I knew that Gallo was big, but I hadn't realised that E & J made more wine than the whole of Australia! But size isn't everything, and you will probably have noticed that it's Gallo's "estate" wines - a minuscule part of their total business - that are being hyped in their current advertising campaign. To be taken seriously by American wine lovers, the outfit must be small but beautiful. Inevitably this means that the wines are likely to be expensive, but Americans unlike the English, are prepared to pay for quality.
Where winemaking is concerned location is even more important, but in California it's not only the appropriateness of the terroir that counts: to gain acceptance, having the right name is paramount.
Carmel Valley may sound OK to us here in England, but it's been an uphill struggle for wineries "down south" of Napa and Sonoma to achieve the recognition they feel they deserve. Durney Vineyard was set up from small beginnings by the late Bill Durney in Carmel in 1968. He had noticed a single vine growing wild that seemed like it was a survivor - and he vowed one day to plant a small vineyard. The land was called "Cachagua" by the local Indians, and when test drillings were made, the presence of deep hidden springs was confirmed. This makes a big difference, because irrigation is necessary in most Californian vineyards. But natural underground water sources encourage the vines to develop a deeper root structure which extracts greater mineral elements and contributes greatly to the complexity of flavours in the wines made from established vines. It's also worth noting that the estate used no pesticides or herbicides other than a little permitted Sulphur dust.
After Bill Durney's death, the estate was taken over by the Heller family who are working very hard to achieve perfection in everything they attempt. The main varietals are Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but lesser plantings of Chenin and Riesling are making their mark amongst the whites, and Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc add character and "seasoning" to the reds.
At a recent private tasting I was able to taste a small selection of
the wines, and I came away both impressed and full of enthusiasm. Their
wines are not released onto the market until they have a bit of maturity.
There cannot be many Californian estates who have not released at least
some of their much vaunted 1994s. Not Durney Vineyards - I await their
1994s with pleasurable anticipation.
Chenin Blanc 1993
This is a lovely wine, refreshing and elegant, it's a wine that can be enjoyed on its own as an aperitif. I thought I could detect a hint of botrytis on the nose, and there is certainly a delicious off dry decadence that I found most appealing. Vouvray eat your heart out!
Cachagua Chardonnay 1993
Most Chardonnay these days is designed to be drunk extremely young. Even the first wine of the Durney range, sold under the Cachagua brandname is capable of serious aging. In spite of its six years, the wine was fresh and attractive, and we had to break through the tartrate crystal cap before we could get the wine to pour - always an excellent sign. If only more wine lovers would welcome tartrate crystals as a healthy sign of a wine that has not been processed to extinction!
Durney Estate Chardonnay 1993
Here is a fat, buttery Chardonnay that made me immediately think of Burgundy, and expensive village names at that! There was lots of structure and grip and a long, delicious finish. I doubt if there would be any change out of a twenty pound note for this wine, but it's Burgundian equal (I was going to say equivalent, but that would be inaccurate) would undoubtedly cost you even more.
Durney Estate Chardonnay 1991
I think this was drinking at its best and I don't think it will improve with any further ageing. Come to that I don't think it will deteriorate at all rapidly either. It has a lingering appeal, with the finely balanced components dancing on your palate long after you've swallowed the last delectable mouthful.
Cachagua Cabernet Sauvignon 1993
I was even more delighted to be offered, for a change, red wines to taste that weren't like surly adolescents - all rough edges with potential hinted at but by no means yet achieved. I'm not sure I would have got this wine right at all in a blind tasting. It had a very Mediterranean feel to it, with a smoky nose and spicy overtones overlaying the rich fruit. It's very gulpable stuff!
Durney Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1993
This is a real blockbuster. The minute you pour this dark purple liquid your expectations being to rise. The depth of fruit is amazing, but highlights of coffee and mint tease the palate and prevent it from over gorging on the ripe blackcurrant fruit. Although the tannins are softening after nearly six years maturation, there's still plenty of scope for further aging and even more personality to develop.
Durney Private Reserve Cabernet 1992
1992 was the first season's respite after five straight years of drought. The berries are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and they are specially selected and hand picked from the choicest parts of the vineyard. This is a very big wine indeed, with that same minty nose, and flavours of cassis and caramel that go on and on.
Durney Private Reserve Cabernet 1991
The nose on this wine was much more like that of a top class claret. Whether it was the eight years aging, or something to do with the very low yield in 1991, I'm not sure, but this seemed to me to be a much more classical and refined wine. I loved the sheer exuberance of the other wines, especially the Estate Bottled 1993, which remains my favourite.
I hope I shall have the continued pleasure of enjoying more wines from Heller Estate's Durney Vineyards. I can't wait to try the 1994s I bet they are going to be very opulent indeed!
Clifford Mould - June 1999
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