OREGON CHARDONNAY 2.0: LINGUA FRANCA BUNKER HILL 2016

There’s a lot to digest here.  First of all, it would have been easy for us to dismiss this as another ‘somm label’.  You know, famous sommelier decides he can do it better and goes off to create some undernourished wine that ‘pairs well with food’.  Only in this case the sommelier in question is one of some repute, Larry Stone, and he partnered with a ‘hall-of-fame’ Burgundy producer, Dominique Lafon.    They then hired Thomas Savre, an accomplished young winemaker from Evening Land’s Seven Springs Vineyard and put him to work on the project.

Perhaps even a bigger challenge here is that we are going to talk about an Oregon Chardonnay that sells for around $50.  But the performance here was so remarkable that we are thinking about it not as an Oregon Chardonnay, but as a white Burgundy look-alike that, given the cost of ‘real’ white Burgundy these days, actually looks reasonably priced.  We know a lot of you are still like we used to be, thinking of Oregon Chardonnay a sea of lean, mediocre juice grown in the wrong location, planted to the wrong clone.  There is still a lot of that.  But the upswing in quality from those who have reoriented their Chardonnay programs and corrected some of the old mistakes is astounding.

Lingua Franca Chardonnay Bunker Hill 2016 is exclusively from Salem’s Bunker Hill in Eola-Amity, with 20-year-old CH76 vines on pure Nekia soils at an altitude of around 800 feet. It is a west-facing vineyard that is exposed directly to the cooling ocean winds of the Van Duzer corridor (yeah pretty geeky stuff). The name of the winery, Lingua Franca, which is defined as “a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different”, seems an appropriate tongue-in-cheek reference to this ‘Franco-American’ endeavor.

All we can figure is that these guys, who have tasted some of the world’s greatest wines, have figured out a way to make something in the image of a great white Burgundy.   No easy task but knowledge is power.  The wine has both substance and lift.  The aroma is complex with layers of mineral, smoke, herbs, caramel apples, and a faint hint of that hazelnut character we associate with Meursault (or is that power of suggestion?).  The wine is intense, long, racy and complex on the palate with a lasting finish of citrus, herbs, and white flowers.  There are flinty, mouth-watering mineral notes as well, which we don’t typically associate with Oregon Chardonnay.

All in all this is an impressive glassful and indicates this project is going to turn some heads (the inaugural 2015s got some nice ink from Vinous), and that Oregon is capable of bringing Chardonnay drama when the juice is in the right hands.  A good run of vintages probably hasn’t hurt the early success here but, clearly, there is some vision here as well.  Talking about $50 domestic Chardonnay typically isn’t our ‘jam’, but exceptions do come along.  We highly recommend this one as a breakout kind of effort as well as a darned tasty bottle of serious Chardonnay that deserves attention.  Also there’s that whole thing about ‘preconceived notions’…

Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015

If you look at our product listings, you will note that we post ‘third party’ reviews on the wines offered just like most everyone else.  What’s different about our approach is that you will also note we write a number of original pieces.  We taste a lot of wine over the course of the year and will make the point that context makes a huge difference in how a wine comes across.  So we give ourselves the opportunity to use our own voice to point out exceptional efforts that may not get that big score when judged in some sort of rapid fire tasting but sure hits the right notes for us ‘one-on-one’.  That is, incidentally how most of you will be consuming your wines.

If there was ever a prime example of how we see things quite a bit differently than the wine media, it is with Benovia winery.  We have been big fans of winemaker Mike Sullivan since back in his early Zin days with Deloach, and through an impressive group of Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels as he got the Hartford Court project going.  We have been quite pleased with his work since becoming the mind behind Benovia and have recommended a number of things from there over the years.

We’ll be the first to admit that the Benovia wines aren’t the kind of blowsy monsters that get easily noticed by the media.  They are, rather, succinct, pure and harmonious with well-woven flavors and nothing sticking out.  These are the kinds of wines to drink because they are outstanding examples of California classics of the type that were prevalent back in California’s more ‘formative’ years.  They are made to ‘seduce’ rather than ‘bludgeon’.

Not a lot of evident wood here, the style of this Chardonnay is an exploration of the terroir of the Russian River.  You’ve got finely meshed apple and citrus fruit with hints of almond and spice notes, the result of night harvesting, indigenous yeast and whole cluster fermentation and a sojourn of 12 months in oak.

The flavors are clean, persistent, and engaging while always fresh and vibrant.  The Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015 comes mainly from the winery’s Martaella estate and relies on a layered, nuanced, rather impressive demonstration of the vivid house style for its impression.  It will probably again get modest reviews from the press because it isn’t overtly big (though don’t get us wrong there is plenty of character).  But this one impresses where it counts, in the glass.  That is where this Chardonnay is made to perform, and we’d rather drink this than a lot of the other, higher- scoring (often oaky and flabby) options we have.

It would be easier for us to simply point to a Chardonnay that got a big review, and we have those, too. But this is one we believe in and the 2015 is a fine example to make new friends for what we feel is one of the more under-rated wineries around simply because the wines are balanced and made to drink rather than to go after ‘numbers’.

 

Thomas Pico Chardonnay…No Ordinary ‘Vin de France’

What, another new Chardonnay?  Well, yes, on the surface it would appear that way.  But there is much more to the story than that, starting with the name.  Not many folks will know the name Thomas Pico off the top of their heads, but he is a Chardonnay producer of some repute.  But he is known for the wines of his own estate, Pattes Loup.  We started selling Pattes Loup a few years ago and hailed Thomas as one of the most impressive new talents on the scene.  The reputation of Pattes Loup only expanded as he had additional vintages under his belt, received significant attention from the media, and established a fiercely loyal following among Chablis ‘dorks’ in particular.  It is a label of importance even if the guy’s name isn’t a household word.

If you saw the ‘Fire and Ice’ piece we posted in the ‘Stock Report’ on Sept 3, we talked a lot about how, with all the concern about global warming, ‘ice’ has been a much more devastating enemy of the grape than heat in certain parts of the wine world.  There have been numerous incidents of frost and hail that have wreaked havoc on a number of vineyards in Europe.  The Loire has been ‘abused’ on multiple occasions and 2017 in particular has created an extensive ‘casualty list’ in France, Spain and northern Italy.

As you may know, 2016 was a particularly brutal year for Thomas Pico and many other growers in Chablis. Frost in April adversely effected bud break and vine health and then hail in May came in and devastated much of what was left of the he crop. What little did survive was assaulted by mildew following the heavy rains of May and June.  Joys of farming? Not so much this time.

Yields at Pattes Loup are uncommonly low to begin with and the Pattes Loup wines have been a success thanks to talented winemaking but also because Pico keeps his yields down as a practice.  In 2016, thanks to all of the various weather malaise, Thomas was now expecting only 20% of his normal harvest, which is well below the norm under normal circumstances.  What was left would not generate enough income to keep Pattes Loups full time employees.

Fortunately, some friends who grow organic Chardonnay in high altitude vineyards of the Limoux region came to the rescue and offered Thomas a small quantity of wine to supplement his own harvest. Thomas was able to pick the grapes with his friends in Limoux to the south (it is southwest of Carcassone in the Languedoc, and then truck the juice back to Chablis in time to harvest his own grapes.

Thomas apparently bottled what little Chablis he had as Chablis.  But from the Limoux Chardonnay, Thomas made a Vin de France, aged in steel tanks. The Vin de France label thing has to do with not bottling the wine in Limoux or some other technicality under French wine law, as opposed to something to do with sketchy grape sourcing.

Meanwhile, Pico has put a lot of work and energy into developing his name among the wine cognoscenti, he wasn’t going to put his name on something substandard now.  There is a brightness and energy to the Thomas Pico Chardonnay  Vin de France 2016 that is reminiscent of Chablis, with all of the verve that Pico’s wines are known for.  But the flavors are naturally a little different than the citrus and salinity of his usual produce, these high elevation, organic grapes flavors leaning to floral scents, stone fruits, honeyed notes, and a different mineral undercurrent.  Clarity, purity and lift, the guy’s talents show through and it’s pretty compelling juice for the tab.  It is certainly the best Limoux Chardonnay we have ever had!….$19.98