Panthera Chardonnay and Lion Tamer Red Blend: The Big Cat Wines of the Hess Collection


Two More Bottles
Beautiful labels – sorry you can’t see the detail on the Panthera: wine rack attack!

Is it possible for March to come in – and go out – like a lion?

Here in Miami, that’s exactly what happened, thanks to two sample bottles I received from The Lions Head Collection of Hess Family Wine Estates. Earlier this month I was introduced to the 2016 Panthera Russian River Chardonnay and the 2016 Lion Tamer Napa Valley Red Blend. (Two lions coming in, thank you very much.)

The Lions Head Collection is a new project featuring luxury wines that challenge the perceptions of what constitutes a “typical” wine from a given region. Everything, including the distinct labeling and the fact that the wines are independently branded, is intended to push the boundaries of the Hess Collection’s 35-year history of winemaking.

After learning that, I was pretty excited to open both bottles. I gave the wines a couple of weeks to recover from their transcontinental journey, and then my husband and I tasted them over two evenings. (Two lions going out, in the last days of March.)

First up: the Panthera Chardonnay.

Note: I received both wines as tasting samples, and this post reflects my honest opinion of them.

Panthera Bottle Shot and Glass
Full-bodied, well-balanced RRV Chardonnay. 

2016 Panthera Russian River Valley Chardonnay (14.3% abv; $45 SRP)

This was the inaugural vintage of the Panthera Chardonnay. The vineyards, from the cooler climates of the Russian River Valley, are owned by the Hess family, which employs sustainable farming methods. Their goal is to craft wines that reflect the local terroir; wines of complexity and elegance that adhere to the company’s traditions.

The Hess Family crest features a lion, and the winery’s slogan is “Live each day with the heart and courage of the lion.” When the first barrel of this Chardonnay was tasted, its remarkable golden color inspired the name Panthera, an east-Asian word meaning “golden animal.” It also fits quite nicely into the lion theme!

This wine is 100% Chardonnay, the grapes a product of another near-perfect vintage in California. Warm summer temperatures followed by a cooler autumn allowed the grapes to “hang” on the vines a little longer, ensuring perfect phenolic ripeness. The finished wine was aged in French oak barrels (35% new) for 15 months.

Color: Deep lemon, fading a bit at the rim.

Nose: Ripe peach, pear, and apple aromas; some sweet vanilla; a hint of tropical fruit (pineapple, mango).

Palate: Round in texture, the wine coats the palate with rich flavors of pineapple, lemon curd, and vanilla whipped cream. There’s enough acidity to balance the ripeness of the fruit and the alcohol. The long finish leaves a taste of caramel and tangy pineapple – like a semi-sweet upside-down cake. While it hints at sweetness, the wine is dry.

Batch Gastro CHicken and Waffles (2)
Chicken and waffles – with bacon on top!
Batch Gastro Pork Chop
Brined pork chop with sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts – with bacon!

Pairing: My husband and I poured the Panthera Chardonnay with take-out from one of our favorite local restaurants, Batch Gastropub. I ordered the brined, grilled pork chop, which was a nice match with the wine. But the big winner was Gabe’s order of Fried Chicken and Waffles. Why did the pairing work so well? The dish wasn’t too sweet, and the wine had that scintilla of sweetness on the finish that perked up every ingredient on the plate. It left me fighting for a few bites of waffle before my husband scarfed them all up!


Lion Tamer and Steak (2)
Decant this wine a few hours before serving. Your efforts will be amply rewarded.

2016 Hess Collection Lion Tamer Napa Valley Red Blend (14.8% abv; $45 SRP )

Fans of the Hess Collection wines clamor for the bold Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines made from mountain fruit. But you might not know that most of those big red wines have a little Malbec blended into them. Why?

Malbec (also one of the approved varieties used in red Bordeaux) is often added to soften a blend’s tannic component. Cabernet is a high-tannin grape, giving rise to wines that need a little time in the bottle before they show their best. Adding a low-tannin grape like Malbec makes the wine more approachable; you won’t have to wait 10 years to drink it.

And that’s how Malbec got its nickname in wine circles – the Lion Tamer.

This wine is a blend of Malbec (40%); Zinfandel (27%); Petite Sirah (21%); Cabernet Sauvignon (8%); Mourvèdre (2%); and  Petit Verdot and Merlot (1% each). Rather than acting as the lion tamer, Malbec is more of a ringmaster in this blend, with another lower-tannin grape – Zinfandel – as its co-host. But never fear – those other components bring plenty of power and structure to the wine!

Color: Deep, unabashedly purple.

Nose: Ripe black cherry and plum aromas, with sweet notes of violet and chocolate. Imagine yourself in a bake shop, where a fresh berry tart is cooling on the counter and someone is making hot chocolate.

Palate: Red berries, vanilla, black currants, and unsweetened cocoa powder. The texture is smooth and rich, thanks to the full-body, high alcohol, and ripe fruit. But the moderate tannins and a ribbon of acidity hold all the components together. We decanted this wine and proceeded to enjoy it over the course of a few hours. The wine evolved over time, with spicy notes of licorice and cardamom emerging after a while.

Flank Steak and Potatoes
Steak and Lion Tamer Red = delicious. Spiced sweet potatoes? A yummy pairing surprise!

Pairing: We’ve cut back on our intake of red meat, but this wine demanded beef! I grilled a flank steak and served it with baby sweet potatoes roasted with garlic, ginger, curry, and parsley. The steak made a great match, as expected. What did surprise us was how well the spices in the sweet potatoes found kindred spirits in the wine. And, as big as the wine is, I wouldn’t hesitate to sip it without food. Despite the hefty alcohol level, the Lion Tamer Red Blend is very well-balanced; all the components work together in harmony.

Have You Tried Panthera Chardonnay or Lion Tamer Red Blend?

If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them and – of course – what you whipped up in the kitchen to serve alongside!


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