The element of surprise is easily the most scintillating aspect of a "blind" wine tasting. When all bias in favor of region, producer and price is removed, anything can happen and often does.
Such was the case at the 37th San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge from April 6-7. One of the youngest wineries (first vintage 2016) to enter one of the oldest wine competitions in the United States (founded in 1982) scored a stunning, some might even say surprising, triumph when the 2017 Oceano Spanish Springs Vineyard Chardonnay ($38) emerged as the domestic Wine of the Year at the venerable competition.
Oceano came into being when co-owner Rachel Martin visited the Spanish Springs Vineyard in San Luis Obispo at the behest of a friend who had recently purchased the vineyard. Martin had extensive experience with wine, having run the family winery, Boxwood Estate, near Middleburg Virginia. She also had studied viticulture and winemaking at the University of Bordeaux and Napa Valley College.
"From my first visit to the vineyard, I knew we could make a wine like this," she said. "I love minerality and a savory aspect in the wine. I knew I could produce a wine like I dreamed in my head."
She and co-owner Kurt Deutsch made a deal to purchase Spanish Springs grapes and brought Napa Valley veteran winemaker Marbue Marke, a native of Sierra Leone, on board for that first vintage of chardonnay. They added pinot noir in 2017. The vineyard, situated less than two miles from the Pacific Ocean, is shrouded by fog in early morning, gives way to sunshine later in the day, then enjoys cooling ocean breezes throughout the evening.
"The fog, the proximity to the ocean, the soils, it's all ideal for the style of wine we want to make," said Martin. "I have really high hopes for what we're doing at Spanish Springs Vineyard."
For what it's worth, the Oceano Spanish Springs Chardonnay mirrors the mineral-driven style of a premier or grand cru white Burgundy, combining mouth-watering acidity with perfect ripeness to create a unique California chardonnay that exudes freshness, elegance and balance with an underlying richness that completes the impressive package.
Oceano was in very good company at the top of the heap. The import Wine of the Year was the brilliant Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne, $84. Unlike the freshly minted Oceano, Champagne Delamotte was founded in 1760 and is the fifth oldest house in Champagne. Delamotte has been making impressive bubbly for as long as anyone alive can remember.
Besides claiming the top awards, Oceano and Delamotte enjoyed Best of Show status in their respective categories, white and sparkling wine. They were joined by the 2018 Etude Rose of Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, $22 (Best Rose); 2016 Wakefield/Taylors St. Andrews Shiraz, Clare Valley, Australia, $80 (Best Red); and the 2018 Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer Late Harvest Cluster Select, $35 (Best Dessert).
Nearly 1,400 wines and spirits were evaluated by 24 judges during the two days of blind tastings. Judges were informed only of the category being evaluated, with names of producers and prices withheld to create a level playing field free of bias for all entrants. Complete results can be found on the competition website.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Bonny Doon 2018 Vin Gris de Cigare, Central Coast ($18) — Winemaker Randall Grahm is a fan of the wines of southern France, particularly delicate vin gris. This vintage is a beauty, showing attractive notes of strawberry, cherry and citrus with refreshing acidity and a pale onion-skin color typical of the Languedoc or Provence. The blend is a combination of red and white grapes, notably grenache and grenache blanc, with lesser amounts of Carignane, cinsaut, mourvedre, picpoul and vermentino. Beautifully crafted and delicious. Rating: 93.
Merry Edwards 2016 Pinot Noir, Flax Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($63) — This is the style that suits Merry Edwards best, with richness and power at the forefront. This vintage from the Flax Vineyard shows tremendous depth and length, with glowering dark fruits and an earthy back note. The tannins are firm but approachable. Drink now or cellar for another three to five years. Rating: 94.
Anaba 2018 Rose of Grenache, Sonoma Valley ($28) — This pale, onion-skin colored rose is made in the style of Provence, with a nose of strawberry and citrus and crisp, mouth-watering acidity on the palate. Rating: 92.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. Email Robert at [email protected]