Assessing the wines of Gallo of Sonoma

xOne often quoted, yet still startling fact about the size of the E & J Gallo operation in California, is that until recently its output was greater than that of the entire Australian wine industry.
E & J Gallo is, by any standards, a colossus of the world wine stage. The company produces 40 million cases of wine per year, and one in every four bottles purchased in the United States is a Gallo wine. They now export to over 90 countries. Gallo was founded in 1933 by Ernest and Julio Gallo, and is still a privately owned family business. Today, the company is steered by Gina and Matt Gallo (right).

Gina, who is still in her early thirties, is the granddaughter of Julio. Her specific role is centred around the family’s premium Sonoma County wines. “Gallo of Sonoma” is pretty much an entity in its own right, though not divorced from the company’s more generic branded wines. The Gallo of Sonoma concept is a whole different ball-game, and one the company is keen to measure against its peers – other premium wines from respected, smaller producers. Gina is winemaker and ambassador for the Sonoma wines, and a tireless champion for the vineyards sites and terroir of their Sonoma estate.

It is fair to say that Gallo faces something of a credibility gap in terms of fine wine aficionados: these Sonoma wines are going to have to be really good, not just pretty good if a sceptical press and public is to be convinced. That cause has been helped by the wines picking up a string of awards in prestigious blind-tasting competitions. Describing her philosophy for the wines in a recent interview, Gina Gallo said, “We’re now really trying to pin down exactly which varietal will do best in very specific spots. Once you have this kind of understanding, then it’s a matter of just bringing out the expression of the grape from that particular microclimate, letting it show its true personality. We make hundreds of small volume blends each year, playing with varietals, testing barrel toasts, different oaks, different yeasts, fermentation temperatures and times”.

xClearly, Gallo of Sonoma is a very different business from the mass-market brands like Garnet Point or Turning Leaf. I dare say the older generation of the family would have had doubts about a company like Gallo “taking its eye off the ball” by putting too much time and energy into these relatively small-production wines. Yet there is no doubt that having “flagship” wines that earn the respect of wine enthusiasts has got to be good for the company as a whole.

The proof, of course, will be in the bottles, and so I tasted through a range of both current release and some older wines recently. Without a doubt Matt and Gina are succeeding in making wines of obvious quality and complexity which hold there own when measured against other Californian wines in the same price ranges. Well worth trying if you get the chance.

White wines

E&J Gallo Coastal Chardonnay 2000
Served as a warm-up wine, this is a top bottling of the “regular” Gallo range. Fruit comes from north coast appellations in Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa Counties. It is barrel-fermented and aged, for around 6 months. It has quite a complex, nutty nose, with some orange and lots of vivid grapefruit. Has a slightly oxidative nuttiness, and a vegetal streak onto the palate that is quite Burgundian. Good texture, with nutty, melon and white fruit and good balance. Very good indeed. £9.99 Tesco, Safeway.

Gallo of Sonoma Stefani Vineyard Chardonnay 1998
From the Dry Creek Valley, this 14.5% alcohol wine is whole-bunch pressed and barrel-fermented and aged in French and European oak. This is big, nutty and leesy, with plenty of waxy overtones and marmalade fruit. On the palate it is big and powerful too, with more of that orange fruit character and perhaps a little overripe/oxidised character. Very good/very good indeed. £16.49 Tesco Selected stores, Heymann Barwell Jones

Gallo of Sonoma Laguna Vineyard Chardonnay 1999
From the Russian River Valley, where ocean fogs help make one of the coolest Sonoma vineyard areas. This has a lovely grapefruity tang on the nose, with background toast and nutty qualities, but brighter than the previous wine. Picks up a bit of that pithy grapefruit grip amongst more generous citrus flavours on the palate, with clean acidity and good length. Oak fills-out the finish. Very good indeed/excellent. £16.49 Thresher Group, Unwins, HBJ.

Gallo of Sonoma Two Rock Vineyard Chardonnay 2000
Two Rock is located on the Sonoma Coast, an emerging appellation in Sonoma County. The vineyard enjoys a cooler climate due to heavy fogs and winds from the San Francisco Bay. A little disjointed at present, with some honeyed, smoky characteristics and a core of lemony fruit. The palate is medium- to full-bodied, with more lemon and apple crisp fruit, and a suggestion of richer, tropical nuances. Has a little bit of a hole on the mid-palate, but good balance in the finish and good length. Very good indeed. £17-19 Not yet released.

Gallo of Sonoma Estate Chardonnay 1998
A limited production wine made in some years from selected Sonoma vineyards fruit, including the best of the Laguna Ranch. It is made with classic Burgundian techniques of 100% new French barrel fermentation, lees stirring, and no fining or filtration. 840 cases are produced. It has a lovely nose, with a mealy, toasty, coffee-bean richness and peachy, nut kernel fruit quality. This is very aromatic and appealing. On the palate it is weighty and powerful, with again a Seville orange, marmalady quality of fruit and a ripe, forward character. It is open and delicious, though perhaps not for further cellaring. Very good indeed/excellent. £30 Harrods, Selfridges, HBJ Mail order, Costco.

Red wines

Gallo of Sonoma Sonoma County Pinot Noir 1999
Another lead-in bottling, not from the single-vineyard series. This has a lovely nose; elegant strawberry fruit with an earthy, berry and dry, chocolaty quality. There’s a little jammy raspberry brightness. Fine quality on the palate too, with lip-smacking tannins and a robust acid framework behind sweet, pure, berry and red cherry fruit all underpinned by a gently toasty, vanilla quality. Good length, and a delicious wine. Very good indeed. £11-13 Harrods.

Gallo of Sonoma Barrelli Creek Vineyard Merlot 1995
Gallo no longer seems to produce a Barrelli Creek Merlot, so I have no technical info on this wine. It is a little volatile on the nose, with herbal notes and lots of charry oak and spice. On the palate more of that Asian spice quality: anise, clove and ginger, with deep-set, chewy black fruit. Lots of plum and liquorice depth and a dry, full texture. Very good for drinking now. £19.50 HBJ Mail order.

Gallo of Sonoma Frei Ranch Vineyard Zinfandel 1997
Frei Ranch is in the Dry Creek Valley, and this wine was made from whole grape clusters that were gently de-stemmed but not crushed prior to fermentation, to increase elegance and eliminate harsh tannins. It was aged for one year in new American and French oak. This is loaded with spice, leather, plum and chocolate-coated berries. Some briar and pencil-shaving aromas. Firm on the palate, with a tight fruit quality, plenty of grip and a liquorice edge. There’s a little fudge-like oaky background, but this stays firm and focused into the finish. Very good indeed. £19-22 Costco, HBJ Mailorder, Wm Morton, Thresher Group, and Unwins.

Gallo of Sonoma Stefani Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
Another Dry Creek Valley wine, this is aged in European, French and American oak barrels for two years, with minimal filtration. There is a dense blue/black quality to the fruit on the nose, with some interesting layers of herbs and meat-stock. Spicy and rich on the palate, that pure cassis fruit pushes through, with firm tannins and good balance. This has a nice smooth texture and decent length. Very good indeed. Gallo is now on to the 1998 vintage, with listings to be confirmed.

Gallo of Sonoma Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
Winner of world’s best Cabernet Sauvignon in the International Wine Challenge, this is made from the best parcels of fruit from various vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Coast. It spends two years in mostly new French oak barrels and around 800 cases are produced. The nose is cedary, dusty and tight, with violet-tinged black fruit suggesting damson and juicy black cherries. There’s a little herbal note, and plenty of fruit. On the palate it is structured and poised, with savoury black fruit and a svelte quality of ripe tannin and cedary oak. Long and very impressive. Excellent. £60-65 Harrods, Selfridges and Unwins.