Sine Qua Non, Mr.K "The Noble Man" 2005 Chardonnay
Three incredibly nice wine collectors stopped in the restaurant the other day, and one of them pulled this out for everyone to try-- it's the first Sine Qua Non dessert wine I've tasted (and the first noble chardonnay, for that matter), made from Alban Vineyard chardonnay grapes hit with botrytis. This was a special treat because this wine is no longer made.
Manfred Krankl and his good buddy Alois Kracher teamed up for years to make this wine. From their unique and special collaboration came the whimsical label: both are Mr. K. Kracher passed away exactly five years ago today from pancriatic cancer, and his projects (including Mr. K), ended then (though his son carries on at their family's Austrian wine estate).
Elaine and Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non are well known for their evocative, artistic, and poetic wine labels. Originally garagistes making wine from purchased grapes in southern California, they are a unique anomaly in the fine wine world, where most fine wines are terroir and location driven. For example, people buy top Burgundies because of the uniqueness and expressiveness of the Grand Cru vineyards, cabernet sauvignon because the grapes were grown on terra rossa soil in Coonwarra, tempranillo from Rioja because that location expresses it best, or riesling from the Mosel because of the way the slate soils can be tasted in the wine.
Very seldom can a producer distinguish their product and break into the top tier of fine wine when their juice is based more on the character of the grape varietal as opposed to a provenance from a special place or soil type. Only a few producers have been able to manage this with mostly contracted fruit-- for example, some of the top Champagne houses come to mind, as does Grange. What makes Sine Qua Non even more unique is that they have managed to do what these top Champagne houses have done, what Penfolds Grange has done (i.e. secure a place in the fine wine market with wine produced from mostly contracted and blended fruit)-- but they haven't really done any advertising or sought out critics. Their wines sell on quality and word-of-mouth. Their production is incredibly limited and their winery is small. They made 4.5 barrels worth of their first wine ('94 Queen of Spades) and production hasn't grown that much since.
Soil or Grape?
Sine Qua Non wines, for the most part, are celebrations of varieties or blends of varieties (mostly Rhone-style varieties). From a horticultural perspective, we find the locus of most edible pleasures in the DNA of almost every plant-based food or beverage. For example, a carbon tomato is special because of its DNA, because the tomato itself is tasty-- whether the carbon is grown in NY or VA is of secondary consequence. Our approach to wine can be a bit different-- from a terroirist perspective, the grape is seen as a conduit of the soil, and the specific varietal genetic qualities that distinguish that grape's DNA from others is oft seen as a secondary experience in wine drinking. Winemakers that buck this perspective of winemaking, that do not seek to transmit the essence of soil, but rather, transmit the essence of the varietal, are sometimes looked down upon. When it comes to varietal vs. terroir, it's true: you can never have one without the other; but the perspective difference lies in which will be the bedrock of the winemaker's approach. Sine Qua Non makes varietal-inspired wines, and because they sell out each year, they have-- in a way-- side-stepped this terroir issue. Generally, Sine Qua Non labels let you know what state the fruit is from (California, Oregon), but there aren't too many details about soil type or specific vineyards or blends. This doesn't mean that Krankl isn't overseeing the contracts and cherry-picking the best sites based on terroir-- there is a focus in his mind on finding the best fruit from the best places. The difference is that his wines are not sold as terroir-driven wines. We buy them because he makes them, and because he works with varieties we enjoy, not because he got his grapes from X vineyard. (It works in reverse too-- we've all tried wines from great terroirs that have been totally ruined by the producer).
Sine Qua Non wines (and Champagne and Grange) always throw me into a quandary. I struggle when I immensely enjoy a wine that is made more on variety than soil, because, as sommeliers, we are generally taught to love clarity-of-place more than DNA/variety. But should it be this way? Which is rarer and more special: elements found in billions of galaxies throughout the universe that make up our soil, or plant life that-- as far as we know-- exists only for a brief season in our remote solar system? If you look at it from a universe perspective, the living grape varietal is far more precious and rare than the limestone or granite on which it is grown. But ultimately, both terroir and genetic variety are sine qua non-- without either there would be nothing, no wine. To the terroirists and to those who seek the tastes of specific varietals: I think there is room for diversity of approach in quality winemaking, and that this diversity of approach is healthy.
Things are changing at Sine Qua Non, too-- they have grown since their first release, and are well into the transition toward estate production. They have a winery and organic home vineyards now. They have recently added additional vineyards to their holdings, and they still keep some contracts. The information about these fruit sources is now clearly available on their website. Their bottles may not say which vineyard/s the fruit comes from, but you can take an educated guess. Of course, throughout their production, there have been glimpses of clearly labeled terroir driven wines ('96 Left Field), but overall you see mostly "California Table Wine" on the back.
Mr.K noble chardonnay is different primarily because it is a product of collaboration between two winemakers. Second, it is a dessert wine (so different from the normal style of Sine Qua Non). Third, check out the back label: as you can see in the photo above they clearly listed the single vineyard (owned by their friend). Perhaps this unexpected style of labeling comes from the collaborative efforts between Krankl and Kracher. It is interesting to notice this slight shift toward hailing the terroir.
The Noble Chardonnay
It had this brilliant tiger-eye color, aromas of orange marmalade, kumquat, spices and musk. It tasted like candied oranges and apricots; it was lusciously sweet, but still had plenty of acidity to balance it out. There was an after-bite that reminded me of the orange pith you find in orange marmalade.
Though quite distinctive, if I had to draw a parallel, the closest dessert wine I've ever had that resembles the taste of this might be the Donnafugata Ben Ryé Zibibbo (Passito di Pantelleria).