A Servant of the Soil: Vérité’s Pierre Seillan puts Sonoma on the Map

“Terroir! Terroir! Terroir!” is something we always hear when trying to understand the nuances of fine wine. Whilst it remains very much a French term, these days it has been adopted world wide, across all the fine wine growing regions. Despite its habitual use in wine circles, it is rare to get more of an insight into exactly what terroir is – other than a generalised description of topography, micro-climate and soil profile. A vertical tasting of Vérité La Muse, going back to 2002, gave winemaker Pierre Seillan the opportunity to extol the virtues of “terroir” and most importantly how that defines his winemaking.

Before heading out to California, Pierre Seillan had worked in vineyards all over France, spending two decades in Bordeaux. Attuned to the tried-and-tested methods of Medoc winemaking, Pierre is someone who knows the Bordeaux terroir like the back of his hand. At one point in his career, he was making wines in eight separate appellations of the region. Working the different terroirs of Bordeaux, it was here that he started to build on his micro-cru terroir philosophy.

In the mid-1990s, Pierre Seillan made his first visit to California. On discovering the variety of soils and terroirs in Sonoma, Seillan instantly knew that he had much more to play with in terms of both typography, micro-climates and the intricate variety of soil profiles than was ever possible in Bordeaux. The variety of terroir in Sonoma was enough for him to move out there and embark on the Vérité project; a partnership with Barbara Banke and Jess Jackson from Jackson Family Wines. The first Vérité vintage was in 1998. In the relatively short time since, Vérité wines have received some of the highest praise of any wine produced in America – already receiving seven separate perfect 100 point scores from Robert Parker Wine Advocate.

According to Seillan, the huge potential he recognised in the terroir of Sonoma was about more than just the variety of soil profiles. It was important how the topsoil and roots affected the flavours and structure of the grapes that grow there. Exploring the vineyards, the first thing Seillan did was pick and smell the grass growing in the top soil and the fallen leaves from the nearby trees. This told him everything he needed to know about the potential of the vineyard site. From smelling the grass, he could gauge the intensity level of the topsoil which would reflect the flavour intensity produced by the grapes. From smelling the fallen leaves from nearby trees, he understood the intensity that could be found in the roots of potential vines planted in the same soil. This intensity would reflect the structure profile of the wines produced. So different were his findings, in comparison to analysis of the grasses and leaves grown in Bordeaux, that he realised his winemaking must be modified to match the intensity of Sonoma fruit and the more silky, elegant tannins they produce.

For Seillan, it was clear that a Sonoma red wine made from the Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc could not simply copy the extraction and maceration techniques carried out in Bordeaux. The wines’ tannin profiles were not structured or astringent enough to cope with the extended levels of maceration commonly adopted in Bordeaux. It was clear that the danger was too much alcohol and too much over-extraction and this had to be avoided at all costs. Equally, the flavour intensity in Sonoma required a shorter maceration to extract the flavours. He states: “the spice has to dance on the minerality, not on the tannins, it is important that complexities of the soil shine through rather than pushing the extraction of the tannins” – which serves only to mask the terroir.

The 20 year partnership between Jess Jackson, Barbara Banke and Pierre Seillon has seen them become ambassadors of the region. Seillan’s micro-cru philosophy saw him plant 36 different Merlot blocks throughout Sonoma in 1999, these days he takes 120–140 samples from three Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc) grown on different soils throughout Sonoma. The final cuvee of La Muse (a Merlot-dominant blend) for example, will be made up of Merlot grown in 10 different soil types – this sort of variety in flavour and structure profile is just not possible in St Emilion.

While the three styles of Vérité are based on the Left and Right Bank blends of Bordeaux, Seillan insists they are no copies. The variety of terroir in Sonoma allows for much more varietal expression. Also the Pacific Ocean has a huge effect, regulating the temperature every day and providing a strong breeze in the vineyards – something not replicated in Bordeaux. Equally, the steep slopes in Sonoma (some at a 35% gradient) are very different to the relatively flat landscape of Bordeaux. The result is detailed, elegant and profound wines, marked much more by the distinct terroir of Sonoma.

Tasting through a vertical flight of Vérité wines going back to 2002 with Pierre Seillon and Barbara Banke, the pristine clarity of flavours and purity of fruit – a very Californian trait – were in abundance. As well as exceptional fruit purity, the wines have a very broad structural frame with fine yet detailed tannins bringing great balance to the wines. The alcohol levels are high (14-14.7% abv varying throughout the years) yet the alcohol is built into the framework perfectly, balancing the fruit intensity and the broadness of the palate. The consistency in quality and these wines’ ability to retain freshness, power and depth at 15 years of age qualifies their place at the fine wine table.

 

The tasting started with their latest 2015 releases:

2015 Verite La Muse (90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec)

Restrained aromas of cooked black and blue fruit flavours with sultanas, wood smoke and vanilla on the nose. The wine has well balanced mid-palate weight and broadness, sitting very evenly on the palate. Very concentrated black plum flavours – very clean, pure fruit and sweet spice, bursting with energy. Soft tannins that are extremely elegant and untarnished by the high alcohol of 14.7% (which is surprisingly integrated – you barely notice it).

2015 Verite La Joie (75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot)

Classic Cabernet aromas of blackcurrant cassis, menthol and vanilla with additional earthy dry spice, fresh leather and blackcurrant leaf. The shape of the wine has more shoulders and structure than La Muse but with less of the mid-palate weight. Great mineral freshness and energy and elegant, detailed tannins despite the structured profile. Cooked ripe black fruits with additional floral perfume sit above the fruit. Great minerality on the finish and great finesse on the palate from start to finish.

2015 Verite Le Desir (64% Cabernet Franc, 27% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec)

More closed on the nose, but once coaxed reveals complex aromas of perfume, spice, lavender, clove and vanilla. The perfumed ripe black fruit flavours explode on the back palate. The texture of the wine is sublime! Good energy, verve and intensity but beautifully measured. The wine has a very broad frame and is beautifully balanced, sitting evenly across the palate. There is a real peacock tail, floral, earthy lift on the back palate. This is still very wrapped up but bursting with potential.

2012 Verite La Muse

Very silky, lovely sweet spice with hints of liquorice and a smokiness from the new oak still dominating the aromas. The palate is texturally brilliant – with fine and detailed tannins. Very even set, with lovely weight and broadness on the palate. The alcohol (at 14.5%) is brilliantly integrated into the framework of the wine. Beautifully elegant.

2009 Verite La Muse

The well integrated smoky oak intermingles with tertiary aromas (leather and spice) and a herbal perfume. A lovely silky fine tannin texture glides effortlessly across the broad palate. Concentrated and expressive at 9 years of age full of blueberry fruit, sultanas and liquorice spice.

2007 Verite La Muse

Wow! The 2007 is a real highlight. Incredibly silky texture. Full bodied yet so elegant and fine. Blueberry and cooked plum fruit, liquorice spice with more developed tertiary flavours of fresh leather. The wine has a lovely perfume lift on the finish and an energy surge which fleshes out on the back palate. The wine seems remarkably youthful for 11 years of age; still brimming with primary fruit and vibrant acidity.

2004 Verite La Muse

Very expressive wine at 14 years of age. A great combination of plum fruit, leather, liquorice and a touch of graphite coming through. Wonderful rich mid-palate weight, loads of blueberry and blackberry fruit wrapped up in the silkiest of tannins. Full and broad and brimming with energy.

2002 Verite La Muse

More tertiary savoury aromas – herbs, undergrowth and leather. There is no shortage of freshness/acidity despite the tertiary flavour development. The wine is showing no sign of breaking down anytime soon. Earthy blue and black fruits and a touch of smoked meat flavours on the palate. Perhaps lacks the concentration of the ’04 and ’07 but still incredibly elegant and fine.

 

Spending an afternoon with Pierre and Barbara, tasting the latest release of the 2015s as well as a vertical tasting of the La Muse going back to 2002 gave a truly insightful look into the philosophy behind these great wines.

Don’t miss the 2015s – due to be released in the next few weeks.