Wine Diarist

Rhys Piece

My latest Slate column is about the amazing wines of California’s Rhys Vineyards. I hate to turn to clichés so early in a post—I usually try to wait until at least the third paragraph—but the Rhys pinot noirs really are paradigm-shifting wines. As I write in Slate, I think they are shockingly close in quality to the finest red Burgundies, which is something I honestly never thought I would say about any New World pinots and which caused me to do a lot of gushing in the article. My tasting notes, below, feature more gushing.

I wish I could say I was the first journalist to call attention to Rhys (it is pronounced “Reese”), but I’m merely jumping on the bandwagon. I believe Matt Kramer deserves credit for the discovery. Eric Asimov wrote an excellent piece about Rhys a few years ago, and Rusty Gaffney has provided some exceptionally detailed coverage. But I think it was my friend Allen Meadow, AKA Burghound, who sparked the frenzied interest we now see in Rhys (these days, every other thread on seems to be about Rhys). Allen has been effusive in his praise of Rhys (“unlike any other pinots being crafted in California today…simply put, these are terroir-driven wines par excellence”) and has given Kevin Harvey’s wines the highest ratings he has ever awarded any non-Burgundy pinots. Indeed, he gave the 2008 Horseshoe Vineyard pinot 95 points, and whether you make wine in Burgundy or California, 95 points from Allen is a big deal.

Allen and I corresponded a bit this week about Rhys. He said he, too, was astonished by the speed with which Harvey has succeeded, and even invoked a French term, bouche bée,  to express his amazement (Allen spends four months of the year in Burgundy and has clearly gone native). He went on to say that “it proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that if you have great terroir, it’s possible to make world class wine. I think the planting densities help tremendously as does the use of very high-percentage whole cluster fermentations, which helps to cut the sweetness so prevalent in much (not all) of new world pinot.” Allen noted that a few other pinot producers—Josh Jensen (Calera), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat)—have made wines that could hold their own against top-flight red Burgundies, but he said the list was a short one. There are, of course, people who object to these comparisons with Burgundy, who feel that New World pinots should be judged on their own merits. That’s certainly a reasonable position, but I think that for those of us who pray to Beaune each morning, the wines of the Côte d’Or are, for better or worse, the yardsticks against which all other pinots are inevitably measured.

Rhys is said to be at the vanguard of a new direction for California pinot noir, one that stresses elegance over power, balance over super-ripeness and its handmaiden, high alcohol. This is a very contentious issue, and I don’t intend to wade into it here except as it pertains to Rhys. A lot of the discussion regarding this stylistic shift seems to focus on winemaking choices—harvesting early versus picking late, etc. But Rhys is not a triumph of shrewd winemaking, it is a triumph of intelligent site selection, and while Harvey is not the type to wag a finger, he thinks that this has been the missing ingredient with a lot of California pinot noirs—the vines have been planted in the wrong places (i.e. valley floors, deep soils). Part of the problem, he suggests, is that producers have been too focused on climate; he believes that so long as the temperatures are sufficient to ripen the grapes between, say, September 1 and November 1, the soil exerts more of an influence on quality than the climate. He is convinced that if California can do a better job of matching the right grapes to the right dirt, the results will be incredible. “I think California’s greatest wines are still to be discovered,” he says.

That’s an encouraging thought, though I have a difficult time believing that anyone is going to be able to top the quality of Harvey’s wines anytime soon. A few years ago, Allen Meadows predicted that Rhys would become “among the reference standards” for California pinot. I would say that Harvey has raised the bar dramatically, and reiterating a point I make in my Slate column, I think the emergence of Rhys is one of the most exciting developments on the American wine scene in a very long time.

So, my tasting notes. I tasted all of the 2009 Rhys pinots except for the Home Vineyard. I did not try either of the 09 syrahs, but I re-tasted the two 08s, and I have included my notes for them.

Rhys Family Farm Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009   $49: An intensely floral nose, with cherry, cinnamon, and black pepper notes hovering in the background. A medium-bodied wine with succulent red fruit, good acidity and tannins, and a firm mineral backbone. It is just a touch sweet for my taste, and the sweetness carries through the finish, but otherwise a very pleasant pinot. B+.

Rhys Alpine Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 $59: Somewhat richer than the other Rhys pinots, and shows a slight oakiness that they don’t.  Lots of black cherry and cranberry on the palate, along with hints of cola and licorice. A nice chalky texture, as well as  excellent concentration  and structure—there’s some real bite to these tannins.  A very good wine that wears its California origins perhaps a little more overtly than some of its stablemates. A-

Rhys  Bearwallow Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 $59: A delicious fraise des bois aroma greets the nose,  along with heady mineral and floral scents and a dash of white pepper. I’m smitten with this pinot: it has cool, crunchy red fruit, a sinewy texture that I adore, fine structure, and a terrific vein of saline minerality. It is one of those wines that has so much going on yet makes it all look effortless.  A marzipan note emerges on the long, toothsome finish. A-.

Rhys Swan Terrace Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 $69: From a section of the Alpine Vineyard that Harvey bottles separately, the Swan Terrace serves up an alluring bouquet of cherry, dusty mineral, and flowers, along with a whiff of cedar. The stems also make their presence known.  Medium-bodied, with wonderful depth, freshness, and persistence.  There is not a hair out of place with this one;  it is a strikingly complete, totally seductive wine.  A-/A

Rhys Skyline Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 $69: Very pale color. A sensuous nose of cherry, cocoa powder, and flowers, along with a strong mineral note and a hint of citrus. In the mouth, it is rocks, rocks, and more rocks—this a rare wine in which the fruit supports the minerality and not vice-versa. That said, the fruit is great, and the wine displays marvelous poise and energy. A nice floral kick across the backend and big, ripe tannins round out an enthralling, utterly sui generis pinot. A

Rhys Horseshoe Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 $59: An arrestingly good perfume, with black cherries, flowers, earth, and cardamom. A whiff of stems adds to its appeal. The texture is the thing here—it’s so silken it seems almost  weightless. Yet, the wine packs enormous flavor (red fruits, zesty minerality, spice) that just builds and builds across the palate, leading to a soaring finish marked by suave, perfectly integrated tannins. A gorgeous, filigreed pinot that would be a lethal ringer in a blind tasting of top-flight Burgundies.   A

Rhys  Horseshoe Vineyard Syrah 2008 $49: A full-bodied wine that shows cool, fleshy dark fruit, leather, bacon, and violets on the palate. Sound vaguely familiar? It should—this is very evocative of a Côte-Rôtie. There is a bit of licorice in there, too, as well as an invigorating wintergreen note.  Excellent minerality, structure, and verve, and a splendidly long finish. I’m beginning to run out of superlatives, but this is a knockout syrah— the best American one I’ve tasted. A-/A

Rhys Skyline Vineyard Syrah 2008 $49: A bouquet marked by notes of game, black currant, licorice, and leather. A chewy, dense, but also very composed syrah. It has excellent dark fruit, terrific balance, and a tangy minerality that coats the palate and gives great freshness to the wine. A  delicious anise note kicks in on the backend. I slightly prefer the Horseshoe Syrah—it is a bit more elegant and compact—but this is sensational, too. A-

Rhys Horseshoe Vineyard Chardonnay 2009 $59: A very mineral-rich nose that also shows scents of lanolin, lime,  green apple, and oatmeal. I’m trying to go easy on the Burgundy comparisons, but this does call to mind a Corton-Charlemagne. The wine has a slightly oily texture, brisk acidity, and palate-staining minerality, and in true grand cru fashion, it gains in intensity across the palate and finishes long and strong.  An outstanding chardonnay from what is clearly a very special site. A-/A.

Rhys Alpine Vineyard Chardonnay $59: Lemon-lime aromas jump from the glass; you can also pick up some orange blossom, chalkiness, and a hint of oak. A full-bodied chardonnay, but one that combines creamy richness with crisp minerality. Like the Alpine pinot, this is recognizably Californian, I think, and perhaps  less apt to cause havoc in a blind tasting than the Horseshoe Chard (hopefully, Harvey won’t take that comment as a challenge!). But it is a seriously good wine in its own right. A-.