HARTFORD HITS A HOMER

New World Pinot Noir is an interesting topic these days.  The wine world is constantly in a state of change as people’s tastes, economics, and world-wide competition alters the playing field on a constant basis.  We talk with distributors, winery owners, and winemakers on pretty much a daily basis and the subject of Pinot Noir is a recurrent one.  Our message over the last couple of years in particular has not necessarily been what the industry wants to hear.  While it is still a very popular practice among wineries to make multiple single-vineyard Pinot Noir bottlings, usually at rather premium prices, the people have shown a declining interest in the category over the last few years in recent times. 

People still like Pinot Noir.  A lot.  We aren’t predicting some sort of Pinot Armageddon.  But it is clear that, in the part of the world we see, people are considerably less interested in those small production offerings in the $50-100 range.  Oh sure there are a few mailing list types that claim that business is great for that sort of thing.  But our view of the marketplace would seem to suggest otherwise.  If we were to extrapolate our observations and project what market message is, it would seem to be this.  A lush, engaging, fruit-driven Pinot always has a place, but a price under $30 would be greatly appreciated.   Well, whether inadvertently or not, someone has created the perfect Pinot for the times.

It comes from the Jackson Family stable, a company that achieved wine-world domination by giving people what they wanted.  They became a major player from nowhere with a Chardonnay that pleased a wide audience, and built on that success.  Later on, it seemed Jess Jackson was concerned about his ‘legacy’, and much energy was spent creating brands that were intended to become iconic like Cardinale, Verite, and the like.  Hartford Court estate was the part of the family that focused primarily on individual bottlings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Old Vine Zinfandel . 

Hartford achieved great notoriety with these stylish, distinct bottlings, but pricing was a little bit of a hindrance on some of the upper-end offerings.  They always made solid, expressive wines at every level, with the occasional home run.  But the current Pinot program has to be a little intimidating for consumers because there were so many specialty bottlings at $50-80, it had to difficult to make a choice. 

As we did the research for this piece, we noticed Hartford Court was offering 14 different designated bottlings on their website.  That’s fine from a winery perspective we guess.  The team here has always had ‘chops’.   But in the process, whether they wanted to or not, they made one of the best ‘regular’ bottlings in their history in 2017, as if they had once again perfectly read the needs of the market and created this wine to fulfill them, just like those early days.

The 2017 Hartford Court Russian River Valley Pinot Noir does everything right.  Deep, saturated color as Pinot goes, classic Russian River spice in the nose along with dark red leaning to black fruits, seamless palate feel, and sufficient weight and tenderness to please just about anyone, Pinotfile or not.  It checks all of the boxes and, if it errs, it does so on the side of hedonism.

We could go on but Jeb Dunnuck did a pretty good job of cheerleading here, “A crazy good value, the 2017 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley is the appellation release from this team, and it comes from all of the estate vineyards across the Green Valley, Laguna Ridge, and Sebastopol regions. Complex notes of strawberries, cranberries, violets, pine forest, and flowers all flow to a medium-bodied Pinot Noir that has a kiss of salinity and marine notes, ripe tannins, and a great finish. This beautiful wine competes with wines costing 2-3 times the price…95 Points.”

It checks all of the boxes and, for our part, we’re able to get it to you for under $30.  Like the song says, “You can’t always get what you want…”.    Only sometimes, you can.

AN EXCITING ‘REFUGE’ FROM HIGH PINOT NOIR PRICES

We said back in January, 2016, “We expect Chile to continue its breakout ways and surprise us with more ‘wait, that’s from Chile?’ type stuff…”   The progress has been coming slowly, progressively, and unimpeded for a few years now.  But it seemed like we started seeing some really ambitious new things coming along through the latter part of 2015.  It was clear then that the Chileans are going through an ‘awakening’ of historic proportion. They are finding new terroirs and creating new projects, as well as rediscovering and reenergizing some of their longtime producing areas.

Definitely the biggest surprise in Chile has been Pinot Noir.  Who knew? With over 2600 miles of coastline, it makes perfect sense that there would exist some unique spots in coastal valleys with mediating ocean influence in which Pinot would thrive.  Folks think of Chile as Cabernet country, but the real excitement has been producers figuring out what to do with other varietals.  Some of these breakout Chilean Pinot Noirs have been very compelling stories, though we still haven’t run across a more interesting tale than Montsecano.

The cast of characters is small, but interesting.  Julio Donoso, who founded this estate, is a world famous photographer who had a passion to create a wine project from scratch.  This he did by researching a number of different terroirs not far inland from the Chilean coast.  He settled on a rather wild, unspoiled spot located near the town of Las These, in the commune of Casablanca. The narrow, winding road leading to the cellar speaks volumes about his Cordillera de la Costa.  Here, 10 kilometers from the sea, there’s no power, steep slopes and poor granitic soils, an unattractive place to establish ‘conventional’ viticulture, but Montsecano is anything but.

Of course, by nature, photographers see things a little differently.  Hence, against the advice of the locals, the not-particularly-conventional Donoso planted six hectares (about 15 acres) of Pinot Noir on steep, rocky hillsides in the Chilean version of ‘the middle-of-nowhere’.  Who was going to make this Pinot?  Well, Julio took the next ‘logical’ step by enlisting the services of one of Alsace’s greatest talents, Andre Ostertag, who is typically not as busy in France during Chile’s (opposite) growing season.  The idea of working with reds intrigued Ostertag.  Thus, a label was born.

Andre also directs the farming, which is done biodynamically, with plowing by horses.  The cellar, which is unobtrusively wedged into a hillside, has no corners (it’s oval).  The wines are made as naturally as possible in a facility that depends on natural power, and there is no oak involved as everything is done in stainless steel and concrete eggs.  We featured this walk-on-the-wild-side project a couple of years ago and they have only improved in that time

These clearly delineated, expressive Pinot Noirs are considered by some among the best wines in South America.   They are still not a household word around these parts because they don’t make a lot of wine and are brought in by a small, extremely passionate and knowledgeable importer who hasn’t had much time to ‘network’ yet.  But here they are making news again with their Montsecano Pinot Noir Refugio Casablanca Valley 2017.  This is a dark, powerful Pinot that, quite honest, takes a little while to open up, but has a remarkable density and purity of fruit to reward a little patience.   Full bodied, plush, superbly balanced, this has a seamless, sweet core of mulberry are dark cherry fruit with subtle streaks of minerality.   The original bottling we reviewed (2015) was a James Suckling 93, and so is this one.

But the energetic review by wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez kicks it up a notch, “The 2017 Refugio Pinot Noir shows a reductive personality that I love as well as some flinty notes, so decanting in advance could be a good idea… Ostertag’s son, Arthur, is now involved in the winemaking, and as a result, they made a lot of changes in 2017, such as including about 25% full clusters in the fermentation. They use no sulfur and no oak in the production of this wine, and it has some of the character from the full clusters. However, the palate is very relaxed and harmonious and also mineral, with plenty of finesse and perfectly ripe fruit without excess. This is subtle, elegant and simply amazing; it has depth yet is approachable and very drinkable. I love the style of this wine. I believe this is the best vintage they have ever produced. A real bargain. I’d buy this by the case...94 points.”

All of that and under $20? Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.