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Neyers Vineyards Bruce's Journal

Our 2021 Chardonnay ‘El Novillero’

By Bruce Neyers

Wednesday 6th December, 2023

2021 Chardonnay ‘El Novillero’

In 1993, we were planning for our second harvest at Neyers Vineyards, and I contacted Angelo Sangiacomo about buying some Chardonnay grapes. I’d worked with Angelo and his family over the years, and he had become an important part of my life. He offered to show me around some new vineyard properties he managed. We had a consulting agreement with Helen Turley at the time, so I invited her to join us. Near the end of the day, we visited a beautiful hillside vineyard near the top of the steep hills separating the Sonoma plain from the Petaluma River. The parcel was magnificent — a natural, southeast-facing amphitheater open to the cool breeze off San Francisco Bay only a mile or so away. The soil was sandy-loam but covered with a layer of gravel-sized pebbles. In the distance was a panorama stretching from Mount Diablo to the San Francisco skyline. As I marveled over this striking vineyard, Angelo began to explain that he was merely a partner with the Donnell family — the actual owners of the land — and had no say in the sale of the grapes. The Donnell sisters looked after the business of the partnership, and already had a buyer, he reported. When I arrived home, I began to tell Barbara about my day and the disappointment in which it ended. She asked me if it was Nancy Donnell who owned the property, but I couldn’t remember. Barbara was working in the restaurant business in Berkeley then and, she went on to explain, Nancy Donnell was an investor in the restaurant. The next day Barbara called her, and while Nancy had indeed offered the grapes to another buyer, the terms had not yet been agreed upon, so she was happy to sell them to us.

That began a relationship that’s lasted for the past 30 years. We’ve made it through a few replants, and even a partial tear-out for a varietal change. The grapes have always made remarkable wine, a Chardonnay that combines richness and texture, with the complex aromas of exotic fruit, grilled bread, and minerality. Flavors of lemon zest and butterscotch abound, but I’m always struck by the attractive, lengthy finish with its hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. The crop is small, but the wine is invariably one of the best in our cellar every year. The 2021 Chardonnay ‘El Novillero’ is a classic — a textbook bottling of California Chardonnay with those elusive traits of elegance, delicacy and grace.

El Novillero Vineyard Chardonnay Vines
Looking northwest across the rows of bilateral cordon-trained Chardonnay vines in the highest elevation block, known as El Novillero 5. Photo courtesy of Mike Pucci of Sangiacomo Vineyards

A close-up of on one of the old Chardonnay vines on El Novillero 5. This is looking southwest, up the hill. Notice the pebbles in the soil, and that the rows have not been disked to completely remove all vegetation. This  helps control vigor.
Photo courtesy of Tadeo Borchardt

Chardonnay El Novillero Vineyard Carneros

The lower elevation vines at the El Novillero Vineyard, and the dramatic backdrop formed by the hills separating the Carneros District from the Petaluma Gap.