Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.
This week included a couple of excellent Chardonnays. The first comes from Chile’s Casablanca Valley, where the Kingston Family has been making wine since 2003. Now in their 15th vintage, the family has been improving their winegrowing and their wines steadily for years, and this Chardonnay is a great example of just how competent they’ve gotten over the years. It hits all the right notes.
The second Chardonnay demonstrates the heights to which Chardonnay is capable of rising in competent hands in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Robert Brittan is one of my favorite winemakers in Oregon, and this wine shows just how good he really is. I don’t consider the apotheosis of New World Chardonnay to be something that tastes just like a White Burgundy, but it is so rare for West Coast Chardonnays to resemble their often sappy, saline qualities that I am always impressed when they can match those charms.
Before we move onto the reds, let’s not skip over a textbook Sauvignon Blanc from Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula, which does everything you want a Sav Blanc to do, but from somewhere that many people don’t associate with great wine.
Sticking with Michigan for a moment, I was very impressed with a Gamay from Mari Vineyards this week, which smelled and tasted just a touch like patchouli. That’s a scent that most people find overpowering, and for many, not pleasant, but it was a really surprising grace note in this wine that made for a distinctive and compelling personality. Mari Vineyards has been around since 1999, and its founder has made a name for himself planting grape varieties that are lesser-known and, in some cases, untested in Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula. This Gamay certainly would seem to reward that kind of experimentation.
I’ve also got two Pinot Noirs from Kingston, both of which are excellent but one of which, their “Tobiano” bottling, is quite likely the best they’ve ever made. In their first vintages, the Pinots at Kingston were dark and more weighty, but they have been picking their grapes earlier, experimenting with stem inclusion, and have ended up with some really elegant wines that I’m loving.
Finally, I’ve got a few Pinots and a Syrah from Robert Brittan that were good, but surprising for me in two ways in this vintage. First, they were on the riper side than I normally expect from this producer, though it should be noted that the 2015 vintage was warm in the valley, and generally made more concentrated wines, all things being equal. Secondly, these wines showed much more oak than I would have expected, and frankly a bit more than I wanted. Nonetheless, the wines are all very tasty.
Notes on all these and more below.
2016 Black Star Farms “Arcturos – Cappella Vineyards” Sauvignon Blanc, Old Mission Peninsula, Michigan
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of sweet passionfruit and candied lemon and apple. In the mouth, passionfruit and candied green apple flavors are lively with excellent acidity. A textbook rendition of Sav Blanc that can hold its own against most international interpretations. Juicy and delicious. Alcohol unknown. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2015 Brittan Vineyards Chardonnay, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon blossoms, grapefruit pith and a touch of butterscotch. In the mouth, beautifully textured flavors of lemon curd, vanilla, butterscotch and grapefruit positively sizzle across the palate thanks to excellent acidity. Gorgeous wet stone minerality and resinous notes lingering in the finish mean this would be hard to pick out in a lineup of Premier Cru Meursaults. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2017 Kingston Family Vineyards “Sabino” Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and grapefruit and lemon pith. In the mouth, juicy lemon curd and grapefruit flavors have a brisk brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity. A chalky minerality surfaces in the finish, with notes of lemon pith and grapefruit. Excellent. 13% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $27.
2016 Nicolas Jay Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
A cloudy medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry and cranberry notes mix with raspberry leaf and a faint earthy undertone. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit bright, and fleecy tannins gain strength through the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2017 Mari Vineyards Gamay Noir, Old Mission Peninsula, Michigan
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of faintly of patchouli and red berries. In the mouth, that exotic spice character continues, with red berry and lightly dried herbal notes lingering with sour cherry in the finish. Excellent acidity and really distinctive character. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??.
2017 Kingston Family Vineyards “Alazan” Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of a bit of struck match and berries. In the mouth, cranberry and raspberry fruit mixes with briary green herbs and a nice earthy undertone. Faint, gauzy tannins increase their grip as the wine finishes bright and juicy. Excellent acidity and length. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2017 Kingston Family Vineyards “Tobiano” Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of redcurrant and briary green herbs. In the mouth, gorgeously lithe flavors of forest berries, dried flowers and green herbs are draped in gauzy tannins. Stunning acidity and purity, representing the logical conclusion of a stylistic evolution that Kingston has been on for the past 5 or so years. This is perhaps the best Pinot Noir they’ve made yet. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $26. click to buy.
2015 Brittan Vineyards “Cygnus Block” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of oak and raspberry pastilles. In the mouth, the wine offers raspberry and cherry flavors that are surprisingly oak-inflected and somewhat riper than expected for this producer, though the warmer vintages may have played a role. Bright and pure in its fruit, with good acidity. 14.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2015 Brittan Vineyards “Basalt Block” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of black raspberry and cherry and oak. In the mouth, incredibly juicy flavors of raspberry and cherry are positively mouthwatering thanks to excellent acidity. This wine, though oak influenced, is holding its wood more than the Cygnus bottling. Lovely citrus notes linger in the finish with dried herbs. Faint, grippy tannins. 14.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.
2015 Brittan Vineyards “Gestalt Block” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of oak and cherry and raspberries. In the mouth, flavors of oak and raspberry are held in a fairly muscular fist of tannins, while earth and wet stone flavors linger in the finish along with notes of wood. Excellent acidity, but I wish the wood was more subtle. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.
2015 Brittan Vineyards Syrah, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry and oak. In the mouth, rich blackberry and black pepper flavors are tinged with oak and show the wood’s drying tannins as the mouth feels parched and sucked dry of moisture. Very pretty flavors and excellent acidity, but there’s just too much flavor of oak. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.