Friday, January 2, 2009

Boxing Day with an Iron Horse and the Agressive-Berry

After spending Christmas in San Francisco, my girlfriend and I headed north to Healdsburg for some wine tasting and relaxation. Our hotel in San Fran had offered complementary wine during Happy Hour. Unfortunately, they provided Charles Shaw and, despite Chuck's Chard being better than most Chards in the under $10 range, this was not quite what we had in mind as a good way to transition into a trip to wine country.

We selected Healdsburg as our destination because it's pretty much the axle in the appellation wheel formed by the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek and Alexander Valley. It's also somewhat removed from the melange of corporate wineries and ambitious new money that is Napa. I haven't been to Napa or Sonoma Valley, but I can only imagine it as being a sort of wine-themed amusement park complete with kitschy souvenirs and all the standard trappings of a tourist destination. There are a few wineries, particularly those owned by large conglomerates, in nearby Santa Ynez Valley that pile on the t-shirts and vaulted ceilings, and this really detracts from the whole tasting experience for those who don't pull up in a stretch SUV or tour bus.

Our first stop on the way north was Iron Horse Vineyards just outside of Sebastopol in Green Valley. Although their wines easily eclipsed the 2 Buck Chuck, what was most impressive was the atmosphere of the winery. Iron Horse is one of the most respected producers in the US, but unlike most big names, the winery appears to be singularly focused on making great wine the way they like to make it. The winery is located at the end of a single lane road that includes a makeshift bridge over a creek and convex mirrors to help drivers see around blind corners as they work their way up to the hill upon which their winery is perched. The outdoor tasting room attached to the winery overlooks not only their vineyards, but the Russian River Valley as well. The only souvenirs you'll find there are bottles of the wine they're pouring.

Iron Horse is perhaps best known for its sparkling wines. I'm not much of a sparkling wine drinker, though the one real flaw that will destroy any sparkler for me is excessive residual sugar. All of the Iron Horse sparklers, even the Russian Cuvee which by their standards is sweet, come across as dry and wonderfully balanced. Of the five sparklers I tasted, the 2003 Blanc de Blancs was my personal favorite because of the dry finish, mildly nutty, yeasty nose and the harmoniously acidic citrus flavors that one would find in a white still wine from a cooler climate. While doing some "research" for this blog post, I discovered that Wine Enthusiast placed the 2002 Blanc de Blancs very highly in its end of the year rankings. Apparently I'm not the only one enamored with this flavor profile.

Iron Horse's still wines are equally beguiling. Although I wasn't excited by their Chardonnays, all of their red wines showed excellent balance, restraint and elegance. My previous post on the 2005 Cab Franc sums up the flavor profile their Bordeaux blends from T-bar-T offer. The Cabernet Sauvignon heavy blends, however, do offer more cassis and dark berry flavors in addition to the red fruit that's prominent in the Cab Franc. Despite the darker fruit profile, the 2005 Bdx-3 and 2003 Benchmark are elegant wines with moderate alcohol levels, seamless lengthy finishes and bright acidity. There's no jam or fatness here, just silk and balance with a hint of tobacco.

Last, but certainly not least, are their Pinot Noirs. I'm by no means a serious Pinot drinker. However, Pinots that are hot or otherwise clumsy are pretty easy for me to pick out. On the other end of the spectrum nimble, lighter bodied Pinots are also easily discerned. Iron Horse Pinot falls decidedly on the nuanced end of the spectrum. My personal favorite, the 2007 Estate Pinot, was seductively fruity, yet offered a big burst of herbs on the finish. Their more expensive bottlings were darker with more overt fruit and perhaps have more aging potential (these fall in a grey area for me since I can't project how they'll develop), but as a youthful wine with real complexity the Estate Pinot really hits the mark.

We stopped at three other wineries the day after Christmas, but none quite matched Iron Horse's classy wines. Hop Kiln had a fragrant white blend named Thousand Flowers as well as an intriguing Malbec that paired a nose of earth, mocha and coffee with a smooth fruit-forward palate. However, the Estate Pinot Noir they poured came across as hot and disjointed. Maybe it was a bad bottle or hadn't been open long enough, but it was disappointing that their flagship wine did not show well. Mill Creek poured its estate Gewurtzstraminer and a variety a big red wines including Zin, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet. The Gewurtztraminer was extremely aromatic, but was vinified to be semi-sweet. For my palate, fragrant whites work best when fully dry and balanced with acidity. I did enjoy their 2005 Cabernet which had a very prominent jalapeno pepper component to its bouquet, loads of dark fruit, and a big tannic structure. Overall their wines were well-made and fairly priced, but hard to differentiate from other wines produced in this style.

After decompressing a bit, our last stop was Seghesio Family Vineyards in downtown Healdsburg. We had been hoping to taste their Aglianico, Arneis and Fiano, but the limited production of these varietals meant they weren't pouring any of these three. Seghesio did however pour two Sangioveses, several Zins, a Petite Sirah and a port. The Zins, their signature varietal, are best described as big, bigger and gigantic. The important detail, however, is that their old vines produce wine with the structure to support what would ordinarily be palate torching degrees of alcohol. The tannins and acidity are present to balance the intensity of the fruit and viscosity of the alcohol. From the nose, Seghesio Zins conjure up an image of a gigantic blackberry wrapped in barbed wire growing on a thorny vine. The berry is massive and it is aggressive. It is the aggressive-berry. The Seghesio Petite Sirah had slightly lower aggressive-berry content than the Zins, but in its place were oceans of Petite Sirah-fueled tannins and a heart of pure darkness. There's no doubt these wines are balanced with extremes. A 600 pound gorilla of concentrated fruit on one side of the fulcrum is offset by an African lion of tannin. To say that subtlety is lacking in these wines is to entirely miss the point. Seghesio does this style extremely well and, more importantly, expresses exactly what their terroir and ancient vines have to say. I left the tasting room, which offered a great view of the barrel room and kept the extraneous souvenirs to a minimum, empty handed, but now am beginning to understand what a massive Zin can be in the hands of masters.

Having worked our way up through the Russian River Valley to Dry Creek on our first day, I'll cover our stops in Alexander Valley and upper Dry Creek in my next post.

1 comment:

CCO said...

Good stuff. Sounds like a nice trip. Grete and I are jealous.