Cabernet Sauvignon | Chardonnay | Pinot Noir | Wine column | Wine Culture

Steven Kent wines raise bar for Cabs; sister winery La Rochelle thinks Burgundy

It was back in the day when I first learned about Mirassou Pinot Noir, sometime in the 1980s.

This iconic winery was cutting-edge in growing and promoting this varietal in California. I remember interviewing one of the Mirassou brothers at Opus One restaurant in downtown Detroit — and the wine focus that day was Pinot Noir and Riesling.

But that was a long time ago. And today Gallo owns the Mirassou brand — one of the oldest in California — and only one Mirassou family member, Steven Kent Mirassou, continues the family’s tradition of hands-on winemaking.

He owns two wineries in the Livermore Valley east of San Francisco — Steven Kent Winery, where he produces world-class Cabernet Sauvignons, and La Rochelle Winery, where he seeks out top growers in the most notable ZIP codes for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

And that’s a long way of getting to the point that the Steven Kent Portfolio and the La Rochelle wines are knockouts.

Steven Kent Winery: The focus is Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the heart of the Livermore Valley. These are handcrafted wines designed to rival the best of in the world. The wines are not filtered or fined — so prepare for zombie teeth and yes, you should decant them.

Here’s one example of their power: Steven Kent Cabernet Sauvignon Folkendt Vineyard Livermore Valley California 2009, $65: This velvet monster is black as night, with a nose like a siren of cassis, bittersweet chocolate, ripe black plums and blackberries spiked with spicy French oak, supple tannins and acidity to frame the fruit. In the mouth, it’s dense and intense and will paint your teeth and lips with its inky color. The midpalate is rich and pretty and packed with power.

(Image courtesy of Steven Kent Winery)

(Image courtesy of Steven Kent Winery)

The Folkendt Vineyard in Livermore was the the original source of Steven’s Cabs. The “Home Vineyard” came on board after Folkendt and produces the most recognizable Cabernets in the valley. The 2009 Home Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, also $65, creates a tidal wave of cassis, black plum, dark chocolate amd spicy-smoky oak in the mouth. One of those stop and marvel moments.

The La Rochelle wines carry the name of the French port where the earliest Mirassou in the California family would depart 160 years ago for life in the West.

The line specializes in small-lot, handcrafted Pinots and Chards aimed at collectors.

The 2009 La Rochelle Pinot Noir Donum Estate Vineyard Carneros draws $75 SRP — if you can find it. My tasting notes: Black as midnight, redolent with intense blackberriy, cherry, dark chocolate tones. Perfectly sculpted. Ripples with alcohol and toasty oak; still very closed and yearning for more cellar time — but offering a good glimpse of its greatness.

The 2009 vintage may be the best year for Pinot in California history, according to critics, and the Donum Estate Vineyard is a crown jewel in Carneros that regularly makes its own luxury, critically acclaimed label under the eye of Anne Moller-Racke (think former Buena Vista Carneros Winery vineyard manager), but also sells to just one other winery — La Rochelle. The La Rochelle Pinot is 100 percent Donum clone — a special selection of exceptional clones brought to California by the Champagne house Roederer. To be specific, the grapes are a massal selection and here’s the best explanation of that I could find.

This Pinot and the 2010 La Rochelle Chardonnay Dutton Ranch-Morelli Lane Vineyard Russian River Valley represent the first releases in La Rochelle’s Grand Cru Collection. The Chardonnay pulls down SRP of $65. It’s a glassful — sculpted by acidity and oak, full-bodied, packed with green apple, pear, white flowers and peach. It’s fermented in French oak, 40 percent new, put through a secondary malolactic fermentation and aged sur-lie for a year and a half in oak. Fewer than 120 cases were produced.

Steven Kent Mirassou and winemaker Tom Stutz set a high bar for excellence. You can order the wines online at Steven Kent Winery or La Rochelle Winery — or skip over the border to Illinois or Ohio.

Better yet, next time you are in San Francisco, point that rental car due east and visit the Livermore Valley, where it’s likely you’ll find Steven Kent Mirassou and Tom Stutz on the grounds or in the cellar. The two brands are sold under one roof. And Livermore is a friendly, easy-to-navigate wine region with historic estates including Wente and Concannon.