Published by Hawk Wakawaka on 1 October 2014
As part of the VH1 Storytellers series, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson record an acoustic album together. For classic country fans, like myself, it’s a beautiful moment bringing two of the greats together. In the liner notes Cash explains how sitting side-by-side with Nelson on stage, Cash couldn’t help but envy Nelson’s picking ability. He plays fine guitar.
In the world of wine blogging, I’m no Johnny Cash (he’s one of the best, most soulful that ever was) but I do think it’s fair to call Alder Yarrow our Willie Nelson — prolific writer, writes notes for the best (Jancis Robinson as the wine world’s Patsy Cline-one of the finest country voices in history?), one of the longest blogging careers at the top.
Still, why the comparison?
The Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers’ Association invited Alder Yarrow to participate in an exclusive appellation tasting of Cabernet. He was kind enough to extend the invitation to me. So, this past weekend the two of us sat side-by-side tasting through 53 Cabernet library wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Sitting there side-by-side with Yarrow, I couldn’t help but admire his wine note ability.
Keep an eye out for Alder’s write-up on the tasting at his site Vinography (here: http://vinography.com/). He is likely to post thorough-going notes for the wines, as well as his overall assessment of quality for the variety in the region. Speaking with Alder after it was clear our views overlapped around a number of aspects, and diverged in others. I’ll let him share his own thoughts when he chooses to post them.
An AVA since 1981, the Santa Cruz Mountains was one of the first appellations to be defined by its mountain topography. The San Andreas fault carves the region running roughly diagonal up the middle north to south. Acreage within the appellation rises to the highest peaks around 2600 ft. but, importantly, not all acreage within the overall area count as part of the AVA. Instead, the boundaries descend to around 800 feet on the Eastern side, and 400 feet on the coastal, with valley floor properties falling outside the region. Fog articulates the limits of the lower elevations — the appellation grows above it.
The Santa Cruz Mountains count as their own unique region. The AVA stands below what we call the North Coast, and above what the TTB describes as the Central Coast. Though they often get lumped into the Central Coast in wine review discussions, the mountains technically, and climatically prove separate. The Mountains also fall outside the San Francisco Bay appellation. Effectively, then, the Santa Cruz Mountains rise as islands on their own above the fog — from the Bay to the East, from the ocean to the West, between the North and Central Coasts.
Historically, the area has produced some of the most important wines of California. Paul Masson began growing sparkling wine on the western slopes, eventually inspiring Martin Ray to produce the first varietally specific still wines at what would become Mount Eden. Later, in the 1960s, Paul Draper would help rediscover what we now call the Ridge Monte Bello site, growing wines that would compete against the best of Bordeaux.
Variety in the Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains wine growing region includes around 1300-planted acres. The vineyard totals separate into fairly even quarters, with Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay encapsulating three, and mixed other varieties taking the fourth.
After our tasting we enjoyed lunch with Paul Draper. As he explains, historically houses with vineyards on the eastern side of the San Andreas fault such as Ridge, Woodside, and Kathryn Kennedy grew Cabernet, while domains on the western side such as Thomas Fogarty or Varner grew Pinot. Chardonnay has done well throughout. Mount Eden, along the center line of the AVA, has long grown all three.
Overall temperatures certainly factor in to the historic placement in plantings. Generally the eastern side tends to be warmer. However, thanks to the folds and faults of the mountains, an incredible variability of microclimate dominates the appellation. More recently people have begun identifying warmer pockets on the western side as well so that today Cabernet is planted throughout the AVA.
Tectonic activity produces soil richness. With its multiple plates, the Santa Cruz Mountains offers a lot of soil diversity as well. Ridge, for example, sits atop some of the only limestone in California, while Varner rests in mixed loam over rock, and other areas depend upon decomposed rock, or clay.
Thanks partially to its remoteness — its harder to build direct roads in mountain terrain — the Santa Cruz Mountains have predominately held smaller producers. One of the effects of size, however, includes greater variability in wine quality. In an area not dominated by large name houses, it becomes easier for anyone to enter the industry, buying a few grapes to try out making wine. That sort of situation also often means producers with less connection to overall trends or styles of the wine world. So, while some of the best of California owe their heritage to the mountain AVA, the region as a whole does not currently meet that benchmark.
Cabernet Tasting from the Santa Cruz Mountains
Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet
the line-up of 53 Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets
The library tasting consisted of 53 Cabernets (blend and varietal) from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. The producers were invited to select bottles from their library collection in order to show their wines across vintages, and with some age. Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards selected four wines from the mid-1980s. With the exception of two newer projects, all other producers selected wines from the mid-2000s. Left Bend, and Lexington are both younger projects, and as a result presented wines since 2010. During lunch Draper also opened a 1985 Ridge Monte Bello.
Because I expect that Alder will likely present thorough-going notes for the wines, I am going to share overall impressions from the tasting. Alder’s insights through wine notes are reliably good.
Overall Impressions of Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet
Throughout, the wines carried a sense of persistent and vibrant acidity, with a stimulating presence. The Cabernets also consistently held a line of aromatic, oily-tree forest ranging from eucalyptus, to pine, to cedar, often showing pine alongside one of the other two. The fruit notes varied through a range of dark fruits and creamy violet in the younger wines, or red currant and rose in the older wines, however, the wines throughout showed a note of sour or bing cherry.
Faults appeared in around a handful of wines, though never through an entire portfolio. In each case we opened a backup bottle to check whether or not it reduced to bottle variation, or a winemaking issue. In a few portfolios where there were not necessarily faults, cellar quality was problematic. Due to proximity to fog, disease pressure can be an issue within the Santa Cruz Mountains. However, the loose bunches of Cabernet tend to mitigate such issues for that variety.
Considering that the overall fruit quality was good in more than half the wines, it was disappointing to discover a predominance of oak that cloaked or obscured the fruit. In many cases, oak use in the wines was difficult. It is clear that there are high quality sites within the appellation for Cabernet. With the amount of work that goes into farming such fruit, it is a shame to see site quality obliterated by woody character. The issue tended to be a matter of over-oaking wine, but in some cases appeared to be also a question of oak type with wood spice standing disjointed to the fruit.
Stand Out Examples of Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet
Five individual wines in particular stood out for quality in the tasting.
* The Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard 1985 Bates Ranch Cabernet, 12.5%, showed nice vibrancy with a lot of life, offering floral and berry aromatics alongside a pleasing mid-palate through finish of red and dark berry, eucalyptus, and pine with hints of molasses and tobacco. The wine carried still strong, though not aggressive tannin, and a long lightly drying finish.
* The Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard 1986 Bates Ranch Cabernet, 12.5%, offered wet tobacco, eucalyptus, and floral aromatics, followed by a creamy mid-palate of violet cream, and integrated berry with eucalyptus and pine. The tannin to acid balance was pleasant and well executed, coupling with pleasing subtlety of flavor throughout.
* Ridge 2005 Monte Bello, 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 6% Petite Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 13.4%, while still quite young, offered a nicely integrated wine of strength with elegance. Sour cherry comes together here with both red and black currant alongside Monte Bello’s characteristic eucalyptus, and still apparent oak baking spice. The wine wants a lot more time to develop and deepen, but is structurally beautiful now.
* Mount Eden 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, 83% Cabernet, 14% Merlot, 1.5% Cabernet Franc, 1.5% Petite Verdot, 13.5%, carried creamy aromatics of cedar integrated with dark fruit, carrying forward to a creamy mid-palate of black currant and cassis, cedar, hints of butterscotch, and a pop of hot pepper heat through a long drying finish. I’d love to taste less wood here, but for the most part the spice knits well with the wine.
* Kathryn Kennedy 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.2% proves to be riper in style than the other stand out wines of the tasting, but carries a seamless presentation. Graceful aromatics of creamy spice, and violet carry forward into elegant tannin with flavors of sour cherry and dark fruit accents, creamy ginger, and violet. I believe this wine will continue to increase in elegance as it ages.
I am also interested in keeping an eye on the two newer projects — Lexington, and Left Bend.
Lexington offers good quality right out of the gate, which is no surprise considering its pedigree. Tommy Fogarty, and Nathan Kandler have been developing the site for quality fruit, and make beautiful wines through their other label Thomas Fogarty. They poured both the Lexington Gist Ranch 2011 Estate Cabernet, and their blend, the 2011 Apex (which in 2011 proved to be almost entirely Cabernet). Both wines are nicely done, and Apex carries a lightness, with less woody character to it I find exciting.
The Left Bend wines currently show a lot of new oak, which is challenging. However, I mention them because the 2010 and 2011 wines appeared to have pleasant fruit quality. My hope is that new label==new barrels, and that as the winemakers develop they will shift to letting the fruit more clearly shine through.
If you are interested in tasting more Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets, Premier Cruz will be happening in early November, and this year focuses on Cabernet. Tickets are already on sale.
For more information: http://scmwa.com/event/premier-cruz/
Thank you to Megan Metz, Marty Mathis, and Alder Yarrow.
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