Friday, April 11, 2008

Tasting at Cinnabar

Cinnabar was founded in the early 1980s by Tom Mudd, a former research engineer at SRI in Palo Alto. He'd started growing grapes and making wine at his single acre vineyard in Woodside in the 1970s. Following a failed attempt to purchase Mount Eden in 1982 he scouted out the surrounding hillsides and finally chose a nearby plot of land close to Congress Springs (now Savannah-Chanelle). Clearing and planting began in 1983, with the first commercial vintage in 1986. Tom eventually retired from winemaking and handed over the main duties to George Troquato. Sadly he died last year from complications arising from a lung transplant, aged just 65. In an odd twist of fate the family has since sold the estate vineyards to Mount Eden.

I will admit that until now I haven't been a huge fan of Cinnabar. I was put off by some badly-stored Mercury Rising and an over-the-top Paso Robles Merlot. But I was impressed by what I tasted at the trade event and happened to be in Saratoga so I called in their new tasting room for a more leisurely sampling.

The room is at the end of the main street in Saratoga. It's a fairly nondescript looking building, but inside it's pretty nice. There's the usual winery shop tat around the place and one long curved tasting bar. Tasting fee is $5 (refunded with any wine purchase) which will get you at least four tastes, possibly more depending on what's already open and how busy it is. It's been open almost a year now but still looks brand new; the benches outside look freshly assembled and there's a vinyl banner type sign on the grass outside.

Server Aaron is a big, friendly chap who does know his stuff much better than your average tasting room staffer; he has an interest in wines and isn't just reciting a script. There's also a proper spittoon, not just a dump bucket, for those of us who are driving.

Cinnabar has three distinct ranges. They produce 15,000-20,000 cases annually, the vast majority of which is the "tapestry" range; it's what you see in supermarkets and on restaurant wine lists. The flagship label carries the Santa Cruz Mountains designation; around 250 cases each are made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Fruit for these was sourced from various small vineyards around Saratoga as well as the estate vineyard. (Although the latter has since been sold it seems unlikely that the label will be discontinued.) The third label is intended primarily for wine club members and visitors to the tasting rooms, and comprises small lots of a range of varietals purchased from many different AVAs.

2006 Mercury Rising Blanc A blend of three varietals. Sauvignon Blanc is the most prominent, with Semillon and Viognier in there too. Fruit is sourced from vineyards as far afield as Monterey, Sonoma and Clarksburg, near Sacramento. If you find Sancerre and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs to be too acidic or grassy then you might like this - the Semillon rounds off the palate. Good. $14.

2006 Monterey Chardonnay A pleasantly crisp wine, light on the oak and with flavours of apples and minerals. Good clean finish. $19

2006 Central Coast Pinot Noir Nice nose of roses and cherries, with a pleasantly spicy flavour. The only thing I didn't like about this was the $26 price, though it should be easy to find under $20.

2005 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir A lovely wine with a nose of violets and on the palate spicy cherry flavours and a nice dash of oak. $42 at the winery, but around $35 elsewhere.

2005 Mercury Rising This is the wine that Cinnabar is best known for. It's a bordeaux blend; the sources are even more diverse than for the white, with fruit coming from Mendocino, Lodi and Paso Robles, as well as locally. It's a smooth, easy drinking red; not one for the cellar, but ideal to buy and drink tonight, which is one of the reasons it's popular in restaurants. $19.50

2005 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley When it comes to Zinfandel, not counting the Santa Cruz Mountains, where there's way too little of it grown, Dry Creek is my favourite appellation. I've mentioned before that Robert Parker doesn't rate the 2005 Zinfandel vintage and I've yet to find any logical reason for this. Here's another great example of a Dry Creek Zinfandel - it's not over the top, it's balanced with ripe berry fruits and soft tannins. Would be interesting to throw this in a blind tasting along some of the better known names. Not cheap though at $35.

Late Harvest Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains (38 Brix, 12.9% abv, 179 g/l residual sugar)

I must admit to being a big fan of the stickies, particularly Sauternes and Tokaji, but not so keen on the domestic ones, largely because they simply can't compete in terms of value-for-money. This wine is made by a Cryoextraction process - freezing ripe Chardonnay grapes and pressing them while still frozen so that the juice gets concentrated. It's similar to the process by which eiswein is made, except that the freezing is done artificially. I tasted it at the trade event and again today; the difference was marked. At the trade event the bottle was freshly opened and the wine tasted of honey and lemon curd. Here it had clearly been open a little longer and showed notes of mandarin oranges instead of lemon. The down side to the wine is that it doesn't have the bracing acidity of an ice wine or the botrytis spice of a Sauternes. The price isn't that unreasonable at $34, but there wasn't enough going on to excite me.

Late Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains (40 Brix, 12.6% abv, 263 g/l residual sugar)

This was made in the same way as the Chardonnay, and this time I really have to question the wisdom of the approach. A slightly brown-tinged rose in colour, it smells and tastes like liquid strawberry jam. As with the Chardonnay there's not enough acidity to really pass for eiswein and there's way too much residual sugar - we're talking pancake syrup. (To put it into perspective, 263g/l is about the level at which most wine grapes are usually picked - 24 Brix - to produce a wine of around 14% alcohol). The only accompaniment that I can think of would be bitter chocolate truffles. Having said that, there are going to be some people who will just adore it, but for my money Van Der Heyden makes a much more interesting Late Harvest Cabernet. $32.