In Burgundy, a region where famed vineyards are pruned into dizzying arrays of micro-parcels, estates and brands, and where the best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are edging closer to unicorn territory, a new producer is no small feat. affair. The most recent of all, however, is a rather explosive headline (as they say in the news business). He is. . .drum roll. . .a winery in Sonoma. In June, Kosta Browne, maker of pinots and sea bass chard from an exciting cross-section of great California sites, will offer five 2020 Burgundies to its members: pinots noirs from Volnay, Pommard, Beaune (the only premier cru in the range ), and Gevrey-Chambertin (all $125), and a Chardonnay from Meursault ($120).
It’s a long way from a barrel of Pinot in the garage – where Dan Kosta and Michael Browne got their start – to making wine from coveted fruit sources in Burgundy. But that’s not shocking, given the trajectory of Kosta Browne. Now in the Duckhorn portfolio, KB is led by a pair of wine-loving visionaries, Vice President and General Manager Neil Bernardi and winemaker Julien Howsepian. And in recent years, they’ve evolved the brand from its Russian River Valley roots to the wider Sonoma Coast and beyond, buying Cherry Vineyard in Anderson Valley in Mendocino and expanding the sources of vineyards across California to Sta de Santa Barbara. Rita Hills. Burgundy has been on their minds for some time, in the same vein of being curious and involved in areas beyond Kosta Browne’s home domain. It was a natural leap to the real home, the Old World benchmark, for the pinots and chardonnays they made in California.
It turns out, however, that Burgundy is also a heritage for Howsepian. His grandmother grew up in a small village outside the town of Nuits-Saint-Georges, which he and his father eventually found, with a street named after her maiden name. (Although, Howsepian disputes, can a place in France even be called a city if it has nowhere to buy a loaf of bread?) His father’s uncle worked in local vineyards. Going back to Burgundy – making wine there – would be a complete proposition.
The idea took shape, but there didn’t seem to be a path. How could an American couple cross the barriers of a formidable French region? Howsepian and Bernardi made many trips, but as Howsepian describes them, they were more like pilgrimages than planning. But humble curiosity fueled strong relationships on the ground, and in 2020 a partner (choosing to remain anonymous) arrived – the breakthrough they needed to source fruit and establish a winery under the Kosta Browne label. The time had come, according to Bernardi. “The pandemic has forced everyone to think outside the box,” he says. “There has been a global reset, and even in Burgundy the changing times have called for different ways to go to market. A new concept with a well-established California winery was intriguing.
It’s easy to imagine creative clashes between a team of winemakers working on some 700 years of tradition (Cistercian monks enclosed a Burgundy vineyard in 1336, creating the first Clos-Vougeot) and a New World winemaker with all the margin maneuver of a maverick industry (at least a modern one) only about 50 years old. But this is not the experience reported by Howsepian. Of course, there were immense logistical challenges in opening up a new route, shipping the wine – and don’t run it over the compliance issues of wines picked, fermented and barrel-aged in Burgundy, then shipped to California and put in bottle here. But, he says, “we had common objectives: to make great wines, local wines. We had the same philosophy as the Burgundians. We were looking to express the individual terroirs as they want to be. Every place should taste different.
In fact, Kosta Browne’s team had previously studied terroir as it is expressed in key regions of Burgundy – and how the wines compare to those in key regions of California – through a series of tastings. blindly. And the results have been more than helpful. “It was a little shocking,” Bernardi says, “sometimes the Burgundies weren’t as different from the California Pinots as we had expected.” Their discoveries and impressions, which contributed to the impetus to delve into winemaking in Burgundy, also informed their search for regions to represent in their first vintage – which villages particularly appealed to them? (And would it speak to an American audience?)
And luckily, they couldn’t have launched with a better vintage. The growing season in 2020 has been warm, producing bright and expressive fruity wines. At the same time, the clusters and berries were small, for deep concentration and good tannic structure. The Kosta Browne 2020 Volnay, a village in the Côte de Beaune often marked by elegance and soft tannins, reflects the typical delicacy of the region, but its distinctive palate dances with red fruits, lively minerality and a surprising tannic structure. . The Kosta Browne 2020 Pommard – a village a stone’s throw from Volnay but known for its more powerful and muscular wines – is subtly darker and spicier, but its tannins have been resolved in the warm vintage into a creamy sweetness. (As Howsepian says, “There’s just a little rustic kiss to the back of the palate.”) You could say the Kosta Browne 2020 Beaune Premier Cru captures a bit of Volnay and Pommard together, adding depth and intrigue with exotic spices and a hint of licorice beneath lush plums and berries blanketed in earth, herbs, cedar and a hint of salinity. It’s rich, sweet and approachable. And if Beaune combines Volnay and Pommard, the Kosta Browne 2020 Gevrey-Chambertin from the Côte de Nuits packs both the power of Pommard and the richness of Beaune. Beautiful florals and dark spice hide beneath very slightly crisp red fruits (“strawberries you grew yourself,” says Howsepian), and substantial tannins turn to silky. Not to be forgotten, the 2020 Meursault Kosta Brown is perhaps the most familiar of the lineup, with echoes of California Chardonnay in its rich citrus range and gorgeous mouthfeel. But there is an innate minerality here that is characteristic of white Burgundy and immensely appealing.
A remarkable fact about these Burgundies – unique and different expressions of place – is that the longest distance between their wine sources is around 30 kilometers (less than 20 miles). Compare that to Kosta Browne’s California Pinot Noirs, also living expressions of the site, which come from vineyards hundreds of miles apart from northern California to Santa Barbara County. Howsepian and Bernardi managed to penetrate the microcosm of Pinot Noir’s ancestral home and show the wine’s spectacular ability to taste the most specific place where it was grown.