April 17, 2021

Uncorked: FEL Wines’ vineyard loaded with character

From a seemingly random assortment of vineyard rows, Ryan Hodgins has found greatness.

The Savoy Vineyard covers 42 acres in Anderson Valley, and about half the fruit is kept for FEL Wines and its winemaker, Hodgins. Planted by Richard Savoy in 1991, and purchased by FEL founder Cliff Lede in 2011, the nontraditional row orientation has forced Hodgins to exit his comfort zone to figure out the nature of the vineyard.

Four outstanding FEL bottlings are featured in this column.

“The way it was set up is hard for me to manage,” Hodgins said. “Richard Savoy has an artistic background and was a constant tinkerer. I’m a scientist and a linear thinker. There’s just flagging tape or paint on a post, and that’s all that demarcates rows. I’ve always thought of it as a Gran Cru vineyard. It’s a special site that lots of different producers love to work with. There can be two or three different clones in a row, even for our smallest clients.”

With 34 different blocks, each managed individually, Savoy is loaded with character. It is located just above a river bench and overlooks the last strand of old redwood trees, whose needles Hodgins has always found in the savory notes of Savoy pinot noir.

The FEL Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($70) is awesome right now, but with time in the cellar will gain a tantalizing set of complex flavors.

“There’s black cherry, cherry cola, savory and a wild minty pennyroyal that grows in abundance there along with a pine needle characteristic in Savoy Vineyard,” Hodgins said. “There were sheep there for hundreds of years before there were vines, and the sheep would eat the mint. Just a walk through the vineyard in the summer afternoon – and you can smell the mint in the air.”

While there are only 200 cases of the FEL Savoy Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 ($49), it’s worth the hunt. There’s lemon rind, green apple and a sesame note on the nose. Flavors of Meyer lemon [and] citrus on a full-bodied mouthfeel emerge. A few of the 500-liter barrels go through malolactic fermentation, just enough for texture but not to disturb the salty, briny freshness of the wine.

Because the fruit from Savoy is sold to different producers, Hodgins often will do a horizontal tasting, where wines from the vineyard made from different producers are sampled. Even when different winemakers ply their craft with Savoy fruit, its traits still stand out.

“The Savoy presence is distinctive,” Hodgins said. “There’s a consistent thread in fruit profile and structure of the wines from Savoy.”

Nestled into what is either the beginning or end of a wine-growing region, Hodgins has found a sweet spot with the appellation blends of FEL, which stands for Florence Elsie Lede, Lede’s mother’s name. She was his very first inspiration in the industry with her homemade wine.

“Anderson Valley is a tipping point between California and the Northwest,” Hodgins said. “Even in the Valley, which is 5 miles long from Boonville in the southeast to Navarro in the northwest, there’s a variance. The north side of the Valley faces south and gets afternoon sun. It looks like classic California wine country with oak trees and grassy hills. The south side is shaded by the ridge line. There are Douglas firs and 250-foot-tall redwoods. It’s the beginning of the Northwest, its great woods and the end of wine country.”

When it comes to responsibility, Hodgins is more of a hall monitor than a drill sergeant. He wants wines to naturally pass from the vineyard to the press and eventually the bottle with as little of his influence felt as possible.

If the work has been done during the growing season in the vineyard, then he can embrace a role that leaves as little a mark as possible.

“I’m the shepherd,” Hodgins said. “The grapes come in, we put them in tank and barrel, and don’t use a lot of new oak. It’s all about each site and place and allowing it to reflect its own personality.”

FEL’s appellation wines are an all-encompassing view because of the site from which they source fruit. Appellation wines, where there is no designated vineyard on the label, are often the best values in wine.

It’s a savvy purchase as well. If a winemaker were a visual artist, an appellation wine would be akin to having a large palette from which to choose colors for a piece of art. When Hodgins can choose from vineyards in the north and south of Anderson Valley, he’s expanding his palate of flavors as he’s done with the FEL Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2018 ($38).

“We have a 10,000-foot view of the Valley,” Hodgins said. “We source from vineyards that run the length of the Valley. It’s warmer to the south, and those ripen first and give off the classic California fruit profile of black cherry, sweet fruit and cola. When you get closer to the Pacific Ocean, it becomes more spice driven. The deep end of the Valley we can harvest there six weeks later than Boonville. We lose a degree off the daytime high for every mile closer to the ocean. The flavors are more savory with cigar box and tobacco. Because we pull from both ends … we get a sense of spice, black cherry and cola.”

The FEL Anderson Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($32), a flinty, nervous wine that plays its citrus off herbal, sage-green flavors, struck a chord.

“I’m looking for focus and freshness,” Hodgins said. “I like to have tension in my wines, I don’t want flabbiness. The biggest fault in a wine is if it’s too broad. I want precision and focus.”

He’s found it with FEL, even if the vineyard rows sometimes run askew to his thought process.

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.