Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bonny Doon Contra: A Modern Day Field Blend


Bonny Doon Vineyards of Santa Cruz, California is the workplace of Randall Grahm, The Rhone Ranger.  He's been in front of the pack for so long, people recognize him by the back of his head.  Folks thought Grahm was crazy when he decided Rhone grape varieties were the right thing to do in California.  Now they have to think of other reasons.

His Contra red blend is so named because of its contrarian stance in the face of modern winemaking.  The grapes come primarily from Contra Costa County, and the label calls them, "mostly old-fangled grape varieties from mostly older vineyards."  That's the way Grahm rolls, as he uses his skills to produce wines that reflect the terroir from which they come.  The Carignane grapes used in Contra are said to come from 100-plus year-old vines, mixed with other varieties.

Grahm sees it as a straightforward wine that both looks to the past and the future.  In the past, winemaker intervention was minimal because they didn’t have the technology to intervene.  Tomorrow, Grahm envisions, winemakers will choose a return to those simpler times.

Contra is a blend of 68% Carignane grapes and 38% Syrah.  The Carignane comes from several vineyards.  The Syrah is mainly from Alamo Creek Vineyard in San Luis Obispo, with some from Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria.  It’s the latter which gets credit from Grahm for the “exceptionally vibrant, peppery/minty, smoked meat note” in the wine.

There’s a caveat, though.  Contra is indicated as an Old Vine Field Blend on the label, which I am excited about.  “Field blend” is the term for the way grapes were grown once upon a time.  Vineyards were planted with different varieties scattered about, with only a "more of this, less of that" attitude from row to row.  These mixed grapes were grown, harvested and vinified together.  Modern winemaking keeps everything separate until the blending, which occurs in the cellar.  The old way had the wine blended, so to speak, out in the field.

Since the different grapes in Contra are from different vineyards, “field blend" is not a completely accurate term.  Considering Grahm's literate nature and his efforts at being transparent in labeling, the wording seemed odd to me.  So I did what people do when they want to check with Grahm.  I tweeted him.  Here are his responses:

“Grapes from multiple vyds in Oakley, Antioch, but each vyd. itself is more or less a field blend. #oldskool”


“The vyds are a mix of carignane, zin and mourvedre. Some blocks are mostly one thing or another.”


“Normally, we will try to keep them separate as their ripening is usually slightly different (within days apart).”


“For Contra, we don't have to be quite as precise in segregating them, and we can also co-ferment.”

So there it is.  A field blend, at least on the Carignane side.

Grahm now publishes the ingredients of his wines right on the label.  Contra's transparency blurb shows grapes, tartaric acid and sulfur dioxide, with indigenous yeast, yeast nutrients and oak chips used in the winemaking process.  As in Bonny Doon's other wines, Contra is sealed with a Stelvin closure, otherwise known as a screwcap.  The alcohol content is 13.7% abv.

Sitting in the glass, Contra is very dark in color.  It's inky in the middle, purple around the edge. A nose of blackberry has a big whiff of alcohol on it until it blows off.  Give it ample decanting time and you'll be fine.  Once the wine airs out, the nose is all dark fruit and tar.  The palate shows more of the same.  Blackberry and black cherry flavors lead the way for a brambly taste that falls in behind the fruit.  The tannins are great, with enough muscle to handle any kind of food, yet not so forceful that drinkability suffers.


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