Tuesday, February 22, 2011

North on Hwy 29

The center of the North American wine world revolves around the valley that surrounds the town of Napa. Some of the world's most expensive, critically acclaimed, and what I can only assume delicious wines are grown and produced in the towns and hills of this viticultural paradise. While every wine region in the U.S. is chasing after California, every wine region in California is seeking the prestige of Napa Valley.  While the wines of Napa tend to be high in quality, and equally priced, other North Coast wine regions offer exceptional quality and value when compared to the Hellenic Napa Valley. Nevertheless, wines from Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley and Anderson Valley struggle to meet the expectations of their big brother.

Despite being even less heralded than those other wine regions, two big name wine producers have found inspiration a few miles north on Hwy 29 from the Napa Valley. Lake County is home to five American Viticultural Areas in addition to the broad North Coast AVA designation. Three of these, including the Red Hills Lake County AVA, border Clear Lake. Clear Lake is California's largest freshwater lake and has been dated to be almost 500,000 years old. On the southern shore of Soda Bay is one of the more prominent landforms, Mt. Konocti. Just south of the dormant volcano, deposits of previous eruptions yield both red gravelly and sandy loam volcanic soils.

The current benchmark producer of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has to be Schrader Cellars. Fred and Carol Schrader are the proprietors of the darling of Wine Spectator. They employ celebrity winemaker Thomas Rivers-Brown, proprietor of Pinot Noir powerhouse Rivers-Marie, to craft 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines from two of Napa's most famous vineyards, the Beckstoffer To-Kalon and Georges III vineyards. With these high-pedigree grapes, they craft six single-clone and "ultimate-blend clone" wines.  Prior to 2010, no American winery had ever received the exalted100-point distinction. Despite this history, Schrader received two 100-point ratings for two of its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons. In addition, the other four 100% Cabernet Sauvignons from 2007 received scores above 96 points. With the publicity of these scores and those bestowed on Schrader by other critics, prices and demand have skyrocketed. Luckily for the mere mortal wine lovers, Schrader started the Double Diamond program in 2002. Again, teaming up with Beckstoffer Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are sourced from the Amber Knolls Vineyard in the Red Hills Lake County AVA just north of Napa Valley on Hwy 29. The Double Diamonds (Amber Knolls Vineyard and Napa Valley Bomber X) are Schrader's consumer-friendly, entry-level offering.

Perhaps the most renowned international winemaking consultant, Stéphane Derenoncourt works with wineries in 10 countries, most of which are centered around the French town of Saint-Émilion. In 2009, Derenoncourt released his first California wine. His eponymous wines are made in partnership with Montesquieu Wine Group and are focused on vineyards in the Napa Valley. However, the red soils of the Beckstoffer Red Hills Vineyard in the Red Hills Lake County AVA appealed to his ultimate commitment to terroir and led him to make a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from this unlikely region. While Derenoncourt's Napa wines approach the prices commanded by Napa's top wineries, the Red Hills Cabernet is much more affordable even though may be difficult for wine lovers to buy due to production volume.

I spent the past few nights exploring the Red Hills Lake County offerings from some of Napa's most sought after producers. While I most definitely count myself among the mere mortals, these two wines offer a glimpse of what winemaking royalty has to offer. I will definitely keep my eyes open for other wines from Lake County.

2006 Derenoncourt California, Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills Lake County AVA, Red Hills Vineyard

The packaging doesn't get much prettier than this beautifully simple linen label. The wine was poured into a duck decanter and sipped over several hours. Dark red color. Nice aromatic nose though not overly fruity and hints of cedar. With silky and smooth tannins along with flavors of cassis, dark raspberries, pencil shavings along with crisp acidity and good minerality you will not confuse this with an overblown Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is exceptionally balanced and elegant. Even though the label says 15.7% abv, I hardly noticed any heat. I am looking forward to the 2007s being released next month! 15.7% abv Purchased $40. Very Good/Excellent (tasted 2/15/11)

2008 Double Diamond, Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills Lake Country AVA, Amber Knolls Vineyard

I was disappointed to pull out a composite cork from the bottle, but the juice is what is important. I poured half of the bottle into a decanter and corked the rest and put it into the fridge for the next night. Dark opaque purple in color. The moderately powerful aromas of cassis, blackberries and cigar box fill the glass. Once the wine passes my lips, a bit of disappointment sets in. Plums, blackberries, tobacco and smoke flavors are followed by a slightly vegetal and ashey back palate. It seems a bit disjointed and unbalanced; not unenjoyable but not meeting my expectations considering the pedigree of the name on the label.  14.5% abv Purchased $45. Good (tasted 2/17/11)

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