Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sonoma County Wines—Sweetness and Light

Life is too short to drink bad wine! Celebrate its sweetness and light with a wonderful port, a honeyed dessert or a delicious late-harvest wine.
In the midst of a cold rain, we decided to go wine-tasting in Sonoma's Russian River and Alexander Valleys. Because of the weather, we focused on sweet wines: dessert and late-harvest wines and ports.

The distinctive tasting room at Field Stone Winery was our first stop. Their 2002 Vintage Petit Syrah Port has a very slight tannic edge, and a distinctive P.Syrah fruitiness. Scharffenberger chocolate bites expose rich chocolate and hazelnut tones in the port.

Hanna Winery recommended their 100% Rued Chardonnay 2003 Jasmine for its delicate flavor. I would not call this a sweet wine, however—it is light, with a floral nose, sharp, crisp peach-and-citrus on the tongue, and absolutely no tannin bite despite its fermentation in 20% new French oak.

The charming tasting room at Johnson's Alexander Valley Wines is the antithesis of the snobby wine experience—we tasted from a wedding glass ("Good Luck Charlie and Beth!"). The beagles who usually greet visitors to this superb picnic spot must have been driven inside by the rain, but we did get a look at the automated pipe organ with its surround of other instruments. Alas! Tom was not there to perform, but we were consoled by an excellent 1997 late-harvest Johannesburg Reisling, not too sweet, but with vivid melon and citrus notes on the palate, and a very slight tannin bite at the finish.

Trentadue Winery charges for tasting a flight of their port wines—but if you like strong ports with lots of tannic edge (and "notes of tobacco" in one case), it is worth the investment. The 2003 Viognier White Port is my favorite from this winery, lightly sweet and fruity, with the apricot-and-vanilla notes of the Viognier grape. Nibble some brie between sips to bring out a pleasant nutmeg undertone.

In Healdsburg, we went first to the Bohemian "Best of the North Bay" tasting room winner, Thumbprint Cellars—the winery also got the nod for Best Cabernet and Best Pinot Noir wines, and an honorable mention for their tasting room as a "best-kept secret." We hoped to taste again the excellent Cabernet Port they offered at the barrel-tasting, but it had been returned to rest in the barrel. Scott assured us that futures will still be available at their "Best Of" celebration, which will coincide with the Passport weekend, April 23-23. Pair the port with the custom-made Cab Port Truffles—port futures and truffles can both be purchased from the Thumbprint web site.

Many wineries have sweet wines that will not be available for some time yet. Alderbrook has a port that will not be bottled for several weeks—perhaps by the time of the Passport event. I can recommend their tasting room for its excellent gift and book selection. And in Dry Creek Valley, Bella Winery's late-harvest Zinfandel will not be available until this fall—we tasted it several weeks ago at the Russian River barrel-tasting, and it promises to be excellent! (Their 2001 late-harvest Zin, now sold out, had a jam-intense blackberry flavor, with an incredibly long-lasting chocolate finish.)

The Rosenblum Cellars tasting room in Healdsburg brings wines from all over Northern California to the Sonoma wine-tasting experience. This is your one-stop shop for sweet wines. We started with a 2002 late-harvest Viognier, which was very sweet with loads of tropical fruit and peach flavors. This Botrytized wine is from the Ripken Ranch in Lodi. Neal then offered us a taste of the 2002 Zinfandel Port from Contra Costa county (although it was not on their pour list for the day). The Zin fruit's berry flavors were emphasized by the slight sweetness of the port, which had lovely chocolate and earthy notes, along with a slight oak bite, at the finish. Subsequent sips of the port developed the fruit-compote taste, for a lingering savor. The cellars were not pouring their excellent 2003 Black Muscat from the Central Valley's Gallagher Ranch, but I can recommend it for its Black-Forest cake flavor: chocolate and sweet cherries predominate, with blackberry, vanilla, and cinnamon undertones.

Ray at Camellia Cellars offered us a beautiful Rosato di Sangiovese. This "immoral blush" wine is not sweet, but light and cherry-fruity, with a crisp Sangiovese finish. (My spouse found strawberries in the nose of this wine, but I could not detect them.) Buy this wine to impress dinner guests with something that will also please your own sweet-wine-loving palate.

Next door to Camellia is the Sapphire Hill tasting room. While they were not pouring their excellent late-harvest Zin from the Tom Feeney Ranch, the 2003 Winberrie Old-Vine Zinfandel has a vivid blackberry nose, with jam-rich berry at the front and a long plum finish at the back of the palate. This is the wine to bring to a gathering of "bold red' wine lovers—pair it with grilled steaks or spicy barbecue, it can hold its own.

After so many sweet sips, I recommend a visit to J Winery. They offer a flight of wines paired with gourmet food. For $12, you can try wine in the perfect ambiance, sipping, nibbling and talking with other oenophiles. A cookbook from The Girl and the Fig restaurant is on sale at the tasting room.

Our final visit of the day was to Limerick Lane Winery, where we knew we would find the exquisite 2001 late-harvest Furmint. This is a supremely sweet, perfumy wine with a honeyed, viscous feel in the mouth, after the style of the Hungarian Tokaj Aszu wines. We first encountered this Botrytized varietal in the 1997 vintage, the last time Limerick Lane made a late-harvest Furmint. A slight floral scent (almond blossom?) in the nose was teasingly indeterminate, overridden by the fruit. Strong apricot and citrus fruit is supported by burnt-sugar and honey notes on the front of the palate. Hazelnut flavor sits briefly on the back of the palate, but the finish is rich apricot. This is the perfect wine to impress your spouse or significant other for a special celebration.

Alderbrook Winery
2306 Magnolia Dr
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Bella Vineyards

Camellia Cellars
57 Front Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Field Stone Winery & Vineyard
10075 Highway 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Hanna Winery
9280 Hwy 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Johnson's Alexander Valley Wines
8333 State Highway 128
Headsburg, CA
(707) 433-2319

Limerick Lane Cellars
1023 Limerick Lane
Healdsburg, Ca 95448

Rosenblum Cellars
250 Center Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Sapphire Hill
51 Front Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Thumbprint Cellars Winery
36 North Street
Healdsburg, California 95448

Trentadue Winery
19170 Geyserville Ave.
Geyserville, CA 96441


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