Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Focus on Santa Clara Valley

I've said many times that Santa Clara Valley AVA doesn't get the respect that it deserves. It suffers from the twin curses of obscurity and notoriety; most wine drinkers don't know about it and many that do are only familiar with the low-end wines and almond champagne that used to be the majority of production.

But Santa Clara Valley is undergoing a renaissance. New wineries are emerging that are serious about quality and are producing wines that easily as good as those coming out of some of the better known appellations. I recently attended a trade-only tasting in Los Gatos organised by the SCMWA and got to try three of Santa Clara Valley's best wineries.

The winery that is doing most right now to set the benchmark on what can be done with Santa Clara Valley fruit is probably Martin Ranch. Located in the foothills at the southern tip of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, husband and wife team Dan and Thérèse Martin have two distinct labels; Thérèse Vineyards and JD Hurley.

The JD Hurley wines are made by Dan. I tasted an interesting rose - a fine summer sipper made from Cabernet Franc - the 2007 Rosa Seca ($13); a big, rich, chocolatey 2005 Merlot ($20); a dry but fruity 2006 Zinfandel ($23) and a very nice 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon with a nose of violets that's drinking just great.

The Thérèse Vineyards 2005 Syrah ($25) is very good indeed; a level above the 2004, though sadly still in those annoying oversized bottles. The 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) is a huge, chewy monster that deserves at least 3-5 years in the cellar.

Established in 1992, Clos LaChance is one of the area's larger wineries, with annual production in the 60,000 to 80,000 case range and distribution in about 15 states. Most of the fruit is sourced from the estate vineyard, with some coming from small private vineyards that are installed and maintained by the winery.

The "entry level" wines are known as the "Hummingbird" series - each wine is named after a different kind of bird. The aim seems to be on a wine that shows the typicity of the varietal and is ready to drink straight away without need for cellaring. Although the estate is in the Santa Clara Valley these wines carry the Central Coast appellation presumably because that name is more familiar to buyers outside the area - the curse of obscurity I mentioned earlier.

The 2004 "Violet-Crowned" Merlot showed the typical Merlot characteristic of plums; the 2005 "Buff-Bellied" Zinfandel had the usual spice with a white-pepper finish and the 2005 "Black-Chinned" Syrah had smoky spice and currants. What they may lack in complexity they make up for in value; although the RRP is around $18 they can often be found in stores like Safeway for less than half that figure.

Depending on how you measure, Sarah's Vineyard on Hecker Pass Highway is either the youngest or the oldest of the three wineries.
Originally established by Marilyn Sarah Clark in 1978, it gained a small but loyal following with a reputation for ageable, austere Chardonnays. She retired in 2001 and the winery was purchased by Tim Slater.

The 2006 Estate Chardonnay ($25) continues that tradition, showing good minerality and lemon. The 2005 Merlot ($25) had a nose of cooked plums and a surprisingly mineral finish, like a mouthful of river stones. The 2005 Pinot Noir ($27) showed cherry and spice, while the earthy 2004 Syrah ($25) cried out for a gamey accompanient.