Sat 22 Dec 2012
The hallowed reputation of an ancient wine region like Burgundy is predicated on the supposition that some vineyards are better than others and that minute variations in microclimate, exposure, slope, drainage and soil, even over a distance of a few yards– we’re not talking miles — will be not just detectable but identifiable and desirable in the wine. This is the concept of terroir. In the hierarchy of Burgundy’s intricate system, for example, vineyards like Le Musigny and Les Borniques, in Chambolle-Musigny (primarily pinot noir but a little chardonnay), may be divided by no more than a stone wall, but Le Musigny is a Grand Cru vineyard, while Bornique is classified Premier Cru, producing great wines perhaps but not, theoretically at least, as great. Likewise, in chardonnay-dominated Meursault, the vineyards Les Gouttes d’Or and Les Terres Blanches are separated only by a country lane and a creek, yet Gouttes d’Or is designated Premier Cru, while Terres Blanches produces a mere “village” wine. The number of people who possess the knowledge and experience to distinguish the differences (in a blind tasting) among the wines produced from Burgundy’s hundreds of small vineyards and lieux-dits is probably quite small, yet the enduring romance of the region lies in the supposed integrity and individuality of those vineyards and the vignerons that make the wines and honor the distinctions.
Can that philosophy translate to the New World?
The Italian and German immigrants that launched California’s wine industry in the mid 19th century regarded blending and branding as far more important than some airy notion of single-vineyard designated wines. The tremendous growth of that industry after World War II, and especially in the 1960s and ’70s, inspired investigations into French ideas and methods of winemaking, and one of those ideas was the concept that an individual vineyard could become the expression, through the wine made from it, of a particular plot of land and geographical trope, as in the iconic Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon. So theoretically — there’s that word again — a wine produced from a single vineyard or a particular lot or block of vines in a vineyard will represent higher quality (and of course command a high price) than a wine with a broader background; anyway, that’s the argument. The scenario doesn’t always work out that way, and the proliferation of single-vineyard wines in California and in Oregon’s Willamette Valley doesn’t always translate to better wine or wines that express a vineyard’s, um, theoretical character, yet producers continue to make wines based on that philosophy. Not always; but sometimes they do, thinking for example of the pinot noirs that Morgan Winery makes from Rosella’s, Gary’s, Double L and Tondre Grapefield vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands.
I want to explore the possibility today, though, by looking at one general designate wine and three single-vineyard wines, all pinot noir, all Sonoma Coast, from Sojourn Cellars, a winery that specializes in small lots of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. The winery was founded by Craig and Ellen Haserot and winemaker Erich Bradley; the first release was 100 cases of cabernet sauvignon from the 2001 vintage.
Sonoma Coast, comprising 500,000 acres, is one of those huge AVAs that the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (aka TTB) seems to dote upon. Certainly it’s not as vast as the “North Coast” AVA, which includes the counties of Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma and Solano, an area so geographically broad and geologically varied as to be meaningless as a vineyard and wine region, nor is it as large as the “Sonoma County” AVA, of which Sonoma Coast represents the most westerly enclave and the one most pertinently influenced by the presence of the Pacific Ocean. As you can see by the map above, Sonoma Coast extends from the Mendocino border all the way down to San Pablo Bay, with a big and improbable jut inland and up between Russian River Valley and Sonoma Valley. This cool climate region, however diverse it may be from north to south, is attracting an increasing number of producers for its demonstrable affinity for pinot noir and chardonnay. (Map from schiller-wine.blogspot.com.)
These Sojourn Cellars pinot noirs are not inoculated but undergo fermentation by native yeasts, that is, yeasts that occur naturally in the vineyard and in the winery. They are all aged in French oak barrels, 50 percent new, but material on the winery’s website does not reveal how many months the wines spend in oak, a crucial factor as far as I’m concerned; none of the wines, however. felt as if they suffered from too much exposure to wood. How do they stack up, in terms of their single-vineyard designations? Read on…
Let’s start with the Sojourn Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, a blend of grapes from eight lots deriving from vineyards along the length of the appellation. It’s a graceful expression of the pinot noir grape, a lovely marriage of elegance and power, beautifully balanced and integrated. The wine is quite lively and spicy, with notes of macerated black and red currants and plums and a deep vein of slightly loamy earthiness and graphite-like minerality. For all that grounding, however, this is the sleekest and most svelte, the most elevated of this quartet. 14.4 percent alcohol. 925 cases were produced. Excellent. About $39.
For the first of the single vineyard wines, let’s take the Sojourn Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast. The Sangiacomo family, whose immigrant ancestors started as pear farmers in Sonoma County in 1928, maintain 10 vineyards in the Carneros appellation and three in the Sonoma Coast AVA; the family grows primarily chardonnay and pinot noir. Altogether, they supply grapes to 84 wineries, 34 of which use the Sangiacomo name on their labels. The Sojourn Sangiacomo Pinot Noir 2010 is a sinewy, muscular model, dark, deeply fragrant with fresh and dried black and red fruit scents and flavors and notably clean, pure, intense and spicy. 14.5 percent alcohol. 925 cases. Excellent. About $48.
The interesting comparison follows with the Sojourn Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, because Gap’s Crown lies just above the Sangiacomo Vineyard that provided the grapes for the previous wine. Whatever the geographic proximity of these vineyards, the Sojourn Gap’s Crown is the most individually styled of these four pinot noirs, the most exotic but also the most tannic, deeply and roundly spicy and fleshed out but also the driest, even tending toward austerity through the finish, but suffering no diminuendo of juicy black fruit flavors. 14.6 percent alcohol. 300 cases. Excellent. About $48.
Finally, the Sojourn Rodgers Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, registers brilliantly for its spare Burgundian sense of lightness, delicacy and elegance, its radiant medium ruby color, the acidity that cuts a swath on the palate, its core of black cherry and mulberry fruit slightly shaded by notes of cloves and sandalwood, its background of earthy loam and truffles. The vineyard lies on a ridge high on the Petaluma Gap, where the Pacific breezes surge through to the east, bringing cool temperatures and fog. 14.2 percent alcohol. 375 cases. Excellent. About $48. Though it seems superfluous to nominate a favorite from these four well-made pinot noirs, this one was my favorite.