Every once in a while, a wine project comes along that makes connoisseurs and collectors snap to attention. We all know the names: Sine Qua Non in California, Maggie Harrison’s Lillian in Oregon (she also owns and makes the wine at Antica Terra), and the like. They’re difficult to find bottlings that, regardless of the effort required to get them, are more than worth it.
Add Blackbird Vineyards to that illustrious company.
Started just a blink-of-an-eye ago in 2003, Blackbird Vineyards has already made its way to the top of the California food chain, and its astounding collection of Pomerol-inspired wines, based on my recent tastings, are among the best in the country.
As is the case with so many of the world’s top performers, Blackbird relies on sustainable farming, noninterventionist vinification, rigorous fruit selection, and a willingness to produce less wine if that means raising its quality and staying true to the vintage.
I recently had the chance to taste the new releases, and was utterly blown away by the wines’ expressiveness right now and potential for evolution in the long term. My notes are below.
Blackbird Vineyards "Arriviste" 2009
The nose is charmingly subtle here, showing restrained notes of strawberry, rhubarb, flowers, spices, and watermelon. Very elegant, as is the palate with its silky mouthfeel and perfectly calibrated acidity adding lift to sweet fruit notes of smaller, riper strawberries, hints of cranberry, watermelon, cherries, and something a touch floral and spicy on the finish, like peppercorn cracked on fraises de bois. This is a subtle, structured rose with enough backbone to age for a season or so but irresistible right now.
Blackbird Vineyards “Arise” 2008
This leads off with a very rich, expressive nose, and though the oak is readily apparent right now, it’s balanced and soft enough to integrate seamlessly in the years to come. Plum and cherry marmalade aromas complicate things, as do violets and a touch of something exotically spicy that reminds me of coriander and peppercorns. Great depth here; I could smell this all day and be happy. The palate, for all its lavish plum and cherry fruit, is remarkably subtle, enhanced with flavors of spicy tobacco, rich chocolate ganache, and coffee, and ending on a gentle whiff of eucalyptus throughout a finish that lasts a full minute. Mesmerizing.
Blackbird Vineyards “Paramour” 2007
The role of the cabernet franc here comes right out and manifests itself in the perfume of cigars, mint, and fresh Provencal herbs that I typically associate with great-vintage Cheval-Blanc. This breed follows through to the palate, with its serious structure that will require time to allow the full potential of this wine to emerge but that even now, this early on its life, pulses with tightly wound sweet dark berry fruit, black cherries, chanterelles, and violets. A wine for the cellar and very special occasions, this is at the far end of what Right Bank-style Napa reds wines can do. It's a serious achievement.
Blackbird Vineyards “Contrarian” 2007
The 2007 Contrarian smells like walking through a forest after the rain as rosemary and mint and black raspberries grow all around you. Wonderfully reminiscent of a young Pomerol on the nose. On the palate, however, this is a bigger, more mouth-filling wine whose oak and other elements need more time to integrate, but whose deep well of dark berry fruit sings through with a masculine sense of purpose. More tannic and reserved than the wines that preceded it, there’s also an aromatic lift and a propulsive power undergirding it all right now. This big, mouth-staining wine promises a very long life ahead.
Blackbird Vineyards “Illustration” 2007
Sweet, clay-flecked red plum, black raspberry, sun-warmed blackberry, white truffle, maduro cigar, and fraise de bois define the nose here, and lead to a palate every bit as complex. Sweet, chewy, chocolate-enrobed fruit, kirsch-filled German chocolate, caramel, and strawberry preserves are balanced by spice, earthiness, and the sort of dusty tannins that make you want to drink more and more. Impossible not to love now, and it should easily evolve for the next decade or two in the bottle.
Blackbird Vineyards “Illustration” 2006
The aromatics here are just so evocative of Pomerol, with warm clay, perfumed mushrooms, and cherries in abundance. If you’ve wandered around Pomerol itself, this is as Proustian an evocation of the smell of the place as you’ll find in California. It’s dense and rich on the palate, with sweet black plum, blueberry compote, chamomile tea, and licorice limning the black cherry fruit. The tannins really make themselves known on the finish, though they certainly don’t cover up the lingering memory of the fruit or the fabulous flutter of demi-glace that develops and then slowly, languorously vanishes. Drink over the next ten years or so.