Must-Have Wines of the Lunar Year USA – White Wine of the Year
Peter Michael La Carrière Chardonnay 2008 – Knights Valley, Sonoma County, California
At the risk of being repetitive, whenever I’m asked what is my favourite wine? The answer is invariably, “The one I haven’t tried yet” and discovery remains my main motivation in my enthusiasm for wine. Moreover, the adage ‘The more you know about wine, the more you realise how little you know’ is pertinent with my lack of knowledge on American wine.
When I look back on my formative years of wine in New Zealand and Australia, there was representation of practically every major wine producing country in the world (then) – accept America.
Even up to the point of moving to Asia in 2001, there was little presence of American wine in Australia, save for some niche secondary market activity and a trickle of the world renowned Ridge Vineyards and the intrepid Jim Clendenen’s Au Bon Climat, and not surprisingly the ubiquitous Robert Mondavi ensemble.
Consequently there was a huge gap in my (American) wine knowledge, although that all changed when I moved to Asia (Hong Kong and then Singapore), in part due to a more impartial market with no local wine production prejudicing choice and a more global representation, subsequently more American wine available.
There is also a greater awareness of American wine amongst the wine circles and enthusiasts that I mingle with here and I have been fortunate in participating in countless tastings and enjoying many amazing fascinating and sometimes very rare American wines that have been liberated by generous collectors.
My palate is becoming more and more attuned to American wines although there is a lifetime of exploring and discovery when you consider the vastness of vineyard country, diversity of regions and many thousands of wineries.
More relevant in the current economic climate, it is interesting how the dynamics of wine markets change and sometimes it not just the evolution of the drinking culture or consumption trends that is the dictator; sometimes it just commercial reality.
Point in case, there are distinct advantages for American wines in the Asia market right now, or more specifically since the September, 2008 global financial crisis. I would suggest there has never been a better time to buy American wines abroad.
In a broad generalisation, presently there is little evidence of the crash here in Asia with the region booming and currencies strengthening while the US dollar remains weak. Obviously American wines have become more competitive in price, so much so that they are now appearing on restaurant wine lists and there are several specialist importers with significant weight to their portfolios.
The US home wine market was in deep trouble from the fallout of the financial crisis, as were fine dining restaurants all over America with fine wine producers rocked for the first time in recent history and forced to expand their horizons to export markets, particularly Asia.
This is foreign territory for most American producers who have never had to look outside the home market with most of them complacent with cellar door sales so oversubscribed that people waited years to get on wait lists. This all changed overnight and even the most sacrosanct cult wineries now have surplus stocks to sell.
I recall it was not that long ago when the wine trade here (Asia) had a saying, “When you see a whole lot of Oregon wine for sale, you know it’s been a really crappy vintage there.” Asia was seen as the dumping ground but now, you can probably access more boutique, hard-to-get, cult and rare and top vintages of American wines than a wine store in Berkeley, California.
And as the adage goes, ‘Out of everything bad comes something good’, this plight has forced the American producers to look seriously at other (foreign) markets and is already raising the profile of American wines, which has to be a good thing.
There already existed too many misconceptions or lack of appreciation of how high in quality and unique in character American wines are, outside of hardcore wine enthusiasts and American expatriates, largely due to their low visibility on the international wine stage. Even if there were pockets of interest or niche markets, the wines were invariably overpriced through the secondary market being the only source of the top wines.
Now more importers in Asia are dealing direct with wineries with no middlemen and the wineries selling at workable distributor prices. One such importer is Water & Wine www.waterandwine.net who are USA specialists with an incredible range of top American producers and have offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand.
They have been very active over the last 6 months conducting Asia road-shows and bringing out winemakers like Jim Clendenon from Au Bon Climat, James Hall of Patz & Hall, Jason Drew of Drew Family Cellars, David Graves of Saintsbury and more recently, Paul Michael (proprietor) and Peter Kay of the legendary Peter Michael Winery.
Peter Michael Winery is one of those (rare) American producers (like Ridge Vineyards, Au Bon Climat, Calera Wine Co, Saintsbury) that have always been export-orientated, although being owned by an Englishman, Sir Peter Michael, might have a lot to do with that. Also, thanks to a devoted Singapore collector of Peter Michael wines, I have had some marvellous aged bottles of their chardonnays and the opportunity to meet Paul Michael and try some more current vintages irresistible.
We convened at Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee, a good choice of venue and I applaud the emphasis here on pairing the wines with local cuisine. What interested me most though was comparing the different chardonnays in the Peter Michael range and the distinctly diverse characteristics between the individual vineyard plots and the clear delineation of style, texture and complex nuances coming from the different soils and aspects of their Knights Valley property, on the western face of Mount St. Helena in Sonoma County.
There are three individual block, barrel-selection chardonnays, La Carrière, (The quarry) Belle Côte (Beautiful Slope) and Ma Belle-Fille (My Daughter In-Law) all demarcating a mosaic of terroir on the higher altitude, cooler-microclimates of these volcanic ridges with different soils, topography and exposures that resonate through the wines.
It is much the same way that burgundians define their appellations such as Chassagne-Montrachet into climats and lieu-dit; allowing an intensive, exacting study of every minutiae and characteristic of a plot that better enables a vignerons to understand their grapes and make site-expressive wines; wines with a distinct sense of place.
Facing southwest, at 1,200 and 1,700 feet above sea-level on precipitous mountain slopes, La Carrière is the steepest vineyard with shallow rocky, infertile soils equating to the lowest average yields on the estate and typically the “leanest, most citrus like fruit profile of any of our chardonnays coupled with vivid ‘liquid minerality’ that speaks of sea salt and wet stones.”
Ma Belle-Fille is an extension of the La Carrière slope, the highest elevation on the estate and strategically above the ceiling of summer morning fog subsequently sees more sun with the fruit maturing earlier. It shares La Carrière’s “core of lean citrus flavors and vivid minerality, but with layers of baked apple and nectarine rounding out its profile.”
Located next to La Carrière, Belle Côte is a contrasting site with thicker soils and eastern-facing exposure, sloping away from the afternoon sun with the grapes exceptionally slow to ripen, “the broadest fattest fruit profile of our chardonnays with dominant orange peel, tangerine and marmalade flavors”.
We had the La Carrière and Ma Belle-Fille 2008 side-by-side, which made for a fascinating comparison, so close to each other (in topography) and yet so far apart in style and expression, and largely due to Ma Bell-Fille being above the fog line.
I immediately warmed to the La Carrière, so impressed with its infused minerality and racy tension; simply my kind of chardonnay and whilst a personal preference of style, it outshone everything I had tried from America (that year) and hence, my “USA White Wine of the Year”.
My note for Peter Michael La Carrière Chardonnay 2008 reads:
Seductively scented like the finest of olive oil with hints of white truffle and evocative oily-nutty nuances amongst restrained peach and citrus notes and a subtle honeyed sweetness to the perfume, and yet ultra-infused with minerality, tightens up with a coolness of mountain rocks and distinct pumice (volcanic rock) pungency. Suave, gorgeous palate entry, textural, smooth and seamless, on the one hand very cuddly and yet plenty of tension as it races around the mouth with succulent mandarin and tangerine flavours, building to a peachy richness and a good deal of nutty, secondary complexities; a full-bodied powerful chardonnay incredibly balanced with the minerality permeating through the wine – it might be autosuggestion with the similarity of name ‘La Carrière’ but my head is in Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets vineyard as I savour this wine and can’t help thinking how classy and complex it is moreover, how frighteningly similar to white burgundy – and as memorable as some of the exceptionally good top-flight burgundies I have enjoyed this year.
My notes on the Ma Belle-Fille 2008; richer, peachy, noticeably plusher if not alluring density of perfume and notes of grilled pineapple and a riper semblance, although quite assertive in minerality with lots of basalt and pumice coming through in the bouquet. Palate mirrors the bouquet with a plush, richness of peach and stone fruit and broadening out to a full-bodied, more rounded wine but still balanced and not lacking for gravelly minerality with a long citrus and spicy tailing. This too was an impressive wine, perhaps in a more obvious Californian way, but I still enjoyed it even though, in my opinion, outclassed by the La Carrière. That said, there were people at the table who preferred this wine, and I can totally comprehend this as it is a fuller, softer, more immediately satisfying wine and after all, it will always be a question of personal taste.
There are three other chardonnays in the Peter Michael range: Mon Plaisir (My pleasure) historically predominantly made from ‘Old Wente’ clone and a blend of estate fruit and fruit from their Alexander Mountain Estate Vineyard; Cuvée Indigène (Indigenous Blend) essentially “a winemaker’s barrel selection focused on the power that chardonnay can display along with finesse and nuance and drawn from the best barrels of Old Wente clone” and Point Rouge (Red Dot) the ultimate collectors’ chardonnay from Peter Michael, “a blend chosen from the absolute top barrels from the entire vintage with an eye toward long-term aging.”
Certainly plenty to keep a chardonnay drinker occupied from one winery; and the produce pinot noir and Bordeaux varietal blends.
Peter Michael Winery ticks a lot of boxes for me with organic and biodynamic methods, natural yeast fermentations as well as being family owned. Enough reasons for any curious wine enthusiast to explore and discover.