I recently had the pleasure of getting out of the house to do a little wine judging in Sonoma County, and I have to say it was a great pleasure not only to hit the road as pandemic restrictions ease a bit and be in the same room with other wine friendly folk, but also to extend for a couple of days and visit a producer in the area. A favorite publicist put me on the scent of Notre Vue Estates, a 710-acre spread just east of Limerick Lane on the south side of Healdsburg that straddles
the Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley AVA’s, and it turns out that “scent” is what it’s all about when it comes to the wines produced there.
Purchased by Bob & Renee Stein in 1992 with a vision for producing fine wine, the property currently has 250 acres planted with sixteen different grape varieties, and 350 acres were donated to the Sonoma County Open Space District as a permanent protected “forever wild” reserve. The planted acreage features multiple exposures and microclimates in the rolling hills, and the vineyards are certified sustainable. Their Balverne “Forever Wild” label features value-forward Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Noir Rosé, with the Notre Vue label featuring high-line Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Rhone inspired offerings.
Current winemaker Alex Holman is an industry veteran, bringing years of US Army and chemistry experience to bear at Keller Estate, Dry Creek Vineyard, Paul Hobbs, J. Rickards and sparkling wine juggernaut Rack & Riddle before joining the team at Notre Vue in 2019. I got to chat with Alex about what he’s been through since joining the estate and his philosophy of wine, and he’s had quite a ride already, having gone through a winery fire in May of 2019, losing 500 barrels and 5000 cases in the blink of an eye; the Kinkade fire post-harvest of that year, where almost 50% of vineyards were damaged; the Glass fire in 2020, which caused the loss of almost the entire vintage to smoke and ash issues; and pandemic induced labor shortages. Even in the face of such calamities, he remains optimistic about the estate and the potential it carries. He’s a true believer that great wine is made in the vineyard, saying “I know how to be a wine doctor, but I try not to have sick patients.” That focus and a keen talent for coaxing deep aromatics and using minimal intervention techniques that let them shine is the estate hallmark.
I checked in with Alex this week for his take on the 2021 harvest, and he was encouraged even in the face of a 25% reduction in tonnage over previous years thanks to ongoing drought conditions in California, plus an atmospheric river event that brought torrential rains during harvest. He reports good color, brighter acidity than the last few years, and solid aroma and flavor profiles across the varieties harvested. Keeping the patient well in 2021 required spoon feeding of water to the vines after deep watering early on – and that’s on an estate that’s usually virtually dry farmed. He also mentioned that they are keeping a weather eye on the 2020 wines that they did go ahead with – dealing with smoke taint is a relatively new science. The smoke taint molecule latches onto sugar molecules and sits dormant in a way, waiting for interplay with a wine’s acid to release a smoky character. Fortunately, insurance stands ready to take the hit if decisions are made to drop part or all the vintage to maintain brand reputation.
All that said, the wines from 2018 and 2019 that I tasted are all beautifully rendered, with lifted aromatics present throughout the set. It was a pleasure to meet Alex, Jared and the team and taste through the set, not to mention the chance to take a slice of an afternoon to take in Notre Vue – “Our View” – in more ways than one!
Balverne (Chalk Hill, Sonoma County) Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc “Forever Wild” 2019
($27): Here’s a wine that’s long on aromatic development and fresh breezy flavor – both things being specialties of winemaker Alex Holman. Pink grapefruit, ripe melon and lemon with a dash of grass flood your senses and finish crisply after a pleasantly rich midpalate. This is the kind of Sauvignon Blanc that makes a day in the sun feel worthwhile! 90
Balverne (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Pinot Noir Estate Grown “Forever Wild” 2019
($45): Review: Now here’s a big red cherry nose if ever there was one. It’s offset nicely with a little powder and vanilla, with faint spice notes darting in and out of the aroma profile. It all comes together on the palate, where balanced acidity keeps things lively. Some sweet oak comes forward in the finish, and it’s a nice touch. 91
Notre Vue (Chalk Hill, Sonoma County) GSM Sparkling Rosé 2019
($45): Here’s an unusual blend for a bottle of bubbly – 52% Syrah, 32% Grenache and 16% Mourvedre. Now, before you stop reading, let me tell you that this is worthy of a spin. This is deftly handled, delivering dry style, light bodied texture and bold cranberry and grapefruit aromas and flavors complemented by a soft yeasty note and a touch of herbaceous character that you’d expect from a mix of these varieties. This is the sort of discovery that sparkling wine fans will fully enjoy, and it may win over some folks who find bubbly to be too austere for them. I’m a fan! 91
Notre Vue (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Chardonnay Musqué 2019
($36): This aromatic clone gets a chance to shine here, with a stainless steel cold ferment and transfer direct to neutral barrels without any malolactic fermentation. The result is a bold expression of sweet white flower, pear and apple aromas that translate in dry style on the palate. The neutral oak serves to round off the acidity just a touch without compromising brightness. Well done! 90
Notre Vue (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Chardonnay 2019
This delightful Chardonnay leans French in style, with 22 percent new oak (lightly toasted) barrels adding a rich texture and notes of honey and marzipan to the fresh Clone 17 fruit flavors of pear, lemon and apple. Overall, this is long and creamy with a bright acid pop in the finish that drives the lingering flavors. There’s some age-worthy structure here – if you’re a white Burgundy fan, you’ll appreciate this. 93
Notre Vue (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Pinot Noir 2019
($55): Winemaker Alex Holman’s focus on aromatic development across the portfolio is in full flower here, with cherry, strawberry and forest floor elements in full interplay. The dance continues on the palate, where just a touch of oak toast adds tension without trying to take things over. Fine grained tannins and bright acidity keep the finish pulsing with life. This will stand up to bold dishes well – a full throttle mushroom risotto would be perfect. Contains clones 114 and 667. 93
Notre Vue (Sonoma County) Proprietor’s Red Blend 2018
($59): It’s always good to have a Cabernet-based wine in the tasting room lineup. That said, this wine is more than a shelf filler, presenting a nod to Bordeaux’s Left Bank blends with blackberry, currants, vanilla, cedar chest spice and mild dried herb aromas and flavors that are finely tuned and harmonious. Contains 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petit Verdot and 6% Malbec. 92
Notre Vue (Chalk Hill, Sonoma County) “GSM” 2019
($69): This is the winery flagship, and with good reason as it showcases winemaker Alex Holman’s penchant for aromatic development combined with hands off winemaking. Here we get wild berry and cherry fruit with bright pepper and well folded dried herbs on the nose and in the mouth, with gentle oak influence adding depth and a dash of fall spice. It’s an example that other GSM (Grenache – Syrah – Mourvedre) purveyors should take note of. 94