High on acid and real sense of purpose at 2019 World of Pinot Noir
|Pinot noir cluster grown in the stingy, windswept terroir of Santa Catalina Island|
As documented by IMHP comments in past post-WOPN reports, my beef has always been that it’s impossible, and therefore unconscionable, to “rate” well made Pinot noirs. Yes, artistry and skill can be scored or ranked to some extent. That’s the fun, human element of a wine category like American Pinot noir – we love our favored brands, and can grow to practically idolize talented winemakers – although even that practice ultimately comes down to personal preference, like Stones vs. Beatles or Picasso vs. Matisse (in other words, meaningless).
|Hyde Vineyard in Los Carneros-Napa Valley|
Hence, the 21 Pinot noirs that impressed me the most over the 2019 WOPN weekend were those that seemed to scream their differentiations, and real sense of purpose, out the most. To help me understand what it was that I found appealing, I took the trouble of contacting and querying each of the 21 wines’ winemakers, asking them to
3. Share some thoughts or philosophy on how they achieve their goals while addressing concerns (such as alcohol or fruit ripeness) that are still hot topics of discussion among the trade, media and consumers.
|World of Pinot Noir tasting (photo courtesy of Tenley Fohl Photography)|
My report on these Pinot noirs, in alphabetical order:
I asked Adelaida winemaker Jeremy Weintraub to share his own thoughts on the site’s sensory profile. His response: “One of the threads running through the vintages back to the oldest bottle that we have on property, from 1976, is an aromatic blend of red dried herbs, floral tea, cranberry. The wine is somewhere on the light-body end of the spectrum, with more weight than Santa Maria Valley but far less than something from Russian River Valley.”
The knee-jerk impression of Paso Robles, of course, is that it’s too hot to grow Pinot noir, and therefore overripe or big alcohol wines are inevitable. Calcareous soils, however, are predisposed towards higher grape acidity, which give wines an intrinsic balance. Besides, says Weintraub, “I don’t need to worry about alcoholic Pinot noirs from HMR, especially since at this point in the life of the vineyard, the vines are self-regulating and the older blocks simply won’t make that much sugar... The important thing is not a number but the impression that the wine is leaving as you drink it and in your memory.”
|Balletto winemaker Anthony Beckman in Sexton Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley's Sebastopol Hills|
2016 Balletto Vineyards, 18 Barrel, Sonoma Coast – While Sebastopol Hills – the southernmost corner of Russian River River Valley closest to the wind, fog and cold air coursing through from Bodega Bay and the Petaluma Gap – is not a recognized AVA, it is the most distinctive (IMHO) of the Russian River Valley’s so-called “five neighborhoods” in terms of terroir/sensory dynamics. 18 Barrel is a 100% Sebastopol Hills selection blended on the basis of these dynamics as much as pure quality: ultra-bright cherry/licorice perfume, zingy, ringing qualities on the palate, and a woodsy sensation (to me, something of a mix of redwood and Madrone) blowing through the nose and all the way into the finish, like breath of cool California coastal air.
Maximization of this profile, of course, starts with farming (“we can write a book about this,” says Beckman) and extends to conscious decisions to pick multiple times, from 22.5° to 24° Brix (Beckman considers anything higher than 25° to be “a mistake for these vineyards”). This precludes the need to add tartaric acid and is much more conducive to the 100% native yeast protocols Beckman established more than ten years ago.
Beckman speaks frankly about the pressure to produce “overripe wines” to kowtow to prevailing tastes: “I feel that ripe Pinots begin to lose their sense of place and start to taste all the same, regardless of where they’re from. Still, I’ll spend an entire élevage worried that the wines will be thin, tart and tannic. But what keeps me going year after year is the lifted aromatics that you get, and how time in barrel and bottle changes them into complete wines with depth, structure and, hopefully, ageability and uniqueness.”
|Big Basin Vineyards winemaker/owner Bradley Brown|
2016 Big Basin Vineyards, Alfaro Family Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains – Red cherry laced with sweet herb (wild mint/pennyroyal) fragrances, with the faintest ocean air brininess lingering in the backdrop; tart edged, somewhat lean and wiry, yet very fresh and palate ringing in its light (13.3% alcohol), laser sharp yet ultimately gentle (verging on delicacy), effusively fruited feel.
For Brown, the ability to do 100% whole cluster (minus nutrients and even sulfur, which is added only post-ML in the barrel) is also advantageous to achieving transparency; and accordingly, barrel choices (about 25% new) is relegated to coopers employing “long, gentle, light toasts,” which also helps to “amplify site.” Working with vineyards so close to the cooling fog influences of the ocean also allows Brown to “pick when we see the physiological ripeness... this results in wines that always finish under 14%, and often 13% alcohol.” Brown also says that he could “choose to pick at riper levels that produce 14.5% wines,” but he has a Burgundy influenced “ethos” – and clearly, this is working just fine for followers of Big Basin Vineyards who have developed a taste for leaner, higher acid styles of Pinot noir.
2015 Brewer-Clifton, Sta. Rita Hills – Not to minimize the three decades of experience and meticulous work going into their estate grown wine, but in recent years this winery has made the crafting of world class Pinot noir look almost easy. An electric-bright and extravagant nose of strawberry purée with whiffs of wintergreen and pine is solidified by a seriously firm and sharply etched palate-feel, the tannin/acid structure coming across like steel girders, giving a savory sense of concentration to the vivid, high toned and precision-cut fruit.
Brewer-Clifton founder/winemaker Greg Brewer concurs on the ebullience and savory nature of this bottling, describing it as very much “Sta. Rita Hills.” Reflecting the Asian influence in his thought process, Brewer writes: “I typically see the pure fruit ushered in by a spicy aromatic followed by a tea-like/soy-reminiscent mouth-feel – umeboshi (i.e. Japanese salt plums) comes to mind.” In respect to winemaking choices applied to vintage variations within the appellation, which he describes as “incredibly stable within the context of an environment,” Brewer remarks, “Our pursuit is sincere transmission of our estate with as much lucidity and vulnerability as possible.” Hence, “overwhelmingly, whole cluster fermentation and strictly neutral cooperage (with no racking) are both appropriate for us to arrive at that aesthetic.”
2016 Day Wines, Momtazi Vineyard, McMinnville-Willamette Valley – There was a larger than usual contingent of Oregon wineries at 2019 WOPN; and for me, this bottling stood out among the numerous outstanding Oregonians for its star-bright bluish dark red color and intense, compact, black cherry/sweet woodsy (bark and needles) nose with a sense of immensity and concentration, notwithstanding a zesty/edgy, compact and focused feel to a medium weight body, finishing with a notable tweak of coffee roast/burnt leaf savoriness that seemed to be more fruit than oak/toast related.
|Momtazi Vineyard in Willamette Valley's McMinnville AVA|
Pinot noir, contends Day, “can be balanced at 12% alcohol or 14% alcohol.” Accordingly, partial whole cluster (30% in the 2016 Momtazi), gentle cap management (“to avoid over-extracting”), and relative cool fermentation temperatures (“to retain aromatics”) are part of her approach, although “no two wines are made identically.” For Day, “native yeast is a number one thing a winemaker can do to make a site-expressive wine,” and cooperage (20% new oak at the most) generally involves 4-10-year-old barrels (“I want the majority of the barrels that I use to be a breathing élevage vessel without inputting wood flavor or tannin”).
|Hilliard Bruce estate in Santa Barbara's Sta. Rita Hills|
2016 Hilliard Bruce, SKY, Sta. Rita Hills – The week after the 2019 WOPN, owner/grower John Hilliard informed me that he had just put his 21-acre Hilliard Bruce estate up for sale. In his usual (and refreshing) blunt fashion, he said, “Sadly, I never could sell enough wine and I’m just not that good a salesman... wine does not sell itself.” What Mr. Hilliard is, however, is one of the most detailed, quality driven and conscientiously sustainable grower/vintners in the state, which has been borne out in the exquisite Hilliard Bruce grown Pinot noirs produced by both other wineries and under Hilliard’s own label.
“The majority of the SIPCertified ("Sustainability In Practice"), 21-acre Hilliard Bruce vineyard is planted in sand, although the Calera section has the added bump of loam mixed into the earth. One unique aspect of the property is that extremes are mitigated by natural tendencies of the land... The Calera clone is a winemaker’s clone that is notoriously low yielding with small berries. The small amount of clay in the soil adds an element of flavorful weight to the grapes. We also added a kicker cane to boost yield, thereby elongating the already tannic clone among more clusters.”
|Hyde Vineyards' Larry (seated) and Chris Hyde|
2015 Hyde Vineyards, Carneros-Napa Valley Estate – Somewhere between the 2000s and the 1950s and ‘60s – the start of the groundbreaking work done by Louis M. Martini, Beaulieu, Robert Mondavi, Winery Lake and others – LosCarneros somehow lost its luster in the world of Pinot noir (or as Saintsbury used to put it, “Beaune in the U.S.A.”). The recent extraordinary estate bottlings by Larry Hyde and his son Chris are bound to restore some order. The 2015 screams “Carneros” with its pure, ripe, aromatic black cherry concentration, but then it takes things further by lavishing layer upon layer of plush, curvy, velvet textures punctuated by bright acidity. Non-fruit delineations may be negligible, but who needs that when a wine is so damned, well, ravishing?
According to Hyde, “minimal amounts of new oak (20%), whole cluster (usually around 5%) and forgoing of “adjustments” or filtration help hone the wine in on its intrinsic character – especially in 2015, another drought year, “when rain during bloom already provided a small crop and great concentration in the wines.... Our focus is on creating wines that are balanced, and expressive of the site.”
2017 Lombardi Wines, Hill Justice, Petaluma Gap – Gobs of strawberry veering towards black fruit, lush and concentrated, fill out the nose and a concentrated presence on the palate, strengthened by some young, muscular tannin, fashioning a compact, dense, meaty yet seamless, moderately weighted feel.
2016 Lucia Vineyards, Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – True confession: It took me years to grasp, let alone appreciate, the extravagant, often “big” qualities of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots. Why? #1, fuller bodied Pinot noirs are never my first choice; and #2, I hadn’t been to Santa Lucia Highlands. But when I finally did, and felt the combination of chill air, bright sun, almost blinding winds, and smells of kicked up dusty sand and pungent pervasiveness of wild chapparal pushing up into the nostrils, I finally understood, particularly in respect to the thickened skins and high acidity of grapes ripening under meager circumstances. This is a place where harvests are called on acids dropping to palatable levels rather than sugars reaching a certain point – hence, the “bigger” styles, which come naturally to the place.
Jeff Pisoni, the winemaker for his family’s Pisoni and Lucia labels, cites the circumstances of the 2016 vintage, contrasting it with the prior, grueling drought years that “brought concentration of tannins and acid... muscular wines (from) stressed vines working hard.” 2016’s “earlier harvest dates also easily retained acidity.” Crafty growers and winemakers like the Pisoni family are quick to adapt to higher tannin/acid years like 2016, telling us: “We backed off on whole cluster and frequency of punch-downs, although we still did a cold soak because the phenolics extracted during that stage are different and more gentle than those extracted during fermentation.”
2016 Lumen Wines, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – Beautifully pristine, fresh, airy red fruit fragrance (cherry/strawberry) with floral/rose petal/faintly green leafiness; the flowery qualities consummated in a light, lithe, silky notably slender and long, zesty mouth-feel. All told, very “Presqu’ile.”
Reflecting on the evolution of American Pinot noirs, Henry shares interesting food for thought: “The challenge two decades back in France, and even in Santa Barbara, was getting fruit ripe enough before the vines started to go dormant for the winter. Wine writers tended to rate the warmest vintages the highest, because vineyard practices were still rather primitive, and the world was also a bit cooler – and the wines from warmer vintages were preferred by most palates. Vineyard practices have come a long way, and the world is warmer, which has allowed winemakers to ripen fruit to levels never before possible, even in places like Burgundy or Germany.
2015 Mindego Ridge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains – This vineyard has been qualifying for my proverbial pantheon of top American crus by dint of its pervasive transparency: super-bright, high toned raspberry fragrance permeated with airy, woodsy notes; both savory and brightly fruit in a long, lanky, lingering and finesseful palate.
2016 Peay Vineyards, Ama Estate, Sonoma Coast – Peay was one of the In Pursuit of Balance movement’s original poster childs, which stands to reason – you couldn’t make a “big” wine from Peay’s estate at the extreme, and most frigid, end of WestSonoma Coast near Annapolis if you tried. I found all of their bottlings (a good half-dozen) shown at 2019 WOPN to be exhilarating, but their 2016 Ama seemed to rise above the rest, figuratively and literally: at least in terms of purity of fruit – floral, dark cherry, woodland/forest floor notes – billowing from the glass, and then charging through the palate’s light, tingly, extended, live-wire feel before ending with savory/toothsome, cherry skin, leafy/earth and spiced cobbler sensations.
|Peay Vineyards at the extreme edge of West Sonoma Coast|
Winemaker Vanessa Wong digs down deeper, explaining her somewhat Yin/Yang approach when assembling the different blocks (varying clones, rootstocks, exposures, slopes, etc.) to produce an Ama from their 33-acre estate: “Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot noir, for example, comes from barrel lots that have floral and black tea aromas as base notes... Barrel lots with more foresty, spice and strawberry aromas tend to go into Pomarium, while those with darker berry and with savory notes go into Ama... Ama, in particular, is like a study in opposites of our vineyard, containing both one of the earliest blocks to ripen and the latest blocks of Pinot noir to ripen... the most forwardly fruit driven blocks which would be too much by itself if it weren’t married and tamed by its earthy/savory polar opposite.”
2016 Presqu’ile Winery, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – The winery’s own, estate grown 2016 Presq’uile Vineyard came across as typically ultra-fine, almost ethereal, yet notably forest-floorish in its flowery perfume; but I couldn’t help being even more compelled by the lavish, multi-faceted yet even keeled qualities of their 2016 Bien Nacido bottling. It seemed to epitomize what so many other vintners love about this venerated vineyard – the layering of both red and black fruit, the earthy, almost Mexican spice notes, the pervasive, love-it-or-leave-it herbiness, and the faint sensations of meat and loam in the mouth, all arranged within the context of Presqu’ile Winery’s own customary feathery touch.
Over the years Cronje has learned to adjust winemaking aesthetics to sites, particularly in respect to whole cluster fermentation: “On the sandy soils stems tends to be more ‘green,’ whereas on the heavier, more structured soil at Bien Nacido the wine tends to produce enough fruit character to balance a whole cluster profile. 2016 at Bien Nacido was on the warm side, so we felt confident we could push our whole cluster percentage.” In regards to yeast selection, says Cronje, “I think that if you want to make true terroir driven wines, wild yeasts from the vineyard or your winery is the way to go.” In further pursuit of “interpretation of vineyard,” Cronje adds, “We have been moving away from new oak little by little and have noticed that we prefer our wines without much of it.”
2015 Red Car Wine Co., Fort Ross-Seaview Estate – This wine delivers almost everything you could hope from a vineyard located at the extreme edge of West Sonoma Coast – average elevation 1,100-ft., less than 4 miles from the Pacific – which is a seemingly effortless sense of finesse, or what Aussies describe as “integrated” (I’ve never figured out why they use that word more often than anyone). The red nose – red cherry, red licorice, red briary berries – is intense, laser sharp, and tinged with sweet spice. On the palate, these sensations are revved up by energetic acidity, watering and titillating the palate, in a sleekly textured body (just 13.1% alcohol) that feels airy light, nearly ethereal, and not in any way weak, bony or undernourished.
Red Car winemaker Tanner Scheer sheds further light by explaining: “2016 is our sixth vintage from this site, and is laden with characteristics we’ve come to know as hallmarks of the region... perennially aromatic, energetic, even electric with bright, fresh, tart wild berry fruit and integrated tannins.” Mind you, I did not share my notes (“energetic,” “integrated,” “wild" or "briary” berry) with Mr. Scheer. Let’s just say the words are an accurate coincidence.
2016 Rusack Vineyards, Santa Catalina Island Vineyard, California - It was probably questionable to plant (in 2007) Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel on the 74-square-mile Santa Catalina Island 26 miles off the Southern California coast, replete with salt crusted sand and schist, daily gale force winds and a stingy Region I/II climate. Nonethess, Rusack’s irresistibly pretty 2016 is indicative of a positive maturation. The nose is floral and laser-like in its red fruit (cherry/pomegranate) profile, and the palate is finished with the winery’s customary sleek, linear, citrus skin touch.
2016 Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, Vi Maria, Sonoma Coast – An inaugural release by the Sangiacomo Family, who have long farmed over 1,600 acres in the Petaluma Gap and Sonoma Coast AVAs, and crafted by James MacPhail (formerly of MacPhail Wines, and now winemaker/co-owner of Tongue Dancer Wines). While making a “power” statement in terms of its pungent, violet tinged black cherry aroma, with suggestions of rose petal and sweet kitchen spice, the pervasive character of this wine is its absolute seamlessness; the zippy flavors coming at you in silken, sumptuous layers.
2017 Sante Arcangeli Family Wines, Split Rail Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains – There is a sun-splashed brightness to a lavish red berry perfume, tinged by woodsy/evergreen notes and fleshed out in a grippy, zesty acid, medium-full body, clinging to the palate like a nimble, rippled rock climber.
SanteArcangeli Family winemaker/owner John Benedetti writes: “If I had to summarize the ‘Corralitos character,’ in general I’d say red fruit, but with a clear maritime and redwood forest character. Subtle ‘briny’ notes could be a good descriptor, but fog is really what I think of when I use that word – the smell of the fog in a redwood forest.” Benedetti also contrasts Corralitos with other parts of Santa Cruz Mountains by its ocean influenced, temperate climate: “Split Rail is kind of on an island of its own, actually above the fog but only 5 miles from the ocean, and it has a more floral character, with a real mineral backbone. You tend to see thinner-skinned grapes here. As a result we’re not growing dark, brooding wines, but rather clean, red berry characteristics— raspberry, cranberry, and just generally a bright fruit profile.”
2016 Thomas Fogarty Winery, La Vida Bella Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains – From another low-lying (about 450-ft. elevation) vineyard in the appellation’s Corralitos/Pleasant Valley area, a Pinot marked by an airy, high toned nose punctuated by a cranberry/strawberry/tart bramble perfume, a whiff of crushed green leaves and flower petals mixed with brine – these distinctive sensations prickling the palate in a lean, zesty yet long and silky textured medium body.
Adds Kandler, “I often find really pure aromatics and fine grained tannin in wines grown on sand, and the 2016 La Vida Bella has that in spades. Structurally the wines from Corralitos are usually a bit lower in acid and tannin that the fruit we work with up in the mountains, and so we look for a touch more extraction to compensate. Corralitos fruit has a good amount of hang time due to the long season, so the tannin is ripe at pretty low maturity.”
“In the winery we mostly try and do as little as possible since wines from Corralitos are pretty transparent, and show any winemaker monkey business pretty easily. Stems can be green and weedy, but as the health of the vineyard has improved we have gone up to about 35% whole cluster on average. Our ferments are all native and we use about 20-25% new oak.
“If you do things right in the vineyard you usually don't have to wait forever for things to come around, and you can pick at relatively low Brix and make beautifully pure and intense wines around 12.5-13.5% alcohol. You can certainly make great Pinot at higher levels of ripeness here, though it isn't easy to maintain that elusive fresh and lively character. Subsequently, I’ll often have a big range of ripeness in the varying lots coming into the winery, depending on the clone and site.”
2014 Thomas George Estates, Baker Ridge, Russian River Valley – The hearts of Pinot noir aficionados undoubtedly skip a beat as they drive down Russian River Valley’s Westside Rd. and see the iconic names (J. Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Gary Farrell, Bacigalupi, etc.) associated with the appellation’s Middle Reach – the warmest of Russian River Valley’s five “neighborhoods,” but also the source of the lush, round, full flavored style that originally catapulted the region’s reputation for the varietal. A blessing as much a curse – at least for regions like Willamette Valley and Santa Barbara, which took another decade or two to polish up their own positive perceptions, at least among consumers (as well as trade and media) who, for the longest time, were more accustomed to the expansive, generous styles of this Middle Reach.
|Wrath winemaker Sabrine Rodems on a typical wind whipped afternoon in San Saba Vineyard|
On the winemaking, Rodems adds: “The San Saba Vineyard represents our first selection of barrels – the 2016 ended up being 30% Swan, 20% 667, 20% Pommard 4, and 30% (FPS/ENTAV-INRA) 828. Because of the dynamics of a barrel selection, this wine tends to be higher in new French oak (50%), and 20% whole cluster.” Rodems keeps clones separate, which undergo different trials and experiments (percentage of whole cluster, early pick, late pick, whole berry, etc), but the goal is fo find "a style that we like that is the best expression of our vineyard.” That said, Rodems says, “We are a fan of about 20% whole cluster for added tannin and structure; and when you get big flavors like we do in our area, the wine can take it.”
|Wrath's San Saba Vineyard estate, falling just east of Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County|
|Pinot noir in Santa Maria Valley's Bien Nacido Vineyard|