Ridge & Kistler: the icing on the California cake
If you’ve read any of my posts regarding the recent trip to California wine country (sorry, there have been a few!) then you’ve probably detected just a hint of love for the place, the people and the wine. But, believe it or not, I have saved the best ‘til last… Before heading out west there were two wineries that I knew I had to visit, these two wineries were the only ones at which I booked the appointment before leaving these shores.
One of the destinations will be on most wine lovers’ list when they visit California, but before I rave about the wines of Ridge let’s first focus on the small but perfectly formed operation that is Kistler.
Kistler is a boutique winery based in Sonoma County, adored by wine lovers around the world for their fantastic Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Steve Kistler founded the winery in 1978 after two years as Assistant Winemaker at Ridge (the article wasn’t planed this way as I didn’t know this before the visit!), and to this day he continues to serve as Winemaker and oversees all vineyard operations.
In the 80s and 90s Kistler set the quality standard for Californian Chardonnay, utilising Burgundian techniques to produce voluptuous, buttery and powerful wines. These received huge scores from critics and achieved cult status; the only way to get hold of the bottles was through the winery’s mailing list, a model that is de-rigueur these days in California. But Steve has never been one to stand still for too long and the style of wines has become finer and more elegant over the years, while maintaining the concentration and complexity.
Today, Kistler produces ten different Chardonnays, which are all vinified in exactly the same way, the only difference being the site on which they are grown. The wines are barrel fermented in French oak and aged sur-lie in the same barrels for between eleven and eighteen month, depending on the vintage. The Pinots are fermented in open top fermenters with the free run juice aged in French oak barrels for between fourteen and eighteen months. All of the wines are bottled un-filtered and un-fined, and what lies inside these bottles is pure and utter bliss.
Everything about the visit at the newly refurbished Trenton Roadhouse, just outside Sebastopol, was pure class. Our host Brittany was welcoming, approachable, knowledgeable and so passionate; we enjoyed a glass of the current release of “Les Noisetiers” Chardonnay as she talked us through the winery history, introduced the different vineyards and (literally) walked us through the Trenton vines. Then it was onto the main event, a tasting of three single vineyard Chardonnays and a Pinot… and what a tasting it turned out to be:
Kistler Les Noisetiers Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma County
A blend of juice from Trenton Roadhouse, Vine Hill and Dutton Ranch vineyards; not distributed to retail, only to a small selection of restaurants.
Wonderful aromas of citrus, peach and toasted hazelnuts suggest there is nothing but great things to come from this glass. The nose opens the door to flavours of peaches and nectarines with a dash of citrus, a touch of buttered toast and delightful whiff of roasted hazelnuts. The texture is rich ands opulent without being heavy and a wonderful acidic bit and tension. The finish is peachy and long; a very distinguished wine. 93 points
Kistler Trenton Roadhouse Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Sonoma Coast
In production since 1994 and vineyard designated since 2009, the vineyard straddles a south facing hilltop and comprised of the finest grained gold ridge soils.
The wine has a fairly muted nose in the glass initially; when the aromas come through I get peaches and honeydew melon, very retrained and ever so elegant. The palate is ever so juicy with restrained notes of apple, citrus and faint hint of peach and delicious sweet spice. The acidity dances along the tongue and around all part of the mouth as the fruit opens up slowly and gracefully. Wonderful balance and delightful weight. Great wine. 94+ points
Kistler Vine Hill Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Russian River Valley
Produced since 1991 the 23-year-old dry farmed vines surround the winery.
Richer and fuller on the nose with peaches, toast and warm sweet spice. The palate is rich and voluptuous but extremely graceful, with peaches apples and a clean and cooling minerality. The palate is rich and full but retains its elegance, a very nice wine that needs a bit of time to fully come around. 93+ points
Kistler Stone Flat Vineyard 2011, Sonoma Coast
Located in the western portion of Carneros and a source of grapes since 2002.
The nose gives up little of what is to come, with some apples, peaches and just a hint of wet stones coming through. But the palate is extraordinary; ripe peaches, nectarines and a citrus acid blast paves the way for some nutty hints and smoky undertones. The layers of fruit and then the savoury notes are almost ridiculous – my mouth was still watering two minutes later; the finesse and balance is truly outstanding. This could well be the best Chardonnay I have ever tasted. 96 points
Kistler Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2012
Made with fruit from the Kistler and Silver Belt vineyards.
Very pretty aromas of cherries, plums and even a touch of red currant, all wrapped in in lots of warm spice; cinnamon and all-spice. The palate is warm and smoky with bundles of cherry fruit, delicate spice, earth and minerality. An elegant Pinot but from still young vines; fresh and delicious and one day will develop the complexity that will turn this blend into a great wine. 93 points
What could follow that? Well luckily for me, the following day I had booked an appointment at Ridge’s Lytton Springs vineyard and tasting room. There isn’t much that hasn’t already been written or said about Ridge; one of California’s “first growths”, Cabernet blends that stand up to anything Bordeaux has to offer, Chardonnay that’s a match for Montrachet and Zinfandels that have no peers. Ridge Vineyards was formed in 1962 and Paul Draper was appointed as winemaker in 1969; today he still oversees all of the winemaking operations. Like many Californian wineries, Ridge shot to fame when their Monte Bello 1971 showed well in The Judgement of Paris and neither the winery or Paul Draper has looked back since.
As well as producing fine Bordeaux blends and Chardonnays, the winery is renowned for the Zinfandels produced from the Lytton Springs and Geyserville vineyards. Zinfandel is often under-appreciated but at Ridge they believe that Zinfandel can bring to the glass the characteristics of each growing site and has the ability to age as well as Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s simple ethos at Ridge; 100% dedication in the vineyards to grow the most concentrated and flavoursome grapes followed by 100% dedication in the winery with minimum intervention to draw all the fruit’s natural richness into the wine.
Our visit, led by the brilliantly entertaining and knowledgeable Dave, began with a golf buggy drive around the Lytton Springs vineyard, visiting the gnarly hundred-year old vines that provide the juice for this famous field blend. When we got back to the eco-sustainable premises we were swept around the winery and barrel room before heading up to the tasting room to sip the nectar of dreams…
Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2011
Estate-grown Monte Bello vineyard grapes, hand harvested, whole-cluster pressed. 19% new, 11% one year old, 7% two year old, 63% three, four and five years old (95% air-dried American, 5% French oak).
Another one of these fantastic clean and crisp Californian Chardonnays. Apples and citrus with a touch of tropical pineapple. The palate is rich, without being heavy with enough acidity to cut through and clear the way for the apple-pear finish. A wine that rarely gets written about but is very good indeed. 93 points
Ridge Paso Robles Zinfandel 2012
100% Zinfandel 100% aged 11 months in American air-dried oak (25% new).
Wonderful nose of blackberries and raspberries with just a hint of smoky spice; very pure and very elegant. The palate is bursting with tart red fruit on the attack before the blackberries and blueberries come through. Silky smooth with bracing acidity and oh so drinkable! 91 points
Ridge Geyserville 2012
Not designated as Zin as there is not always the required 75% in the blend – in 2012 the assemblage was 71% Zinfandel, 19% Carignane , 7% Petite Sirah, 2% Mataro, 1% Alicante Bouschet. Aged for thirteen months in American oak, 24% new.
Very tight and closed nose, but hidden in there somewhere is blackberry, blueberry and some sweet baking spice. The fruit on entry is dark and brooding before the fresh, tart red fruit jumps up whack you around the face. The tannins are big and bold and give the wine a great length; super young right now but with a great balance of fruit, tannin and acid that means a great life ahead of it. 93+ points
Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 2008
74% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane. 15 months in American oak, 20% new.
Of the perfume of red fruit, some dried wild herbs, touches of lavender and hints of leather… taste it, taste it! Juicy cherries and blackberries with amazing freshness, fine tannins and a warm pepper finish. Everything just falls into place; so round, so balanced, so beautiful. 94 points
(I bought a bottle of the 2006 while I was there… it was even better!)
Ridge Estate Merlot 2011
100% Merlot, aged fro 19.5 month is American oak, 41% new.
Attractive strawberries and red currants lace the nostrils, backed up with a savoury note and just a touch of wild hedgerow. Unctuous and smooth texture with luscious tannin and fine acidity. Very fine, very ripe and lip-smackingly good. 92 points
Ridge Monte Bello 2011
88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, aged for 16 months in new oak (99% American, 1% French – for comparison!)
Wow. Smoky blackberry and blackcurrant fruit along with some sweet spice, something herbal and then more fruit; cassis, yes, concentrated pure cassis. The fruit on the palate is luscious, sweet and concentrated, and oh so graceful. The balance is astounding and at 3 years old the wine is already so rounded; layers of fruit and spice and so much more. So drinkable now but it scares me how good this is going to be in 10 years time. Wow. 95+ points
Believe me when I tell you that you MUST visit both of these wonderful wineries if you are planning a trip to California; they truly were the icing on the best cake I have ever had the pleasure to devour!