April 14, 2014
Discussing vintages is a tricky thing. It’s all too easy to let the generalizations of a handful of critics define something which, by its nature, requires nuance. California’s 2011 vintage is a perfect example. A challenging year in terms of weather- frost, rain, and atypically cool weather that never really warmed up- it has been panned by many of the mainstream wine media, citing what they perceive as wines lacking in concentration, shrill and weedy in their structure and flavor profile. Having tasted hundreds of ‘11s from the state, particularly from the Central Coast, over the past couple of years, I must emphatically disagree; on the contrary, I have found the wines to possess a freshness and structure rarely achievable in California, with plenty of fruit and concentration to boot. I wanted to assess this further with others in a blind format, so I set about organizing a tasting of 2011 California Pinot Noir wines from throughout the state. The event took place this past Saturday, with many winemakers and sommeliers in attendance to join in the analysis (and reveling).
Tasting wines with winemakers blind, especially when they know their own wines are in the mix, makes for a fascinating study in human behavior. The flow of ideas seems to coincide with the flowing of wine; the fear of offending others or speaking freely about a wine’s attributes and flaws doesn’t seem to subside until liquid courage has opened the mind and the mouth. Knowing this, we prefaced the Pinot tasting with several whites from 2011 to loosen the room. Again, the freshness of the vintage spoke loud and clear, from Viognier to Chardonnay, with minerality and acidity unified with fruit.
On to the Pinot tasting, seventeen wines were tasted in total, single blind, with wines brought by the various guests. To give context to the personal biases of myself, as well as those in attendance, palates in general leaned toward wines with an Old World sense of balance: lower alcohol, higher acid, and a desire for spice, earth, and floral character over fruit. As a vintage, 2011, given its quasi-European weather, definitely encouraged and allowed for these characteristics in the wine. That being said, I was surprised at the amount of ripeness present. While many critics have maligned the vintage for its lack of heft, there was certainly not a lack of richness, even in the earlier-picked examples. Perhaps these wines have gained body with age, as upon release there was a tightly coiled character to 2011.
One of the most significant factors with 2011 is that it was one of the first vintages where a major shift in terms of ripeness was present. While this was certainly helped along by the vintage, it was mostly a stylistic choice. Across the board alcohols were lower in a year where, despite the relative cool, it was still possible to achieve 15 or 16% alcohol in Pinot Noir. It brought up a question that hasn’t been heard in regards to Californian wine in quite a long time: when is a wine not ripe enough? Without a doubt there was wine present here that may have been picked too early. In the same way an ultra-ripe wine can have a one-note character, some of these had a simplicity to them that made for a rather dull drinking experience. There were also a few examples where producers utilized high percentages of whole-cluster (stem inclusion), a practice I’m typically quite fond of, that came off as green and overtly vegetal. In general, the wines that really stood out were those that accented the best characteristics of the vintage and captured not only their vineyards, but their own sense of style and artistic interpretation of the year.
There were 3 consensus favorites among the group, all of which are great examples of site-driven Pinot Noir. Jamie Kutch’s Sonoma Coast bottling under his Kutch label was gorgeous, and many thought reminiscent of old-school Santa Maria Valley Pinot. With 25% whole cluster, 30% new oak and just 12.8% alcohol, all of its elements were perfectly in balance, its notes of rhubarb, underbrush, and sea shell making for a compelling, mineral wine. Ryan Deovlet’s eponymous label rendered one of the best examples of Bien Nacido I’ve tasted. Sourced from both old vines and newer plantings within this iconic site, it was classic Bien Nacido in its aromas and flavors of blood orange and black pepper, with a textural depth rarely found outside of Burgundy. Last but not least, everyone loved Luceant’s 2011 Laetitia Vineyard Reserve bottling. Seeing the most whole cluster and the most new oak of the 3 (50% of both), this was overflowing with spice, though again, all the elements were in balance. This showed the power and pedigree of the Laetitia site, with forest floor, clove, and blackberry.
One of the marks of a great wine region is its willingness to periodically assess itself in an honest way. I take a lot of pride in the fact that tastings like these are constantly happening in our area, often with winemakers pitting their wines against examples from the old world or from other local producers. There is a desire to elevate not only their wines, but the region as a whole, a trait that I hope we continue to encourage. What tastings like these continually assert to me is that these are wines that can play comfortably on the world stage, and that are only getting better.
The full lineup of wines tasted in no particular order, all 2011:
– Luceant, Laetitia Vineyard Reserve, Arroyo Grande Valley
– Kosta Browne, Russian River Valley
– Kita, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Presqu’ile, Estate, Santa Maria Valley
– Tantara, Lindsey’s Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Tantara, Corral, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Labyrinth, Sta. Rita Hills
– Siduri, Sta. Rita Hills
– Paul Lato, Wenzlau Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Kutch, Sonoma Coast
– Deovlet, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Tyler, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Hirsch, San Andreas Fault, Estate, Sonoma Coast
– Longoria, Fe Ciega Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– J. Brix, Kick On Ranch, Santa Barbara County
– Qupe, Saywer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley