Kongsgaard Wine – A cave shrouded in silence is perhaps the ultimate studious environment to work within an underground winery. A cave with classical music playing quickly changes the atmosphere and ties the science of winemaking into the art of winemaking. Judging by John Kongsgaard’s large collection of CD’s in the wine cave – his work here is seldom done in silence. In getting to know John, you will quickly discover music and mountain vineyards are two of his passions.
He is a fifth generation Napan; his roots run deep in the valley – John’s Great Grandfather Lilburn Boggs was Governor of Missouri and moved west in the 1840’s working for General Mariano Vallejo (he lived at the General’s adobe house in Sonoma) and eventually retired to the city of Napa.
John’s grandfather owned a stone quarry in Napa (across from what is now the Napa Valley College). His quarry provided the rock used to help build Treasure Island in San Francisco. John’s father was a Napa County Superior Court judge for more than twenty years (the downtown Napa Post office in fact bears his name). John grew up as he says, “on the edge” of the wine industry in Napa. When he graduated high school in the late 1960’s the number of active wineries in Napa was counted in the “teens”. Within a few years after graduating from UC Davis with a master’s degree in viticulture and enology the number of wineries had more than doubled in the valley. Jobs for newly trained winemakers were plentiful and this was a time when Napa was truly at the forefront of greatness.
He briefly worked at long time Napa Chardonnay producer, Stony Hill in the 1970’s but his first long term job at a winery was at Newton Vineyards where he worked from 1983 to 1996. He was the first winemaker in California to make and promote an unfiltered commercial white wine. He began Newton’s unfiltered Chardonnay program – today that wine is highly sought after. John was one of the first three students in California of Bordeaux based master blender Michel Rolland – the other two being Napa winemaker Zelma Long and Harlan Estate proprietor Bill Harlan. At the time Michel did not speak English so their language of communication was in Spanish.
While working at Newton John had the privilege of visiting and researching some of the most prominent wine regions in France. During one of his trips he had a revelation about where the pH needs to be in some of his wines as well as wine style. This came after tasting through a number of wines from the mid 1940’s from some of France’s most prominent producers (first growths).
John’s wine making style is decidedly European influenced – he considers Michel Rolland to have had a huge influence on his career and especially on his style of white wines.
John and Maggy Kongsgaard purchased their Atlas Peak property in 2004; they are only the second owners since the original homesteader. The property rises high above the valley floor and the surrounding foothills of the Vaca Mountains. Their vineyard is one of the three highest vineyards in all of Napa County (the other two are Lampyridae on Mt Veeder and the Blue Ridge Vineyard in the south eastern part of the county which tops out at 2810 feet). Kongsgaard’s uppermost vines are planted at slightly more than 2500 feet and the winery itself is at 2300 feet which is certainly among the highest wineries in the Napa Valley.
The property is 150 acres of which most is still is in its natural state – rugged and often steep hillsides. Only five acres are currently planted – to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Viognier and Roussane. This is a property with truly spectacular views from any number of directions. On a clear day in the wintery looking to the east, you can see the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains rising far in the distance (just north of Lake Tahoe) and also south into the central valley. In the other direction you see a patchwork of vineyard blocks covering the Napa Valley floor far below. In between you have major wine estates with several thousand acres between them, Antica Napa Valley (run by one of the world’s five oldest family businesses) and Krupp Estate – one of Napa’s largest vineyards.
The Red Aiken loam soils on the property are unique as these are the southern most extension of the red rocky iron rich volcanic soils that make up the ground in the hills above the eastern part of Oakville and Pritchard Hill. It is unusual to see huge red stained boulders lining the vineyards in this part of Atlas Peak – this is more akin to what we’ve seen on Pritchard Hill further to the north. Directly to the south of Kongsgaard’s property the hills drop in elevation dramatically and the soils in contrast at the lower elevations are fairly white, composed of a volcanic ash-like material called tufa. While seemingly a long way from the Pritchard Hill part of Napa (and it is when there are no connecting roads) – it is only about a two hour hike from John’s property to one of his closest winery neighbors in Pritchard Hill, Ovid Winery.
Because of their location and elevation, bud break, bloom and set is always behind the vines on the valley floor. However growth catches up quickly as because of their elevation during late spring and summer an inversion layer sets in. Often in the early morning the temperature is much higher than the valley floor below – where fog can sit until mid morning. The temperature is moderate here in the summer, rarely too hot or cold – allowing for even ripening. The elevation ensures they have plenty of sunshine hours.
The vineyards that John sources from to make his current wines are all extremely low yielding – often around merely a ton per acre.
The first vintage of Kongsgaard dates from 1996 – today John makes two Chardonnays – a Napa Valley and one from his Judge Vineyard. In addition, he makes a blend of Viognier and Roussane, a Syrah and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Their production is limited to what John and his son Alex can comfortably make – currently it is around 3000 cases annually.
The making of a Kongsgaard Chardonnay is a lesson in patience. John sources fruit from vineyards low in nitrogen and low yielding. He barrel ferments the wine – some of his fermentations take up to a year to complete to dryness and sometimes the malo lactic fermentation finishes before the primary fermentation. He does not inoculate with commercial yeast and like his work at Newton, his wines are bottled unfiltered. He keeps his use of sulpher to a minimum and the wines spend two years in barrel.
The 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay is sourced from both the Hyde and Hudson vineyards in Carneros. Aromatically this wine shows apricot, a toasted nuttiness, slight tropical notes and a hint of caramel.
Despite sitting in oak for 2 years John has crafted this wine so that as he says, “the wood is on the horizon” or in the background. A big part of the reason these wines are not “oaky” is the intensity of the particular fruit he works with – it can certainly stand up to the oak. Another reason for this is the wine sits on the lees for the first year building weight but not woodiness.
The wine shows a richness and sweetness of fruit (totally dry) along with mineralities on the palate without being too heavy. The finish is surprising – the wine waits to make an impact with the fruit at the end rather than on the entry of the palate. This finish is lively, zesty and has great length; it is somewhat tropical along with lemon and lime notes.
The 2009 Judge Chardonnay (named in tribute to John’s father) is sourced from his family’s property just east of the city of Napa – he planted the first Chardonnay grapes here in 1975 when one of his neighbors (who just happened to be influential winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff) suggested this variety would grow well here. The property was originally intended to be a quarry site for John’s grandfather. This vineyard supplied Newton with the grapes for their unfiltered Chardonnay for many years.
This wine is darker in the glass than the Napa Valley Chardonnay. It is more refined and subdued aromatically. The palate shows stone fruit, white peach and white nectarine – the mouth feel is oily, viscous and rich. It has mineralities – John takes this description a step further and describes it as “salty, almost briny” in feel.
This wine will age – with a track record of Chardonnay from the Judge vineyard going back more than thirty years John has noticed that the wines will typically keep their classic characteristics (continuing to evolve in the bottle of course) for five to eight years before reaching a plateau.
The 2010 Viognier and Roussanne blend is cleverly called the VioRous. The Roussanne ripens and then is allowed to ripen even further – allowing the skins to turn a beautiful bronze color. The Viognier is slower ripening and once it is fully ripe, both varieties are picked simultaneously and then co-fermented.
Borrowing from John’s musical interests, he describes this wine as having “a chorus of flavor”. It might as well have a chorus of aroma. The bouquet is very aromatic – floral in nature with notes of iris, jasmine and white peach. Rather than the two years of age, this wine was aged in older oak for a year. The showcase of this blend is all about the fruit – it is opulent and ripe.
Both Roussanne and Viognier are among the more “tannic” of the white varieties and you can clearly sense the structure in this wine, especially with the lingering tannins on the finish.
The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon is from a neighboring Atlas Peak vineyard and is blended with a small amount of Merlot. The bouquet is aromatic showing gravelly notes, a hint of toffee, cigar, leather and blackberry. There is plenty of flavor on the palate – mostly black fruit. The tannins are broadly distributed on the outside of the palate towards the finish – this wine is about the density and minerality of the fruit – black in nature showing graphite and deeper notes of charcoal.
John has worked with Carneros growers Lee Hudson and Larry Hyde since the 1980’s and continues to source from from both their vineyards. John came up with the concept in the 1980’s (now more common when contracting premium vineyards) to pay by the acreage rather than the ton and as he says, “this effectively turned a grower into a winemaker”. Quality becomes the focus rather than quantity.
His Syrah comes from a special 2.5 acre block in the Hudson vineyard that is not composed of the typical claylike uplifted ocean bottom soils that is common in Carneros. Rather this tiny block has slight elevation and is in the foothills of Mt. Veeder; its soils are made up of volcanic ash. Such is the nature of this variety and particular vineyard that it is their most expensive to manage.
2009 Syrah. Here is an example of a cool weather syrah where one can get lost in the layers of aromatic diversity on the bouquet. The aromas are very floral with dried and fresh rose petal. The nose shows faint hints of white pepper, a dustiness and roasted meat. The palate is about the black fruit. Good acidity touches the palate on the finish – mouth watering, salivating natural acidity.
With Kongsgaard’s vineyard perched at the highest reaches of Atlas Peak and with its south and west facing exposure their highest plantings receive the last rays of sunshine over the Napa Valley most every day in the summer. The development of this property is the culmination of John’s experience built upon his thirty plus years in the valley and with his son’s involvement in the winemaking – a lasting gift for his future generations.
With John’s love for music, he is quick to state, “the wine has a strong presence surrounding European opera houses”. Makes sense – after performances artists and concert goers often frequent local cafes. However, most of their wine is sold via a one time per year release via their mailing list (which sells out quickly). Other select distribution includes twelve states (restaurants) and several countries both in Europe and Asia. Locally you can find their wine in a number of Napa’s finest restaurants. For more information and to join their mailing list visit: www.kongsgaardwine.com