WHAT IS THE LATEST AT GRGICH HILLS ESTATE?
by Andrew Chalk
Grgich Hills Estate, was founded (as Grgich Hills Cellar) by Mike Grgich and Austin Hills in 1977. It is one of the most famous winery names in the world given new impetus in recent years following the fortieth anniversary of the 1976 Judgement of Paris in which California wines, judged by a majority of French judges, beat out French wines in a head-to-head blind tasting. As a result, California took a place on the global wine podium and Grgich, who made the top white wine, a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, became one of the most recognized winemakers in California.
His daughter, Violet, now runs the winery and at a recent tasting recounted how her father had been approached with numerous offers to stake him in his own winery in return for a share after the Paris result. He had got himself from a farm in, then communist, Croatia to Napa Valley and declined numerous offers until Austin Hills (of the Hills Bros. Coffee family) made his. Ground was broken for the winery on July 4th 1977, at Grgich’s request, in acknowledgement of the country he had immigrated to.
Grgich Hills won prizes with its very first Chardonnay vintage (1977), acquired vineyards, and went all-estate fruit in 2006, but basically it is a pretty quiet operator in the chest-thumping atmosphere that is Napa Valley where everybody wants their story recognized, no matter how small.
On a recent visit to town Violet took the trade through a tasting of the current Grgich lineup and talked about what is going on with the property. All wines are Estate Grown and appellated Napa Valley.
The product range has broadened since the days when it was just (or mainly) Chardonnay. Our tasting started with a 2016 Fumé Blanc ($29). Fumé Blanc is of course not a grape but a methodology applied to Sauvignon Blanc under which it is aged in French oak. Grgich subjects there example to oak barrel fermentation as well. Throughout, it is neutral oak (scavenged from 3 years use in their Chardonnay production) so it is not a flavor sensation. Rather, the oak ageing is less reductive than stainless steel ageing, the wood being slightly permeable, and the wine also acquires a more substantial body on account of residual phenolics leaching out of the wood.
The Grgich Fumé Blanc is finely balanced and a thought-provoking alternative for points in the meal where you might have served a Sauvignon Blanc. It could even sub for a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc for broadminded dinner guests.
Fumé Blanc has special significance for the winery. The name was coined by Robert Mondavi in the 1960s at which time his winemaker was -- Mike Grgich.
Keeping up with the trend towards drinking rosé, Grgich has a 2018 Rosé ($24) made from a blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, and a scant trace of Zinfandel, 1%.
Grgich Hills knows that it would be nothing if it were not known for its Chardonnay, and today the winery offers several expressions. Best known is the annual Napa Valley bottling. The 2015 Chardonnay ($51) It is bright with the tastiness of 10 months of ageing in French oak. However, and part of the house style, Grgich Hills Chardonnays are not as big as some other labels, and are made to maintain acid for liveliness.
Named in honor of Mike Grgich’s signature blue beret the 2016 ‘Blue Beret’ Chardonnay ($30) is a fruit forward style designed to be drunk now. It is an ideal quaffing wine.
The 2014 40th Anniversary Chardonnay ($60) commemorates the 40th anniversary of the winery. It showed the softening of age that comes to older Chardonnays.
The red wines reflect the same attention to nuance rather than heft in wine style. Illustrated by the fact that the lightest of their three reds is the Zinfandel. Well-known as a chameleon grape, Zinfandel was, for a time, made in heavier, portier, styles in California, making it popular for quaffing but increasingly difficult to pair with food. Grgich Hills avoided that trend, producing a more ‘claret’ type offering. Now they see the convoy of labels that went the heavy route swinging back in their direction, where they are ahead of the pack. The 2014 Zinfandel ($36) that we tasted illustrated this well, pairing nicely with a Wagyu Flat Iron steak.
The 2015 Merlot ($43) and 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon ($72) both express medium weight, well defined fruit, and a Napa savoriness that make them good choices to pair with red meat. The tête de cuvée offered at the tasting was a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from Old Vines in Yountville ($175) . The vines are the Inglenook clone grown on St. George rootstock. Ageing was 21 months in barrel, then six months in large oak casks. It is characterised by an intensity in the fruit and an element of spiciness in the nose. While soft enough to enjoy now I could not help thinking that it would age and improve for many years.
Finally, the late harvest dessert wine 2014 Violetta ($85), named in honor of Grgich’s daughter, is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling. Sweet, but not cloying, this wine is ideal with dessert.
Note: Tasting provided by Grgich Hills Cellars. Food by City Café.