It was a lovely Friday afternoon, ideal for sneaking away from work early and heading up to San Mateo County for a tour of Rhys’s five vineyards led by Rhys’s owner Kevin Harvey, along with general manager and viticulturalist Jason Jardine and winemaker Jeff Brinkman. Kevin calendared this tour in response to a request from eBobber Chris Whetstone, who was coming up from Los Angeles for the weekend. Kevin also invited several of us who attended a Burgundy OL with him the prior week. That included eBobbers Mark, Kim, Jake, Jayaram and Jill.
Kevin explained at the outset that the five Rhys vineyards are each on a different type of soil, in 3 to 5 different microclimates. Our tour started at the Family Farm Vineyard, and took in Home Vineyard, Skyline Vineyard (site of the future Rhys winery), Horseshoe Ranch Vineyard, ending at Alpine Vineyard, where we were to taste some current and upcoming releases.
Kevin planted his first vines in 1995. He had been making wine in his garage for some years before that. In 2001 he realized that the Santa Cruz Mountains were an ideal terroir for planting Burgundian California Pinots. In the 1980s, Kevin’s points of reference for California Pinot were Chalone and Mount Eden. In Kevin’s view, all great wines are grown on rocky soils. To find rocky soils that also have the right cool termperatures that favor Pinot, the only options are the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Sonoma Coast. In SCM, it’s actually cooler than Burgundy in the summer and warmer than Burgundy in the fall.
Kevin is looking for ripe phenolics at low alcohol levels. His team picks on flavor and not sugar levels. In his view, Pinots above 14.5% alcohol become unbalanced.
2007 is the first vintage that Rhys is producing wine from all 5 vineyards. In 2006, they declassified the grapes from Family Farm. Kevin thinks 2007 will be an outstanding vintage for California Pinot. He believes the best prior vintage was ’88.
Clones: Rhys uses a variety of clones. The first plantings were primarily Dijon clones, but Kevin has found that, although they have plenty of upfront fruit, they don’t ripen in our climate in a way that permits the use of whole cluster fermentation which he favors. Three acres worth of Dijon 777 have now been grafted over. Of the Dijon clones, Kevin favors 115 and 828. Kevin and his team also like Swan, La Tache, and Calera (a DRC clone). These tend to produce very low yields–about 1 ton per acre in a good year.
Family Farm Vineyard:
This vineyard is 400 feet above sea level, on alluvial sand and clay loam soil. It’s on a long-term lease from Stanford University. Kevin finds the location, soils and East-facing aspect reminiscent of Russian River Valley vineyards. They installed frost protection there this year. Development has been slow in the vineyard this season, and on that day in early May, Kevin said it looked more like typical development at the beginning of April. They farm organically and biodynamically, using a lot of compost. They’ve set up barn owl houses, and use the owls for gopher control. They cane prune for lower yields and higher fruit quality. Two acres are planted to Swan clones, two are planted to eight different “suitcase clones,” and the remainder is planted to Dijon 115 and Pommard clone. Kevin says the flavor profile of fruit from this vineyard is black cherry, like Russian River fruit, with orange peel notes and good tannin and structure.
Home Vineyard: This vineyard is tiny, less than 2 acres. It shares the same cool climate as Family Farm, but is situated on decomposed sandstone with clay loam topsoil. It is planted to a variety of different clones, similar to Family Farm.
Kevin, Chris, Jill, Jayaram and Mark at Skyline Vineyard:
This 3 and a half acre vineyard was purchased in 2004. It is situated at 2,360 feet, where the weather tends to be cool, but the vineyard is also typically above the fogline. Although it doesn’t get very hot during the day, the vineyard stays relatively warm at night. The Pinot vines are tightly planted at 2 foot by 3 foot in very rocky soil that contains a high amount of iron. Kevin reported that the Swan clone was doing well there, producing elegant and perfumey wine, but the typically low yielding Calera clone was producing at a much lower level even than usual for that clone. Kevin claimed there was a peppery and “Christmas cake” characteristic to the fruit from this vineyard. Syrah is also planted here, and at the Horseshoe Ranch Vineyard. The Syrah clones are a Chave field selection and a Cote Rotie field selection.
Horseshoe Ranch Vineyard:
This 17-acre site is Rhys’s coolest, and Kevin finds the fruit the most “Beaune-like,” with black cherry and mineral or stone flavors. The soil is balsaltic limestone. Ten acres are planted to Pinot, three and a half to Chardonnay and the remaining three and a half to Syrah. The Pinot clones are similar to what they have planted elsewhere–suitcase clones as well as Swan and La Tache. Lower on the hill, the Chardonnay plantings, in particular, suffered a lot of visible frost damage this season.
Alpine Vineyard: This 13-acre site is not far from Horseshoe, but is a little warmer than Horseshoe, at a height of 1490 feet. It is planted to Pinot, 16 different clones, and four clones of Chardonnay. They are regrafting over the last of the Dijon 777 here. The Alpine Hillside bottlings are from the vineyard slope, which gets as steep as 40%. They find this section has the lowest yield, and extra power and complexity. Another section they plan to bottle separately is the small, east-facing Swan Terrace section, primarily planted to the Swan clone.
- 2006 Rhys Chardonnay Alpine Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Medium yellow color; nice, delicate lemon and lemon oil nose; delicate, minerally lemon and focused citrus palate with good acidity and balance; Corton-like, with a note of salinity toward the finish; medium finish 93+ pts. (30% new French oak) (93 pts.)
2006 Rhys Pinots
A great lineup of characterful and complex California Pinots, with the Alpine Vineyard bottlings showing, for me, the most complexity–the Alpine Hillside being a standout in power and complexity. We were tasting these all about a year before their planned release.
Tasting at Alpine Vineyard:
- 2006 Rhys Alesia Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
(Tasted 1 year before release.) Light medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; big, focused, tart strawberry nose with a touch of caramel oak; tart strawberry and red fruit palate, showing some sweetness and also some iron toward the medium finish 91+ pts. (91 pts.)
- 2006 Rhys Pinot Noir Home Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay
Light medium red color; intriguing, perfumey, mineral and rosehips nose; Burgundian tart red fruit with delicacy, minerality, rosehips, good structure and acidity, and a saline note; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (Only 1 barrel; 100% whole cluster and no new oak, from 9 different clones and vines aged 10 to 13 years.) (92 pts.)
- 2006 Rhys Alesia Pinot Noir Chileno Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Light medium red color with pale meniscus; spicy, plum preserves and tart cherry nose; good, focused, tart red fruit with a bit of spice; medium finish 91+ pts. (91 pts.)
- 2006 Rhys Pinot Noir Alpine Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; black cherry, roses, with a touch of sandalwood on the nose; deep black cherry, mineral and rock palate, with structure and good acidity; medium-plus finish (75% whole cluster and 2/3’s new oak; Kevin says “[The] Alpine [Vineyard] laps up oak.”) (93 pts.)
- 2006 Rhys Pinot Noir Swan Terrace Alpine Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Set for Spring 2009 release: Very dark cherry red color; reticent cherry and mineral nose; youthful, minerally, tart black cherry palate with iron and firm tannins, reminiscent of a young Clos de Tart; medium-plus finish (100% whole cluster, 75% new oak) (93 pts.)
- 2006 Rhys Pinot Noir Alpine Hillside – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Dark red violet color; tart red fruit, iron and a touch of caramel on nose; delicious tart cherry, rounded, with depth, black cherry, minerality, sweet and firm tannins, powerful but elegant; long finish 94+ pts. (85% whole cluster, from Rhys’s lowest yielding vineyard segment) (94 pts.)
Terrific concentration and structure, with savory and peppery flavors.
- 2005 Rhys Alesia Syrah Fairview Ranch – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
Dark red violet color; savory, pepper and beef jus nose; yummy, concentrated but structured with tangy, tart beef jus, iron and minerality; medium-plus finish 93+ pts. (93 pts.)
Rhys is a well-designed and implemented project that is being carried out with passion and heart. I look forward to the release of the wines we tasted, and to tasting the ’07s, which Kevin reported have even less alcohol and more concentration than the ’06s we tasted.