In winemaking, place is everything. Actually, let me rephrase that: In winemaking, marketing is everything…and place is not unimportant.
Cynical? A bit.
Totally baseless? I’m afraid not.
Matt Kramer wrote in his book Making Sense of Wine: “You can’t fake somewhereness.” I could not agree more with my fellow follically challenged colleague. There is no doubt that certain wines could never be produced anywhere else. Chalky, mineral-laden Champagne, rivetingly pure chardonnay from Chablis, brooding, leathery nebbiolos from in and around Barolo, Italy, come to mind.
These somewhere places, in general, always seem to lie on the fringes, climatically challenged locales where only the most fearless winemakers dare tread. Forbidding places, like the sheer banks of the Mosel or Douro rivers, coax maximum uniqueness from a grapevine.
But what of the remaining 98 percent of the winemaking world? It’s not like you can’t conjure up stunning, conversation-stopping wines from many of Earth’s more temperate, amenable spots. These are places— mostly in less-established regions—where it is not entirely clear where the touch of the winemaker ends and beguiling somewhereness begins.
I am fairly convinced that the challenging, climatically unpredictable nooks and crannies of Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the bone-chilling, windy slopes of Central Otago on the South Island of New Zealand have a lot to do with the distinctive wines made there. Other places, where every year is a great year for perfectly ripening grapes, the jury will necessarily remain out for many decades.
Mercifully, this brings me to my point: the Knights Valley growing region in Sonoma County. In brief, this hot winemaking area in the northeastern section of the county, where the only real question is how ripe one wants to get his or her grapes, has been growing grape for many decades. One of Knights Valley’s more distinguished growers has been Beringer Vineyards, which proudly puts Knights Valley on many of its bottlings. Other grape growers, however, have more anonymously have been filling in the gaps for winemakers in Sonoma County and beyond for a long time.
Anonymous no more. A number of well-financed winemakers, most notably Kendall-Jackson and Peter Michael, have “discovered” Knights Valley and want to put it on the map (Long-time Knights Valley residents, who adamantly oppose construction of KJ’s winery, will be surprised to know that they weren’t already on a map). The winemakers’ goal, as far as I can tell, is to make bold cabernet sauvignon-based wines in heavy bottles with commensurately heavy price tags. Peter Michael’s Les Pavots Cabernet from Knights valley is a darling of wine critics and collectors. It came in at 50 on Wine Spectator’s list of Top 100 wines for 2011.
I recently tasted through ten wines (eight cabernet sauvignon-based wines, 1 cabernet franc-based wine and a chardonnay) from Knights Valley. Did they make an impression? They were fully full-bodied with concentrated dark berry fruit flavors (chardonnay excluded here) and mind-numbing alcohol levels (chardonnay included here). Were they fine examples of the winemaker’s craft and enjoyable? Absolutely! Were they great food wines? That’s a topic for another column.
Is there any “thereness” there yet? As I’ve suggested earlier, that will be hard to say for quite some time. The marketing folks for the wineries and the winegrowing organization would love for us to thinks so. What I can tell you is that if you are looking to expand your collection of “Wow, look what I got!” wines, Knights Valley is your place to go.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a wine consultant for Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.