Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery Visit 

plus the 30/40th Anniversary Tasting 

St. Helena, Napa Valley & New York City

Welcome to the beautiful Spottswoode Estate
     Spottswoode Estate not only produces some of my favorite wines, the Estate is probably my favorite site for a winery and vineyard. I always joke around with Lisa that one day I would like to buy it. Rather, more realistically of course, it would be a significant source of inspiration if a home in a wine region becomes a possibility. Another reality is that what the Novak family has built is so special, it literally is priceless. Until either of those days arrives, we'll have to settle on our winery visits and wonderful bottles of Spottswoode wines.

     The wines of Spottswoode are eternally classic and some of the most original in the wine world. One of my personal favorites, the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, has been compared to some of the great Chateau in Margaux. However to this wine geek the Spottswoode Estate exceeds any comparison because of the unique virtues the Novak family and the Estate's history express in their wines. Passion, heritage, sustainability, terroir, consistency, elegance and balance are all words that come to mind when I think of Spottswoode.

One of the first views off the Spottswoode property as you enter through the gates
     Last year Lisa and I visited Spottswoode for the second time. Each visit has been different and special as the property gets situated to expanding its hosting capabilities. I had been purchasing Spottswoode on and off since the 2002 vintage, but our first visit was not until 2007. On that first visit we were able to try the inaugural 2005 vintage of the Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon poured in the old Kraft Winery stone barn that is one of the original "ghost wineries" of Napa Valley. The stone barn then and now is used to store the barrels aging the Spottswoode wines. On both tours we walked through the wine making facility, checking out the fermentation tanks, including the concrete eggs that ferment a percentage of their exceptional Sauvignon Blanc. Later we moved on to the vineyard and home across the street on the main Spottswoode property. As we stepped through the Spottswoode gate to the Estate home the first time the experience was remarkable, almost like stepping through time and space to days gone by. I could feel the heritage settle upon me just walking through the gates as my eyes took in the view of the towering trees, a remarkably manicured landscape and a gorgeously classic Victorian style home. I found it hard not to instantly fall in love with this special place.

Egg fermenters!
Concrete fermentation tanks
Steel fermentation tanks
A ghost winery, the Kraft stone barn
Inside the Kraft stone barn where the barrels rest
     On our first visit we tasted the 2004 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in the gardens and poolside where the Novak's two friendly black Labrador Retrievers Riley and Murphy greeted us and were looking for some pet attention that we were glad to provide. On our second visit last year in 2012 we learned sadly that Murphy had passed on and Riley was the sole pup holding down the fort. On our last tour we tasted all of the wines in a tasting room in the home on the old Kraft property adjacent to the stone barn. The Kraft home is also Victorian and was refurbished to house the Spottswoode business offices, entertainment facility and now where the tastings take place.

The front porch
     Some light reading on the Spottswoode website and their great mailers provided me with a boatload of facts I pieced together for you in the following brief history of the Spottswoode Estate. The story of Spottswoode starts back in 1882 when the property was founded by George Schonewald originally naming it "Esmerelda" which was Spanish for Emerald. Not long after in 1884 Schonewald sold a plot to Frank Kraft who then started the Kraft Winery and erected the house the Spottswoode businesses currently reside and the majestic stone barn that is now where barrel aging takes place. The Novak family acquired the Kraft property in 1989 effectively re-uniting the original property. For a brief time the property changes hands twice, changing names from Esmerelda, briefly to Lyndenhurst and then to Spottswoode in 1901 by the new owner Mrs. Albert Spotts where it would remain in that family until the Novak family acquired the property in 1972. Over the next 10 years through learning, experimentation, and a lot of hard work the Novak family produced its first Cabernet Sauvignon with the 1982 vintage. As the years went by Spottswoode was led by some great winemakers. Starting with the great Tony Soter in 1982, tenures followed that included Pam Starr, Rosemary Cakebread and Jennifer Williams. In 1985, many, many years ahead of its time, Tony Soter implemented organic farming principles at Spottswoode that to this day have grown into modern organic and sustainable farming practices.

What a back yard!  The Spottswoode Vineyard
The archway over the gates leading into the Spottswoode property
     On our second visit all of the wine tasting was in an ornate dining room with a plethora of glasses and Spottswoode folks there to guide us through each wine of the current releases. I like this tasting format as it allows the taster to take notes and at the same time discuss the wines with the tasting participants and the winery team. The current winemaker Aron Weinkauf dropped in for a few minutes and we chatted for a while on the new Syrah fruit source for the Field Book wine, the recent vintages of the Estate Cabernet and the current one unfolding. 2012 will be a special vintage in Napa, possibly the best ever so stay tuned on how the 2012 wines develop. Here are our tasting notes from the most recent visit to Spottswoode in May of 2012.

2011 Sauvignon Blanc (Tasted May 2012) 
Composed of 65% Sauvignon Blanc and 35% Sauvignon Musque. 
Lemon, fresh cut grass and gooseberry aromas and flavors, with some fresh herb notes, and mineral notes with tight and clean acidity. There must be less new oak on this wine, in fact the oak is barely noticeable. Some steel, concrete egg and oak barrels are used to ferment this wine. The source of the fruit is 54% Napa Valley and 46% Sonoma Mountain.

The concrete eggs ferment and stir the wine on its lees inside the egg, as that is the idea of the shape. Natural fermentation is quite active with the fermenting juice jostling inside the fermenting device. In the concrete egg, the wine actually moves in a cycle inside the rounded egg shape, sort of like battonage in a barrel. But in this case there is no assistance needed by manually stirring the wine. The rounded shape of the egg moves the fermenting juice around the egg without any battonage, its self-propelled. In 2011 a technique used primarily in Beaujolais was utilized in this vintage of the initial fermentation of the Sauvignon for this vintage. That technique being "Carbonic Maceration" tends to brighten the fruit and freshen the wine to the benefit of the drinker with an earlier drinking window. Fun fact: carbonic maceration is a type of whole cluster fermentation inside the grape berry in a carbon dioxide environment within a sealed container. 

2009 Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon
Composed of 97% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Cabernet Franc 
Aromas and flavors of pencil lead, currants, cherry, vanilla and a dollop of sweet oak rise from the glass and spread across the palate. The palate is plush and generous, with sweet and fine tannins. This is a much earlier drinking wine and seems almost like it is made in a different style compared to the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit for this wine is all Spottswoode Estate fruit. I love this fact about this second wine as it's rare to have this situation and I think the wine keeps getting better with each new vintage. I have to assume the fruit is from the younger juvenile vines and those parcels not producing complex enough fruit for the Estate wine. The wine is utterly delicious and flattering, more for immediate enjoyment as opposed to the complex and cerebral Estate wine. Aged for 20 months in French oak barrels, 50% are new barrels.

2009 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 
95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot 
The 2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was drinking well, but seemed like it might have been going through a bit of bottle shock or starting to close down. The wine was great, but I felt like the layers or bands of flavor and composition of the wine felt more deliberate, like they had not fully integrated yet. Each layer was great, but this was just what can happen when you taste young wines, sometime they are shy and not showing their best. A few months later I would taste the 2009 again and would find out the wine had just not integrated fully yet as the wine was tasting like a superb young wine should.

The wine was not super showy this time around, so my notes are a little light, but we had currants and licorice, herbs and pain grille, with great aromatics for such a young wine. The tannins were perceptively fine, but don't be fooled the fruit was masking most of those young tannin. Ample acidity finished off this wine nicely. The one thing I thought was different was the color. The color grading of the wine seemed like it was maybe 5-10 years old as it had lighter red edges and a claret like rouge at the core.

- 30/40th Anniversary Tasting -

In mid-September 2012, the Spottswoode team marked the 30 year anniversary of making their own wine and 40 years of the Novak family living at the gorgeous Spottswoode estate on Madrona Avenue in St. Helena. A few older vintages of the Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon were poured, as well as the current vintage releases of the entire portfolio. The whole family was there greeting and talking to their customers in a casual, walk around setting.

I highly recommend these wines if you are a fan of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon as this wine is a benchmark for Napa. When I think of the top wines and wineries in Napa Spottswoode is always near the top for me. As you can tell Spottswoode is a personal favorite and I collect their wines in most years. The wines are for the most part available in the retail market, but they go fast so either sign up and get on their mailing list or if you see it at your local wine shop snap up a bottle. The estate Cabernet is an expensive wine, but one of the best money can buy. I would even venture to say it is a value when you compare it to the $300+ Napa Valley cult wines that will remain nameless in this particular article.Here are the wines and the tasting notes from the anniversary tasting last September 2012 in New York. 

2011 Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 
The sauvignon blanc has really come together nicely since I had it last. There is more stone fruit, the texture has gained a little weight, but the length seems to have extended. The aromatics are similar, but with a touch more citrus and peach over the grassy notes. If you like Sauvignon Blanc this is always one to check out.

2010 Field Book Rhone 
100% Syrah, Griffin's Lair Vineyard, Sonoma Coast 
A few years ago I became disenchanted with California Syrah, I felt I was not discovering anything new after a while. The last few years however I have had some of the best ever from California and see things getting better as the grape that was once heralded "the next Merlot" is understood more and planted in better vineyard sites for optimal fruit and terroir expression.

2010 is the first vintage the Field Book was made from the Griffin's Lair vineyard in the Petaluma Gap. Some of my favorite Syrah has come from this vineyard so was I was intrigued to say the least.  The color was dark, almost opaque but still maintaining a solid red appearance. Twirling the wine in my glass, appealing and typical Syrah notes of cracked pepper, meat, spice and earth rose from the glass. The palate also brought blueberries, licorice, more peppercorns, and roasted coffee beans. I was very impressed and would recommend this Syrah to any fan of Rhone wines.

2010 Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon 
97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Cabernet Franc, 1.5% Petit Verdot
The Lyndernhurst Cabernet Sauvignon draws its name from one of the earlier names of the property before it was owned by the Spotts family in the early 20th century. The wine is alluring, sensual and immediately appealing from the generous fruit and more than ample, but silky structure. The fruit for the Lyndenhurst wine comes from the same vineyard as the Estate Spottswoode, but is likely the younger vines or those parcels of the vineyard that do not fit into the vision the winemaker has for the Estate wine. Only 40% of the oak used to age this wine in barrel is new, the rest are neutral oak.

The bouquet of the Lyndenhurst 2010 is full of black cherry, creme d'cassis, pencil shavings, and currants. This has a lot of fruit going on! The palate adds blueberries and some loam to go with the fine to medium tannins. This has a great finish, silky, fruit driven and long.

1994 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (from Imperial 6.0L) 
To me tasting older vintages of fine wine is a real treat, one that many people do not get to experience or sometimes understand. I love all kinds of wine, but like anyone else I don't want all wines at all times to drink. I also understand that because I do not want it, it does not mean I do not like it. Some folks I overheard at this tasting event definitely did not subscribe to this based on their comments....whatever!

This was a fine wine and from what I could tell just past its apex, but still very enjoyable. The color was not bricking yet but was a light red at the edges. Aromas of tobacco, bay leaf, muddled and dried red fruits and herbs were observable. The palate was more dusty in texture with a medium to fine body. The finish was clean and fresh, with lean to lighter red fruits streaking the palate.

2004 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 
97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc 
The 2004 seemed to be in a great drinking window, the wine showed all of the great traits of a young Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Showing the best of the evening, the 2004 Estate was a real treat and very accessible. Aged in French Oak barrels, 70% were new barrels. This wine had a luxurious nose, with great fruit expression and a wonderful vibrant, appealing and long finish.

The color of the 2004 Estate was a nice garnet core with red edges. The nose was giving off licorice, black cherry, cinnamon spice, and mint. The flavors fanned out over the palate with good oak integration. The tannins were a silky fine to medium grain. The 2004 Estate is a nice and complete wine and is drinking very well at this time, solid.

2009 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 
95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot 
The youngster of the Estate Cabernet Sauvignons being poured this evening was a familiar friend as this was my second tasting of this wine in 4 months (see above note). Tightly wound (as it should be), this was in a better place than when I had it a few months ago. The wine had come together nicely, it was super tight and rock solid to the core.

The core color was a deep red with vibrant, youthful red edges. Aromas and flavors of cherry, bakers chocolate, licorice, graphite, with cedar with spice notes. The palate was very concentrated with a persistent attack of fruit, a great mid-palate, and followed by medium grain, but ripe tannin. Aged in 100% French Oak, the 69% new oak is integrated perfectly into this wine. A long, fruit driven finish is fresh and immediately pulls you back for more. I will enjoy seeing how this wine develops over the years.

A bientot!

- Tom

A bientot!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Merlot's Homeland 

Bordeaux's "Right Bank" 
Day 1 

Touring Pomerol and Saint Emilion

Photo op at the minimalist Chateau Petrus

     A few years ago Lisa and I took a vacation to France for a few weeks. One of the best vacations we had on multiple levels, we based our stays outside of Paris near the wine regions of Provence and Bordeaux. Having heard horror stories about visiting Chateau in Bordeaux, I started my reservation requests 6 months in advance of our arrival. It was not easy for the Left Bank, but almost every Chateau welcomed us that I looked into.  Those Chateau that could not accommodate us were quite gracious in letting us know they were full or under construction.  We added a few more Chateau visits from the Weekend de Amateurs (now known as "Week-End Des Grands Crus") that took place during our stay in Bordeaux.  

     The Right Bank Chateau were a little easier to make appointments with and more than hospitable than some of their Left Bank counterparts, mostly because they have put in place consumer hospitality services.   Many Left Bank Chateau have put a lot of their resources and energy into hosting wine industry guests, and less so for consumers.  A few of my appointments came out of connections I made with the Chateau from attending tastings events where I try to have meaningful conversations, take business cards and follow up on the conversation with a friendly email.  A few Chateau went above and beyond and I still catch up with a few of the proprietors when they come to Manhattan for the annual UGC tastings.  Many of these Chateau visits have directed my wine purchases over the following years, especially from the outstanding 2009 vintage that was in barrel when we were in Bordeaux and the 2010 vintage that was still on the vine while we were there.   At most Chateau we were able to taste the glorious youthful barrel samples from 2009, those were once in a lifetime tastings we will not soon forget.  

     After that brief refresher, I wanted to get to the point of this posting, and write about the wonderful time we had while touring the Bordeaux Right Bank villages of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. In case you are not a wine geek, wines from the Right Bank are primarily made from the Merlot grape, with Cabernet Franc being the grape most often paired with the Merlot from these two villages. Cabernet Sauvignon is in the mix, but appears much less frequently and usually in minute percentages.  If Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of red grapes, Merlot is the prince, and Pinot Noir the Queen.

     Day 1 on the Right Bank took us through the villages of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol on an cloudy and overcast day, visiting 3 Chateau with a larger group as a part of the Weekend des Grand Amateurs. Never a fan of tours of this size, the tours were well executed, if a little less than personal. We were surrounded by picture happy tourists that I think had no idea they were at hallowed ground for wine production, but we paid them no mind and the proprietors welcomed us and our geeky wine questions with a warm welcome.

Up one of the limestone hills lies the Troplong Mondot wine-making facilities

     Our first stop was at Chateau Troplong Mondot in Saint-Emilion which is ranked a Premier Grand Cru Classe "B" in the Saint-Emilion wine classification. Margaux, the daughter of the proprietor who purchased the property a few years ago, graciously welcomed us and took us through a tour of the limestone vineyards, the vilification equipment, the barrel room and then the tasting salon and back vintage library to sample the 2007 vintage being poured that day. At one point we made our way to the actual Chateau which is down the hill from the wine making facilities and overlooks more vineyards with a direct view of the church tower that landmarks the landscape as the village center.  Recently it was opened up to guests to stay overnight in a few of the charming bedrooms serving as guestrooms.  Not long after our trip to France in early 2010 I tasted the 2008 in Manhattan at the annual UGC tasting and was very impressed.  Since these experiences I have purchased Troplong Mondot from that 2008 vintage, even acquiring some older vintages like the 1998.

     The second stop was at Grand Cru Classe Chateau Larmande for lunch. We had a less than memorable box lunch with magnums of the Chateau Cadet Piola, which was the perfect lunch wine as it was easy drinking and nothing too complex to think about. Our guide and the friendly hosts at Larmande were very nice and hospitable. They showed us around the property, passing by many fermentation tanks, the barrel aging room and later into the tasting room to sample the 2004 wines from Chateau Larmande and Chateau Soutard.  Drinking well now, both wines are affordable as far as Bordeaux is concerned, especially from a less than stellar vintage like 2004. We were saddened to hear they lost a substantial portion of their crop due to a hail storm in 2009 as that is currently being touted as the greatest modern Bordeaux vintage to date.  That has to be a huge loss to a Chateau to not make close to their usual production in a banner vintage like 2009.

More minimalist design at Chateau Clinet

     Our last stop took us to one of my favorite producers in all of Bordeaux, not just from the right bank or from the tiny village of Pomerol.  In Pomerol there is no classification system, the wines sell based on their reputation and scores from wine critics.  We were greeted by the friendly and very personable Ronan Laborde of Chateau Clinet and were shown the vineyards that produce the wines of Chateau Clinet.  Next we made our way to the crush pad and then on to the tiny barrel room where barrels were stacked 3 high. Clinet has been on a huge roll of late, making highly sought after wines in almost every vintage since 2008. The Chateau is tiny when compared to the grand monastery-like chateau in the left bank. However, what it lacks in size it makes up for in spades with adept consumer appreciation, and of course with outstanding wines.  Clinet makes a genuine effort to connect with the consumer so the memory of their interactions with Clinet resonates in the future when making purchasing decisions. The most gracious of hosts, Ronan was pouring the 2001, 2004, 2005 and the 2006 Chateau Clinet on this visit. This was by far my favorite visit, with the 2005 Clinet as the absolute best wine that afternoon. The 2001 was not too far behind the 2005, and worth a look to find if you can as it is a beautiful wine from a good vintage. 2006 was pretty tight and young still, and the 2007 showed the elegant characteristic of that vintage in Bordeaux. I personally sought out the 2005 and am constantly on the lookout for more.  Every year Ronan is at the UGC tastings held here in the States so if you attend the next one stop by and say hello as you'll make a great friend from Bordeaux and taste one of the best wines not only from the tiny village of Pomerol, but all of Bordeaux.  Below is a link to a few videos from our trip to Clinet.

     We made our way back to the bus for our return trip to Bordeaux to rest up and get ready for our dinner that evening at Chateau Pichon Baron Longueville later that evening in the famed village of Pauillac.


Mondot vineyards and further on towards the village is Chateau

The church tower at the center of the St. Emilion village

Look at that beautiful limestone in the soils, great terroir!

The Mondot barrel room

One of the corner towers at Chateau Troplong Mondot

The barrel room at Larmande

Chateau Clinet vineyards

Chateau Clinet vineyards

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The outstanding 2005

Clinet's second wine
St. Peter at Petrus (notice the similarity in the name?), the clay cap that the vineyard lies on was originally named by the Romans

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