A leisurely afternoon with Californian Black Stallion Estate Winery and the winemaker Ralf Holdenried

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Once again I get an opportunity to explore more interesting Californian wines, a that state I think is getting more and more interesting. At least from a wine perspective. I am about to taste some wines from the Black Stallion Estate Winery, together with the winemaker Ralf Holdenried, a relatively new brand on the US wine market.

History is not lacking, however. Behind Black Stallion Estate Winery is the Indelicato family with Delicato Family Wines. They have made wine in California for more than 90 years.

Black Stallion Estate Winery has an interesting product portfolio, starting with the single variety wines including chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah in the 25-40 dollar range and ending with cabernet blends at the 180 dollar level. The wines are not explicitly terroir driven. They rather focus on producing the best that the grapes can be persuaded to give and to highlight what is typically Napa.

Black Stallion Estate Winery winemaker Ralf Holdenried
Black Stallion Estate Winery winemaker Ralf Holdenried, copyright U Bengtsson

Black Stallion Estate only has a few vineyards, so most of the fruit is purchased. The best of the sourced fruit goes to the top wine Transcendent, the second best goes to Bucephalus, the third best goes to Black Stallion Barrel Reserve and so forth.

To make wines that are distinctly terroir driven is obviously not the easiest. Also, it may not be a sacred goal and should perhaps not be the final aim at all times. One can make good wine without it. Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards, another Californian producer, noted for example that “there is terroir, but not everywhere.” He felt their Hillside Select had terroir, but not their Syrah wines.

There is no explicit terroir philosophy at Black Stallion; instead they focus on making the best wine they can from the given grape material. Compare, for example with the philosophy of Jacquesson Champagne.

Right now there is only one Black Stallions wines available in Sweden at Systembolaget, Black Stallion Cabernet Sauvignon (~25 euro in Sweden), so it will be interesting to try the more serious products. The tasting is led by Ralf Holdenried who leads the team of winemakers at Black Stallion.

The first flight consists of entry-level wines, chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah.

2013 Black Stallion Chardonnay initially leans towards a sauvignon blanc style; I find whiffs of grass and gooseberry. What strikes me is what the wine is not: it is not buttery and it is not packed with exotic fruit. However, it is quite full-bodied, almost a little fat. With aeration and warming up in the glass it gets more butter tones but it’s nicely done. On the finish some nougat, a little fun. It bothers me a bit that the wine feels a little high in alcohol when the temperature rises, which pulls down the notes somewhat. Otherwise, a spirited and fresh white wine!

We go on to the next wine, which is a pinot.

2012 Black Stallion Los Carneros Pinot Noir is a fairly new addition to the product portfolio, but the interest from the market has been great. The wine starts with fairly warm tones; it’s warm, fruity, a bit “dirty”, quite personal. There is a hint of oak, but not so strong. A very kind and nice wine. Again, I’m looking for things I cannot find: no wormwood, no moth ball. My thoughts don’t go to Burgundy but rather to southern France; the wine has a generous hot fruitiness commonly found in wines from the southern Rhone. About 25 USD.

Black Stallion Estate Winery Los Carneros Pinot Noir
Black Stallion Estate Winery Los Carneros Pinot Noir, copyright U Bengtsson

The last wine of this flight is Syrah.

2012 Black Stallion Limited Release Syrah. A syrah wine, in other words! Ralf notes that interest in syrah is “still popular, but fading.” Compared to the Pinot it has a striking density. The Pinot Noir was, as usual, relatively transparent; the Syrah is black as night. A first sniff, and here we have both the meat and blood. In the mouth it’s almost a little chewy, not so much tannins but more acidity. Still, it is relatively easy-drinking. It is fat, a little sweet. Delicious to drink as it is, without food. My thoughts go to zinfandel. It would be interesting to try it against someone better Zin. A little annoying with a bitterness in the finish, but nothing that affecting the rating.

Black Stallion Estate Winery Napa Valley Syrah
Black Stallion Estate Winery Napa Valley Syrah, copyright U Bengtsson

With all three wines in the glasses I try to do a ranking. Clearly, I am going for the syrah as number one. I like the density, the spine, the little sweet tone, meat and blood that still stays on the right side of the border. The Chardonnay feels, as I mentioned, a bit too unbalanced (a little too much alcohol) and the Pinot Noir a little weak. I would have liked to see a bit more complexity.

We continue. The next series has four cabernet sauvignon wines, or at least cab dominated.

2012 Black Stallion Cabernet Sauvignon (ie the one that is available in Sweden). Dense aroma, clear cab character, full-bodied, little jammy, lots of overripe berries. This wine screams New World; a full-bodied wine, packed with over ripe dark fruits, some jam, not much acidity at all to speak of, soft tannins. A wine engineered for immediate consumption. But yes, it is good! A wine you could live on a whole summer. With aeration and warming up in the glass there comes a little too much coffee roasting, but nothing disturbing.

Black Stallion Estate Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Black Stallion Estate Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, copyright U Bengtsson

We go on.

2010 Black Stallion Barrel Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is probably my favourite of today’s wines. The same New World feeling as the previous wine, but better constructed, more complex. A bit more mature, better balance. Good acidity. Delicious! Where the previous wine was a little too jammy this is more restrained. Clearly a Cabernet, but not from Bordeaux. I would be happy to fill up on this wine!

Black Stallion Estate Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
Black Stallion Estate Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, copyright U Bengtsson

The next wine turns out to be a real muscle wine:

2010 Bucephalus. Alexander the Great’s horse. Very dense, massive, full-bodied, jam, liquorice, clearly some port wine hints, “full throttle wine” one might say. Just brawn, no brain. Too sweet to be a red wine, not sweet enough to be port. Nothing that gets me going, unfortunately.

Black Stallion Estate Winery Bucephalus
Black Stallion Estate Winery Bucephalus, copyright U Bengtsson

We go straight to the top wine:

2010 Transcendent. This was better! The same density and richness as in Bucephalus, but wow, what wine! Really super-delicious. Now everything is on the good side of the border. $180 is a lot of money, but this was actually delicious, exciting and interesting. It would be interesting to see how it develops. It feels quite ready to drink now, so the question is what would some additional ageing add.

Black Stallion Estate Winery Transcendent
Black Stallion Estate Winery Transcendent, copyright U Bengtsson

I will try to lay my hands on some Barrel Select; it was awfully good…

The tasting was organized by Hermansson & Co.

Ulf Bengtsson writes about wine under the pseudonym Red Scream on his blog Red Scream and Riesling, on wine, food, photography and other things that are important in life. Like detective novels, taking long walks in Stockholm and the occasional burst of exercise. He is also on Facebook.

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