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Long life for Kalin Cellars' California wines

Terrance and Frances Leighton have made an art out of the long bottle aging process — its current releases include a 1988 Chardonnay. They're proving that California wines really can age well.

November 18, 2010|By James Ricci, Special to the Los Angeles Times

For most of the last year, Terrance and Frances Leighton went back and forth on whether the latest dry white wine from their Kalin Cellars winery was ready for release.

Finally, after tasting and re-tasting and making sure every trace of what Frances calls "bottle bitterness" had disappeared, they decided the wine was fit for public unveiling this month.

While other California wineries prepare to unleash their 2009-vintage whites, what the Leightons stewed over is a 1998 Livermore Valley Semillon, a wine already 12 years old. By the standards of Kalin Cellars, however, it's a cooing infant. The winery's current releases include a 1997 Potter Valley Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, a 1994 Pinot Noir, a 1995 Chardonnay and — grandmother of them all — a 1990 "Antiquity" Chardonnay.

"Actually, the best-drinking Semillon we have is 1980," Terrance says. That wine, however, is no longer available for sale.

The Leightons have been making wine for 35 years, and from the start chose to buck what they saw as an emerging trend toward making wines quickly and consuming them young. "We could see already by the mid-1980s that people were starting to commit infanticide — drinking their wines before you could see what they could become," Terrance says.

Like many other diligent winemakers, the Leightons take enormous care in selecting vineyard sites and yeasts. In the winery, they intervene only minimally in the natural process by which grape juice is transformed into wine (the Leightons do all of the winery work themselves). They induce secondary, malolactic fermentation, which vastly increases flavor components, and avoid filtering.

What really sets them apart, however, is the long — long — bottle aging they give their wines.

Their methods stand in sharp contrast to such modern techniques as blasting crushed grapes with loads of yeast to speed fermentation, or using stainless steel tanks or giving wine a brief visit in oak so it can be labeled "barrel fermented," then bottling it and hustling it out the door so cash can start flowing in.

The care they take, the Leightons say, guarantees the extraordinary long life and development-ability of their wines. It also puts the lie to the persistent notion that California wines are inevitably puny agers.

A case in point is their Semillon, grown in the gravelly Livermore Valley between Oakland and San Jose. Semillon is a grape best known for producing Sauternes, but in Bordeaux it's also vinified dry. Few California winemakers produce dry wine made primarily of Semillon. Most grow the varietal to blend with Sauvignon Blanc to help soften the latter's edginess.

"The problem with Semillon in California was that it had this reputation as a junk grape," Terrance says. "And if you do it in heavy soil, like in Napa and Sonoma, it's incredibly vigorous and it makes just innocuous, generic white wine. The thing about the Livermore Valley, however, is that it's an old riverbed — the same as the Graves soil in Bordeaux. If you put Semillon in this nutrient-deprived, gravelly soil … the vigor is naturally controlled.

"Our idea was, you've got Bordeaux properties like Pavillon Blanc from Chateau Margaux, Chateau Laville Haut-Brion, Chateau Haut Brion Blanc — and these are serious, long-term aging, world-class white wines. You shouldn't be trying to do fast methods with this grape. Really, Semillon for us is the Cabernet analog for white wines. Those wines are ageless. They just get deeper and deeper and deeper in color, and they get more complex."

The culminating effects of long bottle aging are evident in all Kalin Cellars wines. It gives the Sauvignon Blanc a waxy, nutty quality without sacrificing high-toned citrus flavors or minerality. It imparts a dry, honeyed creaminess to the Semillon, and tightly weaves the Chardonnay's intense lemony-ness into the fabric of the wine. To the Pinot Noir, it confers a gamey, barnyard quality that makes the wine "the closest thing to Burgundy in California," says Barry Herbst, general manager of the Rare Wine Co. in Sonoma. The process of bottle aging is the only way to avoid the candied-fruit flavors that tend to characterize even the best-made younger California Pinots, Herbst says.

Kalin (the name derives from a Northern California Native American word for "ocean") is based in Novato, north of San Francisco. It's a small operation, producing about 7,000 cases of wine a year from grapes it buys from selected growers and vineyards. Its wines have earned a following especially among restaurant sommeliers, who value their mouth-filling richness, layered complexity and bright, acidic food-friendliness. Wine writer Robert Parker has called Terrance Leighton "one of California's two most talented winemakers" and his products "the wines of a genius."

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