Pine Ridge Winery Wicked Whites

pine ridgeWhen you’re talking classic, blue-chip Napa wineries, you’d better be talking about Pine Ridge Winery. Sitting just off the Silverado Trail in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge has been making wine since 1978, long before the Napa Valley was choked with wine tourists and Highway 29 became a parking lot. Gary Andrus’ first vineyard was planted on a ridge above the winery, and it’s been joined by four others representing the best and brightest appellations in the valley — Rutherford, Oakville, Howell Mountain and Carneros.

I remember visiting Pine Ridge Winery several years ago. I remember the warm Napa Valley sun, and then the cool calm of the Pine Ridge wine caves.

And I remember the wines — sort of. I know I loved the Chardonnay and a handful of Cabernets. But the details are foggy, lost in a touring-and-tasting haze.

I tasted them again recently in a manner much more conducive to memory retention. I tasted them through a Twitter TasteLive event where I watched a streaming video of the winemakers discussing the wines, while I tasted them in the privacy of my own home. It was a great use of online technology.

Winemaker Michael Beaulac and Assistant Winemaker Jason Ledbetter tasted whites first, so I’ll talk about them today.

The first white is a blend that I’d expect to be a hell of a hard sell to most American wine drinkers. Chenin Blanc and Viognier don’t really rock the U.S. wine world, but somehow Pine Ridge has made their Chenin Blanc/Viognier 2010 into a big seller. I’d wager that 90% of the folks who like this wine don’t know anything about these native French grapes, but they don’t need to. Anyone can enjoy this wine if; a) you don’t like oak; and b) you don’t like dry.

That doesn’t mean this wine is sweet, but it has a rich, soft approach that makes it friendly to almost any wine drinker. The Chenin Blanc (79%) is sourced from vineyards in Clarksburg, which is northeast of Napa in the Sacramento River Delta area. The relatively cool climate there allows the grapes to retain great natural acidity, which balances the fruitiness of the grape. The Viognier (21%) in the blend, sourced from warm-climate Lodi, adds richness and lushness.

For me, I got a nose that led with honeysuckle and slid into tangerine and floral notes. The palate was rich and viscous, with apricots and honey morphing into a tangy, spicy finish. There is a trace of residual sugar, which is what helps this wine appeal to a really broad market.

At under $15, this is a very good value, and a step up for those who’ve been buying White Zin just to get some sweetness in their glass.

The Pine Ridge Carneros Dijon Clones 2009 is a more “serious” white wine. It’s made with fruit from Pine Ridge’s Carneros vineyards, which Michael and Jason explain are covered in cool fog for a good part of the day. Cool temps allows the grapes to mature slowly, creating intense fruit flavors with good acid to balance them.

Pine Ridge is certainly not a typical California Chardonnay. Instead of all that heavy oak and butter, this Chard offers crisp fruit and a clean finish. On the nose, I got more spice than fruit: there was wood spice and Meyer lemon, and maybe a hint of banana.

The palate was more obvious. I got baked apple, custard, and baking spice, all wrapped up in a viscous mouthfeel that comes from aging “on the lees.” Again, just like the Chenin blend, there was crisp acid on the finish that balanced the rich flavors.

Pine Ridge seems to be hitting the modern American palate right on the button. They’re making very sound, very delicious wines that can appeal to lots of wine drinkers. I wish them all the best.


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