Léal Vineyards: The Secrets of San Benito

Léal Vineyards was a little farther away than the other wineries we visited on our San Benancio trip, but it absolutely worth the extra mileage. And to be honest, it wasn’t that far from the others.

We saw their sign and turned up what looked like a little residential side-street. After cresting a gentle hill we saw Léal’s front gate and immediately realized “Yeah, there’s a winery there!”

This is the tasting room floor, not the front gate.

The main building has a rather utilitarian look, befitting its function. The attached tasting room has an elegant patio in front (complete with a fountain) and the front wall of the room is pretty much absent, creating an open, welcoming feel. The tasting room itself, with its black stone floor, dark wood tones and wine bottles smartly arrayed, has the feel of a swank, opulent nightclub.

The only things missing were velvet ropes and a line around the block.

And look! Purse hooks!

Nikki loves purse hooks.

Léal is also set up for weddings and other events, with a spacious pavilion on a rise above the tasting room.

Scads of seating and social area to the left and right of this picture.

They even have a bocce court!

Gotta love a game you can play with a wine glass in your hand.

We were delighted but not surprised to encounter a group of people whom we had seen at every other winery we visited that day. This social aspect of wine tasting is something I really enjoy.

Owner and winemaker Frank Léal is involved with every element of the business from the grape-growing to the décor and presentation in the tasting room, and his care and vision have produced something to be proud of.

The Wines

2010 Viognier (San Benito): The scents of tropical fruits and peaches wafted off this delightful Viognier. The flavor matches the aroma, adding an unexpected but welcome tartness with a distinct lemon character. The tartness seemed mellower on subsequent sips. This wine presents a classic dilemma – it’s a wine you want to show off to friends, yet you feel like having it all to yourself!

2008 Pinot Noir (Central Coast): There was a meaty quality to the aroma of this wine which put me in mind of charcuterie and buttered bread. Nikki noted that this is the kind of wine you want to have with a great steak. The flavor opens with an earthy, ashy quality which transitions into a swell of mellow fruit. The flavor closes with a rich lacquer taste. In many wines the tannins come all at the end, but in this wine they’re apparent earlier in the arc and provide structure and balance throughout.

2007 Estate Threesome (San Benito): The three players in this drama are Syrah (72%), Grenache (21%) and Mourvedre (7%). Nikki again noted a meaty quality (with a sugary edge) to the aroma which carried into the flavor. My palate parsed the richness differently – I got a swell of tannins that dissipated to reveal berries and cream. Again, I found the tannins to be at just the right intensity, providing a stately frame and keeping the sweeter components from seeming frivolous.

2006 Estate Merlot (San Benito): My first impression upon sniffing this was of chocolate-covered raisins (my favorite movie treat BTW). If I didn’t know what it was, I might have guessed Port from the aroma. Nikki detected a hint of fava bean in the smell. We both found raisin and plum in the deep, rich flavor. I also got some definite cacao notes and (again) just the perfect application of tannins.

2007 Carnavál (San Benito): Here we have a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc and 6% Malbec. Nikki was getting palate fatigue, but she noted “Just good – can’t get precise about it.” Let me try: The aroma was nicely layered, with currants, milk chocolate, and strawberry Pop-Tart (both the filling AND the crust!). The flavor presents the fruit first, followed by a crescendo of tannins that tails off into a toasty finish. This is expertly blended – the blend yields layers and definition that reward attention rather than being a gregarious but shallow crowd-pleaser as blends so often are. It’s like a good book that you like the first time you read it, which rewards subsequent readings with new details and insights.

I’d like to give Léal special praise for what I can only describe as precision in how tannins are implemented in the flavor profiles of their wines. Never overwhelming, they always seemed to contribute to the flavor rather than dominating it and they emerge in the flavor just at the right time.

Léal, we raise a glass to thee.