FEL Wines: Pinot Showdown

11 01 2015

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Happy New Year!  I took a bit of a holiday blogging break after 24 straight days of whisky-induced Advent madness in December, but I always had it in my mind to start up 2015 (and return to actually producing wine-related content on this wine blog) with these two bottles of California glory.  Although they come from what might technically be considered a new producer, their roots and history are inextricably linked to a California stalwart…and, as it turns out, to my home province of Alberta too.

Great wines, plus new wine glasses - to be the subject of a separate post.

Great wines, plus new wine glasses – to be the subject of a separate post.

FEL Wines came into being less than a year ago, in March 2014.  It is the brainchild of Cliff Lede, whose eponymous Napa Sauvignon Blanc helped renew my faith in the grape a month ago.  Lede is well known for creating those rarest of beasts, Napa Valley value wines, and he’s also a born-and-raised Albertan who is well known outside of the wine world as one of the owners and senior executives of the Ledcor Group, which was founded by his father (how the construction lawyer in me failed to mention that in the last review is beyond me).  FEL represents Lede’s foray outside of Napa’s welcoming confines and into the cooler climate areas of California, and it also seems to be underlaid by a personal passion:  FEL is so named for Cliff’s mother Francis Elsie Lede, who helped kindle his love of wine as a child.

The new winery was years in the making, getting its start when Lede acquired Sonoma’s Breggo Cellars in 2009, where FEL’s current winemaker Ryan Hodgins worked.  Lede’s vision for FEL was to focus on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from the cooler Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast subregions of Sonoma County, where proximity to the Pacific Ocean keeps temperatures in check and allows for slower, more even grape ripening.  Both of these bottles are from Anderson Valley, which is just north of Sonoma’s renowned Russian River Valley region and a scant 10-15 miles from the Pacific.  Tonight’s showdown is between the two Anderson Pinots in FEL’s lineup:  Pinot Gris vs. Pinot Noir.  Bring it on.

2013 FEL Wines Anderson Valley Pinot Gris

FullSizeRender-38

You don’t see a whole ton of Pinot Gris in California, let alone a Cali winery who makes it one of its focal varietals.  This Pinot Gris comes in an Alsatian flute-shaped bottle to boot:  legit.  I’m always slightly nervous when I open a bottle of Pinot Gris because I never know what I’m going to get, but thankfully FEL eschews the kind of dreadful boring neutrality inherent in most bottles labelled “Pinot Grigio” (same grape, but usually a flavourless, soulless rendition of it).  It also steers clear of the funkier, more mushroomy notes commonly found in the Pinot Gris in the grape’s spiritual homeland of Alsace, replacing it with New World verve and an explosion of fruit.

Stelvin Rating:  7/10 (Love the colour and the effort. That's a tulip if you're curious.)

Stelvin Rating: 7/10 (Love the colour and the effort. That’s a tulip if you’re curious.)

FEL’s tasting notes speak of the flavours in this wine in toned-down terms, referencing tart or subtle fruit like Granny Smith apple, Bosc pear and quince, but when I tried the wine it was all tropical all the time, particularly on the palate.  It started out a little more coy on the nose, a mixture of candied almond, honey, Meyer lemon, musky lychee and ocean air, but then it went nuclear when it hit the tongue, hurtling pineapple, mango and coconut into a smoky rubberiness like freshly squealed tires, accented by a nougat-y, pastry-like note on the edges.  The alcohol (cited as 14.2% on the bottle, but in my experience with Cali wines, that tends to be a default label fallback figure when the actual booze level is somewhere higher) emerges slightly near the finish, but scouring acid keeps the wine clean and lends a mineral touch to the aftertaste.  This is about as wild a ride as Pinot Gris has taken me on, and I mean that fully as a compliment.

90 points

$35 to $40 CDN

2012 FEL Wines Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

FullSizeRender-36This bottle’s Pinot cousin made quite the opening impression, but this wine surpasses it with ease.  It is one of the most unabashedly delicious wines I’ve had this year (and I mean the last 365 days, not in the first 11 days of January, which would be slightly less impressive).  I’m fortunate, because both 2012 and 2013 were absolutely excellent vintages in Anderson Valley, with 2012 being talked about as one for the ages and 2013 not far behind.  I’m a fan of Cali Pinot as a style, and when done right I think it can give as much straightforward drinking pleasure as any other type of wine on Earth. Enjoying it means not getting too caught up in rigid expectations or stringent requirements on what Pinot Noir has to be:  while some New World Pinots (Oregon comes to mind) seem to seek to be an echo of Burgundy, California very clearly does not.  And that’s OK with me, because what it is can be special in its own right.  Like this bottle.

Cork Rating:  7.5/10 (Not overly spectacular, but something about this makes it one of my favourite cork pics ever.)

Cork Rating: 7.5/10 (Not overly spectacular, but something about this makes it one of my favourite cork pics ever.)

The first noticeable thing about this Pinot is that it’s not remotely purple, despite being quite young:  it came out of the bottle a translucent ruby colour, already slightly tinged with garnet.  The nose provides instant Cali Pinot scent recognition:  if you’re not sure what California Pinot Noir is supposed to smell like, just give it a whiff.  Coffee-infused cherry and blueberry, milk chocolate and mesquite mingle with stabilizing hints of iron and violets — I get excited when a wine is fully reflective of its roots, and one smell of this made me feel like it could have come from nowhere else.  The palate combined bountiful red fruit (cherry, raspberry and a streak of racy cranberry) with savoury herbs (rosemary, sage, sweet basil) and a clear cola/Dr. Pepper note, with talcum powder and malt candy lingering on the finish.  There is huge depth of flavour here, and a texture that is at once airy and lush, creamy and silky and yet just floating weightlessly on the palate.  Great wines often make me speak in contradictions, and this is definitely one:  just classic fruit-centric California Pinot.

Both FEL wines were delightful and well-made, but to me the Pinot Noir is the clear star of the show — it easily stands up with other premium Sonoma Pinots, which allows it to defend its price point a little more successfully than the Pinot Gris.  California Pinot Gris that’s a breath away from $40 a bottle can be a tough sell, even when it’s a highly enjoyable wine, but when a Pinot Noir is this good, you can almost name your price.

93 points

$50 to $55 CDN

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