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Tasting notes from California

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


Mike There are lots of "firsts" to come in this report from the beautiful and timeless hideaway that is Hanzell Vineyards. Open by appointment to visitors, the historic winery sits high on the slopes of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, with lofty views over the town of Sonoma. The single track road passes through acres of vineyard and virgin forest, the sunlight dappling the road as squirrels scamper to clear the path in front of you.

Hanzell is Sonoma's most historic property, planted in 1953 by industrialist James David Zellerbach, with two acres of Chardonnay and four of Pinot Noir. This is believed to be the first Pinot planted in North America and the first Chardonnay planted in California. The original vineyard, right in front of the winery buildings, is said to be the oldest continuously producing Chardonnay and Pinot in California and is known as 'The Ambassador's Vineyard', because Zellerbach was to become US Ambassador to Italy having already led the implementation of the Marshall Plan in Europe. Hanzell is pronounced Hann-Zell, with the emphasis on the second syllable. The name comes from Ambassador Zellerbach's wife, Hana Zellerbach.

It was probably Zellerbach's travels in Europe that developed his taste for wine, and led to the seemingly outrageous decision to establish a European-style estate in California in the early 1950s. I met up with current winemaker Michael McNeill (pictured right and known as 'McNeill' to all) who took me on an extensive tour of all six vineyards that spread across the 200 acre estate. The original vineyard was dry-farmed (the red volcanic soils here have plenty of water-retaining clay mixed through them), and though now there is drip irrigation throughout, little else has changed in that vineyard, and nor, says McNeill, has much changed in the Hanzell philosophy: "The Ambassador's mission was to make wines that can age, and that's still our mission today."

Hanzell is an atypical Californian estate in many ways. There's a modesty and an 'under the radar' feeling about it, despite its wines having a cult following that has sustained for decades. There's a sense of timelessness here, a sense that the wines are not 'wannabe' anythings, other than a reflection of their vineyards. McNeill confesses that he hopes the son of their current viticulturist, who was born and raised on the estate, will one day take over his job: "Just like generation after generation manage the continuity of a Burgundy domaine."

That idea of preserving with gentle and incremental improvement is made possible by the current owner, English multi-millionaire Alexander de Brye, who inherited his mother's considerable fortune on her death in 1991, when he was aged just 17. Today, he is said to love this estate which held a special place in his mother's affections: she bought in 1975 after Zellerbach's death.

And back to those 'firsts': the oldest temperature-controlled steel tanks in north America; the first in California to use exclusively French oak for all wines; the first to use inert gas at bottling to preserve the wine against oxidation. But whilst McNeill shows me these winemaking tools with pride, he confesses that these days his heart lies much more in the vineyards than in the winery. He trains most of the vineyards on a system where wires on the top of Y-shaped posts can be pulled apart during the growing season to spread out the canopy over the growing bunches, giving the perfect dappled light sun exposure. The altitude here runs from around 400 - 800 feet, but it is the cooling effect of the Petaluma Gap that is key here: the vineyards sit above the marine layer of fog that cools much of the valley below, so it is a little altitude and the winds that blow through the Gap that mean Pinot and Chardonnay can do so well here.

the wines

UK importer of Hanzell Vineyards is Goedhuis. See all stockists on wine-searcher.


Click photo for bigger version.

Hanzell Vineyards, Sebella Chardonnay 2011, California
From the estates younger vines - the that's in the context that the youngest here were planted in 1999. The wine is fermented in steel and finished in older French oak for six months, with no malolactic. Fresh lemon peel notes, a touch of something herbal and apple skin note too. Deliciously punchy fruit, lovely fresh, ripe apple sweetness on the palate and plenty of ripe, juicy fruit and mid-palate weight. 90/100. Sells for $36 locally.

Hanzell Vineyards, Chardonnay 2010, California
Average age of vineyards here is 36 years. One third goes into new oak with malolactic, 70% into steel with no malolactic. The steel proportion then goes into older barrels whilst the oaked component goes back into steel. Blending is done after 18 months in total. It has a nuttier and creamier element, but still no heavy toast or char here. Real minerality and Burgundian tightness, really juicy and deliciously fresh fruit on the palate, that tight lemon and lime note again, but there are lovely floral aspects to this with that taut, slightly saline touch in the finish. 93/100. $75 locally.

Hanzell Vineyards, Pinot Noir 2010, California
Lovely colour, a touch of paleness to the ruby. Beautifully fragrant stuff, the softly leafy and floral nose showing delicate precision, cherry and gentle touches of smokiness, but all about incense and delicacy. The mouth has a dry tannic precision, and although this has good cherry and red fruit, it also has a dryness and a savoury quality, a touch of orange and a touch of liquorice. 91/100. $95 locally.

Hanzell Vineyards, Sessions Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, California
From a tightly spaced vineyard on a steep slope, 99 cases were made of this Pinot, aged 18 months in French oak, 75% of it new. Smoky notes of minerality, and although there is a little more oak apparent, there is just a notch of extra concentration and apparent sweetness. That is proved in the mouth, with a slightly richer mouthfeel and a nicely juicy, clean and clear character with a tang of cherry skins and plum skins giving grip. Delicious richness and sweetness. 92-93/100. $95 locally.

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