Sunday, January 11, 2009

Franc News and Holiday Wrap Up

I came across a couple of recent Cab Franc articles that are worth sharing. The first is simply some nice PR for Cab Franc including a few reviews of French and domestic wines. In another article that hits closer to home, Karen Steinwachs, Buttonwood Farm's winemaker, is quoted in an article about Franc Fest as stating that Cabernet Franc is the "the Pinot Noir of the Bordeaux world." I'm definitely not the first person to make this link, even though I love to repeat it as much as possible, but it's all the better to see it in print from the winemaker at my favorite local winery. It is interesting in reading this article to see different winemakers' perceptions of Cabernet Franc. In France it is perceived as an early ripening grape, and this may well be true for the regions where's its grown. But in Santa Ynez Cab Franc seems to have its share of struggles, though winemakers here are more focused on eliminating herbaceousness from the wine than French vignerons.

Franc Fest, by the way, is a yearly tasting of Cabernet Franc from local producers which was hosted at Buttonwood this year. I was lucky enough to be introduced this year to Longoria Winery (Rick Longoria is quoted as well in the above article), whose representatives were pouring their Blues Cuvee. The backstory of the Blues Cuvee is rather telling. In short, Rick Longoria produced some killer Cab Franc back when I was far too young to be sipping wine. But, since it was Franc instead of Sauvignon, no one wanted it. He rebranded it as as proprietary blend named Blues Cuvee, and suddenly it sold like hotcakes. Apparently it's better to make a terrible wine from a well-known appellation or with a famous varietal than to make an excellent wine without name recognition. That is unless you use some clever sleight of hand to slip your no-name varietal in under the radar.

I'd love to write more about the oenological greatness that is Longoria Wines, but that's a post for another day. Instead I'll wrap up a few post-New Year's tastings.

First up was Alma Rosa Winery. Alma Rosa is run by Richard Sanford, who was the first vintner to plant Pinot Noir in the now-famous Santa Rita Hills appellation. He's since sold his original Sanford brand to his partners due to "philosophical differences," and Alma Rosa is his current endeavor. This is a must-visit if you appreciate wines that express the grapes and their growing environment. Their Chardonnay, for example, has outstanding acidity and actually smells like citrus fruit instead of vanilla because they don't inoculate with malolactic bacteria and use oak lightly. The Pinot Noirs are similarly elegant and balanced. A lot of Santa Barbara wineries look to pump their wines up on steroids with high Brix at harvest, which leads to high alcohol, residual sugar, or both. Alma Rosa achieves a great balance between the California and French styles of wine.

Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards unapologetically take the purely California approach to winemaking. The pourers made this clear when they announced their winemaker likes to let the grapes hang and harvest late. I can't quantitatively define where the line between enjoyably decadent and over the top is, but most of the wines I tasted here crossed this line. Their Chardonnay smelled like someone had blasted almonds out of a cannon into the barrel where the wine was aging. I actually liked this bouquet, but found the richness of the taste to be overbearing. The Pinot Noir, while similarly styled, was excellent. Dark and rich, but with a great nose of cloves and red fruit without being excessively jammy. It's quite different in style than Alma Rosa, yet well structured enough to support the riper style. Their Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet, though, did come across as very jammy and somewhat lacking in acidic structure. The stats on the Cab back up my subjective perception: 3.85 pH and 15.1% alcohol. The 2005 Syrah and 2006 Merlot also are 15.1% ABV with 3.98 and 3.81 pH, respectively. The flavor profile is soft and pleasant, for sure. But the focus on big, big fruit at the detriment of other qualities is a style that works for me only in smaller doses. [Edit: I should also add here that this style works for me at smaller prices since I can find enjoyable fruit bomb type wines in the $20 range; in the $30+ range I'd hope that there's more to the wine than just a gregarious fruit profile.] They do pour big which will please the limo and bus crowd that's looking for a buzz.

Our last stop was at Beckmen Vineyards. For whatever reason, all of the wines had a very sweet taste. White wines and red wines both were very saccharine. That suggests perhaps my palate was off because it seems unlikely that every wine would have residual sugar after fermentation. Despite what I perceived to be cloying sweetness across the board, the Estate Syrah did have a great nose of smoked meat and nuts. It sounds weird, of course, but the weirdest wines are often the most rewarding. Definite thumbs up on the Estate Syrah though the overall style differed from my personal tastes.

Note: Dierberg 2005 Syrah and Star Lane 2006 Merlot pH and ABV are cited directly from Dierberg and Star Lane's website. The Star Lane 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon stats are from a 3rd party PDF.

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