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

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

Ridge Pagani Ranch 2003

It’s a cold, rainy night here in San Diego, so I went for the most alcoholic wine I could find; there are two reasons for this. One, I’m cold and could use some alcoholic heat, and two, after kvetching about the high alcohol content of Mollydooker wines last week, I figured it was time to try another high octane wine from a different winery and see if I can find any reason at all for my dislike of the high alcohol Mollydooker house style. So: here I am.

This wine’s older; the back label suggests holding it until 2010-2011 to allow it to ‘soften,’ and I’ve done that more or less as proscribed. The color doesn’t seem to have faded much, if at all: it’s still that rich, dark, opaque black color I associate with Zinfandel. Just like the Mollydookers, it also has a noticeably clear rim and jambes d’enfer, making its 15.4% alcohol level perfectly clear. Things couldn’t be more clearly different than the Mollydooker wines, though, on the nose.

This doesn’t smell like other wines, not even like other Ridge zinfandels. This takes the whole jammy, Christmas pudding, spice box, Turkish delight aesthetic to overdriven levels. There’s not much by the way of obvious wood; instead, what you get here is extremely ripe fruit. What’s odd, though, is that the alcohol seems to be relatively adroit at keeping itself out of the way enough to smell the wine; you don’t get a snootful of alcoholic vapors, just a twinge. Even so, the second you drink some, bang, there it is: unavoidable alcohol that’s a little bit harsh, obstructing the otherwise clean line here. For all of the delicious, dried fruit, dates and treacle going on here, there’s still a clearly porty aspect you just can’t avoid.

So what’s the deal here? Why does this bother me less than similarly alcoholic syrah and cabernet from Mollydooker? I think it’s simple: zinfandel is more or less an inherently ridiculous grape. It tastes best at higher alcohol levels; it doesn’t really gain a thing when it’s harvested at 13% potential alcohol because the grape just isn’t ripe at those sugar levels. Instead, you have to get it up in the 14s before you can make a palatable wine from it at all. However, cabernet and syrah both do just fine in the 12-14 percent range, and I just don’t see what they gain at higher alcohol levels; I think they begin to lose quite a bit in interest and complexity once you get anywhere past, oh, about 14.5%. When you hit 15, 16, and (God forbid), 16.5% alcohol, a lot of the interesting bits seem to have gone, and the good bits that are left don’t seem to particularly complement the alcohol (in the sense that the overall effect is of a less complex port), unlike zinfandel, whose innate characteristics (think spicy date pudding) do in fact sit will at relatively insane levels of alcohol.

Digression over. Back to this wine: it’s drinking rather beautifully right now and is a fine example of a high alcohol (if not quite late harvest) zinfandel (or, technically, a field blend – there’s alicante bouschet and durif/petite sirah here as well). Age has brought a genteel faded character to the hyperripe fruitfest and given it an earthy, almost cedary edge that’s lovely. If there’s any Old World wine to which I’d compare it, it would be to a 40 year old port; it has definite similarities in terms of complexity, and a lot of the bottom end has fallen out, leaving a melody almost entirely in the treble clef, a wonderful harmony of rich, fruity, aged notes with a nearly sherry-like hint of maderization. Pretty damn good wine, if I say so myself.

Ridge Vineyards
Price: $30
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail