Schaefer on Wine

Foxen raises the quality bar

It's been a while since I stopped in at the Foxen Vineyard tasting room on Foxen Canyon Road, on the northern edge of Santa Barbara County.

Several years ago I wrote a newspaper column titled "Foxen means quality." Well, in the intervening time, Foxen has raised the quality bar even higher: they have to be considered one of the premier producers in Santa Barbara County. Vintners Dick Dore and Bill Wathen have been at it since 1985 and, at least for them, practice makes perfect. Their limited production means they sell out every year (their Wine Club is a good alternative). Some tasting notes from my recent visit:

Chenin Blanc, Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard 2004 ($18): Nobody does this red-headed stepchild of a variety like Foxen does. This is rich and full-bodied, not like most California Chenin Blanc. It's well-endowed with sweet pea and butterscotch flavors, great acidity and a lengthy finish.

Chardonnay, Tinaquaic Vineyard 2005 ($28): This particular Chard does not undergo the usual secondary fermentation; consequently it comes across as crisp, fresh and minerally. That's not to say it isn't big-boned and rich with ripe fruit flavors. The structure of the wine perfectly frames the fruit, mineral and textural aspects so that it just glides along the palate to the zippy finish.

Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2005 ($32): Dark cherry and plum aromatics are the hallmark of this Pinot from the Pommard clone (and, our little secret: all from Bien Nacido Vineyard). The appealing flavors of ripe dark cherries are backed up with a sense of earthiness. A big wine, but very balanced with a finely honed cut of acidity. Wild cherry (think Smith Bros. cough drops) also breaks through, hits the sweet spot on mid-palate and finishes elegant and tasty.

Pinot Noir, Julia's Vineyard 2004 ($46): More deep, dark aromatics here, then comes the red fruit, spice and leather on the palate, augmented with hints of chocolate, root beer and beetroot. The typical Pinoty earthiness comes into play too though it's not intrusive. Perhaps the best Julia's I have tasted: the epitome of what that vineyard can produce. Voluminous, extracted and very well done, it's the most Burgundian of the bunch.

Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Block Eight 2004 ($46): Bright, sweet fruit aromas are the first thing to get your attention. The pureness of the bing cherry and raspberry fruit are immediately apparent, but you can sense there's much more going in on this wine. A richness underlies the great initial fruit blast, all set on a great structure that's a bit compact right now. Some swirling in the glass brings out some dark elements, like black cherries and licorice. A Pinot to put in the cellar to age some of those long chain, smooth operator tannins into an even more magical elixir.

Pinot Noir, Sea Smoke Vineyard 2004 ($64): Dark, earthy aromatics here, with plenty of that mushroom and forest floor effect going on; then the perfume of black currants hits you like a knock out punch. Deep dish plum, dark berry and mushroom flavors are wrapped around each other in a weighty, full-bodied package. Fantastic intensity and purity of fruit coupled with a richness that sweeps across the palate to a scintillatingly fresh finish. This is the best Pinot I've ever tasted from the Santa Rita Hills appellation, perhaps the best Pinot in all of Santa Barbara County.

Cuvee Jeanne Marie, Williamson-Dore Vineyard 2004 ($30): A blended red wine, this cuvee is 80 per cent Grenache and 20 per cent Mourvedre, and it's a beauty. You get a two for one here: plenty of bright red-fruit flavors that are easily accessible right now but also some deeper, darker fruit bringing up the rear that adds considerably to the complexity and bodes well for aging. It's big boned and explosive in the mouth right now, though, with plenty of residual secondary flavors that hang in there, long after the finish, so you might have trouble keeping from opening this one immediately.

Syrah, Williamson-Dore Vineyard 2004 ($40): A big-fruited and big-footed imprint for this full-bodied and intense Syrah. Plenty of blackberry jam, sour cherry, black pepper, earthiness with some vanilla/caramel mixed in. Rich and tightly wound, with a bit of a hard edge, it has the stuffing to ultimately age effortlessly. Intense, super concentrated and well structured, this is a swing-for-the-fences type of Syrah and it hits a home run for me every time.

Foothills Reserve, Santa Ynez Valley 2002 ($35): This is Foxen's quintessential Bordeaux style blend, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. A hard core of blueberry and blackberry fruit is undiluted and well focused on the palate, along with wood spice. Dark currants, also a Bordeaux hallmark, add to the complexity. It really deserves another two or three years of aging because the densely layered structure allows it to go the distance, plus it will drink very well for a decade or more.

Viognier, Vogelzang Vineyard, Late Harvest 2005 ($30, half bottle): Finally, a dessert wine, made from late-harvested, super-sweet grapes. I don't want to go on about this because there's really not that much to go around, but this captures the essence of pear in a bottle. Huge aromatics and mouth fillingly viscous in the mouth, it's dreamy stuff. Serve with a pear tart or fresh nectarines with chantilly cream on top.

As an addendum, I tasted at The Wine Cask Santa Barbara County Wine Futures event last month and, if a winery were to be named "best of show," out of all the great wineries pouring that day, Foxen would be it. The future releases (summer and fall of 2007) were all of the highest quality, exceeding even my high expectations. From the 2006 Chenin Blanc, Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard that actually tastes like Chenin Blanc to a 2005 Sangiovese, Williamson-Dore Vineyard that has great dried cherry and plum, tempered with clove and cinnamon, this is fine stuff.

But my top mark of the day, from over 100 wines, was the 2005 Foxen Sea Smoke Vineyard Pinot Noir. So now, I will have to revise my previous Sea Smoke comments above and tell you that the 2005 (a great red wine vintage in Santa Barbara County) Foxen Sea Smoke Pinot Noir is the best Pinot I have ever tasted from Santa Barbara County; it's just a beauty, perfect from start to finish (though the 2004 version is not far behind). I guess those Foxen boys have figured out how to raise the quality bar every year.

April 18, 2007

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