Friday, September 4, 2009

Tasting: August Briggs: A Small Family Affair

We had a great staff tasting Thursday morning with Bryan Harley, national sales manager for the August Briggs Winery. It's a big title for a little winery. August 'Joe' Briggs is the owner/winemaker. He makes around 4500 cases, but 13 different varieties. Do the math. They are all tiny artisanal lots. The Briggs operation is a Napa fantasty: it's small and it's almost totally family. When visiting the Napa Valley, absolutely pay them a visit.

Onto the wines: I'll split this piece into two parts. The first will focus on the traditional Napa grapes: Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The second will highlight California 'heirloom' varietals. Joe makes several Pinot Noirs as well, but restaurant demand has rendered them rarities on our retail shelves.

We tasted two vintages, 2007 and 2008 of Chardonnay sourced from the Leveroni Vineyard in Carneros. It is a relatively small vineyard with the fruit going to Briggs and into the Leveroni's own wine. Joe barrel ages the wine and allows his Chardonnay's to go through full malolactic. Recent years have seen a dramatic reduction in the use of new oak, allowing the vineyard's flavors of citrus, pear and apple to dominate the wine with acid and minerals sustaining the creamy finish. 2007 was the warmer vintage and the sun brought out rich aromas of tropical fruits. 2008 began with a severe frost in the late spring resulting in a tiny fruit set and very low yields. The wine shows more intense mineral notes and acid than the 2007. We opened the 2008 (the current retail vintage) at the in-store tasting later that evening and the wine opened up considerably after being open for a couple of hours.

We tasted the 2005 and 2006 vintages of the Monte Rosso and Napa Cabernets. Both are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a little old school. In the absence of achieving layered flavors through blending, Joe uses a combination of American and French oak barrels. The fruit comes through the creamy herbal notes of the American barrels into the finishing vanilla and spice notes of the French. Think of the barrel regimen as a spice rack.

The signature characteristics of the vineyards come through on both wines and override vintage variations. The Monte Rosso (above) shows its Sonoma heritage and rich red volcanic soils in red fruits which integrate into silky tannins. The oak, especially the American, is more evident on the Monte Rosso wines.

The Napa Cab is an 'East Meets West' affair as the fruit is sourced from both the Stagecoach Vineyard in the hills east of Oakville and the Corbett Vineyard  (above) on Spring Mountain to the west. The fruit is pure mountain blackberries and cassis with dark floral aromatics and more aggressive tannins. The 2005 vintage was plagued by heat spikes and the flavor profile is a little blocky. 2006 was warm and consistent and the fruit is silky from beginning to end. Vintage notes were consistent for both wines.

In summary, the tasting was educational as well as an opportunity to enjoy some well-made wines (even at 8:30 in the morning!) All August Briggs wines are made for the table and are approachable and enjoyable right off the shelf, which is Joe's style. He lets the fruit ripen fully and he resulting wines are balanced and silky.

Coming soon, notes on the stars of the tastings: Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Charbono.

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