Rhys Cave, Skyline Vineyard, San Mateo, California
Tasted Friday, January 28, 2011 by Richard Jennings with 814 views
Rhys owner Kevin Harvey and winemaker Jeff Brinkman tasted Paul Galli (the Testy Troll) and me through all but one of Rhys’s ’09 Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs in their winery cave at Rhys’s Skyline Vineyard. The Chardonnays–there are three of them for ’09: two vineyard designates, and a Santa Cruz Mountains bottling–had just been bottled five weeks before. The Pinots and Syrahs were all barrel samples, and we also had the ’08 Alpine Vineyard Pinot Noir to check in on.
The Chardonnays are awesome, and will continue and augment the great reputation Rhys Chardonnays already have. I believe they are the best Chardonnays in California at this point. The Pinot Noir and Syrah barrel samples were easily the most exciting Pinot Noir and Syrah barrel samples I’ve tasted since going through the ’07 Copains in barrel with Wells Guthrie a few years back. Even though still barrel babies, these wines are quite impressive, and the expression from each vineyard is very distinctive. Kevin also brought along the Pyramid Valley Pinots to share with Jeff, and us, as he and the gang regularly taste other interesting producers.
Kevin Harvey is a big proponent of stem inclusion in Pinot Noir, where stems can get ripe and not detract from the expression of the Pinot. I, on the other hand, have been sounding an alarm lately about the increasing use of stems in California Pinot, and Burgundy, and how I feel the practice, especially above a fairly low level of stem inclusion (15 to 25%) can lead to stemmy, menthol and green flavors dominating in the wine, at the expense of Pinot’s lovely and delicate fruit.
Kevin, who has a degree in Electrical Engineering from Rice, takes a very scientific approach to everything involved in growing grapes and making wine. He also has the resources to test and experiment with different clones, in different sites, with different winemaking techniques. The Rhys vineyards have been organized into half acre blocks, which are picked and fermented separately. This has enabled Kevin and Jeff, over the past several years, to get a sense of their vineyards at a pretty granular level. I must also say that I have had the pleasure of tasting other wines with Kevin–great Burgundies, other California Pinots–and I very much admire his palate and wine knowledge, as well as his passion for great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and his incredible drive to produce and perfect these wines. In his experience, which he and Jeff relate in video clips below [the four video clips can be found on the blog version of this report, at www.rjonwine.com], they have found they’re able to get very ripe stems in the vineyards that have shallow, rocky soils. This tasting was an experiential education for me, as I must say that I could not detect the 100% stem inclusion from the two vineyards that Kevin and Jeff have established as having shallow, rocky soils, where the stems and grapes ripen in a balanced fashion, producing stems with little sensory impact. By contrast, the Family Farm soils are deeper, and I do pick up green and menthol aromas and flavors from that barrel sample.
As mentioned above, these are delicious Chardonnays. The Santa Cruz Mountains bottling is a blend of Horseshoe and Alpine barrels that didn’t make it into the vineyard designated wines–there’s more Horseshoe than Alpine in the mix. The malolactic fermentation of the Chardonnays was very slow, running from March to August. The Santa Cruz Mountains bottling is for earlier drinking–the vineyard designates should ideally have some bottle age. Jeff reports that the Chardonnays tend to show well when first bottled, then they tighten up for a year or so in the bottle. He says that’s the case for the Pinots as well. Between ’06 and ’07, they started picking earlier, and using less new oak on the Chardonnays. The Horseshoe and Alpine vineyards are only 300 yards apart, but have very different geological structures–with the Horseshoe being on 11 million year old Monterey shale as compared to the 3 million year old soils in the Alpine Vineyard. For a brief clip of Jeff talking about how they’ve backed off on punch downs, and explaining how they decide when to bottle, see the blog at http://www.rjonwine.com.
We sampled six vineyard designate ’09 Pinots, one appellation bottling, and then the ’08 Alpine Vineyard. All were distinctive and complex. The vineyard designates are all quite impressive. Kevin said he found the ’09 vintage to be suave and sensual in texture and character. From this sample, and a few other ’09s I’ve tried, I would have to agree. The Bear Wallow Vineyard, from Anderson Valley, stands out for sheer lusciousness of fruit. It was formerly known as the Griffin and Horse Haven Vineyard, and contains 12-year-old vines planted to Dijon clones 115 and 777, along with Pommard. The Skyline barrel sample has an exotic flavor profile; the Alpine is creamy textured, with some green flavors; the Swan Terrace is elegant, and “Chambolle-like”; the Horseshoe, on the other hand, is intense and powerful, reminiscent of a Corton. On my blog, there's a video clip of Kevin and Jeff talking about vineyard decisions they make, which ultimately influence the character of these wines.
These are terrific Syrahs. Here’s a brief video with winemaker Jeff Brinkman’s take on these Syrahs, and how they’re basically the same (clones, rootstocks, winemaking) except for the site selection, can be found in a brief video on my blog.