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Friday, March 15, 2013

Tasting with Stéphane Derenoncourt

There are many different types of winemakers. Some make wine under their own name and are something of a one-man or one-woman show. Some have their own brand, but also consult for a few other wineries. Some our winemakers for hire and consult at one or many wineries. Regardless of who writes their check (or how big those checks may be), most winemakers love what they do and are passionate about wine. A few weeks ago, I sat down with a man who does all of the above.

From humbling beginnings in Saint-Émilion, Stéphane Derenoncourt made a name for himself in the 1990s and has since become a globally renowned winemaker that makes wine for more than 60 wineries (including two of his own) in a dozen different countries. He, along with Michel Rolland, is often referred to as a "flying winemaker." I met with Derenoncourt during my weekend in California for Premiere Napa Valley. I interviewed him for Decanter and we also tasted through the 2009 lineup of his Derenoncourt California wines.

Before starting with the 2009 lineup, we tasted the Premiere Napa Valley lot, 2011 Las Posadas Cabernet Sauvignon. As I've stated before, I thought this wine was one of the shining stars out of the 211 PNV wines. "For the vintage, we are very happy because 2011 was a very difficult year," Derenoncourt explained. The name comes from the forest of redwood and pine high atop Howell Mountain that surround the tiny vineyard, hence the name Las Posadas. "It is a beautiful place," continued Derenoncourt. The wine is fruity, but not overly so. It has a finish that lingers for quite some time, but the best part is how smooth and velvet it is. The tannins are there, but don't overwhelm your mouth. It is like milk chocolate slowly melting in your mouth.

Perhaps my favorite of the entire lineup is also the least expensive. I've had the Red Hills Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon before, and I plan on buying some of this one when it is available. Sadly, there was no 2008 release because of smoke taint from the fires. The 2009 has an amazing intensity of fruit, chocolate and rugged earth aromas. The flavors are plush and the texture is so smooth. Rich chocolate and cherry flavors jump out and make you want more. Derenoncourt is equally pleased with this beautiful wine from a somewhat unknown region. "For me, Lake County is a little bit like Bordeaux Supérieur," he acknowledges. "It is not a famous appellation, so people don't care a lot about this area and of course the price of the grapes and wines are low. I think there is something to do there and I try to do it." He obviously is not concerned about putting a big-name vineyard (though Beckstoffer does own the Red Hills Vineyard) on his label and I was also pleasantly surprised to hear about his disdain for scores.

2009 was the first vintage that Derenoncourt sourced grapes from west of the Mayacamas Mountains and has the largest number of wines of any of his releases. On the increase in the number of wines, Derenoncourt said that it is not very easy to find great terroir for large production wines so he wanted to have more variety. He said the mountains were the only place he could find the best terroir. With the fires in 2008, their production was much lower and it caused them to search for other places - such as Sonoma. If they find something special and interesting they'll consider making more, but Derenoncourt is happy with the number of wines right now. The 2009 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the 1800-ft elevation Charlie Smith Vineyard. This wine is perhaps the most subdued of the lineup. There is a more leather and herbal character than in the others, but some nice raspberry, graphite and spices that suggest a promising future.

The 2009 Stagecoach Merlot (from the Atlas Peak portion of the 700-acre vineyard) was sourced from one of the few blocks of the massive vineyard with a northern exposure. Derenoncourt said he wanted the northern exposure to help keep the freshness in the wine. The merlot is pure merlot (whatever that means...), with loads of red and blue fruits on both the nose and palate. It is a bit tight right now, but showed a fun meatiness that give is some depth and complexity. It has lots of dark chocolate flavors and a medium finish. It would be fun to see what this does in a few years.

In addition to the Sonoma offering, Derenoncourt added two new Meritages to the lineup, both dominated by cabernet franc. The 2009 Là-Haut is a blend of 75% cabernet franc and 25% cabernet sauvignon all from Howell Mountain. It is big, black and tannic. Those that like massive red wines or those that want to wait 20 years to see this black leather-clad MMA fighter shed her clothes will be a fan. The 2009 Terres Mêlées is a blend of 60% cabernet franc and 33% merlot from Stagecoach and 9% cabernet sauvignon from Las Posadas on Howell Mountain. It is a bit more restrained and dominated by red fruit, spice and leather. Think lying in bed being overlooked by a dominatrix in red leather and incense burning in the background. Both blends are powerful, but seductively balanced.

The two top wines (and by that I mean most expensive...) are both 100% cabernet sauvignon from Howell Mountain. The Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and the Tache d'Encre Cabernet Sauvignon are both masterclass worthy cabs. The Howell Mountain is more like a hammer in a velvet glove. There is lots of intense chocolate and tobacco aromas and flavors. The Tache d'Encre is just plain awesome. It has flowers, chocolate, red/black/blue fruit, a lovely silky texture and perhaps the longest finish of the bunch. Of course, this wine will set you back at least $200 a bottle. If money weren't an issue, I'd also being buying Tache d'Encre, but I'll be more than happy with the Red Hills cab at a fraction of the price.

I didn't pick up any noticeable alcohol on any of the wines when I was tasting them, but as I scanned the labels I noticed that most were mid to high 15%. Derenoncourt said that he has tried to pick a little earlier to reduce the alcohol, but he says he lost a bit of the balance. To minimized the chances of over-extraction he punches down rather than pumping over and only racks once during the 16-18 months the wines stay in barrel. It is a testament to his skill and the terroir he chooses that wines approaching 16% alcohol might be confused with wines in the 13s.

One final note. During the tasting, when I mentioned to Derenoncourt that Colorado wineries produce some lovely cabernet franc (cf is his favorite variety) he jokingly (maybe, not?) suggested he wanted to visit and see what wines are like from CO. He makes wine in a variety of non-traditional locales, including Virginia (we both mentioned our fondness for Boxwood's Topiary because of the cabernet franc). With his fondness for cabernet franc and high-elevation sites I think both Derenoncourt and Colorado could benefit from a visit. While I cannot foresee any Colorado winery coughing up the, I'd suspect, quite high consultant fees Derenoncourt would command, I can see Derenoncourt Colorado on a label...

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