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 the debut vintage of a new wine brand — Strange Family Vineyards, who farm some organic acres in the Santa Rita Hills and have enlisted veteran winemaker Steve Clifton to make their wines. I only tasted two wines this week from the estate, their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I preferred the Chardonnay, which was lean and zippy and wonderfully sappy, while the Pinot came across as a little higher octane than it should. Nonetheless, this is a brand to watch, as organic farming plus the talents of Clifton would suggest the wines will be excellent, as the Chardonnay most certainly demonstrates.
Sticking with Chardonnay for a moment, I’ve got a couple of others to share this week. The first is the latest vintage from Smith Madrone, who make a classically influenced California Chardonnay that will satisfy those who are looking for slightly less oak influence but still hope to have the richness that has come to characterize the form. Compared, for instance, to the Strange Family Chardonnay, this wine is much fuller-bodied and nearly three degrees higher in alcohol.
The third rendition of the grape this week is an aged version from the famed Hudson Vineyard in Carneros. Farmed by superstar rancher Lee Hudson, the grapes have become more famous on other people’s labels, but for the last 15 years, Lee has been bottling some of his fruit under his own label. This 2011, from one of the coolest vintages in more than a decade, is holding up quite well.
Before we leave the whites, lets spend a moment in contemplation of Gewürztraminer, as practiced by Cartograph cellars in Healdsburg. Since his first vintage, Alan Baker has been making one of California’s best versions of this grape, which too easily gets cloying and bitter. Baker’s wines are always crisp and clean and delicious, showing off the aromatics that this grape has in overabundance.
Despite recent screeds to the contrary, orange wines (white wines made with extended skin contact) are quite tasty, and amazing food wines. The bottle of ramato Pinot Gris from Scarbolo in Italy’s Friuli region that I tasted this week is a perfect example of how tasty these wines can be.
Finally, I’ve got a couple of Pinots to share. The aforementioned Pinot from Strange Family, which suggests early drinking, and the quite friendly North Coast bottling from Cartograph, which is bound to satisfy a lot of people.
For those looking for something a bit heavier, last but not least, I’d suggest the Ladera Cabernet, which offers what every Napa Cabernet lover generally wants: dark richness and power.
All these and more below.
2015 Strange Family Vineyards “Strange 7” Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, California
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of lemon zest and lemon pith. In the mouth, wonderfully electric lemon and grapefruit flavors all but sizzle with fantastic acidity. Very little trace of wood can be found in this beautiful yellow, neon-bright bottling. Excellent. 11.7% alcohol, and with a quote from Mary Oliver on back, what’s not to love? Score: around 9. Cost: $29. click to buy.
2016 Smith Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain District, Napa, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and a touch of caramelized oak. In the mouth, bright lemon curd flavors mix with a hint of butterscotch and toasted oak. As usual, this wine walks the line between the fresher, brighter style of Napa Chardonnay and old school richness. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2011 Hudson Vineyards Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa, California
Bright yellow gold in color, this wine smells of lemon zest, candied grapefruit, and lemon curd. In the mouth, intense lemon curd and dried mango and dried papaya flavors are backed by fading acidity. Holding up quite well for its age, but drink soon. Alcohol unknown. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $65 click to buy.
2018 Cartograph “Starscape Vineyard” Gewürztraminer, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells of rose petals and candied orange rinds. In the mouth, crisp, bright flavors of orange rind and rose petal and lemon pith have a nice minerally dryness to them. No trace of sweetness. Just light and aromatic. Very pretty. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.
2018 Scarbolo “ilramato” Pinot Grigio, Friuli, Italy
A pale bronze-orange in the glass, this wine smells of pears and berries and orange peel. In the mouth, bright berry flavors mix with citrus peel and pomelo pith for a crisp, chalky-textured mouthful of citrus and berries. Notes of rosehip linger in the finish. Made in the ramato style with a few days of skin contact. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $16. click to buy.
2015 Strange Family Vineyards “Strange 7” Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, California
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dried cherries and red apple skin. In the mouth, dried cherry fruit has a slightly jammy, slightly herbal flavor to it. This wine tastes older than it should for a 2015. Not oxidized, but definitely headed towards secondary aromas. This may be because it was picked on the ripe side. 14.7% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $35.
2015 Cartograph “Transverse” Pinot Noir, North Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cranberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, juicy cranberry and raspberry flavors have a nice brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity and some very pretty sour cherry notes that linger in the finish. Aromatically sweet, this wine is likely to be a crowd pleaser. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $64. click to buy.
2015 Ladera “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cassis are draped in a fleecy blanket of tannins. Notes of cola mix with cherry in the finish. 14.6% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $60 click to buy.