Uncorked: Challenging terrain can yield expressive wines

Never tell John Hamel the odds.

When the winemaker at Hamel Family Wines examined a vineyard site in Nuns Canyon, he was told it was too extreme and would be impossible to dry farm. Most of the vineyard is situated at 1,200 feet elevation, and parts sprawl toward 1,600 feet. Located on the western side of the Mayacamas Mountains on the border between eastern Sonoma Valley and western Napa Valley, the vineyard faces south and southwest, as the mountains peak at over 2,000 feet.

It’s a challenging site with myriad soils, steep hillside and random amalgamations of geological rocks, but it’s also incredibly rewarding for winegrowers with the temperament, patience and resolve to coax out its finest expression.

“Because of the high rock content, we were told by soil scientists [that] to grow a vineyard with no irrigation was impossible,” said Hamel, who dry farmed 20% of the property. “But the fractures in the rocks are where the vines penetrate and find the water they need. They also benefit from the release of [a] lot of nutrients and mineralization in a lot of those areas.”

The resulting wine, Hamel Family Nuns Canyon 2017 ($160), had a eucalyptus and menthol note on the nose that hovered above a dark fruit and spice aroma. The first sip offered hints of espresso and gave way to vanilla bean, blackberry, coffee liqueur, anise and Chinese Five Spice. It’s an elegant masterpiece of a wine with harmonious balance between fruit, spice and tannin.

From the Hamel Family Ranch and Nuns Canyon is Isthmus 2018 ($90), which had aromas of coffee, cedar and red fruits, as flavors of milk chocolate, currant and coffee bean emerge with really lusty tannins that expertly complement the profile.

“Where we are on the hillside is the perfect point where the mother rock is starting to fracture and start the process of breaking down and decomposing,” Hamel said. “You are able to have vines that have relatively difficult conditions, not a lot of soil, a lot of rock, but enough decomposition to allow the vines to have a crop and grow there pretty naturally.”

There was a learning curve when it came to getting acquainted with the Nuns Canyon property. When it was purchased in 2013, Hamel had to build a relationship with the property. There’s a balance when it comes to farming. There’s an optimal stress level a plant can have during the growing season to coax its best results.

“The wines were more technical at first, higher new oak and more ripeness. Other elements people look at positively commercially,” Hamel said. “But the more you do that, the more you obfuscate the place and are doing it at the expense of the place and its capacity to be expressed. There’s a lot of great wines made in that style, but the goal for us is to not fall in line on what are general expectations – we want to find its greatest qualities and showcase wines that reflect where they are from.”

Due to the high amount of volcanic matter in the hillsides, Hamel said dramatic changes in soil composition are drastic. Within a half acre, there could be as many as five to eight different soil profiles.

To better understand the site, they’ve used technology since 2016 to map where the breaks take place. This allows better decisions to be made at harvest. When they first started to farm the property, it would be one sweep through the site.

Now, there could be two weeks between harvest dates, because Hamel knows an acre of heavy clay won’t ripen at the same rate as the acre that sits right next to it that’s made up of a fractured basalt.

It’s led to a better wine with a clear personality.

“The soul and character of the wine is found in the soil,” Hamel said. “We focus on that and don’t try to layer artificial things on top of the wine.”

By keeping the lots separate in the cellar, Hamel also has the opportunity to manage extraction. He’d be more delicate with a fracture rock lot, whereas he can “be more generous” with clay since it’s harder to over extract tannins from its fruit.

California’s consistent weather and ample sunshine allow for the wines to have plenty of fruit flavors and ample tannins.

“Moon Mountain is a very extreme place with a unique signature on the wines that come from it,” Hamel said. “There’s a savory mineral complexity you still get because the area has such a strong character.”

A character he’s taken every possible avenue to preserve and accentuate.

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