Cushing, Tripp and Joe Donelan

Cushing, Tripp and Joe Donelan

I’ve been reviewing the wines from the Donelan family for over a decade now, and they continue to fashion world-class, cool-climate examples of Rhône varieties (particularly Syrah). In addition, they’re producing more and more terrific Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Joe Nielson

Joe Nielson

The estate was created in 2007, when Joe Donelan and Pax Mahle opted to go their own ways, with Mahle creating his Wind Gap releases and Joe starting the Donelan Family line. Through 2012, the Donelan Family wines were made by then assistant winemaker, Tyler Thomas. Tyler brought on Joe Nielson as an assistant winemaker in 2009. Nielson, who has bachelor of Science in Horticulture, famously got his start in viticulture growing grapes in his backyard in Michigan. Joe worked for a winery in Michigan after college, and spent several years working in Napa Valley before joining Donelan Family. When Tyler left the estate in 2012, it was a seamless transition for Nielson to take over the reins, and he has certainly held true to the estate style, as well as delivering on the quality front.

The estate makes a full rack of wines, both single vineyard releases and appellation blends. I do a quick summary below of each of the cuvees.

The Single Vineyard releases include:

  • Richards Family Vineyard
    The Richards Family Vineyard was previously planted as a lavender farm (and a few rows remain), and is an east facing, rocky, tiny site in Sonoma Valley, planted all to Syrah. This cuvée is fermented with 100% whole clusters, sees a native fermentation and extended skin contact. It normally spends upwards of three years in barrel.
  • Kobler Family Vineyard
    Located in the cooler Green Valley region of the Russian River, the Kobler Family Vineyard is an organically farmed, west sloping site that sees plenty of morning fog, high daytime temperature and cool afternoon breezes. This is the Côte Rôtie in the lineup as it is cofermented with 10% Viognier before aging upwards of two years in second- and third-fill barrels.
  • Obsidian Vineyard
    Located in Knights Valley, the Obsidian vineyard was their first estate vineyard. It consists of 30-year-old vines planted in just about pure rocks, and is also the warmest of all the single vineyards. This is an incredible site that yields concentrated, structured wines.
  • Walker Vine Hill Vineyard
    Also located in the Russian River Valley (which is the heart of Pinot Noir country), just off of Laguna road and Vine Hill Road, the Walker Vine Hill Vineyard was planted in the early 1990s to Syrah. It consists of five separate blocks of small, rolling hills.

In addition, the appellation/blended Syrahs include:

  • Cuvée Christine
    The Cuvée Christine is effectively a Sonoma County Syrah made up of a blend of their single vineyards. It normally sees 30-40% whole clusters in the fermentation and just under two years in older oak.
  • Cuvée Keltie
    Along with the Obsidian Syrah, the Cuvée Keltie is the biggest, baddest Syrah in the lineup. This 100% Syrah made from a vineyard selection of top sites is a sensational wine fermented with nearly 100% whole clusters and aged upwards of two years all in neutral oak.

This report looks mostly at the 2013 and 2014 releases.

– Jeb Dunnuck