The last time I was in the Charbay tasting room it seemed like the tasting room was an afterthought to the dimly lit barrel room with a small tasting counter and cash register in the cramped barrel room. Now the lighting is better, many of the barrels have been moved out and replaced with well crafted product displays, a table with chairs in addition to a counter with stools, and much more space. I didn't really notice anything wrong before, but I really like the new version. There are still picnic tables outside which I recommend taking advantage of. There are also two sweet old dogs that roam the property.
The tasting room was hosted by the gregarious John (Susan's brother) who was living in South Africa until about a year ago.
Of course what really matters is the product. Luckily nothing has changed there other than new vintages and being sold out of the older vintages; I wish I had stocked up on the 2003 Cab before it sold out. That's the problem with small cult wineries, they are always selling out of their wines. The problem with many large wineries is they just sell out.
Although the spirits that make Charbay so well known are prominently displayed in the tasting room they cannot be tasted there by state law. Luckily Marko invited me to the distillery so I will get to try their products from the source when our schedules allow.
All of their wines exhibit a clean refined crispness that is lacking in so many wines these days. There is just the right amount of tannin to give it a back bone without creating a gritty, gravelly feeling.
I started off with the 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($28). I don't usually review Chardonnays because I usually find them to be too oaky and buttery, but this was fermented in stainless steel and aged in neutral oak barrels so the extraction of the oak was minimal. On the nose, I got aromas of lemon, toffee, baking bread, and fennel. On the palate the wine tasted a lot like a sparkling wine without the bubbles with its notes of fresh baked bread and bosc pears. The wine is crisp and refined without any notions of flabbiness that you get in many of today's Chardonnays.
Next up was the 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) which hails from the Stags Leap AVA. The nose was on the herbal side with capsicum being the most notable along with Cab's signature cherries. In the mouth the cherries and capsicum were joined by cloves, cinnamon, and dark plums. This is a medium bodied Cab and although it is good alone it would be much better with an herb or pepper crusted steak.
As a special treat I got to try the unreleased 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc ($39) which is currently only available to wine club members. I'm guessing it will be officially released after the 2006 has sold out. This was my favorite wine of the day. The nose didn't impress me much with its ever so slight herbaceous and fennel notes, but once in the palate it exploded with dark fruit, cassis, blackberry, a slight savory component, and star anise. The finish was long with lingering notes of mocha. I would pair this with roasted lamb.
That was the end of the non-fortified wines. Next up was the Green Tea Aperitif ($28) which is made with a base of white wine, then they extract the flavors from green tea leaves in the cone shaped extractor that is in front of the tasting room, and then they top that off with their own brandy to a level of 21% alc./vol. First off I love this stuff. At first it exhibits notes of citrus (especially lemon) and honey and then on the finish you get that great green tea flavor. I like it on the rocks. John likes it with some Pellegrino lemon soda and Marko likes to serve it with a strip of fresh peeled lemon to further accentuate the lemon flavors.
The pomegranate dessert wine ($45) exhibited intense pomegranate flavors with a slight minerality. The wine is sweet but not too sweet and was served on the rocks. John recommends it with sparkling wine, pellegrino, or pellegrino orange soda. I think some orange bitters would do just fine and give it a bit of a kick.
Note: In full disclosure the Karakasevics are my family and I've been visiting the winery since it was built although I was far too young to like wine at that time.