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Tasting notes from California

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


David Just over the hill from Saintsbury, Cuvaison's stunning 350-acre estate is almost all planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with little pockets of Sauvignon Blanc. Steve Rogstad (right) has been making the wines here in Carneros since 2002, and we met in their beautiful tasting room with its broad porch and sweeping vistas over the gentle folds and rolling slopes of their vineyard before taking a 4x4 tour of some of the more elevated blocks. The views to the distant golden gate bridge alone make it worth the effort.

Steve grew up in North Dakota, where studied literature and went to live in Paris. Whilst there his interest in wine developed, and he eventually came back to San Francisco and worked his way through studies in winemaking at UC Davis, before vintage at Cakebread Cellars and in Beaujolais. "My first full-time job was at Saintsbury," he tells, pointing over the vineyard, where his neighbour's cellars are clearly visible. "Then when I was making Cabernet at Spring Mountain Vineyard I met Ted Lemon who recruited me for Clos Pagase." Clos Pegase's portfolio is a varied one including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and after six years there, Cuvaison approached Steve to first of all shadow, and then replace winemaker John Thacher, who had made the wines here for 25 years.

Founded in the 1960s, the large winery and extensive visitor facility in Carneros, right in the middle of Cuvaison's oldest Pinot and Chardonnay vines, is a fairly recent investment. This is an estate winery, using only fruit from its own vineyards. "We're not looking to grow our brand on volume," Steve tells me. "In the early days there really wasn't such a focus to the Cuvaison brand, but today the focus is definitely on Carneros and on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.


The Carneros estate from the visitor centre. Click image for bigger version.

Though the focus is Carneros, in 1998 the company expanded into the Mount Veeder appellation with the purchase of the Brandlin Vineyard. It is a much smaller part of the estate, with 38 acres planted as opposed to 250 acres in Carneros. Brandlin is planted exclusively to Bordeaux grapes, a mountain vineyard running from 950 - 1350 feet in elevation. "The grapes have a very high skin to juice ratio," Steve tells me, "so I do a lot of oxygenation through old barrels to help polymerize the tannins." Mount Veeder, he reminds me, is a very cool AVA, probably one of the last to be picked in all of Napa: "in 2011 that meant the last week of November."

the wines

Cuvaison's UK importer is Thorman Hunt. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Cuvaison, Carneros Estate Chardonnay 2011, California
26,000 cases of this are made, all from estate-grown fruit. It is barrel fermented, followed by eight months in small oak, 25% new. Two thirds goes through malolactic. Quite a deep, stone fruit and dryish apricot character, gentle nuttiness. There's a delicious, quite full palate of very nice fruit, it has sweetness but real concentration, there is plenty of juiciness in the fresh finish. 89-90/100. $20-$24 locally

Cuvaison, Kite Tail Carneros Chardonnay 2011, California
Not in the UK as yet. All from old Wente clone selection of 13 year old vines, spends 15 months in barriques, 50% new. Comes from organically farmed blocks. Apple and succulent, wheaty, lightly toasty nose, with a breadiness and light oxidised quality that adds a bit of steel to the core, a dry apple core acidity and a nice spice broadening the finish. 90-91/100. $36, 1200 cases.

Cuvaison, Carneros Estate Pinot Noir 2011, California
Nicely edgy, gently beetrooty, with a firm red fruit and delicious on the palate, the sweet and full fruit is concentrated, very fine coffee and spice finish, quite a big Pinot but has delicious balance and a freshness in the finish with that hint of rhubarb adding a dry savoury quality. 89/100. $35, 3500 cases in this very small vintage - normally around double this.

Cuvaison, Spire Carneros Pinot Noir 2011, California
Made from Dijon clone 115, and coming from the slope right outside the visitor tasting room. 15 months in small oak, 50% new. Quite a deep, concentrated colour. Very nice deep nose, lots of earthy, warm, autumnal qualities here, with a touch of briar and wet autumn leaves. On the palate the fruit really bursts through. Proper Pinot silkiness, ripe, creamy red fruit and a the spice and hint of chocolate in the finish nicely set off by the sweet, fine tannins, juicy orange acidity and that hint of rhubarb again. 92/100. $48, 500 cases.

Cuvaison, Brandlin Estate Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, California
With 4% Petit Verdot, 1% each of Malbec and Cabernet Franc, this spends 22 months in small oak, 50% new. Chocolate and mint over black fruit ripeness, but there is a hint of something cedary and almost incense-like. Big, juicy fruit hit on the palate, really mouth-filling sweetness and glossy ripeness, but there's a some keen, tart, lip-smacking acidity and tart fruit skin crispness to keep it fresh, Long and creamy, the oak and the hint of alcoholic heat making it a robust and chunky wine in some ways, but such delicious fruit purity. 91-92/100. $55.

Cuvaison, Brandlin Estate The Bootleg Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, California
The blend here is 75% Cabernet, 11% Petit Verdot, 13% Malbec and 1% Cabernet Franc which spends 22 months in small oak, 75% new. Adds a level of glossy, deep, creamy oak, but also a more smooth and intense fruit plushness, with a touch of nice aromatic lift. The palate has a luscious concentration of cassis and ripe, fleshy blackberry fruit: the lovely bittersweet edge of the tannins and skins, the light grippiness and good cherry acidity are all there, then the coffee and chocolate richness of the oak fills in. Long and deliciously supple and filled with flavour. 93/100. $100, 600 cases.

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