Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
I took advantage of winemaker Terry Adams's recent visit to Boston to catch up on the doings at Sonoma-Cutrer, whose wines I've been drinking since the beginning. Adams has been on hand since the winery opened, initially assisting Bill Bonetti, the founding winemaker, then succeeding him in 1991 when Bonetti retired. The pair had previously worked together at Chateau Souvrain - Adams then just staring to dip his toe in.
Brice Cutrer Jones established the vineyards in 1973. (Cutrer is his mother's family name.) The winery was built later at the Cutrer Vineyard near Windsor to Bonetti's specifications, issuing its first releases in 1981, a justly famous vintage for Sonoma-Cutrer, especially for the Les Pierres Vineyard Chardonnay. The estate, although sold to beverage behemoth Brown Forman in 1999, has maintained its character. Until recently, Sonoma-Cutrer produced just three Chardonnays: Russian River Ranches, Cutrer Vineyard (now called The Cutrer), and Les Pierres Vineyard. A dalliance with sparkling wine was not consummated in a commercial release. An elite tiny selection, Founder's Reserve, came from a favored row or two of Les Pierres (more below). Now, a fourth Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir have been added.
Vineyard care is meticulous. Clonal selection and rootstock matched to soil are enabled by the on-site experimental greenhouse. Leaf canopies are managed to control sun exposure. Water and yields are limited, so that clusters are few and small, and berries are tiny. After a dip in quality in the late '8Os, the Phylloxera-forced replantings of the early '9Os, though expensive, were all to the good in the long run, leading to more perfect vineyards. Picking by hand into shallow bins ensures that the fruit reaches the winery in the best possible condition. Only estate grapes are vinifed.
If the winemakers can be said to be perfectionists, the grapes are positively pampered. They are air chilled to 4OšF in a cooling tunnel on reaching the winery, to preserve finesse and eliminate coarseness. They are hand sorted, then gently pressed as whole clusters. Only the first 155 gallons per ton (about 85 percent) of juice are used, then fermented in barrels of custom-selected and treated French oak, some new, some once or twice used. The proportion of new oak and the length of barrel aging, much of it on the lees, varies with the wine, which spends from 5 to 18 months in barrel. All go through malolactic fermentation, using cultures the winery developed.
When I came home from tasting with Terry Adams, I was stimulated to excavate bottles of yore. May I share this interesting exercise with you? To me the greatest Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay was the first Les Pierres, 1981, so that's what I opened first (It cost $11 in Massachusetts in 1984.) The fill is an inch down. The color has darkened, and, after nearly 26 years, there is a trace of oxidation, but I couldn't wish any dry white wine better than the living force of fruit, the minerality, the enduring verve of acidity of this wine, still admirably shored up by lean, strong structure.
I also opened the 1985 Les Pierres, which had won excellent reviews when released. There was no ullage, and the color was only slightly darker than it had been at birth. Toasty oak was more apparent than in the 1981, balanced by gentle fruit, but not the propulsive energy of the '81s.
of time is very comforting.
acres of vineyards yield nearly 2OO,OOO cases of wine.
Let us look at examples of the current releases.
Russian River Ranches Chardonnay 2OO5 Virtually limited to restaurant sales. From several vineyard blocks: Vine Hill, Owsley Ranch, Shiloh, Les Pierres, Kent, and Cutrer. Good ripe pure fruit, with balance and finish, yet showing some of the signature Sonoma-Cutrer restraint. Retail price would be about $2O.
Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2OO5 The first vintage of a new product; aimed at retail distribution. The appellation was pioneered by Sonoma-Cutrer. From several sources, including Cutrer and Vine Hill. Seems a bit younger and leaner than the foregoing, but no less engaging. $25
The Cutrer Chardonnay 2OO4 The home vineyard, in the Russian River Valley. Alluvial soils with hardened ancient seabed and volcanic ash. Oakiest of the Chardonnays, rich in a complex of ripe fruits with spice. Long finish. $32
Les Pierres Chardonnay 2OO3 Mostly available in finer restaurants. The vineyard, located in Sonoma Valley near the Carneros border, is, like the others, cooled by Pacific marine influences. As its name indicates, the vineyard is more than replete with cobblestones in an ancient riverbed formed in a still more ancient volcanic caldera. This vineyard, of 115 acres, can produce 1O,OOO cases of wine. This wine, built to age gracefully, is intense and contained, long in its flint-struck mineral finish. A unique wine. $36
Founder's Reserve Chardonnay 2OO2 Now a blend of Adams's five favorite barrels, from whatever vineyard(s). This one is from low-yield, 3O-year-old vines in The Cutrer. Because so little is produced it was closed with Stelvin rather than cork, so as not to risk the loss of even one bottle to a tainted cork - perhaps an augury. $6O+
Pinot Noir 2OO3 Finally fulfilling an original goal. From cool Sonoma Coast vineyards. Destemmed, and punched down by hand in small, five-ton, open-top fermenters. 4O% new oak for a year. Unfined, unfiltered. The second Pinot Noir vintage, and worth the wait, although to be principally offered in fine restaurants. Fragrant of pinot and cherry. Intense and balanced, with meet acid. Delicious. $45