Bricks Wine Advent Calendar 2019: Day 9

9 12 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

In at least two ways Day 9 marks a return of sorts. One: a Schug wine (that time in the form of a Pinot Noir) appeared in the 2017 Bricks calendar. Two: we briefly met the Carneros AVA on Day 6 this year, in its guise as the original home of the Starmont Winery. This time Carneros truly gets its due, with today’s wine proudly sporting “Carneros Appellation” on a label affixed to the bottle neck. A personal favourite California appellation and yet another iconic producer? Sign me up.

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The Los Carneros AVA straddles both the Napa and Sonoma counties. Receiving official AVA status in 1983, Carneros was in fact the first California wine region to be demarcated based on climate rather than political boundaries. A true cool-climate wine region, it finds itself well-suited to the classic Burgundian varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Indeed, this region appears to have been the first in California to establish anything like a decent track record with the temperamental Pinot. Cool winds blow in from San Pablo Bay and early morning fog is commonplace, moderating the warm temperatures needed for ripening such that acidity in the grapes is preserved. Moisture-retaining fertile clay soils also contribute a cooling effect. This yields fresh wines characterized by an elegant precision and a quintessential purity of expression, albeit one not entirely devoid of a certain distinctive sun-kissed California sweetness. As Paul Lukacs explains in “The Great Wines of America”, an overly forceful winemaking hand can easily mar this purity. Fortunately, German emigre Walter Schug understood this.

The Schug Carneros Estate Winery got started in 1989, when Walter ended a 10-year winemaking stint with Joseph Phelps to forge out on his own. Walter had in fact been bottling Pinot Noir under his own label since 1980 and doing so with the blessing of Phelps, even as he continued on as the winemaker at Phelps’ estate. Walter attributed his persistence with the variety to “patience and urgency” in equal measure, with grace and balance in the finished wines being the end goal. His passion for Burgundy did of course extend to Chardonnay, and currently lives on under the guidance of Walter’s son Alex. As you might deduce from the climate conditions explained above, Carneros Chardonnay is notorious for high acidity, thereby providing a much-needed counterpoint to the fatter, round, and frequently buttery Chardonnays produced in warmer Cali AVAs.

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Perfectly consistent with my expectations, the 2017 Schug Carneros Chardonnay receives most aspects of the classic Burgundian treatment, being 100% fermented and aged on the lees in small oak barrels. Vineyard sources include the Schug Estate itself (49%), with contributions from the Ricci, Hi-Vista, Cornerstones, Lund, and Sangiacomo Vineyards to add complexity. The wine is aged sur lie for 8 months, with the oak regime including 16% new medium toast French Allier oak barrels. Malolactic fermentation was not induced, apparently a more recent trend in the Carneros, allowing the wine to retain a more acidic backbone despite many of the other winemaking decisions seeming to converge on a full body with the corners rounded. Let’s see how it all shakes out.

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Cork Rating: 7.5/10 (this is a great cork… Look at this graphic. Alas, the other side features the winery name and a phone number! For a good time call…)

The nose doffs its hat toward the old country, with wisps of smoky hay, yellow mustard, struck match, flint and nutmeg heralding something that is likely to be quite steely as opposed to histrionic. Sure enough, the palate harkens to Granny Smith but also Honey Crisp apple, lemon rind, lemon pepper, and pineapple skin, initially compact and linear but revealing a broader attack that falls just short of creamy over the course of multiple sips. The acidity is cross but not outright angry…well, maybe a bit angry, butting up against the toasty oak that is more prominent on the palate than the nose. Fortunately the wood fails to completely obscure the famed Carneros purity. Some nectarine and honeydew begin to vie with the apples and lemon, and I briefly conjure up thoughts of pear Jello (yes, that used to be a thing), underripe kiwi, and plantains before the acid clamps back down after this nearly tropical pulse. Perhaps a shade too stern and woody to be truly graceful, this is still certainly trying hard to jump over this latter bar, ultimately landing somewhere in the ballpark. I ponder those twinkling sparks of Carneros fruit and peach kernels lingering on my palate, a finish longer than expected. See you in a few.

89- points


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