#173 – May 11, 2011
Over the last couple months (newsletters #140, 147, 148 & 163), I have written about California’s numerous kosher wineries and winemakers, all of which are making some truly impressive wines. These wineries range from the Herzog juggernaut who have been making kosher wine for eight generations, to young upstarts like the Weiss brothers, whose first commercial vintage of awesome Syrah-based wines was in 2008, and are producing wines with names like “1-2 Punch” & “Power to the People” decorated with über-cool labels. This week, that cycle comes full circle as we discuss the winery behind what Robert Parker has referred to as the “best kosher wine in America” – Covenant (whose flagship wine sports one of the most stunningly beautiful labels I have ever seen).
As opposed to many of the wineries I discuss, and notwithstanding it’s relatively small scale production and recent launch (in 2005), Covenant seems to get far more press than some of the other more established wineries like Herzog and Hagafen. Many stories have been written about co-owner and chief winemaker Jeff Morgan’s journey from nearly a decade living as a musician in France to making some of the world’s best kosher wines (including a nice write-up in the New York Times that can be seen here), so I will try not to repeat what has already been extensively documented. There are probably a number of reasons for this publicity including Morgan’s journalistic past which includes multiple cookbooks, stints of wine writing for the Wine Spectator and writing countless wine and food articles for many publications including the New York Times, Food & Wine and the Wine Enthusiast. Jeff was also wine director for Dean and DeLuca which is the context in which he met Leslie Rudd, co-owner of Covenant. Another reason is certainly the multitude of accolades won by his flagship wine – Covenant, including praise from Robert Parker, arguably the world’s most influential wine critic (although there is plenty of discussion and controversy on his influence). All said, the recognition primarily stems from the glorious product they are making, which truly (and more importantly, consistently) includes, one of the world’s best kosher wines (although as kosher wines gets better, this list gets longer and longer) – the Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon.
Together with associate winemaker Jonathan Hajdu (who in his spare time makes the incredible Brobdignanian wines featured in newsletter #148), Covenant was launched in 2005 to great and well-deserved fanfare for their initial 2003 vintage. Initially Covenant was housed by Herzog in their Oxnard facility and in 2008 moved to its own home in Napa Valley. This move led to greater control over the wine making process and a slight change in style that primarily resulted from increased control over the wine making process and significantly more “hands-on” access to the wines (noticed primarily in the Red C of that vintage which was their best yet). With the move to their own facility, Jeff and Jonathon are now using only native yeast fermentation and stirring the lees on their red wines (a common practice for white wines but thought to add depth and personality to reds as well). As always, they go for full malolactic fermentation and typically barrel ferment in 40-50% new oak.
The winery currently produces three wines – the flagship Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, the Red C and an incredible Chardonnay called Lavan. A 2010 Sauvignon Blanc will be released later this summer and there is talk of some small scale special stuff in the works, so stay tuned as I’m sure it will be incredible and well-worth seeking out. Among others, a defining characteristic I find in Covenant’s wines is muscular and robust tannins that manage to be soft, velvety and well-integrated, even upon release.
The flagship Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon is produced every year from free-run juice only derived from grapes sourced from a small 3 acre parcel in the Larkmead Vineyard located in Calistoga (originally planted in 1889). Grapes from this parcel used to go into Rudd’s Cabernet Sauvignon before his own acclaimed vineyards were ready. In 2007, Covenant launched a second 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wine named “Red C” from the 2005 vintage, a blend of the press wine from the Covenant grapes and free run wine from varying vineyards (until 2008, the Young Family Vineyard just outside St. Helena). 2010 saw two exciting new releases from Covenant, both from the 2008 vintage. The first was a Chardonnay, initially sourced from the Bacigalupi Vineyard (same immediate location as Château Montelena’s Chardonnay which is the famed wine that beat the overalls off the French back in 1976). The second was an über-premium wine made, for the first time, from Leslie Rudd’s grapes that Jeff had been trying to get his hands on since he started Covenant. Called Covenant Solomon (Rudd’s Hebrew name); the wine was a limited production run and its cost of $150 reflected the high cost of fruit from Rudd’s vineyards. It took 5 award winning vintages to convince Rudd that a Covenant wine made from his grapes would bring honor to his name (personally, I would have been convinced after the 2003 vintage, but hey – that’s just me). As with Covenant, the Solomon is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes sourced from a few parcels of Rudd’s vineyards located on Mount Veeder and the Oakville Valley floor.
The sole Achilles heel of Covenant wines has been its relatively high price (approximately $85 for Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon and $35-40 for Red C and the Lavan), but as the prices for all the top-tier wines have risen dramatically in the last couple of years, it is now on par with its peer top-tier kosher wines, and still cheaper than a lot of the French stuff rolling around (notwithstanding the price differential between Israeli and Napa Valley Grapes, Israeli premiums seem to be priced on par with Covenant far too often). Given its non-mevushal status, you are more likely to find Covenant on the wine list at the non-kosher Spago than Solo.
While I have tasted every wine from every vintage Covenant has produced, I have included below only a few of my favorites from over the years, including the unbelievable 2003 and the recently released Solomon.
One of the best things about Jeff and Jonathon is their infectious enthusiasm, which really shines through in any conversation with them about wine, Judaism or almost any other topic I have broached. While not observant, Jeff certainly takes immense pride in his Jewish heritage and channels that pride and spirituality into his winemaking– truly a man on a mission; the mission being to enhance Jewish life through the creation of the best wine in the world. So Jeff – while I can’t speak for the Jewish people as a whole, I’d say “so far so good”!
Covenant, Solomon, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008: Leslie Rudd finally granted Jeff his wish and allowed a Covenant wine to be made from his coveted and acclaimed Napa Valley grapes with darn good results. While produced in basically the same manner as the Covenant, the Solomon presents more fruit forward, Napa Valley-like, with really plush fruit (without being overly ripe), including plums, currants, blackberries, raspberries, black cherry, rich back earth and well integrated tannins. As with all Covenant wines, a deep and complex wine with layer after layer of fruit, wood and chocolate. One of the more expensive kosher wines at about $150, but a great comparison with the regular 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon that allows you to experience the difference the actual fruit can make in a wine. A wine blessed with longevity, I look forward to tasting this wine again over the coming years and will, g-d willing¸ serve it at Ilana’s Bat-Mitzvah in 10 years.
Covenant, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003: This first vintage of Covenant was a clear indicator of the future greatness of a winery that has not yet disappointed, and is still drinking amazingly these days. Later vintages have proven to be spectacular as well, but I have a special affinity for the 2003. A full bodied wine with aromas and flavors of cherries, plums, blackberries and violets with pleasing notes of oak, some herbaceousness and a hint of vanilla. At its peak now with tannins that are seamlessly integrated with all that fruit, leading into a long luxurious and somewhat spicy finish that seems to have developed over recent years and is now locked, cocked and ready to rock with tobacco, cedar and more fruit. Recently enjoyed, this wine provided me with a near-magical drinking experience and totally justified the high price tag Jeff demands for his wines. The wine should continue to cellar nicely for at least another couple years, maybe longer. I also recently tasted this wine in Magnum format which yielded a slightly different tasting note (which I will share another time) and which should have another 4-5 years on it.
Covenant, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006: Well integrated tannins meld nicely with blackberries, black cherries, raspberries, tobacco, currants and ripe plums while bold notes of oak enhance rather than overpower the ever-so-slightly spicy fruit. Hints of herbs, oriental spices, lead pencil and toasty oak on a mildly earthy mid-palate; culminate with a long, lingering finish of dark chocolate, licorice and espresso. While eminently drinkable now, ideally I’d give this another year before opening. The wine should then be at its best and will continue to cellar nicely for at least another 8-10 years (a good candidate for Zevi’s Bar-Mitzvah).
Covenant, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 2008: I enjoyed a very interesting (and expensive) tasting comparison between this wine and the newly released Covenant Solomon. Both wines are made in the same way by the same folks so they are a testament to the cost of the vineyard, as the Solomon’s grapes were much more expensive. In my humble opinion – the grapes lost. While neither wine is ready to drink & both will continue to evolve over the next 8-10 years, I didn’t discern a large qualitative difference (or even a difference in the “interesting” factor or the wines’ potential longevity), especially given the near-double price for the Solomon. Don’t get me wrong – they are both great wines with subtle differences. The 2008 has plenty of blackberries, cherries, currants and black fruit on the nose, together with near-sweet cedar wood and some unexpected, but welcome, earthy minerals all of which follow through onto the rich and mouth-filling palate, backstopped by muscular tannins that are better integrated than I would have expected, but still need plenty of time to settle down, showing great promise for the continued development of this wine. Covenant’s signature extremely long lingering finish, loaded with fruit, chocolate, leather, licorice and tobacco leaf, rounds out this treat which I don’t anticipate opening again for at least 12-18 months.
Covenant, Red C, Napa Valley, 2008: This was the first vintage of the wine that I really enjoyed. A change from prior vintages, to some extent resulting from Covenant’s move into their own facilities, providing Jeff & Jonathan greater control over all aspects of the wine-making (a change less evident in the Covenant but highly noticeable in the Red C). Plenty of blackberry, currants, cherries, caramel and vanilla on the slightly earthy nose, followed by more of the same on the palate with raspberries, chocolate, anise, leather and spicy oak being added to the mix. A long and spicy finish loaded with chocolate, black fruit, more caramel and tobacco leaf rounds this wine out. Eminently drinkable now (slightly less spicy than the 2007), I’d give this one another 6 months or so before popping open, as the fruit and tannins could use a little more “getting acquainted” time before they are ready for their grand debut. A wine that will cellar nicely for at least another 5 years.
Covenant, Lavan, Russian River, 2008: The first vintage of Covenant’s Chardonnay and a worthy addition to Covenant’s substantial portfolio that has quickly become one of my favorite white wines. The grapes came from the Bacigalupi Vineyard (the same immediate location as Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay) and the wine was made with the help of David Ramey (noted winemaker of Ramey Wine Cellars). This wine has a delightful nose of luscious fruits including apples, pears, figs, apricots, mangoes and crème brûlée, following for the most part onto the (ever-so) slightly sweet palate with plenty of summer fruit, citrus, more caramel and some toasty oak with a hint of welcome bitterness leading into the characteristically true delightfully long finish. A big California Chardonnay, the wine was relatively clear of oak overload, with plenty of mouth-watering acidity, and can be characterized somewhere between a typical California Chardonnay and a flinty Chablis. I found this to be an utterly delicious wine and am quite thankful that it is priced closer to the Red C than the Covenant! Drinking deliciously now, this wine should cellar comfortably for another 5 years, making it a welcome addition to the maturing kosher white wine market which also includes the Chardonnay wines from Four Gates and Yarden’s Odem Vineyard, among others. Only 280 cases were produced and the wine sold out pretty quickly.
Covenant, Lavan, Russian River, 2009: After the success of the 2008 vintage I was super-excited to try the 2009, and it did not disappoint. Sourced from a single vineyard in the Carneros section of Napa Valley, the wine was blended from two Chardonnay clones (Robert Young and Wente) and the difference in vineyards is easily distinguished even though the style remains the same – that of a powerful and sophisticated California Chardonnay that avoids being overly oaky and buttery, with hints of Burgundy. Tons of pear, apricots, peaches and figs on the nose and palate, accompanied by vanilla, oak and hints of spiciness. Slightly more mineral notes and less caramel than the 2008. A delicious and refreshing wine with plenty of acidity to keep everything honest. A long and slightly finish rounds out this very refreshing wine that will continue to cellar nicely for another five years. 350 cases were produced.