First, what the heck is a cabaletta? Relying on that ever-reliable data source Wikipedia, a cabaletta is a two-part musical form particularly favored for arias in 19th century Italy. So how does it relate to Pinot Noir? Trust me, we will get there. My wife and I had the pleasure of attending the Wine Spectator Grand Tour tasting event in Las Vegas recently. We also attended a couple of related events prior to the actual tasting festivities. One was a wine dinner at Sage Restaurant in the Aria Hotel aptly titled “Elegance and Precision in Wine and Food” where food was paired with great wines from Hall Wines (including Pinot Noir from their Walt brand), Siduri Wines, Flaunt and Clarice Wine Company.
Presenting the wines were the winemakers from these labels, including Megan Gunderson Paredes from Hall and Walt, as well as Adam Lee and Dianna Lee from Siduri, Flaunt and Clarice. The food and wines were outstanding but that is not what I am writing about today. The next afternoon Wine Spectator Napa Bureau Chief Kim Marcus hosted an informative session entitled Pinot Noir Cabaletta at the Jean Georges Steakhouse in the Aria Hotel. It only took me around 190 words to get to this point! In the context of this seminar, we were able to tour 4 key Pinot Noir growing areas of California and experience wines made by each of the wine makers mentioned above. The four key areas we tasted wines from included the Anderson Valley, Sonoma, Santa Lucia Highlands, and Santa Barbara/Sta. Rita Hills. In all we tasted 10 wines that were masterful expressions of the distinct terroir of each of these areas. For each area, we were able to experience a two-part artful concert of winemaking techniques-perhaps a liquid form of a cabaletta… and held at the “Aria”… See what I did there?!
First up was the Anderson Valley. The Anderson Valley is located in Mendocino County north of Napa and Sonoma Counties. Temperatures in this area fluctuate dramatically with cool fog overlapping the valley in the morning followed by bright sunshine and hot afternoons. In fact, it experiences one of the largest diurnal temperature swings in wine growing areas in California. The first wine presented was the 2017 Walt Blue Jay Pinot Noir. Grapes for this wine come from The Corners vineyard, which is located on a hillside planted at an elevation between 500 to 800 feet, which is southern facing with clay and loamy soils. It had beautiful, deep color and the loamy nature of the soil was evident in the nose, which showed a little bit of forest floor as well. Megan, the winemaker, explained a technique she uses for this wine in which she de-stems the grapes prior to fermentation, rinses the stems and then “roasts” them before putting them back into the fermentation. She explained this technique helps soften the tannins. We really enjoyed this wine. Next up was the 2017 Siduri Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. The grapes for this wine come from several sources both on the valley floor as well as hillside vineyards. The combination of both sources lends a complexity to this wine that is very enjoyable. It was very fruit forward with red and blue fruit and a real interesting touch of spice on the finish. A great comparison to the Blue Jay.
We next sampled three wines from Sonoma. First we tasted the 2016 Bob’s Ranch Pinot Noir from Walt. Grapes for this wine come from the Bob’s Ranch vineyard, which is located directly in the path of the Petaluma wind gap in the Sonoma Coast AVA. This vineyard is strongly influenced by the cooling effect of winds that usually come off the Pacific Ocean making for a very cool climate to grow grapes. The wine would be best categorized as a Cabernet lover’s Pinot. It is dark and brooding in your glass. The wine was very bold with tastes of dark fruit, earthiness and spice. The finish was robust and long. The 2016 vintage was a nearly perfect vintage in Megan’s opinion. An excellent contrast to Anderson valley wines. Next up was the 2016 La Brisa Pinot Noir also from Walt. Grapes for this wine come from 3 vineyards: Bob’s Ranch, Gaps Crown and Calesa. As such, there is some very nice location variation as well as clonal variation in this wine. Ruby red with wonderful aromatics of flowers and dark fruit. The wine was very spicy with deep black fruit along with some red fruit and showed a bit of cola flavor as well. We next tasted Siduri’s 2016 Barbieri Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. Adam Lee spoke about the vineyard, remembering when it was growing old vine, head trained Zinfandel grapes. In 2006, the owners replanted the vineyard to Pinot Noir utilizing 3 primary clones (115, 777 & 828). This wine was fantastic with an earthy undertone that spoke of the terroir along with blue and red fruit as well as spice. My wife said it reminded her in some ways of a zinfandel. Adam spoke about how important clonal selection is based on where the grapes are going to be planted. This became an interesting connection between each of the areas we discussed during the seminar.
The discussion moved on to the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. Once again, this area experiences tremendous climate variation between vineyards that are not very far apart. Overlooking the nation’s vegetable garden, the Salinas Valley, this area is greatly influenced by Monterey Bay, which creates a cooling effect with both wind and fog. The first wine we tasted was Siduri’s 2017 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir. This was one of my favorite wines we sampled. It was very floral on the nose and came across as a very feminine and delicate wine. Medium bodied with red fruit, minerality and great acidity. The grapes for this wine were Clone 777 and the Pisoni Pomard Clone. We next tasted the 2017 Clarice Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir. Clarice is a new label from Adam Lee and this wine rocked in my opinion! Garys’ Vineyard is recognized as one of the most outstanding vineyards in the world for Pinot Noir. It is only 2 miles from Rosella’s Vineyard but the difference in the wines is remarkable. Adam indicated that unlike most vineyards, he chose to pick all the grapes at the same time for this vintage. As a result there was some variation in the overall ripeness of the grapes, which gave the wine some interesting characteristics. This wine was much more masculine with excellent notes of cherry and red plums.
Finally, the discussion moved on to Santa Barbara County. The most unique feature of this area is the Santa Rita Hills where the only east/west running valley on the west coast is located. This results in a very windy environment with cooling winds blowing in from the Pacific Ocean almost all of the time. The grape vines in this area typically produce small clusters with small berries that have fewer seeds than typical grapes. I personally find the wines from this area to be some of my favorites. We first tasted Siduri’s 2017 Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. This wine is a blend of grapes from both the Santa Maria Valley AVA and the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The wine was light colored in the glass but showed excellent dark red fruit and spice. The tannins were a little grippy and the acidity was mouthwatering. Next up we tasted Walt’s 2017 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir. Again, this wine is a blend of grapes from a number of vineyards (Fiddlesticks, Clos Pepe, Radian, and Bentrock). It showed classic red fruit characteristics, bright acidity and some minerality. I really enjoyed this wine. The final wine tasted was Walt’s 2017 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir. Lisa and I actually visited Clos Pepe several years ago and fell in love with the vineyard as well as the area. The grapes for this wine are Clone 115 and 777 as well as the Pomard Clone. This wine had a very nice nose with floral hints, was very dark colored and had bold tastes of blue fruit and spice with excellent tannins and acidity.
Lisa and I had a wonderful time at this seminar. I discerned several keys to making great wines from areas such as these four areas. Both winemakers emphasized these points at various times:
-Clonal evolution (clones actually change over time)
-Innovative wine making techniques
These points are not in any particular order. I strongly recommend tasting some or all of these wines if given the chance. Both Walt and Siduri make wines with grapes from Oregon to Santa Barbara. In many cases they source grapes from the same vineyards which makes for an excellent chance to see how winemakers are able to put their talents to work to express wines that can be very different, even if the grapes are from the same or nearby vineyard.