Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Exploring California Pinot Noir

This year, 2013, one of my resolutions was to explore more California Pinot Noir. That's not to say I am unfamiliar with pinot from California, I was afforded many tastes during the nine years I worked in the wine industry there. Most of the "cult" wines graced my glass at one point or another, and I even was on the mailing list for Radio Coteau and Sea Smoke over a period of several years.

As is wont to happen though, my tastes changed (I prefer "evolved"). Right around 2008/2009 I started seeking more pinot noir from Burgundy and Oregon. The typical reasons manifest in my story too; becoming tired with over-ripe and overly alcoholic wines, seeking something new, craving more acidity and red fruit orientation.

Now, with the successive cooler vintages in California, I am anxious to see what is coming from my former home. I hear breathless praise of higher-acid wines with structure and balance coming out of the usual suspects, and the wine forums are buzzing with ever present comparisons to Burgundy and even Oregon. The years 2009, 2010, and 2011 have all gotten praise from various quarters, and after enough of that hype, I decided I wanted to see for myself what was going on. As a blogger, I am enjoying tasting through all these wines, good and bad, and trying to present them to you, reader. Of note to any PR or marketing folks who read this blog, I am continuing to accept California Pinot Noir even as I scale back acceptance of other wines.

Here are some recently tasted examples of pinot noir from California:

2009 La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir: Big, brawny nose of tar, smoke, plum/blackberry, and black tea. Some alcoholic heat too. On the palate, very ripe with blackberries and cherries galore, anise, dark chocolate, and sweet plum flesh. Some pepper tickles the edges of the palate, thankfully reducing the abundance of fruit present. The finish is unfortunately a hot mess, literally. Alcoholic heat that stings as it goes down. Unfortunate, because without that, this is a pinot I can see a lot of people really enjoying. Pairs best with big flavors, like steak! $40 SRP. 15.5% abv.

2009 Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: Muted nose with hints of forest floor, black cherry, and anise notes as a secondary aroma. Some wet-barrel smell came out with swirling. On the palate it's very light-bodied and somewhat bland, the strongest note is the anise. Subtle flavors of dried red currant, cherry, and pleasing minerality do show up eventually though. Nice acidity, keeping the body light and fresh. An easy drinking pinot noir but lacking in character. $32 SRP. 14.2% abv.

2009 Sojourn Pinot Noir Gap's Crown Vineyard Sonoma Coast: Nice red fruit on the nose, with raspberry, strawberry, and spices all balancing each other well. A hint of wood but not bad, as it enhanced the bouquet. There's a juiciness to the bouquet that I found very appealing, as if this wine is bursting with life. On the palate it's definitely young and still sorting itself out. More cherries and strawberries come out, some firm tannin, but a lack of acidity was somewhat disappointing to me. I was hoping for a more textural pinot, this one is smooth and soft, very easy to drink, but a little on the simple side. Still, I have a few more bottles so I'll check in with this again at a later date. $48 SRP.

2009 Sojourn Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: Opens with an intense, raspberry-preserve aroma that carries through to the palate. Hints of pepper try in vain to make themselves known but ultimately get washed out by the raspberry jam. The purity of fruit was itself exceptional, but that was pretty much the only thing going on in this wine. Acidity tarted up the back end but it felt tacked-on, and wasn't at all integrated. No subtlety or nuance here, just pure, hedonistic fruit. $42 SRP.

2010 Siduri Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills: Shows some reduction on the nose but that blows off, revealing aromas of strawberry licorice, pepper, cherries, and spice. Very smooth on the palate with a fun, interesting savory note to temper the sweet red fruit. Flavors of cherry pie, baking spices, and bright red fruit. The finish is clean and tapers off gently. Overall this is a fun, delicious pinot noir from an excellent producer. $25 srp.

2011 Siduri Pinot Noir Sonoma County: Similarly showing a bit of reduction, which in this case blew off faster than in the Sta. Rita Hills bottling. Beyond that, plenty of deliciously tart red fruit, cherry Jolly Rancher, and a bit of wood. On the palate I found this somewhat plain but not lacking for sheer "yum" factor. Lots of flavors of ripe red fruit - think strawberry and raspberry - which themselves have great acidity. Beyond that though, there isn't much going on. $28 srp.

2011 Siduri Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: Very funky at first, showing cola and stem aromas mixed with black cherry and spices. Plenty of ripe fruit starts things on the palate but those flavors are quickly balanced out by some complex wood and spice notes, and an earthy black peppercorn flavor that I was thoroughly enjoying. Lots of funk shows on the palate too but not in a bad way, it fits into the complex nature of this wine. Delicious stuff for under $25 srp.

2011 Hahn Winery Nicky Hahn Pinot Noir California: Pours a beautifully vibrant ruby color in the glass, a testament to its youth. The nose is full of ripe, jammy cherry preserves, baking spice, some woodsy aromas, and a touch of earth. Cherry jam dominates the palate, providing a soft, rich mouthfeel. The baking spices come out to play a little bit on the finish, which in itself is nice if a bit short. 100% pinot noir, according to the data sheet I have. 14.5% abv. $14 retail.

2010 Garnet Vineyards Pinot Noir Carneros: Loads of raspberry and strawberry aromas followed by a bit of white pepper spices. I think there's a bit of funk here too, some nail-polish remover came out as the wine warmed up. I think this pinot is very varietally correct on the palate, with light red fruit, peppery spice, hints of earthy funk, and lots of acidity. The finish is medium length, tapering off nicely, however, the bottle was open about five hours before the finish got to be any reasonable length. It might need a bit of age or an hour in a decanter before it shows all its facets. 13.5% abv. $19 retail.

2009 High Flyer Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands: Immediately I noticed the alcohol on this wine, which seems to fight with intense red fruit aromas and spice. There's a bit of volatile acidity but to me it adds an interetsing facet. Plenty of spicy red cherry and raspberry on the palate, along with a healthy dose of oak. I liked the finish here, after about four hours, because it was so smooth and gentle. Overall, a solid bottle of pinot noir from a producer I've never tasted. $36 srp.

The Siduri wines were the most complete out of any on this list, which just goes to prove that price doesn't always matter. I will contend though that it does matter to some extent whenever you deal with a grape as finicky as pinot noir. Still, the rest of the wines showed themselves quite well at their price points. Admittedly I struggled a little bit with the Sojourn wines, given their critical acclaim, but I suspect I need to get used to that style and perhaps better understand the regions which they come from.

If the above list is any indication, 2013 will be a fun year for me as I continue to explore California Pinot Noir. Keep checking back through the months as I will keep posting whenever I get a nice sample size of wines to taste.

Many of these wines were samples for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hawk and Horse Vineyards, a Lake County Producer

Every so often I'm sent samples that truly pique my curiosity  No grocery-store red blends or cheap California plonk, but real, small production wines from tiny producers in up and coming regions. Hawk and Horse Vineyards is one of those, hailing from the Red Hills AVA of Lake County. Currently there are 18 acres under vine with the majority being cabernet sauvignon planted in 2001. The property is situated on the rolling slopes of Lake County, at elevations ranging from 1,800 to 2,200 feet.

Hawk and Horse Vineyards has been Demeter Certified since 2008 and California Certified Organic (CCOF) since 2004. Both new and used French Oak barrels are used, and production hovers around 1,150 cases of cabernet sauvignon.

Confession: I was sent the 2007 Cabernet and 2006 Latigo a long time ago, but they became lost in the samples shuffle and move to Oregon. I dug them out for our July 4th celebrations (last year), figuring that the cabernet would pair well with Becky's ribs and the dessert wine would be a pleasing accompaniment to the fireworks. The cabernet did pair quite well with Becky's ribs, by the way.

Some months later, I was sent the 2008 Cabernet to taste, and decided to post up a review of all three wines at once, in order to better offer a view of this producer.

2007 Hawk and Horse Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hills: Smelling this makes me picture dry, hilly vineyards full of green-leafed vines stretching to the horizon. The day is cool but carries with it the scent of the land. Moutain herbs, black fruit, and soil all show themselves almost reluctantly on the bouquet. Unfortunately there's a touch of ethyl acetate at play too, manifesting as nail-polish. Once past that, I found this to be wound up very tightly on the palate. The firm, integrated tannin holds within it a beautiful savory blackberry and spice flavor. Roasted coffee mixes with cassis and dried rosemary in the background, bowing before the impressive tannic strength. I think this cabernet has 5-10 years before the tannin settles down. If you choose to drink now, a healthy session in a decanter will loosen the strings. SRP: $65. 14.1% abv.

2006 Hawk and Horse Latigo: This is the dessert wine - made with cabernet sauvignon grapes - that Hawk and Horse produces. According to the label, these are biodynamically farmed organic grapes. I'm not sure what that means though. The Latigo smells like oxidized cabernet sauvignon. Maybe a comparison would be Madeira from an old bottle you've had open for a few months. Don't let that turn you off though, because taken in context, this is an interesting wine. Roasted nuts, dried red cherry, and dark chocolate make up the expressive bouquet. I liked the intense mix of cherry, spices, and chocolate that compose the flavor palette. It's at once sweet yet balanced, and doesn't show any of the 16% alcohol. If you can get past the nose, you'll be doing just fine, and I suggest pairing this with an after-dinner cheese course. $45 srp (375ml).

2008 Hawk and Horse Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hills: Another big, tannic beast of a cabernet sauvignon. That's not a bad thing though, as this wine has a lot to offer if you give it time to settle. Plenty of dark fruit, dusty soil, baking chocolate, and oak make up the complex bouquet. The tannin is firm and drying across the palate, delivering a wave of bittersweet chocolate, dried herb, and ripe black fruit flavors. The most glaring fault was how hollow this wine felt on the mid-palate, but luckily that fills in when you have it with food. If you must drink now, several hours in a decanter will work wonders, as will a thick, medium rare cut of steak. $65 srp. 14.1% abv.

Hawk & Horse Vineyards produce a cabernet that I think you should try, if solely to understand what kind of cabernet is possible outside of Napa Valley. Then again, trying a wine solely for that reason strikes me as missing the point, especially the point of wines like this. They're wines of the land, baring their souls as rugged, strong wines from a distinctly rugged place.

The impressive structure and sheer age-worthiness of these wines excite me. They're a bit rustic around the edges to be sure, and I think could benefit from maybe a bit more intervention in the wine-making process, but there is also a sense of beauty to each wine. Both the 2007 and 2008 beg for more time in bottle, and if you grant them such time, you'll be rewarded.

Even the Latigo, that strange beast of a dessert wine, offers a peek into the Hawkins' philosophy of life and vitality. I can't help but be impressed with this.

These wines were samples for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why So Quiet?

This blog has been quiet lately, with the blame falling squarely at my feet. After months of relative inactivity, punctuated by the occasional post, I decided it is time to talk a little bit about what has been keeping me busy as well as sapping my energy to post blog entries on a more regular basis.

This October, I started making wine for the first time. This is the real thing, and will be released as a commercially sale-able product when ready. I had initially picked roussanne and mourvedre to work with, but ended up with neither this year. The mourvedre was already allocated to people higher on the grower's customer list than I (typical and completely fair in this industry). The roussanne I so lusted after ended up being lost to Mother Nature, as the relentless summer sun caused the vineyard to lose around half its yield. What remained went to prior customers.

I ended up with petite verdot and tempranillo, two grapes I am thrilled to be working with. Total intake for 2012 was .82 tons of petite verdot and 1.1 tons of tempranillo from the Horse Heaven Hills AVA south of Prosser, Washington. The clusters on each were absolutely beautiful, with minimal raisining, no rot, and hardly any bugs!

Fortunately for me, I had a lot of assistance from the Kramers, especially Kim, in walking me through the process of selecting yeasts, must treatments (or lack thereof), barrels, and much more. The Kramers also helped with the nitty-gritty, punching down and pumping over the fermenting bins when I was away at my day job.

The day job. I began to look for another job in mid-July, when I realized I was not a good fit for Cathedral Ridge. To succeed in the wine business you must be passionate about the wines you are selling, and I simply couldn't find that passion. In September, I went to work for a distributor here in Oregon, working the Portland Metro area, selling Pacific Northwest wine and craft beers. The job is great in many ways, offering good compensation and benefits, while challenging me to see how far I truly want to go in sales. Each month I am amazed with what I've learned about selling for a distributor, and I'm taking away many things both good and bad from my experiences.

The last week of September saw me in Bordeaux with a group of wine bloggers including Jameson Fink and Joe Roberts. Balzac Communications and Planet Bordeaux were generous enough to include me on this trip, for whatever reason. I confess that despite the incredible experiences I had, I struggle to write about my time there. Whenever I begin to write about Bordeaux, I get frustrated that my writing skills aren't enough to suck you in, dear reader. You will see more Bordeaux posts from me in the future though.

2012 ended with a flurry of activity, and I proudly proclaim that in the last six to eight weeks of the year, I drank more Champagne than I ever have before. A rough guesstimate puts it at a case and a half. As you can tell, I am quite proud of this factoid.

What does 2013 promise then? The search for new grape sources. I haven't given up on my dream of working with grenache, and I may have a source for some of the finest domestic cabernet franc grapes, period. White wines also call to me, to that end I am actively seeking white Rhone varieties and sauvignon blanc. I hope that my Tempranillo will be released this fall, and that the petite verdot will be released in spring of 2014. Hope is just that, because as we know, the wines themselves will decide when they're ready to be released.

2013 also will bring some changes to this blog, when I move away from reviewing wine and more towards just talking about cool wines I drink. To my PR/Media friends, I'll still accept samples for review, but not nearly as many as before. I'm tired of all the crappy wines and Becky says they take up too much space in our house. She is right.

My personal journey with wine will see me buying more aged Bordeaux and Burgundies as well as continuing to explore Champagne, Alsace, and the Rhone Valley. Of perhaps some interest to my readers, I'm also embarking on a quest to find California Pinot Noir that my palate enjoys. After nearly a decade in California wine sales, I tasted most of the big name, "cult" pinot noirs, and can't stand them. The search is on for cooler climate, higher-acid, restrained examples of what the state can do. Of course, this will limit my search to more recent vintages, but that's ok.

Here now I ask you, did you make any wine resolutions this year? Did you have any wine epiphanies last year?

A toast to 2013, thank you for reading along!

Beau Carufel