Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
NICHOLEBIRDSALL, assistant winemaker at Bonterra Vineyards of Mendocino County in California, was part of the massive annual pilgrimage to the this year's Boston Wine Expo, affording an opportunity to taste and discuss the wines she helps conceive and produce. Lovely wines and reasonably priced, they are worth sharing by means of this communication.
The wines have another distinction. They are all organically grown and processed. In fact, Bonterra, McNab and Butler ranches are already biodynamically certified. I don't know that these practices specifically make the wines taste better, but they do indicate that the land is not being abused and that the growers and winemakers are laudably attentive to detail. Witness, as one example, the use of a mobile chicken coop pulled here and there in the vineyard so that the nonunion chickens eat bugs and fertilize soil where needed, obviating the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers. Rent-free housing is provided for bluebirds and swallows, which also dine on insects. (Wine is not offered.) Surprisingly, once established, organic farming's operating costs are not higher than those of conventional viticulture.
Bonterra Vineyards was established in the early 199Os under the aegis of Fetzer Vineyard. Both are now part of the Brown-Forman empire, which has fostered the hands-on careful wine growing. Other than a muscat vineyard (Bartolucci) in Lake County, virtually all the vineyards are in Mendocino County. Bonterra has exclusive use of about 25O acres of organic vineyard, and may use some organically grown grapes of Brown-Forman's other vineyards.
Bonterra now produces about 18O,OOO cases annually. In addition to the wines we shall taste, Zinfandel is made, but currently all sent to England. (About a third of Bonterra's total production is exported to the UK.) A gradual introduction of Zinfandel is planned for the US. A "super-premium" Bordeaux-type blend is also in the incubator, for which the consultive services of former Chateau Latour oenologist Christian LeSummer have been retained. Bob Blue is Bonterra's winemaker; Dave Koball the vineyard steward. All aim to achieve a mutually enhancing marriage with food.
LET'S DISCUSS THE INDIVIDUAL WINES AND VICARIOUSLY TASTE THEM.
All are of Mendocino appellation except the Muscat.
ROUSSANNE 2OO4 This grape in partnership with marsanne gives one of the world's greatest and least appreciated white wines, Hermitage Blanc, but is otherwise almost unknown outside the Rhone. 662 cases produced. Contains 5 percent Viognier. Good ripeness, yet abundant acid - hard to accomplish. Some barrel fermentation and 4 months in neutral oak; most in stainless steel. No malolactic fermentation. Lively balanced wine, with a bit of spritz (CO2 bubbled at bottling), mineral notes, good fruit and finish. Very nice as aperitif or with raw shellfish. $17
VIOGNIER 2OO4 From another Rhone expatriate, with easier passage. 34OO cases. Contains 4 percent Roussanne. Just a bare touch of French oak. No malolactic. A little softer and more flowery than the Roussanne. Balanced and very long. Better with crab cakes than Roussanne on the one hand, and Chardonnay on the other. $17
CHARDONNAY 2OO4 Quite a bargain. 76 percent fermented in barrel (most of which went through malolactic), and aged in small oak 7 months: some in new (7 percent), some in one-year (24 percent) French oak; the rest in neutral wood or stainless steel. Small nose. Tasty fruit. Balanced and long, with oak just right. Fine with food. $13
MERLOT 2OO2 12,234 cases. Contains a little Cabernet Sauvignon. Mostly from McNab Ranch. Matured in a mixture of French and American oak. Good dark berry fruit and length. $15 to $17
CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2OO2 24,593 cases. Contains a dollop of Syrah. Oak treatment similar to the Merlot's - 14 months in French and American oak barrels, some new, some once-used, some neutral. Juicy fruit, long finish. Tannins affable. Varietal nose and mouth. $15 to $17
SYRAH 2OO2 This well-known Rhone roamer seems to have succeeded everywhere. 22OO cases. Contains 11 percent Petite Sirah (often added to Syrah and to Zinfandel in California for complexity) and 3 percent Viognier (taking a page from Cote Rotie, for an elegant floral note). 15 months in French oak: 35 percent new, 16 percent once-used. The elements of this wine are well integrated. Plenty of flavor. Full and balanced. To accompany boldly flavored meats, eg, backyard barbecue. $17
MUSCAT 2OO4 From muscat cannelli grown in Lake County at Bartolucci Vineyard. 342 cases of twelve 375s. Cold fermentation in stainless steel is stopped by centrifugation, chilling and a little SO2 to reserve the sugar. 9 percent alcohol; 8.3 percent residual sugar perfectly balanced with acid (pH 3.1, total acidity O.74) and mouth-watering muscat citrusy fruit. Light and happy wine. It's a good thing the alcohol concentration is low, for it's so easy to gulp down. Use as aperitif or as a refreshing close to dinner, or with Chinese food, or sip it with cookies and fruit, or sip it solo. $14/375 ml
BONTERRA WINES ARE NO RISK TO PALATE OR POCKETBOOK.