Our visit to this top-rated winery in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley actually began the night before. We had scheduled a meeting with proprietor Stephen Hansel at the winery and he suggested we might want to try his newly created Walter Hansel Wine and Bistro, a French-themed Bistro about a mile from his winery. We took him up on his suggestion and went for dinner there. This is a terrific bistro serving authentic French dishes made from locally sourced meats and vegetables. Our dinner was absolutely superb! This restaurant is a must-stop for any foodies that visit Sonoma County.
Walter Hansel was a farmer who loved to grow all sorts of crops. Primarily a fruit farmer, he decided in the 1970s to plant a half acre of Chardonnay and he and his son Stephen would make about 2 barrels (50 cases) of wine for the family to drink with dinner over the coming year. Stephen was not particularly into wine back then; the family also had a car business and that had more appeal for young Stephen. Perhaps Stephen’s lack of enthusiasm for wine was a product of the fact that those early barrels of Chardonnay were not yet at a quality level that would encourage much enthusiasm. But that all changed one year when Stephen noticed that this particular vintage tasted much better than all the previous vintages. Stephen asked Walter what made this year so markedly better and his father replied “All I did was ask Tom Rochioli to come farm this one little piece”. Tom Rochioli is now one of the top names and his eponymous winery one of the icons of the Russian River Valley. Stephen’s passion for wine was now ignited and he was determined to learn as much from Tom as he possibly could. Tom was happy to oblige and told Stephen about the vineyard practices that had been developed and refined by three generations of Rochiolis. Rochioli began the process of turning Stephen’s understanding of the wine making process on its head: back then it surprised Stephen that what you did in the vineyard translated into better quality wine. “I just assumed if you gave a winemaker grapes, it’s his job to make wine; little did I know that you actually grow wine and if you do that properly the winemaker doesn’t have too much to do because it’s already been done in the vineyard.”
From those humble beginnings with just 257 Chardonnay vines planted, Stephen set out to put in practice what he had learned from Tom Rochioli and to expand their vineyard holdings. Luckily the property they owned at the southern tip of the Russian River Valley was ideal for planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Surrounded by the likes of Kistler, Dehlinger and Rochioli, the Hansel family home and surrounding property was in the tenderloin district of the Russian River Valley. Today the Walter Hansel Winery farms 80 acres of vines planted to 7 different clones of Chardonnay and 6 different clones of Pinot Noir. The site was a former dairy farm with some beautiful old oak trees on it. Stephen hired an arborist to save the old oaks and they provide a beautiful accent to the neat rows of vines. At the center of the vineyards is the winery, and just back of that is the family home, the same house that Stephen grew up in.
Tasting at Hansel is a real treat. There is no “tasting room” per se. Instead, just outside of the winery are two old wine barrels with an oak plank between that acts as the bar for the tasting. The oak plank came from a tree on the property that had to be taken down. Stephen has brought out an aerial photo of the property that he refers to when explaining the different blocks within the vineyard. It is a terrific way to taste through the wines and learn about how they were made: right there in the vineyard with the winemaker! Stephen has a completely delightful way about him. He is relaxed and humble, absolutely nothing of the rock star winemaker about him. But he also has a wonderful “gentlemanliness” to him. It is a quality that we do not often see these days; an old world respect for people and place, a certain politeness that is in no way put on, it just comes from him, effortlessly. As we taste through the line up, he either points to a particular part of the vineyard, or refers to the aerial map to show where the particular block is.
Stephen starts us out with their Sauvignon Blanc. “I made this primarily because I was releasing Chardonnay earlier than I wanted to and I refused to do that so I started making Sauvignon Blanc simply so I could have something light to release and give my Chardonnay a little extra time in the bottle; I don’t like a really grassy Sauvignon Blanc. You can see there’s a little bit of colour, because I hang the fruit on the vine a little longer (to get rid of the grassy aroma). When the fruit hangs a little longer it dehydrates a little bit and then the skins have a greater proportion of the total”. He explains that the skins going into the press for just a couple of hours, imparts some colour and make the wine a little richer. The fruit for this Sauvignon is the only fruit that does not come from the estate; it is actually grown on the vineyard manager’s property in Lake County.
The philosophy at Hansel is decidedly minimalist. Stephen explains: “nobody works in the winery; it’s empty most of the time. If I need something done I call Jesse (vineyard manager) who lives next door and we get 3-4 more of our guys and we do what needs to be done. The significance of that is that our small team does everything from bottling to shipping to pulling leaves, and because they’re involved in every part of the winemaking process they know why they’re out there and they pay more attention to the job & menial tasks take on greater importance. Here everybody does everything and everyone is invested. The full-time team is 4 plus 3 others. We’re up to 8 at this time of year for 6 months.”
As Stephen takes us through his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs he talks about the different clones and their effect on the resulting wine. The Chardonnay is largely Wente. (The Wente clone was brought over from Burgundy in 1912 by German winemaker W.H. Wente and now accounts for 80% of the Chardonnay planted in the US.) The Chardonnay tête de cuvée is Cuvee Alyce, named for his mother. The Alyce block sits adjacent the winery and in front of the family home. Stephen tells us that the Chardonnay on the Alyce block has “small cluster, very small berries – very typical Wente; true Wente would be small clusters and then the next vine would have very big berries – when the Hyde & Hudson family got the Wente clones they kept t-butting it over until they got a consistent small berry (I call it the Hyde clone) – it’s those small concentrated berries that give Cuvee Alyce its richness versus our other offerings. The small berries hold very little juice but because of the relationship between a little bit of juice and more skin you get the flavours; the last part of cuvee Alyce is (planted to)Dijon 95.” The Pinot blocks are planted mostly to various Dijon clones, particularly 114 and 115. There is also some 777 and the recently added 939 (which Stephen likes for the darker character it adds).
Having dined at the Walter Hansel Wine and Bistro the night before and enjoyed several different glasses of their wines and then tasting through the line up with Stephen, we definitely perceived a house style: one of great intensity and remarkable texture. We asked him if it was his intention to create wines that were recognizably Hansel: “Not really but I drink almost exclusively wines from Burgundy. My go-to is anything Domaine Leflaive – if I could create those flavours I would but I can’t; when someone goes with a flavour in mind that’s the wrong way to approach it. I believe strongly that the ground, the weather, the terroir as they say, influences the flavors by 99%. My 1% influence is only water control, yield control or canopy control and that’s all I can do. I might be able to throw a small percent by barrel control or stirring the lees but that’s really it.” A very modest view expressed by a true gentleman and one of Sonoma’s, and in our books, one of America’s top winemakers.
(Before reading the tasting notes please note that all of these wines retail for US $39 or less. This represents outstanding value in the world of premium wine.)
2015 Walter Hansel Winery Sauvignon Blanc
This wine comes from vineyard manager Jesse’s estate in Lake County. Rich and honeyed with flavours of grapefruit and honeydew melon it has medium+ body and medium acidity. There are citrus notes on the crisp finish. The wine sees no oak but a bit of lees stirring adds texture. To us, this was a uniquely California take on the varietal: certainly not the grassy, pungent, gooseberry dominant style from Marlborough; more akin to a Sancerre or Pouilly Fume but with a bit more texture. Comparisons aside, this was just plain delicious!
Excellent (US$14 at the winery)
2014 Walter Hansel Winery Estate Chardonnay
Grapes for this wine come from all over the estate. Notes of ripe apple are infused with almond and minerals. The texture is full and slightly creamy, giving it a nice polished feel. Apricot and other stones fruits add notes of complexity. Hints of green apple appear on the juicy finish.
Very Good/Excellent (US$25 at the winery)
2014 Walter Hansel Winery Estate Pinot Noir
Bright red cherries combine with earthy notes to create complexity and interest at a level one seldom sees in an “entry level” Pinot Noir. The nose shows some slightly floral notes, evoking violets or roses. This wine has a medium body and medium acidity with just a bit of tannin to give it backbone. Lovely balance.
Very Good/Excellent (US$35 at the winery)
2014 Walter Hansel Winery North Slope Pinot Noir
Made from 100% Dijon Clone 115, this dark red wine has a beautiful nose of black cherry, raspberry, earth and baking spices. The body is medium+; this is a big Pinot with loads of character. There is loads of intensity here and the fruit tannins and acid each know their place and don’t try to outshine each other. This wine shows great cellaring potential and will probably delight owners for a decade or more.
Excellent+ (US$39 at the winery)
*We also tated the Walter Hansel Chardonnay Cuvee Alyce at the Bistro the night before. As we were dining informally we did not take any tasting notes. But we were completely blown away by this wine! It showed terrific intensity of flavours, was big, rich and mouth-filling yet despite its size and intensity, it showed perfect balance. One of the greatest Chardonnays we have tasted. Our rating: Extraordinary.
Mailing: PO Box 3437, Santa Rosa, Ca. 95402
(Tastings are by appointment only)