When Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards sent an E-Mail to me, asking if I would like to experience her seven 2009 Chardonnays, it was an opportunity I knew couldn’t refuse. Last Thanksgiving I drove to Iron Horse to purchase my holiday sparkling and photographed my journey along the way, as this was my first actual trip to the Sterlings’ Green Valley estate. It was a beautiful, fall drive, and an even more beautiful wine experience. I love Iron Horse wines.

From their Website:

Iron Horse is located in Green Valley in the coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Valley, just 13 miles from the Pacific as the crow flies. There are approximately 160 acres in vine, planted exclusively to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is an exquisite estate-all gentle, rolling hills, with a spectacular view from the winery clear across Sonoma County to Mount St. Helena.

Joy told me that the seven 2009 Chardonnays are more different blends than they’ve ever made, and all come from their estate in Russian River Valley’s sub appellation of Green Valley. She refers to them as “game changers,” with some of them including their first releases of newly replanted vineyards.

“How intriguing,” I thought. What a fun journey it would be, just like my fall drive through Russian River Valley to get to her winery for my own Thanksgiving bubbly.

What flips me out most about these wines?

NO Malolactic fermenting!

Let me also give you a quick primer ~ which you can jump over if you know what malolactic fermentation is…

Malolactic Fermentation ~ A + B = C

A + B = C (malic Acid + Bacteria = lactic acid, like the one in Cream.)

After having tasted these wines, to know that they didn’t experience this secondary fermentation speaks volumes for the winemaking. They are each crafted in the most beautiful, fully expressive way they can be without any intervention to make them more than what they already are… perfectly beautiful wines. I were a score giver, I don’t even know where I’d begin, because when you’ve reached perfection, where do you go from there?

Some basic information about these seven Chards…

  • The grapes for the Native Yeast and the Heritage Clone Chardonnays come from Block “C”,” one of the first they planted in 2005 and are a taste of their future.
  • Others are from older blocks, that they’ve since pulled out for replanting, like “M” and the Corral Vineyard. Joy calls them “instantly collectible.”
    • “M” is a 3.3 acre block at the southeast edge of their property.
      • Planted to the Stony Hill clone in 1985.
      • Total production from this vineyard for the 2009 harvest was only 220 cases.
    • “Corral Vineyard” wraps around the backside of the old, 1920’s redwood corral.
      • Planted right next to “M”
      • It has a distinctive, savory characteristic, because it is planted to a different clone of Chardonnay that yields a richer wine.
      • Total production from “Corral” was also only 220 cases.
    • Native Yeast and the Heritage Clone deserve to be tasted side-by-side.
      • They represent the new generation of vineyard blocks on the estate
      • They share the same clone – the Hyde-Old Wente, which is now a favorite for their specific climate and soil types.

There is a common thread through all seven wines, and yet they demonstrate how one vineyard can yield so many different flavors:

  • Same vintage
  • Same winemaker
  • Same estate
  • Same family behind the wines

The Seven Iron Horse 2009 Chardonnays

Let’s preface the wines with the 2009 season: It was a cool, dry year, which produced smaller yields. Whenever that happens, quality over quantity becomes the over-riding factor, so these wines start off with a flavor advantage that’s going to be intense and complex.

~ ALSO ~

Joy wrote to me: “You definitely want to taste the Native Yeast and the Heritage Clone side-by-side. They represent the new generation of vineyard blocks on the estate and share the same clone ~ the Hyde-Old Wente, which is now our absolute favorite for our specific climate and soil.”

SO I TASTED with the following wine pros: Ellen Landis of EllenOnWine (sommelier and wine judge), Ken Landis of Landis Shores Oceanfront Inn (chef and wine judge), Jose Diaz (wine marketer | Web master, Diaz Communications), and me… the first two wines listed at Landis Shores Inn. After these wines were tasted our hosts felt that these two wines would pair well with Ken’s dinner of a Tomato, Fresh Mozzarella, Basil and Olive Oil salad; followed by Lemon Chicken with Capers in a delicate reduction sauce, and steamed broccoli.  The Landis had other wines planned, and we tasted them, but once all wines were open, clearly the Iron Horse wines were the ones that came to the table first. They were phenomenal and delivered with everything we enjoyed.

  1. 2009 Iron Horse Native Yeast Chardonnay ($48.00)
    • This chardonnay is a selection from one of Iron Horse’s most prized blocks on their estate.
    • Fermenting from native yeasts from the vineyards gave this a rich mouth feel and was my favorite of the two, side-by-side. I have to share that I was alone on this one being the favorite of the two. Ellen, Ken, and Jose all preferred the Heritage Clone Chard. Then, when having this wine with dinner, everyone came back to this one being their favorite with our food. (You just never know, and everyone’s got his or her own palate… I’m a huge fan of that one. Trust yourself.
    • It was the lighter of the two wines for me. We all agreed that it was softer, elegantly made, and had just a hint of toasted almonds.
  2. 2009 Heritage Clone Chardonnay($48.00)
    • A selection from one of the newest blocks of their estate, cool climate and Gold Ridge soil came together in 2009, which resulted in a full-bodied Chardonnay that showcases the beautiful acidity and minerality of the Hyde-Old Wente clone.
    • Like all of these wines, alcohol was kept below 14%, and that makes is so food friendly and ~ quite honestly ~ really delicious.
    • Gorgeous integrated oak delivered a beautifully aromatic Chardonnay that is quite complex and really satisfying. (God bless you, Joy!)

The rest of the 2009 Iron Horse Chardonnays I tasted in my own vacuum…

  1. 2009 Iron Horse Estate Chardonnay ~ Signature Green Valley (SRP $27.00).
    • It was 100 percent barrel fermented, 100 percent “heritage cones,” and no malolactic fermentation. The 100 percent French oak barrels seamlessly integrated with this wine and gave the Chardonnay a long, lingering finish.
    • I loved the citrus and toasted vanilla with Rome apples on the nose, the complex Meyers lemons, and creamy vanilla on the palate, as well as the bright, clean, begging for food spices on the finish.
      What a beautiful wine and introduction to what was to come.
    • Blend: 100 percent Chardonnay; 53% Old Wente, 25% Hyde Old Wente, and 22% Rued clones
  2. 2009 Iron Horse Unoaked Chardonnay ~ Signature Green Valley (SRP $27.00).
    • Joy says that it’s harder to make Chardonnay without oak, than with it. I would imagine that stainless steel fermenting means that one must be very careful and pure with the wine. While oak might be able to mask a tiny flaw by not having the luxury of oak and its flavors, which includes its tannins, unoaked Chardonnay had better stand on its own two feet.
    • The Grapes come from their Thomas Road Vineyard.
    • 100% Chardonnay, Clone 4, which is ideally suited to bring forth bright fruit and is mineral-dominated. This tells me to expect a Chablis-style Chardonnay.
    • This wine didn’t experience malolactic fermentation.
    • Minerals are picked up on the nose, along with pineapple and other tropical fruit… like mango. The palate is as crisp, clean, and refreshing as a Granny Smith apple on a chilly September day in West Sonoma County. The finish was surprisingly long and palate cleansing. This is an excellent wine that over-delivers.
  3. 2009 Iron Horse Chardonnay ~ Corral Vineyard ($48.00). I opened the bottle, poured this wine into my glass and said aloud, without thinking what I was doing or saying, “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum.” Then I thought, I need to write that one down, and not let it slip away, because that was such an instinctive response for what this chardonnay is really delivering.
    • “Sitting amongst our southern-most vineyard blocks is a romantic old cattle corral, which explains why we call those blocks the Corral Vineyard.” ~ Joy Sterling
    • 100% Chardonnay, Old Wente clone, 13.9 percent alcohol, 220 cases.
    • Color is crystal clear, pale yellow… I’m delighted that each Chardonnay is handled one lot at a time, because it’s allowed for me to taste how one wine company can produce so many different flavors… Same company, same winemaker, different clones, different vineyard locations and exposures… Same fabulous wine, regardless of variables, each wine is distinctively unique, and the Corral Vineyard is super lovely.
    • Pineapple… more tropical than cool climate on the nose. More cool climate than tropical on the palate, however. Myer lemons and Granny Smith apples on the palate; a long, lingering finish with hints of almond and bright grapefruit citrus. The finish also has a beautiful roundness that would suggest ML, but I know it’s not there. It’s amazing how well integrated oak can impart the soft flavors that so much winemaking has left to ML. It’s so refreshing to step back to true varietal characteristics of wine and the proper use of Oak. My hat’s off to Iron Horse for this one.
  4. 2009 Iron Horse “M” ~ Green Valley ($48.00). This 2009 “M” chardonnay is a mélange selection from one of the oldest blocks on their estate. From Joy: “Precision winegrowing, cool climate and Gold Ridge soil all came together in 2009, resulting in a Chardonnay that showcases the floral, mineral and crisp qualities of the Stony Hill Clone.”
    • 100% Stony Hill Clone
    • Color is rich, 100% water bent French Oak, only 220 cases were produced of this fine wine. I’m continued to be amazed that these have had no malolactic fermentation, and still the water bent French Oak reinforces flavors that are so subtle, yet rich in their own way. With this wine I got both… subtle essence, yet rich like well carves diamonds… You know how diamonds can cut glass, and yet doesn’t cut its wearer. These are the Sterling family’s wines.
    • Complex ecstasy on the nose, vibrant Myer lemons on my palate bursting juicy and fun, and yet the finish tempts me to stay a long time thinking about this one, because it’s got a great lingering factor. This one will definitely change with food, and I can envision cheeses or dishes with a very light cream sauces working really well with this wine. Joy recommends a broad range of sea food, from ceviche to grilled sardines, charred broccoli rabe salad with feta, preserved lemon, Nicoise olives and a brown butter vinaigrette.
  5. 2009 Iron Horse Chardonnay ~ Rued Clone ($48.00).  The Rued Clone is a special variety of Chardonnay, with a pronounced floral aroma. It matches perfectly with this part of Russian River Valley’s cool, foggy climate, and highly prized Gold Ridge soil.
    • Green Valley of Russian River Valley, only 390 cases of this wine was made.
    • The color is beautiful, like soft butter
    • On the nose I got ripe red apples, like a fresh, fall McIntosh, and lemon zest. On the palate, the fruit followed through with a hint of lime, too, and pear. It finished as cleanly as all of the other Chardonnays.

It was an amazing opportunity and experience to taste through these 2009 Iron Horse newly released wines. Their fine attention to detail in the vineyards by Joy’s brother Lawrence Sterling, and their wine being carefully crafted by winemaker David Munksgard, have combined their efforts to bring forth wines that should make them very pleased… They’re so worthy of your attention, when wanting to enjoy and serve the best and most expressive of Russian River Valley’s Chardonnays.

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