The life of a wine writer is often a solitary existence. Contrary to what many may imagine, it’s not all swirling and swilling, but hours of study, research, composition, editing, and, well, you get the idea.
So when there’s an opportunity to spend a few hours with like-minded vino lovers, sample wines and investigate intriguing food pairings, it’s a chance I don’t let slip away.
The Temecula Wine Council is such a group, comprised of professional wine, food and travel writers plus regular ‘wine loving citizens’. We manage to carve out a few days each year when all our schedules co-inside, like a fortuitous astrological forecast. Wine samples are collected and each member is entrusted with a bottle. Their mission: pair and prepare a complimentary dish.
While there is congeniality there is also serious contemplation as each attendee , in turn, speaks about their assigned wine – its producer, history, vineyard and vinification – and what inspired their culinary creation.
Our last meeting focused on a suprising selection of Chardonnay, a berry filled Rosé and two revealing reds.
No other winery in California, or perhaps one might say the USA, is more identified with the chardonnay grape than Wente Vineyards. Their story goes back to 1883 when the family purchased their first 47 acres in the Livermore Valley and began researching and developing the vines best suited to their vineyard conditions. These selections became know as the ‘Wente Clones’ and are the ‘parents’ of most of California’s chardonnay vines today.
Wente Vineyards currently produces four different bottlings of America’s favorite white variety and we had the opportunity to sample three of them and learn why 5 generations of winemakers have earned this venerated winery the title of ‘First Family of Chardonnay’.
2013 Wente Morning Mist Chardonnay (SRP $15) is named for the famous fog that rolls into the Livermore Valley each morning. Later in the day it gives way to the warm rays of the California sun producing balanced fruit with refreshing acidity. Tropical nuances of mango and pineapple dominate with touches of lemon drop and whiffs of light oak and toast. The declared pairing; a pair of pizzas from local Temecula restaurant the Goat and Vine, both of which surprised in their complement. The red onions on the goat cheese, garlic and tomato pizza really showed-off their roasted sweetness as did the savory spice of the fennel sausage featured on the ‘Butcher Shop’ pie.
2014 Wente ‘Eric’s Chardonnay’ (SRP $28) Eric is the Winemaker and the grapes for this refreshing, un-oaked wine are hand selected from Wente’s Livermore Valley Estate. Perfect for ‘appero time’, it’s light and softly fragrant with soft gold apple and Asian pear with nectarine and lemon zest on the finish. Try pairing with a complimentary appetizer – puff pastry squares topped with a fruity compote comprised of pears and kumquats, sweet red onion, creamy Havarti cheese and toasty almonds
Lake County is one of California’s more northerly American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and is known for it’s cooler, fresher climate, higher elevations and well-ripened fruit. Shannon Ridge is located at the southern end of Clear Lake, a body of water that brings a moderating effect to the vineyards – vineyards which are sustainably farmed using the Ovis Cycle and a herd of over 1000 sheep. These industrious creatures work in harmony with the vineyard, consuming foliage, clearing fire hazard areas surrounding the vines and eliminate the need for costly fuel-powered tractors, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.
2013 Shannon Ridge Chardonnay (SRP $12) is a great example of the cooler climate influence – vibrant acidity keeps the Anjou pear, crunchy apple and citrus characteristics lively and clean while just a touch of oak aging lends finesse and vanilla, butterscotch tones. An equally crisp Spinach Salad adorned with ripe red strawberries, red onion and candied pecans paired well, enhancing the ripe red fruit of the raspberry vinaigrette.
Two red wines awaited, both from our friends at Shannon Ridge:
2012 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah (SRP $22.99) offered up deep, dark and black fruit, quite contrary to the ‘Petite’ in the variety’s name! Blackberries, dried currant, chocolate, espresso roast coffee beans and mouth filling tannins held up well with the designed pairing – spicy and earthy Carne Asada, but the wine also met its match with the tapenade and both pizza choices. Could have sipped this wine for the rest of the evening, but it was time to open our last bottle.
2011 Shannon Ridge Terre Vermielle Barbara (SRP $30) With 18 months in a combination of French and American oak, this Barbara showed an ‘Old World’ style that emphasised the earthy, licorice, dried herb and peppery side of the variety, while the classic red cherry fruit was somewhat subdued. Paired with a bite of the previously mentioned spinach and strawberry salad the berry notes of the wine were more pronounced but it really shone with the dark, deep cocoa richness of the decidedly decadent brownies.
As the evening drew to a close, we all knew the time had come to review our notes and cast our votes. While wine is definitely a ‘personal preference’ sport, we try to put our minds into judging mode, looking at the typicity, craftsmanship and character of the wines. Three categories were declared:
2012 Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay: definitive style Chardonnay with a drinkable balance of fruit and oak. Plays well with a variety of food choices or on its own. Great value.
2014 Villicana Rosé and Black Olive Tepenade: classic pairings are classic for a reason! Think bistro, South of France.
2012 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah: with it’s easy to drink style, food friendly attitude and varietal typicity, this wine was an all around winner and unanimous choice. Plus, at this price, you could easily bring 2 bottles to any dinner party!
And so ended another Wine Council evening, proving once again that wine tastes better with good food and even better companions. Santé.
Chardonnay is one of those ‘International’ grapes. Like a jet-setter, it travelled from its original homeland of France and settled very nicely into practically every wine growing region of the globe. It’s adaptable to a host of growing conditions and takes well to the influences of the winemaker. California is one region that has become closely identified with the grape and over the years styles have gone from ‘Burgundian’ to buttery oak bombs to wines that have seen no oak at all.
Somewhere in between lies a happy compromise and I’m pleased to say I discovered such an example from a small, truly family run winery in Mendocino – Kimmel Vineyards. Their vineyards are located on the family ranch in the remote Potter Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area), Here, three generations of the Kimmel family grow and produce Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.
Originally, the land was used for cattle ranching, when Ed and Lillian Kimmel purchased the 1100 acre property in 1963. By the mid 1980’s Ed noticed that many of his neighbors were pulling up their pear orchards and planting grapevines. Being in the wine business had never crossed his mind, but after chatting with his friend (and Mendocino winemaking pioneer) John Parducci, he decided to change his pastures to vineyards and plant Chardonnay. The grape was well suited to the terrain and, according to Parducci, it was a variety in demand and one that would always have value. His son, Jim Kimmel recalls his father believed it was a good decision because, unlike cattle, “vines didn’t run away in the middle of the night.”
Over the years, they have planted more vineyards, some perched on the hillsides at elevations of 1300 feet and others further down in the valley floor. The soils vary from sandy loam to gravel to Franciscan rock; a hard, fractured clay that dates back to the Mesozoic period. All the vineyards are Certified Sustainable (SIP Certificate) and the family is starting to institute some organic practices to improve the grape quality.
Kimmel Vineyards currently produces two tiers of wine from the 29 acres currently planted to vine. Kimmel Premium - crafted from grapes chosen from select rows of the Middle Block, Hillside and Bench vineyards. The winemaking style, has evolved since the first vintage of Chardonnay in 2007, when the wine was aged for 9 months in 60% new French oak barrels and underwent malo-lactic fermentation to create a ‘California style’ wine.
Now, according, to Jim Kimmel, their desire is to create “wine meant to be paired with food. Styles with lots ML and oak are great to sip by the pool, but they’re not good with food.” They have backed off on the oak, so now the wines are aged for 6 months and only 30% of the barrels used are new oak. As for malo-lactic, depending on the acidity levels at harvest, only a percentage of the wine will be inoculated. When all the barrels are finally blended, the end product will be beautifully balanced.
The family looks forward to welcoming visitors when renovations are completed on the original 1916 ranch house. The building will be part tasting room and part ‘hospitality house’ where the Kimmels, including 91 year old matriarch Lillian, will be able to welcome guests, host charity events and share their family stories along with their wines.
And stories they have. One day, Jim reveals, he was checking his emails and came across a message: “ Hi, My name is also Jim. I host a show on ABC”. His first thought was which one of his friends was playing a joke on him, but then, a few days later, Jim’s mother told him that Jimmy Kimmel had just signed up for the newsletter and had ordered some wine. That was five years ago. The two ‘Jims’ still keep in touch, exchanging emails and photos. “Perhaps one day” Jim (the vineyard owner) told me “I can invite him up for some fly fishing. He likes to fly fish.”
2012 Kimmel Chardonnay, Kimmel Vineyards, Mendocino County
No surprise that this slightly creamy but very fresh and sippable Chardonnay won Gold at the Sunset International Wine Competition. The nose and palate are brimming with ripe, juicy, Honeycrisp apple and nectarine accented with white floral notes, soft butterscotch and just a hint of oak. Fresh pear and pineapple join with touches of spicy ginger and vanilla on the lingering finish. 0% residual sugar 100% Chardonnay 230 cases produced.
Currently, you can find Kimmel Vineyard’s food friendly wines online at www.kimmelvineyards.com where you can either order directly or sign up for one of their Wine Club options.
Disclosure: Wine samples were supplied by the producer. All opinions and descriptions are strictly my own.
Hilarie Larson is a wine writer, and educator, who loves nothing more than traveling to vineyard and food destinations. Join her as she shares some of her experiences on the wine roads.