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Tasting notes from California

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


David I turned up at Saintsbury a little early for my appointment, so was immediately handed a glass of chilled (and deliciously refreshing) rosé and led to a seat in Saintsbury's charming tasting garden (below). It was an idyllic few minutes in the Californian sunshine, to be followed by an amusing and fascinating couple of hours in the company of David Graves, Saintsbury's co-founder.

David and partner Richard Ward met at UC Davies in the 1970s, and by 1981 had founded Saintsbury in the Carneros district, expressly to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The vineyard immediately in front of the winery is one of the oldest trellised vineyards in California, viewed at the time as "a whacky, radical thing," according to David. "Before that, everything had to fit the tractors we had, so 12-foot spacing between rows was the norm." It is wonderful to sit down with one of Napa's pioneers, especially a guy like David. Saintsbury is not flashy, not corporate. It has a friendly, family feel and as David shows me old black and white photos of Richard and himself, standing swigging a cool beer in front of the winery, it is obvious that this is indeed home, and it appears that nothing much has changed in 30 years.

But 30 years has seen the white heat of the Internet revolution and every advancing technology. Saintsbury has seen changes, just like anywhere else. "Our first vineyards are now coming up to be replanted," says David, "so after the experience over 30 years we can rethink rootstocks and quite a lot about how we plant." And there have been subtle changes in the winery too: "We have sorting tables as we receive the fruit for one," David continues, "and there so many advances in the science of winemaking that you can actually make your wine more naturally - if we have a microbiological problem, we send it off to a lab to find out exactly what it is, and then we treat it, we deal with it."

In terms of what they make, Chardonnay is still close to David's heart. "Chardonnay is like Mozart: just because you hear Mozart in the dentist office, in a lift, in a restaurant, that doesn't mean Mozart is less great." And he says the style of wine they make has been pretty consistent: "There's been no real change in the Chardonnay - we do have malolactic, but not 'buttered popcorn', and we do use wood, but not too much wood. We make dry wines; we don't hide the sins with a dollop of sweetness."

vineyard tasting room

The tasting garden. Click image for bigger version.

David seems like a guy with a lot of integrity and the winery setting and vineyards reflect that. The farm is sustainable with owl boxes now home to four barn owls who help control gophers, and bird boxes to attract specific birds to control insects. "Sustainability is just something everybody thinks about now," says David. "We now assume that we will use compost to condition soils, we assume that we will be fish friendly and not wash effluent into the rivers and we are taking care of erosion. It's just what we do.".

the wines

Saintsbury's UK importers are Majestic and Berkmann Cellars. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Saintsbury, Brown Ranch Chardonnay 2010, California
An estate bottled wine made from two French Chardonnay clones, this has nice linseed and nutty aromatics, a dry apple quality. The oak is savoury and the fruit too, really quite subtle. The palate has lots of freshness, the food friendly savoury quality and the citrus of the acidity is lovely. Juicy, fresh and with a certain lightness. 90-91/100. $40 locally

Saintsbury, Cerise Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2010, California
From the Anderson Valley in Mendocino, a Pinot hot-spot, this cuvée has been made from purchased fruit since 2005. "We need to change the winemaking a little for this wine," David tells me, "Because the fruit from this vineyard has such a high skin to juice ratio that it could easily be over extracted." It has a very nice colour. Nice aromatics too, with a touch incense and bright cherry and floral notes. The palate has lovely sweet fruit, the burst of creamy strawberry and cherry is delicious, soft tannins and extract, but very well balanced. The fruit is harvested at night and trucked down 1.5 hours to Carneros. 89-90/100. $54 locally.

Saintsbury, Stanly Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir 2010, California
This vineyard is one of the oldest in the appellation, and has a long term relationship with Saintsbury. A little more depth of colour, more rhubarb and beetroot, more of the vegetal Pinot character. On the palate the fruit is really good, with lots of juiciness, cherry and a touch of rhubarb, delicious balancing oak adding creaminess and a juicy tannin and acid structure. 91/100. $54 locally.

Saintsbury, Toyon Farm Carneros Pinot Noir 2010, California
A sloping site that faces west, planted around 1999. The farm was bought as a dressage paddock but this slope was just too steep, so it was planted to vine. Delicious and quite pale colour, with a beautiful nose, the truffle and undergrowth side of the Pinot coming through delicately and beautifully, with more beetrooty character, hints of orange and rose-hip fragrance. The palate has a lovely lightness, but silky too, with a nimble character, the floral and juicy, lifted tones carrying through onto the palate. Juicy, citrus and endive twist of bittersweet acidity that is so refreshing. Just a beautiful Pinot. 93/100. $54 locally.

Saintsbury, Brown Ranch Pinot Noir 2010, California
The estate wine. Really tightened up again after that open, leafy fragrance of the Toyon and interestingly, the two vineyards only 500 metres apart. Tighter, juicier aromatics, some cherry and blackcurrant, spice and a touch of tobacco. Lovely earthiness on the edges of the palate, though that firm, more decisive and savoury, cassis and plum skins giving depth and structure. Does not lose sight of the freshness and energy that hallmarks these wines. 92/100. $72 locally.

Saintsbury, Carneros Pinot Noir 2010, California
Delicious nose here again, the beetrooty and vegetal focus of the wine is diffused beautifully through the ripe berry and bramble fruit. There may be a little less fruit intensity, a little less of the mid-palate sweet fruit concentration than in the Brown Ranch for example, but is has a wonderfully sappy, pleasingly savoury quality with both excellent fruit and a nice bit of structure and texture. 90/100. $36 locally.

See all stockists on wine-searcher.

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