Now in its fifth year, the annual In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) tasting, which took place on February 23rd in New York City, has certainly proven that the way we think about California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay has changed, and in my opinion, for the better. No longer are consumers looking for over-oaked, buttery Chardonnay which shows nothing of its origins, soil or climate. Instead, Chardonnay has shed its weight, gained vibrancy through acidity and depth through terroir.
As for Pinot Noir, a Burgundy-inspired renaissance has taken place here, and the results are wines of soaring aromatics, rooted in the earth, yet finessed and floral with drive and verve on the palate. We’re seeing more partial and whole cluster fermentation and a “less is more” approach in the winery. As a result, it’s often hard to put the glass down, as you are faced with a multifaceted bouquet which continues to blossom in the glass.
It’s a very good time to explore Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from California’s Santa Barbara, Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Santa Cruz appellations. Whether you’re a fan of Burgundy or Oregon Pinot, you’ll find something worth hunting for. A testament to this fact is the amount of Burgundy producers found tasting at the event; in town for this week’s La Paulee tasting, yet spending their free time sipping Californian wine.
Some of these wineries have been in the game for decades, while others are just starting out. I know that, for many of you, this is still undiscovered country. However, it’s worth exploring, because what these wineries represent is the opportunity to take a peek into another world. I know from experience that Burgundy can be difficult to traverse, to afford, and it often lacks a factor of reliability in all but the most expensive wines. Yet the new paradigm for California Pinot and Chardonnay bridges the gap and allows us to explore the unique attributes of these noble varieties with a much more dependable—and affordable—experience.
In general, I preferred the 2012 Pinots, yet there were a number of fantastic 2013s on display. As for Chardonnay, the 2013s are stunning, showing tremendous depth and etched acidity which brought them to life on the palate. The Santa Cruz AVA continues to impress in both categories and may be one of the most overlooked regions in the United States.
With such an impressive showing, it was actually difficult to decide what to include here, and so I chose to focus on the producers who impressed me the most, along with a number of honorable mentions below. Frankly, you can’t go wrong with any of these wines, and for stylistic differences, simply look to the tasting notes.
Domaine de la Côte
Domaine de la Côte is an exciting new project headed by winemakers Rajar Parr and Sashi Moorman; using the same vineyards originally purposed for the Sta Rita Hill Pinots from Evening Land. With control over every aspect of these prestigious, cool-climate vineyards, Domaine de la Côte has quickly assembled an impressive portfolio of world-class wines. The Sta. Rita Hills Pinot is vinified with 50% whole clusters and aged in neutral oak, providing an exotic mélange of mineral-infused Pinot fruit complemented by elegant floral tones. It’s also one of the best QPR’s in its range, representing tremendous value. Domaine de la Côte is sure to quickly find itself on the short list of top Pinot producers in California. The 2012s were some of my favorite wines of the tasting, and Sashi went on to explain that his 2013s are some of the best wines he has ever made.
Domaine de la Cote Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2012 – This is a tremendous wine for an entry-level offering, which bears the same exotic floral tones on the nose as their top wines. The nose showed show earth and floral undergrowth first with a resonating note red berry to pull it all together. It was floral with minty herbal tones and wild berry fruit, all ending in a finale of savory herbs and earth. (91 points) Morrell
Domaine de la Cote Pinot Noir “Bloom’s Field” Sta. Rita Hills 2012 – The nose was exotic and seductive with notes of cherry, mango and tangerine up front, yet as it bloomed in the glass, I found sweet herbs, mint, floral undergrowth and gravel dust. On the palate it was youthful, yet highly enjoyable and focused today with red berry, orange peel and hints of blueberry skins. The finish was long with red fruits, still exotic as it was on the nose, along with a lingering minerality. A beautiful bottle of wine. (94 points) Morrell
Domaine de la Cote Pinot Noir “La Cote” Sta. Rita Hills 2012 – The nose was so soft yet intense with depths of ripe dark red fruit, however the profile is more about exotic floral tones and spiced-citrus with hints of undergrowth adding brooding depth. The textures on the palate seemed to sweep over the senses like the finest silk, carrying with them refined, focused red fruits, inner floral and earth tones. Intense and vibrant throughout and with a long finish off crushed flowers, tart berry, citrus-rind and earth. (95 points) Morrell
I’ve been a huge fan of Calera’s entry-level Pinot ‘Central Coast’ for many years, as it presents great value. Josh Jensen is truly a pioneer and the catalyst of establishing the Mt. Harlan AVA. Here the vines grow in limestone-rich soils at 2200 feet above sea level, benefiting from cooling breezes coming off the Pacific Ocean. The entire lineup was impressive, but it was the ‘Ryan Vineyard’ which impressed me the most on this day.
Calera Chardonnay Mt. Harlan 2013 – Smoky and rich on the nose with a gorgeous note of spiced apricot. On the palate, this showed soft textures made vibrant through brisk acidity with ripe stone fruit lasting through the finish. (91 points) Morrell
Calera Pinot Noir “Ryan Vineyard” Mt. Harlan 2012 – The nose showed masses of dark red fruits with herbs, earth and floral undergrowth. On the palate, it was driven and intense with dark, tightly-coiled textures and concentrated spiced-fruit. Rich yet reserved in its youth, yet I can imagine it will blossom into something grand over the coming years. (92 points)
The 2012s at Kutch truly made me a believer in this project. As for the 2013s, they showed very youthful and tense on this day. However, the 2013 Mcdougall Ranch was certainly the standout.
Kutch “Mcdougall Ranch” Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2013 – The nose showed intense wild berry and floral tones with chalky minerals. It seemed to expand on the palate, starting with angular textures yet quickly fleshing out in all directions with crushed berry fruit, herbs and earth tones. The finish was long with saturating spiced-red fruit and structural components clinging to the senses. Young indeed, yet it should flesh out over time. (93 points)
When tasting through the Larue Pinots, it was the ‘Coastlands vineyard’ which really grabbed my attention. With fruit sourced from the Cobb family’s Coastlands Vineyard, Larue can boast having access to some of the oldest Pinot vines on the Sonoma coast. The vineyard sits at 900-1200 feet above sea level and is heavily influenced by the cooling breezes of the Pacific. After spending 17 months in French oak, half new, this wine emerges as a muscular and fruit-driven Pinot, yet it’s still well-rooted in the earth.
Larue Wines “Coastlands Vineyard” Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2012 – The nose was fresh and spirited, showing ripe red berry with dark soil and minty herbal tones. On the palate, beautifully focused red berry fruit gave way to hints of minerals, sweet spice and gripping tannin. It was long and saturating on the finish, tugging at the senses with intense red fruits. (92 points)
Lutum, the Latin word for “dirt” or “soil,” is the foundation from which Gavin Chanin builds the portfolio of Lutum Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The goal is to make wines which are the ultimate expression of variety and site; cool climate Pinot Noir which maintains its natural beauty. Tasting through the Lutum lineup is like taking a tour of California’s top Pinot-producing vineyards. Tasting these next to the Chanin Pinots was also a remarkable opportunity. One of the main differences between the two projects is that the Lutum fruit is completely de-stemmed, yet with the 2013 Gap’s Crown Vineyard, this seems to have worked to the Lutum portfolio’s favor; it was one of the most complete 2013s I tasted at IPOB. (Lutum Selection at Morrell)
Lutum “Durell Vineyard” Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2013 – The nose was floral at first, turning to spiced citrus and stone fruits. It opened with richness on the palate yet quickly turned to cleansing acidity. Its fruit lingered long through the finish with a spicy twang which seemed to never fade. (93 points)
Lutum “Sanford & Benedict” Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2012 – The nose showed radiant red fruits with violet floral tones and sweet spice. It was silky on the palate with weighty textures and contrasting vibrancy through brisk acidity. Cherry, spice and sweet floral tones lasted into the finish with a slight tug of tannin and acid-lending grip. This was really enjoyable from start to finish. (92 points)
Lutum “Gap’s Crown Vineyard” Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2013 – 2013 is the first vintage for the Gap’s Crown, and it showed tremendous potential. The nose showed dark red fruits with floral tones, spice and hints of licorice reaching up from the glass. On the palate, it showed tremendous depth with dark-red fruit and exotic spice which gave way to a youthful tannic tug through the finish. The richness and density here alone was remarkable, yet perfectly balanced by juicy acidity. (93 points)
I have long been a fan of Mount Eden Chardonnay. For the last ten years, Mount Eden and Ridge Vineyards have represented the whole of the Santa Cruz AVA in my cellar. Now I see how this region has come to life, yet this venerable property is still at the top of the game. In my opinion, they produce one of the most noble and age-worthy Chards in the United States. In youth, they show their oak in prominence, yet what takes place in the cellar over the next five to ten years is nothing short of magical. Rich, intense, finely-sculpted and certainly worth seeking out.
Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains 2011 – The nose was gorgeous, showing that youthful richness I’ve come to expect here, yet I know this will mellow into endless layers over time. Hints of wood gave way to citrus and stone fruits with seemingly endless floral notes and hints of spice. On the palate, it was tense, layered and long. Tightly-knit, pulsating with rich textures and contrasted by brisk, mineral-laden acidity. Tasting this today is all about imagining what it will one day become. (94 points) Morrell
Mount Eden Estate Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 – The nose showed savory herbs and ripe red berry with dark soil tones and minerals. On the palate, this was deep with textural heft ushering intense ripe red berry fruits and herbal tones across the senses. Long, long, long on the finish with tart red berry, mint and minerals. It was more forward than expected yet a delight all the same. (91 points)
Neely, produced by the Varner brothers, was a new experience for me at the IPOB tasting. The wines were sensual and rich yet balanced to the core. Yet another amazing showing for Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot. All farming is done under organic principals, and the fruit is completely de-stemmed. With aging in 24-30% new French oak, these emerge with rich textures and ripe fruit married to mineral vibrancy. The combination is moving to say the least.
Neely “Picnic Block” Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 – The nose was highly-expressive with radiant dark-red fruit, floral tones, spice and herbal mint. On the palate, it was intense and rich with vibrant waves of acidity creating textural currents across the senses. Crushed red berry and spice lasted into the finish with hints of rose and dark soil tones. (91 points)
Neely “Upper Picnic” Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 – The nose showed floral perfumes and undergrowth up front, quickly joined by crushed red berry and spice. On the palate, it was intense yet kept lively through brisk acidity, showing dense red fruits with cinnamon, clove and sweet floral tones. The finish lingered long with dark red fruits and minerals. (92 points)
Sandhi wines, also headed by Rajar Parr and Sashi Moorman, set out in a pursuit of balance to produce cool-climate Santa Barbara Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Old vines from north-facing vineyards are used with windy exposures to assure a long, characterful growing season. These are complex, textural wines of pure terroir-driven fruit. (Sandhi Selection at Morrell)
Sandhi Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills 2013 – This was a beautiful performance for an entry-level Chardonnay. The nose showed hints of almond and citrus with high-toned floral notes. It opened with richness on the palate and then quickly firmed up with persistent and focused citrus-tinged stone fruits. Long with tart citrus on the finish yet still fruity and easily likable. (90 points)
Sandhi “Sanford & Benedict” Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills 2013 – Amazingly fresh and vibrant on the nose with citrus up front followed by stone fruits and floral tones. Showing silky textures with floral finesse and hints of smoke on the palate. Turning tart yet still juicy and lively throughout the finish. (93 points)
Pax Mahle shows the diversity of his winemaker prowess with the Wind Gap project. Being well established for his remarkable success with PAX, where Mahle creates polarizing wines of intensity. His focus at Wind Gap however, is all about cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Pinots showed stunning depths of fruit with exotic aromas and fantastic textures–but on this day, it was the Chardonnay that stole the show
Wind Gap “Woodruff Vineyard” Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2009 – There is tremendous depth to be found in the bouquet of the ’09 Woodruff vineyard Chardonnay; literally a glass you want to sit with and indulge in over a long period of time. Ripe stone fruits, perfumed floral tones, and mineral depth kept me coming back to the glass. On the palate, it showed silky textures with admirable weight, yet remarkably fresh all the same with notes of ripe peach, herbs and minerals lasting into the finish. Just beautiful. (93+ points)
More Pinot Noir
Mindego Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains 2013 – The nose showed perfumed floral tones with minerals and tart red fruit. On the palate, it showed focused mineral-laden, red fruits with excellent persistence carried into the finish, where floral tones seemed to linger on and on. (90 points) Website
Tyler Bien Nacido Old Vine Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley 2012 – The nose showed ripe raspberry fruit and lifting floral perfumes with hints of undergrowth and moist soil tones. On the palate, I found soft textures giving way to balanced tannic structure with red fruits and hints of spice lingering long. Saturating and firm on the finish yet begging you to take another sip. (91 points) Morrell
Littorai “Cerise Vineyard” Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2012 – The nose revealed dusty cedar up front with dark-red berry fruit and sweet spice. On the palate, it showed dense, dark textures yet remained vibrant and focused with tremendous balance and class. Dark-red berry fruit and spice lasted into the finish, joined by licorice and inner floral tones. This is a wine in need of time to fully reveal itself, yet it’s still enjoyable today for its sheer power. (93 points) Website
Clendenen Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Le Bon Climat Santa Maria Valley 2009 – This was a dark beauty on the nose, emerging with deep red fruits, moist soil, hints of cedar and savory herbs. On the palate, it showed soft textures with ripe raspberry, remaining vibrant and floral throughout. The long finish showed tart berries, spice and balsamic tones. I can imagine this would continue to gain layers with time in the glass. (91 points) Website
Ojai “Bien Nacido” Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley 2013 – This stands out immediately for its fresh ginger and spice, along with complementing notes of apricot and citrus on the nose. At first rich on the palate, yet driven and mouthwatering with citrus, ripe melon and minerals. The fruit seemed to saturate the senses on the finish, turning tart with a pleasurable cheek-puckering sensation. (92 points) Website
Article and Tasting Notes by Eric Guido