Coming on the heels of the exemplary 2012 and 2013 vintages, 2014 yielded yet another terrific season for grape growing and winemaking in California — and it so happened to be the third consecutive year of severe drought throughout the state.
After a mild winter, bud break (flowering of the vines) came early followed by consistent, moderate temperatures and dry conditions throughout the growing season. There was no damaging hail or frost in spring and no severe heat spikes in summer, allowing grape clusters to ripen steadily and evenly and giving winemakers the luxury of picking them at the optimum time.
California’s 2014 growing season was easy-going, for sure, but accelerated. Harvest came weeks sooner than normal thanks to early bud break in spring, a late summer warm spell, and sustained drought. Grapes are tolerant to the stresses of drought (their roots can grow deep into the earth to tap groundwater), but they do ripen faster under perpetual sunlight and tend to be smaller and more concentrated for lack of moisture.
The hallmark expressions of wines that emerged from California’s 2014 vintage were true varietal character, expressive aromas and flavors, and balanced acidity. And while a multitude of good wines were produced from the state’s 2014 crop, we were recently drawn to those of Medlock Ames, an estate winery in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, as they exemplify just how good the vintage was.
2014 was indeed a banner vintage for Medlock Ames, according to winemaker Ames Morison, who co-founded the winery with lifelong friend Christopher Medlock James in 1998 with a commitment to organic farming and environmental sustainability. “The abundance and quality of fruit sourced from our Bell Mountain estate’s 55 acres of vines in 2014 were exceptional,” Ames recounted as we tasted with him on a porch overlooking the vineyards.
And the wines followed suit. Medlock Ames 2014 Alexander Valley reds, in particular, distinguish themelves as wines of commendable finesse, purity, and table appeal.
We applaud the winery’s restraint in oak aging; none of the wines we review, below, were aged longer than 15 months, and the use of new oak was limited. With a vintage like 2014, there would be no good reason, in our view, to confine the ripe, immaculate fruit to multiple years in oak barrels. Medlock Ames’ judicious approach to cooperage and oak aging strikes a deft balance between natural aroma and flavor attributes of the grapes and the complementary character and structure of oak.
We share our tasting notes on several of our favorite Medlock Ames reds from the 2014 vintage, below.
Cabernet Sauvignon | 2014
90 Points | “Highly Recommended”
A selection from Medlock Ames’ Bell Mountain Estate line, this is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (81%) blended with modest portions of Petit Verdot (11%) and Merlot (8%). There are suggestions of dried black fruit, dried rose, and black tea leaf on the nose; and on the palate, notes of blackberry, bitters, and dried herbs that crescendo into a mouthwatering finish. The wine is dry, full-bodied, and lush on the palate, with smooth tannins and moderate acidity. Oak is toasty yet subtly layered; the wine aged for 14 months in French oak barrels, 37% new. It is an accessible and versatile Cabernet that will pair well with medium-sharp cheeses, beef tenderloin, braised pork ribs, spit-roasted chicken, and other hearty fare.
Bell Mountain Estate | 14.7% ABV | 1,330 Cases Produced | $48
Malbec | 2014
91 Points | “Highly Recommended”
Malbec is a variety we do not happen upon very often in Sonoma County, so it was a treat to taste this selection from Medlock Ames’ limited-release Small Lot Collection. While the winery has been using Malbec as an ingredient in some blends, 2014 was the inaugural vintage of Malbec bottled unto itself (well, almost — it is blended with 11% Cabernet Sauvignon). Its aromas suggest black cherry, cocoa, and toast; and its flavors ring of dark fruit, clove, and espresso — all layered with impressions of leather and iron over a tangy finish. The wine is dry, full-bodied, and velvety on the palate, with grippy tannins and fresh acidity. Oak is nicely nestled into the whole; the wine aged for 15 months in French oak barrels, 15% new. It is a substantial Malbec that is enjoyable now with an hour’s decant, and promises even greater rewards in a few years’ time. Pair it with grilled filet mignon, smoked meats, game dishes, and other savory fare.
Small Lot Collection | 14.7% ABV | 246 Cases Produced | $60
Heritage | 2014
92 Points | “Highly Recommended”
Heritage is a Merlot-dominant (76%) blend crafted from the Jefferson Merlot Clone named for America’s founding viticulturist, Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson Clone is planted to Medlock Ames’ oldest Merlot vineyard blocks on a hilly, upper slope with heavy clay soil. The remainder of the blend includes Cabernet Sauvignon (16%), Cabernet Franc (5%), Malbec (2%), and Petit Verdot (1%). Aromas are subdued yet intriguing, with notes of raspberry preserve, fire-roasted tomatoes, and hazelnut; and on the palate, more fulsome flavors of brandied fruit, spiced plum, and jasmine — all woven with nuances of incense and black pepper over a savory finish. The wine is dry, full-bodied, and impeccably balanced on the palate, with chewy tannins and lively acidity. Oak is present but subtle; the wine aged for 14 months in French oak barrels, 20% new. This is a precision-crafted, mouthful of wine that is enjoyable now with an hour’s decant and which will only improve with a few years in cellar. Serve it with hangar steak, roasted lamb, veal chops, and other hearty fare.
Small Lot Collection | 14.9% ABV | 420 Cases Produced | $50
Right Bank | 2014
94 Points | “Highly Recommended”
Christopher and Ames often reference their property’s similarities with the Bordeaux region of France, and they created Right Bank in tribute to that area and style. It is a blend of the Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Franc (80%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (20%), and here the two comingle in utter harmony. On the nose are aromas of ripe raspberry and cherry, violet, and caramelized sugar; followed by flavors that suggest mixed berry preserve, sweet cured tobacco, and vanilla bean — all laced with tinges of mulling spices, leather, and lavender over an endless finish. The wine is dry, medium-bodied, and silky on the palate, with moderate tannins and brisk acidity. Oak is present but subtle; the wine aged for 15 months in French oak barrels, 39% new. This is an elegant, deeply dimensional wine that wows the senses. It ranks among the best Cabernet Franc-dominated wines (from California or elsewhere) we have tasted in some time. While enjoyable now with an hour’s decant, it promises ever greater rewards following a few years in cellar. Serve it with fine cheeses, seared duck breast, foie gras, Thai curry, and other savory dishes.
Small Lot Collection | 14.2% ABV | 255 Cases Produced | $50
Availability: Medlock Ames wines have very limited national distribution, and are most conveniently obtained by visiting the winery virtually at www.medlockames.com, contacting them by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or telephone (707-431-8845), or best of all, visiting their tasting room at 3487 Alexander Valley Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448.
Side Dish: It merits noting, as well, that Medlock Ames maintains several acres of olive trees around the estate and tasting room — including Spanish varieties Mission and Manzanillo and Italian variety Ascolano — and from these produces a delectable blended olive oil that we “Highly Recommend.”