Sat 15 Oct 2011
The history is complicated.
The Mirassou family has been in the wine business in California since 1854, qualifying them for a place among the industry’s pioneering pantheon. For most of the first century, the family grew grapes in Santa Clara and (discounting Prohibition) sold bulk wine. I won’t go into all the details of the family’s splits, buy-outs and mergers as the generations succeeded each other — Charles L. Sullivan provides the narrative in the essential A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California press, 1998) — except to say that by the mid 1960s Mirassou had moved decisively into bottling varietal wine and that they were crowded out of Santa Clara by suburban development and had expanded to Monterey, buying some 600 acres in the northern part of the county.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Mirassou struggled with quality and finally achieved the sort of standards and technical ability that result in decent and drinkable and sometimes more than decent wines. Production centered on about 70 percent white wine — the “White Burgundy,” mostly pinot blanc, and the Harvest Reserve Chardonnay being notable — 10 percent sparkling wine and 20 percent in red.
In 2002, the family’s fifth generation sold the brand to Gallo, which uses it for cheap, innocuous bottlings; the family retained the winery and property, then reduced to 15 acres by encroaching habitation and commercial endeavor. The name was changed to La Rochelle, in honor of the French sea-coast town from which Louis and Pierre Pellier embarked for America (bringing with them what would become California’s first pinot noir vines); in 1881, Pierre H. Mirassou married Pierre Pellier’s daughter Henriette, who was already running her father’s vineyards, thus paving the way for the Mirrasou enterprise.
In June, 2005, as reported by W. Blake Gray in the San Francisco Chronicle, brothers Daniel and Peter Mirassou sold the La Rochelle brand to their cousin, Steven Kent Mirassou, who owns the Steven Kent Winery, a producer of small edition cabernet sauvignon in Livermore, east of San Francisco Bay. La Rochelle now concentrates on limited release pinot noir wines from vineyards throughout California and in Oregon. Some of those pinot noirs, which I find fairly unpinot-like, will be our focus in this post. In fact, I thought that these wines displayed an alarming variance in quality, tone and effect. Winemaker is Tom Stutz.
These were samples for review. The Mirassou labels in this section are from my wine notebook for 1983.
First, if you can possibly get your hands on a case or a few bottles of La Rochelle Pinot Noir Rosé 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, do so. This is perhaps the best rosé from California (or the “New World”) that I tasted this year. Color is pale but radiant onion skin with a light copper glow; it’s all dried red currants, Rainier cherries, melon ball and a hint of spiced peach; a lovely almost satiny texture made vital and vibrant by crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone element. Loads of personality yet quietly elegant. 13.2 percent alcohol. Production was 157 cases. Excellent. About $22, and Worth a Search.
La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, seems pretty over-heated and syrah-like for a Russian River pinot. It’s very spicy and slightly sweet, with powerful waves of cloves, cinnamon and Red Hots permeating intense aromas and flavors of black and red cherries with a touch of dried red currants and blueberries; a beguiling floral element, bursting with violets and rose petals, is immediately apparent. The texture is blatantly and sleek satiny but neither heavy nor obvious, though the finish starts to fall apart, not knowing if it’s meant to be dry, briery and earthy or super-ripe, candied and glossy. Shall I be generous and call this wine a curiosity rather than a failure? 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 137 cases. Drink now, if you’re of a mind, through 2013 or ’14. Very Good. About $42.
A shadow darker, a shade more subdued is La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast — and also more balanced and integrated than the Russian River version mentioned above. It’s actually fairly placid and brooding, though not truculent, definitely earthier and more deeply imbued with graphite-like minerality, still managing, however, to display aspects of finesse and gradations of spice (instead of an assault) that marry well with the delicious but almost spare black and blue fruit flavors layered with notes of briers, brambles and forest floor. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 156 cases. Drink now through 2012 or ’14. Very Good+. About $42.
La Rochelle Pinot Noir La Cruz Vineyard 2008, Sonoma Coast, is unabashedly gorgeous and seductive, star-making qualities to be sure but not necessarily the first aspects one thinks of pertaining to the grape. The fine print reveals the fact that this wine carries 15.3 percent alcohol, a heady element perhaps accounting for a bouquet of black cherry compote, spiced and macerated cranberries, mulberries and plums, though backnotes of mint and iodine and graphite-like minerality provide a bit of leavening. Violets and roses, yes, plum pudding, the latter also prominent in the profile of ripe and roasted black cherry and currant flavors steeped in cloves and sassafras, with some notion of briers and brambles hinting at a foresty layer. The wine is potent with alcohol, and the dry, austere finish feels rather flat-footed. A pinot for zinfandel-lovers. Drink now through 2013 to ’14. Production was 171 cases. Very Good. About $48.
Despite the 15.3 percent alcohol, La Rochelle Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, initially displays a modicum of the fleetness, finesse and elegance and the black cherry, cranberry, rhubarb and cola notes that we associate with the best pinot noir wines. On the other hand, sadly, its excessively spicy, assertively macerated and roasted nature tends to overshadow those qualities and bring to the foreground obtrusive elements of brown sugar and caramel and high alcohol’s over-ripeness and cloying sweetness; a good pinot noir should have a satiny texture, but this is almost viscous. In the end, one cannot figure out exactly what this wine is supposed to be. Drastically unbalanced. 141 cases. Not recommended. About $48.
Finally and thankfully — I loved La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Cruz Mountains, the most balanced, integrated and seemingly authentic of these five pinot noir wines, excluding the rosé, which, as you’ll note above, I also adored. The color is an entrancing cherry-cerise with a dark ruby center; classic aromas of black cherry and blueberry tart — this is California — are generously wreathed with touches of rhubarb and cola, moss and leather, briers and brambles, all seamless, reserved, tranquil. In the mouth, this pinot noir expands into more earthy, mossy, foresty realms that provide ballast for ravishing black and blue fruit flavors that gain flesh, ripeness and substance after 20 or 30 minutes in the glass. The texture is lovely, smooth, satiny, flowing, the finish sweetly delineated, long, spicy. A beautiful pinot for drinking through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent, high for pinot noir in my book but not obvious here. 138 cases. Excellent. About $38 and Worth a Search.