Bonterra Organic Syrah 2004, Viognier 2006, Roussanne 2005 Tasting Notes
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Bonterra Organic Syrah 2004, Viognier 2006, Roussanne 2005 Tasting Notes

Bonterra produces an interesting trio of organic wines from traditional Rhône grape varieties— Syrah, Roussanne, and Viognier —sourced entirely in Mendocino County, except for contributions to all three blends of Viognier from Lake County's Bartolucci Vineyards. The wine novice might ask what the white grape Viognier is doing in a Syrah; in fact small amounts of Viognier grapes have traditionally been blended (actually co-vinified) with Syrah in the northern Rhône's Côte Rotie. The wine aficionado will ask what Viognier is doing in the Roussanne (and in fact there is both Roussanne and Marsanne in the Viognier). Roussanne and Marsanne are frequently blended with each other (in white Hermitage to give just one example), but the most traditional French rarely mix these grapes with Viognier. American and Australian winemakers are not so reluctant, and such blends, as here, are effective.

Bonterra's 2004 organic Syrah is 93% Syrah with 4% Grenache and 3% Viognier, hence entirely true-to-Rhône. The $15 wine has a biodynamic element sourced from Mendocino's high altitude Butler Ranch. The wine is aged 18 months in French oak, more than half of which is once-used or neutral. Visually it is a deep, almost opaque ruby with some shining purple at the edges. Black fruit aromas lead on the nose, with black pepper, vanilla spice, and some floral essences. The palate continues with fresh black fruit and both pungent and sweet spice, but also adds sweet oak, cocoa, and an array of caramelized flavors that yield a nice lip-smack at the patient finish. The Syrah is full bodied, intense in flavor and yet smooth and not particularly tannic. This is an interesting, stimulating, well-crafted wine. I consider it ready to drink now, provided you take a few moments to enjoy the aroma, which is a delight on its own.

The Bonterra 2006 organic Viognier features 85% Viognier, with 11% Marsanne and 4% Roussanne. The $18 wine is fermented in both oak and stainless steel, sees oak aging only a few months, and is spared malolactic fermentation to conserve the fruit and acidity. The result is a vibrant yellow-green wine that leads with aromas of peach, honey, vanilla, orange blossom and white flowers. Despite the delicacy of its fruit and floral elements, the wine is nicely mouth-filling, crisp and yet velvety, adding some green apple and apricot on the palate. The Viognier grape is difficult to grow and ripen, and its long hang time in the vineyard may result in higher alcohol levels than is common in many white wines, but this wine's 13.9% alcohol level is well integrated. Speaking of those other wines, Bonterra states, with some understatement that its Viognier is “a grand alternative to everyday whites.” While my own palate is quite an open one, I know just what they mean; the Bonterra Viognier is elegant, profoundly aromatic, and just the sort of wine to shine as the perfect aperitif.

Bonterra's 2005 organic Roussanne varietal brings 91% Rousanne, 5% Viognier, and 4% Marsanne. Roussanne is paired with Marsanne with the same predictability that associates Cavalleria Rusticana with Pagliacci, Lewis with Clark, or cookies with milk. Roussanne is the difficult grape to grow, Marsanne the productive one; together they shine in the white versions of the northern Rhône's Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and St. Joseph. Roussanne also appears as an allowed constituent in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (both red and white). Bonterra's $18 wine brings in the acidity and complex aromatics that makes Roussanne worth the trouble to grow. Apples and pears lead the aroma, with honey, apricot and chamomile tea. Peach takes over as primary note on the palate, but the wine is more complex than individual fruit or floral comparisons. The minimal oaking and omission of malolactic fermentation ensure a well-married acidity and steadfast fruit character. The finish is ripe rather than cloying, leaving fine mountain honey at the end. Roussanne is an up and coming varietal in the New World, but unsurprisingly it has not always been well handled (the major culprit, the Chardonnay treatment, with too much oak and inappropriate buttery notes). Bonterra has got it right, in a sense letting the grapes do their thing. The resulting Roussanne, while a flavor delight, is complex enough to support a quiet session of philosophizing. You ought to do all this thinking in a big chair out in the garden while watching bees do their work as you will taste their best efforts in this wine.

Verdict: Well Crafted
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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


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