Tuesday, August 23, 2011

2007 Sarah's Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Clara Valley

In 1977 Marilyn Clark and John Otterman bought a 10 acre property off Hecker Pass Road. They planted 7 acres of Chardonnay and named it Sarah's Vineyard. The first Estate vintage was made in 1983. The winery quickly established a reputation for wines of richness and depth with good aging potential. The winery stood apart from its neighbours, at a time when most of Santa Clara valley was producing cheap 'jug' wine. No expense was spared; even the labels were reportedly printed on stock normally reserved for wedding invitations, printed by a company that produced banknotes using a custom die made by an engraver from Smith & Wesson. However as time went on the price increased drastically while the quality became more variable. By the late 1990s the Estate Chardonnay cost $45 or more a bottle, but was only getting 80 points when reviewed by Wine Spectator.

In 2001 the winery was purchased by Tim Slater, who set about revitalising both the vines and the brand. The estate vineyards were replanted or retrellised, the buildings were renovated and extended, and a stack of brand new high-tech equipment was installed including a neat compact bottling line and a small but sophisticated laboratory. The winery currently produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from their estate vineyards and the Santa Cruz Mountains. They also source a range of Rhone varieties from the nearby Besson Vineyard, itself notable for providing Grenache to Bonny Doon's Cigare Volant for over 20 vintages.

The good news is that the 2007 Sarah's Vineyard Estate Chardonnay is far more reasonably priced than it would have been 10 years ago - $30 at the winery, but I've seen it as low as $20 at retail. It shows lots of toasty oak on the nose; On the palate there's apricot, lemon, cream and vanilla, with a rich, almost oily mouthfeel. The oak is very prominent on the finish. Despite its youth this bottle was already starting to show some mature notes; given the low acidity I wouldn't plan on holding it for more than another year. 88

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

2011 SCMWA wine competition

The Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association runs an annual Commercial Wine Competition, open to all of its members. This year's competition was held last Monday at Ma Maison restaurant in Aptos, and I was  invited to be a judge. The judging panel is made up of both trade professionals - restauranteurs, sommeliers, wine buyers etc., and consumers.
Judging Table. 8 judges each tasting a different set of wines.

I arrived in Aptos at 9:30 and was greeted by the chilly grey morning skies that help to make the western side of the mountain such a great place to grow Pinot Noir. I signed in at the main desk and was assigned Flight #5 - Pinot Noirs. When everyone had arrived we were led into the restaurant and told to sit at any table, in front of our particular number.

Each table had 8 judges, with every judge tasting a different flight. The purpose of this is so that you can talk to your fellow judges without worrying about affecting the results. The wines were laid out on the table in front of us, with each glass labelled only with a 4 digit code number. We were also given a sample of a white wine (a rather pleasant New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at a guess) as an introduction.

The organisers gave some basic instructions on evaluating the wine. We were to score on the 100 point scale, with 90+ indicating a gold medal, 85-89 indicating silver and 80-85 indicating bronze. We were advised that around 20-25% of wines typically fall into the Gold category and around half fall into the Silver category. Very few get no medal at all. This seemed reasonable; in my personal scoring system anything below 85 isn't worth buying, anything below 80 is not worth drinking. On this scale 70-79 is supposed to indicate an 'average' wine, so I take that to indicate the mass of sub-$5 supermarket plonk.

As with most blind tastings the wines were poured in the same order for everyone. I typically go through the wines in order and smell them, to get a first impression. I then taste them in an order based on those impressions; if a wine seems odd or unbalanced I'll leave it until last. After tasting them all I'll go through them again to confirm my decisions.
The first flight. Each wine is identified by a 4 digit code number

The first flight was fairly straightforward. There were 7 wines, 2 of which I gave Gold scores to. They turned out to be 2008 Clos LaChance Santa Cruz Mountains and 2008 Sonnet Muns Vineyard. I gave good marks to the 2008 Domenico Santa Cruz Mountains and 2008 Black Ridge Estate.

The second flight had one wine that I found particularly unusual. It had almost overpowering notes of white pepper and spice. After trying it a couple of times I decided that it worked and awarded it a Gold - it turned out to be the 2008 Beauregard Santa Cruz Mountains. Another Gold went to the 2008 Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard Branciforte Creek, and an honourable mention to the 2008 Ahlgren Veranda Vineyard.

The final flight was unusual in that the first and last wines seemed very strange; I left them until the end and declared them both to be not medal worthy. My favourite turned out to be the 2008 Woodside Estate, with 2008 Muccigrosso and 2009 Soquel Estate also scraping Golds.

We then had a pause while the administrators tallied up the scores to determine the top 10 wines. While we were waiting there were some snacks including some delicious rillettes on mini croissants.

Finally the top 10 wines were revealed. We were told the variety in each case, and they were presented in order of lightest to heaviest, so I sampled them in that order. I was suprised to see that the winning Pinot Noir was not on my tasting list. It turned out that there were so many entrants that a fourth flight of Pinots had been given to a different set of judges, who had also been tasting the 'mixed' reds and blends. Frankly I wasn't overly impressed by their choice; there seemed to be a lot of sulphur evident, with the nose showing struck match and the fruit muted.
One of the judges analysing a wine.

Picking a favourite from 10 completely diverse wines is tough; ranking them in order is tougher still. Of the reds I particularly liked the Cabernet Sauvignon which was revealed to be the 2007 Woodside Estate; they also were awarded the best Zinfandel. I correctly guessed that the Petite Sirah was from Sones, though I thought it was probably from French Camp. The Soquel Chardonnay was very good and well balanced, and the dessert wine - a 2004 Angelica from Picchetti - was in a class of its own in more ways than one.

But in the end the top award went to Martin Ranch for their delicious 2009 Thérèse Vineyards Malbec. What's even more impressive is that Martin Ranch also scooped the top honour last year for their 2007 Lester Family Vineyard Syrah. Congratulations to Dan and Thérèse Martin!

Top 10 wines (Santa Cruz Mountains AVA unless noted)
2009 Martin Ranch Thérèse Vineyards Malbec Santa Clara Valley, Dos Ninas Vineyard
2010 Soquel Chardonnay, Ben Lomond Mountain, Meyley Vineyard
2009 Black Ridge Viognier
2007 Byington Pinot Noir Block 4
2008 Martin Ranch JD Hurley Merlot, Santa Clara Valley
2008 Sones Petite Sirah, Lodi
2008 Bargetto Syrah, Nelson Vineyard
2007 Woodside Cabernet Estate
2007 Woodside Zinfandel Estate
2004 Picchetti Angelica of Chardonnay