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07.21.2008

Vérité Wines, Sonoma: Current Releases

verite.jpgFormulaic is an adjective that is often leveled at some of California's top boutique wines and their winemaking. As if when you finally manage to afford all the components required to make a high-end wine, that somehow you just throw them together and, "poof" you've got yourself a $300, 94 point superstar.

This stereotype is especially convenient for those who can't afford to drink such wines. I should know. I still can't afford to drink such wines, and while I've learned better now, about 10 years ago I believed that the only thing special about big name wines was how much money people spent making them.

Not much richer now, but older and wiser by far when it comes to wine, I've come to realize that if it were just about money, then everyone and their brother would have a mailing list 5 years deep. If there is a formula to making a world class wine, it's so damn complicated that no one can simply buy it.

But nonetheless, it certainly is possible to set out to create a world class wine, and actually succeed. You might say that everyone begins that journey, but very few actually complete it. And if you look closely at those who do end up with truly fantastic wines, the common denominator is not money (though most certainly have that in common) it is something much harder to come by: a combination of knowing what the hell you are doing and the willingness to work your ass off.

Jess Jackson most certainly qualifies for the designation of a guy who knows his stuff. One of the most successful wine moguls of America, Jackson's successes range from the amazingly consistent supermarket wines of his Kendall Jackson brand to the luxury wine of Cardinale. So when Jackson decides to buy a few of Sonoma county's best hillside vineyards, plunks a house down amidst the rows, and begins a "little project" to make world-class Bordeaux blends, one should pay careful attention.

Vérité Wines is Jackson's "little project." Founded on the simple premise of farming the absolutely best quality Bordeaux varietals possible in Sonoma County and then turning them into carefully blended masterpieces, Vérité is one of the few highly sought after wines from Sonoma County that is not made from Pinot Noir.

Winemaker Pierre Seillan comes to Vérité after a long and distinguished career of winemaking in Armagnac, the Loire Valley, and Bordeaux, where he spent nearly 20 years as technical director for seven chateaux in the region. Recruited by Jackson in 1997, Seillan holds the title of "Vigneron," by way of explaining his role both in the cellar and in the vineyards, much like the winegrower-winemakers that are much more common in Europe. Seillan wields total control of the winegrowing and winemaking operation at Vérité (with an awful lot of help, of course) to produce wines that reflect his particular vision of what his vineyards have to offer the world.

Seillan describes his three vineyard sites in terms of "micro-crus" -- small sections within the vineyards which possess their own unique characteristics, and which Seillan attempts to harness like a conductor managing the various tones of a chamber orchestra. With all the notes available to him, Seillan constructs three melodies each year, named La Muse, La Joie, and Le Désir. Each is a particular blend of varietals, vineyards, and flavors that walks the line between paying homage to the Old World while embodying the New. La Muse emphasizes Merlot, La Joie, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Le Désir, Cabernet Franc.

This fine line between classic Bordeaux styling and California power is a difficult one to walk, and in this, my first taste of these wines, I'd have to say Seillan does it remarkably well. These wines have a brawn that you'll rarely find in Bordeaux, but they are miles from the extracted, oak-laden Cabernets that are far too common in California.

That isn't to say these wines don't use oak. After careful harvesting, sorting and individual fermentation of the grapes from each block of the vineyard, the wines spend 16 months in new French oak barrels, but despite this long engagement, the wood has only a suggestive presence in the wines, rather than a dominant flavor. After barrel aging, the wines spend another 18 to 24 months in bottle before release. Less than 1000 cases are made of each.

As I mentioned, this is my first time tasting these wines, and I found them to be truly impressive.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

2004 Vérité "La Joie" Bordeaux Blend, Sonoma County
Inky ruby in color, this wine has a rich nose of dark roasted espresso, leather, and forest floor aromas that jump out of the glass. In the mouth it is surprisingly lithe given its powerful nose, and once past a deeply earthy first impression it offers beautiful flavors of cherry, tobacco, cassis and notes of herbs that seem like a light haze mixed in with the fine dusty tannins. The finish is long and dry. A very pretty wine. 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 % Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. Where to buy?

2004 Vérité "Le Désir" Bordeaux Blend, Sonoma County
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine has a surprisingly Old World nose of earth, graphite, and the unmistakable scent of green bell pepper, which manages to hover well below the range of objectionable. In the mouth that greenness manifests as a hint of green wood studded in a matrix of bright cherry fruit dusted with fine tannins. Beautiful texture and a long finish make for lingering pleasure on the palate. 49% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Franc, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, with a splash (0.1%) of Malbec. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $200. Where to buy?


2004 Vérité "La Muse" Bordeaux Blend, Sonoma County
Dark ruby in color, this wine has a brawny nose of pipe tobacco, cola, and incense. In the mouth it reminds me of an operatic baritone -- rich, clear and resonant with flavors of cherry, tobacco, cola, and beautiful cedar notes that merge with the drying, powdery tannins. "Hot damn" I wrote in my notebook, "this is definitely the best Bordeaux blend I've ever had from Sonoma County." And all the while the finish kept going and going and going. 86% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Malbec. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $200. Where to buy?

Comments (28)

Rajiv A wrote:
07.22.08 at 9:07 AM

Question:

Having tasted only 2-3 young vintages from top Bdx producers, I was struck by how strong the tannins were. I've never experienced any wines that tannic in CA - I'd go so far as to say the Bdx's were an order of magnitude more tannic. Is that the case across the board? If so, do you think the reason for that disparity is mostly climate/terroir, or vinification? What does this mean for the ageability of CA wine?

Alder wrote:
07.22.08 at 10:48 AM

Rajiv,

The difference you perceive is mostly, but not entirely, a function of winemaking and winegrowing style. A competent winemaker can control the tannins in the wine pretty well through various techniques in the vineyard and the cellar. French AOC regulations drive many qualities in Bordeaux by dictating harvest brix levels, yields, and vinification techniques, and the rest are stylistic differences that are particular to the regions history. The best Bordeaux are made to age for decades, and tannins play a role in that aging process. Californian wines are by and large meant to be much more drinkable on release, and therefore are made in less tannic style, not to mention being picked riper for the most part. There are a few in California who choose to adhere much more to the Bordeaux style, Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards being perhaps the most visible (and controversial) example.

The Verite wines range from 14.2% to 14.7% alcohol, which means that they definitely fall into the "picked later than Bordeaux" category, but thankfully don't even begin to approach the raisined, jammy quality of California's more egregious examples of the form.

Rajiv wrote:
07.22.08 at 11:04 AM

Thanks, Alder.

The bell-pepper scents from methoxypyrazines are often treated as a flaw in CA, but are a frequent part of Bordeaux wines. As I understand it, sometimes it's not quite possible to obtain flavor ripeness without sacrificing sugar levels and tannin ripeness. In an effort to avoid bell-peppers, maybe CA vintners over-do it a bit. It's nice to see a vintner that doesn't shy away from this scent, but rather integrates it into a beautiful wine.

jim kopp wrote:
07.23.08 at 10:15 AM

It seems that over the years, winemakers in California have moved more and more in the direction of producing wines from the single variety/single vineyard block school, pursuing "perfect ripeness" and making wines that, while distinctive, reflect only that aspect of wine. they do this because in California, the climate is so good, they can. in the bordeaux, the lower ripeness and higher acidity would never allow for this, and so blending becomes the secret to making wines of complexity and depth. these calls into question "what is perfect ripeness". I would argue that the verite wines are a lot more interesting than many of the california "cults" because of their move away from this trend.

Joe wrote:
07.23.08 at 10:49 AM

Hi Alder - I first tasted these wines at the winery back in October and it was an impressive flight from multiple vintages. I have even found their entry-level Archipel to be an amazing wine. I am an avid francophile, but not a terroiriste, and I can appreciate how well these quality would show in a Bordeaux flight. Jess should be proud - these were amongst the best Bordeaux-styled wines I have ever tasted (and I have tasted quite a few top Bordeaux). I rarely cough up for "bling" wines, but a few of these made their way back to Canada. Full disclosure: I paid out of pocket for these, no freebies, and would gladly do so again (wallet permitting)

iamnotachef wrote:
07.25.08 at 10:32 AM

Hi Alder,

This is an exposition on the difference between France and California. I would argue that Jackson has the ability to create these obviously delightful wines because of the terroir. In California, the winemakers have the option of harvesting at various levels of ripeness, but in most of France, and all of Bordeaux, that option exists only occasionally. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new age in California, in which the extraction and ripeness that is easily found is tempered by blending with grapes that aren't fully ripe (in the California sense)but exhibit other characteristics.

Rajiv wrote:
07.25.08 at 11:45 AM

iamnotachef,

Why are the options more limited in Bdx?

iamnotachef wrote:
07.25.08 at 12:13 PM

Rajiv,

Because the weather in Bordeaux does not always cooperate, the winemakers are unable to expect fully ripened grapes every year. And they have done wonders within these limitations. But California winemakers have access to the full spectrum of ripeness, so theoretically they should be able to make consistently better wines that include the characteristics that Bordeaux is famous for, but also the incredible extraction and fruit that is the hallmark of many California wines.

Rajiv wrote:
07.25.08 at 12:40 PM

Is there such a thing as too many degree-days? I.e. in Napa, does the hot weather put the growers in a bind, albeit a different one than Bordeaux. I'd guess that too much sun would make the development of gripping tannins a problem.

I've heard that grapes seem to respond well to stress, and on the converse, elements such as fertile soil and water, that increase "vigor", lead to poorer flavor concentrations.

Maybe the difficulties of the French climate are actually better for depth and complexities in the wines than CA's warmth?

iamnotachef wrote:
07.25.08 at 2:19 PM

By no means is the soil in Napa fertile. Just take a look at the rocky hillsides where some of the best grapes are grown. The difference is that in California the grape growers can tailor the growing conditions because of an abundance of sunshine and a lack of those terrible harvest-time drenching rains that ruin grapes. They can manipulate the amount of sunlight the grapes get, control the reflected and absorbed heat, and prune vigorously, all as a consequence of abundant sunshine and almost no rain.

P.S. And those hot days are tempered by the cooling marine flows that make Northern California bearable.

Rajiv wrote:
07.25.08 at 2:31 PM

I didn't mean to say the soil was fertile - I was just giving examples of things that cause vigor. The fact that they can manipulate the sunlight the grapes get ("canopy management?") - that answers my question.

Thanks,
-Rajiv

Kirstin wrote:
07.27.08 at 12:36 PM

I've tried recent vintages of Verite and absolutely loved the wine. And they certainly do remind me of Bordeaux- in fact, they may are some of the most Bordeaux like wines I've ever tried from Cali (albeit Renaissance wines from Sierra Nevada). But the most joyous part about them was not how similar they were to Bordeaux, it was how damn good they were. Thanks for calling attention to the wines.

Veronica wrote:
07.28.08 at 12:10 AM

I am looking forward to the day when I get to try that wine. I have had their 2nd label wine, Archipel, and love it. The 2002 rocks and is only thirty bucks.

GregP wrote:
07.28.08 at 10:25 PM

Alder, don’t know where to begin. Tannins have nothing to do with anything when it comes to aging wines. Most of wines with best aging potential and capability are made from white grapes. Vouvray, QdC (Loire), German Riesling, Champagne are best examples and very few reds, if any, can age as well nor outlive these wines. The common ingredient in all of the whites I listed above is ACIDITY, more acidity than in reds. Also, take some better Chablis out there, no oak, minimal tannin extraction during winemaking and the wines age nicely (when done right). Acidity is nature’s preservative agent.

Tannin management is another wine myth. Last year there was a printed article with a re-post (by the author) on Parker’s board. The poster pretty much (smugly so) slapped his competitors (other growers) and claimed that A) tannins are only managed in the vineyard and B) only he and just a few others know how to manage tannins in the vineyard. Not only was article insulting to many great growers out there, but very WRONG on the subject. Tannins are ONLY managed in the winery. You give me any fruit you want, any condition, and tell me the level of tannin you want in the wine, I will dial it in, easily. There is a good number of ways to manage tannins and it is only up to the winemaker when it comes to the level of tannin in a finished wine, NO ONE ELSE.

And let’s not go into French AOC laws or rather, why they don’t matter for years now since everyone s breaking the rules on a daily basis. Look up RO process. Then look up winemaking at, say, Cos, for example. Why use RO on fruit picked according to AOC rules? Most of the high end Bords, I am not sure if ALL, use RO, for some time now. These days you’d be hard pressed to tell a high end Napa Cab from a Bord, same techniques in the vineyard and winery on both sides of the pond.

My group did a blind (we only do blind, as you know) lineup of CA Pinot last month. Someone snuck a bottle of 2003 Burg (mid level price wise, ~$40s) in there. OK, I know the 2003 was very hot in Burgundy, and so it was here, but the end result is that the wine in no way “stuck out” as an impostor, no one picked it as a Burg since it displayed exactly same way as 2003s from RRV.

Alder wrote:
07.28.08 at 11:05 PM

Greg,

You'll have to argue with Jancis Robinson on the tannins in the aging process angle: "Tannins play an important role in the aging of wine, particularly red wines, where pigmented tannins, are crucial to the color and sensory properties... Among reds, generally speaking the higher the level of flavor compounds and phenolics, particularly tannins, the longer it is capable of being aged." Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed.

While you may be correct that tannins are only truly "managed" in the cellar, choices you make in the vineyard (chiefly, the harvest date) affect the qualities of the tannins in your wine, right? Big difference between ripe seeds and green seeds?

GregP wrote:
07.29.08 at 12:50 PM

Trust me, I am really appalled with the "big guys" rather than posters like you. After all, you are right they are the ones propagating these myths without any scientific proof, let alone any common sense nor logical analysis. BTW, she is the one writing books on Bordeaux where in her mind Bordeaux was always Cab based, when in fact, Cab didn't make it into blends until early 20th century. I can point to many more myths and ommissions in her books and others', too bad people blindly believe this, but then again, we shouldn't blame the consumers. Malbec put Bordeaux on the map, nothing else, and while its a shame the French pretty much deleted Malbec from wine history, we the consumers, let them do that.

As for the green seeds versus ripe, you are correct. That said, with the exception of one or two people I know, no one picks when seeds are still green and unripe, they will impart very astringent taste to the tannins and no amount of aging of finished wine will ever correct the issue, unripe tannins will stay unripe. So, this is a moot point.

I was discussing the amount of tannins in the Bords, tannins that are not green, but simply overbearing when young. And this has nothing to do with growing, but everything to do with winemaking.

Rajiv wrote:
07.29.08 at 11:04 PM

GregP - You're challenging a whole lot of wine authorities. Do you have any backup? I'd be interested in checking out your sources, if you can recommend some.

GregP wrote:
07.30.08 at 1:20 PM

Rajiv, they may be authorities to you, but not to me. There is a lot of bad info out there disguised as "authority" books, I gave you a few prime examples. If you want more, look at Oxford guide to wine and their info on Petite Sirah. I haven't seen more erroneous info available, but hey, they are OXFORD GUIDE, right?

As for backing up my take on tannins, well, it is based on experience in the winery and common sense. I listed specific examples of wines that have minimal tannin levels and yet age better than pretty much any red out there. If you or Jancis have any better info than that, please point me to it, I'd be happy to learn.

Rajiv A wrote:
07.30.08 at 9:16 PM

GregP,

I guess I've been beating around the bush. Who are you? What wine do you make?

All the wines you list have high residual sugar, which helps aging (prevents oxidation). You might add Sauternes to the list. Champagne has several atmospheres of internal pressure that also prevents oxidation.

As for "common sense" - in this case I think it's misguided. You point out a small number of white wine styles, of which only the top examples are likely to age well, and state that they age better than most reds out there. Yes, that's true, but they also age better than most whites out there! In fact, most wines (red and white) don't age well at all, so any wine that ages, ages better than most wines. Your observations don't necessarily say anything significant about acidity vs. tannins.

-Rajiv

GregP wrote:
07.31.08 at 10:41 AM

Rajiv,

"... a small number..."? You're kidding, right? Last time I checked, Vouvrays are DRY for the most part. High end Champagne? Mostly dry. What does sugar have to do with ANYTHING?

Like I said already, the ONLY unifying common thread to all the wines in question is their high acidity content. Nothing else.

Rajiv wrote:
07.31.08 at 11:04 AM

According to vins-vouvray.com, the best examples of Vouvray, the ones that can age for decades, are made demi-sec or botrytized:

"Vouvrays come in all shapes and sizes and are redolent of terroir. The basic wines are dry (sec), with crisp fruit flavours, but some of the best wines are made in a demi-sec style that can be aged for decades. In the rare years suitable for the development of noble rot, fully sweet moelleux wines are made."

Almost all Champagne has residual sugar, even the driest category, brut natural, can have up to 3g/L. The sugar threshold for dryness is, according to Peynaud, around 2g. I still think the internal pressure is the main reason for champagnes being ageworthy -nothing's getting into the bottle with that kind of pressure.

I'm not saying acidity is unimportant. Parker has said that acidity is important to preserve fruit. However it is not "the only" reason for aging, that much all the experts agree on.

Please cite some sources, or tell me what wine you make, or in some way back up yourself so I can look into this further. I haven't made up my mind yet, but so far it seems like your word against the entire body of wine research and literature.

Check this out, from UC Davis:

http://www.ajevonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/25/2/119

It seems to say that phenolics such as tannins, as well as types of acids, force oxidation to occur by a coupled pathway. If this is true, both acids and tannins contribute chemically to slowing oxidation (which isn't necessarily the same as ensuring wine longevity).

GregP wrote:
07.31.08 at 6:54 PM

Rajiv, I am not here to advertise wine I make. Alder can vouch for me, if need be. I can assure you I make good quality wines known to pretty much any serious wine geek.

Just what does sugar content have to do with much? Vouvrays are pretty much DRY wines, top shelf Champagne are as well. Even the link and info you posted support what I am saying in terms of Vouvrays being dry for the most part with extremely few that I know of having any (new) oak aging (most wineries there can't afford new oak and resue barrels for many years). Thus, they and Champagne rely on ACIDITY since their TANNIN content is almost non-existent.

2g of sugar is pretty much dry, I can assure that most of what you and others think is dry contains at least that much sugar to begin with. But Vouvarys, again, are dry wines, and argue what you will about Champagne, they are a perfect example of acidity carrying the wine into old age.

Last time I disagreed with Parker, on a few subjects, he chose to run since his views were more than error prone, anything from high levels of CO2 in wine as preservative (ABSOLUTELY no SCIENTIFIC study exists to support this view), to brett and filtration. He doesn't understand the subjects well enough yet never misses a chance to spit out some obvious BS.

Do yourself a favor and read up on food preservation techniques/process, whether it applies to fish or meat, acidity is what drives the show and not only in food, but in wine as well. Old timers used to smoke a lot of meats and fish to keep "fresh" for a long time, yet the process ALWAYS starts with, you guessed it, BRINING. Adding acidity, in plain speak. No TANNIN, NO SUGAR. (You can tell I cook a lot, too)

TANNINS, whether you want to argue about sugar content or not, are NOT part of the wines I listed, at least not a part worth talking about. Funny how in defense of Jancis' stance on TANNINS you are now arguing with me about SUGAR being the preservative.

So, you DO agree with me that her view on TANNINS is erroneous?

If you want to watch something really funny, and VERY related to the subject, get to the Spectator site and watch MarryAnn review 2 Sauvignon Blancs, one a recently released one and another with 12 years of aging (from memory). When she gets to the aged wine, she states that "... the wine is still very nice and it is surprising it still has ACIDITY...". Well, tannins do drop out, this was a Fume bottling, BTW, and thus aged in oak, but acidity stays in wine no matter what. This is the state of wine we're living in these days and underscores everything that is so wrong with so many people reviewing wine, professionals leading the charge.

GregP wrote:
07.31.08 at 7:01 PM

Rajiv, just to point out the obvious from the links YOU supplied (UC Davis info), they say it is ACIDITY and TANNINS. While I disagree with them on tannins, I should again point out that neither Vouvray nor Champagne, and you can add German Riesling to the list again, see much new oak, if any, they are fruit for the most part, thus tannin is not a significant component in these wines. Leaving only acidity as the unifying element in all the wines we are talking about. Something I stated in my first post on the subject.

Like I said, it only takes some step by step logical analysis on the subject.

Joe wrote:
08.03.08 at 5:41 PM

GregP - you are forgetting the importance of residual sugars in German Riesling, Vouvray, Sauternes, etc. etc. - those are the longest living whites and all feature elevated sugars. Remove that and most (but not all - you did mention Chablis and Champagne) whites cannot age. I agree on the importance of Acid that is frequently forgotten.

GregP wrote:
08.04.08 at 12:48 AM

Joe, as with Rajiv, let's take things one step at a time. The discussion was on TANNINS, right? So, do we agree that tannins have little to do with aging?

Look up Vouvrays one more time, MOST are dry, yet age better than most reds. No sugar in play. And last time I checked all the high end Champagne has little RS, almost none, yet age really well.

Conversely, all the new age Zins that boast RS, are you saying they age well?

iamnotachef wrote:
08.05.08 at 1:39 PM

My experience with Vouvray is that the sweeter ones are the better, long lived examples.

I think that an autocratic attitude about what makes wine age-worthy is dangerous.

GregP wrote:
08.06.08 at 9:46 AM

And you'd be right, of course. But you seem to forget one additional detail and a very important one at that: sweet Vouvrays have MORE acidity than their dry brethren.

Let's do an experiment: take two pieces of fresh fish, one you preserve in salt and the other in sugar. Put them in the fridge. Call me in a few days and let me know how the experiment went.

GregP wrote:
08.06.08 at 11:15 AM

Better yet, get some dry tannin and add another piece of fish preserved in that.

This should settle any and all arguments, I hope.

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