Sunday, July 15, 2012

Tasting with Luc Morlet at Morlet Family Vineyards

Morlet Family Vineyards
A Grand Tasting of Exceptional Wines with Luc Morlet
May 28, 2012 

     One of the last tasting appointments on our vacation was with Luc Morlet of Morlet Family Vineyards in St. Helena early on Monday morning. Since that day was our last day of vacation, I had a bitter-sweet feeling in the car on our way to the recently built winery just off of highway 29 on the very far north end of St. Helena. By the time we finished up at Morlet that feeling would be forgotten and we would be saying to ourselves how great that appointment was. We were in for a real treat as we tasted through the lineup of varied and solidly made wines. 
     Surprisingly, or not surprisingly if you know Luc’s background, we started off with a French wine. Luc poured for us his family’s Champagne as we got to know each other and talk about where we were from, what we do for a living, and how we had heard of Morlet. The Champagne was superb, showing crisp citrus and good yeasty bread aromas and flavors, a very traditional style. We moved outside from the barrel fermentation room, sipping our delicious bubby along the way. Luc walked us through the production line, showing us some of the custom made appointments he had made to ease the grapes into the wine making process. Luc showed us the de-stemmer and the sorting table that operates with a vibrating conveyor belt. The sorting line was designed by Luc himself to optimally sort through the berries and discard those not usable to make wine. From there the grapes head to fermentation tanks for a few weeks and later on to barrel for aging. 

      We made our way inside to view and discuss the French oak barrels used to raise his wines in. Luc has the exclusive import rights to one of the most sought after French oak wine barrels in Napa to raise Cabernet Sauvignon in. Located in Saint Emilion, Vincent Darnajou was previously the cooper for the famous Chateau Petrus of right bank (Pomerol) Bordeaux fame before starting his own cooperage. 

      We made our way to the table to start the tasting of the Morlet lineup at the beautiful centerpiece table. We started with the 2010 ‘Ma Douce’ Chardonnay sourced from an elevated hillside Sonoma Coast vineyard. The Ma Douce means “My Sweet” and thus Luc dedicated this wine to his wife. The wine is aged in oak from what I would guess to be a year in length with weekly sur lie battonage. About 90% of this wine underwent malolactic fermentation in barrel. A great start to the tasting, here are the notes: 

2010 ‘Ma Douce’ Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Color: A rich, deep golden hue 
Nose: Tightly wound by youth, the aromas are complex and varied with sweet vanil, orange peel, spicy pear, with some yellow plum and a touch of hazelnut. 
Palate: A richly flavored, yet elegantly textured wine, the flavors are packed in and deliver in layers the creamy vanil, orange and Meyer lemon, then move more to riper stone fruit with the hazelnut and orange spicing things up. A solid core of minerality adds backbone and structure. 

The second wine moved us into the second Burgundian varietal in the lineup, the 2010 ‘Coteaux Nobles’ Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. The grapes for this wine come from a vineyard one hour North of Hirsch near Sea View/Fort Ross on the Sonoma coast and is farmed by the Nobles family. The vineyard is on the second ridge east of the coast, facing east which combines the cooling coastal effect from the maritime breeze with the eastern mountain exposure above the fog in the sun for most of the day. The wine was super tight, finally relenting to show wonderful Pinot fruit notes with good texture and elegance. Here are my tasting notes: 

2010 ‘Coteaux Nobles’ Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 
Color: Burgundy purple red, with elegant red edges. 
Nose: Raspberries, cherry, earth and fresh flowers rise from the glass 
Palate: Elegance and refinement rule here with an underlying complexity. The juicy and fresh finish from the great acids is a plus to the already supply and velvety textures. The raspberry and cherry flavors fan out while the earthiness adds further complexity. 

The diversity of this outstanding lineup continues as we moved on from Burgundy to the Rhone. Up next is what I think is one of the all time great names for a Syrah outside of France, ‘Bouquet Garni’. In fact I said to Luc, this is such a great name for a Syrah, how was this name still available? Ironically enough he said that Robert Parker also asked him that same question. For those that do not know, a bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs like thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, and sage that are bundled or tied together in a cheesecloth and used to add savory and herbal flavors to all sorts of tasty traditional braises and stews. The Syrah grapes come from Bennett Valley in Sonoma County which is an up and coming site for Syrah. The vineyard ranges in elevation from 850 to 1,000 feet. I liked this wine a lot; it showed classic Syrah notes with new world flair. 

2010 ‘Bouquet Garni’ Bennett Valley Syrah 
Color: Purple with red, showing good depth and gradation to the edges 
Nose: A potpourri of fruits, violets, savory and spice. Some meaty and bacon aromas revealed further complexity. The aromas rose easily from the glass to show the complexity and depth that awaited the palate. 
Palate: Good depth and concentration with medium to full grained tannins that gave this wine a solid core of structure. Black cherry, black olive, violets and spice unfold elegantly across the palate. Cool climate, high altitude this is bouquet garni for sure! 

Next we took a break from the reds and moved into what Luc calls “intermission” as we were half way through the tasting at this point and we were going to have a white made from Bordeaux varietals Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and the rarely used Muscadelle. ‘La Proportion Doree’ translates into “The Golden Proportion or Rule “. The 2010 ‘La Proportion Doree’ was super tight at first. The structure and core of the wine was surprising to me as I expected more delicacy and raciness as opposed to strength and vigor. I said to Luc I would love to try this wine in 5-7 years as the wine has such a solid core and was so tightly wound. He excused himself from the table and came back a minute or two later uncorking the inaugural vintage, the 2006 La Proportion Doree which was 6 years old! I was so thankful and grateful for the opportunity to try this wine and taste it in its prime. I knew after tasting both of these vintages that this was one the greatest white Bordeaux I have had outside of the Graves in Bordeaux. This wine is typically about 2/3 Semillon, 1/3 Sauvignon Blanc Musque, and about 2% Muscadelle. This wine goes through initial fermentation in steel (2/3) and puncheon (1/3). A puncheon is about 80 liters larger than a hogshead, or wine cask as we all know it at 318.2 liters. From there the wine is aged for 10 months in French Oak barrels. In those barrels the wine does not go through malolactic fermentation, which helps keep freshness and acidity in the finished wine. Here are the notes on both wines: 

2010 ‘La Proportion Doree’ Sonoma County White Wine 
Color: A deep golden core, showing flashes of lighter gold flecks 
Nose: Lemon oil, honeysuckle, lime blossom, and a stony minerality. The nose was tight and took some coaxing to bring out these wonderful aromas. There is a richness embedded deep in the core of this wine hinting from the nose. 
Palate: Rich, yet elegant, the wine has a dense, muscular core that was slowly changing as the wine evolved with air in the bottle and glass. The flavors are concentrated with a beam of minerality and at the core there is lemon, spice and honeysuckle flavors. Finishes long and clean! Make no mistake this is not a typical acid driven Bordeaux Blanc look-alike. This white wine has power and depth, delivered with unrelenting persistence. We left a good amount of this wine in our glasses to go back to as we progressed further into the tasting with other wines. We went back and forth to this wine and the 2006 vintage since it was so tight. After about 45 minutes it finally relented and opened nicely. 

2006 ‘La Proportion Doree’ Sonoma County White Wine
Color: Golden yellow here too, though a deeper gold than the 2010 showing a touch of maturity
Nose: The aromas of the 2006 rose easier from the glass, as they should after experiencing the youthfully taught 2010 initially. Generous beeswax, honey, more candied fruit, orange blossom, and gingerbread spice aromas rise from the glass.
Palate: Rich, supple, more density than the 2010, the core of this wine was more fruit, with the minerality, and a nicely persistent soft acidity. Lemon oil, honey, beeswax and a touch of candied orange and spicy brown notes fan out on the palate. Finishes clean and long with good acidity and candied lemon notes. The length on the 2006 was just as deep as the 2010 but longer and more complex. This wine is older than the 2010, but it also needed plenty of time to open up. This is a confident wine that would stand proud shoulder to shoulder with its cousins from the Graves in Bordeaux.

Next up was the prime part of the lineup, the big showstopper 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon wines. We moved into the best trifecta of Cabernet Sauvignon we had on our entire trip, and that is saying a lot because we had a lot of exceptional Cabernet up until this point.

2009 ‘Passionnement’, Oakville, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
Up first was the 2009 ‘Passionnement’ that soared from the glass, showing a complex, powerful, and intense aromatic and flavor profile. Highly impactful this wine was big in every way, but those large proportions showed true balance. Passionnement was probably the most generous of the 3 big reds and is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Only the finest barrels are used for this wine as it ages for about 16 months in new French oak barrels.

Color: A deep purple-red at the core with a nice vibrant and youthful garnet at the edges. Nose: The nose is aromatically huge with crème d’cassis, licorice, black cherry, blueberry and sweet oak. 
Palate: The crème d’cassis and black fruit flavors really come through on the palate, with a dollop of sweet oak. The palate is silky smooth with a seamless texture and awesomely ripe tannins that provide a deeply generous and long finish. Probably not the longest aging wine of the group, but certainly a charmer that will likely be in its prime in 5-7 years and age for 15+ years.

2009 ‘Coeur de Vallee’, Oakville, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
The 2009 ‘Coeur de Valle’ seemed familiar and I recognized that aroma and flavor, it was To Kalon! Coeur de Valle is 76% Cabernet Sauvignon and 24% Cabernet Franc from the legendary To Kalon vineyard. If you have not heard of the To Kalon vineyard in Oakville, well, it’s not only the best source of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa, but one of the best in the world. Coeur de Valle has power and a solid, deep core meant for the long haul, but may have the potential to be generous sooner than one would think. This wine delivers well past the attack and strong through the mid-palate to a long, structured finish. The tannins are more prevalent, but the fruit intensity balanced well with the tannin.

Color: A dark red hue, with vibrant red edges. 
Nose: The nose on this wine shows fresh currants, pencil lead, mocha, a savory licorice note and Bing cherry.
Palate: The palate is tightly layered and complex, barely budging in immediate expressiveness but hinting at future greatness. The pedigree is there from both the hands of the winemaker and the legendary To Kalon fruit, it’s just many years away from its peak. Currants, cherry, and licorice fan out over the palate in tight, but persistent layers. The finish is long and tannic, showing the structure of a wine yet to show its best.

2009 ‘Mon Chevalier’, Oakville, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
The third and final Cabernet based wine, ’Mon Chevalier’, is from Knights Valley. Earlier in Luc’s career he made a little wine similar to this from the same region called Les Pavot that garnered critical acclaim and wide fanfare, maybe you have heard of it? The Knight’s Valley region has a totally different terroir than the two previous Oakville beauties. Knight’s Valley is more rugged with loamy, well drained and rocky volcanic soils. It is higher in elevation, and on average warmer than Oakville. This wine was also built for the long haul, and by that I mean this was tight with medium to full grain tannins that amplify the structure even more than the Oakville Cabernet wines. Mon Chevalier is reminiscent of a modern styled Saint Estephe from Bordeaux which is a commune that traditionally produces some of the most tannic wines with the highest proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux. The wine shows the complexity that this hillside vineyard should produce. It was a little tighter and had higher acids than the other 2 wines, but showed the most potential to age of the 3 Cabernet wines. Mon Chevalier is a traditional Bordeaux blend being 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 3% Merlot 2% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot. The vines for all 5 grapes are an average of 20 years old planted at 1,100 to 1,400 feet of elevation.

Color:  A dark red core with ruby red eges
Nose: The nose is more black fruit, cedar, earth, licorice, fresh coffee grinds, and blackberry.  Palate: The palate is persistent and fresh, with great acidity and medium to full grain tannins. Mon Chevalier is also only hinting at its greatness, but should easily go the long haul and turn out to be a 25+ year wine. The palate is full bodied and expansive, cascading over the palate we see hints of its greatness in the blackberry, licorice, and blueberry. The finish is right on the money showing great length and freshness, with a tannic intensity that should help mature this wine nicely.

The grand finale was a desert wine that was a mirror image to a fine Sauternes from Bordeaux. This is by far one of the best domestic attempts at a sweet desert wine, but also has cut and some verve to retain freshness.

2010 ‘Billet Doux’ Late Harvest Semillon
The Billet Doux is an exceptional sweet desert wine with a golden honey yellow hue. Nose: The first glass I had was not clean and the aromas were off so we changed wine glasses. In the new glass the nose showed creamy tangerine, honey, nougat, and stone fruits.  Palate: The palate was rich, unctuously thick and layered. The complexity of this wine was easy to enjoy as it was giving the taster a lot of different flavors to mull and distinguish. 100% botrytised, the Billet Doux is 76% Semillon and 24% Sauvignon Blanc. The finish is long, thick and sensually textured. Easily a showstopper at the end of a meal, this would pair greatly in the same way Sauternes would with Foie Gras, peach cobbler crumble, funky or sharp cheeses or even candied orange covered in dark chocolate. The persistent finish of this wine was relentless, showing great length and depth. As I said earlier, one of the best sweet wines made in this part of the world. 

As we finished our appointment we realized we were 20 minutes late for our next appointment not far away in Calistoga. We rushed through our purchases and picked a mixed bag of these wines to bring with us and some for shipment later in the cooler shipping season in the late fall. Luc was such a wonderful host, showing us the run of his business, answering our questions, comparing tasting notes, and just any other wine discussion in general. I could have spent several more hours picking his brain about the wine business and learning from one of its truly passionate, gifted, kind and talented personalities.

The next group had arrived and Luc did not even flinch. Luc excused himself for one minute and greeted the guests to let them know he would be with them shortly. He came right back to finish with us and make sure all of our questions were answered. Luc even helped us with directions to the next appointment.

This tasting at Morlet Family Vineyards was by far one of the best tasting appointments we have ever experienced. We look forward to tasting the rest of the portfolio on our next trip back to Napa, hopefully this fall or in 2013.

A bientot!


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