John JuergensWhat's New At Kendall-Jackson?

When it comes to consistently good and affordable wine, Kendall-Jackson is one of the wine producers that quickly comes to mind.

They have been at it for about 20 years and a lot of people, me included, got hooked on California Chardonnay by way of their regular bottling of Vintners Reserve. They also can produce one of the best Sauvignon Blancs in the $10 price range.

K-J has also had a full line of red wines, but some of their middle price tier wines (under $15) didn't seem to deliver as much bang for the buck as some of their competitors. However, when you moved into the upper price levels, that is, above $18 to $20, they can go cork-to-cork with anybody in the world.

Let me tell a short story to illustrate. Back in about 1989, I went to a wedding in upstate New York, and while I was browsing a local wine shop the owner asked if I had ever tried this nice little red wine from Kendall Jackson called Cardinale. I had never heard of it, but for $12 I thought I would take a chance on it.

You know how it can be when you go to an out of town wedding but you are not one of the main actors: You are forced into a lot of lounging around and schmoozing with people you are not likely to ever see again. Wine can make these times far more enjoyable while you are waiting for something important to happen.

Anyway, I popped the cork on my new discovery when I got back to the groom's house, thinking I would try to be the good-sport party guy by sharing a bottle with the rest of the idyll fringe element. But I didn't even have to taste the wine to know that I had latched on to something special here that I was not about to squander on a bunch of strangers with beer palates.

A cloud of exquisite fruit aromas came bursting out of the bottle and expanded as I poured the wine into my glass. If I didn't know better, I would have sworn that I could see a slight purple haze in the kitchen air. It was that intense.

The wine was such a dark, inky purple that I could have viewed a solar eclipse through it without hurting my eyes. And when I finally tasted the wine, I got a huge explosion of flavor that about took my breadth away. I remember having an outburst of objectivity that consisted of mostly three and four letter expletives.

At that point, instead of sharing my wonderful discovery with the other invited riffraff, I finished the glass, put the cork back in the bottle, hid it in my room, and made a bee-line back to that wine store to buy the rest of the Cardinale they had in stock.

Of course, I was not the only person in the country to experience this epiphany, and a couple of months later when I was looking for more of it, I found a whole stack of it in Memphis at its new price of about $60 a bottle. I was told that reports of experiences like mine from the field motivated the company to "reevaluate its pricing strategy" for this wine.

But, that was then; what is going on with K-J now? Over the past five years or so, Kendal Jackson has been "expanding its portfolio," as they say, through the acquisition of a number of smaller wineries that have been producing high quality wines in certain market niches. These include such names as Pepi, Camelot, Calina, Tapiz, Edmeades, and Villa Arceno.

Two other significant vineyards under the K-J Wine Estates Collection are La Crema and Yangarra Park. I recently had an opportunity to taste several wines from both of these properties and thought I would share my tasting notes.

La Crema has been around since 1979 and focuses its attention on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I discovered La Crema through a friend back in about 1995 and have followed their Pinot ever since. This is another one of those stories about a wine in the $12 range that had really stand out qualities, but then got the popularity boost into the $20+ range.

However, the wine is very good if you are in the market for a special bottle that other wine lovers would appreciate. The 2000 Sonoma Coast Pinot that I tasted has what I can best describe as balanced intensity, that is, it has depth of flavor and good texture but without being overdone as some California wines can be. The wine has flavors and aromas reminiscent of cherry, raspberries, and maybe a touch of spiciness all tied together with a bit of pleasant earthiness.

The La Crema Chardonnay also exhibits a certain restrained personality in that it is not overpowering and leans a bit more toward the subtle characteristics of white French Burgundy wines. It does possess a definite dose of oak, but it is well moderated, and the wine has great aromas of apples, citrus, and pears.

I think what makes the wine remind me of something from Burgundy is the subtle mineral aroma, or what I call "wet rocks" or "wet cement" smell, which carries over a bit into the flavor. The other aromas are reflected in the taste as well, and the wine is nicely balanced with just the right amount of acidity to keep it lively without curling your toes.

This wine also has gotten kicked up into the higher price category at about $18, but it is worth it if you want a great wine.

K-J also has a presence in the Australian market with its line of wines from Yangarra Park in South Eastern Australia. These include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a Shiraz.

The Chardonnay is nice and clean, and a bit on the lighter side, but well-balanced. The aroma is light with a mixture of citrus, pear, and a hint of oak and nuts. Most of these features come through on the flavors.

The Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the more interesting Cabs I have tasted in a while. It is not a fancy wine, but really delivers the fruit flavors of plum, currants, and a touch of spice. You might also pick up a slight vegetative flavor in the middle, and the wine has a nice round, smooth lingering finish. I found it to be a very seductive wine.

In this world of fad wines, Merlot has taken a lot of abuse because of its popularity. I enjoy good Merlot, but there is so little of it out there for under $20. I'm sorry, but with very few exceptions, Merlot as a stand alone variety is not even a fifteen dollar wine.

However, Yangarra Park produces a very good example of what a moderately priced Merlot can and should taste like. This wine has very light aromas of dark berries and a hint of what I call "shoe polish." The wine is very soft and velvety, and delivers deep plum flavors with a touch of vanilla from the oak barrels.

Last, but not least, is a Shiraz, which is the signature wine of Australia. It is not a particularly massive wine, but it has most of the characteristic traits of Australian Shiraz, such as peppery spice, maybe a bit of anise, and smoky leather. You get nice plum flavors laced with oaky vanilla. Although the tannins are somewhat toned down, the acidity is such that you get a little zip on the finish.

These might not be the most complex wines, but for $10 they are extremely good value wines. They work well as cocktail wines and will match up nicely to the usual kinds of foods you would serve with full-bodied wines. As I like to say, it is relatively easy to produce an expensive bottle of wine, but what is really difficult -- and what impresses me most -- is a good quality wine for $10. These are impressive wines, and I recommend you try all of them to see which you prefer. At this price, you can drink them every day.


May 2, 2002

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