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Good Dirt, Yucky Dirt
By Michael Apstein
Aug 21, 2012
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As I drive around Alexander Valley with Ronald Du Preez, the assistant winemaker at Jordan Winery, he points across the road and exclaims enthusiastically, “That’s really good dirt,” or in an equally emphatic manner, “that’s yucky dirt over there.”  He is expressing a paradigm shift in California winemaking philosophy that’s exemplified by Jordan’s now virtually complete transformation from an “estate” winery to one that buys almost all of their grapes from local farmers. 

Put another way, it’s a change in philosophy from “the winemaker is king” to “the site matters.”  In the 1970s the conventional winemaking wisdom in California was that grapes could be grown most anywhere and the winemaker performed the magical transformation in the cellar.  Today, far more emphasis is placed on the site where the grapes grow.  The winemakers’ mantra today is “wine is made in the vineyard” and they pride themselves on how little they intervene.

The Turnabout

Tom and Sally Jordan founded the iconic Alexander Valley winery 40 years ago with the aim, modeled on the Bordeaux estate tradition, of making a single Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine from grapes grown exclusively on their estate.  A recent retrospective tasting of Jordan Cabernet back to their 1976 (their 1st vintage) in New York City showed just how well they succeeded (my notes follow).

Now headed by their son, John, Jordan has just completed a 180-degree turn by completing the sale of virtually all of their vineyards and relying on grapes from growers because they, as winemaker Rob Davis puts it, “make better wine.”  Incredibly for a winery that started with an estate concept, the 2011 vintage of Jordan’s Cabernet will likely contain no more than about two percent of their grapes--all Petit Verdot--when the final blend has been completed.

Sally and Tom Jordan, originally from Denver (which she described as a culinary wasteland in the 1960s and 1970s), were both Francophiles. On one of their frequent gastronomic excursions to San Francisco in 1971, the owner of Ernie’s restaurant suggested a California Cabernet instead of their usual Bordeaux, offering to exchange it for a Bordeaux if they didn’t like it.  The wine, a Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve, made them realize that excellent Bordeaux-styled wines could, indeed, be made in California, according to Sally. 

Although Tom Jordan was a geologist who had made a fortune in the oil and gas business, he knew more about soil two miles below the surface than two meters down, where the vines’ roots grow.  So, they convinced André Tchelistcheff, who was largely responsible for that George de Latour Private Reserve, to help them find suitable land.

The site they selected, 275 acres of orchard land on the floor of the Alexander Valley just off Lytton Springs Road, seemed fine--given the knowledge at the time.  But current technology, such as infrared cameras and resistivity mapping, allows a much better and more detailed analysis of the soil and site, according to Rob Davis, Jordan’s original and current winemaker.

I expected Sally Jordan to express remorse about the recent sale of the original vineyards, property, but she was quite philosophical, “Times change, you need to be flexible.”  She agreed that tastes in wine have changed.  The subtle vegetal character in Cabernet-based wines common in the 1970s and 80s has fallen out of favor.  The wine drinking public now craves a riper, bigger style of wine.  She realized that the vineyards they owned originally were simply not conducive to making the style of wine the contemporary market wanted.

It’s the Soil

According to Davis, the problem with the valley floor lies not in the slightly higher temperature compared to the hillside, but rather in the soil composition.  Davis is emphatic, “It’s the soil” that prevents simultaneous phenolic (tannin) ripening and sugar ripening.  The grapes would be ripe as measured by sugar concentration, but the wines would have a weedy or vegetal component from the immature tannins, according to Davis.  He attributes this difference between ripeness and maturity to mineral imbalance in the soil, drainage, and overall soil composition.

You need not be a geologist to see the enormous variety, at least superficially, of the soils in this part of the Alexander Valley, even on the valley floor.  As I saw at one point while driving with Du Preez, the soil on one side of the road is light in color, whereas the soil on the other side is very dark.  Further on, the vineyards on the right are filled with stones, while on the left the soil is stone free.  Typically, the west side of the Russian River Valley is fertile, while the east side is gravely and more restrictive, according to Du Preez.   “As you get into the benchlands, the undulating hills and folds of the landscape create even more variations in soil.”

Phylloxera, the vine-destroying insect, actually precipitated Jordan’s transformation in the early 1990s.  Forced to buy grapes from others when their vineyards were hit, Davis saw the potential from other sites.  But it wasn’t until John Jordan, Tom and Sally’s son, took the reins that the transformation began in earnest. 

Davis relates one of his early discussions with John who was clearly not interested in going back to an estate model even after phylloxera was conquered.  “I don’t care where the fruit comes from,” John told Davis, “I want you to make the best wine you can.”  Davis was ecstatic about being able to explore the options for sourcing grapes since his inspiration had come from Burgundy and Bordeaux, places where the importance of site cannot be overstated.  He recalls that he imagined himself sitting on a spring-loaded chair and being propelled into the air. 

For Davis, there is, without doubt, a direct correlation between where the grapes grow and the quality and character of the wine.  He started extensive experimental blends using purchased grapes.  According to John, his father was a little bit reluctant in the beginning because he had “a pride of authorship.”  But being logical, pragmatic and caring about outcomes, even he could see that the wines made with grapes from other vineyards were, indeed, better.

Now the focus is finding growers who have matched the cultivar, whether it’s Merlot or Cabernet, to the soil to obtain what Jordan is seeking.  And the matching sometimes is row by row.  Driving through Alex Vyborny’s vineyards, the labeling of Cabernet vines abruptly changes from Jordan to Clos du Bois when the terrain changes slightly.   Du Preez explains that Jordan is looking for different character than Clos du Bois is so they contract with Vyborny for specific rows. 

The Wines

Although Jordan’s red wine is Cabernet Sauvignon-based, the blend varies depending on the vintage, with Merlot, which Davis says “plays an important part in the suppleness aspect,” accounting for about 15 to 18 percent of the final blend.  Davis also believes that Petit Verdot, which they planted in 2000, is an essential component because of its dark fruit character.  He also includes a touch of Malbec in some years.  Davis uses a mixture of American and French oak for aging.  Although French oak is three times more tannic compared to American oak, it paradoxically softens the fruit tannins more, according to Davis.

A 40-Year Retrospective Tasting

The 40-year retrospective tasting of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon held in New York earlier this year demonstrated the change in focus and style.  In the following notes, the AVA is noted in parenthesis.

1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley):  Fully mature, but certainly not tired.  Dried fruit, leafy undertones.  A touch of almost sweet fig-like character.  Very long and classy.  It has the beauty and grace of a mature wine.  It validates everything that Tom Jordan did in the early 1970s.  95

1980 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley):  Bigger, fresher fruit flavors than the 76, but still plenty of mature notes.  Great freshness and length. Younger than the 76, but no doubt still a mature wine.  94

1981 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley): Gorgeous nose. Slightly lighter than the 1980. Lovely long black cherry notes, bright, fresh, uplifting acid. Beautiful balance.  Slightly unripe tannins peak out in the finish.  These three wines confirm Tom and Sally’s vision of making superb wines that develop marvelously.  91

1990 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley): Big and lush, yet still balanced and harmonious. A more robust version of the 1980.  Succulent black fruit.  Mature nuances come out, but still young and vigorous.  Delicious now, but no rush.  Polished tannins.  This was the last of the wines in this tasting that came entirely from their vineyards.  97

1997 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County): The different appellation indicates the broader sourcing of grapes.  Younger, juicier and riper with more fruit and fewer non-fruit nuances herald a different style.  Wonderfully ripe and supple tannins.  Needs more time to develop.  92

1999 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County): Great nose, young, but easy to enjoy.  Sweet fruit, but actually more austere than the 97.  Hallmark ripe tannins.  Showing more complexity than the riper 97.  Great length and balance.  93

2001 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County):  Lots of blackberry, black cherry, cassis-kind of fruit, supple, fresh, very fruity, but ever so slightly hot. Overall a bigger, riper wine consistent with a more contemporary style.  But a bit out of joint at this stage.  90

2008 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley):  Current release.  $52.  Wonderful balance of ripe black cherry-like fruit, some earthy mineraly notes.  Marvelous complexity.  Fresh and lively.  No jamminess.  Long and silky.  Despite the extra ripeness, the alcohol does not show.  Great balance.  95

2010 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley):  Not yet bottled.  The blend is complete.  Aging in tank, to be bottled shortly.  Intense and dense.  Overt blackberry-like fruit stands out.  But not jammy.  Tannins are remarkably suave for such a young wine.  Good structure and fresh acidity.  Quite lovely.  In the same league as the 2008.  94

Davis believes that the major change in style over this time range is consistent with “the modern push” to have fewer vegetal or herbal components with more focus on the fruit element.  He abhors high alcohol wine--and has never made one over 14 percent--because with the higher alcohol comes a lower acidity, which he believes is “the soul of the wine.”

Whether these more “modern” vintages will develop along the same marvelous lines as the 1976, 1980 and 1981 remains to be seen, but their balance and freshness suggests to me that they will.

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E-mail me with comments or your experience with Jordan’s Cabernet at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com