Bonterra Organic Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Merlot 2005, The McNab Biodynamic Red Wine Blend 2003 Tasting Notes
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Bonterra Organic Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Merlot 2005, The McNab Biodynamic Red Wine Blend 2003 Tasting Notes

Bonterra Vineyards produces three Bordeaux-style red wines—two certified organic and one fully biodynamic. Both the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlot varietals have significant additions of each other, in keeping with Bordeaux blending practice. Each of these organic wines also enjoys an infusion of biodynamic wine from Bonterra's McNab Ranch (in the case of the Merlot a full 44%). To round off the selection, Bonterra's “The McNab” biodynamic “Red Wine Blend” combines Cabernet, Merlot, and Petite Syrah. These wines—each substantially different from the others—reflect a reverence for French tradition, yet with grapes that cannot help but express their unique Mendocino County origin.

The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) takes advantage of an infusion of 9% Syrah and 8% Merlot. The organic wine is entirely from Mendocino, except for the Syrah, which is sourced in Amador County. The wine is a pleasure in the mouth, but I enjoyed the aroma even more: a true, direct, and uncluttered essence of the Cabernet grape. This is the kind of wine you nose before each sip. In the case of Cabernet, above all other grapes, I hesitate to give analogies to other fruits, since I believe the distinct Cabernet fragrance is self-defining. There it is, along with aromas of black cherry, cassis and black raspberry, and touches of vanilla, clove, and cocoa. The wine is nicely dry, not over-hot (at 13.9% alcohol), and brings a double-barreled yet pleasant surprise: the acidity weighs in at a respectable workhorse level, while the tannins are soft and supple, allowing the wine to be enjoyed without cellaring. Despite the black fruit on the nose, the palate yields a full gamut of red: cherry, dried cherry, raspberry, cranberry, redcurrant, and a warm touch of strawberry. The palate is less spicy than the nose. Oak—a careful amalgam of French and American, new, once-used, and neutral—is well expressed in this wine. It all synergizes into a long civilized finish with just enough fruit, just enough pucker, just enough tannin, all working in concert.

Bonterra's 2005 organic Mendocino County Merlot, at $15, is rounded out with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, Syrah, and some Grenache. The blend is aged 12 months in toasted French oak barrels, some new, some once used, with fully half entirely neutral in character. The oak is hence restrained and integrates well with the wine's other elements, which are numerous. The wine has visual weight, a strong yet crystal clear ruby depth. In keeping with the color I enjoyed red fruit on the nose: pomegranate, cranberry and wild raspberry, with a layer of spice. In the mouth the wine is dry, with medium acidity and nicely integrated tannins. Cherry and strawberry lead the red fruit in the mouth; plum is conspicuously absent. The palate also has notes of darker blackberry fruit, with wild mountain herb, a touch I attribute to the Syrah and Grenache. The use of these two Rhône grapes in a Bordeaux style wine is not out of line with tradition, if you go back far enough. Years ago Rhône Syrah was routinely added to Bordeaux blends to give them more stamina. The blending concept certainly works in Mendocino. The wine starts forward and bold, stimulates, and yet finishes with a long mouthful of ripe and gentle fruit, with echoes of mountain herbs.

Most wine-lovers readily understand the meaning of organic wines, but “biodynamic” may take something of a concept-jump. Based on the work of Austrian agronomist Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), biodynamic viticulture treats each vineyard as if it were a living organism. Work in the biodynamic vineyard (and in the winery) is timed to coincide with the natural rhythms of the earth (also a living organism). Heat, light, water and earth work in conjunction as cosmic elements. Special fertilization techniques are used. The cycles of the moon determine actions such as planting, pruning, and even the racking of the wines (this is accomplished when there is no moon to create any gravitational pull that could disturb sediment). These views are as fascinating as they are controversial. My tendency—if not to “believe” in them—is to treat them with a great deal of respect. I have, after all, had conversations with vineyards.

As can be expected given such careful handling, Bonterra's “The McNab” biodynamic “Red Wine Blend” is produced in small quantities: just over 600 cases for the 2003, which retails for $45. The Mendocino wine is aged in French oak for 25 months. Merlot leads the blend at 47%, with 36% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Old Vine Petite Syrah. The tannins of the McNab are firm, the oak soft, and the acidity energetic, but the key attribute of this wine is its fruit. Plum and strawberry give an abiding soft touch; they are backed up by brambly raspberry, pomegranate, blackberry and cassis, with a spicy element of pepper, nutmeg, and clove, and a mountain herbal presence.

The wine—with 14.1% alcohol and a winning level of extracted fruit—truly fills the mouth. The finish is satisfyingly long and well-balanced, with lasting fruit to the end. Can you enjoy this wine in the here and now? Of course, but by its very style this is the kind of wine that will double and redouble in quality if given even a few years of bottle aging. At the least, decant the wine a few hours.

Though stylistically the McNab is a Bordeaux-style blend, it does not qualify as a “Meritage” on two accounts: Bonterra is not a member of the Meritage Association, but in addition, Petite Syrah is not one of the grapes sanctioned by the Association. Technically called Durif or Duriff, Petite Syrah (not to be confused with Syrah or Shiraz) is a grape with French origins that sees little action in France but enjoys strong favor in California, South America, and parts of Australia. It is undoubtedly the source of this wine's spiciness.

Verdict: True to Tradition
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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 vineyards showing Merlot on the valley floor, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah on the hillsides..

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