"Our vines struggle to survive, producing small yields of tiny grapes with concentrated flavors that perfectly reflect their terroir." That's the story that wineries like to tell, as if it were as federally mandated as the government warning on the label. Ask if those vines can mount the struggle untethered to a trust fund of water from an irrigation hose, and the story is different: Oh, no, the yields would be small, and the vines would suffer from the vagaries of soil and weather; in short, their "terroir." Curious. While comparisons are meaningless without controlled experimentation, we offer the following reviews of wines made from dry-farmed grapes on their own merits.
Kunde Family Estate, 2008 Kinneybrook Vineyard Chardonnay ($24) Many acres of this rambling property are dry-farmed, some of which include centenarian Zinfandel vines. That's not news—but when typically production-oriented Chardonnay is dry-farmed, it is. Rosemary spices up typical butterscotch aromas, while the creamy, custardy mouthfeel is rounded out with a sweet weight. Underneath light custard and butterscotch flavors, lean, crisp white grapefruit and pear fruit flavors shine through.
Bouchaine 2007 Gee Vineyard, Napa Valley-Carneros Pinot Noir ($55) From an older vineyard across the road, this "Burgundian" exemplar is perhaps as close as they come, with smoky wood tones, fruity potpourri and a bright red hint of cherry cordial. Thyme and bitter herbs with dried red berries glide silkily over the palate, leaving a black tealike finish. In the neighborhood, the closest relation to this wine might be Hanzell Vineyards' Pinot.
Dehlinger 2008 Goldridge Vineyard, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($45) Made from 20 to 35 year-old vines that hold their own in the deeper soils between Dehlinger's hills, this medium-bodied Pinot combines chalkboard dust minerality with the sweet warmth of strawberry preserve flavors and cherry-vanilla cola, powdered candy and roasted chicory aromas. Its broad appeal has a complex, sweet, lingering finish.
Frog's Leap 2009 Sauvignon Blanc ($18) The palest shade of chartreuse, it's got aromas more like honeydew melon, kiwi and barely ripe papaya than grass. Bracing, green-grape acidity attacks, but the body is lively and balanced, with lime-cream on the tongue before a lasting finish of pronounced astringency. At an old-fashioned alcohol of 12.6 percent.
Frog's Leap 2007 Rutherford ($75) This 93 percent Cabernet Sauvignon has deep ruby, piquant with smoke, new leather, plum, and purple, mineral pigment aromas. Lacquered, lively and classic flavors of high-toned plum, cedar and black currant enveloped by furry, thick tannins, as if a purple Himalayan cat had just decamped from one's tongue after a day's napping.