Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 6

6 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

Oh, California Cab. As one of the world’s benchmark wine styles, victor over Bordeaux in the infamous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, this will of course have a place in any wine Advent calendar worth its salt. I also cannot prevent my mind from conjuring up such pejoratives as “overly oaked”, “heavily extracted”, “boozy”, and even “Mega Purple“. I will concede that for many consumers at the time, and many even now, massive size is a virtue. Fortunately a sea change began in the 2000s. A much-needed shift started taking place, from a winemaking culture focused largely on harnessing a technical wine science to yield a consistent product to please the average consumer, towards a “grassroots” middle path where science still matters but is now free to marry more European notions such as restraint, finesse and elegance, and even the notion that reasonable vintage variation can add interest and pleasure to the wine-drinking experience. It is no longer safe to make black and white assumptions about the monolithic nature of Cali Cabernet, and wineries like Starmont have played a key role in this paradigm shift.

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The name Starmont originally graced a bottle of Carneros Chardonnay in 1989. From there the name grew into a full-fledged brand, relocating from its original home with the more established Merryvale brand to the Stanly Ranch property, home to a couple of quality Carneros vineyard sites. Although the wines are no longer produced at a “green” facility built at one of these sites (that facility was sold this year), the commitment to sustainability remains. Although best known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Starmont does not shy away from Merlot or Syrah. There is an interest in seeing how each varietal does in its place, whether said place is the Stanly Ranch itself, the Carneros AVA, or the broader Napa Valley and North Coast AVAs, and this interest in terroir may have something to do with one of the men at the helm.

Starmont winemaker Jeff Crawford was born in Alaska but has managed to become superbly well-travelled, picking up bits and pieces of winemaking knowledge from places as far-flung as Greece. His general approach is to use his travels and reading to cram his brain with as much history, winemaking philosophy, technical acumen, and tasting experiences as possible. His unceasing quest has led to equipment upgrades at the winery, yet Jeff wishes Starmont to remain a “microcosm” of the Carneros region: a source of even-handed, balanced yet structured wines that can still convey some degree of subtlety.

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The 2017 Starmont North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is bottled under the very broad North Coast AVA appellation, with the grapes hailing from vineyards across the northern part of the state (41% Sonoma, 37% Lake, 13% Napa, 9% Mendocino). The wine is 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petite Syrah, and 8% Merlot. This blending approach renders much of the philosophy behind terroir irrelevant for this particular bottle, unless the concept of site specificity is somehow extended to rather large tracts of land that exist as legal entities rather than embodying bona-fide “climats”. Nevertheless, the goal here was to obtain a mix of sites that reveals restraint in the final execution. Handpicked, hand sorted, and de-stemmed fruit was not crushed at the winery, leaving over 90% of the berries whole. This approach, if you were wondering, can prolong fermentation, as sugar release from the berries is delayed. This gives winemakers more control over the process, and can also enhance fruitiness and yield a more delicate, silky texture in the finished wine. After a cold pre-soak, the wine spends an average of 14 days fermenting on the skins and is then aged for 15 months in a combination of American and French oak (30% new).

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Stelvin Rating: 6/10 (hey, this is a decent Stelvin: vinous colour, nice font.)

This is indeed pretty silky in the mouth, with a supple, velvet-like latticework of tannins reinforcing a rather light-bodied frame. The aromas do tick all the right boxes: blackcurrant (duh!), some cool climate black cherry, even maybe red cherry Nibs, Aero bar, Swiss mocha instant coffee mix, nutmeg, MacIntosh’s toffee, very slight red pepper flake and well-worn cedar plank. The oak notes I am pulling off this are assertive but not overly intrusive. All of the ripe yet fresh fruit is powdered with graphite and waves goodbye with a medium-duration plume of oaked red currant jelly. An efficient, seamless purple elegance, one that you will likely enjoy but that is unlikely to provide total recall a year from now.

88+ points


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