August 2009                               

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Blackstone's New Reserve Line Goes Beyond Merlot

by Paul DeRose

Blackstone makes California Merlot, and lots of it, with a smooth, fruity style that's made it the best-selling Merlot in America. They make several other commonly-found varietals in the same price range (about $9). All are quite serviceable, fruit-forward efforts. Their Napa Valley Merlot at about $16 is a bit more serious with more concentrated fruit and body, and has sat at the top tier of their quality line-up to this point. When it comes to Bordeaux varietals, I must admit that I'm more of a fan of Cabernet than Merlot. But even I have enjoyed this wine from time to time. So, when I was recently offered a chance to try their new line of Reserve wines, made under the direction of new winemaker, Gary Sitton, I was more than a bit curious.

Five wines make up this Reserve line, that is, four reds and a Chardonnay. Gary, an energetic, young winemaker who worked with Joel Peterson at Ravenswood before coming here, joined us for this tasting of his 2007s. This is the first vintage of these wines where Gary was at the helm. We learned that he is a Sonoma native who has an appreciation for the diversity of the county with its many wine sub-regions, or AVAs, which he enjoys "tapping into" when blending to impart more distinctive, multi-layered flavors to these Sonoma County bottlings.


               Gary Sitton, Blackstone's winemaker and Angela Saunders of Folsom & Associates

Pinot Noir has become more popular than ever in the last few years, so it's no surprise to see one in this line-up. Yet, with all the over-priced examples on the market, it was nice to see a respectable level of quality here for the price. While explaining his vision for this wine, Gary described himself as a "Pinot purist", implying that Pinot Noir should be full-flavored, but with a leaner structure than is typically found in CA examples, which are often over-oaked and over-extracted. I couldn't agree more.

He also mentioned a premium, small production 2007 Merlot from Sonoma Valley, which will soon be released and should retail for about $75 a bottle. This was made from a blend of fruit from two highly regarded vineyards, which are separated by the even more reknowned Monte Rosso vineyard. Merlot has always taken a leading role in Blackstone's portfolio, so it makes sense that this wine should represent their "pinnacle" of quality.

Sounds good, right? But how are the wines?

The more structured nature of these wines immediately struck me as being different from the style of former winemaker, Dennis Hill, whose approach was centered around riper fruit flavors. These new wines have a less ripe, but more precise kind of fruit that is elevated by acidity driven structure and smooth tannins. They're food-friendly, but also show enough charming Sonoma fruit to be immediately attractive.

Overall, a line-up of very good wines that stand out from the crowd at their price point.

The Wines

2007 Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay, Sonoma County $17
97% Chardonnay, 3% Muscat   14.5% alc
Very good pear and green apple fruit with excellent acidity, keeping the fruit precise and lively. Also subtle, buttery flavors complementing. Will go well with a variety of seafood dishes.

2007 Sonoma Reserve Pinot Noir, Sonoma County $20
93% Pinot Noir, 7% Syrah   14.3% alc   (9,300 cases)
Very good Pinot fruit and acidity with just a touch of Syrah adding a burst of richness in the flavor.

2007 Sonoma Reserve Merlot, Sonoma County $20
85% Merlot, 7% Cabernet, 6% Ruby Cabernet, 2% Petit Verdot   14.5% alc   (27,000 cases)
Shows lush Merlot fruit and is stylistically similar to the "old" Napa Valley bottling with maybe a bit more structure.

2007 Sonoma Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County $20
87% Cabernet, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec   14.5% alc   (17,000 cases)
Classic Cabernet backbone with solid fruit and herbal complexity. A little tight, showing some tannin at this point, but should smooth and improve with 1-4 years of bottle age. The cassis fruit sweetened with air, so decant if drinking now, preferably with a juicy steak.

2007 Sonoma Reserve Rubric, Sonoma County $23
55% Cabernet, 14% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot, 7% Tannat, 5% Merlot, 3% Petit Sirah  14.5% alc   (7,000 cases)
Rich fruit with more bottom and weight than the Merlot, but also more open and giving than the Cabernet. Delicious and well balanced, showing an interesting combination of flavors due to the diverse varietal blend. I'd choose this for near term drinking with a meal.

Final Comments:

All seemed more or less ready for now drinking, except the Cabernet, with the Rubric and the Chardonnay being my personal favorites. Will be interesting to see if the Rubric can stay on top or will it be overtaken by the Cabernet in the next few years.