Travels in Wine / Sonoma

Travels In Wine Sonoma: Hanzell, a Sonoma star


Sarah Knowles MW Sarah Knowles MW / 17 January 2019
Hanzell Vineyards head winemaker Michael McNeill – a wealth of knowledge humbly held but generously shared
Hanzell Vineyards head winemaker Michael McNeill –
a wealth of knowledge humbly held but generously

I have tried the Hanzell wines a few times over the last few years and always adored their restraint, precision and raw minerality, however this was the first opportunity I had to visit and meet with the extraordinarily knowledgeable Michael McNeill who is head winemaker.

Softly spoken, detailed and humble, Michael had arranged for us to look at back vintages of his chardonnay and pinot noir so that I could see the current vintage wines in context. This was a fascinating tasting, with each wine showing clearly not just vintage variation, but also site expression and common traits across the different vintages.

Hanzell was founded in 1953 by Ambassador James D. Zellerbach, who was the US ambassador to Italy and critical to the implementation of the Marshall plan after the Second World War. On his return to the West Coast he had developed a taste for great European wines, and set about trying to make them in Sonoma. Named after his wife Hana, Hanzell sits at the toe of the Mayacamas Mountain range looking out towards the San Pablo Bay. The 42 acres of vineyards are on the west and east facing slopes along the ridge line on volcanic complex soils. The property is over 200 acres, encompassing fallow land, orchards and vegetable gardens as well as small holdings for sheep, pigs, turkeys, geese and chickens.

Hanzell Vineyard
Hanzell Vineyard

Hanzell have always striven to understand the science behind the greatest wines and when it comes to chardonnay and pinot noir you have to make sure you have the right clones. Having propagated many successful clones of chardonnay and pinot, the best now bear the Hanzell name and are preserved and recognised as important ‘heritage’ clones.

Ground-breaking techniques

Alongside a focus on the vineyard, Hanzell were the first winery to perfect temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel, the first winery in California to use French oak barrels, and the first to use inert gas at bottling. Hanzell are also credited with being the first winery to truly understand and manage malolactic fermentations, when in 1959 they isolated and propagated the specific bacteria involved in the process, thus being able to fully control which parcels of wine would and wouldn’t go through the process. (Find out more about malolactic fermentation here).

This historic desire to understand the processes involved in winemaking has meant that Hanzell’s wines are remarkably considered, balanced and precise. Michael is cut from a similar cloth, continuing to care about every detail in the vineyard and winery to ensure that these fine wines are a true representation of place on opening.

My tasting notes…

The chardonnays are handpicked, crushed and given a two hour cold settle to allow for more complex phenolic characters to develop, then 75% of the juice is fermented in stainless steel with no MLF (malolactic fermentation), after six months this portion is moved to old neutral oak barrels for 12 months. 25% of the juice is barrel fermented in new French oak and goes through full MLF. The wine stays in oak for 12 months before being moved to stainless steel for the last six months. These wines are then tasted and blended before final bottling, after which the wine is held in cellar for a further year before release.

Hanzell Chardonnay 2010

Described as a ‘classic vintage’ by Michael, now eight years on this had a hazelnut and honey note on the nose, bright acidity on the palate with lemon skin and green apple still very present and persistent on the long, mineral-driven finish.

Hanzell Chardonnay 2012*

This was a vintage with a more generous yield. The nose has ripe citrus and honey-blossom perfume, bruised apple, wet stone and almond develops on the palate and last on the finish.

Hanzell Chardonnay 2013

A warmer vintage with good yields. There is a toasty lemon curd note on the very tempting nose. The palate is mouthwatering with lemon pith, oyster shell and granny smith apple concentrated on the core of this wine.

Hanzell Chardonnay 2015

Current release. This has a tight perfume with lemon, tart nectarine and a touch of toast developing. If drinking now needs air – decant. On the palate the oak disappears, and the acidity is bright, carrying lemon, almond, chalk and apple flavours pulling them onto the long complex finish.

The pinots are hand harvested, 75% is destemmed, 15% whole bunch fermented in stainless steel tank. After fermentation the wine is transferred to French oak barrel for 13 months before bottling.

Hanzell Pinot Noir 2009

Leather, spice and cranberry nose, this is drinking well now with a balanced bright mouthfeel, and intense redcurrant, autumnal leaves, and peppery core.

Hanzell Pinot Noir 2011

A cool Californian vintage similar to 1998. Very perfumed with a fine herbal spice and tart red berry and spice notes developing. Silky texture and a taught line, with rhubarb, black pepper and sage.

Hanzell Pinot Noir 2015

Current release. Tart wild-strawberry and raspberry notes on the riper nose. A concentrated core with spice, sappy herbal notes and juicy acidity. A wine for ageing.

*we will not be stocking this vintage, but we will be offering a very limited-stock offer on the other wines later in the year.

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