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Wine: Sonoma’s Un-Bordeaux

Brett Anderson

Pierre Seillan has spent his life discovering the truth about wine. This quest—begun at his family’s estate in Armagnac—led him eventually to Bordeaux in the southwest, where for two decades he served as technical director and winemaker for various châteaux in the Haut-Médoc, Saint Emilion, and Lalande de Pomerol. That undulating landscape, however, was far removed from the arid and rocky mountain range on which he found himself standing one day in 1997. He had come to California’s Sonoma region at the behest of Jess Jackson, founder of Jackson Family Farms, whose remarkable portfolio includes Kendall-Jackson, Lokoya and Cardinale. Jackson’s newest project concerned his two dozen mountain estates in Sonoma and Napa counties, and he had brought Seillan these many thousand miles to discover the truth about them.

Seillan considered the soil, the slope of the hills. "We drove in Jess’ car to all of these mountains, and I understood his passion," he recalls. "I understood the soil, the terroir. I understood immediately the potential."

The Bordelais emphasis on terroir—the complete environment of the vine and its contribution to the finished wine—had amply prepared Seillan to identify unique characteristics in a vineyard’s various sub-plots, or "micro-crus," some only a single row wide. Within the 24 mountain estates, he observed a multitude of different soils, each with its own inimitable expression. If these expressions could be captured, their motifs, like the instruments in an orchestra, could be arranged to compose a brilliant symphony. That symphony would become Vérité (French for truth).

"In California, you must be in phase with your soil, your terroir," he explains. "You have to taste the juice away from the skin, and eat the skin, before putting the grape in the tank. Only in this way can you discover the message of the skin." This epidermal message is critical to harmonizing the tannins and fruit; if either dominates the individual micro-crus, their structure, or "center of gravity," will be lost, and the essence of the soil will not be expressed in the blended wine.

In 1998 (depicted by critics as a disastrous year for California) Seillan produced a debut vintage of unusual beauty and sophistication: Adventurous Bordeaux-philes should buy as much of this blend as they can find to lay down in their cellars beside their Châteaux Clinet and Pétrus.

The 1999 vintages of La Muse and La Joie, however, demonstrate the winemaker’s powers at full force. In the former (89 percent Merlot, 11 percent Cabernet Sauvignon), the much-prized balance furnishes, in Seillan’s own vernacular, an "architecture" that houses a host of flavors, including black cherry and crème brûlée, as well as a velvet texture and opulent color. Drinkable as it is now, 1999 La Muse will offer even greater dividends a decade hence.

Spicier and with earthier aromas, the muscular 1999 La Joie vintage combines the tobacco-leaf and currant essences of Pauillac with the bigness of fruit typical in Sonoma. Blended of 59 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 41 percent Merlot, this superb wine will need to age longer than La Muse, but should prove well worth the wait.

Despite the accolades accorded the ’99 vintages, Seillan remains judicious. "With the release of the ’99s, and the high ratings the critics have given it, everybody suddenly wants Vérité, and they’re asking for the ’98 because they realize that what we said at the beginning is basically true: that it’s going to be a great wine. But now," he adds, "we’re basically out of it." And that, sadly, is another truth about wine altogether.

Vérité, 707.433.9000, www.veritewines.com

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