Tasting Bonny Doon Wines with Randall Grahm at Popelouchum
During a wine road trip around California, I had the immense pleasure and honor to meet Randall Grahm on his estate at Popelouchum near San Juan Bautista.
Randall’s project and charisma are both equally fascinating, and having a chance to feel it first hand, if only for a couple of hours, is an opportunity I will cherish for the rest of my life.
As a former winemaker myself, and having traveled the world in search of an understanding of wine, I guess I could deeply relate to both the persona and the ambition.
Randall Grahm aims at breeding about 10,000 new grape varieties on his Popelouchum property.
The idea has many facets and implications, and no one knows at this stage which path this venture will take. So, I wouldn’t want to over-simplify the concepts and views here.
But let’s try to summarize it briefly.
Essentially, not many (if any) grape varieties of much importance have been bread over the past 2 centuries or so, with the exception of hybrids following the phylloxera crisis (but those were not qualitative and virtually abandoned) and perhaps a few crossings indeed, in Germany in particular.
The world has adopted wine grapes that, for most, were bread in France some 200/300 years ago or more.
Cabernet Sauvignon was born around Bordeaux around the 18th Century by a crossing of ‘father’ Cabernet Franc and ‘mother’ Sauvignon Blanc. And look at the global success it’s had to become the most recognized and popular wine grape varieties around the world!
Could it be that by creating new crossings between grapes, we will discover extraordinary wine expressions?
This is part of Randall’s ideas, but it goes even much beyond. It’s a matter not only of trying to find grapes with the ability to make great wines, but also ones that will express the uniqueness of the terroir they’re grown on, and ones that will be suited to the ever-drier Californian climate too.
You can learn more about Randall Grahm’s project and crowdfunding campaign at Guest Post by Randall Grahm: Popelouchum – The Project, or read on below…
Popelouchum is a beautiful property nestled in a preserved area just South of the Silicon Valley, so just South of San Francisco if you wish.
The hills of Popelouchum were once sacred among local Indian populations, and as Randall describes it, there is still something very mystical about this place, if only because the views around here are stunning.
Check out a panoramic view from up the Popelouchum property hills:
— Julien Miquel #Wine (@JMiquelWine) May 13, 2017
A variety of soils on the property promise to enable Grahm to play with many different wine expressions: chalk, limestone, volcanic, sandstone and other types of soils are present in patches or veins around the estate.
See some random views I gathered around Popelouchum in video, or read on below…
But enough talking about vines, terroirs, and soils.
Let’s get practical and discover some wines.
I tasted and reviewed a few interesting examples of Randall Grahm winemaking production, some of the most interesting wines he makes at Bonny Doon Vineyard.
Let’s explore them below:
2012 Bonny Doon Vineyard Vin Gris de Cigare Reserve
Score: 92/100. Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Cinsault aged on lees in bonbonnes (large round glass containers). Wide variety of fruit characters, from stonefruit, to delicate red berries, pomegranate and tropical fruits make for a vibrant wine. Plenty of lees characters (brioche, dough, yeast extract) and spiciness too. Mineral acidity with an oily texture, dry but well balanced. Explosion of fruit, spiciness, and brioche character on the palate. A fascinating expression of a pale rosé wine made from direct-pressing of red grapes, expressing a unique complexity from a combination of primary fruit notes and oxidative characters, with a long and salty finish.
2016 Bonny Doon Vineyard Bianco di Nero d’Avola
Score: 88/100. This is a Blanc de Noir made from Nero d’Avola, therefore a white wine made from red grapes of Sicilian DNA. Grapes were sourced from Tracy, California, east of Livermore, a very warm climate. You can imagine how much of a challenge it was to produce a white wine out of very ripe red grapes! As Grahm describes it, he had to ‘manipulate’ it a fair bit including through hyperoxygenation. Randall also describes this wine as having a Japanese aesthetic to it. It is indeed quite exuberantly fruity yet somewhat restrained and unpalpably aromatic, with a white peach fruit and floral expression. Blossoms, plum skin. Rich and oily palate, dry with rich body. The outstanding feature is the saltiness in this wine with what appears to be some salty phenolics to the finish. A surprising and intriguing wine indeed.
2011 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc
Score: 91/100. 62% Grenache Blanc and 38% Roussanne. From Beeswax Vineyard aged in old puncheons (large wine barrels). Floral nose, powerful and extremely nutty, a definite oxidative character to the nose. Dry and oily palate with an outstanding oily texture. Nuttiness, soapiness, yellow flowers, white pepper, there is a lot going on here. Very surprisingly, without realizing this wine was made from a vineyard called beeswax, the closest descriptor I could find to the wine’s flavor profile while tasting was indeed ‘wax’, and a fruity/floral one at that, so essentially: beeswax indeed!
2013 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc Réserve
Score: 93/100. 55% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 19% Picpoul Blanc, fermented in puncheons aged in bonbonne (while the standard Cigare Blanc is aged in puncheons). Opulent nose filled with fresh apricot, a distinct olive oil character, sweet spices and leesy tones. Rich and opulent, super oily texture, dry with silky phenolics to the finish. Powerful brioche notes, buttery. A rich combination of fresh sun-ripe fruit like stonefruit (apricot and white peach) with the richness of a long aging on lees. Much reminiscent of a Southern Rhone white wine’s style.
2012 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant Red
Score: 90/100. 39% Mourvèdre, 33% Grenache, 26% Syrah, and 2% Cinsault. Stunningly fresh and vibrant cassis notes to the nose, as well as dark cherry including the vegetal touch you get from the peeps, touches of earthiness and black pepper adding depth. Juicy palate, rich fresh fruit characters, citrus and red berries, mid-body, nice salty phenolics to the finish introduce welcome savoriness. Complex and vibrant, spicy/fruity and multi-facetted red.
2012 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant Reserve Red
Score: 91/100. This is the exact same wine as the above 2012 ‘standard’ Cigare Volant, but aged in bonbonne (large glass containers) instead of puncheons. While this is not a totally distinct wine in comparison, the Reserve is more closed, more intriguing and restrained. It would take decanting prior to drinking to open it more and get its full potential. But the wine displays intense dark cherry and ripe plum characters, plenty of dark spices too. It’s meaty, filled with umami notes. More restrained than the Cigare Volant, it is also more complex and more suited to serious pairing with gastronomy and tasty fine foods.
2005 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant Red
Score: 91+/100. Complex and enchanting nose, displaying fresh plum and prune, plenty of spices, from the peppery type to a myriad of sweet ones. Earth and truffle as well as wood ashes bring a lot of depth to the profile. Vibrant palate, filled with ripe cherry and plum, almost prune. It feels very ripe but surprisingly it’s not a big powerhouse of richness and alcohol (only 13.5% alcohol). As Grahm’s explains it, in this area of California, the Rhone grape varieties reach a high level of maturation without reaching a high level of alcohol. This is clearly at play here, as this 2005 Cigare Volant feels rich and ripe like a robust Southern Rhone example would be, but with 2 or 3% less alcohol by volume content! Long and complex finish with great balance sweet and savory flavors.