Jancis Robinson – Italian-inspired Napa Whites

A retrospective look at the white wines of Massican by Elaine Chukan Brown (ECB).

In 2009 Dan Petroski launched the entirely white-wine-focused brand Massican, sourcing fruit from iconic Napa Valley vineyards. In 2012, fruit from Russian River Valley was added to ensure adequate quantities for the various cuvées. Although Massican relies on fruit from California’s North Coast, the inspiration for the brand rests in the fresh, aromatic whites of north-eastern Italy. Petroski lived in Italy making wine for a year after leaving a publishing position with Time magazine, and fell in love with the high-acid whites of the country. Massican’s core blend, Annia, recalls the classic white wine blends of Friuli, bringing together the Italian grapes of that region with Chardonnay.

Since 2006 Petroski has also served as the winemaker for Larkmead Vineyards, one of north Napa Valley’s heritage wineries. There the wine programme centres more typically for Napa on red bordeaux blends, although it is also a source of old-vine Tocai Friulano. (In the United States the TTB still requires the variety be called by the full name, Tocai Friulano, even though international labelling laws demand it be called simply Friulano.)

Petroski’s decision to produce white wines only under the Massican label is unusual for Napa Valley. It hints at the potential diversity in a region that has so strongly aligned itself with Cabernet Sauvignon and structured reds. While Massican’s blends focus on Friuli’s characteristic white wine varieties, Petroski’s Sauvignon Blancs are also a stand out. His 100% varietal expression offers an example unique for the region, using just enough oak to give it pleasing palate texture, while in the end delivering a harmony of savoury notes, balanced by just enough sweet stone fruit, and just enough spice. The result is a serious but delicious example of Sauvignon that avoids its excesses or stereotypes.

At the end of April, Petroski opened complete verticals of every wine he has made for Massican. It provided a unique opportunity to taste his current 2016 releases and to revisit previous vintages to see how they have aged. While the earlier vintages of 2009 through 2011 show a sense of stylistic exploration, by 2012 an additional level of stylistic clarity arrived and continues to gain finesse through subsequent vintages. The Massican vertical tasting offered simultaneously an interesting exploration of the brand’s evolution as well as a loose study of the region’s vintage conditions.

Below then are brief notes on each of the vintages 2009 through 2016, and then tasting notes on verticals of four Massican cuvées – Annia, Gemina, Hyde Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Massican has also made a handful of single-vintage bottlings, and a Friulano-based vermouth, which are not included here.

Vintage conditions 2009 – 2016

The following is vintage information for each of the Massican vintages tasted. Harvest-date information as well as some of the basic vintage information was provided by Massican owner-winemaker Dan Petroski. Massican’s inaugural vintage was 2009.

2009
California was three years into a drought in 2009. Rain at key moments in the growing season helped maintain moderate yields. Rainfall in February and March helped get the vintage started with healthy vine growth during budbreak. The region then saw essentially no rain until early May, prior to flowering, and then a warm spell in June, leading to moderate yields. Temperatures through the majority of the growing season were mild with one hot spell in late September that increased ripeness quickly for varieties still waiting to be harvested. Massican was harvested prior to the heat spell. Sauvignon Blanc initiated the harvest with the first pick on 20 August. Old-vine Tocai Friulano from Nichelini Vineyard was picked 18 September and was the winery’s final pick for the season.

2010
Average overall rainfall in 2010 brought a respite to the three-year drought. Winter rains, considered standard in California for a normal year, were heavy in 2009/10 leading to delayed budbreak, flowering and fruit set. A heat spike immediately following veraison, with temperatures reaching as high as 114 ºF / 46 ºC, rushed ripening momentarily but this was quickly followed by cooler temperatures approaching harvest. Massican Sauvignon Blanc initiated harvest on 3 September, with Chardonnay from Hyde Vineyard being delayed by cool weather until 30 September.

2011
Lots of rain in the 2010/11 winter surpassed average rainfall levels. Cool weather in spring delayed bloom and fruit set, leading to lower yields than normal, as well as a lot of shatter and smaller berries. Summer temperatures remained moderate, extending the growing season far longer than normal through a cooler-than-average vintage. Harvest was even later than the already late 2010 vintage, beginning with Sauvignon Blanc for Massican on 7 September. Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay was picked on 28 September.

2012
After significant rainfall in 2011, California stepped back into what would become a multi-year drought in 2012. Even so, thanks to moderate temperatures and no frost, budbreak and flowering led to ample yields and even fruit set. The weather during the growing season was moderate with mostly even ripening weather. A two-week stretch of daytime temperatures reaching around 95 ºF / 35 ºC was evened out by cool temperatures and fog at night allowing generally good acidity to remain in the wines. Massican Sauvignon Blanc was harvested first on 23 August. The primary varieties were then brought in during the second week of September. In 2012 Ribolla Gialla from Russian River Valley was added to the Massican portfolio to help secure the core of the Annia blend. (Previously the Ribolla Gialla was sourced only from Vare Vineyard in Napa Valley.) With generally cooler comparative temperatures in Russian River, the new site for Ribolla Gialla was not harvested until 20 October.

2013
In the second year of the drought, vines were challenged by lack of rain but temperatures remained moderate until late June, allowing vines to maintain overall balance without excess vigour. Clusters were generally average size, while robust skin and seed tannin thanks to the drought means more structured wines than the more approachable 2012s. Harvest was early with Massican Sauvignon Blanc coming in on 17 August. The final pick, the Russian River Valley Ribolla Gialla, was harvested 10 September, for a quick overall harvest.

2014
The third year of the drought led to vine stress, while warm temperatures in the winter and spring meant vines barely experienced dormancy. Bloom was the earliest on record, leading to early veraison and then an early harvest as well. Even so, temperatures during the growing season were moderate and relatively even. In a surprising response to the drought stress, yields were generally higher in 2014. The early harvest began for Massican on 8 August. Greco from Russian River Valley was added to the Massican portfolio in 2014 for use in the Gemina blend. The final pick was the old-vine Tocai Friulano, harvested on 5 September.

2015
While the drought persisted into 2015, December 2014 included significant rainfall. That one month saw more rain than the entirety of the 2015 calendar year. A warm winter and spring led again to an early bloom. The warm weather continued, leading to the region’s shortest number of days on record between bloom and veraison. The vintage included very low yields partially as a result of the vine stress caused by the fourth year of drought, and partially due to weather during fruit set. A heat spike in early September also rushed ripening towards the end of harvest. Most Massican fruit, however, was harvested prior to the heatwave. Massican Sauvignon Blanc began harvest on 6 August. Greco from the Russian River Valley was picked last on 6 September, just as the heatwave started.

2016
Winter rains in 2015/16 helped alleviate the drought. Budbreak was early and was followed by a warm spring that also meant early flowering. A couple of heat spikes, one at the end of July, during veraison, and the other in the second week of August, looked to be speeding ripening, only to be followed by cool temperatures for the remainder of the month. Temperatures stayed below 90 ºF / 32 ºC. Sauvignon Blanc was the first Massican fruit to be harvested, on 10 August. However, the cool temperatures that followed slowed harvest for the other varieties with Chardonnay coming in 10 days later than in 2015, and the Italian varieties around three weeks later.

ANNIA WHITE BLEND

The Annia blend generally carries profound palate presence and tons of persistence on a relatively light-bodied wine. The varieties work very well together here as the wine becomes generally harmonious in the glass with the breadth and fresh green notes of the Italian varieties wed to the power and spine of the Chardonnay. These wines offer impressive complexity in their youth but give all indication of ageing and evolving well with time in bottle. The style gains clarity from the 2012 vintage forward. Though 2012 as a vintage has a bit less interest throughout the region in general, here it also shows greater focus and finesse than the previous vintages and the wine becomes progressively more finessed in vintages since. The Annia is a nicely executed flagship blend for the brand. As mentioned above, in the United States legal labelling still requires the Italian variety to be listed as Tocai Friulano even though international labelling laws require the grape be called only Friulano.

Massican, Annia 2009 Napa Valley
44% Tocai Friulano, 29% Ribolla Gialla, 27% Chardonnay.
Floral and citrus creamy aromatics. Has developed an accent of nutty richness but at its core still carries bursting acidity and bright, light citrus notes. Hints of citrus cream and an ultra-long finish. Persistent, mineral salinity and a ton of palate stimulation. Not as cohesive and focused as later vintages though still a pleasing wine.

Massican, Annia 2010 Napa Valley
47% Tocai Friulano, 33% Ribolla Gialla, 20% Chardonnay.
Mixed citrus aromatics – kumquat and lime – with a savoury undercurrent turning more lacy and delicate on the palate while still carrying a persistent core of power and palate stimulation. Floral notes lift from the palate but the wine here is more primarily savoury with a full range of fruits – citrus, orchard accents, and hints of stone fruits. The palate opens with the flavours of the Italian varieties but finishes showing the Chardonnay. Long finish.

Massican, Annia 2011 Napa Valley
54% Tocai Friulano, 33% Ribolla Gialla, 13% Chardonnay.
A bit of reductive funk on the nose with underlying notes of salted lemon. The funk persists into the palate showing as overripe red apples verging towards rotten, and has less flavour range than the previous two vintages, but even so, the wine is savoury and approachable. Plenty of acidity and salinity here with the bitter cut of grapefruit pith but the reductive element dominates, masking the complexity of the wine.

Massican, Annia 2012 Napa Valley
46% Ribolla Gialla, 36% Tocai Friulano, 18% Chardonnay.
Fresh citrus-blossom aromatics and a lean, high acid, citrus palate accented by flavours of melon skin and a hint of pink bubblegum. A decidedly different style from the previous vintages though still carrying the lengthy sapidity and bright acid profile that defines the blend. The 2012 also doesn’t have the structural depth of the 2009 or 2010, even with its ultra bright acidity, though that is consistent with the vintage in the region. 2012 generally tends to have upfront fruit with less structural follow-through than its surrounding vintages. Pretty and more honed than previous vintages but also with less interest. Wants a bit of time in bottle to let the acid integrate with the flavours.

Massican, Annia 2013 Napa Valley
44% Tocai Friulano, 36% Ribolla Gialla, 20% Chardonnay.
2013 continues with the leaner style of 2012. Lifted floral aromatics with an accent of mushroom continue into the palate with a long, savoury, crunchy rock mineral finish. While the others have showed more savoury, sea-salt notes, here the minerality feels more like rolling rocks about the mouth – allusions to the lightly earthy saltiness of previous vintages but here more rocky mineral. Light hints of cedar. More concentration and complexity as well as structural depth than the 2012.

Massican, Annia 2014 Napa Valley
45% Tocai Friulano, 32% Chardonnay, 23% Ribolla Gialla.
More subtle aromatics here with notes of evergreen forest on the nose and palate. A faint allusion to creamy citrus at the front of the palate moves into more tactile, savoury, citrus and orchard fruit mid palate through to the finish. Both perfumed and savoury. Good integration of oak here brings texture and another level of depth. A bit less structural and less savour than 2013 but still with lots of focus and length.

Massican, Annia 2015 Napa Valley
45% Tocai Friulano, 46% Ribolla Gialla, 14% Chardonnay.
Similar aromatics to the 2013 – perfumed, floral, fresh with some exotic fruit notes – with a bit more breadth on the palate, though also with a profound core of tension. Snappy, energetic, focused, good tension and length while also showing plenty of concentration and depth. Finessed and the most elegant of the vintages so far. Savoury. Persistent.

Massican, Annia 2016 Napa Valley
60% Ribolla Gialla, 31% Tocai Friulano, 9% Chardonnay.
Almond blossom and citrus blossom aromatics with a light note of salted lemon. The palate becomes delicate and lacy in its flavour presentation with a savoury evergreen note, and persistent savoury mineral length. Creamy wax mouthfeel with a tactile oak-tannin spice and texture. Lengthy. Less concentration and more apparent oak though still lots of complexity – the wine is still quite young and the oak that shows now will no doubt integrate more with a bit of time in bottle. Hold for a couple years of cellaring.

GEMINA WHITE BLEND

The Gemina cuvée has gone through the most stylistic exploration and so shows significant vintage variation at the same time that it maintains a signature focus on lifted aromatics, bright acidity, and palate texture.

Massican, Gemina 2009 California
60% Viognier, 20% Chardonnay, 20% Ribolla Gialla.
Aromatics of lightly buttered and toasted raisin bread sprinkled with a bit of sea salt. The palate picks up spice and finishes bready with a light while persistent heat.

Massican, Gemina 2010 Napa Valley
80% Chardonnay, 20% Ribolla Gialla.
Toasted raisin bread on the nose. A bit blunt on the palate. Broad and spice with nutty accents. Persistent acidity keeps the palate watering through a core of overripe, sweet stone fruits.

Massican, Gemina 2011 Napa Valley
100% Chardonnay.
Apple-blossom nose followed by a palate of apple butter on toast sprinkled by spice and a squeeze of Meyer lemon. Vibrant acidity and tons of persistence.

Massican, Gemina 2012 California
100% Chardonnay.
Aromatics of mixed citrus – pink grapefruit, pomelo, and candied lime – are accented by a light waft of chemical smell like home permanent-hair solution, though it is not unpleasant. High acid. Super palate-stimulating. Ultra-long finish. Wants time in bottle.

Massican, Gemina 2013 Napa Valley
100% Chardonnay.
Savoury, lightly spiced, toasted and nutty with light-bulb citrus brightness. Nice clarity here and delivery. The most clarity of style and balance of presentation of the Gemina cuvée so far. Good structure-flavour-length balance.

Massican, Gemina 2014 California
71% Greco, 29% Pinot Grigio.
Lightly resinous, tree leaf nose and palate with ultra bright acidity and flavours of mixed yellow fruits. Textural front palate followed by a waxed finish and persistent lemon drop and melon notes. Lengthy. Mouth-watering.

Massican, Gemina 2015 California
69% Pinot Grigio, 31% Greco.
Perfumed with light notes of cedar. Currently subtle aromatics – feels like a subdued phase rather than generally characteristic of the wine. Beautiful, exotic. Lots of depth and tons of palate presence with still a sense of elegance. Mouth-watering and tons of length. Flavours continue to evolve and reveal themselves with air. Will continue to evolve in bottle.

Massican, Gemina 2016 California
79% Pinot Grigio, 21% Greco.
Far more aromatics than previous vintages. Notes of pear, resinous evergreen and stone fruit. Savoury. Aromas carry into the palate. Plenty of acidity here but it’s made more approachably than the previous several vintages. Savoury. Textural spice. Mouth-watering. Persistent stone-fruit finish.

HYDE VINEYARD CHARDONNAY

Hyde Vineyard in Carneros is one of the icon sites for the variety in Napa Valley. Hyde Chardonnay has been a key component of the Massican Annia since its inception. In 2014 Massican also began bottling a small amount of Hyde Chardonnay on its own. Massican’s rendition of the Hyde Chardonnay carries a wealth of power, as the site is known for, and length. It offers the focus on texture and bright acidity consistent with Massican wines, while also offering more aromatic lift than the other cuvées. The Hyde also showcases a resinous forest note that dances in and out of the Annia cuvée depending on the vintage.

Massican, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 Napa Valley
Good density and depth on both the nose and palate with notes of well-integrated spice, mixed citrus and orchard fruit and accents of resinous forest. Plenty of power through the mid palate continues through a long savoury finish. Pleasingly textural.

Massican, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 Napa Valley
Perfumed, lightly green nose. White grapefruit pith, Meyer lemon, and pomelo. Lots of up-front palate presence with a bit less concentration and a bit less depth than the 2014 but still an ultra-long finish.

Massican, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 Napa Valley
Aromatics are delicate yet broad. Notes of resinous forest persist nose through palate. The palate captures a combination of both savoury and sweet spice flavours. Textural and persistent. Plenty of power and breadth while also more approachable than previous vintages.

SAUVIGNON BLANC

Massican delivers Sauvignon Blanc with a decidedly savoury and textural focus. The balance brings together a savoury, just-picked herbal note, like tomato leaf or even Italian herbs, in some vintages alongside sweet fruits mainly focused on white peach and hints of other white stone fruits, with long lines of mineral sapidity. A delicious example of Napa Sauvignon Blanc that avoids the excesses of the variety and delivers a food-friendly, Italian-inspired style. At the same time, in its best vintages, it offers a satisfying and intriguing harmony of savoury flavours, sweet fruits, and just the right amount of spice. Massican Sauvignon Blanc is a 100% varietal wine labelled simply ‘Sauvignon’, as it is inspired by Italian wines of north-eastern Italy.

Massican Sauvignon 2009 Napa Valley
Tomato blossom with a fresh snap of green onion lift a savoury nose and palate bursting with acidity. Tons of power through the palate and bright acidity with good mineral clarity and length. Savoury and delicious. Impressive ageability.

Massican Sauvignon 2010 Napa Valley
Hints of gooseberry on the nose. Super-fresh. More fruit-focused palate while also ultra-savoury compared with the 2009. Super-aromatic with notes of savoury tomato leaf and also pure white peach. Delicious. Pretty and lengthy. Super-drinkable.

Massican Sauvignon 2011 Napa Valley
Savoury, greener aromatics. Lots of concentration and depth on the palate. Persistent and fresh. Mouth-watering, clean finish. Less concentration than surrounding vintages.

Massican Sauvignon 2012 Napa Valley
Tomato leaf and fresh aromatics continues into the palate. Loads of palate presence and persistence. Savoury, freshly picked herbs sprinkled with sea salt. Really pretty and has a nice sense of focus and greater harmony than the previous vintages. Lovely, racy and pretty.

Massican Sauvignon 2013 Napa Valley
Less apparent aromatics – though this seems due to a shutdown phase rather than the wine itself – but there is more density on the palate than in the 2012. Nice balance of fresh-picked, savoury herbs, sweet fruit, and salty minerality. Pleasing. Will age.

Massican Sauvignon 2014 Napa Valley
Much lighter nose and palate than the 2013. Less concentration though plenty of persistence. Savoury, tomato-leaf notes gain presence on the palate and carry into an ultra-long finish.

Massican Sauvignon 2015 Napa Valley
Almost chalky notes carry alongside tomato leaf on the nose and into the palate. Lots of concentration and persistence as well as more power of presence than the 2014. Savoury salinity, fresh and persistent with accents of peach and apple.

Massican Sauvignon 2016 Napa Valley
Aromatics carrying delicate white peach accented by savoury tomato leaf follow into the palate and through a long savoury, saline finish. Nice balance of sweet and sour flavours with savoury length. Pretty with lots of concentration into a long finish. Will likely gain finesse with time in bottle.

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