Friday, September 26, 2008

How three wineries are elevating America's top varietal from punch line to powerhouse...

One of the first things I do on Friday mornings is check the wine section in the San Francisco Chronicle. Usually to read about old friends and wineries that I help out here in Texas. This morning was no exception. LIOCO is in the spotlight. I am so proud of Matt and Kevin for what they set out to accomplish in this wacko world of wine and how they've made it happen for LIOCO. If you haven't picked up a bottle or 12 of LIOCO yet, you better get on it. Their reds are outstanding too!

Here's the article below from the paper today...Cheers - Ali

Matt Licklider and Kevin O'Conner: Mission: To highlight the potential of extraordinary Chardonnay vineyards.

Over time, an overarching question emerged: Rather than dabble in the usual lip service about terroir or Burgundian style, could they make wines in California that reflected the true nature of their origins? How would such wines be made? How would they be different from the endless roster of others' single-vineyard wines?

They settled on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as base material. The two began devising a strategy

that, for Chardonnay at least, would strip away most of the typical artifice and let the grapes' origins emerge. Looking to the crisp white wines of Chablis and the Loire Valley, they left behind wood barrels and casks in favor of steel tanks. Yeasts would be wild.

"What we're trying to do," says Kevin Kelley, Lioco's winemaker, "is remove as much of the winemaking as possible."

So far, none of this was terribly different from other unoaked Chardonnays on the market. But in this case they felt the typical model for wannabe Chablis - clear, lees-free juice and no malolactic fermentation in order to preserve crispness - was its own sort of interventionism. So they agreed to allow a natural malolactic fermentation to take place, and let wines sit on their lees (though never stirred) to bolster texture. It was a hybrid approach, melding the austerity of unoaked wines and the fullness of standard California Chard.

"It wasn't that we had a chip on our shoulder about oaky Chardonnay," Licklider says. "We thought we would go the whole distance with it."

What really mattered, though, were the sites they bartered and begged to get fruit from. They sought out parcels that, Licklider says, hosted vines "at the limits of their viability." That meant rocky, poor soils in the Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and the Chalone appellation outside Monterey.

Rather than tie themselves to a specific site, they followed the path of many younger vintners and sought out a portfolio of top sources. With the exception of their Sonoma County Chardonnay, a blend of three parcels that provides an introduction to the Lioco style, each of the four vineyard-designated wines (along with Lioco's similarly conceived Pinot Noirs) offers a distinct snapshot of vintage and origins.

And what origins. Lioco's vineyard list intersects with some of the state's best Chardonnay locales: such places as Durell Vineyard, which sources powerhouses like Patz & Hall and Kistler, or the Charles Heintz Vineyard, where wineries like Ted Lemon's Littorai get fruit.

Lioco's wines can shock the uninitiated. Rather than the sharp edges and sometimes barely ripe profiles of unoaked Chardonnay, they burst with earthy aromas and rich fruit flavors, at times more evoking a white Rhone or dry Alsatian wine. Flavors are clean and mouthfilling, not tropical but still exotic. A bit of decanting seems to help bring out the vibrancy.

Stripped of their oak and yeast trappings, each Chardonnay is unmistakably different, though with 2005 as their first vintage, it's a bit soon to know whether each vineyard will maintain its signature every year. But that's the joy of the project. O'Connor and Licklider have called a bluff on the notion that California vineyards are by default worthy of distinction. If they're proven right, they'll have strong evidence that even in the land of oak and butter, Chardonnay terroir is no myth.


2007 Lioco Sonoma County Chardonnay ($20) A blend of fruit from the Stuhlmuller, Diamond Oaks and Mazzera vineyards, this displays Lioco's style, not its preference for single-site wines. Solid, soft apple and melon fruit are balanced by hay and chive highlights. The oak-free texture is firm but ripe, though the alcohol shows a bit, which is one side effect of Lioco's WYSIWYG approach.

2006 Lioco Durell Vineyard Sonoma Valley Chardonnay ($40) From a hilly, gravelly site at the edge of Sonoma Valley, and picked at just over 23 Brix, a measure of sugar. Taut and edgy, with notes of yeast and puffed wheat to open. Then green apple, peach and grapefruit, with a bit of bitter almond on a firm finish. There's momentum to the wine, plenty of body but no moment when it loses focus.

2006 Lioco Charles Heintz Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($45) Probably the most polarizing of Lioco's wines. The fog-shrouded Heintz vineyard, at 1,000 feet elevation outside Occidental, faced a wet September and the threat of rot. There are clear signs of botrytis (noble rot) in what is a completely dry wine. With heavy notes of honey, fresh orange, yellow apple and Anjou pear, and a leesy weight, it's expressive and exotic, with the impression of lemon confit and a remarkably opulent texture even for Chardonnay. Think along the lines of the dry wines of Sauternes.

This article appeared on page F - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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