Hero or Villaine?

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Hyde de Villaine is a joint venture between Caifornian grape growers Hyde with vineyards in Carneros and Aubert de Villaine.  What’s all the fuss about?  Well, de Villaine is a co-owner of Burgundy’s (and one of the world’s) most famous wineries, Domaine de la Romanée Conti, though it has to be said that this a personal venture of de Villaine’s. 

Let’s start with the wines.  Two levels of Chardonnay, a Syrah and a Merlot-Cabernet blend are the offerings at the UK launch of Hyde de Villaine at Corney and Barrow’s annual trade tasting.  The wines are very competent as you would expect in this exalted company, not cheap, but aiming to grace the cellars and tables of those who like the best. 

De la Guerra Chardonnay 2008 has forward ripe apple and melon fruit plus young oak aromas, good homogenous palate, some nice minerality along with the fruit, very good acidity, good balance, and medium length.   Corney and Barrow scored this wine from young (15 year old) vines higher than its supposedly senior stable mate. What I found surprising was that you could smell the effects of oak ageing, in a pleasant way, more in this wine than in the top Chardonnay, though only 10% of the wine is matured this way.  It is of course younger and so perhaps the oak hasn’t had time to fade.  Very enjoyable, a complex wine in which cool-area California is shaped in a European style, though the level of fruit is certainly new world.  

Hyde de Villaine Chardonnay 2007

Currently a less showy nose, more solidly citrus, denser in the palate, excellent fruit in the grapefruit to melon range, acidity not noticeable but balances the fruit well, long, capable of (and needs) development in the bottle, currently a bit straight up and down.  The fruit for this wine comes from the older vines, some blocks of which are up to 31 years old.  25% of this top wine was matured in new oak for 12-14 months, and then for another year in stainless steel.  Interestingly, some of older vines are suffering from phylloxera but, with low intervention viticulture, the philosophy is co-existence with a bit of disease deemed to be good for quality. 

Hyde de Villaine Syrah 2006

Good dense purple-red in colour, riper cherry to plum aromas, blackberry fruit, fine tannins, high acidity, long.  Technically a very good wine, I find it a bit monolithic, but the refreshing acidity is very welcome and will give it time to develop in the bottle.  I have the same problem with top Tuscan Syrah as well (see my comments on Casavyc).  Here there is the additional difficulty of a Californian Syrah being promoted by a Carneros-Burgundy partnership – Californian Syrah in a Burgundian style neither helps the consumer, nor describes the wine!  It is probably better to call it just cool-climate California. 

The story behind the wine is a microcosm of the development of the business.  The Hyde estates have grown grapes for others for a long time. Larry Hyde planted four selections of Syrah and hoped that one day someone would want to buy it.  Instead the firm has ended up making an ambitious wine instead.  No expense is spared.  The wines are made in individual oak fermenters, half of which are open (aiming for a floral quality and a softening of tannings), the other half more conventionally for fruit quality. 

Belle Cousine 2006

Cabernet Sauvignon quite evident in the blackcurrant and mint on the nose, rather than mixed fruit, perhaps picked just short of full ripeness, dense fruit, high acidity, moderately tannic, not blowsy or easy, this is undoubtedly a wine for ageing. 

In this vintage the mix is 88% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, both planted in 1986 The Cabernet was planted on the higher slope with an E-W orientation which is not ideal, but they can work on the wine in the winery.  They pick the two sides of the vines separately and vinify them in different lots and so can blend according to the results. 

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There was much talk of a Burgundian approach to wine making at this presentation. However, the key factors in the final quality in the glass seem to be, first, location and then a great level of attention to detail.  The vineyards are at the North end of San Francisco bay, and so benefit from fog in the morning and then a convention current in pm. By Californian standards it is cool.   The grapes are all hand picked in the small hours of the morning to keep them cool and are sorted, berry by berry, before getting anywhere near a fermenting vessel.  Long before that, some of the vineyard workers have twenty years’ experience and know every block intimately.  They are prepared for drought or for heat spikes. Much of September is given over to  tasting the fruit on the vines daily to estimate the optimum time to pick.  And yes, they do grow some Pinot Noir but don’t want to set up comparisons with a famous Burgundy property, so that fruit – like most of the Hyde fruit – is for sale.  

Only time will tell if this venture enters the annals of the heroes.  I liked the Chardonnay, in both its forms, especially at the moment the younger one.  Overall, the drive for quality, and especially balancing the fruit and the acidity of the wine, is commendable.

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