The Multiple Personalities of California Pinot Noir
By W Peter Hoyne
A few decades ago, I thought most domestic Pinot Noirs were similar in flavor profile. I recognized it as an uncomplicated and appealing red with bright floral overtones. Occasionally, it revealed itself as more of an assertive style with earthy aromas. Pinot Noir could easily be consumed at any time of the year, although typically in the summer months given its carefree attitude. People spoke of regional differences with this grape, but I was less familiar with the multiple personalities of Pinot Noir until I tasted my way through the Pacific coastal regions of California. During a recent virtual tasting of California’s North Coast appellations my beliefs about this grape were more evident than ever.
From the cool fringes of Anderson Valley in the north to the Santa Barbara ranges in the south, Pinot Noir can speak to you in several tongues. Given the sheer number of Pinot Noir growing regions in the North Coast, it might be easiest to leisurely explore three wineries within distinctive California AVA’s: Balletto Winery in Russian River Valley, Hahn Vineyards Santa Lucia Highlands and Balleyana in Edna Valley’s Central Coast.
Russian River Valley is an idyllic growing region along the northwest coastal fringes of Sonoma County. Its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean favors a fog-laden grape growing region with redwood forests set as a backdrop. Wines from Russian River Valley are often referenced to as Burgundian in style, as they are among the most captivating of worldly wines with a spectrum of aromatic baking spices framed with complex minerals and textures. With nearly 16,000 acres of vineyards, Russian River Valley is a treasure trove of wines built on the grit and a spirit of multigenerational families, crafting wines of charisma, elegance and distinction.
John Balletto, at the age of 17 took control of his family’s vegetable farming business after the passing of his father in 1977. John grew this business into one of the largest vegetable farms in Northern California. Given the scarcity of water for farm crops and the urging of farmer Warren Dutton of Dutton Ranch, he transitioned to grape growing in 1995. John focused on producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from all estate fruit using only the top 10% of fruit from his vineyards. The remaining amount is sold off to other Sonoma wineries. Considering the modest acreage of producers in Russian River Valley, Balletto overshadows most with 675 acres of vineyards. Despite this commanding size, he maintains a consistent level of quality. While well-crafted and complex Pinot Noir may be hard to find at an affordable price point in this recognized appellation, Balletto leads the way in all categories. Winemaker Anthony Beckman crafts 8 single vineyard Pinot Noirs from multiple clones in 18 vineyards that lie along the cool coastal boundaries of Sonoma Coast. Beckman believes in making wines that you will like to drink with dinner. He confesses to an unhealthy obsession in making great wine.
2018 Balletto Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: This wine has a delicate ruby color with aromas of fresh baking spices that easily identify it as originating from Russian River Valley. The mouth-feel is soft with Bing Cherries, fresh orchard fruits and brown spice that lead you to a finish of fine grained tannins. It has a juicy texture that is never tiring.
2018 Balletto “Sexton Hills Vineyard” Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: This has always been one of my favorite single vineyards from Balletto. It s among their hierarchy of single vineyard Pinot Noir bottlings. These vineyards are located on steep hillsides within close proximity to the Pacific Ocean. This deeply shaded Pinot Noir has a perfumed bouquet of dark Asian spices. It reveals an exotic core of creamy black raspberries and crushed boysenberry with a hint of incense. There is not a taste bud that is left untouched when this wine is finished. It has a long and luxurious finish that you will remember for minutes. Congrats to winemaker Anthony Beckman.
Salinas Valley, California is a fertile bed of agricultural growth an hour south of city of Monterey. Terraced along the western mountain range is the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) where vineyards abound at 1,200 feet elevation and the cooler grape varietals of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir dominate in rocky schist soils. Morning fog and brisk maritime temperatures invade the hillside as winds funnel south from Monterey Bay through this narrow swath of land in the early afternoon, generating cool gusts of 20-30 mph. The Santa Lucia Highlands stretches 12 miles in length with 6,100 acres of vines encompassing 46 vineyard properties. Unlike the populated winegrowing areas of Northern California this region seems unexplored with only a token number of formal wineries.
One of the first in the modern era to establish residence in the Santa Lucia Highlands was Nicki Hahn. Nicki was a Swiss investment banker with a fascination of wine and the uniqueness of this growing region. NIcki brought early recognition to this area, cofounding and advancing the designation of the Santa Lucia Highlands as an AVA in 1991. With 650 acres planted in SLH, Nicki focused his attention on Pinot and Chardonnay, realizing the potential of cool climate wines in this benchland. The Hahn Winery brand was launched in 1990 and presently there are three tiers within the portfolio: Hahn, Lucienne and Smith and Hook. According to Paul Clifton, director of winemaking, the wind stress on the vines in the Santa Lucia Highlands causes a decrease in photosynthesis resulting in wines with an increased concentration of flavors.
2018 Hahn Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir: This Pinot Noir is 100% estate fruit sourced from the four single vineyard parcels in the Santa Lucia Highlands. This deep ruby rimmed Pinot Noir has a bouquet of black orchard fruits. The concentrated inner core of boysenberry, black raspberry and espresso is weighty and rich yet it still remains elegant. A well crafted wine given its modest $30 price point.
2018 Lucienne “Doctor’s Vineyard” Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir: Vineyards from this Doctor’s Vineyard are grown in rocky soils and exposed to warmer temperatures and windy conditions, attributing to their deeply structured personality. This wine is aged in 40% new oak. The deep brooding color shows how much is packed into this bottling. The silky entry reveals overtones of freshly baked cherry pie, sweet vanilla oak and brown spices that all coalesce to form a creamy background. This wine shows the pedigree of this vineyard site.
Edna Valley is hidden in California’s Central Coast AVA, in between San Francisco and Los Angeles, just south of the youthful city of San Louis Obispo. The Spanish missionaries planted the first vineyards here in the 1800’s. Within close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Edna Valley has an east to west orientation and is one of California’s longest and coolest growing seasons. The extended hang time for the grapes produces concentrated fruit-driven wines of minerality, acidity and balance. The soils are made up of marine sediment from the Pacific Ocean with layers of clay-loam. The sub-soils have an increased amount of iron. Edna Valley is a host to a range of grape including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Rhone varietals.
One of the pioneering founders of the Edna Valley, Jack and Catharine Niven planted their Paragon vineyard within this rural community in 1973. Jack helped establish the Edna Valley AVA. Today, the second and third generation is carrying on the family’s legacy. The concept for Baileyana Winery grew out of Catharine’s desire to name a place where she met her husband Jack. The fruit is now sourced from the Paragon vineyards. Rob Takigawa, director of winemaking, has worked with the fruit from this vineyard for 19 years.
2018 Baileyana “Firepeak” Edna Valley Pinot Noir: This wine comes from the Firepeak blocks on the estate. Aromas of purple flowers reveal a dark ruby wine of red plums, black cherry jam and a hint of cinnamon. There is a whisper of delicate oak in this well-balanced wine.
2018 Baileyana “S-Bar” Edna Valley Pinot Noir: The designation of S-Bar indicates that it is chosen from select parcels that are the best representation from the estate. This wine showcases crushed brambly, black fruit drizzled with a layer of marzipan cream. The generous amount of glycerin and fruit concentration in this wine is nicely balanced with fresh acids reminding you of a Cote de Nuits from Burgundy, France.