Tasting Santa Cruz Mountains Wine: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir Rule
An impressive collection of Santa Cruz Mountains wineries and winemakers filled The Press Club in San Francisco on March 7 to share their wines with members of the trade and assorted media. Spoiler alert: the biggest shocker of the day was seeing that Richard Alfaro, he of the towering frame and Sampson-like locks, had cut his hair. He said he thought it was about time. And then the rains began. A coincidence?
As I leafed through the booklet that accompanied the tasting, I secretly curtsied to the royalty of the region: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. True, there are some outliers like Alfaro’s Gruner Veltliner and Albarino, planted in Corralitos, along with Big Basin Vineyard’s outstanding estate Roussanne from Boulder Creek, probably the most magnificent example of this grape I’ve yet tasted.
And, there’s Jeff Emery’s expansive Quinta Cruz line that features well-executed Albarino and Verdelho. His primary label, Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard, features a Grenache Blanc from a Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard, Clay Station. Byington’s Liage, a blend of Sauv Blanc and Viognier, which hails from Amador and Paso, is a standout, and should be on more wine lists for its drinkability and food friendliness.
But the very tiny world of vines in these mountains is all about Chardonnay and Pinot, and you simply cannot go wrong if you stick to these offerings from the region. The Chardonnay bar has been set high by Jeffrey Patterson of Mount Eden, by Ryan Beauregard with his Bald Mountain beauty, by Pam and Steve Storrs with their consistent standouts from Christie Vineyards and by Eric Baugher’s Ridge Estate. And yet, there are newbies pushing the bar who could very well exceed it.
Just one sip of the 2013 Mindego Ridge Chardonnay made by Ehren Jordan (Failla) tells you this is special dirt, off Alpine Road, near the vaunted vineyards of Rhys, where winemaker John Benedetti of Sante Arcangeli recently planted Pinot. Yep, there’s something in this dirt and this fog-kissed air that delivers Chardonnays of graceful, lemon curd and peach-skinned nuance, filled with the fatness of summer and the tiptoe tightrope walk of persistent acidity.
And, then, there is Pinot. Santa Cruz Mountains Pinots come from a myriad of mountaintops and not so very mountainous topsoils. They can be blessed with an abundance of riotously jubilant red fruits, practically soaring across your palate like a glider or they can be as mysterious and brooding as a Thomas Hardy novel, begging you for another sip as you turn page after page. These are intellectually exciting wines, not quaffers. Let’s take a sip of the ones that have dog-eared their way into my library of taste memories.
2013 Armitage Albatross Ridge, Carmel Valley, Pinot Noir ($45) – Entirely made of Pommard, this winsome wine has captivating aromatics and vibrant flavors, making it compellingly complex, yet seamless in delivery. Winemaker Brandon Armitage is planning to use zero new oak on some of his Pinot lots this harvest.
2013 Big Basin Vineyards Estate Roussanne, $48 — Simply glorious in every aspect, this is elegant, effortless, light on its feet: words not often associated with the varietal, which can be obtuse and clumsy. As stunning as the Syrah and Grenache is off this vineyard, this Roussanne is the princess of the lot. And the 2013 Coastview Chardonnay was so glorious in its seamless execution of lemon chiffon, it was impossible to spit.
2012 Clos Tita Estate Pinot Noir, $36 — From vines at least 25 years old and a mix of older clones like Martini as well as Dijon and Pommard 4, this is stalwart and righteous, a Pinot that takes complete control from the first whiff. It’s as layered as an Agatha Christie plot, and just as exhilarating to explore.
2013 Clos Tita “Gironde” Cabernet Blend, $40 —Winemaker Dave Estrada is well-known in the fraternity of these mountains for his bold, expressive wines that grab you by the throat and demand your undivided attention. This one has a bigness of heart that promises a long and rich life, even if it’s a bit rough to access right now. Massive and monumental just begin to describe its intense cassis and black licorice core. Going to be a stunner in 5 to 10 years.
2013 Domaine Eden Pinot Noir, $35 — From the old Cinnabar property off Rte 9, Jeffrey Patterson has fashioned a very approachable and lively Pinot meant for early consumption. It’s not terribly complex, but it’s a good, fast read, like Sunset magazine. Good to sip while waiting for the Mount Eden releases to hit their stride.
2010 Kings Mountain Pinot Noir, $65 — Entirely of Martini clone, this wine is a kissing cousin of the Clos Tita Pinot, again, substantive and engaging, and not one for idle chatter. It wants to be enjoyed from a proper glass, at a properly set table laden with a feast of roasted lamb loin, crispy purple potatoes and English peas with spring onions. Royal in every way, it is indeed, a Kings Pinot.
2013 Mindego Ridge Estate Pinot Noir, $48 — This sunny-side-up vineyard on Alpine Road, about 9 miles from the ocean, has plenty of contours and clones (all Dijon), to give the resulting wines plenty of complexity. I love the predominantly red aromas of strawberry, red licorice and rose petals, mingling nicely with mushroom and pepper, the sweet cherry and raspberry flavors with botanical and floral accents and the silky, elegant mouthfeel. A wine that can Riverdance with the best of them.
2014 Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard Grenache, Hook Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, $24 — From Hahn’s well-farmed vineyard collection in the SLH comes this bouncy, raspberry-chocolate infused beauty that epitomizes the soul of Grenache, from its racy fruity-smirk to its firm, toothy tannins. Winemaker Jeff Emery describes it as having “great Grenacity.”
2014 Sante Arcangeli Split Rail Vineyard Pinot Noir, $45 — From a vineyard planted by David Bruce decades ago, this Pinot has a provenance like no other in the Santa Cruz Mountains for its range of heritage clones and its dicey elevation that puts it in the path of the ocean’s gale. All the tenacity and tension converge in this high-strung, raging redheaded riot of a wine, brimming with high-toned aromatics and racing at full throttle with the acid-driven whine of a four-banger.
2012 Therese Vineyards Lester Family Pinot Noir, $47 — Winemaker Therese Martin simply tells viticulture expert, Prudy Foxx, to bring her the best grapes she can from this storied vineyard in Corralitos. Martin did a great job making a merry, fruit-forward medley of the mix of 667 and 777, with its deeply satisfying texture and dark-hearted fruit.
Other news from the trade tasting: Denis Hoey of Odonata has decided to ditch foils and capsules altogether beginning with his next bottling. He joins forward-thinking Sante Arcangeli and Big Basin Vineyards in eschewing the non-recyclable, expensive and completely unnecessary vestigial bottle toppers that have long since outlived their useful purpose.
The next opportunity to taste wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains will be the Silicon Valley Wine Auction at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday, April 16. The Grand Tasting, from 12 – 4 (VIP hour is 12 – 1), is followed by VIP tasting and exclusive wine paired dinner, all to benefit the Silicon Valley Education Association.Tickets: scmwa.com
BY: LAURA NESS, WINE JUDGE & WINE WRITER
Laura Ness, aka “Her VineNess,” is an accomplished wine journalist and wine critic whose passion for wine was ignited by a visit to France, where she had the unmatched pleasure of tasting Sancerre in the medieval town of Sancerre – splendid!— and then a Saumur, after visiting the Chateau de Saumur in Chinon. The concept of terroir came alive in those incandescent moments. She regularly judges wine competitions and serves on the tasting panels of the Pinot, Cabernet and Chardonnay Shootouts. She was instrumental in helping define the unique sub-regions of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA in concert with Appellation America. You can usually find her sipping and smiling in Mendocino, Livermore, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains and Paso Robles. Laura writes extensively for many industry and consumer publications, and has weekly wine columns in several Bay Area newspapers. She blogs, irreverently and sporadically, at myvinespace.com.