Sonoma’s Sensational 2015s, Part One
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | MARCH 9, 2017
conditions, warm weather and a very early harvest produced rich, sumptuous Pinot
Noirs, Zinfandels and Syrahs that offer a compelling interplay of dense fruit
and vibrant, pulsating acidity. The best 2015s are exotic, viscerally thrilling
wines endowed with phenomenal purity, depth and intensity. This
article covers new releases from Sonoma and a number of neighboring
appellations, including Anderson Valley and Mendocino.
Fredericks Vineyard, Moon Mountain
Sonoma is Not Napa
Valley & Napa Valley is Not Sonoma
Napa Valley’s grip on the collective consciousness is so
strong that all too often assessments on the overall quality and style of
vintages in Napa Valley are taken as a proxy for other regions, or,
in some cases, all of Northern California. Let me be clear: Weather
and conditions in Napa Valley - and their impact on wine quality - are not all relevant to Sonoma. For starters, Sonoma County is approximately three times
larger than Napa Valley and is home to a dizzying array of microclimates, ranging from appellations such as Moon Mountain and Knights Valley that border
Napa Valley, to the Russian River, Dry Creek and the true Sonoma Coast, among others. Weather is also generally milder
than in Napa Valley. Sonoma excels with a wide range of grape varieties, both
red and white, while Napa Valley is of course mostly planted to Bordeaux varieties.
The late season heat spikes that were such an issue in Napa
Valley were far less problematic in Sonoma. In Napa Valley weather stations
reported 20 or so days of temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. By
comparison, in Sonoma some regions saw no heat spikes to speak of, where others
had 5 or 6 days in which temperatures reached 100 degrees. Whereas temperatures in Napa Valley can easily reach 100 degrees and stay there for hours, in Sonoma the period of time temperatures remain elevated is usually much, much shorter. In
the end, though, little of that matters because much of the fruit in Sonoma was
off the vine entirely before temperatures soared. In those cases, heat spikes
were, of course, a total non-factor.
Tasting the 2015s at Dehlinger
2015 – A Sensational Vintage
for Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah
Two thousand fifteen was the fourth year of drought cycle that was broken emphatically by heavy rains this past winter. The growing season got off to a shockingly early start, ahead of both 2013 and 2014. Weather during flowering was highly unstable. Shatter was prevalent in many vineyards. A number of coastal sites, where conditions are especially challenging even in normal years, were hammered. Some vineyards essentially did not produce fruit at all. In most areas, production is down between 30-50%. Pinot Noir was most adversely affected, while Syrah and Chardonnay, which tend to flower later, benefitted from better weather and generally more normal yields.
Low, sometimes unnaturally low, yields give the 2015s
remarkably dense, plush fruit. At the same time, the wines have
generally retained extraordinary freshness and aromatic presence. Of course
there are a few disappointments. That is to be expected in a large, sprawling
region like Sonoma and its environs. Some wines are too big and concentrated
for their frames. Others are overextracted, which is always a risk when yields
are excessively low. Still, even a few underachievers can’t detract from the
extraordinary quality and profound beauty of the finest in this vintage. Two thousand fifteen is especially strong for Pinot Noir. The most successful 2015 Pinots are rapturous, viscerally thrilling wines. Sadly, as mentioned above, yields
are down sharply. Similarly, the best Zinfandel and Zinfandel-based wines are fresh, vibrant and wonderfully delineated. Yields for Zinfandel vary widely, depending on when specific vineyards went through flowering. The 2015 Syrahs I have tasted so far are exciting and voluptuous, but also impeccable in their sense of proportion. Chardonnay, on the other hand, is more
uneven. The best examples are rich and unctuous, but some wines appear dulled by the
concentration of the vintage.
I also tasted quite a few bottled 2014s that are current
releases. The wines I tasted this year reinforce my initial view that in
general 2014 is a terrific vintage for Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel. At the
very top, the best 2014s are absolutely stunning. The Chardonnays are variable, with many wines that are diffuse and not as precise as they can
Old-vine Zinfandel in Radio-Coteau’s Harrison Grade Vineyard, Occidental
The Things I Liked
These are some of the highlights of the wines I tasted
during my round of tastings this year. Apologies in advance, it’s a long list.
The 2015 Pinots –
Freakishly low yields resulted in dramatic, voluptuous wines of the highest
level that have also maintained striking freshness and bright acidity.
Carlisle – The
wines used to be black, now they are red. And vineyard signatures have never
been better articulated than they are today.
Ceritas – John
Raytek crushed the 2014 Pinots. You want these wines. I want these wines.
DuMol – Andy Smith is more energized than I have ever seen him now that he is focused exclusively on DuMol. These new releases are absolutely brilliant.
Ferren – Matt
Courtney has an uncanny talent for finding sites that fit his stylistic
preferences like a glove. The Chardonnays in particular are exceptional.
Once and Future –
Joel Peterson is the visionary of Zinfandel in California. Peterson’s wines from
his newest project are impressive.
Paul Hobbs’ new Pinot
Noir Fraenkle-Cheshier – From a cool site in the Sebastopol Hills, the Fraenkle-Cheshier
could very well turn out to be Hobbs’ most distinctive Pinot.
Littorai – Ted
Lemon has been making pedigreed wines for so long it is easy to take him for
granted. Don’t. The 2015 Chardonnays in particular are superb.
Martinelli – The
wines seem a bit fresher and more energetic than in the past, yet still have
plenty of their signature richness. In a word: Brilliant.
Steve Kistler’s coastal Pinots are utterly breathtaking.
Peay – This
year’s release are the very best wines I have ever tasted from the Peay family.
Rivers- Marie –
Brilliant Chardonnays and Pinots from Thomas Brown and Genevieve Welsh. I can
only wonder what the Cabernets might be like if they were made with the same
Rochioli – Tom Rochioli's 2015 Chardonnays are worthy of a special mention, as they are terrific.
Zinfandels – Striking, perfumed Zinfandel and Zinfandel-based wines in 2015.
Verité – Finally a bit of balance. And the
wines are stunning. (Reviewed in Part Two of this article).
Walter Hansel – The 2015 Pinots might be the very best wines I have tasted here. The wines embody the essence of Russian River Pinot Noir. Pricing remains exceedingly fair for what is in the bottle.
Tasting through the entire range at Wind Gap and Pax
The Things I Did Not Like
Names – The habit of new owners renaming vineyards is an obnoxious,
ego-driven practice that also destroys the brand equity the previous owner and
fruit customers, where applicable, have built over time. I would like to see an
official land registry whereby vineyard names are recorded permanently as of an
agreed upon date. When vineyard names change, Sonoma loses important pieces of
history, heritage and pedigree. Those are the very elements that, over time, allow
for a piece of land to become revered and for its wines to achieve icon status.
What a shame. Well, another word comes to mind, but it is unfit to print.
Massive Rain and
Flooding – Weather conditions have been dramatic so far this year. The
effects of heavy flooding, landslides and closed roads will likely be felt for
Yields – Production is down sharply in 2015, which means many wines will be hard to find.
Flooding at Hartford
I Am Not Sure If I
Like It Or Not, But It Is The Reality…
Platt – Virtually
all of the historic customers of this fruit have left the vineyard during its
first year under new ownership. It is sad to see so many track records
interrupted. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see what newly
arrived winemakers do with this fruit. Judgment reserved for the time being.
The big get bigger,
and the small get smaller – It is no secret that big groups continue to
gobble up vineyard and wineries to achieve greater scale and the kind of
powerful vertical integration that can result when ownership of distribution is
part of the equation. At the other end of the spectrum, smaller estates realize
that they will never be able to compete with the big players, and that any
attempt to do so would require a huge investment of time and money, with an
uncertain payoff. I am seeing more and more artisan estates quietly trim their
range and focus on making a smaller amount of wine that can be sold with
minimal marketing effort of both time and money.
Steve Kistler purchased
this site on Moon Mountain in 1978. The Kistler Vineyard and Kistler Vineyard
Cuvée Cathleen Chardonnays are both made here
Map: The Vineyards of Mt. Veeder and Moon Mountain
Sonoma’s recently created Moon Mountain AVA occupies a strip
of land in the Mayacamas Mountains that borders Napa Valley’s Mt. Veeder AVA. Both
appellations are home to numerous first class vineyards. Montecillo,
Fredericks, Monte Rosso, Kamen and Kistler are among the many top sites on the Moon Mountain
side, while Mayacamas, O’Shaughnessy, Hess, Pym-Rae and the Jackson properties
are some of the better-known vineyards on the Mt. Veeder side. For the first
time ever, wine lovers will be able to explore the spatial relationships
between these vineyards and their respective appellations in our forthcoming map of the vineyards
of Mt. Veeder and Moon Mountain, which will be released later this year. It is our
most ambitious map to date.
A snapshot of Monte
Rosso, Moon Mountain, from the forthcoming Vinous Map: The Vineyards of Mt. Veeder and Moon Mountain to be published in 2017
I tasted most of these wines during a visit to Sonoma in
January 2017, followed by further tastings in my office in New York. While I
would like to report my tastings in Sonoma took place under ideal weather
conditions, the exact opposite is true. Cold weather, heavy flooding,
landslides and a host of other natural disasters were pretty much the norm
throughout my time in Sonoma. Even so, the wines were absolutely brilliant. The
second installment to this article will be published in approximately two
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