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Pinot Noir


Interested in knowing more about Pinot Noir? Below is an educative article exploring a bit of California’s Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir history. Source: The New York Times.

The most interesting California pinot noir producers today seem to continually push out toward the fringes. In that, they are following in the footsteps of Josh Jensen, the founder of the Calera Wine Company.

Back in the 1970s, Mr. Jensen, inspired by his passion for Burgundy, sought Burgundian sorts of limestone soils in which to plant pinot noir. His quest eventually pushed him to the Gabilan Mountains in San Benito County, well isolated from other vineyards, pinot noir or not. The great success of his wines over the 40 years since he planted his first vines has vindicated Mr. Jensen’s vision.

A thirst for great pinot noir has driven other growers to similarly remote areas. The most interesting areas for California pinot noir today include the Anderson Valley and point’s north in Mendocino County, the extreme western edges of the Sonoma coast, the craggy hillsides of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Rita Hills in the western limits of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.

Though the most significant growth in the Santa Rita Hills has occurred over the last 10 to 15 years, it was also the site of one of Santa Barbara’s most important early plantings, the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, established in the early 1970s. Back then, most of the pioneering work in Santa Barbara County took place in the Santa Ynez Valley to the east of U.S. Highway 101 and to the north, in the Santa Maria Valley, where Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climate has set a consistent standard for well-balanced California pinot noir for more than 30 years.

In the mid-1990s, more vineyards were planted in the Santa Rita Hills as newcomers came to believe that this seemingly inhospitable windswept, foggy western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley might be just the right place for grapes like pinot noir and chardonnay. The steady growth accelerated after the 2004 movie “Sideways” sang its rhapsody for pinot noir and the Santa Ynez Valley. By that time, the federal authorities had approved “Santa Rita Hills” as an official American Viticulture Area, though it is now rendered on labels as “Sta. Rita Hills” to avoid legal conflict with Chile’s huge Santa Rita winery.

The wines themselves were divisive. The dominant style for California pinot noir in the first decade of the 21st century was opulent and powerful, with sweet, flamboyant fruit flavors and thick, plush textures. Most Santa Rita Hills pinot noirs were squarely in this style, which proved popular with some critics but alienated others. More recently, many producers throughout California have gravitated toward freshness, elegance and finesse, characteristics that historically helped to make pinot noir distinctive.

In an effort to see where Santa Rita Hills pinot noir stood today, the wine panel recently surveyed 20 bottles, largely from the 2012 vintage, though a few ’13s were included. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Marika Vida, wine director for the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, and Tina Vaughn, the proprietor with her husband, Chip Smith, of the Simone on the Upper East Side.

We were all pleased by the diversity of styles that we found. Many of the wines were still in the dense and extravagant camp, but just as many were fresh and vivacious, and quite a few fell somewhere in between.

The primary dividing line for us was the sense of sweetness in the wines. Not the sort of sweetness that comes from residual sugar, but the impression of sweetness that comes from grapes permitted to get ultra-ripe before they are picked. The resulting wines, high in alcohol, glycerol and heavy fruit flavors, seem sweet even if they are dry, often too sweet to go well with food.

But while we did find some overbearing wines like these, the trend seemed to be toward wines that were more balanced, restrained and food worthy.

“It’s a remarkable shift,” Tina said. “The wines that I liked were quite inspiring for me.”

For me, what came through was a continued sense of bold exploration and experimentation. This is still a relatively new region. Beyond the more immediate fluctuations in style, they are still discovering the character of their sites and the best methods for managing the vineyards and making the wines.

We also found that, as many different labels as there are, it’s a smaller community that makes the wines, with many winemakers overlapping several labels.

Our No. 1 bottle, the 2012 Melville Estate pinot noir, was fresh and focused with savory flavors of red fruit. The winemaker at Melville, Greg Brewer, is also one of the proprietors at Brewer-Clifton, whose sweeter, denser, more exotic 2012 Machado Vineyard pinot noir was our No. 8 bottle. The Melville, at $30, was our best value, showing that these are not inexpensive wines. In the tasting, only the easygoing, likable 2012 Lompoc Wine Company pinot noir, our No. 7 bottle, was cheaper at $20.

Lompoc is a worthy joint effort from Rajat Parr, a sommelier turned wine entrepreneur, and Sashi Moorman, a winemaker, to produce affordable pinot noir from the region. This team also accounts for several of the region’s most interesting labels, including two other wines in our tasting: the 2012 Bloom’s Field from Domaine de la Côte, our No. 6 bottle, with juicy, spicy flavors of red fruit and slightly chewy tannins that need some time to soften, and the 2012 Sandhi from the venerable Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, a pale, minerally wine that was one of my favorites, though not so with my colleagues, who rejected it. It’s not in our top 10, but I suggest you decide for yourself.

Our No. 2 bottle was the 2012 La Rinconada Vineyard from Chanin, earthy, well balanced and complex. Gavin Chanin, the proprietor and winemaker, also made our No. 3 wine, the 2012 Lutum, with grapes from the same La Rinconada Vineyard. Not surprisingly, the wines seem somewhat similar, which I mean in a good way.

Bill Price III, Mr. Chanin’s partner in Lutum, is also the proprietor of Three Sticks, whose 2012 The James combined sweet red fruit flavors with a refreshing acidity. It was our No. 10 wine. Other noteworthy bottles include the taut, focused 2012 Wenzlau Estate, No. 4, and the dark yet restrained 2013 Transcendence F Street, No. 5.

Over all, it will be fascinating to see where the wines of the Santa Rita Hills go as the vineyards mature and the producers settle in with a wealth of experience. It’s clear from the diversity of styles that the character of most of the wines is dictated more by human inclination rather than the imperatives of terroir. But one common feature, a powerful acidity, does seem to come through regardless of style. It will be interesting to watch whether other characteristics of the land unfold.