Saturday, May 24, 2014

Stony Hill Napa Riesling

Unbeknownst to many, Riesling had great success and a much longer history than Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa. The dominating presence of German immigrants in the California wine industry by the second half of the 19th century had a lot to do with it. These California wine pioneers from Germany included: Jacob Gundlach, Emil Dresel, the Beringer Brothers, Jacob Schram, Charles Krug, Gottlieb Groezinger, Claus Schilling, Frederick Schweitzer, John Thomann, William Scheffler, Gustav Niebaum, George Husmann, and many more.

Napa’s “Great Wine Boom” during 1880s were led by the founding fathers of Napa  wine, mostly German immgrants like Niebaum, Krug, Beringer, Schram, Groezinger, and Thomann. During this time Napa became known for its superior wine quality among California wines mainly because of increased plantings of classic European varieties, especially Riesling. During a tour of Napa in 1892, the famous industrialist Andrew Carnegie was so impressed with the1888 Beringer Riesling that he said it was one of the best wines he’d ever tasted and placed a larger order the following month.

However, Riesling proved to be a difficult grape to grow in Napa Valley, where the climate was generally warm. The exceptions were the cool western hillsides, like Diamond Mountain above Calistoga, where Jacob Schram was confident Riesling would do well. Schram, originally from the Rheinhessen, knew that Riesling favored steep hillside slopes. California wine historian, Charles Sullivan, wrote that at an 1891 dinner for President Harrison at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Schram’s Riesling was the only Riesling and the only Napa white served.

By the 20th century, Riesling had almost disappeared in Napa as many wineries closed because of Prohibition and as red grapes such as Zinfandel and Bordeaux varieties became more dominant. Against this unlikely backdrop, Stony Hill Vineyard started in 1952, the first Napa winery to be established since Prohibition. The vineyard situated on the slopes of Spring Mountain was planted with all white grapes, mostly Chardonnay, followed by Riesling, then a little bit of Gewurztraminer and Semillon. Today, more than 60 years later, Stony Hill Vineyard has hardly changed. In fact, it has become legendary mainly because of its iconic Chardonnay. But its White Riesling from vines planted in 1948 is just as revered by long-time fans.

When I sipped the 2011 Stony Hill Vineyard White Riesling recently, I tried to imagine how elated Andrew Carnegie and President Harrison felt when they drank a great Napa Riesling like this Stony Hill during Napa's "Golden Age" in the late 1800s. Believe me it was easy to realize why.

Napa Valley White Riesling, Stony Hill Vineyard 2011 $27.00 (order)
A lovely dry Riesling from vines dating back to 1948 (22 to 63 years-old) on the hillside slopes of Spring Mountain. The dry-farmed (non-irrigated) vines are planted on stony soils in the cool microclimate producing a precise, vibrant Riesling with excellent acid balance and delicious depth of flavors that gradually open in the glass. This exudes the energy and elegant character of Stony Hill wines. Refreshing to sip on its own or with smoked trout and grilled asparagus. Vinified and aged in stainless steel. 12% alcohol. Only 330 cases made.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The New California Rosé

As the weather gets warm I start seeing things through Rosé-tinted bottles.

Apparently, I'm not alone. People are drinking more Rosés and every year the selection grows. But I'm picky. I just don't want Rosé made as an afterthought, usually from left-over grapes or left-over juice to generate extra revenues for the winery. No. I want Rosé from fruit intended for Rosé, and I want Rosé made by people who know how to make them.

After a careful search this spring, three California Rosé producers made my cut so far: LIOCO, Bedrock, and Arnot-Roberts.

In Mendocino's Redwood Valley LIOCO buy in grapes grown in benchland vineyards planted with head-pruned old vines that are dry-farmed (meaning no irrigation). The result is this juicy, flavorful Rosé called "Indica". It is made from "old-vine" Carignan planted "mid-century" according to LIOCO. The fruit was hand-harvested, sorted and then fermented in stainless steel tanks with wild yeasts. LIOCO's winemaker, John Raytek of Ceritas fame, proves that he knows how to craft real Rosé as well. The alcohol tops out at 12% and the price is just $19.

To avid fans of California wines made from old vines, Bedrock doesn't need any introduction. Morgan Twain-Peterson is one of the hottest young winemakers in California today specializing in California's heritage vineyards. The 2013 Bedrock California Rosé "Old Vine Ode to Lulu" is the latest example of Morgan's brilliant work. The blend consists almost entirely of Mourvedre--two-thirds from the 120 year-old Mourvedre vines in Bedrock Vineyard and one-fourth from Mourvedre planted in the Pagani Ranch in 1922. There is a tiny dollop of Grenache planted in the Gibson Ranch in McDowell Valley in the 1880s and Carignane from Ukiah planted in the 1950s. In other words, this Rosé is a treasure trove of priceless old vines in California. Alcohol is 12.3% and the price is just $20!

Arnot-Roberts works closely with a select group of small growers in Northern California farming vineyards in sites ideal for the grape varieties they grow. The grapes are grown and harvested to their preference, usually harvesting early for good acid balance and modest alcohol. Their 2013 Rosé, with fruit as usual sourced from Luchsinger Vineyard in Lake County, is made with Portuguese Douro grapes, mainly Touriga Nacional and a bit of Tinto Cao. These vines are planted in volcanic soils over ancient riverbed stones at 1,400 feet elevation in the Clear Lake AVA west of Kelseyville, California. Whole cluster grapes were foot treaded and the juice was macerated with skins for 24 hours then pressed into stainless steel tanks where it fermented in native yeasts. Alcohol is 11.5% and the price is a modest $26.

These three vibrant, manifold-flavored Rosés are as thirst-quenching and full of depth and flavor as any top European Rosé I've had, and are priced very reasonably.  But make sure you stock up on these California Rosés immediately as production and availability are very limited.

Mendocino County Rosé Wine "Indica", LIOCO 2013 $19.00 (order)

California Rosé "Old Vine Ode to Lulu", Bedrock Wine Co. 2013 $20.00 (order)

Clear Lake Rosé Touriga Nacional "Luchsinger Vineyard", Arnot-Roberts 2013 $26.00 (order)