Wine notes with Alicia Lee
Jed Steele has been involved in California wine production for nearly fifty years and has made a difference in the evolvement of California varietals. He has an affinity for making small production wines from often over-looked varietals, such as Lemberger, Aligote and Counoise. I find that I appreciate Jed’s approach to winemaking as he has a light touch; he lets the grape and place speak louder than the winemaker, like magic from a humble magician. In fact, Jed refers to his winemaking style as minimalist, using non-GMO yeasts, natural fermentations and no additives (think Mega Purple). Gentle pumpover during fermentation and gravity flow movement of the wine ensures that the wines are fresh and unbruised, giving the drinker the purest example of terroir without too much interference.
Ah, Zinfandel. The quintessentially American grape. From our forays into sweet blush wine to the heady alcoholic red, Zinfandel has been thought to be native to our land. Before DNA testing proved it to be identical to Primitivo from southern Italy and Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia, we thought this little guy was all ours. But we know now that it most likely came to us by way of Puglia.
I find that I prefer Zinfandels that are blended with other varieties as is the case with some of Ridge Vineyards bottlings. They are often met with Petite Sirah, Carignan and Mourvedre. So it did not surprise me to find that the Catfish Vineyard Zinfandel from Steele is a field blend of grapes that include Carignan, Alicante bouschet, Cabernet sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Cinsault. It wasn’t surprising because I found that it is delicious.
The nose hits hard with fruit. Blackberry, blueberry, prune, pomegranate all express themselves in both jam and ripeness. The nose is big, masculine and full of forest floor, leather, black pepper and eucalyptus. Complex is an understatement. This is surely because Jed leaves the field to speak through its blend rather than try to tame it into something homogenous. The palate is rich, dark and brooding. Full bodied with lush, integrated tannins this wine does not need age. It simply needs a glass and a willing gullet.
Interestingly, this wine is aged for 12 months in hybrid barrels, or barrels that have alternating American and French oak staves. The best of both woods, the wine is given a judicious amount of vanilla from the American and fruity tannin from the French. Bravo Jed. A great use of integrated wood for an integrated vineyard blend.
Are we ready to love Merlot again? Are we ready to forget about the “Sideways Effect” and embrace this right-bank Bordeaux varietal that has been so patient? If so, this a worthy wine to begin with.
Many Merlots are produced without much thought to quality. They are soft, jammy and not unpleasant but also, not age-worthy or even noteworthy. This was what Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways was referring to when he refused to drink Merlot. This is definitely not that type of Merlot.
The nose is rich with red fruits, tart cherry pie, plum, earth and herbs including eucalyptus. The tannins are relatively high for Merlot, allowing the wine some room to age and develop. The body is full and the acid supporting. The nose of wild or bramble berry reminds me of Washington Merlots. This makes sense as Lake County has high elevation vineyards that are blessed with cool nights and warm days, just like Eastern Washington. Aged for 12-months in both American and French oak, this is a fantastic Merlot! Pair this wine with red meats, pastas and cold winter nights.
This Cabernet surprised me with how instantly approachable it was, yet also how elegant. Coming from the Red Hills Lake County AVA, established in 2004, you would expect something special. High elevation vineyards on the edge of extinct volcanoes allow this wine to develop fully into a well-integrated Cabernet. Cool nights, warm days and volcanic soil offer the winemaker grapes that are worthy of envy in other regions in California.
There are strong notes of earthy, dark cherry that greet you as you inhale. This continues with cassis, dried floral and herbs. The glass contains 14.5% alcohol but it is so well balanced that this is not immediately apparent. The body is full and the tannins are supple, not at all what I would expect from a young cab. Aged for 18 months in a combination of French and hybrid oak barrels, this Cabernet can certainly be set aside in the cellar for additional time in the bottle, but it is tasting very well right now. Pair with roasted meats, hard cheese and rich sauces.
Roussanne is a varietal that calls the Rhone valley its home. There it is often blended with Marsanne and is one of six white grapes allowed in Chateauneuf du Pape. In fact, Chateau Beaucastel crafts their white CDP from 100% Roussanne. The name of the grape is believed to come from the French term, Roux, which means reddish brown; the same color the grape turns when ripe.
This particular Roussanne is a delight of aromas. This wine transported me to the social hour potluck after congregation of a country Lutheran church because it smelled distinctly of my first Waldorf salad. All the ingredients seem to be present on the nose: apple, cream, walnut and of course, grapes. The minerality is quite intense though, so it is almost like someone spilled their salad on the sidewalk. The body is full with an oily viscosity balanced well with a fair amount of acid. The wine is dry and I would say a bit bitter on the finish which some may dislike but I find it pairs well with food and my disposition.
This wine compliments cod, roasted chicken and Asian cuisine. It sees 20% new Hungarian oak and 8 months of age before release. The malolactic fermentation is arrested so the wine is a bright contrast to the viscous mouthfeel.
This is another Rhone varietal from Steele. In fact, Steele participated in the first Rhone Ranger event in 1998. The Rangers are a group of new world winemakers that focus on Rhone grapes grown in the U.S. Some other Rhone varietals include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Marsanne, Counoise, and Picpoul Blanc. There are 22 grapes allowed in the Rhone Ranger lineup.
Of course, Viognier has a very famous link to the Rhone region by way of Chateau Grillet in the Condrieu region. Grillet is a monopole, or single vineyard appellation designation. There are several of these in France, mostly in Burgundy, including Romanee-Conti.
This Viognier is wildly aromatic but not in a fruity way. The nose is redolent of honeysuckle, Brazil nut and star anise. There is some fruit by way of white peach that turns into gummy orange slice candy at a warmer temperature. The body is medium and the acid generous. This wine is both stainless and neutral oak fermented with 4 months of age before release. This is a skillfully made Viognier as many can lose their intense aromas when over manipulated.