Friday, May 16, 2014

Hanzell: Wines that Ruin You for Other Wine

A few weeks ago, while visiting California, I had the extreme privilege of being able to join a tour of the Hanzell Vineyard with my friend, Elaine. She was invited to take a tour and to meet with the current winemaker, Michael McNeill, and when she learned that I would be in Sonoma that week she asked if I could join on this trip. I am forever grateful that they said yes.

Hanzell is the most amazing winery that I had never heard of. I was quite shocked to learn how crucial this winery has been to the development of modern wine-making over the past 60 years, especially because I had never come across this name before. I suspect that this is partly because the excellent wines they make are sold rather exclusively, and I'll talk more about these in a minute. First, it's important to pay homage to Hanzell, and it's winemakers. Around the middle of the last century, Hanzell winemaker Bradford Webb invented stainless steel fermentation and installed the first fermenter prototypes in the world in their winery; it's hard now to imagine something that could have had a greater impact on modern wine-making. Stainless steel fermentation is so widespread, so useful, and so efficient, that I was floored to discover that I didn't know the name of its inventor, or even that it had been invented in California (for some reason I thought that Australia got this credit).

A map of the Hanzell estate's vineyards
The immediately previous winemaker, Bob Sessions, who sadly passed away this week from advanced Alzheimer's disease, was by all accounts a talented and ingenious scientist who dedicated much of his life to wine. This makes his eventual dementia especially painful; Bob's wife, Jean, who is an accomplished winery executive in her own right, has said that one day Bob just forgot about wine. We're fortunate that he didn't forget until after he'd done so much for the industry. Touring Hanzell, the immense dedication and attention to detail that Bob infused into every part of the wine production process is evident. The majority of vineyard space is dedicated to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In the Sessions Vineyard (named for and planted by Bob), a giant experiment seems to be constantly unfolding: each row of vines is a unique combination of varietal clone and rootstock, tagged and documented. The outcome of each permutation can be tracked to see which clone on which rootstock will produce the best wine grapes on this site. This vineyard seems to capture Bob's impressively rigorous approach to wine.

Hanzell has some of the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir vines in the United States, with 61 year old vines in the Ambassador Vineyard. The original winery is still standing, though production has moved into a new building after the original was found to be tainted throughout with TCA - the chemical compound which makes wines taste 'corked'.

The original stainless steel fermenting tanks at top,
the Chardonnay and Pinot that we tasted at the bottom
Tasting Hanzell's wines was a life-changing experience. I've never tasted better Chardonnay in my whole life, and I have sincere doubts that I ever will. The purity, freshness, energy, and expression of the wine was just unspeakably gorgeous. It defies adequate description. It tasted like sunlight filtering through tender new leaves on a warm spring day. We tasted three vintages, the 2012 Sebella and 2011 and 2009 Hanzell. The 2012 Sebella hadn't gone through any malolactic fermentation at all, and was a laser beam of lemon drops and granny smith apples. Michael was especially pleased that he'd captured the scent of Chardonnay flowers in bloom in this wine, and since I've never smelled that, it's my goal now to find some flowering Chardonnay (not yet too late in Ontario!). The 2011 and 2009 were equally crisp and lemony, with a touch of buttery richness on the palate.

The Pinot Noir was also the most amazing of its kind that I've ever been lucky enough to taste. It was very special to be able to join this tasting because Michael poured a 2011, a 1994, and a 1975. I'm quite sure that the 1975 is the oldest bottle of Pinot that I've tasted so far. It was remarkably fresh and vibrant. The brawny 1975 was actually more forward and open than the graceful 1994, which was a little more shy and serious. All three wines were sublime. Beyond the pure expression of Pinot Noir, in which cherries, cinnamon stick, tea, and orange rind were present, there was a mouth-tingling coolness that Michael attributed to the influence of Bay Laurel growing around the vineyard. Laurel contains a chemical compound called eucalyptol, which has been studied extensively because of its ability to infiltrate and intermingle with the naturally-occurring flavours of wine grapes (lots of work on this has been done in Australia).

So, to sum up, I can't believe how fortunate I am to have been able to taste these wines, and I can't thank Elaine, Michael, Jean, and Tia enough for permitting me to horn in on Elaine's tour. I will forever dream about the wine we tasted together - it's the Holy Grail of Burgundian varietals.

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