• By Laura Ness •
How do you like your dirt? That is the question when it comes to terroir. Do you like salty sand? Chalky limestone? Wet granite river rocks? Root crops? Warm sunlit scrub and meadow grasses? High mountain fir-filled forest? Rushing Sierra stream with snowmelt? Earthy mushroomy loam? Adobe bricks baking in the sun? Redwood grove on a misty morning? Fog-kissed meadow grasses in the shadow of old moss-covered barns?
Importance of Terroir to Pinot Noir
There is nothing more important to Pinot Noir than from whence it came. It is perhaps this way in our consciousness because of the overarching influence and importance of the great wines of Burgundy, which virtually set the benchmark for the distinctiveness of terroir. Each vineyard site is essentially its own little wine kingdom.
Today’s amazing “sense of place” wines in California hail from several interesting regions, among them Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains and Anderson Valley.
Why? Each of them has a signature that you can smell and taste.
Sonoma Coast: Ferny, woodsy, saline, intense, acid core
Santa Lucia Highlands: Ripe, deep, dark, rich
Santa Cruz Mountains: Acid-laden/driven, mountain spice, rhubarb pie, blackberries, warm scrub, sage and redwood forest
Anderson Valley: Acid-driven, red-fruited and slightly herbaceous, a lithe gymnast with exceptional poise and energy
Anderson Valley’s Handley Cellars
Let’s take a tour of some Anderson Valley Pinots from the region’s oldest and most well-loved producers, Handley Cellars. Winemaker Milla Handley and co-winemaker, Randy Schock, have been mastering the grape separately and together for decades. They know well the importance and impact of vineyard sites. Attending their Pinot Blending Trials event last spring, we visited each of the vineyards they source fruit from through the Anderson Valley from Deep End to Boonville, admiring the immense difference at each location. Then, we tasted the wines from each, and were transported back to the unique terroir, understanding intimately the impact of place.
Handley’s Five Pinot Noirs
Five Pinots from Handley eloquently speak of this impact. Acquiring all of them is instructive and intriguing.
Beginning with the 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot (13.5% alcohol, $32), sourced from seven different vineyards, Handley (32%), Helluva (20%), Corby (14.4%), Ferrington (10.5%), Klindt (5.8%) and Romani (5.8%), all from Anderson Valley, as well as some from Iron Oak (8.8%) in Potter Valley, which is on the Ukiah side of the Mendocino AVA.
This was a challenging year, with a cool spring and late rains, which led to a long growing season, with low yields. The wine is classic cool climate Anderson Valley, with enticing aromas of cedar, cherry pie, ferns, orange peel and cinnamon stick, and delicate yet persistent flavors of tangy cranberry, pomegranate, boysenberry pie, a lift of red plum and a pleasing juniper and tarragon herbaceousness, with a back note of clove and cedar plank. A wine to be savored with pulled pork and smoked salmon.
In contrast, the 2012 Mendocino Pinot (14.4% alcohol, $25), was sourced from warmer vineyards in Anderson Valley (with 93.3% of the mix from Helluva, Romani, Charles, Ridley, Valley Foothills and Corby) and 6.7% from Oppenlander, a lush inland vineyard known for its immense structure and texture. It’s a delight of fresh strawberry jam, lilac, hot milk chocolate, cherry jelly and coriander, followed by lip-smacking red fruited flavors like strawberry vines, raspberry galette and chocolate covered cherries. The pervasive high-tones come from the Gamay selection from Valley Foothills. While the ripeness of the vintage shows, clearly, the vibrancy dominates.
A true standout that stands head and shoulders above the rest, the 2012 RSM Pinot, Anderson Valley ($52), comes from an estate vineyard planted by Milla’s late husband, Rex Scott McClellan, in 1999. Mountain grown fruit makes this wine intense and memorable, unmistakably Deep End in character. It’s big, dark and powerful, a lot like the man behind the vineyard. The aromatics are classic cooler Anderson Valley, with blueberry, blackberry, ginger root and damson plum, and vibrant flavors of plum tart, graham crackers with apple-plum butter, savory sausage and dark maple syrup on thick cut marble rye French toast. There is nothing dainty or delicate here: a Paul Bunyonesque Pinot with a slim waist and amazing stature, followed by a tremendous standing ovation finish.
Milla and Randy really love the Helluva Vineyard near Boonville, an older Lyre/Geneva Curtain trellised vineyard of mostly Pommard clones, and so they made this first vineyard designate other than their own Estate. And it’s a helluva wine, too, this 2012 Helluva Pinot, (14.2% alcohol, $37).
Rich red fruit is this vineyard’s hallmark, and the aromatics of red currant, rose petals and raspberries are delightful. You’ll love the flavors of strawberry mousse and raspberry coulis on vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting, appreciating the brightness of acidity and the smooth, satiny finish. You can literally taste the sunshine in the wine, and so did the judges at the Mendocino Wine Competition, where it was a Double Gold and Best of Class.
Beautifully focused, the 2012 Estate Reserve (13.6% alcohol, $42), presents the best of the best from older Martini vines, along with some recently grafted Dijon clones, from Milla’s estate vineyard. You’ll love the fresh baked aromas of blueberry pie, blackberry galette and brioche buns that mingle with hints of wet roses, sage and hints of earthy mushrooms. The complexity is apparent on the very generous mouthfeel, which offers dark red and blue fruits, savory onion jam, gorgeous cedar and brown sugar cranberry jam. Beautiful tannins and a centerline of acidity give this wine a precise focal point.
18th Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, May 15-17
You can taste all these wines at the Handley Cellars tasting room, open daily, and at the upcoming 18th Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival, May 15 – 17. Technical Conference is held Friday, May 15, from 9 a.m. til 4 p.m. at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds in Boonville. The Grand Tasting is Saturday, May 16, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Goldeneye Winery.
Visit avwines.com for more information and to purchase tickets.
For complete information on Handley Cellars, visit handleycellars.com.
Featured photo at top courtesy of Handley Cellars.