Earth, Wind and Fog
All photos by Amy Miller.
The noted Napa winemaker André Tchelistcheff once quipped that “God made Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the devil made Pinot Noir.” With its thin skin, susceptibility to mold, rot and sunburn, this diva of the wine world is picky about where it grows. Cool climate Burgundy, of course, is the standard bearer, but in California, where it can be hard to avoid the sun, we see a range of styles. Warmer regions give us big, bold, fruity wines, while more structured wines can found in the state's cooler nooks and crannies, such as the Russian River Valley, Carneros, Anderson Valley, and Santa Lucia Highlands.
What keeps these areas cool isn't latitude or elevation, it's fog funneling in off the Pacific Ocean. The closer a vineyard is to the ocean, the cooler the climate. Santa Lucia Highlands, located about 100 miles south of San Francisco, starts inland from Monterey Bay and stretches southeast for 18 miles along the eastern base of the Santa Lucia coastal range. Its eastern facing slopes allow for lots of morning sun to burn off the fog, resulting in an unusual cool but sunny climate. I recently attended a tasting of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs that were arranged by proximity to the ocean (north to south/coolest to warmest), and the differences were stark.
"A wine's style is determined by how close it is to the bay and how much fog and wind it gets," explained Tony Baldini, president of Hahn Family Wines, who hosted the tasting at Il Mulino in New York. "Monterey Bay is a cool body of water. The warm air near Paso Robles draws the cool air off Monterey Bay and pulls it south. The narrow valley funnels the wind, and as it picks up speed, it thickens the skin and slows ripening. We get an extra 20 to 30 days. Longer hang time means more flavor development more complex flavors."
Nicholas and Gaby Hahn began making wine here in 1979 and were instrumental in helping to create the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in 1991. Although vines were originally planted by the Spanish explorers in the late 1700s, the region was long overlooked by the modern wine establishment because everyone thought it was too warm. When it was discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon wouldn't ripen properly, people began planting cool climate varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and struck gold. Hahn's son Philip, who now oversees the Hahn family winemaking, described those early days of uncertainty. "The whole region was sheep, cattle, and horse farms back then. We weren't sure what we were going to plant and experimented with Bordeaux varieties and a little patch of Pinot Noir. The Pinot made really good wine so we bet the farm and grafted everything over to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Now the whole region is Burgundy." The AVA covers a total of 6000 acres, about the size of Manhattan. Hahn's vineyards comprise 650 acres throughout the AVA and planted at elevations ranging from 200 to 1200 feet. "You have the world's only sunny Burgundy region," Philip said. "You'll see that in the wines, which have a higher alcohol for Pinot Noir than you're used to. All that sun means all that sugar and all that flavor. That allows us to back off on the oak and let Mother Nature do her thing. If she'd in a good mood why get in the way."
This certified organic vineyard is in the northern part of the AVA at a lower, fog-shrouded elevation so the grapes stay cooler, longer. Grapes take an extra four to five weeks to ripen. The result is a wine with a lighter body than all the others and bright red fruit (cranberry and red cherry), and lively acidity. Whole berry fermentation is started with native yeasts. There is a touch of oak imparted from 10 months in 50% new French barrels. 14.4% abv
Further south of LL vineyard, Lone Oak produces a medium-bodied wine that is earthier with red plums, black raspberry, dried mushrooms, forest floor and a hint of oak from spending 14 months in French oak, 40% of which are new barrels. 14.5% abv
This 27-acre property is part of a Pisoni and Franscioni family partnership and was planted in 2008. The vineyard has an east/northeast orientation and sits at 400 feet in elevation so there is more wind influence, which concentrates flavors. Bright red fruit, red raspberry, cherry, light body, firm tannins and subtle oak from 10 months aging in French barrels, 43% new. 14.1 % abv
Doctor's vineyard sits at an elevation of 520 feet. These particular Pinot Noir clones are from a grand cru vineyard in Burgundy and named after Gary Pisoni, owner of Pisoni vineyards, who smuggled the cuttings through customs down his pants. This is a medium bodied wine with notes of dark cherry, plum, spice, and sage. More complexity and longer length made this one of my favorites. It spends 4 months French oak, 40% new. 14.5% abv.
Hahn Lucienne Smith Vineyard 2013
Of all Hahn’s properties, the Smith vineyard sits at the highest elevation (590 to 1,280 feet), well above the fog line. Grapes get plenty of sunshine, which translates into rich dark fruit flavors, chocolate and cedar from 14 months in French oak, 40% new. 14.5% abv.
Sierra Mar is the furthest south of all the vineyards we tasted and was the boldest, most full-bodied of the bunch. It is a blend of four different clones, each fermented individually, two using whole clusters and the other two destemmed. Each wine was then aged in barrel until the spring and then blended. Only 37% of the barrels made it into the final wine. The wine had a deep ruby color and a deeper concentration of fruit, but still maintained a vibrant acidity. On the palate it showed dark cherries and plums with some earthy, forest floor notes and silky tannins. 14.4% abv