Bonterra Organic Chardonnay 2005, Muscat 2005, Old Vine Zinfandel 2005, Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Tasting Notes
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Bonterra Organic Chardonnay 2005, Muscat 2005, Old Vine Zinfandel 2005, Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Tasting Notes

Mendocino County's Bonterra Vineyards produces a line of wines made from 100% certified organic (and even biodynamic) grapes, including several Bordeaux style blends and some interesting Rhône varietals (all reviewed in other reports). The four wines covered here bring the same honest freshness of fruit, but they don't fit as neatly into a definable category as the Bordeaux and Rhône style wines do. The mixed bag of “orphans” here includes a Chardonnay, an unusual not-too-sweet Muscat dessert wine, a first-rate Zin, and Bonterra's inaugural Sauvignon Blanc.

The Bonterra 2005 Mendocino County Chardonnay—100% Chardonnay from five organic vineyards in Mendocino County (mostly along the Russian River) and one in Lake County—brings the fragrance of lemon and the freshness of green apple to the nose, with some back notes of tropical pineapple and a distinct mineral presence. On tasting the $13 wine the key experience is a rich mouthfeel that brings more cream than butter; it leaves the kind of pleasant afterglow you note when you enjoy a fine dessert. Though the wine is dry, the careful use of oak (mostly American) imparts its own vanilla sweetness, as does the ripeness of the fruit. On the palate the minerality is more pronounced, though never bitter; the primary fruits are citrus, pineapple, and a rich tang of mango, with a floral background. The wine finishes very clean, with good direct fruit, a final touch of the minerality, and the last redolence of the cream. A civilized wine that stands on its own, this Chardonnay brings across a fresh California feel and yet a touch of European elegance, all in a value package.

Bonterra sourced the organic grapes for their 2005 Lake County Muscat from a single vineyard: the Bartolucci property on the south shore of Clear Lake. This is a late harvest dessert wine with a low (9%) alcohol level. The $16 (half bottle) wine is cold fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. The result, a product of 100% Muscat Cannelli grapes, is a very light straw, clear yet promisingly thick even to the eye. The nose has the ripe grape aroma I associate with Muscat (one of the few grapes whose wine actually tastes like grapes), with orange blossom, nutmeg, and the kind of caramelized note you get from the crust of a good fruit pie. If you didn't know, you might expect sweet; the wine has the sugar it needs to complement some spirited acidity, but the sweetness, forward acidity and admirable fruit extract fit so well together that the wine never cloys. If anything, the fruit outlasts the sweetness. The wine's refreshing finish leaves you with lasting notes of ripe Mediterranean grape, apricot and the crust of that pie. This is a convivial wine, a little different from the standard offering. You'll need to use all your persuasive powers to convince your closed-minded friends to finally try a “dessert” wine, but once they try this Muscat, they will sing your praises.

Bonterra's 2005 mostly old-vine organic Zinfandel from Mendocino County (with a small contribution from Amador County in the Sierra Hills) blends in 10% Petite Syrah and weighs in at 14.8% alcohol, which may be on the low side given today's high octane Zins. The nose has work to do with this wine, weaving around some alcoholic heat. The aroma of wild raspberry predominates with touches of redcurrant and clove. On the palate the Zin adds a number of dimensions. The fragrance of the orange peel remains, but the fruit is darker, with the richness, though not the tartness, of the fine blueberries you can only get a few weeks a year. Also present are flavors of smoked meat, sweet oak, a hint of cocoa and black pepper. The tannins are soft and cuddly. The bottom line: this wine has the stimulating aroma and depth of taste you expect in a good California Zinfandel.

The 2006 is Bonterra's inaugural Sauvignon Blanc release, an action the winery must have taken with some trepidation given the spotty record California has had with that grape. Bonterra need not have worried. Bringing in organic grapes from both Lake (52%) and Mendocino (48%) counties, they have created the wine entirely in stainless steel. The $13 wine is 99% Sauvignon Blanc, with 1% Muscat adding that special fragrance. The light straw wine greets the nose with a triple note of minerality, gooseberry, and an abiding note of grapefruit. The grapefruit remains on the palate, rich and never bitter, with additional fruit notes of peach and melon, plus the characteristic Sauvignon Blanc grassiness. The wine's acidity is alive and yet nicely restrained, allowing the pure, ripe, flavorful fruit to fully express itself. Rather than a cornucopia of fruit notes, this wine brings across of few key flavors and gets the most out of them. The excellent finish is a fine balance between the wine's minerality, its acidity, and the fruit. Though it is tempting to call it New Zealand in style (it comes with a Screwcap after all) I think the Lake and Mendocino qualifier fits the wine quite appropriately.

Verdict: Impressive Array
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Organic and sustainable winemaking is widespread, reflecting the vine's true place in the landscape.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Bonterra vineyards Mendocino County, California
Bonterra's various bottle shapes refect the French heritage of most of their wines.

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