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The wines of Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates, California

‘We’re hoping to stay a family business forever’, says Barbara Banke (right) of the Jackson Family Wine Estates, adding that this is one of the few remaining family wine businesses of this size in the USA. Barbara was over in London to host a press lunch at Claridges; her husband Jess Jackson was supposed to be there, too, but he was busy with his new hobby, thoroughbred race horses – he had to stay in the USA to negotiate the syndication of one of his horses which had just come third in the Kentucky Derby.

‘Jess and I started the winery for relaxation 25 years ago’, recalls Banke [the ‘e’ is pronounced, by the way]. ‘We were both practising barristers, we were going crazy and we needed to relax.’ They bought a small property in Lake Country and were planning to sell grapes. It all changed in the 1982 vintage when they couldn’t sell the grapes and do decided to make some wine instead.

The famous Kendall Jackson 1982 Vintners Reserve Chardonnay was made from eight different vineyards from cool coastal areas in California (such as Monterey and Santa Barbara). One of the fermentations stuck and so the resulting wine was a little sweet. It proved to be a winning formula: the wine got an award and sold out in six weeks. Since then, Vintners Reserve Chardonnay has followed this successful blueprint: leave a little residual sugar in, and perhaps a touch of botrytis, and people love it. It has achieved tremendous commercial success, to the extent that one of its competitors has packaged their similarly priced Chardonnay with a label that bears some resemblance to Kendall Jackson’s, sharing the same vine leaf in autumn design.

Since 1982 Jackson Estates have been on a vineyard-acquiring exercise. ‘Essentially, we are collectors of these little vineyards’, says Banke. At a time when other producers have fled from the capital cost of vineyard ownership, and bought in grapes, Jackson Estates have become totally estate-based, with their vineyard portfolio now totalling some 14 000 hectares.

They make everything in small lots from separate blocks, and use traditional winemaking techniques. For 10 years they have had a stave mill in the Vosges in partnership with a Missouri cooperage. 80–85% of the wines are barrel fermented or aged, which is a very high proportion for this size of company. ‘We don’t use oak chips; we don’t use teabags; we take no shortcuts with the wine’, says Banke.

They are still busy growing their vineyard holdings. In the last year or two they’ve purchased Byron Vineyards and also a vineyard in Carneros that used to belong to the Mondavis. They have also planted another 450 acres of Pinot Noir. As an example of the appliance of vineyard technology that Jackson Estates employ, in one vineyard in the Sonoma mountains they have micro-emitters that mist the vineyard, taking the temperature down by 10 degrees to stop the vines from stressing.

And the wines? They range from solid and commercially astute at the bottom end, to complex and serious at the top end. I was particularly taken by the Hawkeye Mountain and Stature Cabernet Sauvignons. Indeed, Kendall-Jackson seem to be doing quite well what other sizeable wine companies can't manage at all - producing good commercial wines in sizeable volumes, and also making some very nice high end wines as well. 

Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2005
A bit of grassiness on the nose, but also some sweeter, more honeyed notes. The palate is generous with a bit of brightness and grassiness that stops it from being fat. 87/100 (Available in the UK at Tesco, £8.99)

Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay 2005
This is the number one seller in its category in the USA. A rich Californian style with sweet, rich fruit. There’s a richness to the texture with a nice grapefruity, minerally tang keeping it fresh. A rich style with some complexity. Nice. 88/100 (Quite widely available in the UK)

Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2004
Bold and rich with sweet, almost fudgey fruit and complex toasty notes. Generously textured. A rich style with nice acidity and minerality. It’s complex but accessible. 90/100

Kendall Jackson Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Alexander Valley, Sonoma
Very impressive: dark and intense, but still fresh and expressive. There’s a mineral freshness to the ripe dark fruits which leads to lovely earthy structure on the palate. Complex, fresh and expressive. Big but balanced. 93/100

Kendall Jackson Stature Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Napa
Aromatically very fine with a bit of earth, some subtle spice and smooth, ripe fruit. Classy and quite complex. The palate is fine, smooth and spicy with elegance and class. Stylish and quite European in style. 92/100

La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2005
Nice bright cherryish fruit with a bit of herbiness. Fresh and expressive with a bit of spice. 89/100 [When La Crema was purchased by KJ in 1992 it was bankrupt. At the time it was making 500 000 cases; they cut this production down to 50 000 cases. Now it is profitable.]

Hartford Court Land’s Edge Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 Russian River Valley, Sonoma
This is a small winery in the Russian River Valley, and the vineyard is carved out of redwoods, one hill range back from the coast. It shows a lovely focused nose of sweet cherry and berry fruit. The palate is sweetly fruited with nice spicy structure. Elegant and quite primary with lovely purity of fruit. 91/100

Vérité La Muse 2002 Sonoma
This is a Merlot-based blend from two Sonoma vineyards. The first is in Bennett Valley and is planted with Petrus clone, with 32 separate blocks in the 80 acres. Enough rocks were removed when this vineyard was first planted to construct a small building. The other is in Knight’s Valley, with some Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Merlot. Lovely fresh pure aromatic nose with a richer, chocolatey, spicy edge to the fresh black fruits. The palate is quite firm with lovely spicy tannins underneath the pure fruit. A fresh, expressive style of wine. Quite serious. 94/100

Château Assègue 2003 Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, France
This is from a 24 hectare property owned by the Jacksons, located near Pavie in Saint Emilion. This was from the first year they had the property: they took possession in July 2003. Fine, pure, ripe expressive nose with elegant red fruits and subtle chalkiness. There’s a bit of herbiness, too. The palate is bright but with some austerity to the structure. Fine and expressive although the tannins clamp down hard on the finish. 90/100

Lokoya 2003 Diamond Mountain, Napa
Just 200 cases of this big-style Napa Cabernet are made. It weighs in at 14.9% alcohol and sells for US$200 a bottle. Sweet ripe blackcurrant fruit nose is aromatic and full, with a mineral and chalk edge to the pure fruit. Not overblown. The palate is sweetly fruited but has a lovely mineral spiciness and firm tannic structure hidden under the fruit. There’s a bit of alcoholic heat, but otherwise the spiciness offsets the fruit really nicely. 93/100

Wines tasted 06/07
Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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