January 27, 2014
What spurs our obscure obsessions as wine lovers? How does a grape like Melon de Bourgogne or Carignan capture our attention through the sea of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon? What drives a vineyard owner to plant Blaufrankisch in the middle of Los Olivos, or a winemaker to devote fanatical attention to a grape like Picpoul? Much like falling in love with another human being, falling in love with a grape often has an intangible, probably chemical, element that can be difficult to articulate. To delve further into one of my own obsessions, Semillon, I spoke to my favorite producer of the grape in Santa Barbara County.
Kevin Law is a soft-spoken winemaker who bucks the trend of modern winemaking promotion. He spends no time on Facebook or Twitter, and rather than talk up his achievements, he is constantly pushing himself to do better, never satisfied, knowing he can create something with even greater intensity and site expression, that he can dial in the next vintage just slightly more. To provide full disclosure, Kevin has been a good friend of mine since we worked a harvest together 6 years ago, and I’m always stunned that someone who is crafting such beautiful wines isn’t content or resting on his laurels. I sat down and spoke with Kevin this past week about his Semillon program under the Luceant and Luminesce labels (the name changed to Luceant with the 2012 harvest due to a trademark dispute with another winery), and how his obsessive love for this grape, and the best way to express it, drove him to craft one of the great white wines of Santa Barbara County.
Kevin’s love for Semillon originally began with a bottle that, thanks to Kevin, has also become one of my benchmarks for great California wine, Kalin. “Their Semillon was really the wine that made me fall in love with the grape. Bottle aged for usually around 10 years before release, it comes from vines planted in the 1800s in gravel, with cuttings from Yquem. It’s highly mineral yet rich, and still youthful at 15 or 20 years of age.” It is this ability to age that is part of what makes Semillon so special. To taste an aged bottle of Yquem’s Ygrec, or some of the top bottlings from Hunter Valley like Tyrrell’s Vat 1, is an unparalleled drinking experience. “Due to its chemistry and phenolic structure, Semillon makes for very long lived wines, more along the lines of Marsanne or Roussanne in their aging trajectory.”
For his own Semillon, Kevin’s search took him to Buttonwood Vineyard in the heart of Santa Ynez. “Buttonwood attracted me because of the vine age, which is rare for this area period, but to have 35-year-old Semillon in particular is pretty special,” says Law. “It sits on a gravelly mesa and the climate is just about perfect.” To channel the purity of this site, Kevin relies on winemaking that is both minimal and very thoughtful in its approach. “Since the initial vintage I’ve started utilizing more stainless steel to preserve its bright minerality and freshness. I’m still not hitting the wine with any sulfur until April or May. The wine undergoes whole berry fermentation on the skins for three or four days to emphasize texture and dryness, highlighting the minerality rather than the fruit. It is then basket pressed, and finishes primary in tank and neutral barrel.”
In an all too common tale for Semillon, Buttonwood grafted these blocks over to other grape varieties recently, and what little they have left will remain for their estate. This is the tragedy and difficulty of working with obscure varieties like these as a small producer; unless a farmer is madly in love with the grape, it’s just too tempting to plant something more commercially viable in its place. Kevin is now on the quest for a new Semillon site, and has some pretty specific criteria. “Old vines are a huge factor for me. Vineyards that are reminiscent of Bordeaux tend to be ideal- gravel with a little bit of alluvium, and moderately warm. Santa Ynez, particularly the middle to eastern part of the valley, is one of the perfect areas in California for Semillon. My goal is to continue to capture the true expression of 100% Semillon, and show how great this variety can be. And if no one likes it I’ll drink it all myself.” Now THAT is what I call obsession.
Today we are offering Kevin’s 2011 Semillon. It is one of the most profound wines I’ve had from our area, and if you are a fan of mineral, balanced, age-worthy white wines, I highly suggest you grab a couple- one for today, and one for the cellar. I have no doubt that this will be a 10 year, if not 20 year, wine. If nothing else, I hope people taste the beauty in this bottle and start requesting more wines like it; maybe we’ll finally see a few new Semillon plantings!