Thursday, January 8, 2009

Day 2: Afternoon in Dry Creek

In the afternoon we crossed into Dry Creek and stopped first at Bella. This is definitely the place to go if you want to taste inside a functioning wine cave that's also a bit of a tourist trap. Distracting souvenirs aside, Bella makes some killer Zins that pack a ton of aggressive-berry and even a little spice into an integrated package with mouth-watering acidity and drying tannins. The 2006 Big River Ranch Zin was my favorite of the flight largely because the Petite Sirah in the blend made the wine mouth-puckeringly tannic. In a flight of wines that tackled your mouth like a blitzing strong safety, this was a 250 pound middle linebacker of a wine. If you're gonna go big, you might as well go with a linebacker wine and the Big River Ranch Zin is an All-American linebacker for certain.

Preston of Dry Creek, an organic producer, is right next door to Bella. Having tasted through Burgundian, Bordelais and American varietals, Preston's focus on Rhone blends was a refreshing change from an assault of single varietals produced in the bruising New World style. The white wines were uniformly excellent, with the 2007 Viognier and 2007 Madame Preston, a blend of Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne, outshining every other white wine tasted on the trip. Viognier is typically very fragrant; the Preston Viognier smelled like honey, pineapple, pear and a hillside of flowers, yet was fully dry with noticeable acidity. Although not as crisp as a good Sauvignon Blanc, the Preston Viognier paired the bouquet of a desert wine with the palate of a refreshing white wine. And as good as the Viognier was, the Madame Preston was even better. There's a bit of creaminess to it and light oak tannins perk up the already lively structure. Meanwhile, the nose is even more seductive as the Viognier is present, yet subdued, while the Roussanne presents a subtle tropical tone. I generally have very little to say about white wines, but Preston Rhone whites are the kind of whites that can soften the tannic heart of even the most ardent red drinker. The red wines at Preston were more earthy and terroir driven than any of the reds tasted up to this point. The L. Preston, a blend of Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre and Carignane, has a nice earthiness to it and some complexity percolating just below the surface that would make it interesting to drink over more than one glass.

Our last stop was at Papapietro-Perry, who specialize in Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Proprietor-winemakers Ben Papapietro and Bruce Perry started out making Pinot Noir as a hobby and now make a variety of single vineyard bottlings from grapes they purchase from multiple sources in Sonoma. We added their tasting room to our list of stops as a bit of an afterthought, but this proved to be one of the more interesting tastings of the trip for a variety of reasons.

There were three Pinots from the 2006 vintage on the tasting list which really demostrated what a huge difference terroir makes on a wine. The Pinot from the warmest location, Elsbree Vineyards, where grapes were harvested earliest had the lightest body and color of the three as well as an earthier, herbal quality and lower alcohol. The slightly cooler climate Leras Family Vineyard Pinot was harvested next in mid-September and had a great balance between earthy funkiness, forward fruit and elegant complexity. The richest, most heavily fruited Pinot came from the coolest vineyard, Peters Vineyard, which harvested from late September to mid-October. Three different sites, and three clearly distinguishable wines. Where other wineries impress their style onto pliant fruit, the fruit at Papapietro-Perry simply expresses itself.

Looking at their list of different Pinot bottlings is like looking at a big Pinot experiment. Some wines are bottled by vineyard with a mixture of grape clones, while others are bottled by the clone of Pinot Noir. But the same winemaking methods are employed for every lot of wine. Tasting a entire vintage of their Pinots would be a very educational experience. But this grand experiment extends beyond Pinot to their Zinfandel. In contrast to the linebacker wines most wineries are producing, Papapietro-Perry Zins are lightly extracted and elegant like their Pinot Noir. Although the alcohol was still noticeably high in one of the Zinfandels, they were a refreshing change from the monolithic "bigger is better" style at virtually every other winery. These were Zins that I could imagine expressing their terroir in more terms than just degrees of intensity.

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