WHILE MANY new wineries in California are joint ventures with famous French houses, Chateau Potelle’s joint venture is between a French husband and wife. Jean-Noel and Marketta Fourmeaux du Sartel advertise their wines as “California wines with a French accent.” And they are just that.
The 1986 Chateau Potelle Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($7.95) is softened with 15% Semillon. Hints of its aging in French oak ovals are present in the bouquet. But the wine’s subtle finesse has varietal integrity without any trace of grassiness. It’s a wonderful beginning to a meal, best with seafood, creamy pasta dishes, quiches and poultry.
The 1986 Chateau Potelle Napa Valley Chardonnay ($12) comes from 60% Carneros grapes and 40% Napa Valley. About 20% of the blending undergoes malolactic fermentation and 40% is barrel-fermented. In Jean-Noel’s words: “This wine is not an assault but rather a caress.” Aged in French oak, it’s a wine with melon gentleness, poetic in Meursault style. Brilliant, silvery, the Chardonnay can be drunk now. But it will become richer with a year of two of cellar-aging. Buy it now; it’s bound to improve in both value and taste.
The 1984 Chateau Potelle Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) is a blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc and 8% Merlot. The enchanting bouquet suggests berries, plums and a hint of spices. The taste is appealing, with no tannic astringency. The wine, Bordeaux-French in style, has fine aging potential and has already won six medals.
Jean-Noel and Marketta first came to California in 1980 to evaluate the marketing threat of California wines for France’s Institute National des Appellations d’Origine.
After tasting more than 2,000 California wines in six months, they recognized the potential for California premium quality wine making. In 1983, they moved with their two young daughters to California, making plans to produce their wines under the Chateau Potelle label. (Chateau Potelle, the medieval, twin-towered castle illustrated on their label, is the 900-year-old castle owned by Jean-Noel’s family, which also owns the noted Bordeaux wine estate, Chateau Leoville-Poyferre.)
The couple’s search for premium grapes concluded with long-term contracts with growers in the Napa Valley and the Alexander Valley. Last year, they purchased 90 acres of mature vines for their Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in the Napa Valley. And after a lengthy negotiation, they concluded the purchase of 202 acres of the Hamilton Vose vineyards on Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley.
At last the couple could build their own winery. (Their first wines were made in leased, custom-crush locations with the couple overseeing every step: harvesting, fermenting, cask-aging, bottling and labeling.)
Jean-Noel and Marketta have been in the California wine business only briefly, but already they’re producing winners: Last year, their wines came home with top medals from eight national and international wine competitions. And Chateau Potelle was one of 63 wineries featured at President Bush’s inauguration.