The Unusual Suspects | Looking Beyond California Cabernet
I’m definitely guilty of writing a lot about California Cabernet. I freely admit that I have a real penchant for the sturdy varietal, particularly when it’s built to last. In California, Cabernet is king and sadly many of the best examples fetch a princely sum.
But if the myriad of interesting, lesser-known and even esoteric varietals I encountered on my recent trip to Napa and Sonoma are any indication, Cabernet isn’t all that’s thriving here in Northern California. Not only was I surprised to find Spanish and French stalwarts like Albariño, Tempranillo, Grenache and Malbec being produced at wineries I visited, but I was surprised by just how good they were. Oh, and did I mention I encountered an Aglianico?
The best part? These wines don’t command the regal prices of Cabernet. They lack the cachet, and are often the ‘pet’ projects of winemakers – who produce them because they are passionate about the varietal and love drinking them, while their bread and butter Cabernet and Pinot Noir offerings keep the lights on.
The following wines were some of my favorites I encountered and offer a refreshing departure from the sea of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay throughout California. While they couldn’t be any more different from one another, they are unified by their compelling distinctiveness and sheer personality. They reek of passion and terroir, and are sure to reward the more adventurous consumer who is willing to look beyond the obvious choices.
Marimar Estate Don Miguel Vineyard Albariño Russian River Valley 2014: Marimar Estate has long been a favorite producer of mine, whose unoaked Chardonnay’s and age-worthy Pinot Noir’s have continued to impress me for their combination of complexity, drinkability and balance. So when I unexpectedly stumbled across their cozy tasting room at The Barlow in Sebastopol, CA, I was completely surprised to see that they were pouring a 100% Albariño! This Spanish varietal is one of my favorite white wines for its bright acidity, palate-cleansing minerality and overall versatility – yet I had never seen one being produced in California until now. This example is crisp and refreshing with flavors of lime citrus and green apple laced with delicate white flowers, wet stone and hay. The mouthfeel is smooth and creamy and the clean, mineral-inflected finish lingers with hints of spice.
Price: $32 | Score: 91 | Click Here To Buy
Gundlach-Bundschu Estate Tempranillo Sonoma Valley 2013: You’re far more likely to find a bottle of Tempranillo in its native home country of Spain, where it provides the foundation and backbone for the great wines of the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions to name a few. So I was surprised to see it in the heart of Sonoma Valley during my recent visit to Gundlach-Bundschu Winery. In addition to spotting this unusual find, I couldn’t help but notice two things: How friendly everyone was and the fact that almost every employee I met was new to the team – and that’s not such a bad thing. As California’s oldest continuously family-owned winery, the sixth generation led by Jeff Bundschu is making a concerted effort to improve the quality of the wines and the experience at the winery. His renewed focus on producing estate-grown wines from his family’s Rhinefarm Vineyard result in not just sought after Cabernet’s and Chardonnay’s, but well-executed examples like this refreshingly unexpected estate-grown Tempranillo. This was my favorite wine I tasted during my visit, even with a $100 Cabernet in the lineup. With a dense, creamy and layered mouthfeel revealing cool blueberries and cocoa dusted cherries underscored by spices, vanilla and toasty oak, it was far more modern and plush than most examples you’ll find from Spain.
Price: $32 | Score: 90 | Click Here To Buy
Passagio Grenache Paso Robles 2013: I’ve been meaning to stop in and check out the Passagio tasting room right off of Sonoma Square, but just haven’t made it there yet. This bottle was gifted to me by my friend Elizabeth Smith (aka Traveling Wine Chick), who manages their wine club. It’s not everyday you come across a bottle of Grenache being produced in California, and Elizabeth thought I might like owner and winemaker Cindy Cosco’s 2013 Paso Robles Grenache. She was right! This fragrant example entices with aromas and flavors of rose petal, cranberry, sour cherry and jolly rancher. The mouthfeel is smooth and smoky with good persistence and plenty of lingering spices. It’s pleasantly complex without being heavy-handed. Only 50 cases produced.
Price: $45 | Score: 90 | Click Here To Buy
Benessere Aglianico Napa Valley 2013: Yes, you read that right, Aglianico, in Napa Valley. I was as surprised as you might be to see this being poured when me and a few friends made a spontaneous pit stop at Benessere Vineyards in upper St. Helena. Donna was an incredible hostess as she led us through a tasting of Benessere’s Italian-inspired varietals, featuring not just the obvious Italian staples like Sangiovese, but far more esoteric favorites of mine like Sagrantino and Aglianico. You’re far more likely to find examples of this black-skinned varietal being produced in the Campania and Basilicata regions of Southern Italy, where it’s powerful tannins and bold flavors have earned it the nickname ‘Barolo of the South’. This example is 100% Aglianico from the Collins-Holystone Vineyard in St. Helena, where the only Aglianico in Napa Valley is grown. Italian in soul, it’s both savory and rustic yet with a distinctive Napa flair. In the mouth it’s bold yet energetic with flavors of raspberry, red currant and black plums laced with licorice, smoky earth sandalwood and spice notes. A harmonious effort balancing depth of flavor with vibrant acidity and the support of finely grained tannin providing structure and spine. Utterly refreshing and quite delicious, the Benessere Aglianico inspired this post.
Price: $50 | Score: 91 | Click Here To Buy
Kobler Estate Kobler Family Vineyards Russian River Valley Reserve Syrah 2013: Sure, Syrah is considerably more commonplace in California than many of the other varietals in this article. But this is cool-climate Syrah, which has a lot more in common with examples hailing from the Northern Rhone than with Syrah’s coming out of neighboring Napa Valley wineries. The Kobler’s have been growers in the Russian River Valley for over two generations, and in 2010 they decided that they would use some of their highly sought after fruit to produce their own label of small-production, handcrafted wines that are distinctive, yet delicate and balanced. This example is the embodiment of that philosophy. Aromas of wild juniper berries and black raspberry mingle with nuances of underbrush, smoke and licorice. It’s bold yet focused, with lively acidity lending to this fine examples overall balance. Hints of mint and spice linger on the finish. While I find many Napa Valley Syrah’s to be overly alcoholic and peppery, the Kobler Estate Winery Reserve Syrah deftly balances depth and drinkability.
Price: $60 | Score: 92 | Click Here To Buy
Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Napa Valley Malbec 2012: I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Winemaker Chris Carpenter at Cardinale Winery, where he crafts some of Napa Valley’s most sought after and collectible wines. After finishing with my questions, we tasted through a selection of his Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt. Brave and La Jota wines. Having learned during the interview that Chris’ thesis at UC Davis was on Malbec, I was thrilled to see a Mt. Brave Malbec in the lineup – a wine which I didn’t even know existed! When Jess Jackson acquired the Mt. Veeder vineyard, ranging at elevations between 1,400 and 1,800 feet, Chris was excited to see that Malbec was already planted. This allowed him to not only put his viticultural studies to good use, but to be able to bottle one of the few Malbecs in Napa Valley. This unique, perfumed example really stood out during our tasting. It pours a deep, vivid shade of ruby in the glass. Iron-tinged aromas of wild black raspberry and pomegranate are underscored by notes of underbrush and licorice. In the mouth, its bold and opulent, with a generous mid-palate and a seamless mouthfeel. It finishes with soft tannins and hints of white pepper. According to Chris Carpenter, “It’s unlike the Malbecs people have become accustomed to from Argentina. It screams Mt. Veeder.”
Price: $80 | Score: 92 | Click Here To Buy
Viluko Vineyards Sonoma County Malbec 2013: Move over Mendoza… That’s right, another California Malbec! This example is just as compelling as the opulent Mt. Veeder Malbec, but hails from a winery that you probably haven’t heard of yet – and that needs to change! Nestled in the Mayacamas in-between Sonoma and Napa Valleys, Viluko Vineyards is one of my favorite hidden gems . After falling in love with their reasonably priced estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, I visited the breathtakingly beautiful property and discovered the winery’s inaugural Malbec release to be just as gorgeous. It pours a deep, dark shade of red and the nose is fragrant and floral. Abundant aromas of wild red and black berries mingle with violets, smoke, sage and loamy undertones. The mouthfeel impresses for its purity and seamless texture, with juicy, spicy, smoky fruit perfectly balanced by ample acidity, powdery tannin and an undeniable undercurrent of minerality. It manages to be both delicate and bold at the same time. Sadly, there are but 115 cases of this special wine to go around. I mentioned to Chris Carpenter that he needed to try the Viluko Vineyards Malbec. I hope you will, too!
Price: $55 | Score: 93 | Click Here To Buy
Hawk and Horse Vineyards Latigo 2011 Dessert Wine: Last, but most definitely not least is the dessert course! I don’t typically enjoy port or dessert wines, but this wine completely caught me off guard when I tasted it with proprietors Tracey and Mitch Hawkins at their home in Angwin. Produced entirely with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from their bio-dynamically farmed 18 acre vineyard is nestled in the Red Hills of Lake County at elevations between 1,800 and 2,200 feet. This late-harvest wine is fortified with alambic brandy and produced in the classic port style. It boasts a gorgeous nose brimming with rich aromas of dried cherry, plum, and currants underscored by smoky cocoa and dried prune. In the mouth, it has just the right amount of sweetness and benefits from surprising balance as rich dark fruit flavors unfold against a backdrop of toasty caramel and creamy chocolate nuances. I found myself quick to pour another taste of the Hawk and Horse Latigo. I bet you will, too.
Price: $50 (375ml) | Score: 92 | Click Here To Buy
*In an attempt to keep this lengthy post from becoming any more lengthy, I have omitted varietal compositions and elevage descriptions. Please over to the producers website for these specifics. The wines mentioned in this article were a combination of gifts, samples and purchases.