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A Welcome Harbinger of Spring
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jan 28, 2014
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Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley Fumé Blanc 2012 ($30):  The dead of winter is an unlikely time to be thinking about white wine in general, and particularly Sauvignon Blanc, which to me epitomizes Springtime in its freshness and vibrancy.  But this 2012 Grgich Hills Sauvignon Blanc is such a splendid wine that the word can’t wait. 

Grgich Hills is one of the most prominent wineries in Napa Valley for many reasons, not the least of which is its colorful co-founder and founding winemaker, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich who studied winemaking in what is now Croatia and settled in Napa Valley in the 1950s.  He worked at several of California’s flagship wineries -- Souverain Cellars under Lee Stewart, then Christian Brothers under Brother Timothy, Beaulieu Vineyards under Andre Tchelistcheff, and the fledgling Robert Mondavi Winery.  In 1972 he became winemaker at Chateau Montelena, where he produced the legendary 1973 Chardonnay that triumphed at the “Judgment of Paris“ wine competition in 1976.  Now 90 years of age, Grgich has retired from operating his winery, leaving that task to his daughter and to his nephew, winemaker Ivo Jeramaz, but the fine reputation of Grgich Hills Estate persists.

Grgich Hills produces six wines and is probably most famous for its Chardonnay, followed by its Cabernet Sauvignon.  Personally, I love the winery’s Fumé Blanc and consider its one of the finest Sauvignon Blanc wines in all of California. 

This 2012 Fumé Blanc is particularly impressive.  The vintage was ideal, a relatively cool year with no heat spikes and a long growing season.  The estate vineyards for this wine -- in Carneros and in American Canyon, which can be as much as 10 degrees cooler than Carneros -- also are in cool districts.  Balancing the cooling influences, the wine comes from the rich and fragrant Musqué strain of Sauvignon Blanc, and the grapes are harvested in three passes, so that the juice reflects a slightly early harvest, a normal harvest and a somewhat riper harvest, all together.  The resulting wine is fragrant and flavorful combining rich creaminess with improbably vibrant acidity.

The wine’s aroma speaks immediately of the Sauvignon Blanc grape in its penetrating notes of citrus and herbs, but those aromas segue into broader, subtle tones of apricots, peach and nutty notes suggestive of lees aging.  In your mouth, the wine is (thankfully) dry but it’s also rich, not at all meager or light.  The texture is creamy and yet the wine sings with acidity -- a fascinating balancing act to contemplate.  The flavors are even more intense than the aromas, suggesting ripe lemon, crunchy pear, and savory mineral notes; they offer another type of balance to contemplate, the balance of flavor to structure.  However you define “balance,” this wine hits it.

As I tasted this wine, the idea of oak occurred to me only in connection with the wine’s rich texture.  In fact, 80 percent of the juice fermented in large foudres of French oak, 900 gallons in size, 15 times larger than a barrel; the remainder fermented in previously-used French oak barrels. The fermentations occurred through ambient yeast strains (another reason for that richness of texture).  After fermentation, the wine developed richness and complexity from aging on its lees for six months. 

This wine will probably develop and age very nicely, because of its high acidity. But why wait to enjoy it, when it is so beautiful now, and so intriguing?  Springtime can come early, at least in our wine glasses.

91 Points