Interesting Article On Sonoma Mountain Cabs

I came across this article on one of my email newsletters, Snooth Wine Profiles. I thought it was interesting, albeit somewhat long. Enjoy!

Sonoma Mountain Cabs
15 great wines from Laurel Glen

April 25, 2011 By Gregory Dal Piaz

When talk turns to the great California Cabernet producers of the 1980s and 1990s, the topic of conversation invariably turns to Napa Valley, with a geek genuflection to the Santa Crux Mountains. Generally overlooked and sometimes intentionally slighted are the wines of Sonoma County, but within the folds and peaks of Sonoma’s valleys lie some remarkable vineyards and winemakers.

While better known for Zinfandel or Pinot Noir, Sonoma County has always produced fine Cabernets and some, like Patrick Campbell’s Laurel Glen, have firmly established its reputation among winelovers as unique, age worthy examples of Cabernet that could only come from the historic Sonoma vineyards.

With the recent sale of Laurel Glen, now in the able hands of Bettina Sichel, it’s no surprise that the Laurel Glen team is on the road showing off a vertical of vintages, new and old. I was fortunate to attend one edition and the results surprised even me!
Laurel Glen Vineyard, from which Patrick Campbell has produced the eponymous red wine since 1981, is a bit of an anomaly. Planted entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon, this rugged 16-acre vineyard is set atop Sonoma Mountain. Originally planted to mixed blacks back in the late 1880s, the historic 3-acre vineyard was replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1968 and finally was purchased by Patrick in 1977.

Since then the vineyard has expanded to its present dimensions, always using the genetic material that has been culled from the original vines planted in 1968. With the relatively recent replanting of the vineyards (most vines predate 1996), the average age of the vineyard is right around 25 years, a mature vineyard by any stretch of the imagination.

Along with the vineyards, the wine industry is almost as mature and the changes that Patrick has implemented over the years reflect this growth. The crown jewel in all of this may be Bettina’s hiring of Tony Coturri to handle to conversion of the vineyards to organic farming while bringing on David Ramey as a consulting winemaker. A powerhouse duo that caps three decades of evolution that has seen Laurel Glen wines move from a period of early harvest and acidification, to early harvesting with deacidification, to finally late harvesting for acid balance.

This late harvesting for acid balance has been the last bump in the road for California – in fact, for all warm climate winemakers. The latest theories tend to indicate that certain techniques such as dry farming, organic farming and a more vigorous vegetative cycle may contribute to lower sugar levels at a level of fruit ripeness that provides this acid balance that is our current holy grail.

Time will tell of course, but Laurel Glen seems to be on the right path, and the fact that it continues to try and move the dial, not satisfied resting on their assets (you thought I was going to say laurels, didn’t you!) is always a good sign. Of course everything in moderation and the vinification of Laurel Glen wines’ movement has indeed been moderate. A further refreshing sign of people not only saying that great wines are made in the vineyard, but proving it by making better and better-balanced fruit their priority, while moving away from intervention in the cellar.

Vinification at Laurel Glen is rather straightforward: six 2000 gallon open-topped fermenters and a single 3500 closed-top version, all stainless and all temperature-controlled, are used for a wild yeast fermentation that generally lasts about two weeks. Once the wines have fermented to dryness, the lots are examined and the blends are assembled for Laurel Glen and the earlier maturing wine from Laurel Glen, known as Counterpoint.

In three years, a reserve lot was identified before the blending process. A single tank representing a single parcel of vineyard was identified as being so much better than the rest of the wine that it warranted being bottled on its own. In 1993, 1995 and 1999 this reserve bottling was produced, but in hindsight Patrick seems to regret having opened this door, while at the same time producing the classic Laurel Glen wines in these vintages that lacked an essential element of each Laurel Glen bottling.

All the wines, reserve and classic bottling alike, underwent the same aging regiment, spending some 18 to 22 months in Taransaud oak barrels, some 50% to 60% of which were new in any given vintage. Today’s wines undergo the same treatment as always, but the fruit is picked later and there is no denying that the wines are less green, riper, plumper and fruitier than they have been in the past. Does that make them better, one has to ask? I am not entirely convinced, but one thing that yet again stood out in this tasting was how fundamentally wrong the vintage charts are!

The entire lineup of wines showed well today. The level of brett in several of the wines was alarming and will cause severe bottle variation among these wines, so if you plan on buying any be aware that your results will vary. The wines generally showed nice black fruits (tough but balanced structure) and the elusive vegetal top note that may have been the signature of Cabernet in its earlier incarnation.

I found wines that I liked in each of the vintages presented and while I may have a tough time explaining my choices, let me just say that the wines of the early to mid-1990s all are at peak, with a spectacular showing today by the 1994. And while fundamentally the 2005 and 1994 are bigger and more complex wines, the 1988 – a supposed stinker of a vintage – outclasses them both with its finesse, nuance and transparency.

Read more: Snooth Wine Profiles

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