How complicated is it to make wine?
I mean, you crush some grapes, throw them in a fermenting tank for a while, pump the wine into a bunch of barrels, let it age for a bit and - voila, a few bottles of Chateau Mouton Rothschild!
Well, it's not that easy, really. Myriad other factors enter in, stretching from numerous farming issues and techniques in the vineyard through every step the grapes and subsequent wine go through in the winery. A great deal depends on location and tradition. In Burgundy, the chardonnay and pinot noir wines are never blended; for Premier and Grand Cru wines, all the grapes must come from the designated vineyard. In Bordeaux, both red and white wines are blended from two, three or four grape varieties; all the grapes must come from vineyards owned by the chateau named on the label.
Wine producing in California started with a clean slate, so European tradition tended to be supplanted by New World gumption and the creation of ordinances to support it. A vineyard didn't produce enough grapes in one vintage? Buy grapes from the vineyard next door or down the street or in the next valley. Got chardonnay juice that needs pepping up? Drop a dollop of sauvignon blanc or viognier into the tank.
California (and Oregon and Washington) producers have gotten much smarter about where to plant grapes so they receive not only the best climatic influence but also an influence that will contribute specific qualities to the wine. This tendency is an improvement over the old philosophy that said you could plant grapes just about anywhere you wanted to and things would come out OK in the winery.
For an example of meticulous vineyard selection and blending, let's sit down with Julia Iantosca, winemaker for Lambert Bridge Winery in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, and try barrel samples from four vineyards that will go into the Lambert Bridge Merlot 2001. These were merlots from Seaton Vineyard, Griffin Vineyard and Abbe Vineyard and cabernet sauvignon from the Mauritson Vineyard. Each occupies a position in the Dry Creek Valley that offers different emphasis.
Seaton, for example, sits on the valley floor at its upper, warmer end, a position that produces plump, fruity wines. Griffin is also on the valley floor but farther to the southeast, where the average temperature is cooler; it offers a dried herb character and solid, drier tannins. Abbe, on the other hand, sits in the Westside Hills above the valley floor, while Mauritson is in the Eastside Hills facing west. Both exhibit a marked mineral quality, typical of hillside vineyards, but the cabernet sauvignon from Mauritson, because it receives the long western sun in the afternoon, is a little softer and fuller.
My first impression on tasting these barrel samples was that each would make an excellent wine by itself. But in seeking balance, integration and elegance, it might be a good idea to counter the resplendent cassis and black raspberry flavors and stunning velvety texture of the Seaton merlot with the mild herbaceousness and chunky, slightly austere tannins of the Griffin merlot. And why not bring in the classic cigar box-pencil box-spice box bouquet and the lively acidity and mineral elements of the Abbe merlot? To which we might add the iron, the wild berry notes, the chocolate and dust of the Mauritson cabernet.
As a matter of fact, the final blend for the Lambert Bridge Merlot 2001 will contain 25 percent each of the Seaton and Abbe merlots, 12 percent of the Griffin merlot and 8 percent of the Mauritson cabernet sauvignon. What about the other 30 percent? Iantosca will use merlots from seven other vineyards plus some quantities of cabernet franc and malbec grapes.
The current release is the Lambert Bridge Merlot 1999, Sonoma County. Iantosca blended 82 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent malbec to achieve the balanced, elegant style she desires. The wine is aged 15 months in a combination of 85 percent French and 15 percent American barrels; only 40 percent of those barrels are new.
The result is a wine that, while containing only 82 percent merlot, eloquently expresses the essential nature of the grape while seamlessly drawing within its sphere the reinforcing qualities of the other grapes. No flattening effect of overwhelming toasty new oak mars its character.
Minerals, lilac and lavender burst from the glass in a welter of cedar, pencil box and dried spices with a hint of black olives and thyme; superb integration unites slightly creamy oak, the flavors of chocolate-covered raspberries and black currants with a background of underbrush and walnut meal and ringing acid. Drinkable now, it could age three to five years. Excellent. About $20.
Let's take, then, the Lambert Bridge Sauvignon Blanc 2001, Dry Creek Valley, as lovely an example of the grape as you'll find in California.
Iantosca puts the grapes through barrel fermentation, but only 20 percent of the barrels are new, so the oak influence is subtle and persuasive rather than forthright. The wine ages in a combination of French and Hungarian oak barrels for five months; the Hungarian barrels contribute a softer tone than the French. During those months of aging, the wine is sur lie, that is, it rests on the detritus of dead yeast cells that sink to the bottom of the barrel; the process, often used for full-bodied chardonnays, lends complexity and character to the wine. While aging, the wine does not go through the malolactic fermentation that transforms crisp, apple-like acid to creamy, milk-like acid, so the wine retains its crisp, fresh nature. This sauvignon blanc also has 4 percent viognier blended in.
The result is an exuberantly floral and mildly grassy sauvignon blanc whose pear- grapefruit flavors are bolstered by seductive weight and texture, all lent point by lively acid. Excellent. About $15.
All right, let's look a bit more quickly at three other wines from Lambert Bridge.
- Iantosca put the Lambert Bridge Chardonnay 2000, Sonoma County, through the full treatment: 10 months in all French oak sur lie with lees stirring and complete malolactic fermentation. The product, however, delivers not a touch of butter or toast, not a smidgeon of tropical fruit or creme brulee. Instead, the wine, while offering tremendous richness, is intensely pure, authentic and elegant; it displays true Bungundian earthiness and a spicy nature that's reticient without being modest. Excellent. About $17, a Bargain for the Quality.
- The Lambert Bridge Zinfandel 2000, Dry Creek Valley, is blended from 84 percent zinfandel, 11 percent syrah, 3 percent petite sirah and 2 percent carignane. This zinfandel, though pushing the alcohol at 14.3 percent, is beautifully balanced between ripeness and power. Briars and brambles and creamy oak - half-and-half French and American, 25 percent new - make a foundation for fresh, bright and vivid blackberry and black cherry flavors, while a tide of tannin dictates three to five years' aging. Excellent. About $20.
- Lambert Bridge's flagship wine is the Crane Creek Cuvee, Dry Creek Valley, which for 1998 belies the vintage's nonstellar status. "This is as showy as I get," Iantosca said of this sleek and graceful wine, which is aged 20 months in all French oak of which only 60 percent is new. Composed of 72 percent merlot, 23 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent malbec, the Crane Creek Cuvee 1998, Dry Creek Valley, is unbelievably plush and velvety, dusty and chewy; it's whole, complete and bountifully structured, and because of its luscious, chocolate-y cassis, black raspberry and black cherry flavors wonderfully drinkable, though the finish grows rather austere after a few minutes. It could age four to six years. Excellent. About $50.
Don't miss these well-made and very nicely priced wines from Hope Vineyards in Australia's Hunter Valley. Resembling neither chardonnay nor sauvignon blanc, the Hope Vineyards Verdelho 2000 offers a floral spiced peach and pear bouquet and light tropical flavors nestled in a lovely, dense texture. A great transition wine to warm weather. About $8.
The fresh and attractive Hope Chardonnay 2000 sports a green apple-mango bouquet that segues to spicy pear and peach flavors with lime and limestone; a wafting of oak encloses everything. Superb for the price, about $10.
The Hope Merlot 2000 features amazing body and presence for the price, in the way of plush, chewy tannins, and bright and vivid black currant and black cherry fruit robed in smoke and minerals. About $12-$13.
Finally, the Hope Shiraz 2000 bursts with ripe, smoky, fleshy qualities; rather than being fashioned in blockbuster style, this velvety shiraz is almost elegant, flexing supple muscles of minerals and charcoal around well-defined plum-blueberry flavors. About $12-$13.