Wine Tasting on a Rhone River Cruise with Petaluma Gap Winemakers

Cruising down the Rhone River on a wine themed river cruise was a great way to see the South of France and taste the wines of Provence. But we were even more fortunate to be sailing on a wine-themed cruise sponsored by the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance out of Sonoma County.

To promote its efforts to become their own designated appellation and raise a little money, the Alliance sponsored the cruise and sent along several cases of wine supplied by 12 wineries from within Petaluma Gap. The Alliance also sent four winemakers to represent the Gap, educate guests on the ship, conduct wine tasting sessions, and host winemaker dinners.

Lucky me, one of the first wine tastings featured four chardonnays from the region.

Pellet Estate 2015 Un-oaked, Sun Chase Vineyard

First on the tasting menu was a Pellet Estate 2015 chardonnay, unoaked from the Sun Chase Vineyard.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you already know that I lean towards chardonnays that are barrel fermented. But, I’ve tasted a few unoaked versions lately that have opened my eyes and palate a bit. The beauty of the unoaked chardonnay is the flavor of the fruit comes through and this Pellet Estate is no exception. Aged 8 months in stainless steel, the wine was clear and shiny with lemon yellow hues. The nose offered hints of pear, apple and pineapple aromas. The high fruit flavors of citrus, apple and pineapple were layered with a hint of almond and melon. It finished with depth and complexity. Alcohol is 14.5%. The wine retails for $36 at the winery.

Agnitio 2013 Chardonnay Sun Chase Vineyard

Next, we tasted the Agnitio 2013 Chardonnay, also from the Sun Chase Vineyard. This turned out to be my favorite. I was very pleased and surprised when a bottle of this showed up in our cabin later, thanks to the generosity of the winemakers.

This is Agnitio’s first vintage of Sun Chase Chardonnay. 100% fermented in oak barrels, this wine displayed the luscious Sonoma County chardonnay flavors that I love. The nose expressed aromas of lemon, white flowers, and pear and vanilla. A wine more full bodied than the Pellet, the mouthfeel had depth and complexity. There was some minerality in the flavor, layered with pear, vanilla and a hint of butterscotch. Alcohol is 14.1% and the wine sells for $40 at the winery.

Pfendler Vineyards 2014 Chardonnay

Pfendler is a small production winery that only has three wines in its current release, producing just 400 cases of this chardonnay.

Aged 10 months in French oak, the Pfendler was a beautiful wine with aromas of honeysuckle, apple, spice and lemon crème. The mouthfeel was lush and the color bright golden straw. The wine was layered with flavors of lychee, pear and a touch of minerality. Alcohol is 14.1% and it retails for $8 at the winery.

Rodney Strong 2014 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast

Rodney Strong makes several different chardonnays and is one of my favorite Sonoma County wineries.

Barrel fermented in new French oak, the wine had aromas of toasty vanilla, apple and pear. The mouthfeel was rich and creamy, with flavors of pear, pineapple and a touch of spice. This was my second favorite in the tasting. 14.0% in alcohol, the wine retails for $25 at the winery.

Sonoma-Loeb Chardonnay Sonoma County 2014

Makers of several different chardonnays, Sonoma-Loeb has been described as one of the premier white wine makers in Sonoma County and recommended to us by a wine server at Passagio. Although we didn’t get a chance to stop by on our recent trip to the small town of Sonoma, Sonoma-Loeb also has a tasting room in the same “wine alley” as Passagio, just off the town’s main square.

This limited production chardonnay, hand crafted in small lots, fits the profile of my kind of chardonnay. There are hints of mild oak and pear in the nose. The wine is soft, round and elegant with a lush, full flavored finish. The body is balanced, polished, clean and well made.

After tasting this wine, I  think it’s worth a return trip to taste a few of Sonoma-Loeb’s other chardonnays, especially their reserve chardonnays. But if you can’t make it over to Sonoma anytime soon, you can pick up a bottle of this at Total Wine for $18.99. Not too bad for a quality bottle of Sonoma County chardonnay.

Sonoma County Wine Region – Keller Estate

Last on our tour through Sonoma County and the search for exceptional wine tasting experiences was Keller Estate. Located in the southern part of Sonoma County off Lakeville Highway, this Petaluma Gap winery is open by appointment only (although a quick phone call ahead usually gets you in right away, 707.765.2117). When you arrive, expect to be seated, not ushered up to a crowded winetasting counter. The feel here is luxurious and the pace of wine tasting is leisurely. Knowledgeable wine servers share information about the winery and serve popcorn popped in the winery’s estate produced olive oil, with a side of olive oil for dipping. While this might seem like an unusual pairing for wine tasting, the olive oil is quite delicious and the popcorn and olive oil flavors don’t detract from the wines.

Our first visit to Keller was exactly this kind of experience. 90 minutes tasting four wines in the tasting room, overlooking the vineyards and learning about the chardonnays, pinots and the Rotie being poured that day. But our return visit was so amazingly over the top and indulgent that I would happily repeat the experience. Called their Serenity and Wine Brunch, this is a three course, gourmet feast paired with estate wines. For $65 per person or $50 for club members, this is an excellent way to sample the Keller wines.

Brunch is served on the Vineyard Terrace with sweeping views of the vineyards, olive groves and Mt. Tamalpais. Seating is family style at a long, elegantly set table. Be prepared to get to know your table mates as the wine is poured. And, servings are generous! We started with a crisp, dry rose, worked our way through three different chardonnays, sampled a couple of pinot noirs, the Rotie and ended with a sparkling wine.

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We even received a special treat at the end. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees that weekend, Brian, our host, had set up the wine cave earlier in case we needed to sit inside. While we did enjoy most of our meal on the vineyard terrace, Brian kindly invited us back to the cave to cap off the afternoon with dessert and sparkling wine. We parted ways with our new found friends, purchased some favorite wines, then set off on the road wondering how we were ever going to just be able to walk into an ordinary wine tasting room again and belly up to that crowded bar!

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So there, dear readers, is the last of our Sonoma County exceptional wine tasting experiences. It was fun. It was indulgent. It gave us unique and up close opportunities to learn more about Sonoma County wines and sharpen our wine tasting skills. Impress your friends or impress your date. Guaranteed that any one of these five experiences will do the trick!

Sonoma County Wine Region – Rodney Strong

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Rodney Strong is a striking and dramatic winery. Upon arrival you might quickly draw the conclusion that this is one of those wineries owned by a giant corporation charging $20 per tasting and drawing throngs of wine lovers to its tasting room. But it’s not; in fact Rodney Strong is family owned and proud of it. The winery makes great wine but a visit there provides so much more. During the summer time, the winery sponsors concerts in its outdoor amphitheater and wine and food pairings on the terrace. It was the latter that brought us back to Rodney Strong for another exceptional wine tasting experience.

On this particular trip to Sonoma, we were seeking “exceptional” wine tasting experiences. We first got the idea when we visited Rodney Strong last fall. By exceptional, I mean we are seeking either a beautiful setting, or a leisurely seated wine tasting experience, or a gourmet food and wine pairing, or an otherwise unique and special wine tasting experience.

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For $55.00 per person, the winery offers a leisurely paced food pairing of small, gourmet bites with five different wines. Seated at an umbrella shaded table overlooking the expansive picnic grounds and vineyards, we were offered an envelope with cards describing the menu of soon-to-come food delights and winemakers notes for each of the wines. The food was prepared by Chef Tara Wachtel and served by Greg, a long-time employee, former home winemaker, jazz pianist, and general expert of our favorite drink, wine.

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Rodney Strong did not disappoint. Nearly two hours, six courses, and five wines later (plus a few extra tastings), we were feeling thoroughly relaxed and very satisfied. We walked away with a greater knowledge and appreciation for the wines that are produced in Sonoma County and thoroughly impressed with the Rodney Strong staff that made us feel like special friends just visiting for lunch.

Call ahead and reserve a time for your own exceptional wine tasting experience. You’ll find it hard to go back to the old process of standing in a crowded wine tasting room, elbowing your way to the wine counter.

Sonoma County Wine Region – Sbragia

Next stop on the tour was Sbragia Winery, north of Healdsburg on Dry Creek Road.  We visited this place last October and had an exceptional wine tasting experience then.  The view is beautiful, too, so we decided to add this to our list of wineries to visit on this trip in search of unique wine experiences.   Sbragia offers a variety of different options including tasting on the terrace with a charcuterie and cheese plate for $30, a chocolate and wine pairing for $30 per person or $15 for wine club members, or a sensory tasting for $50 per person or $20 for wine club members. The winery will also conduct customized tastings such as a compare and contrast of one varietal (a chardonnay to chardonnay or vintage to vintage), with advanced notice.

We called ahead and signed up for the sensory tasting.  Wow!  What an experience!  Arriving early, we got a lot of good photos from the spacious deck overlooking Dry Creek Valley while we waited for our tasting to begin.  Our host was Andrew McPherson.  A wine collector for 20 years now working in the wine industry, this man was a wealth of knowledge.  Andrew reserved the library for this special tasting, and supplied us with a generous and sumptuous charcuterie board.  The sensory tasting is almost a sommelier like experience where visitors get to learn what aromatics are using the La Nez Du Vin wine aroma kit, along with tasting five different Sbragia wines. The kit contains 54 little jars of different aromas.  We used ten, two per tasting, for this exercise.

We started with a sauvignon blanc, then a chardonnay, before working our way into the reds.  The way the sensory tasting works is you start smelling and tasting the wine to try and detect the different characteristics.  Then Andrew would hand us two different vials and ask us to guess what the smells were from.  He also supplied us with a wine aroma wheel that separates the fruits in white wine to fruits in red wine, floral scents and flavors, vegetal, oak aging characterics and even off odors that sometimes show up in a bad wine or a wine with a bad cork.

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Each time we tasted, sniffed, and wrote down our guesses.  Then Andrew would tell us what the actual scent was and let us smell the vial again.  It was pretty laughable how many times we got it wrong but the experience was an important step for us in helping develop our palates.  After two and a half hours and a sampling of some of Sbragia’s other reserve wines, we were done!  Thankfully, this was the only appointment we scheduled for the day.  Because there were only the two of us with Andrew, we really got a crash course on wine tasting.  But, I would definitely go back again with friends and do it all over again.

For those of you looking to teach yourself at home, you can actually buy the kit for $399 at winearomas.com. This is often a required kit for enology students at UC Davis.  You know how students sell their text books back at the end of the semester to get some money back?  I think I’ll head over to the UC Davis book store and see if I can’t pick up a used aroma kit sold back by a recent, broke graduate.  Who knows?  Maybe next time I’ll get more than two out of ten right!

 

 

 

Hop Kiln 2012 North Bridge Chardonnay – Russian River Valley

Hop KilnThis is HKG’s Sonoma County estate grown chardonnay and a good example of barrel fermented and Sur Lie aged wine.  This chardonnay is fermented in French oak barrels, and a secondary fermentation also takes place in the barrel.  The result is a lot of oak in the nose and the flavor.  The wine is a solid gold color, lots of legs in the glass.  It’s complex, smooth, medium bodied and well structured.  The mouthfeel is creamy and I like that, but oak dominates the flavor and I’m not a big fan of that.

After tasting this one, I think I prefer less oak and more of the vanilla, butterscotch flavors you often see in the Russian River.  My husband and tasting partner, Gary, however, loved the big oak in this chardonnay.  14.7% alcohol.

We purchased this at the winery and although I’m not crazy about their chardonnay, I do think the winery is beautiful and worth a visit.

We are headed back to Sonoma County for a special three days of extra special wine tastings and I’ll be blogging along the way.  Stay tuned…