Rhys Chardonnay Alpine Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains 2009

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Rhys belongs with a select group of producers at the summit of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production in California such as Hanzell, Failla, Littorai, and Mount Eden. They achieved this though originating in the often criticized money of venture capitalism. It was owner Kevin Harvey’s personal fortune that allowed him to start the project. Rhys and their phenomenal wines are a good example of why cliche narratives are of little assistance when looking for truth.

Unrelenting Obsession with Quality

Looking beyond that fact that Mr. Harvey was very successful as a venture capitalist, his dedication to understanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is serious. He has put considerable thought into the subject, researching in both California and Burgundy. One of his conclusions is that soil is more important than climate in determining great sites for Pinot. In particular, fast-draining, poor quality rocky soils are essential.

The majority of Rhys’ vineyards are in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one of the most exciting viticultural areas in California. In fact, Rhys’ “Home” vineyard is just that, a vineyard Mr. Harvey’ planted in his backyard. Rhys also has one vineyard in the Anderson Valley.

The focus has been on cool microclimates and use of a uniform winemaking regimen in order to focus on site differentiation. The wines see partial whole cluster fermentation (this does vary each year), ambient yeast fermentation and mostly neutral oak ageing (again the percentage varies each year). The oak regime is particularly impressive as Rhys sources its barrels by buying staves four years out to ensure the utmost consistency with the barrel regime across each of the bottlings, intending to let the vineyard be the only variable. Moreover, Rhys uses small 1 ton fermentation tanks that allow them to micro-vinify particular lots to determine what makes each unique. This hyper-detailed quality intensive focus is one of the reasons why Rhys has catapulted into the best of California in a mere decade.

All of this focus on quality and the tiny yields also make Rhys wines quite expensive. The price is not only justified but a necessary result of Rhys’ successful obsession with true site expression.

Emphatically Great Chardonnay

The Alpine vineyard lies only 10 miles from the ocean, sees considerable fog influence and sits on chalky Purisima soils. There is little wind in the vineyard, which distinguishes this site from many coastal vineyards in California. The vineyard is a mere 13 acres, only 2.75 of which is planted to Chardonnay. Planting is extremely dense.

Significantly, Rhys plants all its vineyards, including the Alpine, with a selection of heritage clones, propagated using massale techniques. Rhys eschews the new Dijon clones. This genetic diversity means varying ripeness, but it also means greater complexity and echoes the most groundbreaking research coming out of Burgundy.

The textural suppleness and beautifully pure stone fruit combined with intricate, complex minerality stand out. But, more importantly, there is a level of nuance and fruit quality in this wine that makes it unlike 99.9% of Chardonnay on the market across the world. It is that unusual. In my view this is one of the most exciting Chardonnays I have ever tasted. Period. I expect this will age extremely well and continue to grow.

$95 USD at K&L Wine, San Francisco


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