The Scholium Project
Price: $US75
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Sineann Resonance Reserve Pinot Noir 2009

Pinot Noir drives people to extremes. I’m currently doing vintage in Central Otago, New Zealand, and the region’s renown draws Pinot lovers from much further afield than Brisbane; in Peter Rosback’s case, all the way from Oregon. Vigneron at Sineann, Peter travels here each year to make Pinot at Terra Sancta, the winery where I’m working. I was fortunate enough to taste a couple of Peter’s Oregon Pinots last night, both of which were characterful and delicious.

The most striking aspect of this wine’s aroma is its bright fruit, all candied citrus peel and savoury red berries, textured and expressive. Around this core swirls a range of other notes including a good deal of well-matched oak. It’s a very integrated aroma, youthful still, and has a dark, slightly rustic element that roughs up its edges and drags this firmly into artisanal territory.

The palate structure is what really grabs me about this wine, acid and tannin creating wonderful texture and flow. It’s not one of those silky smooth wines; rather, its irregularities are what make it worthwhile, bright fruit coasting atop this undulating landscape. Flavours are sweet-savoury, with no hint of simplicity to the fruit’s character. Again, oak is a feature.

A lovely wine and a worthwhile expression of Pinot.

Sineann
Price: $N/A
Closure: Vino-Lok
Source: Gift

Jalama “Carg” Pinot Noir 2010

Forgive me, Julian, for I have sinned. It has been some ridiculous amount of time since my last confession tasting note. That being said, it’s a new year, a new site (thank you for your hard work), and it’s high time I pulled my own weight around here and contributed something. Right! Off we go: Last year, I was fortunate enough to have drunk several very, very good bottles of wine with this guy named Tom. Tom and I work for the same company, but at relative opposite ends of the totem pole: I’m a humble support tech, and he’s the capo di tutti support services at the company. Better yet, the guy has a seriously good sense of taste when it comes to wine… and he shares. Now, Julian, you may remember that we used to joke about how those of us in the colonies have an amusing habit of referring to anything exceptionally good as being world class or having European styling; this is of course also very, very true in the wine world. If a wine’s especially good, well, then of course it’s world class. To name one example, there’s a very fine, very exclusive winery called in the Santa Rita Hills AVA called Sea Smoke. Support tech that I am, I’d heard of them, sure, but I’ve never actually seen a bottle of theirs, much less tasted it, until Tom cracked one open. Sure enough, just as the <TITLE> tag of the Sea Smoke website claims, it’s world-class: rich, generous, unobtrusively oaked, with fine grained tannins and impeccable taste. There’s a reason it’s mailing list unobtainium and much sought after, and as much as I wanted to find fault with it (being so close to Los Angeles, surely it would have a touch of vulgar Hollywood surgical amplification about it, n’est-ce pas? But no, it’s pure class.)

But I digress. The wine I have in front of me is superficially similar and at the same time not the same thing at all. This is from a small, family-owned vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, not a larger, long-established, well-known winery. Although it’s presumably grown with the same care in a similar climat, and also raised in new French for quite a long time, it’s a relative steal at forty-six bucks, or about four times the price of an oak-chipped monstrosity from the California Central Coast. So: Is it worth it? The short answer is thankfully fuck yeah.

Let’s start with the look of this wine. As rock sage Nigel Tufnel once said, it’s none more black, reall. Unlike Oregon pinot, this one isn’t lacking in the anthocyanin department, no sir. This is the kind of manly pinot that screams Hey ladies, check out my excellent taste in wine as well as my bank balance, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. On the nose, it’s got everything you could hope for in a pinot: soft, fragrant oak just hanging out like Neal Cassady at the Salinas Greyhound station, crisp saline air drifting in from the coast with just a touch of smoke from the Spreckels plant down the road. Mixed in with very pretty strawberry-cherry notes, there’s also just a little bit of something very Robert Smith in there as well, serious as a heart attack, nervy and tense, tightly coiled. It’s very, very groovy.

Finally, the taste of the stuff? Yeah, pretty much what you’d expect, but better. Magically, it’s light on its feet in the mouth, not heavy or syrupy as California pinot sometimes tends to be. The French oak is a bit more noticeable on the finish – for my taste, I could stand perhaps a touch less, but then again, this is very much a la mode and it’s absolutely spot on for the local style. It finishes with some very smooth, fine grained tannin and a lingering soft, cedary note that unfurls into a wonderfully refreshing, acid-supported vibrancy that has a real way of making you wonder why you don’t drink this kind of wine more often.

Really, why don’t you?

Jalama
Price: $46
Closure: Cork
Source: Winery

The Scholium Project the wisdom of Theuth 2010

Here in San Diego, it’s a balmy 25.7°C – sure, it’s technically winter, but it sure doesn’t feel like a good time to bust out the high octane Zinfandel that goes so well with a fireplace (bearskin rug optional, of course). Instead, I’m splitting the difference with a heavy white wine.

On an aside: I’m even more confused about the whole verdejo-verdelho thing after a recent trip to Spain; I came home with a bottle of godello, which is apparently the same as verdelho, which is apparently distinct from verdejo. Go figure. Anyhow: Australians and Californians say verdelho just as surely as we say mataro, so verdelho it is.

You could easily mistake this wine for Asturian cider if you served it in the wrong glass: it’s got that fat, rich, flat sparkling wine color to it. As is usually the case for this winery, there’s obviously a metric ton of alcohol involved, with the kind of legs that would be banned in Utah. The nose is wonderfully complex, with an initial hit of cucumber cold cream, lemon zest, bitter almonds, and empty, waxed wooden floors in a cold German hallway in the countryside, with traces of hay and old leather bookbags.

Unctuous and slippery, the wine is bone dry; all of the texture is strictly alcoholic. There’s a fine-grained acidity that works well against the bitter chalkiness of the wine; there’s an elegant tension between a sense of fresh baked bread with slightly green edges on the nose and the bottom-heavy, quince marmelade of the wine. Finally, apparently only to drive home the point that this wine is serious business, there’s a seductive hint of stony minerality.

Should you age this wine? No, probably not. What you should do is obvious (and a categorical imperative): buy some, cool it (but don’t chill it), and serve it to friends with marzipan or strong cheeses. I know it’s a vanishingly small category, but The Scholium Project is (I believe) far and away the finest producer of verdelho in North America. If you don’t know what verdelho tastes like, this is your best introduction to the genre.

The Scholium Project
Price: $28
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Sandstone Cellars III

First off, allow me to note that I did not pay full retail for this wine. A couple of years ago, I had to travel to San Angelo, Texas to do some work at a local hospital. It was cheaper to fly to Austin and drive, so I did; I passed Sandstone Cellars on the way over to San Angelo, thought it looked kinda interesting, got my work done there, and stopped in on the way back. I thought the wine was damned good and bought a bottle; leaving Mason, the town where the winery’s located, I checked my email and saw that they’d sent an email a few hours earlier, so I made a U-turn and headed back to the winery to chat a bit more. They offered the bottle at half price; I met them half way, and that’s the story here. So: I paid $30, which – now that I’ve finally opened the bottle – feels like I ripped them off for $10.

Right. First time I’ve had this wine, second Sandstone Cellars wine I’ve ever tasted. What’s it like?The first impression I get is of whatever you call the tea leaf equivalent of coffee grounds. If you make a pot of tea – and I’m thinking something malty like, say, Assam – and leave the used tea leaves aside, they tend to smell like this, especially if (say) someone’s made lavender Earl Grey out of them; think vanilla, orange blossoms, just a touch of smoke and cedary wood. It’s lovely, and it doesn’t remind me of anywhere else I can think of. Nice to see that the second bottle I’ve had from Mason County is as idiosyncratic as the first: both have been of uniformly high quality, and it seems that Don Pullum, the winemaker (do check out his Twitter feed if you haven’t), is definitely onto something here.

And how does it taste? First off, it’s tannic (still). Firm, dusty, blocky tannins a go go. It’s also nicely acidic; the overall mouthfeel doesn’t approach the silky smooth California profile I’m used to (think higher alcohol and a bit of residual sugar). Fruit’s here too, thankfully: more than anything, I taste Zinfandel, but the label tells me we’re mostly working with Mataro here; I don’t sense the Mataro particularly save for the smoky-floral notes on the nose. To me, this wine shows a real tension between the fruit, tannin, and acidity; although there’s plenty to love about the vanillin, cherry-blackberry fruit, it’s slightly attenuated by the acidity (think food wine). That being said, part of what makes this wine such a pleasure is its tension: it’s the vinuous equivalent of a tritone.

The finish… yes, Dorothy, there is a finish, and it’s very Bach: four part harmony all the way down. Sweet fruit, nervy acidity, lingering tannins, and spice, not staying in any one key too long before nervously jumping to the next.Sitting here thinking about this wine (and the people that made it), I find myself wondering if there’s a place in most folks’ wine cellars for this kind of thing. Looking at CellarTracker, for example, I see that there’s less than a dozen bottles of every wine they make represented on the Internet. They don’t ship to California, I couldn’t find a bottle in Dallas to save my life last year, and this kinda bothers me. Look, I know I’m something of a hipster when it comes to wine: I prefer the experimental over the tried-and-true, I’m always up for things I haven’t heard of from places I can’t pronounce, and novelty is more interesting to me than safety. Part of this is of course financial: unlike my Dad, I grew up in a world where first growth Bordeaux costs as much as a month’s rent. Much of my drinking has necessarily been local or obscure: if you can’t afford Pingus, might as well make the best of Bierzo.

Even more: as a Californian, I’ve always been especially open to things that are (strictly speaking) unique to my region and my cultural traditions. Field blends (‘mixed blacks’) for example: drinking something like that is a tangible link to the past I share with everyone else in this state, and I honestly believe that’s there no reason why that shouldn’t stand tall compared to other countries’ traditions (be it Hunter semillon or autochtonous Georgian grapes fermented in clay amphorae). And when I come across something like this wine, I really do get excited at the possibility that someone, a pioneer, may be discovering (crafting?) something new, something specifically Texan, something that a hundred years from now will be as well known as, say, California Zinfandel, something that’s universally recognized as Texan.If so, this a damn good start.

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