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Dunne on Wine: Young vines produce well at Harney Lane

Published: June 6th, 2012 12:00 AM

Oddly, no vintner to my knowledge has put "Young Vines" on the label of a bottle of wine. You see "Old Vines" all the time, even though no fixed definition of the term exists and even though the scientific evidence to support the suggestion that older vines yield superior wines is shaky.

Vintners likely avoid boasting of young vines because the vines are untested and because they lack the thick and weathered builds that speak to maturity, experience, survival and photo ops, all valued characteristics in the marketing of wine. And at some unspecified point, young vines no longer could be marketed as young, unless some viticulturist comes up with a way to provide them with the vineyard equivalent of a face-lift.

At any rate, younger vines have shown that they are quite capable of producing remarkably notable wines.

The most dramatic example of this occurred 36 years ago, when a Paris wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, staged a blind tasting pitting wines from several noble French estates against a sampling of upstart Californians. All the judges were French wine professionals.

The upshot, which over the past three decades has been the subject of one prominent book and one mediocre movie, was that California wines took the top honors in the showdown.

The winning red was the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, the first wine made with grapes from a vineyard that was only 3 years old, the age at which a vineyard customarily yields its first crop substantial enough to make a commercial wine.

More recently, and closer to home, I tasted a wine that also showed that grapes from young vines can deliver a wine of authority and finesse. It was the Harney Lane Winery 2009 Lodi Petite Sirah, made with fruit from a vineyard planted only in 2004.

Though Harney Lane Winery is relatively new, established in 2006, it springs from a long heritage of grape-growing in Lodi. Henry Schnaidt planted the first wine grapes on the estate in 1907, primarily zinfandel, but also some missions and tokays, the latter a popular table grape long identified with Lodi.

Today, Schnaidt's descendants, the George Mettler family, owns, leases and manages 550 acres of wine grapes at Lodi, about half of that total "old-vine" zinfandel, some of it more than a century old.

Though petite sirah also has been a longtime staple of the Lodi wine trade, the Mettlers weren't much interested in pursuing it, in part because it's challenging to grow, in part because as a varietal it comes into and goes out of fashion seemingly more often than other grapes, said Kyle Lerner, the family vineyardist. (His wife, Jorja, the winery's marketing director, is the daughter of George and Kathleen Mettler.)

In 2004, however, the family figured that a 10-acre block planted to cabernet sauvignon might be better suited to petite sirah. What's more, consumer interest in petite sirah again looked to be picking up. In addition, the family was just starting to think of establishing its own winery, and figured that petite sirah could be an attractive addition to its portfolio.

"It's one of the most difficult varieties to raise properly," Kyle Lerner said. "It's very prolific. It can throw an amazingly large crop, so we have to manipulate the levels. The clusters are very tight, with small berries, so irrigation management has to be very precise. And it's highly susceptible to rain. We have to pay a lot more attention to that variety."

Sure enough, in 2009 fall rain arrived earlier than usual in Lodi, but the petite sirah escaped serious damage. Harney Lane Winery's consulting winemaker, Chad Joseph, recalls handling the grapes gently, processing them with an old-time basket press and fermenting the juice in small bins. For the fermentation, he used two different strains of yeast in hopes of developing complexity in the wine. And he aged it in American oak barrels in hopes of preserving its fruit attributes.

The nature of the harvest and his choices paid off in a petite sirah that, while true to form in mass, also is unusually supple and approachable for the varietal. The color is a dense purple/ garnet, the smell floral and plummy, the flavor sweet with suggestions of ripe summer berries.

Faint notes of chocolate, coffee and what Joseph calls "burnt marshmallow" show in the wine, enhancing rather than distracting from the freshness of the big, ripe fruit. It's potent, with 15.8 percent alcohol, but it doesn't taste hot or sweet. The American oak is a nice fit, rounding out the structure without imposing spiky tannins.

The Harney Lane label, incidentally, is one of the more understated but lyrical on the market, with a graceful "H" set off against a stylized suggestion of tidy rows of vines. It's a straight-forward graphic, presenting matter-of-factly the basic facts of what's in the bottle – petite sirah from Lodi, grown in 2009. There's not much room to spare, but if they chose, they could squeeze in "Young Vines."

Harney Lane Winery 2009 Lodi Petite Sirah

By the numbers: 15.8 percent alcohol, 198 cases, $24.

Context: Chad Joseph especially likes the petite sirah with barbecued pork sliders made with an especially smoky sauce. "They bring out the nice flavor of that petite sirah," Joseph said.

Availability: Harney Lane wines are sold almost entirely at the winery's tasting room, 9010 East Harney Lane, Lodi, open noon-5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

More information: Visit the winery's website, www.harneylane.com.

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