Riding the River
Tasting notes from Hahn and three neighbors.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
It took a while, but the fog has cleared, and the Foothill/River Road track has come ripe. After years of producing second-rate Cabernet and Merlot grapes, varieties that are both ill-suited for the cool, Santa Lucia climate, the region has since bloomed with world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and stands out as a must-visit for any wine lover with access to wheels or wings.
Just a few years ago there were a mere handful of tasting options in the western Salinas Valley; now there are enough to merit a designated driver, and for locals, numerous visits. That being the case, there are several wineries at which I’ve not yet had the pleasure to taste, like Paraiso (678-0300), a family-run, sustainability-minded operation that pioneered growing in the region, and whose grapes and wines remain in high demand. I also had my sights on Boekenoogen (675-3549), another Sustainability in Practice-certified family winery that is bottling up some very highly regarded juice.
Of the ones I did taste, the wine was as gorgeous than the scenery.
Like many of wineries of the SLH appellation, Hahn is strong with its Pinots and Chardonnays – so much so that British Airways carries them in first class. With those two lines firmly established, owner Nicky Hahn has charted a course in a new direction: Grenache. The bottle of ’09 Grenache was one of the more uniquely delicious wines I’ve ever tasted, with very peppery complexity, and I’m glad I had the chance because the Grenache fruit has become so valued by the estate that they are no longer bottling it by itself. “We’re running out of G,” says Estate Chef Brian Overhauser, “and the future is GSM.” GSM is Hahn’s blend of Grenache (60 percent), Syrah (37) and Mourvedre (3, a blending varietal). The result is an affordable, irresistible, fruit-forward wine that surprises unexpectedly with notes of the Grenache. A 60-acre parcel of the estate was recently cleared for more Grenache, and once it takes root, look for the GSM brand to makes waves, and if it sells out, try it at the tasting room: With a panoramic view of the Salinas Valley and the far-off Pinnacles, south county vistas don’t get any better.
Due to growing on the wrong side of Foothill Road, the primary grapes of Wrath’s vineyards grow just outside of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, but the soil, and climate, are nearly one and the same. The recent upstart has, in a short amount of time, made a name for itself in rather uppity circles, many of whom have probably never been to Wrath’s beautifully constructed tasting room that sits just north of its prized San Saba vineyard. The San Saba supplies the grapes for the flagship Chardonnay, and I made fast friends with the ’08 – the sweet, nutty flavor lingered on the palate, and among the Chardonnays I’ve tasted, it stood out. Even more pleasing, given the summery weather, was the ’10 Pinot Noir Saignee, a rosé that was dry, bright and clean. Wrath recently opened a tasting room in Carmel, but for those with any interest in the concept of terroir, and/or the good life, the south-facing, vineyard-adjacent deck outside Wrath’s tasting room comes highly recommended.
35801 Foothill Road, Soledad. Tasting flights start at $10, by-the-glass at $6, and can be paired with a rotating selection of artisan cheeses (including Schoch Dairy’s). 678-2212, www.wrathwines.com
The Pessagno Winery produces some Chardonnay and Pinot that hold up to the best of the region, my favorites being the ’08 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay, with its long, caramelly aftertaste, and the ’08 Four Boys Vineyard Pinot Noir that had a spicy, smoky richness that was hard to unravel. One unexpected joy was a dessert wine similar to port, the ’04 Perelli 101 Vineyard Ouro. The provenance of the varietal is unknown, and is named after the vineyard. Less sweet than many ports, one can still taste the wine in the Perelli Ouro, and the raspberry flavor sings.
1645 River Road, Salinas. $5 tasting flight, waived with bottle purchase. 675-9463, www.pessagnowines.com
Talbott’s Cuvée Carlotta Chardonnay is exactly as Cindy Logan tells it: “It’s whatever you like in a Chardonnay.” Logan, who was pouring when I visited, couldn’t have been more right on, and for me it was elegantly sweet, smooth, long and mellow. It’s tough to say though if it topped the lush Cuvée RFT (“real fine tasting”) Pinot Noir, which at $75 a bottle, embodies the best fruit from the estate’s Diamond T Vineyard, and its layers of cherry and spicy cocoa were, quite simply, intoxicating.
1380 River Road, Salinas. $7.50 standard tasting. 659-3500, www.talbottvineyards.com