Terroir – Rhoda Stewart's Journal on Wine

Posts tagged ‘Zinfandel’

El Dorado County: an historic region for wine tasting

On a gorgeous first day of spring 2014, I drove with a friend up to El Dorado County, California, for a visit to Boeger Winery, situated on a ridge rising above the historic village of Placerville.

Boeger Winery /Vineyard with Historic sheds

Boeger Winery /Vineyard with Historic sheds

Boeger Winery is a special and historic place to begin your wine tasting visit to El Dorado County. Established by Greg and Susan Boeger in 1972 with four acres of Zinfandel planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, it is the oldest winery in the County. Greg and Susan (together with Lloyd Walker: Zinfandel planted in 1968), are also credited with re-establishing winegrape-growing in El Dorado County—some forty years after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Their wine offerings today are impressive, featuring in addition to a consistently wonderful Estate Zinfandel from his 1972 plantings a benchmark Barbera and, most recently, a stunning Burgundian style Pinot Noir.

It took many years for Greg and Susan to achieve such quality and consistency—twenty years, Greg would say, to the early 1990s for his winemaking and viticulture practices to evolve into the style and quality he knew was possible on that land, especially as concerning Zinfandel. While Amador County was making a big splash with its Sutter Home “Deaver Vineyard” 1968 Zinfandel, the luscious high alcohol and intensely flavored, almost overripe, style of that blockbuster wine was not the style that El Dorado County could produce. In this higher elevation (2100+ feet), cooler region with its thinner, rockier soil, Greg had no modern regional precedents to draw inspiration from.

Furthermore, Greg was also interested in discovering what other premium varieties might do well in his vineyards besides Zinfandel, and so his Zins were mostly left to their own resources. After all, his property had remnants of old Zinfandel vines dating to the mid-1800s; Zinfandel had obviously survived, even thrived, in the region for 100 years. But the results of such laissez faire practices showed in many of the early vintages: they could be a bit weak, said Greg, with a lighter, more fruity character.

By 1990, with interest in the production of premium quality red Zinfandel increasing throughout the North Coast and Sierra Foothills, Greg found himself at a crossroads with his Zinfandel: should he pull out his 1972 UC Davis clone vines; or revisit his viticulture practices. Greg opted for the latter choice, specifically, leaf-pulling, to allow for more sun exposure on the clusters; and crop thinning, to develop more intensely flavored grapes, both somewhat new practices in California viticulture. These two practices brought about the dramatic improvements in his Zinfandel that he was seeking. “We were getting more intensity, more pepper, an inkier, thicker wine,” Greg said, that came with a luscious ripe plums character, and an enviable balance of acids and sugar associated with high elevation vineyards. (A Zinfandel Odyssey 94)
These wines became something of a benchmark for El Dorado County Zinfandel.

Boeger Winery had also found white varieties such as Chardonnay suited to the region and the soils, Barbera and, most recently, Pinot Noir.

Chardonay Vineyard, Boeger Winery

Chardonay Vineyard, Boeger Winery

The Pinot Noir is after the fashion of some of Burgundy’s more elegant and delicate PNs. A bewitching wine, it’s nothing like the PN’s you will find coming out of such low-elevation American Viticulture Areas (AVA) as the Carneros of Napa County, or Mendocino County’s Alexander Valley. I found Greg’s 2011 to be an elegant wine with delicate raspberry notes balanced with some understated spices and a long finish, a wine that should do well in a cool dark cellar for a couple or three more years. It’s a wine, however, that should you today put it before guests who appreciate European style wines, I recommend you have a backup bottle or two on hand!

What is even better, perhaps, about a visit to Boeger Winery (and all El Dorado County wineries) than tasting the exquisite wines is their prices. Although the quality can equal or surpass the quality of such wines from the more famous regions of Napa and Sonoma Counties, the prices are usually a point or two below the prices of the wines of these renowned wine regions. (Remember: Price is not a score!)

I didn’t get beyond Boeger Winery on this visit to El Dorado County, since my friend and I were also taking in Daffodil Hill, a few miles to the south, in Amador County, that morning.

Daffodil Hill, Amador County, near Volcano

Daffodil Hill, Amador County, near Volcano

So my favorites at the end of the day were Greg’s 2012 Zinfandel Estate (the fruit from the 1972 vines supplemented since the mid-1990s by fruit from his Old Vine cuttings grafted onto French Columbard rootstock), the 2009 Barbera Vineyard Select, and the 2011 Pinot Grand Reserve.

Boeger Wines

Boeger Wines

I made my first visit to Boeger Winery in 1996, when I was launching my investigation of the Sierra Foothill Zinfandels for my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey (2002), just in time to taste the impressive results of Greg’s new viticulture practices. With its unbroken 40-year history of family ownership, Boeger Winery provides its visitors a taste of history, a taste of the evolution of a tradition, in every sip of wine. Greg and Susan’s son, Justin, now the winemaker, ensures that the family tradition continues.

Established by Greg and Susan when they were just a couple of kids with a passion for their venture, Boeger Winery is a nice place to begin your exploration of the wines of the high Sierra Foothills, and to be reminded that there still are regions in California where family-owned “estate” wineries are the rule, a way of life, and not the exception.

Today, Boeger Winery is just one of a growing collection of family-owned estate wineries in El Dorado County dedicated to making hand-crafted wines that express the piece of ground the vines grown in. A visit to any of these estates will be memorable not only for the lovely wines at affordable prices but also for the rustic charm, warm hospitality, and spectacular views from many of the ridge top locations.

El Dorado County, View of Sierra

El Dorado County, View of Sierra

Advertisements

A Walk through the Vineyards with Camillo Magoni, Baja California, Mexico

Farm Artifacts - Vinos L.A. Cetto Winery

Farm Artifacts – Vinos L.A. Cetto Winery


A couple of wine writers from Europe have suggested that because of his achievements in transforming Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico, into the world class wine grape valley that it is today, and in winning international acclaim for Vinos L.A. Cetto wines from these vineyards in the last decade and a half, Camillo Magoni should be recognized globally as perhaps the most significant winemaker living today.

I could not demur.

It was June 1996 when I found myself in Cucamonga Valley, which lies about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, as part of my search for historic Zinfandel vines. I thought I was about as far afield as I could get from the more famous North Coast Zinfandel regions of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, and the Sierra foothills. Then I met Don Galleano (story to come), owner of the historic Galleano Winery, Mira Loma (now listed on the California and National Register of Historic Places). Galleano recommended that since I was this far south, I should cross the border into Baja, since he knew of a big planting of old Zin vines hidden away in a little valley somewhere between Tecate and Tijuana, owned by the Cetto family in Valle de Guadalupe.

I did just that.

With the help of a guide from Vinos L.A. Cetto, I found the lovely old Zinfandel vineyard, and so much more: I found Camillo Magoni, winemaker since 1965 for the Cetto family. From my first and subsequent meetings with Magoni that summer of 1996, he impressed me both as a winemaker and a person. It was, however, during my return visits to Valle de Guadalupe in spring and summer of 2011 that I experienced first-hand the full range of Magoni’s accomplishments—unparalleled at least in my experience.

Camillo Magoni showing Zinfandel clusters, Rancho Escondido July 2011

Camillo Magoni showing Zinfandel clusters, Rancho Escondido July 2011

I had gone down in early April at Magoni’s invitation to see what they “had been up to” since my last visit about 10 years earlier. It was a beautiful day, with the sun breaking through some early morning fog that had drifted into the Valle overnight from Ensenada. The vines were just leafing out. After meeting Camillo at the winery for a vertical tasting of six vintages of Zinfandel, it was time for lunch with Mr. Cetto and his guests (of which I was privileged to be one).
Vinos L.A. Cetto Zinfandel, 6-vintage vertical tasting - April 2011

Vinos L.A. Cetto Zinfandel, 6-vintage vertical tasting – April 2011


Following lunch, it was on to a tour with Mr. Cetto of the upper end of Valle de Guadalupe, near the headwaters of the River Guadalupe. The late afternoon light coming through the misty hills was so beautiful that I suggested to Camillo that we walk back to the winery. I wanted to try for some photos. So we exited the vehicle, and in the exquisite quiet of that secluded little vine-filled valley, we walked, I made photos, and Camillo talked—about the vines, the valley, and his philosophy of winemaking. The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate of sunny days cooled by breezes flowing inland from the nearby Pacific Ocean, fog-shrouded nights, and mineral-rich soils of varying compositions—all the components necessary for producing superb wines year after year.
Cetto Vineyards, Valle de Guadalupe, April 2011

Cetto Vineyards, Valle de Guadalupe, April 2011


In such an environment, Magoni’s philosophy of winemaking comes down to one phrase: understanding grapes.
“To make wine from the region, you have to understand the composition of the grape for each variety: the sugar, acid, and flavors. You have to understand how the composition of the grape changes with each vintage, how the vintage changes the composition in each lot of the same variety. Only then can you consider process of winemaking—the technology.”

When Magoni arrived in Valle de Guadalupe in the mid-1960s, the roads into the Valle were dirt, and only three varieties of grapes were planted, he said. Today, there is a paved motorway (Hwy 3) leading up from Ensenada, and the Cetto vineyards consist of 30 varieties of top European varieties covering over 1,200 hectares.

Among the most prestigious for Vinos L.A. Cetto are Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo (Cetto Vineyards boasts the largest planting of Nebbiolo—134 hectares–outside the Barolo region of Italy). Each of these varieties presents special challenges and requires particular understanding in order to produce the world class wines deserving of the Vinos L.A. Cetto label.

The great charm and appeal of Zinfandel, said Camillo, is its fruit, and so he vinifies Zinfandel with just neutral casks, for the micro-oxygenation. “For me, because of its intense flavors and fruity character, Zinfandel is a unique variety. If you add wood character, you lose some of the fruit character. And if you lose the fruit character of Zinfandel,” he once famously said, “it is like a man without a last name.”

Zinfandel, Rancho Escondido - July 2011

Zinfandel, Rancho Escondido – July 2011

Nebbiolo (known in Italy as “Barolo) is one of the great wines in the world, believes Magoni, but “it’s late maturing in the bottle, so we have to leave the money for 5 years, occasionally longer. For this reason and because as a grower you have to understand its composition, Nebbiolo is not known world-wide like Cabernet or Pinot Noir or Syrah. Even though it makes, I think, one of the greatest wines in the world, not too many producers like to wait 5 years for the money.”

Nebbiolo vine dating to 1946 - Valle de Guadalupe - July 2011

Nebbiolo vine dating to 1946 – Valle de Guadalupe – July 2011


For Camillo Magoni and Vinos L.A. Cetto, it’s well worth the wait.
Nebbiolo, 15 vintage vertical tasting, Vinos L.A. Cetto - July 2011

Nebbiolo, 15 vintage vertical tasting, Vinos L.A. Cetto – July 2011


Sangiovese was the most difficult grape for Magoni to get a handle on.
“It takes several years to understand,” he said. “It’s a variety very easy to over crop and is difficult to regulate. Unless irrigation is strictly controlled, it is a variety that tends to make a big bunch with big berries so we have to control that. It’s taken us 10 years to understand it.”
Sangiovese clusters, Valle de Guadalupe - July 2011

Sangiovese clusters, Valle de Guadalupe – July 2011


For Camillo, there is no other way.

“It’s easy to make good wine—if you understand your grapes,” he says time and again. “That’s the key. You need to know the grapes, the varieties, like you know a person. It is imperative to know each one to assure the best quality wine as possible—and also knowing what kind of wine you want to make.”

When I asked him if he were saying that he knew the composition of all 30 varieties of grapes in Cetto’s vineyards, he replied with a little laugh that was in no way self-deprecating, “I’m saying that. It is imperative to know each one to assure the best quality wine as possible.” And if he makes a mistake in his understanding of a variety or a vintage? “Well, we just don’t bottle it,” he replied.

Price is not a Score

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

One thing to always remember when buying wines: Price is NOT a score! The price of a bottle of wine is never a reflection of the quality of wine inside that bottle.

Three basic factors go into the price of a bottle of wine no matter what the wine is or where it is produced. You have the cost of the grapes, the cost of equipment and labor necessary for their harvest and processing, and the cost of the bottle the wine is put into when it is finished.

These costs can vary greatly, depending on several additional factors:

• country of origin
• region where the grapes were grown (Bordeaux, Tuscany, Rioja, SW Australia, Sonoma Valley, the Okanagan Valley, etc.)
• the vintage (that is, the year)
• the varietal (CS, PN, ZIN, Nero d’Avalo, Malbec, SB, Chard, PG, etc.)
• winemaking practices, especially the barrel ageing protocol
• quantity of wine produced
• the reputation of the producer
• marketing and distribution of the finished wine (includes bottle selection and label)

The following five red wines are all from vineyards considered best suited to the variety, and all have been made in accordance with the best winemaking practices for their regions and varieties. The price per bottle, on average, varies from almost $100 US to under $10 US.

• 2009 Las Rocas Garnacha (Spain), sourced from 80-year-old vines from the DO of Calatayud, average price about $15 US,
• Ravenswood’s 2009 Bedrock Zinfandel (US), sourced from Sonoma Valley vines about the same age (80 years), priced at $35 US,
• Vinos L.A. Cetto’s 2006 Nebbiolo (Baja CA, Mexico), sourced from 60-year-old vines in Valle de Guadalupe, priced about $20 US,
• Donnafugata 2007 “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo (Sicilia), sourced from Sicily’s indigenous Nero d’Avalo grapes, recommended retail price $90 US.
• Viu Manent 2011 Gran Reserva Malbec (Chile), sourced from established vines averaging 15 years in Valle de Colchagua, priced at $8.

If you consider that each of these wines is priced exactly right in accordance with the criteria provided above, and that the prices do not reflect quality, then how would you go about making the best choice among them for your dining occasion?

Well, that’s where the fun begins: you have to taste them! If upon tasting these wines you decide that the Donnafugata “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo from Sicily is the one you like the best (it is a gorgeous wine; I’ve tasted it, and met the winemaker), then do you like it enough to pay between 3 and 11 times more than for the other selections, which are also lovely wines, understanding that probably at least $30 of that $90 bottle price of the Donnafugata goes towards winery aesthetics and marketing?

As Kermit Lynch, owner of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Berkeley, CA, said to me a few years ago:

“ ‘I think a lot of people, not in France, not in Italy, but in California and maybe the rest of the U.S., think that price is a score; that a $300 bottle of wine is better than a $100 a bottle . . . .That’s completely false. Price is no reflection of quality. You can get such good wines for cheap.’” (Rhoda Stewart, “Affordable French Wines,” Napa Valley Register: 19 September 2009)

Because price is not a score! Not that scores, for that matter, are of much use, either.

Wines That Stop Conversation – III

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA“Our Zinfandel is about terroir,” said George Hendry, owner of Hendry Vineyards on the Napa Valley benchlands just off Redwood Road at the north end of the city of Napa.

As it turned out, it’s also about clonal distinctions in Zinfandel.

My third and most recent example of wines that stop conversation was the Hendry Vineyards estate 2003 Block 28 Zinfandel ($35). I was hosting visitors from Montreal, Canada, just one year ago (2012), and tucked a bottle of this wine under my arm as we left my house for dinner in downtown Napa.

While we were looking over the menu, our waitperson opened the bottle and decanted it. Once we had placed our orders, he poured out the wine. While checking the aroma and trying a little sip to be sure the wine wasn’t “corked,” I became aware that a silence had fallen over our table. I glanced up and saw looks of bliss on the faces of my companions. “It’s pretty good,” I said. “It’s at peak bottle age.” My companions only looked at me, seeming to have lost their power of speech. Finally, one of them exclaimed, “This is incredible, exactly as I always thought a Zinfandel should taste. It’s just amazing.” Then more silence. I, too, was struck by how luscious and beautiful this wine was. It had a deep ruby purple color, aromas of dark plums and blackberries, hints of chocolate, something like allspice and fragrant earth and more, was velvety in the mouth, and had a lingering finish. It was impossible to describe in words the sensory experience of this wine without rendering it simply prosaic. Once again, silence best expressed what was happening—simply a brush with the mystery and magic of a wine, in this case Zinfandel, at its finest—what happens when a well-chosen clonal selection of budwood is propagated in a piece of earth best suited to it, and the winemaking is done in harmony with these two factors.

Block 28 Zinfandel was propagated in 1995 from a field selection of budwood taken from the historic Brandlin Vineyard, situated on Mount Veeder a few miles above Hendry Vineyard.

Established on St. George rootstock in exactly the same way and at the same time as was Block 22 from UC Davis clone # 2 in an adjoining block, Hendry had done this to discover if the budwood (clonal) source would make any noticeable difference in the wines from these side-by-side blocks, or would terroir prevail and even them out. The Zinfandel that Hendry had produced in past years from the Brandlin Vineyard was remarkably different from the Zinfandel from Block 7 (UC Davis clone #2).

The first vintage from these two new vineyards was the 1997, when the vines were in their first crop year. Fortunate to be present as this uncorking, I was in great anticipation to see what distinctions these young wines, which had been harvested on the same day and vinified in the exactly same way, would reveal. I wasn’t left to wonder for long. Even as the wines were being poured, distinctions were obvious. The Block 22 was closed, yielding up only hints of delicate red berries and aromas of vanilla. The Block 28 had dramatic aromatics of dark spicy chocolate and briary earthy notes. The flavors were of dark berry fruits that seemed a mere suggestion of the potential awaiting the consumer who was patient enough to allow the wine a few additional years in the cellar.

“The Block 28 distinguished itself immediately in the aromatics during fermentation. I was not ready for such dramatic difference as exists between this first vintage of the Brandlin and UC Davis Clone #2. I could not have imagined it” said Hendry.

Nor was this a one-off phenomenon from very young vines. This clonal distinction has held, and while Hendry’s Block 22 is consistently a beautiful and elegant wine (as is his older Block 7 from the same UCD clone), it is still the Block 28 Zinfandel that is, for me, the stand-out Zinfandel between those two wines. And it still stops conversation when given sufficient time in the cellar to fully develop its luscious and dramatic potential.

(For the complete story on Hendry Zinfandel, please see my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey. San Rafael. PWV Inc., 2001)