The Good Earth - Bonterra Organic Wines
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed Nov. 12, 2004. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
"Bon" plus "terra," or "the good earth," adds up to an exceptionally appropriate name for the California winery that's one of the world's leading organic wine producers.
Producing some 150,000 cases of wine annually from certified organic fruit, Bonterra is owned by Brown-Forman Corp., the international beverage conglomerate that grew out of a Louisville-based Bourbon distillery.
Bob Blue, Bonterra's affable wine maker, was in Louisville over the weekend to address the national convention of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs about organic wines; he hung around for another day of tastings, and it was my pleasure to catch up with him yesterday at a trade luncheon at Azalea restaurant.
Brown-Forman got into organic wine pretty much the same way as he got into wine making, Blue said with a chuckle: in his case, an Army assignment to Germany as a dental technician gave him his first exposure to wine; when he came back to the States to start dental school at the University of California at Davis, he soon changed his major to wine-making instead.
For the wine company, he said, it was a strong emphasis on gardening and food-and-wine at Fetzer, another Brown-Forman property, that eventually evolved into Bonterra's establishment as the company's first all-organic vineyards and winery. (Fetzer itself, a much larger producer, is on a similar path and expects to go all-organic before this decade is out.)
Blue is a strong advocate of organic wine producing, he said, because it's natural and because it works. In more extended remarks, he reiterated this simple statement from the Bonterra Website:
"Bonterra's commitment to organic vineyard management is based on farming fundamentals: building organic matter in the soil with cover crops, welcoming the natural predators of vineyard pests, controlling weeds by physical means, and encouraging natural air flow around the fruit. Most importantly, we constantly expand our use of organic viticulture techniques. ...
"The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people."
A half-dozen Bonterra wines were served at the lunch; my brief notes on them are below. Since a social, restaurant setting in the presence of the wine maker doesn't lend itself to critical analysis, I picked up another bottle of the Cabernet Sauvignon at a local retailer to taste at home in a more analytical setting. This proved to be no burden, as the results were fully consistent with my earlier impression.
Prices shown here are the manufacturer's suggested retail from the winery Website; the price on my full tasting note below is the actual local retail.
BONTERRA 2002 MENDOCINO COUNTY VIOGNIER ($18) Clear straw color with a brassy hue. Luscious peach and floral aromas, characteristic fresh Viognier; peachy, ripe and round on the palate with good acid balance, a whiff of vanilla and pleasant peach-pit bitterness in the finish.
BONTERRA 2002 MENDOCINO COUNTY CHARDONNAY ($13) Clear straw color. Pleasant and complex aromas, lemons, figs and pineapple, butterscotch and apple pie. Full body and surprisingly crisp and dry structure.
BONTERRA 2001 MENDOCINO COUNTY MERLOT ($18) Dark garnet, clear but not quite transparent. Candied red-fruit aromas; soft and plushy on first tasting, but crisp acidity and smooth tannins shape it up as the wine crosses the palate. There's 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 4 percent Syrah in the blend.
BONTERRA 2001 NORTH COAST CABERNET SAUVIGNON ($15) Clear, dark garnet color. Cassis and dark-chocolate aromas; ripe, "sweet" blackcurrant fruit over smooth but perceptible tannins. Good acid balance and length, "Mid-Atlantic" style salutes both America and France. There's a small amount of Syrah in the blend.
BONTERRA 2001 MENDOCINO COUNTY SYRAH ($24) Inky dark reddish-purple, almost black. Jammy blackberry aromas add complexity with a whiff of smoke. Ripe, tart berry fruit flavor almost evokes Zinfandel, but full, "chewy" body and texture are all Syrah. Although a splash of Viognier in the blend lifts the aromas and pays homage to Cote-Rotie, this is an all-California Syrah, both lush and muscular.
BONTERRA 2002 BARTOLUCCI VINEYARD LAKE COUNTY MUSCAT ($15/375ML) Made from a historic Muscat Canelli vineyard, this very pale straw- color wine offers delicious Muscat aromas of peach and grapefruit. Fresh and bright in flavor, natural fruit sugar and zippy acidity dance in delicious balance. Light and gently sweet, it's more in the spirit of a Rhone Beaumes-de-Venise than a dessert Muscat in the "sticky" style; it would work as well for an aperitif as a dessert wine.
Robin's Tasting Note:
BONTERRA 2001 NORTH COAST CABERNET SAUVIGNON ($16.99)
Very dark reddish-purple, almost black. Good cassis-blackcurrant aromas add a delicate herbal nuance and earthy back notes of black coffee and dark chocolate. A burst of blackcurrant fruit on the palate is wrapped up in lemon-squirt acidity and smooth tannins. Surprisingly "Bordeaux-like" in style for a California Cabernet, and that's a plus. (Nov. 9, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Making do with a quick dinner based on what's-in-the- fridge, I paired it successfully with grilled artisanal bratwurst. It would be a more natural partner, though, with rare steaks or lamb chops.
VALUE: A mid-teens price is more than fair for a California Cabernet at this level of quality.
WHEN TO DRINK: This well-balanced, quality Cabernet is good now, although its perceptible tannins call for either red meat or breathing time. It should cellar well, though, for five years on the wine rack and 10 or more in a quality cellar.