Ellen Landis at the 2018 Harvest Challenge Wine Competition [Photo: © Erik Castro]

Coined by the French in the early 1900s, terroir is probably the least clearly defined word in winespeak. In my mind, it’s how a wine displays its “sense of place”—the special alchemy of soil, climate, culture, sun aspect, vineyard practices, and terrain (including land, turf, topography, and landscape).

Most wine competitions disregard terroir when flighting wines for the judges, but not the Harvest Challenge. By grouping wines by American Viticultural Area (AVA)/geographic area, this annual competition has rooted itself in the essence of place. As a result, judges have the opportunity to see, or not to see, commonalities between wines that share the same type of soil, weather situations, and terrain.


Central Coast AVA

From the Central Coast region comes this year’s grand prize winner, a vivacious, snappy 2017 albariño from Brick Barn Wine Estate (Santa Ynez). This deeply flavored wine bursts with a colorful mosaic of brilliant flavors on entry. Juicy peaches, sun-ripened nectarines, crisp green apples, and bright citrus elements interlace, and the bracing acidity keeps it dancing on the palate through the lingering, zesty finish. Yum! Double Gold (GG), BOC, Best of Central Coast, Best White Wine, and BEST of Show, 95 points.

2018 Harvest Challenge Wine Competition [Photo: © Erik Castro]

Although this region encompasses more than 30 sub-AVAs, covering land from Santa Barbara at the south end to San Francisco at the north end, the importance of this large coastal winegrowing region is significant, with more than 100,000 acres planted to winegrapes. Additional high-scoring wines from this expansive Central Coast AVA included:

CRU Wine Company 2016 Vineyard Montage Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands) A classic, expressive pinot noir with an alluring forest floor aroma. On the palate, it’s rich and well-defined with a velvety texture. Notes of wild mushrooms, Bing cherries, raspberries, earth, and savory spice interlink and lead to a finish that keeps on delivering well beyond the final drop. GG, BOC, Best of Monterey County, 95 points

Page Mill Winery 2017 Chardonnay (Livermore Valley) This tempting chardonnay opens with a nose of buttered toast and sun-kissed orchard fruit. Juicy and well-structured with baked apple, brown spices, creamy Comice pear, blanched almonds, a splash of citrus, and hints of tropical fruit coating the mouth. Well-balanced with ideal acidity, it’s gratifying all the way through the extended finish. Gold, 91 points


Lodi AVA

The judging panel for wines from the Lodi AVA found the wines to be right up Lodi lane. Deliciously fruity and lush, showing off pure jammy goodness—true to this warm-climate region.

Oak Farm Vineyards 2016 Barbera Dark fruit on the nose continues its glorious path on the palate, simply wowing the senses. Layers of fresh plump blueberries, ripe Satsuma plums, and blackberry jam are accented by savory spice and well-integrated oak, coating the mouth gracefully. Pristine in balance and velvety smooth, with a persistent, spice-dusted finish. GG, 94 points


2018 Harvest Challenge Wine Competition [Photo: © Erik Castro]

Penrose Hill 2017 Gilded Letter Grenache This expressive grenache, oozing with red and black fruits, is rich and enticing. Impeccably balanced and pure with juicy raspberries, ripe loganberries, strawberry jam, savory elements, and hints of blood orange tumbling exquisitely onto the palate. Lip-smacking through the buoyant, long-lasting finish. GG, BOC, Best of Lodi, 94 points

Intercoastal Wine Company 2015 Petite Sirah This highly aromatic, complex wine boasts concentrated blackberry, blueberry and olallieberry fruit at the core. Crushed black peppercorns and plum notes join on the back palate. Powerful-yet-approachable tannins and nice acids frame the plush fruit, and subtle oak peeks through on the luscious finale; ageworthy. GG, 94 points


Lake County AVA

Wines from Lake County (both reds and whites) impressed the judges with vivid intensity, minerality, and herbal elements.

Chacewater Winery 2017 Sauvignon Blanc Fresh squeezed grapefruit, lemon-lime, tangelo, and gooseberry interlink with minerality and fresh chopped herbs, captivating the palate. Bracing acidity keeps the wine vivacious from first sip to the very last one. Irresistible—more please! Gold, BOC, Best of Lake County, 93 points

Wine competition held at the Sono2018 Harvest Challenge Wine Competition [Photo: © Erik Castro]ma County Fairgrounds Showcase Cafe in Santa Rosa, California. November 13, 2018. Photo: © Erik Castro

R Vineyards 2016 Reba Red Blend Comprised of 55% syrah and 45% petite sirah, this gem is intense, full bodied, and muscular. Starts with the dark fruit and spicy aroma before moving to flavors of black plums, blackberry preserves, charcuterie, Herbes de Provence, and a solid beam of minerality. Complex and well built with firm tannins and a memorable finish, it’s approachable now and promises years ahead. Gold, 92 points

Herzog Wine Cellars 2016 Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon This tightly wound cabernet sauvignon opens with an enchanting aroma of fresh violets. Expanding on the palate are layers of black currant, plum jam, wild blackberries, dried herbs, hints of warm cocoa, and well-managed oak spice. Sophisticated with a smooth texture, backbone of firm tannins, and good balancing acidity; one for the cellar. Gold, 91 points


Umpqua Valley AVA

Wines from Oregon’s Umpqua Valley expressed perfectly ripened fruit, fresh chopped herbs, and a lean, minerally side.

Delfino Vineyards 2016 Syrah Reminiscent of a Northern Rhone, this classy syrah dazzles the senses. Deeply structured and complex, with black plums, blackberries, savory five-spice, a touch of blood orange, Kalamata olives, and spice-encrusted roasted meat. Flavors build from entry through the stylish palate to the never-ending finish; a cellarworthy selection. GG, BOC, Best of Umpqua Valley, 96 points

Trella Vineyards 2015 Grüner Veltliner Upon initial sip, you know you’re in grünerland. Gorgeous citrus fruit on the nose make way for a steely, mineral-driven palate. Peaches, fresh lemon verbena, and chamomile tea interlace with Meyer lemon, Key lime, white pepper, and star fruit. Brilliant acids and a forever finish seal the attractive package. Gold, 92 points

2018 Harvest Challenge Wine Competition [Photo: © Erik Castro]

Russian River Valley AVA

Russian River Valley showed off forest floor, underlying herbs, and earthy notes. Cherry, strawberry, raspberry, and plum flavors were displayed in the red wines, and whites brimmed with pear and apple.

Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards 2014 Grand Cuvée This elegant and lively méthode traditionnelle sparkling wine greets the senses with an energetic tiny bead, and lip-smacking aroma. Warm baked bread, Honeycrisp apple, fresh citrus-flecked pear, hints of earth, Rainier cherries, and crushed herbs meld seamlessly. Mouthfilling and refreshing, with a vibrant citrus-edged finish that lingers. GG, BOC, 93 points

McIlroy Cellars 2017 Bembey Vineyard Pinot Noir Incredible floral aromatics set the stage for this mouthwatering, gloriously structured pinot noir. Bright cherries, fresh strawberries, and pomegranate entwine with sautéed mushrooms, exotic spices, anise seed, and earthiness. Tunefully balanced with silky tannins and a finish that never gives up! GG, BOC, 98 points

Trentadue Winery 2017 La Storia Chardonnay Intoxicating aroma draws you right in. Elegant and pure with delicious layers of crunchy Bartlett pear, crisp Granny Smith apple, an edge of earthiness, Meyer lemon, flaky pie crust, and skillfully managed oak. Barrel fermented and sur lie aged, it shows all the right stuff with its pristine balance, fine structure, and magnificent mouthfeel. The finish is long and spirited. GG, BOC, 98 points


2018 Harvest Challenge Wine Competition [Photo: © Erik Castro]

Merriam Vineyards 2014 Windacre Merlot Here’s a stunning merlot that tantalizes the palate with blackberries, plums, blueberries, and berry chutney joining savory spice, tobacco, and well-integrated oak (from 25% new French barrel aging). Complex, pure, and immaculately balanced with a velvety texture, firm tannins, lovely structure, and rich fruit. Savory notes pop on the everlasting finish. GG, BOC, Best of Russian River Valley, Best Red Wine, 98 points


Additional top winners

Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards 2010 Anniversary Cuvée; Carneros, Calif. The endless stream of tiny bubbles and the yeasty aroma speak volumes about this beauty, crafted of 67% pinot noir and 33% chardonnay, that keeps entrancing with each sip. Layer after layer of Bosc pear, Honeycrisp apple, citrus, brioche, Rainier cherry, ginger snaps, and a touch of almond toffee unfold. Aging on the lees for more than five years gives this glorious wine beautiful depth and complexity, and the finish is heavenly. GG, BOC, Best of Carneros, Best Sparkling Wine, 98 points


2018 Harvest Challenge Wine Competition [Photo: © Erik Castro]

Thirsty Owl Wine Company 2017 Diamond; Finger Lakes, N.Y. This delectably sweet elixir is simply delightful. It explodes with a colorful spray of brilliance on the palate. Inviting floral and fruity aromas lead to sumptuous flavors of mango, fresh grapes, spiced pear jam, grilled pineapple with a drizzle of honey, and sweet citrus accents. Precisely balanced and lively, a dream-inducing quaff. GG, BOC, Best of Finger Lakes, Best Late Harvest/Dessert, 97 points

Navarro Vineyards 2017 Gewürztraminer; Anderson Valley, Calif. A classic gewürztraminer—jasmine and lychee on the nose leave no doubt what’s in this glass! Precisely structured and balanced, with vivid flavors of pomelo, lychee, ginger snaps, and subtle touches of yellow bell pepper, savory spice, and honeysuckle. Beautifully dry and refreshing, with a long-lasting orange blossom-scented finish. GG, BOC, Tied for Best of Anderson Valley, 95 points

Pennyroyal Farm 2016 Jeansheep Vineyard Pinot Noir; Anderson Valley, Calif. Entrancing black cherry and floral notes on the nose lead the way in this full-bodied and smartly crafted pinot noir. Black cherry carries through the palate, joining pomegranate seed, black raspberry, licorice, exotic spice, and lovely earthy elements. Refined tannins and perfect balance cap the splendid package, and a splash of blood orange shines through on the lingering finish. GG, BOC, Tied for Best of Anderson Valley, 95 points

2018 Harvest Challenge Wine Competition [Photo: © Erik Castro]

As always when I judge this competition, I found it fascinating to explore multiple wine regions and identify sense of place for several of the AVAs from which wines were entered. In other cases, where the geographic area was quite large (and included multiple microclimates, soils, and a wide range of altitudes), commonalities were less apparent. However, the quality of wines was clear—and appreciated—as confirmed by the impressive count of Gold and Double Gold award winners. Find all the medal-winning wines at www.winecompetitions.com.


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