I really enjoyed visiting the Napa Valley recently, I saw much and learnt a lot. I saw many wonderful wineries, but one of the absolute highlights was visiting a small family owned winery called Robert Biale Vineyards.
It is always refreshing and uplifting when you see a proper farm type winery at close quarters. Many wineries nowadays are over the top monuments to their owners success, so it is reassuring that some still cling to the old ways – even in California!
Pietro and Christina Biale arrived here from their native northern Italy in the early 1930s and like so many of their countrymen they wanted to make wine for their own consumption. Again like many newcomers to the area they planted Zinfandel on their new piece of land – Zinfandel is not Italian, but it is originally Croatian, so it has a distinct Italianate and Mediterranean feel and it suits the hot climate very well.
The vines did so well that already in the dying days of Prohibition their wine had made quite a reputation for itself. Legend has it that neighbours would come to their house to get jugs of the wine, asking for ‘Black Chicken’ the code-word for still illegal alcohol. Black Chicken is now the name of one of the Biale’s Zinfandel wines and nothing to do with Chianti Classico as one might presume.
For decades the majority of the grapes was routinely sold off to bulk wine producers with prunes and walnuts being equally important crops. Just like all their neighbours they even grew vegetables and kept chickens for the eggs.
Roll forward 60 years and the Napa Valley was undisputedly a great wine region, world famous in fact and fortunes were being made out of Napa wine. The fruit that the Biale family family produced was very good and they knew it, so the next logical step was to make the wine themselves. This they did in 1991 with just 400 cases of wine produced from the now 60 year old vines on the estate. The property is now called Aldo’s Vineyard in honour of Pietro and Christina Biale’s son Aldo.
A good friend of mine, Kevin Powell, is a consultant wine maker at Biale and he showed me around, let me taste his beautifully made wines – of which he seems justifiably proud, let me watch and film the fortifying of the Port-style wine, took me to a party, thrashed me at pool and let me buy him many, many beers. It was great couple of days, thanks Kevin.
Zinfandel is central to Biale Vineyards. It is what defines them and what they want to make. What is more they seek to make a particular style of Zinfandel that is elegant and refined and they seek to do that while at the same time using the terroir of each vineyard. Most of their line-up comprises single vineyard Zinfandels grown in various parts of Napa, as well as some from further afield. Over the years they have also expanded their offering to include Syrah, Petite Sirah, a Sauvignon and some Barbera and Sangiovese too.
If you have never tried a Zinfandel that really excited you I would highly recommend that you grab a bottle of a Robert Biale wine. In my opinion they take this often rustic grape to new heights of excellence and refinement – and their Syrah and Petite Sirahs are pretty darn good too.
A very deep colour for Zinfandel, cherry and raspberry red, just opaque.
The nose is very fresh with rich, ripe raspberry notes and a peppery fragrance. Dried peach and raspberry aromas hover in the background together with a lovely delicately lifted spiciness.
The palate is very smooth and supple, the tannins are smooth too, but still firm – giving structure to the wine. There are lovely crunchy fruit characters, raspberries and red cherry too, with a point of acidity giving balance and freshness.
This wine is verging on full-bodied, but it is flavour led, not body led which makes it fell very balanced and frankly deceptively easy to drink.
There is a backbone of toasty spicy oak and firm tannins on the long, slightly chalky finish, but the fruit follows through onto the finish as well.
A really good start – 87 points.
Grande Vineyard, Napa Valley
A single vineyard Zinfandel, these vines were planted in 1920 by wonderfully named Theodosio Grande and the grapes have been tended by his children and grandchildren ever since. These low yielding organically-farmed 89 year old vines produce tiny amounts of intensely concentrated fruit, just 387 cases of wine were produced.
Opaque crushed raspberry colour with a brightness and intensity that is very attractive.
The nose is almost perfumed with lifted fresh raspberry, white pepper, cream and eau de vie aromas.
The flavours are intense and exciting with the flavour being more dominant than the body of the wine, the richness and the freshness are well balanced.
This is delicious and accessible wine, very drinkable with a supple palate and packed with ripe fruit. Currently it has quite tight tannins and a fair bit of oak on the finish, but all that will fade soon if you don’t like it like that – I do!
This screams great wine at you from the off, this was wonderful and will only get better with some age – 90+ points.
Monte Rosso Syrah 2005
Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma Valley
Another single vineyard wine and what a great vineyard – Monte Rosso was originally planted in the 1880’s and bought by Louis M. Martini in 1938 as he had long bought fruit from the vineyard, which now belongs to Gallo. It is west facing on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas mountains and is in Sonoma and not Napa. It is high and steep with reddish volcanic soil – hence the name Monte Rosso. The conditons give long hang time and big temperature drops between night and day that helps produce elegant wines.
The nose was enticing, beautifully creamy and ripe with black fruit, spices and smoky toasty oak – there is a tightness here that will surely soften.
The palate was slightly lean with a touch of acidity and tight fine grain tannins together with a touch of something savoury and something floral and lightly elegant fresh black fruit. The acidity keeps this medium-bodied wine fresh and balanced while the finish is long, delicate and delicious.
This is really fine Syrah – 90+ points.
Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma Valley
Another wine from the superb Monte Rosso vineyard which contains some of the world’s oldest Zinfandel vines, being planted by Emmanuel Goldstein in the 1890’s.
The nose was very attractive with creamy ripe, fragrant red fruit and just a touch of spice.
The palate was rich and creamy and textured with touches of spice from the oak and the character of the grape. The tannins were pretty supple, but just gave a firm, chalky structure to an otherwise gloriously smooth wine.
Again this wine has more flavour than weight, with rich red and black fruit and liquorice on the palate. The finish is long and creamy with raspberry notes and good acid balance.
A beautifully complete, elegant wine that is delicious to drink – 92 points.
Petite Sirah 2006
Long thought to be a somewhat dubious grape, Petite Sirah or Durif is hardly ever given the star treatment. Now though ’Pet’, as the locals have it is enjoying something of a renaissance. It has now been discovered to be the offspring of Syrah itself and the long neglected Peloursin – Biale actually have 8 old Peloursin vines that goes into this blend.
To celebrate Petite Sirah’s parentage this wine’s curious name is an anagram of Peloursin and Syrah.
The colour was a deep crimson with a slight raisin-like tinge.
The nose offered rich plump fruit and delicate spice notes. The palate had plump, ripe black and red fruit together with attractive spice and some firm fine grain tannins. The texture was very soft and round, quite seductive and easy to drink, but with lovely layers of complexity behind the fruit.
A very attractive wine – 87 points.
Petite Sirah 2006
You see, Petite Sirah is like busses, you have don’t try any for years and years, then 2 come along within 10 minutes of each other!
Thomann (Toe-min) Station Vineyard in St. Helena is a relatively new vineyard that specialises in this grape variety that used to be much more important in Napa than it is today.
A deep colour, opaque blue black.
The nose was velvety rich and spicy with ripe raspberry, blackberry and black cherry notes.
The palate was complex and savoury with smooth, silky tannins, spicy toasty oak, mocha and cocoa and leather notes.
A beautifully balanced and elegant wine with a long, seductive finish. The touch of acidity makes this wonderfully balanced and the rich fruit makes it beautifully supple and the finish is epically long – 92 points.
St Helena – Napa Valley
Yet another treat from a single vineyard site. Franz Kraft first planted his vineyard in the 1860’s, but the actual vines used here are mere babies from the replanting in the 1890’s.
The nose was intense and incredibly perfumed and floral with rich, ripe raspberry notes.
The palate was round and smooth with delicate spice and that floral quality making it almost a pretty wine. The glorious deep red and some black fruit was creamily ripe while the tannins hovered ever so discretely in the background. The oak too kept itself to itself quite beautifully, just adding complexity and little flourishes of spice and cocoa.
This was seamless, smooth, balanced and sinfully drinkable – 95 points.
This visit was an exciting experience, I could watch proper hands on wine making with wine makers getting dirty and I tasted some wines that were quite simply superb. The wines were all elegant, they were all complex and balanced with great tannin management. They were fine and supple – even in their extreme youth and they were all delicious to drink, not just interesting and thought provoking. I also discovered that Zinfandel and Petite Sirah of this quality are very food friendly wines, as the tannins are so smooth and the fruit is so rich they perfectly partner a wide variety of foods from roast chicken to steaks and ribs.
I was blown away by Robert Biale wines and would recommend them very highly to anyone who likes rich and flavoursome red wines, luckily some mature examples are still available in the UK from Jeroboams and O.W.Loeb – so you can try them for yourselves.