Vinography Unboxed: Week of 3/26/23

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 a couple of special sparkling wines, beginning with the Sunflower Sutra made by Josh Hammerling of Hammerling Wines. Formerly known as Blue Ox, Hammerling is an urban winery in Berkeley that has been making traditional-method sparkling wines since 2018. They have kept back some of their wines to develop longer in the bottle, as demonstrated by the Sunflower Sutra I tried this week, which has many of the qualities I look for in a sparkling wine, including that nice salinity that develops with long lees aging.

Speaking of a long time on the lees, Iron Horse Vineyards has perfected the art, and has stocks of wine slumbering in the bottle that allow them to do really cool projects such as their latest release, Stargazing Cuvee, which celebrates the successful deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope with a magnum-only late-disgorged wine that delivers wonderful richness and refinement on the palate.

I was also sent a number of new releases from one of my favorite California producers, Kutch Wines, and this week I’ve got three of Jamie’s Chardonnays to recommend, all of which are excellent. The Bohan Salt Point Block Chardonay is a particularly special wine, coming from a block of the vineyard grafted to Chardonnay specifically for Kutch. It’s a knockout. I also review his Sonoma Coast appellation Pinot Noir below as well.

Just when I think I’ve tasted everything that Two Shepherds Winery makes, a new bottle appears on my doorstep. This time it was their Soleil Albariño, which doesn’t taste like any Albariño I’ve ever had, but that wouldn’t stop me from finishing the bottle. I also tasted their Wiley Carbonic Carignan, which delivers the usual crunchy fun in a bottle.

Lastly, I was particularly pleased to get the chance to taste wines from a winemaker whose work I have not checked in on in several years, the immensely talented Helen Keplinger. I got the chance to try an absolute knockout of a Syrah that she made in the 2020 fire season with some fruit from her friend Chad Melville in Santa Barbara County. It’s easily one of the better renditions of that grape to be found in California. I also got a chance to taste two of Helen’s Cabernet’s as well, both of which are excellent, though I favor the bottle RBK named in tribute to her father. If you are in the market for three-digit Cabernet from Napa, you’ll want to find your way to some of these bottles.

Notes on all these below.

Tasting Notes

2018 Hammerling Wines “Sunflower Sutra” Champagne Blend, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass with medium bubbles, this wine smells of apples, kelp, and sea air. In the mouth, a voluminous mousse delivers flavors of apples, toasted sourdough, citrus pith, and a hint of berries. Nice citrus peel and golden apple skin notes linger in the finish, along with a faint salinity. A blend of 41% Chardonnay, 33% Pinot Noir, and 26% Pinot Meunier aged on the lees for 38 months. 12.1% alcohol. 25 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $39. click to buy.

2014 Iron Horse Vineyards “Stargazing Cuvee Brut” Champagne Blend, Green Valley, Sonoma, California
Pale gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of apple and toasted sourdough. In the mouth, apple, seawater, and citrus peel flavors are quite delicious. Hints of kumquat and almond skin emerge on the finish. Nice soft mousse. Excellent acidity. A blend of 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir, bottled in magnum only. Spends 7 years aging on the lees in bottle. 2 g/l dosage. 12.5% alcohol. Disgorged and labeled to commemorate the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Score: around 9. Cost: $195. click to buy.

2021 Kutch Wines Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and white flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously bright lemon curd and lemon zest flavors have a bright salinity to them and a fantastic acidic edge. Notes of grapefruit and lemon juice linger in the finish with a hint of piney resin and sea air. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $49. click to buy.

2021 Kutch Wines “Trout Gulch Vineyard” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone, white flowers, pastry cream, and a hint of citrus pith. In the mouth, citrus pith, pastry cream, white flowers, and a hint of linalool all have wonderful filigreed acidity. Stony and silky and bright. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2021 Kutch Wines “Bohan Salt Point Block” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, lemon pith, pomelo zest, and sea air. In the mouth, gorgeously saline flavors of lemon pith and lemon oil mix with stony quartz-like crystalline qualities. Stunningly gorgeous and bright. Phenomenal acidity with a hint of pineyness in the finish. Utterly Outstanding. The bottle did not have the final label, so I don’t know the alcohol level, I would assume it is around 13%. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??.

2022 Two Shepherds “Soleil” Albariño, Lodi, Central Valley, California
A light, cloudy yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells intensely of dried lemon rind and bee pollen. In the mouth, the wine is bright with candied lemon and chamomile flavors that have a sneaky acidity that creeps up on you. I would never guess this was Albariño, as it’s missing the steely greenness that I associate with that variety, but it is not without its merits in this form. Farmed organically (certified) and fermented with native yeasts. Aged 55% in neutral wood, 45% in steel, bottled unfined and unfiltered. 12.9% alcohol. 250 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2022 Two Shepherds “Wiley – Carbonic – Trimble Vineyard” Carignan, Mendocino County, California
A distinctly hazy medium purple color in the glass, this wine smells of boysenberries and cherry. In the mouth, cherry, boysenberry, and huckleberry fruit flavors are crunchy with bright acidity and possess a powdery, chalky tannic texture that coats the mouth and brings in a crushed stone quality. Fresh and juicy. Grown in a dry-farmed, organic vineyard with vines averaging 75 years old. Fermented with native yeasts and aged in steel. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. 10.7% alcohol. 300 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $26. click to buy.

2021 Kutch Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor, cranberry, and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, bright and juicy raspberry and cranberry flavors are wrapped in a lightly muscular sheet of tannins. Excellent acidity leaves notes of dried flowers and citrus peel in the finish along with that herbal/woody note that suggests the 50% whole cluster fermentation. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $63. click to buy.

2020 Keplinger “Gratus Amico – Donna’s Block” Syrah, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bloody meat, blueberries, and the woody herbal scent of whole cluster fermentation. In the mouth, salty, blueberry, and blackberry flavors have a faint smoky note and some lovely umami. Gorgeously stony, with white pepper aromatics and fine-grained tannins. Utterly delicious. Donna’s block is all own-rooted vines. 100% whole-cluster fermentation. 14.5% alcohol. 90 cases made. A one-off wine made with some fruit offered by Keplinger’s friend Chad Melville in the wake of the 2020 fires in Napa. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $80.

2019 Keplinger “RBK – Oakville Ranch Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa, California
Dark inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty earth, cherry, and black cherry. In the mouth, bright and rich flavors of cherry and cassis mix with tobacco and darker earthier notes. Dried herbs and flowers bring in high notes but the tannins are the compelling bit. Supple and smooth and deliciously sensuous. A gorgeous wine. Contains about 5% Cabernet Franc. 14.7% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $200.

2019 Keplinger “Vine Hill Ranch” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa, California
Dark inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and a touch of meat and more cherry again. In the mouth, layers of bright cherry fruit have a powdery tannic texture and juicy luscious core of fruit, with supple tannins, great acidity, and notes of licorice and citrus peel in the finish. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy.