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Tasting notes from California

© 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


Jess Though founder Jess Jackson (pictured right) is no longer with us, reminders of his legacy are everywhere when one visits the extensive Kendall-Jackson wine centre near the town of Fulton in Sonoma. This remains a family-owned company, with Jess's widow Barbara now sole proprietor, and their children involved in various areas of the business, from Government relations to sustainability.

Kendall-Jackson is huge - not only with their own eponymous label, but with the 'family' of winery estates they have acquired over the years, which apparently are allowed to run with real independence and autonomy. On this visit I would taste wines from the Matanzas Creek estate label for example, but there are around 30 Jackson Family Wineries in total including Edmeades, Stonestreet and La Crema, plus wineries in Oregon, France, Chile, Italy and Australia.

Focusing back on Sonoma, Gillian Handleman, Director of Wine Education for Kendall-Jackson, told me that management of water was one of their biggest challenges currently: "This is the second year of drought, so reservoirs are becoming depleted and we need rain this year - remember, this is California and there is no rain between June and September." That apart, the company does see Sonoma as its home. "Kendall-Jackson's heart lies in Sonoma for Cabernet," says Gillian, "especially from the Alexander and Knights valleys. But you'd be surprised at how much experimentation there is too. We have Arneis, Tokaji, Gamay, Ribolla Gialla and Albariño all planted." I asked if they would all make varietal wines eventually? "Well, who knows - but the California consumer is very adventurous," Gillian replied.

Kendall-Jackson follows a classic 'Cru' system from regional, through single AVA to single vineyard wines. Three of the wines we'd taste are from their Matanzas Creek estate which specialises in Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. Winemaker Marcia Monahan works with different yeasts and clones, and places a lot of emphasis on canopy management to "really crack Sauvignon Blanc," according to Gillian. She continues: "The reputation for Californian Sauvignon in the 60s and 70s was for sweeter styles, but now it's really changing, especially in Sonoma county. We're backing off from the warmer regions and looking to plant Sauvignon in areas influenced by lots of marine air."

Matanzas Creek wines

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Matanzas Creek, Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc 2011, California
Fairly low key aromatics in this wine, 10% of which was matured in neutral oak, but very nice citrus and apple, and has a nice herbal tang. A touch of more exotic character comes through, a hint of papaya. The palate has nice freshness, the vineyards cooled by the Petaluma gap. Firm, a touch of fruit skin grip. 87/100. Around $20 locally.

Matanzas Creek, Bennett Valley Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc 2011, California
Fresher aromatics in this 100% Sauvignon from vineyards at 600 feet elevation, 10% of which was fermented in large wooden 'foudres'. There's a really nice exotic fruit quality here, with plenty of punchy a blast of orange and grapefruit here, and a real gravel and tang of something saline and mineral elevating this. From hillside vineyards on clay and gravel, this has a firm, grippy finish. 89/100.

Matanzas Creek, Helena Bench Knights Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011, California
14.5% alcohol here, from a warmer location than the 13.1% abv Bennett, on a west facing gravel bench. All stainless steel fermentation. Tight grapefruity nose, with zest and lemon peel, but perhaps not so tropically aromatic as the Bennett. Quite a saline, savoury, full flavour and it is that citrus balance that drives this. Full and savoury. 88-89/100.

Kendall-Jackson wines

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Kendall-Jackson, Vintners Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
Mostly Sonoma fruit (around 15% in total coming from Napa and Mendocino), anchored on three sites including in the Alexander Valley at 2,400 feet. Has a little of all five Bordeaux grapes, though it is 88% Cab and it was aged for 13 months in oak, 70% French and 30% American. Deliciously juicy wine, with a slightly dry, ashy character of savoury fruit and just a touch of oak, but has a certain refinement. Elegant and sophisticated style, with very good acidity and a lightness about it: cassis yes, but decent red fruit energy too at a sub-$20 price. 88-89/100.

Kendall-Jackson, Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
Sonoma County fruit, with 12% made up of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It spends 17 months in oak, 82% French and 36% new barrels. There's a silkiness and a tight cassis profile here, a barrel selection, with real purity and juiciness, some lovely herb and floral nuances, a touch of bay leaf. Concentrated, dry tannins and fruit extraction - not over extracted, but has concentration and intensity, and a big sour cherry blast of acidity and skinny grip. 90/100. $26 locally.

Kendall-Jackson, Trace Ridge Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, California
100% Cabernet, 100% Knights Valley in Sonoma. A bigger style this, aged 20 months in French oak, 37% new. Much more black fruit concentration and a mineral intensity. There is a graphite and tight, blue/black firmness and purity to this, a touch of liquorice. On the palate it has really juicy intensity again, with the oak adding just a touch of espresso and taut, liquoricy and herbal. Long. 91-92/100.

Kendall-Jackson, Hawkeye Mountain Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, California
"Jess is buried on this mountain," according to Gillian. "It was close to his heart and he called it 'my cathedral'." Aged in 90% French oak, 10% American, only 38% of the wood new. Fabulous fruit purity, real blue/black fruit, those touches of bay and laurel, hints of lifted violet, very pure, very appealing. Fabulous liquorice concentration, with that sense of purity again and such a wonderful ashy dryness, the lovely silkiness and concentration. 93/100.

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