Bottle Rocket: Tasting 2008 Newton “The Puzzle” with winemaker Chris Millard

A couple of weeks ago, I popped the top on a cellared bottle of 1995 Newton unfiltered Pinot Noir that impressed me with its elegant structure and still-fresh fruit. That didn’t seem to surprise Newton winemaker Chris Millard, whom I met last week in Dallas. Millard was in town for Moet Hennessey’s 2012 winemaker tour, a multi-city roadshow that took a handful of top winemakers from LVMH’s portfolio of wineries across the U.S.

While Millard and I sipped and swirled our way through a few vintages of his unfiltered Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, it was his 2008 release of his Bordeaux blend, called  The Puzzle ($90 retail), that excited Millard and me most.

“The Puzzle is a blend of the best of our 112 vineyard blocks,” Millard told me.  The puzzle, of course, is figuring out which grapes to use and in what ratios.

“Newton started making The Puzzle as a Cabernet-based blend in 2001,” Millard continued, “but the 2008 is different. It’s predominantly Merlot, which is unique for a Napa blend, but it best reflects the ’08 vintage,” whose growing season was notable for widespread frost damage and challenging summer conditions.

It’s no surprise that Merlot serves as the primary grape in many world-famous French Bordeaux. While no one will mistake Newton’s 2008 Puzzle for a Right Bank Bordeaux, its Spring Mountain characteristics of fresh red fruit,  bright ruby color, crisp acidity and soft tannins are no less appealing.

So what did I taste in The Puzzle? Layers of ripe fruit (bing cherries, cranberries, blackberries), brambles, sage and juniper, then soft notes of mocha, vanilla and bittersweet chocolate from resting 22 months in French oak barrels.

“It’s a silky, elegant, big-shouldered wine,” said Millard. “I think you could drink it now or will cellar a few bottles for the next 15 years.”

Find Newton “The Puzzle” 2008, $90, at Dallas Sigel’s stores.