A Marcassin Experience

May 4, 2006

John Wetlaufer invited me to a tasting of all the Marcassin estate wines in June. That was last June.

Then nearly a year passed before we sat down to the wines.

In March, out came the corks from 17 bottles, and this could only be described as one incredible tasting.

Wetlaufer and his winemaker wife, Helen Turley, drink plenty of their wines at home. But they rarely taste their older wines in lineups such as this. One reason is that they didn’t make much Chardonnay or Pinot Noir from their 15-acre Sonoma Coast vineyard (northeast of Jenner) early on. And they’re busy, hence the near-year lapse between his offer and the actual sit-down date at Martinelli Winery in Russian River Valley, where Marcassin is made.

Marcassin Vineyard sits at an elevation of 1,400 feet, above the fog line and far enough inland that it gets steady sun throughout the growing season.

We tasted the Chardonnays first, non-blind, going from old to new. Briefly, the Chardonnays are made as naturally as possible, with wild yeast fermentation in barrel. The wines spend nearly a year in new French oak barrels (Turley is exacting in having the wines tested for any microbial or VA issues). Both wines are aged for nearly three years in bottle before release and therefore show hardly any evidence of oak. One reason is that Turley likes the way both the Chardonnay and Pinot show with bottle age. John also admits he might not be the best businessman. (He vows to release newer vintages earlier. We’ll see.)

Here are my notes on the wines. I list the official magazine rating, followed by my non-blind rating from the vertical tasting. Wines that have not yet been released carry a score range, indicating where I think they’ll end up once they are bottled.

Marcassin Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Marcassin Vineyard

1996: A monumental effort, this first commercial release has about everything you could want in a Chardonnay. Unctuous, deep, super rich, almost syrupy. Youthful, intense roasted pear, hazelnut and mineral flavors. On the finish, the flavors fan out, adding vibrant fig and anise. (97/99)

1997: Great nose, with amazingly complex aromas. Elegant, detailed crème brulee, custard and ripe pear flavors. Ready now. (94/94)

1998: From a challenging vintage, it is remarkably successful. Yellow gold in color. Earthy slate, mineral and vanilla flavors are joined by rich fig, hazelnut and citrus. It’s very concentrated and has a hint of botrytis and even a bit of tannin. Still, a hugely successful wine that reflects the challenge of a vintage marked by a small crop, cool growing season and late harvest. I took some of this wine home and later cooked with it; more on that later. (93/93)

1999: My least favorite of the Chardonnays, it exhibits leafy green apple, mineral and bubblegum flavors. Intense and refined, yet not as compelling as its siblings. Slightly chalky aftertaste made me suspect a slightly off bottle. (97/91)

2000: Super rich, deftly balanced, graceful, harmonious and deeply concentrated, with a mix of ripe pear, custard and citrus flavors. Great depth and length. (94/96)

2001: Effusively fruity, supple, elegant and refined. Silky texture and tiers of concentrated crème brulee, fig, pear and apricot. Amazing length, with tingling acidity. (94/97)

2002: Supple textured, it caresses the palate with layers of citrus, pear and ripe fig. Elegant, graceful and concentrated, it finishes with a fantastic burst of flavor and a wonderful lift. (93/96).

2003: Not yet released, this wine is youthful, tight, rich and fleshy, with ginger, pear and hazelnut flavors that turn smooth and polished, with a long, reverberating finish. Should be a classic. (95-100 points)

Marcassin Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Marcassin Vineyard

1995 (from magnum): Only one barrel was produced and it was bottled exclusively in magnum. Mature, with dried cherry, currant, sage, tea and spice. It’s elegant and drinking well. While impressive, it is not in the same class as the wines that followed. (Not rated, 90)

1996 (from magnum): Simply amazing richness and purity of fruit. Dense and concentrated, with vivid black cherry, black berry, anise, sage and wild berry fruit. Shows some lovely secondary flavors and is (not surprisingly) tighter and more youthful than the 750ml bottles I’ve enjoyed. (96/96)

1997 (from magnum): Silky and seductive, with polished cherry, currant and anise flavors. Complex and stylish, it offers more finesse and grace than density. (91/94)

1998 (from magnum): From that same challenging vintage discussed above, this wine showed great richness, concentration and vibrancy, and I rated it the same as I did on release. Dense and potent, with layers of plum, currant and rose petal. Very rich and focused, with pleasant mineral and earthen floor nuances. Solid tannins, too. Long life ahead. (96/96)

1999: Vibrant and lively, with rich plum, blueberry, sage and a touch of candied apple. This is a delicate, understated style that reveals itself more slowly than some of the other wines. Makes you want to drink it slowly. (94/94)

2000: Wonderful purity of flavor. Deftly balanced, with tiers of black cherry, boysenberry, wild berry and raspberry fruit. On the finish you get a hint of black tea, rose petal and fresh earth flavors. Long life ahead. (95/95)

2001: A stunning wine, with exquisite balance, amazing richness and purity of flavor. The flavors build on each other, with wild berry, black cherry and raspberry stacked on rose petal, cranberry and hints of anise, hazelnut and nutmeg. Fantastic finish. (97/97)

2002: Not yet released. From a great vintage, this is dense, rich and concentrated, bordering on massive for Pinot. Amazing purity of flavor. Vivid blackberry, wild berry, plum and raspberry fruit. Tightly focused, with excellent acidity and balance. (95-100)

2003: Not yet released, this too should be yet another grand wine. Intense, concentrated, rich and vibrant, with syrupy blueberry, black berry and wild berry fruit that’s vivid and sharply focused. Given its vitality and depth of flavor, I can see why Turley wants to give it bottle time. (95-100)

I know many of you have tried Turley’s Marcassin Vineyard wines. (And if you haven’t, it might be worth buying one off a restaurant wine list). I think they are phenomenal wines and among the great wines in the world. What are your impressions?

United States California Red Wines White Wines Pinot Noir Chardonnay

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