Depending on how much you believe in destiny, it will come as no surprise that when, in 1982, Peter Michael established his eponymous estate winery, it was in Sonoma’s Knights Valley. Seven years later, after a long career as an entrepreneur and technology executive, he was made a sir, making his purchase of 640 steep, rugged acres on the western slopes of Mount St Helena even more apposite.
Raised on Bordeaux and Burgundy, Sir Peter credits the taste of a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay while visiting San Francisco in 1973 as the inspiration to make California wine. Many California wineries have similar origin stories, but they usually feature dreams of making the next great California Cabernet rather than world-class Chardonnay. Sir Peter, it turns out, would go on to do both.
Diminutive in both size and profile, the Knights Valley AVA sits between Napa Valley and Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Its 2,000 acres of vineyards (Napa has more than 45,000) sit mostly on the narrow valley floor, making the Peter Michael estate on steep volcanic hillsides both a world apart and a marvel of viticultural engineering.
The estate’s 147 acres of vines span five spectacular sites, each producing one of the brand’s flagship bottlings. Les Pavots, with late 1980s plantings of red and white Bordeaux varieties and dotted with its namesake poppies, occupies 64 acres of rolling benchlands at 900–1,400ft of elevation. La Carrière, a 17-acre parcel of Chardonnay sweeps up a steeply curving bowl from 1,200 to 1,700ft, evoking its moniker ‘the quarry’.
Above La Carrière, a rolling plateau of sorts can be found, the right side of which is Mon Plaisir, a 7-acre Chardonnay plot. To the left and above, a stunning, undulant amphitheatre of a further 15.5 acres of Chardonnay rises up to earn its name of Belle Côte (‘beautiful slope’). Up the mountain at 2,000ft above sea level, a staggeringly steep hillside is home to 14 acres of Chardonnay that Sir Peter named Ma Belle-Fille after his daughter-in-law Emily, who has gradually assumed day-to-day stewardship of the estate along with her husband Paul (see p.40). Two additional, equally impressive sites have been acquired over the years: the 400-acre Seaview Estate on the Sonoma Coast (planted to 30 acres of Pinot Noir in 2006 and divided into three vineyards) and a 23-acre vineyard parcel in Napa’s Oakville AVA named Au Paradis.
From these three separate properties, the estate makes a diverse set of wines, united by a vision for expressing the character of what the winery calls mountain viticulture. Steep, rocky, fast-draining slopes with myriad exposures produce wines of power and sometimes surprising elegance. The tasting that follows includes the current vintages of these wines, along with library vintages of its two flagships – Ma Belle-Fille Chardonnay and Les Pavots Bordeaux blend. They were tasted at the winery in the summer of 2021.
- Ma Danseuse, Clos du Ciel and Le Caprice
Separated by blocks of trees, these three plots of Pinot Noir show subtly different expressions of the impressive Seaview Estate, all in a bolder, ripe interpretation of Pinot Noir. Clos du Ciel is the warmest of the three, more sheltered from marine influence, and tends to be richer and riper than Le Caprice, whose steep slopes are slightly more exposed to the sea. Ma Danseuse is the coolest of the sites, with more marine influence and a slight northerly aspect, giving slightly leaner wines.
- Ma Belle-Fille
While the highest in elevation (at least until the newest plantings are given a name), this Chardonnay vineyard has the most open exposure to both marine influences and the sun. Consequently, it ripens earliest of all the vineyards, yielding a unique combination of California generosity and an impressive, sometimes racy acidity.
- Au Paradis
Acquired in 2007, this vineyard abuts Napa’s famed Dalla Valle estate and merited its own flagship wine from the start. Similar in make-up and style to Les Pavots, perhaps with slightly less chiselled tannins, it is a wine equally built for the long haul.
- Les Pavots
One of California’s most esteemed and age-worthy red wines, Les Pavots has bold, ripe flavours and is made in a classically full-bodied California style, balanced by generally excellent acidity and the robust musculature of tannin that often characterises hillside fruit. The Bordeaux blend has been made in every vintage since 1988.