Hello and welcome to my weekly dig through the pile of wine samples that show up asking to be tasted. 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 past week included some truly excellent wines, and something that wasn’t quite a wine. Let’s start with that unorthodox little number by Kivelstadt Cellars in Sonoma. Like many during the pandemic, winemaker Sam Baron found himself with some time on his hands. He started playing around under the moniker KC Labs, and given that one of his vineyards was part of a larger farm that also grew apples he thought, why not combine them? It makes a certain amount of wacky sense in a way, the bright acid-driven flavors of a just-ripe Gravenstien apple have more than a little in common with the flavors of Sauvignon Blanc. Combine the two and violá, you get Gravignon Blanc. It ain’t profound, but boy is it tasty and fun.
Baron wasn’t the only one using the pandemic as a time for experimentation. Arpad Molnar, his brother Peter, and their friend Michael Terrien run Obsidian Wine Company, formerly known as Obsidian Ridge, after their property in Lake County that contains extraordinary quantities of that volcanic glass. While their winery has become known for its excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Chardonnay from another property they have in Carneros, Arpad and Peter, along with their late father, are originally from Hungary, and have maintained an affinity for the wines and sensibilities of the “old country.”
When the pandemic came around, they decided to go down what they would later refer to as The Rabbit Hole. Basically, they just started playing around with some things they remembered from home, and handing them out to their wine club members for feedback. Some of the things they did were so popular, they’ve decided to make them available nationwide, including their version of what they used to call “farmer’s Champagne” back home. The pétillant naturel Pinot Noir they call Pezsgö (which means “sparkling” in Hungarian) is a good example of why there’s a big pét-nat craze right now. It’s bright, refreshing, and super fun.
Shifting gears a bit, and heading into top-tier Pinot Noir for a moment, I’ve got a number of 2020 releases from renowned producer Williams Selyem. These wines are a poignant reminder of the quality of a vintage “that could have been.” The year 2020 was, of course, a horrific fire year on the West Coast, and quite a few producers, from Napa, to Sonoma, to the Santa Cruz Mountains will have little or no wine to sell from that vintage, thanks to smoke taint. But as many commentators like myself have been pointing out, the vast majority of the producers on the North Coast value their reputations and customer relationships far too highly to release smoke-tainted wines. Those wines that do hit the market will invariably be just fine, having been double and even triple checked by their makers before bottling. In the case of their Sonoma County, Central Coast, and Russian River bottlings, Williams Selyem’s wines are more than just fine, they’re fantastic. Along with these regional bottlings, I also tasted a bottle of their Westside Road Neighbors Pinot, which is often one of my favorites each vintage. The 2020 did not disappoint. In addition to these Pinots, I also tasted their Fanucci-Wood Road Vineyard Zinfandel, which offers a lot of fruit for those who are looking for that sort of thing.
Lastly, continuing a theme from previous weeks, I’ve got some lovely old-vine Gamay from some producers in the Beaujolais village of Moulin-á-Vent. All those wines are worth seeking out for their blood-orange, boysenberry and herb goodness, but I think my favorite this week was actually the least expensive of the four, the really nice bottling from Château Bonnet.
I’ve also got one more wine review tucked in there this week, a fine little Malbec blend done in an old-school style from the young Eduardo Imberti in Mendoza, Argentina. He’s a friend of a friend, and his wines aren’t available in the US at the moment, but he’s looking for an importer. He only makes a few hundred cases of wine, and doesn’t even seem to have a web site, but I enjoyed this bottle he sent me. I can put you in touch if you’re an importer who’s interested.
Notes on all these below.
NV Kivelstadt Cellars “KC Labs – Gravignon Blanc” Cider, California
Pale yellow gold in the glass, this… wine?…cider?… Wine-cider? smells of baked apples and lemon pith. In the mouth, bright appley lemon flavors have a nice bright snap to them thanks to very good acidity. There’s not much complexity here, but the flavors are quite tasty. Would make a hell of a spritzer with some bubbly water added, but I’d be quite content to drink this on its own, well-chilled. It’s Fun! A blend of organic Gravenstein apple juice and organically farmed Sauvignon Blanc, co-fermented in neutral French oak. 10% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $27. click to buy.
2021 Obsidian Wine Company “Pezsgö” Pet-Nat of Pinot Noir, Carneros Napa, California
A light, hazy ruby in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of cherry and raspberries and a touch of orange peel. In the mouth, a fairly robust mousse fills the mouth and delivers bright cherry and sour cherry flavors along with hints of raspberries. Bright and cheery, and quite tasty, with a hint of citrus peel in the finish. This wine is a pet-nat of Pinot Noir that was bottled before fermentation completed, allowing the finish of fermentation to naturally carbonate the wine. 12% alcohol. 750 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $36. click to buy.
2020 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, California
A medium, slightly hazy garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry and raspberry pastilles. In the mouth, faintly candied flavors of raspberry and cranberry are bright and juicy and shot through with orange zest and hints of flowers. Juicy, boisterous, and bright, this is a hard wine not to love. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2020 Williams Selyem “Central Coast” Pinot Noir, San Benito County, Central Coast, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blueberries and black raspberries. In the mouth, juicy and bright black raspberry and blueberry flavors are zippy thanks to excellent acidity. Faint tannins are barely perceptible in the background, as notes of flowers and citrus peel linger in the finish. Quite pretty. 13.9% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2020 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries, cherry, and citrus peel. In the mouth, wonderfully bright and juicy flavors of raspberry and citrus peel, and sour cherry are positively mouthwatering thanks to excellent acidity. Faint, gauzy tannins stiffen a little through the finish, as flavors of flowers and citrus peel linger. Excellent. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.
2020 Williams Selyem “Westside Road Neighbors” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, wonderfully bright flavors of raspberry, dried flowers, citrus peel, and blood orange have a fantastic zip thanks to excellent acidity, along with a gauzy tannic texture that adds depth to the wine. Notes of dried herbs and citrus peel linger in the finish. Excellent. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.
2019 Domaine Paul Janin et Fils “Héritage” Moulin-á-Vent, Beaujolais, Burgundy, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich cherry and mulberry fruit. In the mouth, wonderful boysenberry and dried herb flavors are shot through with hints of citrus peel and dried flowers. Smooth, and with a stony underbelly, this wine is quite delicious. Made from 100-year-old Gamay vines in organic conversion. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $38. click to buy.
2019 Château Bonnet “Vieilles Vignes” Moulin-á-Vent, Beaujolais, Burgundy, France
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and boysenberries. In the mouth, blood orange and boysenberry flavors have a nice citrus brightness to them as well as an earthy backdrop that adds complexity. Very faint tannins. Very good acidity. Made from 60-year-old Gamay vines in organic conversion. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $23. click to buy.
2019 Domaine Richard Rottiers Moulin-á-Vent, Beaujolais, Burgundy, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass headed towards ruby, this wine smells of cherry and orange peels. In the mouth, cherry, blood orange, and dried flowers have a nice leathery tannic texture to them. Excellent acidity. 50-year-old Gamay vines. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.
2019 Thibault Liger-Belair “Les Vieilles Vignes” Moulin-á-Vent, Beaujolais, Burgundy, France
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of horse manure and dried herbs. In the mouth, flavors of blood orange mix with boysenberry, barnyard, and dried herbs. A hint of citrus peel lingers in the finish along with the scent of potting soil. Lightly muscular tannins. Made from 85-year-old Gamay vines. Organically farmed. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $34. click to buy.
2020 Eduardo Imberti Red Blend, Mendoza, Argentina
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blueberries, licorice, and black cherry. In the mouth, black cherry and blackberry flavors are shot through with a lovely wet earth quality. Excellent acidity, and a citrusy note lingering in the finish. Savory and a little brooding, the wine has a nice honesty to it. A blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, and Cabernet Franc, each fermented separately before blending. 13.1% alcohol. 4000 bottles made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Not currently exported, looking for a US Importer.
2020 Williams Selyem “Fanucci-Wood Road Vineyard” Zinfandel, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Very dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of ripe blackberry pie and flowers. In the mouth, sweetish flavors of blackberries, blueberries, and a touch of cocoa powder have a nice bright juiciness to them thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of licorice and ripe blackberry linger in the finish with just a hint of oak. A little rich and ripe for my taste. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $100. click to buy.