Grgich Hills Estate: A Napa Valley legend

There are certain producers whose name must be included when discussing Napa Valley’s rise to prominence in the wine world. Grgich Hill Cellars is on the shortlist. Back in the ‘70s, founder Mike Grgich was the winemaker at Chateau Montelana. It was Mike who produced the 1973 Chardonnay that ultimately won the Paris Tasting in 1976. Up against many French wines, Chateau Montelena won that day. But really it was Napa Valley as a whole that was the beneficiary, and Mike’s wine was what captured the prize. A year later, Grgich Hills Estate was born.

40 years after that tasting in Paris, Mike Grgich’s name is one of the few that must be mentioned in the same breath as Robert Mondavi when discussing the most important people in Napa Valley history. Grgich Hills has continued to make world class wines that speak strongly of their Napa Valley origins. Here’s a look at three of their current releases. These are wines that are available around the country and offer a peek into why Napa Valley is one of the greatest wine-growing regions in the world – not to mention why Mike Grgich is one of the most legendary figures to make wine there.

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Grgich Hills Estate 2013 Chardonnay ($43)

The fruit for this wine came from Estate Vineyards in American Canyon and Carneros. It’s composed entirely of Chardonnay. It was fermented and aged in French oak over a period of 10 months in a combination of new (40%) and neutral (60%) oak. 30,300 cases were produced. From the first whiff to the last sip, what stands out most about this Chardonnay is the pure expression of fruit. The oak regimen provides accents but never detracts from that. Aromas of white peach and apple light up the nose. Bartlett pear, subtle nutmeg and golden delicious apple flavors are all present on the palate. Continuing spices and a host of minerals drive the impressive, crisp and refreshing finish. Mike Grgich has been making world class Napa Valley Chardonnay for over 40 years, and this is the latest example.

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Australia’s Henry’s Drive continues to deliver

I first became aware of Henry’s Drive about a decade or so ago through their well-known blend, Pillar Box Red. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to taste their wines on numerous occasions, often with founder/owner Kim Longbottom and/or their winemaker. On a recent trip to Düsseldorf Germany to attend ProWein (the largest Wine & Spirits trade show in the world), I had the pleasure of once again tasting with Kim. We went through their current portfolio. As always, I found quite a bit to like in their wines, as well as plenty of value for my wine dollars. Wines that I have always found to be tasty and well-made have continued to evolve and improve from one vintage to the next. Here’s a look at four of my current favorites.

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Henry’s Drive 2014 “H” Chardonnay ($27.99)

Composed from 100% Chardonnay from Padthaway; aging took place in French oak over a period of 10 months. Apple aromas, which are underpinned by bits of vanilla, light up the exuberant nose. Yellow melon, pineapple and toasted nut characteristics are present throughout the palate. Minerals, white pepper and continuing yellow fruit flavors dominate the above-average finish. This is a fine example of Chardonnay that shows off plenty of fresh fruit and good complexity.

Henry’s Drive 2013 Pillar Box Red ($14.99)

Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are blended to create this wine. Each variety is vinified and aged separately. The blend is created just prior to bottling. Red cherry and spice aromas dot the nose. Taking the first sip, I was immediately struck by the mouth-feel of this wine, which is softer than prior vintages. Bits of savory herbs counter-balance oodles of red and black fruit flavors on the substantial palate. Earth, leather and toasty oak are all part of the terrific finish. This wine has been an outstanding value for years. This particular vintage is likely the best version of this wine yet. It’s simply a delicious mouthful of wine that will provide drinking pleasure for the next several years.

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Toad Hollow Vineyards: Delicious wines & great value

Toad Hollow Vineyards was founded in 1994 by a group of friends. They launched their winery with “Francine’s Selection,” an unoaked Chardonnay. At the time, particularly in California, this was not only uncommon, it also ran against the trend. Defying what was popular, Francine’s Selection was a huge hit and sent the vineyard off and running. In the years since, their portfolio has expanded to include Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet and more. I tasted through some brand new releases and found a lot of deliciousness for a small amount of money.

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Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay ($13.99)

This Chardonnay is produced from fruit sourced in Mendocino County. It’s made up entirely of Chardonnay. The 2014 bottling represents the 22nd vintage of this wine, the most popular in their lineup. The moment you stick your nose in the glass, a burst of fresh, unadulterated apple and pear aromas leap out. The palate is similarly stuffed with oodles of fresh fruit flavors accompanied by hints of spice. All of these characteristics continue on the long, fruit-laden finish. This is a delicious, easy-to-drink Chardonnay that you’re going to want a second glass the moment the first is empty.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 “Eye of the Toad” Rosé ($11.99)

This dry Rosé is composed entirely of Pinot Noir sourced at a variety of vineyards throughout Sonoma County. Toad Hollow has been producing a dry Rosé for 20 years, well ahead of its current popularity in the U.S. A hint of crème fraiche underpins the freshly picked strawberry aromas that inform the nose here. Bing cherry and continued strawberry notes are in evidence on the beautiful and bone dry palate. White pepper and continued red fruit flavors are evident on the crisp, zippy finish. If you need a perfect pairing partner for fried chicken, this is it.

Toad Hollow Vineyards Merlot ($16.99)

This offering is composed entirely of Merlot sourced at the Richard McDowell Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. These 16 acres were planted in 1995. Ripe wild strawberry and raspberry aromas fill the nose. The palate is loaded with darker fruit flavors such as black raspberry and cherry, as well as black pepper and hints of toast. Light bits of espresso and a touch of dusty cocoa emerge on the finish, along with pomegranate and sour cherry notes. This is a well-priced and tasty example of Merlot.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($19.99)

This is a single-vineyard Pinot with all the fruit coming off of “Goldie’s Vineyard,” their estate property. After fermentation and being racked twice, it was aged in French oak for 14 months. Rose petal and red cherry aromas leap from the nose here. The palate is full of even-keeled red fruit flavors supported by a significant spice component. Bits of savory herb, sour red fruits and continued spices are apparent on the long, even finish. This terrific under-$20 Pinot Noir will pair well with a remarkably wide array of foods.

All of these wines represent better than average values. The Pinot Noir, though, is the steal of the bunch. This notoriously fickle and difficult to master grape is also one of the hardest to find at a bargain. At under $20, this offering from Toad Hollow Vineyards is precisely that. Buy a case and drink it as a house wine. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value in California Pinot Noir.

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Robert Oatley is making tasty wines from all over Australia

Although the Robert Oatley Vineyards is located in Mudgee, they don’t limit themselves to fruit from that region. Instead, they look throughout Australia and source grape varieties in the Australian regions where they thrive most. They use sustainable practices and strive to be as organic as possible. They produce a wide swath of wines that show off good varietal character. I recently tasted through a number of their current releases and found a lot to like. Here are some thoughts on a few of my favorites.

Robert Oatley 2014 Signature Series Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc ($18)

Lemon zest aromas inform the welcoming nose; subtle bits of grass and white pepper are present as well. The palate is gently layered with white peach and other stone fruits. A hint of marzipan emerges on the finish, alongside bits of sour yellow melon and grapefruit. This Sauvignon Blanc has a really soft and lovely mouth-feel. It goes down easy and features lots of solid character. It also rides the middle of the Sauvignon Blanc line; it’s not super citrusy, overly grassy, nor extremely tropical. Instead, it draws bits from all of those camps.

Robert Oatley 2014 Signature Series Margaret River Chardonnay ($18)

Anjou pear and wisps of white peach emerge from the nose here. The palate is fruit-forward, while remaining proportionate and lovely. Lots of orchard and stone fruit characteristics are joined by subtle hints of spice. Bits of limestone are present on the above-average finish. There is a nice weight and terrific feel to this wine; I simply didn’t want to put it down. It’s a really expressive and clean Chardonnay that is gently accented by oak.

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Robert Oatley 2014 Signature Series McLaren Vale GSM ($18)

This wine is a blend of Grenache (60 percent), Shiraz (30 percent) and Mourvedre (10 percent). There’s a gentle bit of pleasing tar on the nose, alongside a potpourri of red fruit aromas. Blackberry and forest floor elements are in evidence throughout the palate, while earth, minerals and hints of smoked meat are evident on the finish — which is well above average for the price point. This is a fantastic food wine; pair it with all but the lightest or heartiest fare.

Robert Oatley 2014 Signature Series McLaren Vale Shiraz ($18)

Plum, violet and blueberry aromas are tinged by a tiny hint of charcoal on the lovely nose. There’s a ton of black cherry and pepper spice on the palate, along with more blueberry notes. Bits of espresso and sour black fruits mark the finish. Fleshy tannins and firm acid provide good structure. You’ll have a hard time finding a better wine to pair with a burger.

Robert Oatley 2013 Signature Series Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon ($18)

Toast, vanilla, sage and dark berry fruits are all present on the nose here. The palate is stuffed with black fruit flavors, spice and savory herbs. Bits of earth, black cherry and a dusting of cocoa are all present on the finish.

This quintet of wines from Robert Oatley impresses with the quality in the bottle at under $20. In each case, the wine is typical of the variety in question. In the case of the blend, it’s a pretty classic example of a GSM at a very agreeable price. Besides those qualities, these wines are connected by a purity of fruit and lovely textural elements that keep them on the same stylistic page. These are wines that most can afford to drink on a regular basis, but the quality may inspire you to pour them on special occasions too — and that’s okay; they’re clean tasty wines that will enjoy wide appeal. These wines represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Robert Oatley portfolio.

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Australia’s Wakefield Estate delivers a diverse collection of wines

Wakefield Wines is one of 12 members of Australia’s First Family of Wines. This group of families owned wineries can each boast three or more generations in Australian wine. They hail from regions representing four different states, and collectively, they have more than 5,550 hectares under vine. After tasting some offerings from each family at an event a few months back, I decided to take a deeper dive and look at the wines from Wakefield. Here are my thoughts about six excellent, well-priced current releases from them.

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Wakefield Estate 2014 Riesling ($17)

All of the fruit for this wine (100 percent Riesling) was sourced in the Clare Valley. Fermentation and aging took place in stainless steel with a range of select yeasts. Lychee fruit and hints of linseed oil emerge on the vibrant but even-keeled nose. The palate shows off orange peel, lemon zest and apricot flavors. Tart yellow melon, hints of Granny Smith apple and spices such as cardamom and white pepper are present on the finish. This gloriously dry wine is an excellent example of Riesling. It’ll pair as well with Indian dishes as it will with pork loin roasted alongside apples.

Wakefield Estate 2014 Chardonnay ($17)

Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills is the source for the fruit. Most of it was fermented in a combination of new and used French oak. A small amount was fermented in stainless steel with wild yeasts. Stone fruit and Golden Delicious apple aromas dominate the nose here. Anjou pear and continued apple rule the day on the palate. Yellow peach, bits of spice, and gentle hints of crème fraiche are all in play on the substantial finish. There’s simply an avalanche of fresh fruit characteristics in play in each component of this wine. For $17, you’re getting a lot of Chardonnay character here.

Wakefield Estate 2014 Pinot Noir ($17)

All of the fruit for this wine, which is entirely Pinot Noir of course, came from the Adelaide Hills. After cold soaking, the wine was fermented at warm to hot temperatures in stainless steel, utilizing yeast strains intended specifically for Pinot. Aging in one- and two-year-old French oak followed. Wild strawberry, black cherry and wisps of toast are all apparent on the nose. Red and black cherry characteristics dominate the palate along with a nice spice component. A hint of cherry Jolly Rancher, as well as pomegranate, are in play on the finish, along with substantial bits of earth. Firm acid and good tannins mark the structure. At under $20, this is a steal in the Pinot world.

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Wakefield Estate 2014 Shiraz ($17)

The Taylor Estate in the Clare Valley was the source of the fruit for this Shiraz. After fermentation, it was aged in American oak for 12 months. Big, red and black fruit characteristics emerge on the boisterous nose here. The palate is studded with similar characteristics, as well as bits of espresso and dark bitter chocolate. The long finish is spice-driven and loaded with additional fruit elements such as blackberry and raspberry. This is a fruit-driven Shiraz that is also proportionate and even keeled.

Wakefield Estate 2014 “Jaraman” Chardonnay ($25)

As is the process with the Jarman line of wines, the fruit comes from two distinct growing regions: Clare Valley (55 percent) and Margaret River (45 percent). Fermentation and aging took place in tight-grained French oak. Yellow fruit aromas are joined by bits of linseed oil and a hint of toast on a slightly austere nose. Classic apple and pear characteristics light up the palate, which is stuffed with tons of fresh, eager fruit flavors. The notably long finish shows off continued orchard fruits as well as bits of pineapple and papaya. The oak in play here adds nice complexity without being obtrusive. This is an extremely complex Chardonnay for the money.

Wakefield Estate 2013 “Jaraman” Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)

The fruit for this entry in the Jaraman line comes from Clare Valley (55 percent) and Coonawarra (45 percent). After fermentation, it was aged in a combination of new and previously used French oak. Dark fruit and savory herb aromas abound on the nose of this Cabernet. The palate is lush and loaded with dark fruit, copious spices and bits of mineral. Toast, earth, hints of vanilla and lots more fruit flavors are all in play on the above-average finish. Firm acid and tannins mark the structure here. What I like most about this Cabernet is how fresh and refreshing it is.

If your mind and taste buds think of Australia only in terms of overripe fruit bombs, think again. There are a lot of really nice wines loaded with character and made in a balanced manner coming from Australia. Each wine noted above is not only true to the grape in question and the area or areas it’s grown in, but theya lso each represent better than average values. We’re at a point in time where many wine drinkers don’t realize the bounty Australia has to offer. Get a jump on them and drink these tasty, well made, wonderfully priced wines. If you have yet to reconsider Australia, the time is now.

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