90-pt holiday wine line-up

90-pt holiday wine line-up

By: Ben Narasin

“Exceptional winemakers know artistry comes not from their tools and techniques, but in their application. The winemaker’s craft is to use them selectively to create an expression optimal for each grape varietal in order to achieve the perfect touch in the finished wine.

You know the perfect touch without being told; it’s the first sparkle of flavor and excitement on your tongue, the feel in your mouth, the lushness on the palate and the lingering notes in the finish. Before you open the bottle, you know when wines have that perfect touch by the premium scores awarded; scores of 90 points and above attest to it. Selecting a top-scoring wine, to serve or to give, reflects well on you as you apply those perfect touches to the holidays and occasions you share with friends and family.

Seldom mentioned on the label, what goes into making a 90-point wine is worth understanding. Here’s what gives outstanding wines that perfect touch.

In the Vineyard: Starting Out Right
Outstanding winemakers start their journey in the vineyard. In other words, great wine comes from great grapes. For Frei Brothers Reserve chief viticulturist Jim Collins, “winemaking begins in the vineyard, during the growing process.”

Frei Brothers Reserve has long focused on finding the best sites for their varietals. “We grow our grapes in three special regions in California’s Sonoma County: the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley,” says Collins. “Although these growing regions are located just a few miles apart from one another, each is unique in its macro-climate, soil composition and terrain.”

Choosing optimal sites has paid off: The Tasting Panel’s Anthony Dias Blue, one of the wine world’s best-known critics and authors, gave Frei Brothers Reserve 2011 Russian River Chardonnay a compelling 90 points.

Cool-climate regions offer Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes a longer time to develop to peak flavor—and Edna Valley boasts California’s longest growing season. “Our extended growing season allows us more time to coax layered and complex flavors from the fruit,” says Joe Ibrahim, winemaker for Edna Valley Vineyard.

Chardonnay was the first varietal planted in the Edna Valley, where Edna Valley Vineyards continues to craft critically acclaimed Chardonnay as its flagship wine. Its Edna Valley Vineyards 2011 Central Coast Chardonnay was awarded 90 points by Michael Apstein of Wine Review Online.

Pinot Noir is a famously finicky grape. MacMurray Estate Vineyards, which specializes in Pinot Noir, situates its vineyards in California’s most sought-after Pinot Noir regions: the Russian River Valley and the Central Coast. The cool-climate sub-AVA of Sonoma County is characterized by warm afternoons and cool evenings, when a protective fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. The Central Coast has an extended growing season that allows grapes more time to mature for a crisp balance between acid and sugar.

While Pinot can be challenging to produce, the results can be exceptional; MacMurray Estate Vineyard’s Russian River Valley Pinot Noir scored 90 points for its 2011 and 2012 Pinot Noirs, from Wine Review Online and The Tasting Panel, respectively.

After the Harvest: Handle with Care
While meticulous attention to soil, climate and treatment of grapes is required for any great wine, harvest requires careful attention as well. Grapes are alive, and their gentle handling, often through hand harvesting, ensures their brilliance is transferred from vine to glass.

Bridlewood Estate Winery harvests many of its grapes at night when temperatures are low; this ensures that grapes stay cool while waiting for transport and during transport to the winery. Wine Enthusiast Magazine awarded not just 90 points to Bridlewood Estate’s 2012 Central Coast Blend 175, but also the coveted “Best Buy” designation as well.

Many winemakers employ a “cold soak,” where freshly harvested grapes are held in a cool-to-cold environment to slow fermentation. This soaking time improves flavors, color and tannins.

Louis. M. Martini was one of the first wineries to use cold fermentation in 1936. The Louis M. Martini 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which both Robert Whitley and Rich Cook of Wine Review Online awarded 91 points, utilized a two- to three-day cold soak, continuing a 78-year tradition employed with their Cabernets. Martini’s Cabernets are consistent score toppers vintage after vintage; the winery’s 2010 Napa and Sonoma Cabernets also received 90 points from Wine Review Online.

The use of a cold soak has become an essential tool in crafting Pinot Noir. For its 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, MacMurray Estate Vineyards cold soaked its grapes for at least two days to enhance extraction of the varietal’s vibrant color and delicate flavors.

A separate technique that is used to enhance expression of terroir and increase overall complexity is whole cluster fermentation. While many winemakers employ machines, known as de-stemmers, to separate fruit from stem, some artisan winemakers prefer a gentler approach. In whole cluster fermentation, entire bunches of grapes are used in the “crush.”

William Hill Estate, known for luxury wines—particularly Chardonnay and Bordeaux-style wines—pressed the hand-harvested grapes for its 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay entirely as whole clusters. This approach delivered not just rich flavors, but high scores as well: Wine Enthusiast Magazine selected the Chardonnay as its “Editor’s Choice,” along with giving it a very impressive score of 91 points.

Frei Brothers Reserve also utilized whole cluster pressing in its 90-point Frei Brothers 2011 Russian River Valley Chardonnay. “Our Chardonnay grapes were whole cluster pressed to ensure a rich yield of apple flavors and to create a textured mouthfeel,” says Collins.

Before the Bottle: From Barrel to Blend
Barrels can add the finishing touch to an artisan wine: new oak, old oak, French, American or Hungarian. Along with varying degrees of toast (the degree to which the inner wood of the barrel is charred), each delivers distinct attributes to achieve the perfect touch.

For its 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Louis M. Martini utilized French, American and Hungarian oak barrels, and employed medium to heavy toast. An extended 15 months in barrel radiates in the flavor and texture of the wine, likely contributing to its 91-point ranking.

William Hill aged its 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay entirely in American oak barrels of various ages to create balance between buttery smoothness and fruit character. Whether that final touch was what pushed it over the top to a 91-point score, only the craftsmen and critics can say.

The final step in the winemaking process is blending, which depends entirely on the winemaker, who can apply his or her unique approach to achieving that perfect touch. Whether it’s a single varietal blended from several regions, or an Old World-style blend that brings together different grape types, the winemaker’s blend is the true expression of their art.

Joe Ibrahim, winemaker for Edna Valley Vineyard, says, “With each blend I make at Edna Valley, I strive to achieve just the right combination of fruit flavors and acidity.” To achieve that balance in his 90-point 2011 Chardonnay, he selected a blend of Chardonnay grapes from Monterey County, San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County to create layers of complexity. Bridlewood Estate Winery’s Blend 175 marries Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Viognier to create a dark wine rich with jammy fruit and soft tannins.

Great winemakers take their vision from vineyard to winery, from barrel to blend. They carefully apply tools and techniques to achieve wines with that perfect touch—flavors that can only come from the creativity and skill of master craftsmen. These outstanding winemakers work tirelessly to ensure that the wines you enjoy this season are as perfect as the occasions at which you share them.

Choosing the right wine for those occasions can be daunting, so we pared it down to a small selection of top-quality wines to consider. Take the checklist (see above) with you the next time you need to add the perfect touch to your holiday or special occasion.”