Spotlight on “The New” California Chardonnay: Failla Fort Ross-Seaview Estate Vineyard 2012

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photoOne of the “hottest” regions for “the new” California is the amorphous Sonoma Coast AVA. The appellation extends across a massive 750 square miles and numerous microclimates such that merely citing “Sonoma Coast” cannot explain the style of the wine or the terroir of the vineyard. This is largely due to lobbying by the large winery Sonoma-Cutrer. The eastern Sonoma Coast lies on the border of Carneros and Sonoma Valley and is much warmer than the western reaches, which can be quite close to the Pacific Ocean and, accordingly, much cooler and more truly coastal. Most, but not all, of the exciting developments in the appellation have occurred in these western reaches where you can find some of the most interesting vineyards and producers in California.

Delineating the Behemoth

The first important plantings in the Sonoma Coast are relatively recent, mostly being in the 1990’s, though the AVA was created in 1987. Producers such as Williams Selyem, Cobb, Hirsch and Peay were and remain particularly important. Early vineyards of importance include Griffin’s Lair, Summa, Coastlands, and Armagh, and were used by producers such as Pax and Radio-Coteau. While wines from Sonoma Coast will undoubtedly improve as producers gain knowledge of the region’s very complex geology, it is unlikely they will expand much. As Jon Bonne explains in his recent book, the economics of planting vineyards in the western Sonoma Coast today are near untenable: between $60,000 to $100,000 per acre just to plant. Further, quality land is increasingly difficult to come by due to conservation efforts in the region.

The biggest changes now, then, are not to do with expanding plantings, but with delineating them. Certain wineries have attempted to promote sub-appellations in order to distinguish the different parts of the vast appellation, many of which have distinct geology and climate. In some ways this is similar to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, which is also a very large appellation with many distinct sub-appellations that remain to be legally defined. The first approved sub-appellation for Sonoma Coast was Fort Ross-Seaview, which happens to be where this Failla Chard hails from. It lies on coastal ridges in the north-west reaches of the AVA.

The Wine: Precision and Expression

Failla is owned by Ehren Jordan, former winemaker at Turley and one of the best in California (Jordan was named winemaker of the year by the SF Chronicle in 2008). It is one of the most promising projects in the western Sonoma Coast and makes a style of wine that is the near opposite to Jordan’s approach at Turley during his tenure. Though the philosophy remains consistent. Failla specializes in liminal cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from various vineyards California, including the Sonoma Coast, Napa, Sonoma and the Edna Valley. While this focus on ‘leaner’ wines may seem the opposite of the Turley bruiser, Jordan is concerned most with authenticity. Warm site, old vine Zinfandel is not a lean wine. That doesn’t mean Jordan didn’t care about terroir and site-expression: Turley has long been known as one of the best examples of this philosophy in California. The same applies to his efforts at Failla – a focus on clarity of expression.

As noted above Failla’s estate vineyard, which was planted in 1998, lies within the Fort Ross-Seaview sub-appellation and makes one of Failla’s best wines. It is dry-farmed, and lies on steep rocky slopes. Yields are low. Grapes are whole-cluster pressed into French oak and concrete eggs.

This is great Chardonnay. It pours a pale straw colour and immediately comes across on the nose as fresh, focused Chardonnay that is very lemon/limey. The palate is very precise, with red grapefruit, lime, under-ripe apricot and a little cream lying over a streak of stoney minerality. The acids are fresh. The wine is clean and very long. This is beautiful, elegant wine and a true expression of the western Sonoma Coast.

Excellent (and, I suspect, higher with age)
$45 at K&L, San Francisco

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