By The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
Laura Diaz Munoz is very bullish on wines made in Napa Valley’s valley floor. The winemaker who is putting a fresh coat on Ehlers Estate believes her wine is every bit as good as more expensive wines made from grapes grown on hillside vineyards. For her, it’s getting the most from the soil and climate to make the best wines specific to that location.
The location is at Napa Valley’s narrowest point between the Mayacamas and Vaca mountains that sees morning fog, full sun during the day and shore breezes in the afternoon.
Munoz is focused on single varieties – cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc – that do well in a cauldron of soils that range from clay to gravel. All of the nine wines come from 40 acres of estate vineyards divided into five main blocks based on soil type. Sauvignon blanc is the only white wine made here.
Bernard Ehlers established the winery in 1886. In the mid 1990s, Jean and Sylviane Leducq, who came from France in search of property to create a legacy akin to the chateaux of Bordeaux, bought Ehlers Estate. Although they have passed, their foundation continues to fund efforts to combat cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Originally from Madrid, Munoz has been in Napa Valley for 15 years and spent a number of years working beside Chris Carpenter at Cardinale, Lokoya, Mt. Brave, and La Jota. Besides giving Ehlers Estate wines a new label that reflects a sense of location, Munoz is focused on farming to extract the best wine from the diverse, biodynamically farmed soils.
“The future is in the vineyards,” she said. “We’re not planning on growing in volume. We’re just trying to change the way we farm to make the wines better.”
We loved the 2018 Ehlers Estate Merlot ($65), a fruity and fresh version with balanced acidity. Oak-inspired mocha and spice aromas complement the juicy raspberry and cassis flavors.
The 2018 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($72) is full bodied with blackberry and cherry notes and hints of black pepper, leather and cedar.
There is an endless -- and perhaps fruitless -- argument over which region makes the best pinot noir: Burgundy, Oregon, California, New Zealand are in the mix. But rarely do you hear anyone add Chile, a wine-growing region known more for its sauvignon blancs and cabernet sauvignons.
Matias Rios, however, is more than eager to talk about it. Since 2003 he has been the winemaking director of Cono Sur. Founded in 1993 with a focus on pinot noir. Once Cono Sur recognized the potential for this grape, it created the “pinot noir project” in 1999 with a focus on following Burgundian vinification practices by Burgundy native Martin Prieur. It started by switching to a sustainable agriculture.
Cono Sur farms more than 3,700 acres of vineyards at 20 estates spread over all major wine regions in Chile. Twenty percent is planted to pinot noir. His goal is to make the best pinot noir in Chile.
Rios argues that the climate and terroir in these regions are ideal for the often-unpredictable pinot noir grape variety. The region is blocked in by the Pacific Ocean to the east, the Andes Mountains to the east, Atacama Desert to the north and glaciers to the south. These elements trap in the oceans breezes that cool the delicate pinot noir grapes. The highest temperature seen here is only 77 degrees.
Rios has blazed a trail in innovations. He was the first to introduce artificial corks and now screw caps. Cono Sur was the first to have an organic and later a carbon-neutral wine.
These wines are good values if you aren’t looking for an equal to more concentrated pinot noirs from the West Coast. Here is a summary:
Cono Sur Bicicleta Reserve Pinot Noir 2019 ($10). Bright cherry and raspberry notes with a medium body and a dash of dried herbs. Only a small portion of the wine is aged in used oak barrels in order to retain the freshness.
Cono Sur Organic Pinot Noir 2019 ($11). Generous red berry aromas with a hint of toasty oak. Round in the finish. This wine is vegan and carbon neutral.
Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir 2018 ($25). With additional oak aging, this wine has more concentration and complexity. Raspberry and dark cherry flavor with balanced acidity and good tannins. The grapes are foot-trodden because Rios says there is a more human connection in sensing the right touch in crushing the grapes.
Marchesi di Gresy Monte Aribaldo Dolcetto d’Alba DOC 2019 ($19). Made entirely of dolcetto grapes and aged in stainless steel, this delicious wine from Piedmonte has vibrant and fresh cherry and strawberry notes.
Li Veli Orion Salento IGT 2019 ($15). Made from primitivo grapes – thought to be related to zinfandel – this wine has juicy and ripe dark berry flavors.
Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore 2017 ($30). We are always thankful to find this wine in restaurants because it delivers a lot of quality for the money. Classified an amarone because the grapes are allowed to raisin on the vine before they are pressed, it has dense, ripe blackcurrant and blackberry flavors with a dash of spice.
Metz Road Pinot Noir Monterey Estate Riverview Vineyard 2019 ($36). From the Scheid Family of wines, this cool climate pinot noir offers elegant wild berry and cherry notes with a pleasant spicy and vanilla background. Very drinkable.
Newton Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Unfiltered 2018 ($75). Although expensive, this Newton red wine is reasonably priced considering its pedigree. A sumptuous deep and rich display of the classic cherry and cassis notes that you expect from a premium Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Soft approachable tannins make this fine wine a candidate for near term drinking, but it certainly has the legs for at least 10 years of aging.