The Triumph of Raw Material: Hanzell Vineyards
Hanzell Vineyards are owners of California’s oldest plantings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The 1953 Ambassador vineyard, which I’ve written about before, is one of the most important in the state. The 1976 De Brye vineyard is not far behind. In my view, Hanzell proves that the combination of vine age and perfect siting are the most dominant features of great wine.
Cultured vs. Indigenous Yeast
I hold my view even in the face of evidence from Burgundy that great terroir does not always make great wine in the hands of inferior winemaking, which Hanzell of course does not have. One of the great debates in wine is the importance of yeast to terroir and wine quality. Most serious winemakers will acknowledge that yeast is part of environment, but there are, of course, good and bad yeasts and so the answer is not a simple declaratory truth.
Hanzell is well familiar with bad yeast – they had to build a completely new winemaking facility when their original cellar became irrevocably infected with brett in the early 2000’s. It is perhaps this, combined with the highly technical training of the winemaking team (both past and present), that has lead the winery to become obsessed with control.
As I chatted with assistant winemaker Lynda Hanson (who did a Master’s in Enology at UC Davis, specializing in yeast) during a recent visit, she related to me the challenges of the winery and their obsession with ensuring every detail of winemaking lines up to produce a technically perfect final product that allows the fruit to express itself. Part of this approach actually involves using inoculated yeast – mostly the famous Montrachet yeast. Moreover, ferments are temperature controlled to ensure completion (a technique invented by Hanzell’s original winemaker Brad Webb), though the winery is starting to experiment with less controlled, more naturally paced fermentations (in which the ferments slow and then come back to life).
In the face of cultured yeasts many wine geeks will poo poo a wine. However, Hanzell makes some of the very best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the state, if not the world, and I challenge any such geek to taste these wines blind and not notice the stunning quality. So what, then, does this mean for the cultured vs. indigenous yeast debate?
One cannot draw any scientific conclusion given the lack of controlled environment, but I suspect that Hanzell demonstrates how vine age and site, when of very high special quality, dominate over choice of yeasts. I would be fascinated to taste the same fruit fermented naturally side by side the current offering to truly test the difference. For now, it is just an educated guess.
The Uniqueness of Hanzell’s Site
So let me tell you about the site. When I first tasted Hanzell Chardonnay I could not understand how such a wine could be made in the Sonoma Valley proper, a region with Chardonnays that have never really excited me. Contrast that to the stunning Sonoma Coast and I’d almost written off most of Sonoma Valley for the grape.
When I arrived at the vineyard gate and drove up, and up, and even higher still, I began to understand. When standing at the top of the de Brye vineyard I was treated to views of San Francisco’s skyline over 45 miles away. The grade here is an astonishing 40%, something no longer permitted under the Sonoma AVA rules. The grapes see considerable sun in this vineyard which, when combined with the old vines, makes Chardonnay of great density and potency.
The Ambassador Vineyard sits at slightly lower elevation, though its gnarled old-vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have considerable stature. There are few less joyful experiences for a wine lover than staring at the valley rising up behind these vines on a gloriously warm and sunny day. The winery does occasionally make single vineyard bottlings from this site in top years, but the real specialty of Hanzell are its two estate bottlings – one Chardonnay and one Pinot Noir – which blend fruit from all the winery’s blocks. These wines are, in my view, consistently some of the Grand Crus of California.
Also of interest is a recent endeavor planting new blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon below the Ambassador Vineyard to bring back that program: the winery originally made Cabernet Sauvignon but the vines were ripped out by trustees before the current owner came of age – which is why you don’t leave greatness to trust fund managers.
I tasted the current releases (2013 for the estate wines and 2014 for the Sebella second wines) and was most impressed by the two Estate Bottlings. The Estate Pinot Noir, which is made in quite small quantities, had a mineral edge and savory quality that is extremely rare in California Pinot – it had the tannin quality I think you can only get with older vines. I loved it.
The Chardonnay is rich but extremely vibrant and highly aromatic. It offers salinity with body and elegance. It truly is one of the great Chardonnays of California and is astonishing both in youth and with age. The 2013 De Brye vineyard needed considerable time to develop as it was aromatically shut down when I tasted, especially beside the estate bottling, but it had massive power waiting to be unleashed with time.
Outside of the core estate program, the Sebella program, made from purchased fruit, is quite commercially successful but in my view far less distinctive. The Chardonnay is good quality, fresh and tasty, but lacks the excitement of the estate wines.
In conclusion, Hanzell deserves its title as one of California’s Grand Crus and is a heritage treasure for both the state and for the wine world generally. I highly recommend making the journey to visit if you are at all serious about wine.