It’s entirely possible to go through life eating nothing but the most familiar foods, reading books by the customary best-selling authors or listening to a stock set of composers – so begins last weeks The Pour column in The New York Times. Wine critic Eric Asimov goes on to profile a dozen obscure grapes that are the foundation of some great wines and illustrate the diversity the world of wine has to offer. It’s a great article and I encourage you to check it out.
In a similar vein, while Burgundy, Champagne and Tuscany have the fame; there are many “undiscovered” wine regions that produce some of the world’s most exceptional wines. Here are five phenomenal wine regions you may not know but should – including Meteor’s own Coombsville.
Ribeira Sacra – Some of the steeply pitched vineyards in the region of eastern Galicia have been planted for nearly 2,00 years, and yet it is only in the last five years that their renown has grown beyond the boundaries of Spain. The wines are based on the Mencia grape and offer a delicate spiciness and minerality that pairs with a broad range of food. Like the Mosel in Germany of its nearby neighbor Duoro Valley, the sheer grandeur of the area makes a trip a must.
Tokaji – Yes, many wine lovers are familiar with the unctuous botrityzed wines of Tokaji, yet one of the most exciting developments since the fall of communism has been the production of DRY wines from the native grapes of the area. Specifically keep your eyes open for dry furmint – medium bodied, with tart, slightly under ripe pit fruit character; these are awesome wines for seafood dishes and warm summer afternoons.
Santorini – While many revel in images of Santorini as a sun splashed vacation destination, few are aware that some of the most interesting white wines in Europe are produced on the volcanic rich soils of the island. The grape Assyrtiko is the primary planting here producing crisp white wines with powerful minerality and purity.
Lipari Islands – Malvasia delle Lipari has been produced on the Lipari Islands off the coast of Sicily at least since 100 B.C. (though there is potentially evidence of the wines on coins dating back to 4th and 5th centuries B.C.). Though dry wines are produced, the magic here comes from the sweet wines of the Island. Simultaneously unctuous and fresh, these wines are dripping with aromatics of fresh cut flowers, honey and ripe pit fruit. Stunning.
Coombsville – While it my seem obvious I’d include Coombsville in this line up, it deserves to be here because the wines and wineries of the area are distinctive and distinctly different from the experience you get in more recognized appellations like Oakville or Rutherford. What makes the wines special? In a word, balance – the wines couple dark fruit and textural richness with vibrant acidities and fine-grained tannins. The red wines tend to be very dark in color with flavors of blackberries, black plums, mulberries, and dried herbs and black olives.
In winemaking we measure our experience not in years, but in the number of vintages. Between Bill & I, throwing in the odd harvest in the Southern Hemisphere and Europe, we count over 80 collective harvests.
In that time we have seen a number of advances and developments, from the vineyard to the winery. Parsing apart what makes truly great wine is to ponder the evolution of these changes, what separates true advances in winemaking & grape growing from trend and fad.
Over the years perception has shifted broadly. Sugar levels at harvest have risen and sunk, only to rise again. The use of oak barrels has carried cries of superiority from France to Hungary to the United States, with ever increasing prices and ever less expensive alternatives like oak chips finding their way into event he least expensive mass market brands. Even how we define and describe varietal character has ranged widely during our time; indeed, many would argue that our perception of quality itself has shifted, with particular wine styles scored highly in the wine press (converting to sales) while other styles are largely left out of the media discussion and left lonely on wine store shelves.
In the 70s growers were rewarded, more directly than today, for high sugars… the higher the better. In the 80s, with the near “death by late harvesting” of Zinfandel (and a growing anti alcohol lobby), we looked to Europe and contemplated the role of wine as food. Then in the fast paced 90s, high sugar again became a major part of the fine wine equation, and, at least in Cabernet, we developed a pathological fear of any plant based character that was green or tannic.
Throughout this time, a profound amount of research emerged from places like UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux. We gained a better understanding of even ripeness in the vineyard and the powerful impact of green seed & stem tannins. Vineyard managers began mapping vineyard sites and matching clones to contour, rootstock to soil type – in addition to developing advanced trellising techniques aimed at tempering the effect of warm climates and maximizing the sun exposure of more marginal regions. Here is Napa, as phylloxera continued its “lousy” march through Napa Valley’s vineyards, many growers took the positive approach and adopted these advances with a fervor.
What starts in the vineyard plays out in our choices of winery equipment. A melange of new “advanced” and cutting edge equipment entered the winery; from destemmers to presses, from multi sized temperatured controlled stainless steel tanks to the now de-rigour sorting tables enabling the hand sorting of fruit.
Yet, with all of these advances, it remains an open question whether or not we have done ourselves any favors with the squeaky clean, virus free plant material and sophisticated winery tools. The great debate about ripeness, and the variation of styles from the 40’s until today, has never reconciled into a cohesive definition of perfect wines. If anything, the “advances” have led to increased debate. Traditionalists, extolling the virtues of the great 28 vintage in Bordeaux, the legendary wines of Inglenook from the 40s and 50s, decry the uniformity of the wines from the great vintages (and here I am thinking about 2000 in Bordeaux and 1997 in Napa Valley). Modernists assert the preference of market driven wines for accesability, for plush tannins and fruit driven styles. The modern wine press, whose scores drive the bulk of the high end wine market, side on the latter.
Yet, in the world of fine and rare wine, are we not all trying to achieve a form of perfection? Whose perfection?
If we prune and farm for even ripeness, identifying the moment of optimal ripeness is a matter of much debate. For some it comes as the seeds begin to harden and brown, for others it is not until the grapes raisin on the vine. Berkeley chef, Paul Bertolli, devotes a chapter in his book Cooking by Hand on ripeness and his philosophical approach appeals to me … in it he says such things as “… the state of ripeness may amount to only minutes, hours or days in the garden (it’s a little longer for grapes). Or a few years in a years in a human life, yielding to the winding down of function, decay, and eventual dissolution.” “…intensity is the hallmark of ripeness, the culmination of growth and experience. But ripeness is not simply the reward for waiting nor is it necessarily guaranteed. The precondition of ripeness is maturity, which in turn can only come about through the right kind of development along the way. Ripeness, then is one of the naturally fortunate outcomes of life.”(p 30)
How do you decide what is right? If you believe in terroir, than it is situational and there will be a “best practice” for each vineyard. But there is the collective aspect as well… how else do you explain Amarone or Champagne, where technique has been raised to prominence over fruit. Do Napa Valley Cabernets now fall into that category where technique (oak levels, jammy, almost sweet fruit) has become an important identifier for wines?
For us at Meteor Vineyard, the final blending of 2008 will unfold this month. The fruit in barrel is the careful amalgamation of best practices from every era. On the modern, is the carefully selected clones and rootstocks planted by Mike Wolf. Purposeful trellising maximizing the long temperate growing season of the Meteor Vineyard hillside, diligent work in the vineyard throughout the cycle farming for uniform ripeness while recognizing the unique nature of each clone, each block, each row – and ultimately each vine. From there we, as wine makers, are largely shepherds, a practice as old as organized community – flagging harvest at a moment when the natural acids of Coombsville meld with the rich fruit characters of Cabernet Sauvignon and the natural tannin structure of the grape. No excessive extraction, diligent use of new barrels (around 50%) and 18 to 20 months in barrel to round out the wines.
Perhaps that is the wisdom of 80 harvests and the ease of working with a perfect site. The great wines have always come from the land, we, as viticulturalists and winemakers are simply here to help them along.
“Vibrant, violet-hued, intense color, blackberry, voluptuous, upfront, ripe fruit aromas & flavors, focused, precise, classic, balance and structure” – just some of the characteristics that we and others report finding in Meteor Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
Well-drained soils impart depth and minerality to a wine. During the critical maturation period warm, even temperatures allow for leisurely ripening that softens tannins and produces lush, bright fruit. Both of those aspects of a great site are amply evident at Meteor Vineyard.
The vineyard possesses another, celestial quality that is uniquely Meteor, something we recognize every time we ferment grapes. It shows up in the wine’s dense but clear violet-edged color, and a trademark Meteor aroma of red cherries and blackberries.
The three clones planted on the vineyard make our 100% Meteor Vineyard Cabernet more complex to create, challenging us to find that precise balance between the three vineyard expressions. There is always a discovery.
Winemaking Philosophy of Meteor Vineyards
We believe that in the perfect viticultural situations – when the right grapes are planted in the right place – that the best wine that can be made is the one that allows the vineyard to speak clearly and forcefully. The winemaking will therefore be simple and non- interventional, like cooking with the finest fresh ingredients and just allowing the ingredients to shine.
That said, our approach is to employ the best of traditional and modern winemaking techniques in teasing out every last ounce of plush fruit and tannin from the grapes. The fruit is harvested when it’s perfectly ripe, generally in late October. Sorting out defective fruit, raisins and sunburned berries is done in the field, and again at the winery toensure that we’re working with beautiful, perfectly clean grapes. These are lightly crushed and then cold soaked for several days prior to fermentation, allowing the extraction of flavors and colors before the alcohol from fermentation changes the nature of the extraction. As the fermentation heats up, pump-overs, the mixing of the fermentor that submerges the “cap” for optimal extraction, is increased from two to three and than reduced as the fermentation slows.
Draining and pressing is based on tasting and our palate for the quality and quantity of the tannins. Only the free run juice is used for Meteor Vineyard wines. The wines go to barrel before malo lactic fermentation, which occurs in the barrel. We use barrels from several coopers: Alain Fouquet, Tarrensaud and D & J are current favorites. The first racking is done after the finish of malolactic and subsequent rackings are performed based on the evolution of the wine. Every stage of growing grapes and making wine contains its own challenges, surprises and rewards. The final blend of Meteor Vineyard wine highlights the strengths of each of the three clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyard. When we agree that we’ve hit on an expression of the best representation of the Meteor Vineyard, we know that our job is well done, and that the wine has grown into something that others can also enjoy.
Blending from a single vineyard is a very different exercise from blending fruit from throughout a region.
Many fine wine regions are based on blending; Champagne is synonymous with blends (though far more grower champagne bottlings focusing on one estate), Port is often pulled from multiple vineyards from throughout the Duoro, and many wines from California are labeled under larger AVA’s to allow for a particular style to be created. In many cases this style is intended to provide wine lovers with wines that are similar in style from year to year. Fruit from cooler areas is added for brightness and acidity, warmer regions for base notes and mid palate breadth. In Napa Valley, people will also pull in mountain fruit for tannins and structure.
Working solely with an individual site, you are faced an individual interpretation of a vintage. The models here are many as well, with Burgundy remaining the most recognized with clearly defined vineyards delineated since the middle ages. Each vineyards’ minute changes in soil type and exposition manifests in subtle, and sometimes profound differences. (Of course, human influence has a role here as well with a melange of clones and winemaking techniques creating variations within the variations).
The Meteor Vineyard sits atop a knoll at 500 ft elevation. Soils are a fairly uniform blend of volcanic ash, rounded river stone and sedimentary soils. There is a slight “rolling” aspect to the contour, but for the most part the knoll faces west and southwest. The greatest variation lies in the 3 clones planted, each with fairly unique characteristics. This is where the “blending” comes in.
We describe 2008 as the year of fire and ice, with fires peppering the hillsides in the summer and frost affecting bud break.
Clone 337 is always the most delicate of the clones we pull from the vineyard. Historically, the wines are dominated by red rather than black fruit with a distinct floral component and sandalwood. Everyone agreed that the 337 from 2008 was the best “stand alone” 337 that we have harvested to date. More red hued than in 2007, the wine displayed compelling high tones reminiscent of past vintages, with more weight in the mid palate, and a long, vibrant finish.
What clone 4 holds back aromatically, it compounds and compacts into structure. A range of black and red fruits, with firm tannins and focus. Perhaps lacking completeness alone, the wine adds depth and rounds out the 337, and somehow tempers the brooding nature of clone 7.
Clone 7 remains the most precocious of the clones. Muscular and brooding, filled with black fruit and spice, chocolate and coffee bean. Even at this nascent stage, the tannins are powerful, yet rounded, the finish long and firm. Once again the stand out.
The thing that compels me about these wines is their unique melding of new and old world styles. The temperate climate and volcanic soils clearly impart a restraint and elegance, while the California (and Napa Valley) sunshine imparts a fruit character that is unmistakably California. 2008 is clearly more restrained than the previous vintages, yet unique and substantive – another unique example of the character of Meteor Vineyard.
What will the final blend be? That remains to be seen.
Linda Viviani excels at providing her clients access to some of the most exciting wineries in Northern California. In this video she speaks with Tracy Schuler about finding the property that is now Meteor Vineyard and the elements that make it such a unique and compelling place.
History – A Quick Synopsis
The release of our inaugural vintage in the fall of 2008 marked the culmination of decades of dreams and experience.
For Meteor Vineyard owner Barry Schuler, it marked the culmination of a dream hatched over 35 years ago when Barry, a student with a growing passion for wine, first visited Napa Valley. After roaming the valley and tasting, he was struck with the burning desire to someday live in Napa, grow grapes and make a wine that could take its place among the worlds greats.
Simultaneously, Bill and Dawnine Dyer were launching their careers in winemaking and the history of Napa Valley was being written daily as it emerged as a truly world class wine growing region. Their paths would include some of the most successful wineries in the valley and an exhaustive understanding of the microclimates and potential of Cabernet Sauvignon from many areas of Napa Valley.
Three decades later their paths converged on a small knoll in a unique corner of Napa Valley that was immediately recognized as home to some of the most distinct fruit in the region. Meteor Vineyard was born.
Meteor Vineyard – A Rare Coming of Age
When Barry and his wife Tracy purchased the property that is now Meteor Vineyard in 1998, the comments that it was a “natural” vineyard site resounded. Noted viticulturist Mike Wolf planted the 22 acre vineyard to 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, recognizing that the quick draining soils of white volcanic ash and river stone and the temperate growing season of the Coombsville area would serve as the perfect foundation for world class Cabernet Sauvignon.
The 2006 harvest was far more challenging than the 2005. An uneven bloom set during spring led to a veritable autumnal “fruit cocktail” – green berries and raisins interspersed with perfect, concentrated berries. The result? – careful sorting in the field and even more diligence on the sorting table. Thank goodness we are a boutique operation; hand sorting is intensive and exhausting work! The grapes that passed the gauntlet were as perfect as Cabernet Sauvignon gets.
The palette of clones in the vineyard offered an array of character when it came time to blend. The dark brooding fruit and chocolate tones from clone 7, the structure and intensity from Clone 4 and the bright effusive fruit of 337 resulted in a wine of precocious aromatics, penetrating depth. This, coupled with what is quickly becoming our trademark mouthfeel, show the evolution of a vineyard that is truly coming of age.
David Rosengarten’s recent article in Saveur, ‘The Evolution of Cabernet’ explores the changes in style that accompanied the spread of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa Valley and beyond. One word struck a chord; refinement.
That the style of wines produced in Napa has transformed over the years is clear. Those lucky enough to taste the great wines of the post prohibition years from Beaulieu and Ingelnook marveled at their balance and finesse (and those lucky enough to taste the wines now, 50-60 years on, still marvel at the same thing). Some of this elegance can be attributed to a more intuitive process of production; when the grapes tasted good you harvested, there was no triple sorting, de-stemming, multilevel toast barrel aging. Perhaps it was a more honest approach, devoid of scientific introspection and the debates and pressures of scores and global palates.
Several years ago I was at a lunch with a longtime Napa Valley winemaker who explained the trajectory of his own winery. He recounted that in the 1970’s the harvest included everything in the vineyard – green berries, sunburned berries, ALL berries – followed not by destemming and cold soak but with whole cluster fermentation followed by barrel aging. And we wonder why the wines of the 70’s seemed impenetrable until the late 90’s (some seems so even today). In the 1980’s advancements in vineyard management and research in ripeness led to some dramatic changes in the vineyard with green harvesting becoming the norm and destemming a part of the production process. The wines, though still structured, were rounded out along the edges, more supple and approachable. Phyloxera in the late 80’s provided the opportunity to look closely at the clones and rootstocks in the vineyard. Like many in the valley, he chose some of the new clones coming out of UC Davis, with a focus on ripe fruit character, smaller berries and intense fruit. The regimen of new wood used in the production was increased and the wines became fleshy and ripe, fruit driven in style.
All of this was presented as a logical process of evolution and at the time, many wine producers in Napa Valley could not see beyond the “valley palate” where this move towards ripeness was intricately tied to trying to create the types of wines that critics were writing about and recommending. The early wines of Bryant Family, Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate came to exemplify this style and their tremendous success ushered in a decade of copycat wines that searched out a formula to replicate the style. This is not solely a Napa reality – a tasting of recent Bordeaux
What was lost in the process, at least in my opinion is the elegance, the balance, the refinement.
As Rosengarten notes, these wines of refinement still exist. Meteor Vineyard, Corison, Dyer, VonStrasser. I anticipate seeing more wines produced in the style in the very near future (and NOT just due to the cooler weather in 2010).