July 21, 2010
Mike Dunne's Wine of the Week: 2009 El Dorado Viognier
"Josh Bendick was starting to sound nervous as we chatted by phone in May. He was at the family winery, Holly's Hill Vineyards, 2700 feet up the Sierra, just south of Placerville in El Dorado County.
I'd called just after tasting for the first time the newly released Holly's Hill Vineyards 2009 El Dorado Viognier. Josh Bendick and his wife Carrie Bendick make only wines from grapes long associated with France's Rhone Valley - viognier, roussanne, mourvedre, grenache, syrah and the like.
They've been doing this for a decade now. Their approach to applying the traditions of the Rhone Valley to grapes grown in upstart California is studious and precise. With energy, elegance and equilibrium, their wines speak profoundly and consistently of the future of Rhone Valley varieties in California. When a method isn't yielding a wine to meet the high standards they've set for themselves, they don't hesitate to tweak it.
Take the viognier. They'd planted two acres to the variety in 2000, and began to release their interpretation a couple of years later. Those first results were refreshing and popular, but they were more about California than France - ripe and fat, with the vanillin of oak threatening to upstage the wine's telltale honeysuckle smell and peachy flavor.
The Bendicks began to dial it back. They started to harvest the viognier when it got ripe but not overripe. They switched from newer French oak barrels to older casks that wouldn't leave the wine with as much astringency, vanilla and tannin.
As a consequence, the Holly's Hill Vineyards 2009 El Dorado Viognier is an uncommonly refined take on the varietal. It's more sinewy than fat, swapping the grape's frequently heavy-handed viscosity for a more invigorating blend of zestiness and spice. It's dry and persistent, and balances astutely the grape's inherent richness with a leanness and stoniness that speaks clearly to the place where the grapes were grown.
And speaking of place, let's get back to Josh Bendick's growing apprehension as we talked of the wine. The family's viognier is planted at the lower reaches of their vineyard, about 150 feet down a steep slope from their tasting room. It's a cool spot, ideal for producing a viognier zippy with acidity. But the site can get too cold, especially in the spring, when late frosts can kill off much of the crop. In 2007 and 2008, the family lost half its viognier to frosts.
Though it was mid-May when we'd talked, snow again just had blanketed the Holly's Hill vineyard, and the weather remained unseasonably cold. "I'll call you right back," said Josh Bendick, about to check out the vioginer vines to see how the budding fruit was weathering the atypical weather.
When he called back shortly, he reported, "We've lost maybe half the crop. Viognier is our earliest variety, and it's on the very bottom of the vineyard, where the cooler air settles." Thus, it was getting clobbered by the spring storms.
Their viognier is increasingly popular - they sell most of it directly in their tasting room - and he's understandably keen on keeping the wine available. This raises the prospect that for the first time this year they'll end up buying grapes from another vineyard. "It's farming," says Bendick of the loss.
By the numbers: 14.4 percent alcohol, 400 cases, $18.
Context: Given the viognier's refreshing acidity, Josh Bendick doesn't shy from pairing it with fairly rich and equally lively foods; he especially likes the wine with Indian curries and Thai-style mussels.
Availability: Aside from the winery, the viognier is available at the El Dorado Hills branch of Nugget Markets. It also can be ordered online through the winery's Web site, www.hollyshill.com.
More information: The tasting room at Holly's Hill Vineyards, 3680 Leisure Lane, Placerville, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily."