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.

 

 

Keeping it real with $20 Pinot Noirs

There have been more than a few statements on these pages about how California wineries (read that Napa in particular) have gotten a little out of touch with real people.  There are lots of folks coming in from outside the industry that are here to be the next Harlan.  We have had a few choice words as well about producers making 5 or six different Pinot Noirs to ‘showcase the vineyards’ with $40-60 (or more) price tags.  All too often the nuances of the various sites are lost in the oak treatment and heavy-handed winemaking.  Other times there are well crafted Pinots done with minimal handling and oxygen exposure that take days to unwind.  Art for art’s sake? Oh yeah, and most people can’t or don’t want to spend that kind of money on a regular basis.

It seems all is not lost though.  Interestingly enough, we have recently been presented with a number of California Pinot Noirs we can sell for under $20 that are not only good, but stylistically distinctive.  While we can’t necessarily call it a ‘movement’ yet, it is comforting to know that there are vintners out there that care about giving the consumer something pleasing and affordable, but also with a little flair.

Each of these Pinot Noirs has its own story, is loaded with personality, and produced in pretty modest quantities.   In each case there are people involved that are industry veterans, and these are all a far cry from the neutered, corporate, lowest-common-denominator Pinots that occupy this price point in the broad market.  Any or all of these may appear in a larger offer down the road, though they don’t fit the profile of the usual whiz-bang, this-score-at-this-price format.  These are still under the radar (heck, we just found them!), but they are soulful, tasty, purposeful Pinots made by folks who are bent on ‘keeping it real’.  Bravo…

Raised on a small family farm in Wisconsin, Francis Joyce came to Monterey in the early 1970s to pursue a career in auto racing.  As the story goes, in the 80s he acquired several ‘pirated’ cuttings from European vineyards and set of shop to grow grapes and continued farming as he pursued a new career in dentistry.  Son and current winemaker Russell grew up in the vineyards and developed a passion for winemaking as he started to take more of the reigns at the property.

These folks are all about ‘transparency’ of the vineyard, though with them it isn’t just lip service.  They harvest a little on the earlier side so that the grapes are at a stage where the ripeness level does not require them to get manipulative in the cellar while showcasing the crisp lines of the cooler parts of Monterey.  The wine has an extended stay on the lees but is done in entire neutral oak.  The resulting wine in this case is a blend that show the lifted fresh fruit and crunchy flavors they feel is the region’s best expression.  Joyce Pinot Noir Submarine Canyon Monterey County 2016is a blend of clones and vineyards and named for the Monterrey Bay Submarine Canyon which is the deepest such ‘trench’ on the West Coast.  High-toned flavors of dried strawberry, cranberry, rhubarb, and a crisp edge of saline minerality are highlights of this ‘cool customer’ of a wine that still has plenty of flesh and packs 14% alcohol.

The Pence Ranch Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2016 is not associated with the current Vice-President.  It is instead something much more interesting to wine drinkers as an exciting new Pinot star from the team of winemaker Sashi Moorman (Sandhi, Evening Land, Domaine de la Cote, Piedrasassi) and grower Blair Pence.  From the warmer east side of the Santa Rita Hills, near John Sebastiano’s vineyard, this wine delivers a refined, spicy blast of darker cherry fruit and deliciousness that reminds us of the Bonaccorsi Pinot.  In other words, it aims to please with a plush texture, sweet-but-lifted flavors and tender edges even at this young age.  ‘Terroir’ is all well and good, but it helps to have a winemaker that takes the time to understand the vineyard in context rather than ‘one-recipe-fits-all’. Pretty engaging stuff.

Fortunately long time industry veteran Marcel van Stuijvenberg chose not to use his own name on the label, and he got the wine part figured as well.  This wine is something of an enlightened throwback. The 45 year-old vines in the McIntyre vineyard are the oldest in the region and were planted with Pommard and Swan clones rather than some of the new, hipper ‘numbered’ clones (114, 115, 667, 777, etc.) that are widely popular today.  Perhaps it is the old vines, maybe it’s those old-time clones (or maybe a combination of the two!) that give this wine a fab ‘Old-World’ feel with layered depth but with New World punch to the fruit behind it. Complex and surprisingly refined and subtle, with flavors that lean on the darker red side of the spectrum but with a Pinot purity that shines and none of the Syrah-esque aspects that many SLH Pinots bear, the White Hart Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2015 is a terrific value.

 

 

 

 

SWAN PINOT: HOME RUN FOR THE ‘OLD GUARD’

JOSEPH SWAN VINEYARDS PINOT NOIR TRENTON ESTATE VINEYARD 2013

 Historically, this is one of those labels where we never really ‘got it’.  The reputation of Joseph Swan has been exalted for pretty much our entire time in the wine business.  But perhaps because history doesn’t really matter to us when it comes to purchasing, only what’s in the glass, we have not been big fans.  A lot of the wines were a bit too, um, ‘exotic’.  Maybe we had the misfortune to have them all on ‘root days’ (arguably before anyone knew what that was).  But we never understood why the ‘old timers’ spoke of the label in such glowing terms, and presumably never tasted the wines that generated such a buzz back in the day.

It is with that history, and with full knowledge of the fact that a number of people will simply tune out as we are pitching a $70 Pinot with a 91 point score, we say that the Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Vineyard 2013 is bloody amazing.   We kept tasting this and looking at each other with the expression, ‘is this really that good?’.  The answer is, “heck yeah!”  It is one of the best Pinots we have tasted from anywhere this year, and we have been tasting 2015 Burgundies among other things.

Apparently the 40th vintage of this wine, it shows deft winemaking in its unfettered purity, haunting, subtle spice and anise tones to the deep dark red and blue fruits, refined tannins and just the right touch of acidity to make the wine pop on the palate.  If you are looking for some sweet, gooey ‘jamball’, this is not that.  It is instead a very focused, refined and harmonious expression of Russian River Pinot that can play alongside anything.

It isn’t ‘big’ as that is defined these days.  But it is deep and expressive, simply a gorgeous effort that made us reconsider our position on this producer.  We must, in all fairness, give some of the credit to 2013, one of the most impressive vintages we have ever had from California.  It was also one that was particularly kind to Pinot, giving the wines an unusual depth and power while maintaining balance.

Lisa Perotti-Brown’s description, while accurate and complimentary enough, sounds a little clinical, “The 2013 Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Vineyard presents a pale to medium ruby color and tar and asphalt-led nose, opening out to a core of raspberry preserves, red currant jelly and licorice, plus a waft of underbrush. Full-bodied, rich and powerful in the mouth, it gives mouth-filling berry preserves and anise flavors with a chewy backbone and a long, fruity finish.”

The score and the rhetoric, while pretty good for her, simply doesn’t convey our level of enthusiasm.  Maybe she had it on a ‘root day’.  In any case, this is a serious, layered bottle of Pinot that deserves equally serious attention.  There are lots of other wines that would be easier sells, but this one is very special, and maybe something of a game-changer for us….$69.99