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Sips & Tidbits From the Santa Lucia Highlands Trade Tasting at Quail Lodge

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by Laura Ness

ManzoniWinesProgramHeld at Quail Lodge, the Santa Lucia Highlands Trade Tasting on March 21, united a hearty crowd of winemakers, wine brokers, sommeliers, restaurant personnel and other industry luminaries, as they enjoyed sips of vintages 2012 – 2015, with a preponderance of ’13 and ’14 examples.

By and large, vintage 2014 shows pretty rich and ripe amongst the majority of offerings tasted, with 2015 pretty promising, even if it was a very light crop.

The 2013 Pinots from this vaunted strip of high rent district real estate that everyone seems to want a piece of, are of by and large brilliant, with standouts including:

August West, Peterson Vineyard ($45): Aromas of earth, sage, caraway and sausage, combine with grippy, zesty flavors of cranberry and pomegranate. This wine purrs like a kitten, but the claws are at the ready.

Mansfield-Dunne, Peterson Vineyard ($48): This just smells like serious Pinot Noir from the first whiff, winning you over with a fabulous hit of ginger,  followed by pomegranate, red cherry, porcini mushrooms and basil.

Manzoni, Home Vineyard ($35): Another beauty from Dave Coventry, who lets the acid flow in this lively red raspberry romper. Built for food, it’s ready to meet your favorite duck recipe head on. Seriously a bargain at $35.

Tondre Wines, Estate ($40): From the famous Tondre Grapefields comes this outstanding effort, effusive of black currant, dried cherry and red plum. Profoundly intense, yet lushly textured, Joe Alarid swears it’s the clone 943 that makes this wine so endearing. He says the berries are much smaller than the Pommard clone that dominates the vineyard, and they have an incredible intensity of flavor. When Tom Stutz of La Rochelle tried to take all of the clone 943 one harvest, Joe knew there was something special about it.

Wrath, 2013 Boekenoogen Vineyard ($49): It’s a good thing John and Garrett Boekenoogen of Boekenoogen Vineyards & Winery spared enough fruit to sell to Wrath for the 2013 vintage, because this is one of the most stunning Pinots in the Wrath lineup. Intensely infused with ripe cherries, spicy blackberries, strawberry jam and dark chocolate, this would win over anyone who doesn’t like “wimpy” Pinots.

WrathPinotsWrath, 2013 KW Ranch ($49): Winemaker Sabrine Rodems dialed in the “paint me red” character of this fruit from Kirk Williams vineyard, coaxing out its pomegranate core, wound with scintillating notes of basil and chervil.

Wrath, 2013 Tondre Grapefield ($49): Redolent of peat, salty licorice and salami, along with dark-hearted fruit and spice, this is a wine of enormous density. Whole cluster fermentation makes this a Mack truck from entry to finish.

Make Way for Unoaked Chardonnay

More folks are doing unoaked or neutral oaked Chardonnay, with two examples from J. McFarland that include the 2014 “Full Tilt,” fermented in neutral and then aged in stainless (a true “book club Chardonnay”), and the 2014 Mira Flora, totally done in stainless, for a clean and crisp delivery reminiscent of the Chablis style. Sporting a new black and silver label, this wine shows bright apple and quince fruit.

Russell Joyce was pouring “the 2015 Stele” Chardonnay, picked at 22 Brix and done with no malo, in small stainless steel fermenters allowing for more lees contact with a better ratio of juice to lees than you get with those ginormous vats so many use to make this style of Chardonnay. It comes off very clean, bright yet subtly weighty, with no astringency.

Ed Kurtzman of August West has long been turning out blockbuster Chardonnays from Rosella’s Vineyard under the Roar label. It was an eye-opener to taste the 2013 August West version of this wine, done completely in neutral oak. The drive and energy of the pure fruit, with its fresh pineapple and lime-mint verve, was remarkable. So, too, Ed’s 2013 Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay was done in neutral, with full malo: delivering succulent Bartlett and Comice pears, this wine is juicy ripe and dripping with pure, unadulterated summer.

Joe and Penny Alarid of Tondre Wines, were pouring their 2013 unoaked Chard made by Winemaker Tony Craig, who crafts all the Tondre wines. It has plenty of lively flavor and a just weighty enough texture to fool you into thinking there’s oak in there somewhere. At $25, it’s a good bet for those who’d rather drink pure fruit than toasty oak.

Barrels Matter

LuciaBottlesMark Pisoni, commented that since his brother, Jeff, the winemaker for the Pisoni and Lucia brands, had learned to speak French, at the urging of his wife, Bibiana González Rave, he’s been able to procure much better barrels. Bibiana, named Winemaker of the Year by the SF Chronicle for 2015, explained that if you can speak French to the coopers in France, they will take you more seriously. Consequently, the Lucia wines convey a new level of refinement, due to the lighter touch of the 4-year air-dried barrels, coveted for their delicate infusion of barrel spice. The 2014 Lucia Chardonnay from Soberanes Vineyard exhibited gorgeous minerality, lovely nectarines and picture perfect balance: a wine that promises to grow up gracefully and make its parents proud. 

Drink Dessert

As my Father always says, save room for dessert. Dan Tudor blew everyone away with his gorgeous off-dry 2013 Nacina Riesling from the Tondre Vineyard ($29), absolutely spot on with its aromatics of petrol, gardenias and its exuberant flavors of ripe apricot, nectarine and ginger-root spice.

The killer wine of the day was Dan’s 2014 Tudor Ice Wine from Tondre Grapefields ($40), again made from Riesling, a sacreligiously delicious infusion of dried apricots, marzipan, sweet orange peel and crystallized candied ginger. The perfect way to end any evening, with or without a sunset.

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