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Weekend wine: Sonoma Impressions

Saturday, November 15, 2014   by: Vin Greco
This past fall, I was able to spend time in Sonoma, California and, yes, I tasted wine.
There are lots of memories, but a few stand out.
Have been to the Marimar Estate Winery in the past, this visit confirmed my impression that it really does set the standard for quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Sonoma.
This is not to say that there aren’t better examples, but if there are, then they have to be exceptional, as the wines I tasted  provided an excellent benchmark for character and flavour, as well as value.
With wines generally in the $40 to $50 range, one might scratch one’s head when I talk of “value”, but in Sonoma with smaller scale producers, these prices are far from unusual. 
Attention to quality is found everywhere, reflecting the passionate commitment of Marimar Torres herself, who is involved in the production from dirt to bottle and beyond.
The house of Torres was established in Catalonia in Spain in 1870, though they were making wine there since the 17th century.
Marimar, who had been marketing Torres wines in North America, eventually established the MarimarTorres Estate outside Graton, California – about 10 miles inland from the Pacific - releasing her first Chardonnay in 1989 and first Pinot Noir in 1992, the year her winery was built.
Marimar is dedicated to following not merely organic, but even bio-dynamic practices in growing her grapes, and a walk through the vineyard provided an insight into the difference these practices can make.
At one spot, the Torres vines, which are more densely planted but with carefully limited fruit, are just a few metres away  from the vines of another producer on the other side of a gravel road.
Though the harvest was finished, there were still a few small clusters of grapes to be found, and so we did a comparative tasting: the difference was definitive, with the Torres fruit coming across with a cleaner, sweeter almost apple-like flavour.
Another interesting distinction surfaced with the soil: much of the soil in the region is “Goldridge”, a sandy clay mix, and while this holds true at the Marimar Estate, there is one patch in the highest part of the vineyard called the Stony Block which has an entirely different soil profile.
On tasting the Stony Block 2011 Pinot Noir, the contrast was clear – deeper and more tannic, earthy and Burgundian – it cries out for time.
In contrast, the La Masia Pinot Noir 2010, carrying a little more bottle age, reflects the whole estate, and come across as very nicely balanced with smooth tannins and satisfying red berry fruit – terrific for current drinking.
While the vineyards are clearly key to the quality, winemaking expertise shines through with the Chardonnays.
The “Acero”Chardonnay 2012 is still available elsewhere in Ontario in Vintages for $25.75 (whereas at the winery it is $29 U.S.) and shines with lifted flavours of honey crisp apple and citrus - the Wine Enthusiast scored it 91, observing that you wouldn’t even miss the oak, so rich and concentrated is this stainless steel example.
The most impressive Chardonnay is not distributed, the “Doblas Lias” – here is a wine which spends 20 months on the lees (the sediment that eventually settles out of the wine) including the lees from one of the other chardonnays, the La Masias, and develops incredibly rich and long flavours and mouth-coating textures - $45 at the winery.
In addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the winery is also making an Albarino, the classic white from the north of Spain, and a Syrah/Tempranillo blend, combining the classic grape of the Rhone with the star of Rioja.
I sincerely hope we see more of Marimar’s wines here soon.
$40 wines may seem like the rule in Sonoma’s boutique wineries, but a welcome and more budget-friendly approach could be found at the Hook and Ladder Winery.
Hook and Ladder marks the resurgence of the DeLoach family after it sold its original endeavour – that winery is still operating, and very successfully, just down Olivet Road from the new digs at Hook and Ladder.
Cecil DeLoach was originally a firefighter in San Francisco, prior to moving to Sonoma to start his winery; his family honours his firefighting past in the name of the winery as well as the names of some of the wines.
Cecil was responsible for steering the rear end of the long hook and ladder fire trucks, and the red wine that celebrates that, The Tillerman, $20, took best-of-class this year at the Sonoma harvest Festival in Santa Rosa.
 This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Sangiovese has a nose that suggests caramel, coffee and even tobacco, while the palate carries gentle tannins and some acidity with its medium body and notes of red fruit and leather.
In all, I think the Hook and Ladder wines would do very well here in Ontario.
If Hook and Ladder is on the more modest end of the spectrum, you need look no farther than the Francis Ford Coppola Winery just outside Healdsburg for a huge splash of glamour on a Hollywood scale.
Coppola himself referred to this resort-like site as a Wine Wonderland, and if Disney peopled his Wonderland with his creations, the Coppola family’s film work is clearly celebrated with memorabilia from various films, including small scale Man o’War fighting ships from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather.
You mount the steps to a huge terrace, complete with pool and cabanas, and enter into what resembles a French chateau, but with rooms clad in dark wood, you feel like you’re in an exclusive club.
Whereas in most tasting rooms you feel like you are in, well, a tasting room, here you find yourself at the club bar, served by a sommelier in livery.
When you get past the atmosphere, however, there are still the wines, and they don’t disappoint, both in terms of quality and price.
Three of the wines are in our local stores – the Director’s Cut Zinfandel 2011, $32.95, the Diamond Collection Gold Label Chardonnay 2012, $19.95, and the Diamond Collection Ivory Label Cabernet Sauvignon, $24.95.
They certainly aren’t cheap, but relative to the general price point for wines from the region, they do represent value.
I particularly liked the Director’s Cut Sauvignon Blanc 2012, $21, and think it would go over well here for the lushness of its body gained from being stirred on its lees, and for the grapefruit edge of its fruit.
The Chardonnay offers full ripe tropical flavours with oak and vanilla on the finish, and the Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend from across California, has a good balance of dark berry fruit and silky tannins.
The Zinfandel is all Dry Creek Valley, the winery’s home site, and it will please with its excellent fruit extraction, deep flavours and cedar notes.
From rags to riches, there’s lots to enjoy in Sonoma.
In Our Store
On the regular list, there are three great value South African wines to try, including both the Wolftrap Red - a Syrah/Mourvedre blend – and White, which combines Viognier with Chenin Blanc and Grenache Blanc.
Both are $13.95 a bottle and deliver nicely above their price.
The other new red is the Rib Shack Red 2013 Vintage Blend, $12.85, self-described as “wood matured and extra smooth” – it is actually quite harmonious with warm red fruit flavour and satisfying length.
While the current weather doesn’t inspire us to seek out crisp whites, you still might consider the Muscadet Sevre et Maine, white wines made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape in the western end of the Loire valley.
There are three in the Great Northern Road store, beginning with the Chateau de Cleray, regularly $14.95, but being cleared at $12 – it has very good lemony fruit, with just enough sweetness to take the edge off the significant acidity.
With the two Vintages examples, both $13.95, you have a choice between the Chateau Salmonière Vieilles Vignes 2012 which took gold in Paris and is described by vintages as a “seaside orchard in a glass”, and Domaine la Haute Févrie 2013, hand-harvested from vines in excess of 35 years of age – for $14 it can’t get much better than that.
For Malbec lovers, La Posta Angel Paulucci Vineyard Malbec 2012, $15.95 is a cut above, “quite dry and savory, showing a fine-grained texture and good energy to its berry and spice flavor, “ according to Stephen Tanzer, International Wine Cellar.
Buena Vista Pinot Noir 2011 from the Carneros region at the base of Sonoma and Napa is being cleared at the Great Northern Road store for $20 – a $5 savings for a wine that will give you red cherry fruit with some spice and nuttiness.
If you would rather have a rye, then Canadian Club’s new 100% Rye, $27.75 will impress you.  It is very, very smooth, and perfect for sipping.  Try it neat.
November 22 Release
Syrousse 2012 $17.95 from the southwest of France like the 2011 vintage has earned a Robert Parker Jr. 90  - a predominantly Syrah blend, it has the yummy taste typical of the region with lavender and anise notes but deep delicious flavour.
Washington State’s Seven Falls Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $17.95, follows the 2010 vintage which made “Top 100 Best Buy” lists last year –the Wine Spectator scores it 90 calling it “supple, expressive, and generous, with spicy blackberry currant and licorice flavors, pouring into the harmonious and polished finish. “
From South Africa, Vinum Africa Chenin Blanc 2012, $15.95, should be very good – praised the 2011 for “great precision on the nose… lovely poise,…and  beautiful focused finish…a blissful Chenin Blanc.”
If only someone could say the same things about me…
Kudos to the management of our Great Northern Road Store – the LCBO’s Holiday Gift Packs are in, but the store decided that it would not put them out until after Remembrance Day out of respect for those who served and are serving in our military.  It is good to keep things in perspective, isn’t it.
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