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Visit to Varner: Superb Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnays

2012 May 22
by Richard Jennings

3/30/12 Visit to Varner
Bob and Jim Varner

Visit to Varner Winery, Portola Valley, California (3/30/2012)

Santa Cruz Mountains produces some excellent, minerally, ageworthy Chardonnay with vibrant acidity.

I’ve previously written here about the long lived, complex Chardonnays of Mount Eden, and about the great Chards from Rhys and Ridge. The other Chardonnays from this region in the same league come from a vineyard in Portola Valley planted by identical twin brothers, Bob and Jim Varner.

The keys to the Varners’ terrific Chardonnays are meticulous farming and very gentle winemaking techniques.

I recently had a chance to visit the Varners’ vineyard and to taste through not only the latest vintage in bottle, but also the 2011 vintage from barrel. For two very cool vintages—2010 and 2011—these are remarkable wines. The 2011 barrel samples, in particular, give me hope for some excellent wines from this most challenging of recent California vintages.

Background/The Vineyard
Jim and Bob both went to U.C. Davis in the ‘70s, where Jim studied oenology while Bob was studying biology. Jim took Dr. Maynard Amerine’s class, where he tasted Burgundy—the source of great, minerally whites and reds, made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir–and decided he wanted to make wines like that.

After graduation, Jim went to work for Souverain in Napa. He knew he needed to find a cool climate location, though, for the kind of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir he wanted to make. Sonoma County and Carneros were possibilities, but U.C. Davis Professor Ann Noble introduced him to Greg Melchor, who owned 230 acres of largely forested land in Portola Valley, ten miles from the ocean in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

The natural spot for siting a vineyard there were then hayfields of limited productivity. It was now 1980, and Bob took an academic leave from a Ph.D. program in genetics at U.C. Berkeley to help with the project, which is now Spring Ridge Vineyard.

The brothers initially planted two acres of Chardonnay close to the home that was on the property, hence that section’s name, Home Block. In a remarkable bit of youthful daredevilry, they chose to plant this first piece of the vineyard on its own roots, instead of on rootstock resistant to the phylloxera louse that devastates vitis vinifera vines, like Chardonnay. Vitis vinifera, which originated in Europe, lacks the resistance of American grape rootstock, since phylloxera originated in the Americas.

I guess they were thinking that the site is relatively remote from any other vineyard, and wanted to experiment with grapes grown on their own roots. Still, it was a risky move, and one they repeated the next year when they planted a second block of Chardonnay, known as Amphitheater Block, which has clay and loam soil, as well as a block of Gewurztraminer. Bob claims the Amphitheater Block Chardonnay always shows green apple and lime flavors, with some earthiness.

Jim and Bob aren’t sure what clone of Chardonnay they planted in those early years. They obtained it from a local nursery and think it is probably U.C. Davis clone 4.

In 1987 they planted their third set of Chardonnay vines, the Bee Block, this time on phylloxera resistant rootstock, with cuttings from the Home Block. The Varners claim the Bee Block Chardonnay has developed in recent years into being the most minerally of the three.

For years, the Varners sold their fruit to Thomas Fogarty, and then to Bargetto. They also worked at Fogarty, and in 1987 established a wine import business known as Park Wine Co.

Jim, who has a bad back, led the Park Wine Co. project, which started with Bouchard, while Bob focused on the viticulture. They eventually had about 35 wineries in their import portfolio, selling 150 wines. When they started making their own wines commercially in 1996, after being bonded as Varner Winery, Bob was the winemaker. In 2005, however, they decided to concentrate on just making and selling their own wine, so they sold off the import business.

In 1997, they planted their first Pinot Noir vines, Dijon clone 115, in what is known as Hidden Block. They report these vines are the ones that always get the ripest, with the highest sugar levels. Five years later they planted more Pinot, Dijon clone 777, on the Picnic Block. This brought their total vineyard size to 14 acres.

3/30/12 Visit to Varner

looking down the hill from the winery

They brought the vineyard to its current state of three blocks of Chardonnay and three of Pinot Noir by grafting over the original Gewurztraminer plantings, in the block known as Upper Picnic, to Pinot clone 777, still on its own Gewurz roots, in 2005.

The place is an amazing showplace for terroir in America, since they have the same varieties of grape planted on neighboring parcels, with vineyard blocks that are only a few hundred feet from each other being separately vinified and bottled using the same techniques. The differences in flavors, acid levels and the like, however, are fascinating.

The Varners report that the vines on their own roots, like Amphitheater Block, seem to get ripe sooner and to tolerate heat better than grafted vines. Grafts seem to affect the vines slightly. Although Bee Block, on phylloxera resistant rootstock, gets riper, it also has higher acidity.

The Varners dry farm, with no fertilizer, and have never used insecticides. They also use a fairly unique form of canopy management–the vines are head-trained and cane pruned with four canes on two wires, one foot apart–to ensure the grape bunches all receive filtered sunlight.

3/30/12 Visit to Varner
vine trellising system

Dr. Kirk Neely and his wife Holly Myers purchased the land, which lies adjacent to the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve, from Greg Melchor, and Bob Varner takes care of it for him. The Neelys share the Varners’ commitment to both the vineyards and the entire property. The Varners bottle three vineyard designate Chardonnays and one Pinot Noir blend under their eponymous label, Varner, and three vineyard designate Pinots and one Chardonnay blend under the name of their partners, Neely.

The Neely Chardonnay blend is developed after they have already made the Varner wines. They use all three Chardonnay blocks for the Neely, but claim the Home block “helps bring focus.”

They also produce a line of relatively inexpensive wines that sell quite well, all fermented and aged in stainless steel, under another label, Foxglove, with purchased fruit from Santa Barbara and Paso Robles.

Winemaking
A day or so prior to picking, their crew goes through and eliminates bad grapes in the field. They pick in the evening to get cool grapes. In Bob’s view, it is important to have the juice set right, with no air and well sorted grapes. They shouldn’t be too cold, and they need enough nutrients.

They have used only indigenous yeast since the beginning, when they started out with all new equipment. The grapes go into two-ton fermenters for a cool soak, with two to three percent whole clusters. Bob wants a more reductive, slower rate at the beginning of fermentation, for sorting out the flavors, much like the common practice in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

After fermentation, the wine spends two months in a stainless steel tank before going into oak. The barrels are usually medium-toast Allier and Tronçais, about one-third of which are new each year.

The winery is set up on a gravity basis. They rack by gravity, using a handcrafted tool from Burgundy that gently tips the barrels.

3/30/12 Visit to Varner
device used to gently tip the barrels

Recent Vintages
2011 was the coldest vintage in memory, and they harvested late with low sugars but good physiological development. Yields were 70-75% of the usual. Jim explained there’s always a half ton or so that is sorted out on a quality basis—wings and the like, but these yields were dramatically low. Home Block was down by 50%.

The brix at harvest averaged about 21.5 to 21.8 (20.8 was the lowest, and Amphitheater Block reached 22.0, with Bee Block getting to 23 and one Pinot block over 23).

Jim explained that the 2011 fruit was good if you sorted for botrytis. They got their last Pinot Noir harvested an hour or so before a major rain hit. Although yields are low, the wines have flavor and good textures at lower than usual sugar and alcohol levels. The vintage should be quite approachable early on.

Bob said there was no sugar development after veraison in 2011 due to the cool weather. In 2010 there was at least a brief heat wave and some heat spikes, although the year was almost as cool as 2011. Jim is finding the 2011s in barrel to be “prettier” and “developing faster” than prior vintages.

The Wines
My favorite Varner Chardonnays to date have been the ’09 Bee and Amphitheater Block, but the 2011 versions, from barrel, seem likely to at least equal, if not surpass, those minerally gems. My favorite Varner Pinot to date was the ’04 Hidden Block.

The 2011 Chardonnay barrel samples we tried, still finishing malolactic fermentation, were quite delicious, especially the Bee Block. The Pinots were lighter bodied, showing a lot of floral qualities that could be quite appealing in the near term.

My favorite of the 2011 Pinots was the Hidden Block. The alcohol on the Upper Picnic Block is remarkably low, at 12.4%, and it reminds me more of a German Spätburgunder (the German word for Pinot Noir, typically a very low alcohol wine) at this point than any California Pinot Noir. The Chardonnays should be bottled in June and available for purchase in the Fall.

We also tasted most of the current releases, the 2010 Chardonnays and 2009 Pinots. The Chardonnays were complex and tightly wound. I particularly liked the Varner Bee Block and the Neely Holly’s Cuvee. Among the Pinots, my favorites were the ’09 Varner Three Blocks and the ’08 Hidden Block.

For my complete tasting notes, see below.

A final note about winemaking twins: Yes, twin winemakers are a pretty rare phenomenon. Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, however, is blessed with two sets, counting Peter and Paul Bargetto at Soquel. (Yes, LangeTwins in Lodi is named after Randall and Brad Lange, but neither of those brothers makes the wine or farms the land.) The only two other prominent twin winemakers working at the same winery I can find in the world are Gela and Gia Gamtkitsulashvili in the Republic of Georgia. Another pair, Bill and Gil Bledsoe, work at neighboring but different wineries in Texas.

2011 Chardonnay barrel samples

3/30/12 Visit to Varner

  • 2011 Varner Chardonnay Spring Ridge Vineyard Home Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Barrel sample – light lemon yellow color; nice tart lemon, reduction, mineral nose; earthy, tart lemon, mineral, tart green apple, lime palate; medium-plus finish 91-92 points (malo probably in the process of finishing, 13.2% alcohol) (91 pts.)
  • 2011 Varner Chardonnay Spring Ridge Vineyard Amphitheater Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Barrel sample – light lemon yellow color; reduction, light oak nose; medium bodied, tart lemon, mineral, chalk palate with medium acidity showing tart apple on finish; medium-plus finish 91-92+ points (13.2% alcohol) (91 pts.)
  • 2011 Varner Chardonnay Spring Ridge Vineyard Bee Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Barrel sample – light yellow color; focused, tart apple, earthy, malolactic fermentation nose; lean, tart lemon, very mineral, lime palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92-93+ points (13.1% alcohol) (92 pts.)

2011 Pinot Noir barrel samples

3/30/12 Visit to Varner

  • 2011 Neely Pinot Noir Hidden Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Medium cherry red color; floral, roses, reduction, hibiscus, tart cherry nose; tight, reduction, tart raspberry, tart cherry, mineral, hibiscus, rosehips palate; medium-plus finish 91-92 points (14.2% alcohol) (91 pts.)
  • 2011 Neely Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Vineyard Picnic Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Barrel sample – medium ruby color; cherry, raspberry, light oak nose; tasty, floral, tart red fruit, hibiscus, roses palate; medium-plus finish 90+ to 92 points (13.2% alcohol) (90 pts.)
  • 2011 Neely Pinot Noir Upper Picnic – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Barrel sample – medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; floral, hibiscus, lilly nose; tight, tart red fruit, hibiscus, mineral, cranberry palate; medium-plus finish 90-91+ points (reminiscent of a German Spatburgunder at this point; 12.4% alcohol) (90 pts.)

2010 Chardonnays

3/30/12 Visit to Varner

  • 2010 Varner Chardonnay Spring Ridge Vineyard Home Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Pre-release (summer 2012 release) – light golden yellow color; reduction, tart green fruit, chalk nose; tight, medium bodied, tart green fruit, mineral, chalk, light basil palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2010 Varner Chardonnay Spring Ridge Vineyard Amphitheater Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Light lemon yellow color; lovely, lemon gelee, mineral, light green herb nose; tight, medium bodied, reduction, tart lime, lemon gelee, mineral, bee pollen palate; needs 2-plus years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2010 Varner Chardonnay Spring Ridge Vineyard Bee Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Light lemon yellow color; ripe, green apple, ripe pear, gooseberry nose; silky textured, tart pear, mineral, tart gooseberry palate with delineation and medium acidity; medium-plus finish (14.4% alcohol) (92 pts.)
  • 2010 Neely Chardonnay Holly’s Cuvee Spring Ridge Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Light lemon yellow color; mineral, ripe lemon nose; tasty, complex, refined, ripe lemon, ripe lime, tart pineapple, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)

New and Pending Release Pinot Noirs

3/30/12 Visit to Varner

  • 2008 Neely Pinot Noir Hidden Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; appealing, ripe cherry, cranberry, sweet green herb, orange peel nose; complex, tart cherry lime, mineral, green herb, tart orange palate; medium-plus finish (14.6% alcohol) (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Neely Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Vineyard Picnic Block – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Medium ruby color; rosehips, floral, green herb nose; tart red fruit, green herb, earthy, roses, tart cherry, light peppercorn palate; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol) (90 pts.)
  • 2009 Neely Pinot Noir Upper Picnic – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Medium cherry red color; focused, floral, red berry, light green peppercorn nose; tight, medium bodied, ripe red fruit, green herb, mineral, light cinnamon palate; needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Varner Pinot Noir Three Blocks Spring Ridge Vineyard – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Pre-release (9/1/12 release) – medium dark cherry red color; reticent, tart cherry, tart black cherry, herb nose; tight, tart red berry, tart cherry, tart black cherry, herbs, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (40% Hidden Block, 30% Upper Picnic and 30% Picnic) (91 pts.)

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