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A Marcassin Experience

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: May 4, 2006 8:58pm ET

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?

James Suckling
 —  May 5, 2006 10:33am ET

Laube. I am with you. They are some of the great wines of the world and every time I am lucky enough to drink one it is a real treat. The Chardonnays are wonderfully balanced and age well. Here are my notes on three single vineyard 1997s with the magazine's (yours!) score followed by mine. I tasted them in Zurich late last fall in a non-blind tasting.

Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Lorenzo Vineyard 1997: This shows wonderful aromas and flavors of honey and apple with just a hint of green apples. Full, refined and long. A beauty. Like a top Puligny. (92/95)

Chardonnay Alexander Valley Gauer Vineyard Upper Barn 1997: A little bit more powerful than the Lorenzo but not as classy. Full and round, with lots of apple and pineapple character. Fresh and long. Beauty. (93/94)

Chardonnay Carneros Hudson Vineyards E Block 1997: More Californian in style with lemon, apple and vanilla aromas that follow through to a full-bodied palate, with lots of fruit and fresh acidity. Long and delicious. (92/93)

David Nerland
Scottsdale —  May 5, 2006 1:58pm ET
Our wine group(Phoenix) did a vertical tasting (1996-2001) of the Marcassin Estate Chardonnays and Pinots on April 26 of this year. Included for fun were the 03 Aubert Pinot, 02 DRC LaTache and 99 DRC Montrachet. We did the flights, youngest to oldest. The 96's were as good as it gets! While John might not be the best business man as you stated, He and Helen craft some of the most amazing wines produced in America.
La Quinta, CA —  May 5, 2006 3:28pm ET
I recently enjoyed one of the single greatest chardonnay's ever produced in California; 1993 Marcassin Gauer Vineyard "Upper Barn". My friend is the owner and executive chef of a fine dining establishment, and he has ALL the Marcassin's. This bottle still showed amazing youth and vibrancy for the age. Like a well made Batard-Montrachet. I believe this wine will still drink wonderful over the next 3-5 years++++. Hey James see if John or Helen can get you a bottle of that to try next time!! By the way James, I am doing a vertical of Screaming Eagle in my shop next winter if you'd like to come. 2001-2003. Should be interesting.
Brent L Pierce
St. Helena, CA —  May 5, 2006 6:49pm ET
None of the other vineyards? Did they just want to highlight the Estate vineyard? I had 2 bottles of 91 Gauer not too long ago. Both were spectacular, still. The 96, though, I agree, is the best she ever made.
James Mancbach
May 5, 2006 11:17pm ET
Jim- I agree with you regarding your high praise of Marcassin and espesially there Pinot Noir. I hae been a huge fan for many years. Since I had my first bottle of 96 Estate, I hae always been amazed at all the changes the wine goes through in the glass. I usually double decant there Pinot 2 hours to consumption and I am always rewarded by my efforts. Bravo to Helen and John.
Carl Oberdier
New York, New York —  July 5, 2006 12:19pm ET
We just had the Marcassin Vineyard Pinot Noir 2001 at Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg and thought it was the best wine we'd ever had. We were doing a Napa/Sonoma wine tour, and our only disappointment was that there is apparently no Marcassin tasting room. But given the limited availability and sky-high demand for Marcassin wines, that's probably too much ever to hope for.

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