When Jeff Gaffner worked at Chateau St Jean, the Sonoma County winery used some barrel-fermented Sémillon in its Sauvignon Blanc. One day, the winery ran out of barrels for the Sémillon and had to ferment it in stainless-steel tanks. Gaffner tasted it, and fell in love. He decided right then: If I ever run my own winery, I’m going to make that wine.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
We didn’t know any of that history when we strolled into a wine store in California that had just two bottles of Sémillon from Saxon Brown, Gaffner’s small winery. We only knew that we like Saxon Brown’s Zinfandel, that Sémillon is unusual as a stand-alone varietal in the US and that, for $20.50 (about Rs900), we couldn’t get burned very badly. We took it to dinner at a seafood place, and the wine was amazing: quite soulful, with a kind of vibrant earthiness, like very ripe figs, with hints of pears and a kiss of honeysuckle. “I made my first Sémillon in 2001 with an idea of oysters on the half shell,” Gaffner told us later. “No oak, cold-tank fermented. We ferment it really cold. Some people make a mistake with it and make it like Chardonnay, barrel-fermented. We ferment it for 100 days. It takes that long to make it dry. Then 100 to 120 days on its lees so the richness comes from the yeast breakdown.”
Gaffner makes about 700 cases of two different Sémillons. Why? “Because I love it,” he says. Among the many unusual, small-production wines we tried during our travels this summer, here are four more that created indelible memories:
Marilyn Remark Wines 2005 Grenache
(Wild Horse Road Vineyard, Monterey County)
At a regional tasting room in Monterey, California, we tried this winery’s saignée of Grenache — a rosé made by “bleeding” away some of the juice, thus, the vintners hope, creating both a nice rosé and giving more concentration to the remaining red wine. Well, the rosé was so excellent that we figured the red must be special, too, so we bought a bottle for $45. Oh, Mama! Grenache can be weak, but this was intense, and almost chewy. If we’d had paintbrushes, we would have slathered our tongues with the wine. It was that yummy. Yet, it had enough finesse that we’d love to taste it again with a few more years of age.
Marilyn Remark, a social worker, and Joel Burnstein, a stock-trader -turned-winemaker, took a trip to France a few years ago and, on the spot, decided to start their own winery and focus on Rhône varietals. “We had lunch in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and we walked into a couple of tasting rooms. And we still have the empty bottles that literally changed our lives. It was a wine from Gigondas that blew my socks off and I turned to Marilyn and said, ‘We’ve talked about making our own wines. Let’s see if anyone has Grenache.’ And, I was fortunate enough to find a source that sold Grenache grapes,” Burnstein told us. “Everybody who makes wine dreams of making a wine and having your name on it. Unfortunately, Marilyn Remark sounded better than Joel Burnstein.” The winery’s total production is 2,000 cases.
Trou de Bonde 2006 Pinot Blanc
(Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley)
American Pinot Blanc sometimes tastes just plain blanc, almost like a bulk wine. But we’d never seen this label before and it looked interesting and it was just $20 at a California store, so we gave it a try. What a triumph. It was powerful and filled with all sorts of ripe fruits, such as melon and peach, with fine acidity. It had real texture, which is unusual for an American Pinot Blanc.
It turns out the winery is owned by the winemaker at Zaca Mesa, Clay Brock, and his wife, Karen. The total production of the winery is 5,100 cases. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Alsatian Pinot Blanc,” Brock told us. ”It’s my favourite wine. I was always in love with Etude Pinot Blanc when Tony Soter was making it. When grapes became available at Bien Nacido Vineyard, I just jumped on it. Etude was my California inspiration. Some people have an epiphany. I think it was in Monterey, and I had an Etude at maybe the Sardine Factory and said this is just it for me.”
He added: “It’s been called poor man’s Chardonnay, but when it’s vinified with passion, it is unique.”
Krupp Brothers Estates Black Bart Marsanne 2005
(Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa Valley)
Marsanne is a grape from the Rhône Valley that quite a few US wineries are making these days, but it can taste heavy and even ponderous. We saw this on the wine list at the California Grill at Walt Disney World. As we’ve been saying for years, Disney World’s restaurants do a terrible job with wine on the low end, with limited, overpriced selections, but the more expensive wines — around $60 and up — are often interesting and fairly priced. This was $69 and we’d never seen it before, so we gave it a shot and we were glad we did. It had Marsanne’s big-boy character, but with an underlying life and zest that gave the wine depth and character.
Nigel Kinsman, the winemaker at the family-owned winery in Napa, told us later that they made just 634 cases of this wine. Why Marsanne? The owner’s son once interned at a winery in the Rhône Valley and loved the grape. Initially, the winery used Marsanne in a blend. “We were continually impressed with how the Marsanne looked on its own,” Kinsman said. “In 2005, we made a decision that it was a great wine and we wanted to showcase it on its own.”
Château Julien Merlot 2002 Private Reserve’
As you are travelling around, don’t forget to give a second chance to some old, possibly tired friends. We’re not fans of American Merlot, as you know, but at the tasting room of Château Julien in Carmel Valley, we tried this and were amazed at how intense, serious and even dramatic it was. So we bought a bottle (for $40) and took it back to our room, where we ordered a room service dinner to try it again, and it was even better than we remembered.
As we interviewed all these owners and winemakers, they got more and more excited as they talked about things like malolactic fermentation and neutral oak and petroleum notes. But you don’t have to know or understand any of that stuff because the single word they used more than any other was simply this: love. They make these wines because they love the grapes, they love the challenge and they love making wine. As you travel this summer, pick up unusual wines and think about Jeff Gaffner tasting unoaked Sémillon or Clay Brock drinking Etude Pinot Blanc for the first time. There is art, passion, personality and risk in each one of those bottles. It’s so much fun to be able to actually touch all of that to your own lips.
Melanie Grayce West contributed to this column.
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