Critical Acclaim


Issue 168, May/June 2013

My recent tour of the best Napa Valley addresses began with a bang with John Kongsgaard’s wines. Kongsgaard’s performance in the tricky 2011 vintage is especially impressive. He views 2011 as “a great cold year,” adding that the wines “have magic balance and are surprisingly giving.” The 2010s, he affirms, are massive wines that will require aging. Despite the difficulties of the October rainy spells, Kongsgaard let his fruit hang until it ripened. He told me he picked his Atlas Peak cabernet on November 2, and brought in his syrah from Hudson Vineyard beginning at 4:00 in the morning of November 3, just before it began raining again that afternoon. Kongsgaard’s chardonnays and syrah are consistently among the greatest examples of their varieties made in California.

2011 Kongsgaard Chardonnay The Judge
2011 The Judge Chardonnay (aged in 100% new oak, like the basic Napa Valley cuvee): Good full yellow. Spectacular perfumed nose melds crystallized lemon peel, marzipan and crushed stone. Wonderfully sappy, silky and deep, with the crushed-lemon fruit complicated by saline minerality and given finishing grip by a strong stony element. Bracing acidity gives the very long finish outstanding thrust. At about 14.5% alcohol, these two 2011 chardonnays are a bit lower in octane than usual, which is typical for the vintage. 95-97 tasted from barrel

2010 Kongsgaard Chardonnay The Judge
2010 The Judge Chardonnay. Brilliant medium yellow, the palest of these four chardonnays. Reticent, Burgundian nose hints at peach, citrus fruits, hazelnut and gunpowder complicated by mineral and sulfide nuances. Extremely deep and concentrated but youthfully closed, showing a powerful crushed stone character that reminded me of a Corton-Charlemagne. With its strong minerality, this very Burgundian chardonnay comes across as drier than the Napa Valley bottling. Already shows outstanding palate presence, but really calls for three to five years of aging. 96(+?)

2011 Kongsgaard Chardonnay
2011 Chardonnay. Full bright yellow-gold. Knockout nose combines lemon, peach, hazelnut and smoky lees. Then tighter in the mouth than the open nose suggests, showing superb density and snap and a compellingly tactile texture. Finishes with electric acidity and sneaky palate-staining persistence. This will need patience. Kongsgaard adds a bit of SO2 to his wines to retard the malolactic fermentations but then does not add any more again until after the following vintage, in an attempt “to allow everything that’s going to oxidize to oxidize.” This, he says, gives his wines a nutty, leesy, aldehytic character, often with the early gunpowder quality of the wines of Coche-Dury. He practices “a fairly aggressive lees stirring regimen,” explaining that the lees essentially fine the wine. (93-95) tasted from barrel

2010 Kongsgaard Chardonnay
2010 Chardonnay. Very bright yellow-gold, a bit less deep than the 2011. Expressive aromas of tangerine, hazelnutty lees and sexy oak. The palate boasts great richness and sweetness, with a wonderfully sappy character to its explosive soft citrus and stone fruit flavors. Comes across as sweeter than the 2011, but harmonious acidity gives it beautiful balance. The 2010s finished their alcohol fermentations up to 16 months after the vintage, later than the malos, noted Kongsgaard, adding that this has given them a lot of weight. But this wine finishes bright and very long, with a firm spine of acidity. 95

2011 Kongsgaard Cabernet Sauvignon
2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (from “runty” 30+-year-old vines owned by a neighbor in a rocky site on Atlas Peak): Good dark red. Perfumed aromas of black raspberry, graphite and violet. Bracing acidity gives precision and urgency to the very primary flavors of blackberry, licorice and violet. This brisk, well balanced cabernet finishes with firm, building, noble tannins and lingering suggestions of tobacco, charcoal and violet. “Like a perfect child,” says Kongsgaard, adding that this wine promises a perfect trajectory in bottle and should always be a charmer. (92-95) tasted from barrel

2010 Kongsgaard Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (Kongsgaard blends 10% merlot into his cabs): Deep red, more saturated than the 2011. Sweeter and more open on the nose, offering complex scents of black raspberry, brown sugar, truffle and underbrush. Rich, sweet and lush, but with lovely minerality energizing the flavors of blueberry and brown spices. The slowly building finish shows serious, youthfully sullen tannins that will require at least several years of bottle aging. 92(+?)

2011 Kongsgaard Syrah
2011 Syrah. Good ruby-red color. Restrained but very pure aromas of blackberry, blueberry, licorice and dark chocolate. Wonderfully rich and deep but bright too, with blue fruit flavors accented by black pepper. This impeccably balanced, very brisk syrah grew creamier in the glass without losing its firm edge. Finishes with noble tannins and a lingering note of licorice. Kongsgaard made just 4 barrels of this elixir in 2011, down from a normal 12, as the rot from the mid-October rains caused him to eliminate 70% of the grapes. In the end, his block at Hudson Vineyards yielded just 2 tons for 2-1/2 acres. (94-96) tasted from barrel

2010 Kongsgaard Syrah
2010 Syrah. Saturated deep ruby-red. Higher-toned on the nose than the 2011, showing aromas of black fruits, brown spices, dark chocolate, licorice and roasted duck. Then broad and rich in the mouth, showing more obvious alcohol and less urgent crushed fruit character than the 2011 (this is higher in octane at close to 15%) but also coming across as more relaxed, savory and meaty. Finishes with substantial mounting tannins and a note of bitter chocolate. 93(+?)

2011 Kongsgaard VioRous
2011 VioRous (a 70/30 blend of roussanne and viognier, entirely from Stonecrest Vineyard in Coombsville, which has more roussanne than viognier; this wine used to include 25% Hudson Vineyard viognier; just one barrel made, vs. a normal three): Medium straw-yellow. Aromas of peach syrup, cyanic peach pit, minerals and forest floor. Very dry and penetrating in the mouth, with intense fruit pit and mineral flavors dominating. In a very understated style, less perfumed than previous vintages. Does not convey the early sex appeal or pliancy of the earlier vintages with higher viognier content, but this is minerally, serious, noble white wine. All of this fruit was harvested after the mid-October rains, noted Kongsgaard. (This is the only wine here that gets just one year in barrel.) 92(+?)


Prior years highlights
Steven Tanzer

2009 Syrah. Knockout nose combines blueberry, sandalwood, gunflint, brown spices, smoked meat and minerals; smell like a La-La wine from Guigal. Suave, sappy and penetrating, with a powerful graphite minerality to the intense dry berry flavors. The explosive, building finish features perfectly ripe acidity and noble tannins. An essence of Syrah, and an early candidate for my “nose of the vintage” award.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. Saturated, deep ruby-red. The nose, lifted by a violet perfume. Sexy on entry, then suave and bright in the middle, terrific energy and lovely breadth. The long, mounting finish throws off complex notes of spices, anise and minerals. From barrel (92-95) points

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. Ripe, sweet aromas of currant, mocha, truffle, leather and chocolate. Then broad and sweet but with a firm acid spine. Distinctly dark flavors of blueberry, black raspberry and licorice. Finishes with densely packed tannins and excellent persistence. 94 points

The 2005 Judge is as outstanding a barrel sample of California Chardonnay as I can recall ever tasting and promises to be one of the greatest California Chardonnays made to date. (98) points