A “Chardonnay-Year” for the Texas Hill Country & Pilot Knob and Robert Clay Vineyards
It was an early August day 2014, when I visited Dan McLaughlin’s Robert Clay Vineyard in Mason. I was directed by Dan to try a helping of the still remaining Chardonnay grapes in the vineyard. See https://vintagetexas.com/?p=13774 . It was after this “tasting” and a similar tasting of Alfonse Dotson’s Certenberg Vineyard Chardonnay grapes (also in Mason County) that I proclaimed 2014 a “Chardonnay-Year” for the Texas Hill Country [I can’t make claims for anywhere else in the state].
I recently had an opportunity to again come face-to-face with the same Chardonnay from Robert Clay Vineyard. But, this time it was in the form of a finished wine: 2014 Pilot Knob Vineyard, Chardonnay, Robert Clay Vineyard, Texas Hill Country, “Cloud Nine”.
I can definitely say that this wine reflects the summer of 2014 that I experienced in Mason County. The summer was retrained, parsed with occasional soothing showers and refreshing afternoon breezes and moderate day and night time temperatures. This is just what Chardonnay grapes need to show well in a Texas wine. It’s not an every year thing, but when the magic works…wow!
In this recent meet-up, the wine showed something special. It wasn’t the pale straw color of many French Chardonnays and didn’t have the intense golden hues of California’s sturdy-stylistically oak-aged Chards either. The Pilot Knob Chardonnay starts with light golden straw and something that I’ve seen a few times before in Texas white wines: a straw-gold color tinged with perhaps just the slightest glow of a southwestern sunset. My take is that it is perhaps a dose of sun ripened grape skin color (see above).
On the nose, the wine showed restraint like the summer that produced it. It held a pleasant air of sweet vanilla bean and toasted almonds from oak followed closely with apple and citrus notes. These progressed further on the palate to yellow delicious apples, butterscotch and lemon curd yielding a well-rounded [soft-yet-crisp] finish. All these characteristics come packaged with the restrained polish and integration of a fine wine. You could argue about “if it’s classic Chard, or not”. But, I known one thing, it’s a wine that is destine to please. I just hope that we have more Chardonnay vintages like this one in Texas to proclaim so that we can continue this discussion over more wine.
I linked up on a call to grower Dan McLaughlin after my tasting and he indicated he was really pleased how his grapes showed in the final analysis. He also had praise for the winemaking effort of Craig Pinkley at Pilot Knob and the support of Tim Drake winemaker at Flat Creek Winery.
Dan said, “2014 was an exception harvest for our Chardonnay at Robert Clay Vineyard. The numbers were solidly good: 2.3 tons per acre, harvested at 21.8 Brix and pH 3.51. I don’t think they could have been any better.”
Later, I asked Craig for more background on this wine and he referred to Dan’s fruit as “immaculate” and “super clean”, then said, “Dan is a meticulous grower. Because of this, we made the decision to go with the vineyard’s feral yeast to ferment, and no additional yeast was added. I know that that can be dangerous because you really don’t know what’s going to happen, but it all turned out great. Both Dan and Craig called it “Pretty darn cool”.
Craig also said, “The fermentation, secondary [malo-lactic] fermentation and aging were all done in Hungarian oak barrels: 9 months aging in all with 30% new oak. With a committed grower like Dan and with the guiding hand of Tim Drake, who has extensive experience with the Chardonnay grape, it all came together in a fine way. We were pleased to create a wine with lovely textures, aromas, and drinkability. A little hurrah for Texas Chardonnay.”
I’ve talked to many winemakers in Texas that are now “playing with” aging in Hungarian oak (closely akin to French Oak) because they particularly like the toasty qualities and creamy softness it imparts to the wine. This wine definitely has those attributes.
Later, I asked Dan where did the “Cloud Nine” on the wine label come from. After a moment of pause, Dan said, “ My wife Jeanie was adopted. While Jeanie and her birth father were very close, he hadn’t seen her in 8 years. In 2014, he came to visit us during harvest and he got a chance to visit with his family and grandkids. Jeanie’s father also helped with harvest. He spent all night driving the Kubota around the vineyard with my son picking up fruit as it was harvested and telling stories to everyone that would listen.”
After pausing again, he said, “On his way back home on his Harley after the visit, he had a serious accident and passed away. Jeanie later said that during that visit her father was ‘really on Cloud Nine’. We thought that it would be a fitting and special dedication to him by adding “Cloud Nine” on the wine’s label. It’s a celebration of his life.”
The 2014 Pilot Knob Vineyard, Chardonnay, Robert Clay Vineyard, Texas Hill Country, “Cloud Nine” is a special wine in the glass. It was a special vintage and special harvest, too. It is also special for the memories that it holds every time it’s savored.
For more information on the wine, winery and vineyard, see:
Pilot Knob Vineyard & Winery and ordering information – http://www.pilotknobvineyard.com/
Robert Clay Vineyard