Masterclass: Wines of Santa Barbara County

Look at a map of California’s coastline and you’ll notice that its north-south direction switches to an east-west orientation at Santa Barbara. Thanks to this marked topographic shift (the longest such east-west orientation from the Aleutian Islands to Tierra Del Fuego), mountain ranges traverse east-west and valleys open directly to the Pacific Ocean, receiving the full force of its maritime wind and fog. The result is one of the coolest and driest winegrowing regions in California, with one of the longest growing seasons. No fall rains mean no mildew, making possible long hang times. All these factors suit the region perfectly to growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

As I learned at a recent Guild of Sommeliers masterclass focusing on 15 wines from top producers in Santa Barbara County taught by master sommeliers Matt Stamp and Brian McClintic (of Santa Barbara’s Les Marchands wine bar), of the 20,000 acres in Santa Barbara County devoted to growing wine grapes, some 4,800 are planted to Pinot Noir, 6,800 to Chardonnay, and 1,400 to Syrah. The county’s many different microclimates enable the growing of several different grape varietals, but Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah represent the county’s focus. 

The five federally recognized AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) within Santa Barbara County are Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. (There’s a petition pending for a sixth AVA, Los Alamos Valley.) These are young wine regions: Santa Maria Valley, the northernmost appellation in Santa Barbara County and, since the 1980s, home to Au Bon Climat and Qupé, was granted AVA status just 34 years ago in 1981. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two varietals grown in its foggy, windswept, and cool climate. Santa Ynez Valley, a climatically diverse and extensive east-west AVA established in 1983, has very cool coastal temperatures that warm as one moves inland. Pinot Noir does well in the cool western part of the valley, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot thrive in the warmer east. Located farthest west within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA is the AVA of Sta. Rita Hills (granted AVA status in 2001). Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grow exceptionally well in its extremely cool, ocean-influenced climate. Ballard Canyon is the youngest AVA, having received its AVA status in October 2013. Syrah and other Rhône varietals such as Grenache and Viognier grow well in its moderate-to-warm climate. The easternmost AVA, established in 2009, is Happy Canyon. Situated above the fog line and with less coastal influence, the climate is too warm for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc grow very well here.

The Wines

We tasted through two white flights and two red. Though our focus was Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, we tasted a few other varieties as well, beginning with the first flight. I’ve included very brief tasting impressions of the wines.

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Flight One:

Tatomer “Kick-On Ranch” Riesling 2012 (Santa Barbara County)

Lieu-Dit Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Grassini Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Happy Canyon AVA)

Tatomer’s flagship 100% Riesling was classically dry, with very little botrytis influence but with a bitterness that Matt said was a result of skin contact. Of the two Sauvignon Blancs, Lieu-Dit’s had pronounced fruity aromatics of passionfruit, grapefruit, and currant, while Grassini’s aromatics were of sweeter citrus fruits; peachy, creamy.

Flight Two:

Liquid Farm “Golden Slope” Chardonnay 2012 (Sta.  Rita Hills AVA)

Sandhi Chardonnay 2012 (Sta. Rita Hills AVA)

Chanin “Los Alamos Vineyard” Chardonnay 2013 (Santa Barbara County)

Tyler “Bien Nacido” Chardonnay 2013 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Of these four wines, the Sandhi had the most new oak (20%), but it was unnoticeable! Grapes were whole-bunch pressed, giving a much cleaner, less phenolic juice. This is a beautiful wine! Liquid Farm’s “Golden Slope” went through 100% malolactic fermentation and was round, creamy, and leesy. The Chanin was extremely aromatic and floral; broad, big. In contrast, the Tyler was leaner in style, showing a strong sulfite character.

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Flight Three:

Martian Ranch Gamay 2013 (Santa Barbara County)

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir “La Bauge Au Dessus” 2012 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Pence Ranch—Mt. Eden Clone” 2013 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir “Machado” 2012 (Sta. Rita Hills AVA)

Martian Ranch’s Gamay was fresh and clean, with good acidity and “lots of carbonic pop!” in Matt’s opinion. The Whitcraft and Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs were both pressed 100% whole cluster and both had no new oak. Whitcraft’s ABV was a low 12.2; good acidity; tart and lean. Brian told us that Greg Brewer wanted his Machado Pinot Noir to taste “like a red bouncing ball” and, in fact, the wine had a lift and a bounce; fruit forward (riper than Whitcraft); terrific balance of ripeness and restraint. Au Bon Climat’s Pinot was aged in 50% new French oak (yet the wine was balanced); zesty, forward red fruit; spicy; unfiltered.

Flight Four:

Ojai Syrah “Solomon Hills” 2011 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Stolpman Syrah 2012 (Ballard Canyon AVA)

Qupé Syrah “Bien Nacido” 1999 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Clendenen Family Nebbiolo Riserva 2004 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Three delicious Syrahs! The Qupé is from the oldest planting in Santa Maria (“X” block in the Bien Nacido vineyard), planted in 1981; the vines look like trees. The Ojai was densely concentrated, zesty, spicy, fresh, and invigorating, while the Stolpman was a bit riper and rich and belied its 14.1 ABV. The Clendenen Family Nebbiolo Riserva represents the experimentation going on right now in Santa Barbara County winemaking. At 10 years old, and having spent 5 years in barrel, this wine is still young! Floral (roses), tar, earthinesss, and nice acidity. In Matt’s opinion, this wine is like Barolo Riserva and belongs in the conversation of Piedmont Nebbiolo. I agree!

The Guild of Sommeliers

GS_logoAn international membership organization of sommeliers, wine industry professionals, and wine enthusiasts, the Guild of Sommeliers provides members with rich opportunities for learning and networking. Members receive access to in-depth masterclasses (this is instruction at a very high level) such as the one I’ve written about here, taught by master sommeliers in cities around the country, articles, podcasts, discussion forums, online study guides, maps of the world’s wine regions, and job postings. Please support this wonderful organization by becoming a member! Visit guildsomm.com for more information.

World of Pinot Noir

image001Pinot Noir lovers, take note! Four of the producers whose wines we tasted in this masterclass—Sandhi, Tyler Winery, Au Bon Climat, and Brewer-Clifton—are participating in World of Pinot Noir, a two-day celebration of our beloved grape, and will be pouring their wines on March 7 at the Saturday Pinot Noir by the Sea Tasting at Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara. As of this posting, some tickets remain for this event, which showcases more than 120 producers. In addition, World of Pinot Noir features a Friday Pinot Noir by the Sea Tasting, at which approximately 100 winemakers (a different roster from the Saturday event) will pour their wines. Food pairing seminars pair Pinot Noir with chanterelles from the Santa Rita Hills and local uni from the Pacific Ocean. Five-course gourmet dinners highlight local cuisine and the wines of attending winemakers. On Saturday night Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat—Pinot Noir and Santa Maria Valley pioneer—will be honored at a special Rockstars of Pinot Noir dinner. Visit wopn.com for details and tickets.

Copyright © 2015 by Carol Hartland

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World of Pinot Noir

wopn-logo-2-150x150Calling all Pinot Noir lovers to California’s beautiful Central Coast for a weekend extravaganza of celebration, education, and tasting of our beloved grape! Join upward of 200 top Pinot Noir producers from around the world on March 6 and 7 for the fifteenth World of Pinot Noir festival at the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara. The event includes extensive walkaround tastings, in-depth seminars, gourmet lunches, and five-course dinners featuring the wines of attending winemakers.

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Photo credit: World of Pinot Noir

Here are just some of the event highlights:

Friday, March 6

  • “Latitudes and Longitudes: The World of Pinot Noir,” a seminar hosted by renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson with winemaker panelists from Austria, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand, Canada, and featured Burgundy producer Alexandrine Roy of Domaine Marc Roy. A three-course gourmet lunch follows, created especially to pair with the wines.
  • Friday Focus Tasting featuring Pinot Noir from some 100 producers with whom you can chat while also savoring local appetizers and artisanal cheeses.
  • Choose from among three different five-course dinner options, all featuring Pinot Noir from attending winemakers.
  • Or opt for an intimate six-course dinner with Alexandrine Roy featuring wines from her own cellar.

Saturday, March 7

  • Two seminars focused on Burgundy: one on the Côte Chalonnaise and the other on Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée. A Burgundy-inspired three-course lunch follows, accompanied by . . . more Burgundy!
  • “Food Frenzy” pairing seminar featuring regional Pinots paired with regional mushrooms (chanterelles from the Santa Rita Hills, morels from upstate New York, and maybe even truffles from Oregon!) and with local uni (spiky sea urchins from the Pacific Ocean), whose taste and texture pair deliciously with Pinot Noir.
  • Grand Tasting with more than 120 Pinot producers from around the world pouring their wines, Pinot-inspired appetizers, and local cheeses
  • Three different gourmet dinners from which to choose, including one honoring Santa Barbara County Pinot pioneer Jim Clendenen and another hosted by master sommelier Fred Dame, featuring rare and select Burgundies.

In addition, there are silent auctions and film screenings on both days.

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Bacara Resort & Spa. Photo credit: World of Pinot Noir

I’m very excited to see some of my favorite winemakers participating in World of Pinot Noir: Alma Rosa Winery, Brewer-Clifton, Laetitia Vineyard & Winery, Landmark Vineyards, Melville Winery, WillaKenzie, and Fred Loimer from Austria.

Visit worldofpinotnoir.com for further details about this not-to-be-missed event!

Copyright © 2015 by Carol Hartland

Joe Spellman on JUSTIN Vineyard and Winery and Landmark Vineyards

I have previously posted about the excellent seminars at Rom Toulon’s 24 Hubert Wines in Tribeca (see my posts about Alphonse Mellot and Fritz Wieninger’s Wiener Gemischter Satz). This past week I attended another top-notch seminar at the Manhattan store, presented by master sommelier Joe Spellman, winery sommelier for JUSTIN Vineyard and Winery in Paso Robles, on California’s Central Coast. 

Joe Spellman

Master Sommelier Joe Spellman

Tracing the history of JUSTIN Vineyard, Joe explained to us that Justin Baldwin purchased 160 acres of the limestone-rich soils of the Santa Lucia Mountains of Paso Robles in 1981 with the dream of making Left Bank Bordeaux-style blends from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc on California’s Central Coast. With its elevation of 1,200-1,500 feet, Pacific Ocean breezes, and wide day-night temperature swings, Paso’s microclimate allows the grapes to develop flavor, structure, and balance. Justin Baldwin realized his dream in 1987 with the first release of Isosceles, now his flagship wine, named for the three varietals that make up the blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

We tasted three wines from JUSTIN Vineyard and Winery, each one of them beautifully balanced:

2013 Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc, $14. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Whole-cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel tanks; no malolactic fermentation. Alc. 14.5%. Citrus, apple, and pear, with a crisp, refreshing minerality and a long finish. Lean, clean, citrusy and meant to be enjoyed young.

2012 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, $25. Juicy, ripe red and black fruit, hand picked and hand sorted, aged in small American oak barrels (30% new) for 16 months, and displaying the very low and soft tannins typical of Paso Robles. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, along with some Syrah and Petite Syrah, although the exact blend is not divulged. Alc. 14.5%.

2011 Paso Robles Isosceles, $88. A spicy, aromatic, full-bodied wine modeled on the Left Bank wines of Château Margaux. 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc. Aged in 100% new French oak barrels for 21 months. Unfiltered; racked twice per year. Alc. 14.5%.

Joe also brought two wines for us to taste from JUSTIN’s sister vineyard, Landmark Vineyards, located at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain in Sonoma Valley in northern California.

Landmark has a very interesting history. It was founded in 1974 by a group that included Damaris Deere Ford, great-great-granddaughter of John Deere, who invented the steel plow. The first vintage of Landmark’s flagship wine, Overlook Chardonnay, was produced in 1991. In 1993, Landmark hired world-renowned enologist Helen Turley, now owner of the 9-acre boutique winery Marcassin Vineyard, who helped craft Landmark’s signature style: grapes harvested by hand and pressed whole cluster, fermented by naturally occurring wild yeasts, and aged in French oak barrels. The philosophy of Landmark’s current winemaker, Greg Stach, is “the best grapes make the best wines. The less the wine is manipulated, the more flavors and aromas remain for the consumer to enjoy.” 

The two wines we tasted were:

2012 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay, $25. 100% Chardonnay, with the grapes sourced from 22 vineyards in the following counties: 83% Sonoma, 11% Monterey, and 6% Santa Barbara. Grapes are whole-cluster pressed and native-yeast fermented in 100% French oak barrels for 10 months. Lees are stirred throughout the wine in the barrels twice per month, to create roundness, richness, and texture. Alc. 14.3%.

2012 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir, $25. 100% Pinot Noir, with the grapes sourced from cool-climate vineyards in the following counties: 53% San Luis Obispo, 40% Sonoma, and 7% Monterey. Grapes are harvested and sorted by hand, fermented in small single-vineyard lots, and aged for 10 months in 100% French oak barrels. Winemaker Greg Stach and his team taste and select from the individual barrels and create the final blend. Alc. 14.5%. Stach’s goal for this wine was to craft a fruit-forward, accessible, and reasonably priced wine with good acidity.

24 Hubert Wines has several other appealing seminars coming up. Check out their schedule here.

Cheers!

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland

Like Sitting Inside a Jewel Box: The Astoundingly Pure Wines of Alphonse Mellot

Alphonse Mellot, whose family has been making wine in the Loire since 1513.

Alphonse Mellot, whose family has been making wine in the Loire since 1513

My notion of what Sauvignon Blanc is was blown off its rocker by a tasting at Rom Toulon’s 24 Hubert Wines in Tribeca of four exquisite wines from Alphonse Mellot of Sancerre, in the Loire. Was it just me, or did you too dismiss wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape (one of the seven noble grape varieties notwithstanding) as smelling and tasting like “cat piss” or, in my experience, canned peas?

Last night, Alphonse Mellot, the nineteenth member of his historic winemaking family to bear that name, showed me the essence of Sauvignon Blanc in my glass.

The medieval hilltop town of Sancerre lies about 125 miles south of Paris.

The medieval hilltop town of Sancerre lies about 125 miles south of Paris.

The town of Sancerre traces its origins to Julius Caesar and Charlemagne. The Mellot family’s roots in Sancerre wine date to 1513, when they were vine growers and wine producers of excellent reputation. Ancestor César Mellot was the wine advisor to Louis XIV in 1698. By 1881 the family was shipping its wines throughout France and the world. Ever since then, the eldest son has continued to bear the name Alphonse.

All farming and grape growing at the Mellot vineyard, La Moussière, is organic and certified biodynamic (since 1999), with only copper and sulfur being used on the vines—copper to combat peronospera (downy mildew) and sulfur to guard against oidium (powdery mildew). Alphonse Mellot is one of only five biodynamic producers in Sancerre. In a region where some 98 percent of fruit is machine harvested, Mellot meticulously picks his grapes by hand into small 25-kilogram (about 55 pounds) cases.

The large percentage of old low-yielding vines, with some parcels planted in 1931, 1948, and 1951, grow in soils of limestone, flint (silex), clay, and chalk, which lend tremendous complexity to the wines.

Each one of the three whites we tasted—2012 Pouilly-Fumé, 2012 La Moussière Sancerre, and 2011 Satellite Sancerre (from vines planted in 1951)—was such a precise and refined expression of lemon, lime, and grapefruit, and of its minerals, acidity, and soil. I was stunned. Complexity, structure, substance, balance, and pure deliciousness. These wines have so much energy; you can almost feel the vibrations zinging off your glass, as if it were a tuning fork.

The last wine, 2011 La Moussière Sancerre Rouge, was made from Pinot Noir and had all the beautiful, mind-altering aromas and tastes of that grape’s red and black fruit and earth. Move over, Burgundy!

2011 La Moussière Sancerre Rouge

2011 La Moussière Sancerre Rouge

The fastidious attention to detail that Alphonse Mellot displays in making his wines is so evident in their expression. The impression his wines leave you with is indelible. 

Thanks to Rom Toulon for hosting another exceptional seminar at 24 Hubert Wines. These outstanding events with the winemakers provide a terrific learning experience in an intimate setting and allow for thoughtful interaction with the wine in one’s glass.

 Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland