Dragonette: Seeking Perfection in the Sta. Rita Hills

Dragonette is a story about three wine-loving, young men, two of whom worked in a wine store in LA, decided to make wine and ended up producing stellar ones.  It helps, of course, that they ended up in one of California’s premiere growing regions and have been able to source fruit from some uniquely sited and meticulously farmed vineyards. But winemaking talent and creativity play an important role, too.  We’ve tasted Dragonette wines over the years, including in our recent report on the Sta Rita Hills, and we recently visited them at their winery in Buellton and tasted their current releases.  Our reviews can be found below.

The wines we tasted come from the 2018-2020 vintages. 2018, of course, was a cool vintage—a throwback to the past throughout California. 2019 was a little warmer. And 2020 started out cool and wet but started getting heat spikes in mid-August as well as brush fires at the eastern end of the Sta Rita Hills.  The mark of a good winemaking team is their ability to adjust to climate changes. The Dragonette team responded to the heat of 2020 by picking earlier, using fewer whole clusters, and in some cases simply deciding to not pick and wait for the next year’s vintage or find fruit from a cooler site.

The Sta Rita Valley is open to the Pacific, so cold marine winds and fog move inland unobstructed. The closer a vineyard is to the Pacific, the stronger the winds and the lower the temperature, so the berries are small and the skins thick. Dragonette sources its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from the westernmost vineyards of the region—Radian, Bentrock, and Duvarita; these vineyards are also where one finds high concentrations of white diatomaceous soils like the chalky, calcareous soils of Burgundy. It sources its Grenache and Syrah further inland from the John Sebastiano Vineyard and finds the fruit for its stellar Sauvignon Blancs in the Happy Valley. [see map below] In general, they seek out fruit that’s very carefully farmed, often meaning organic or biodynamic viticultural practices.

In addition to winemaking talent and super vineyard sources, Dragonette is highly successful because it’s constantly learning and perfecting. Not only is their vineyard sourcing increasingly refined, so, too, is their winemaking. Over time, they’ve adopted a more nuanced, detailed approach to their oak regime. In general, they seek out a long slow toast, and some of their barrels are water bent and thus neutral. They also vary the percent of whole clusters and carbonic macerated fruit depending on the fruit.

 

Duvarita Vineyard

The Wines

Dragonette 2019 Sauvignon Blanc Vogelsang Vineyard Happy Canyon ($55) 96  Stylistically like a Bordeaux Blanc with 17 months on the lees in 20% new French oak. Very aromatic and pure showing tropical and tangerine fruit complemented by nuances of spice and smoke.  Super silky in the mouth with firm minerality, subtle oaking, and excellent acidity.  Made of very low yielding, organically cultivated Clone 1 with 10% Musque from the Vogelsang Vineyard, hand sorted. 225 cases.

Dragonette 2019 Sauvignon Blanc Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard Happy Canyon ($55) 95   River rock minerals and light citrus on the nose.  A complex wine, firmly structured with minerals, subdued citrus and white pepper nuances on an optimally balanced palate, a bit rounder than the Vogelsang. Seamlessly integrated oak. A bit more (18%) Musque than the Vogelsang Vineyard, sourced from the very low yielding biodynamic, Happy Canyon vineyard owned by Rick Grimms.  Matured in 30% new French oak for 16 months. 150 cases.

Dragonette 2018 Chardonnay Rita’s Crown Vineyard Sta Rita Hills ($65) 94    Ripe fruit and a hint of smoky oak on the nose. A silky, harmonious, complex wine, superbly balanced with impressive minerality and excellent freshness; perfectly proportioned acidity. Clones 75 and 95 sourced from Seasmoke’s Rita’s Crown Vineyard at 1300’ elevation; barrel fermented with ambient yeasts and matured 18 months in 30% new French oak with no battonage.

Dragonette 2019 Black Label Chardonnay Sta Rita Hills ($95) 95  The Black Label is a barrel selection from three of Sta Rita Hills outstanding vineyards—25% Radian, 50% Bentrock and 25% Rita’s Crown. Bright fruit and flint note show on a sumptuous nose.  Deep flavors framed by sound acidity, firm minerality and a refined, creamy texture. Exhilarating, complex and vibrant finish with good weight. Matured 18 months in 75% new French oak.

Dragonette 2019 Grenache John Sebastiano Vineyard Sta Rita Hills ($50) 94 Medium ruby red. Perfumed bouquet reminiscent of dark cherry, pomegranate, and exotic spices reflecting the 20% whole cluster contribution.  Light and elegant on a broad, balanced palate with a firm backbone and velvet texture. Exciting interplay between fruit and acidity with fine firm tannins.  Sees 16 months in neutral French oak. Just 13.7% alc.

Dragonette 2020 Pinot Noir Sta Rita Hills 92 Light-medium red. This is an appellation Pinot Noir sourced from some of Sta Rita Hills best Pinot Noir vineyards, a high percentage from Bedrock along with Sanford & Benedict, La Rinconada, and Radian. A very good wine from a challenging year. Just bottled at the time of tasting, it’s fruit driven with dark red berry and cherry fruit; keenly concentrated, pure, and nicely balanced.  Finishes dry with fine tannins. Sees 14-15 months in French oak.

Dragonette 2019 Pinot Noir Duvarita Vineyard Santa Barbara County ($65) 94  Medium ruby red. Intensely aromatic with an uplifted savory edge. Refined, silky texture and richly opulent, layered flavors on the palate. Vibrant, long aftertaste. From one of Santa Barbara’s more interesting vineyards located just outside the western border of the Sta Rita Hills, so it’s very cool, and it’s biodynamic with regenerative farming.  It has a permanent cover crop so it’s never tilled, thus increasing the microbial health of the soil. The yields are miniscule.

Dragonette 2019 Black Label Reserve Pinot Noir Sta Rita Hills ($95) 96+  Medium ruby red. Deep dark red fruit with nuances of earth, minerals, and underbrush. Full bodied and almost unctuous with significant, concentrated flavor authority balanced by tangy acidity.  This is a dense, fruit rich wine today, but it will develop more complexity over time. 30 years of aging potential!  Sourced from Bentrock mainly with contributions from Fiddlesticks and Radian vineyards.

Dragonette 2019 Syrah John Sebastiano Vineyard Sta Rita Hills ($65) 93  Medium dark red. Fine lifted scents of violets, black raspberry, and dark cherry with spice notes. Excellent concentration of pure fruit complemented by savory elements on a silky, vibrant palate. Firm tannins are coated in thick, rich fruit extract. Fermented with 15% whole cluster and matured in 15% new French oak. 13.4% alc.

Dragonette 2018 Black Label MJM Syrah ($85) 96  A vineyard blend of Syrah cofermented with 1% Viognier and 4% Grenache.  Dark ruby red in color, boysenberry, underbrush, dark cherries and licorice show on the nose. Rich complex layers with lugubrious depth and velvet texture in the mouth. Absolutely gorgeous! The fruit comes mostly from John Sebastiano with additional contributions from the Stolpman and Larner vineayrds. Matured 27 months in 55% new French oak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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