The idea behind producing wines from one designated vineyard is that such a piece of land, its geology and geography, its soil, bedrock and micro-climate, will result in a wine distinctive in character from a different vineyard, say one across the valley or even down the road. That principle drives the fame and fortune of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, for example, because the reputation of that narrow region in eastern France rests on the individual nuances supposedly expressed by vineyards that lie across a country lane from each other or a ball-toss across an ancient stone wall. A slightly different tilt of a slope toward the southeast, a minute diversion in a vineyard’s elevation at exactly the perfect pitch on a hillside, a variation in the type of underlying limestone: These factors influence the quality and character of Burgundy’s renowned and rare Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines and help determine their stratospheric prices.
We must remember that these vineyards in the Côte d’Or, many of minute size, have been cultivated, discussed, parsed and celebrated for upwards of 1,000 years. That cannot be said of vineyards in California, yet the belief inheres in the state’s wine industry — and in Oregon and, to a lesser extent, in Washington — that wines from single vineyards are (potentially) superior to wines that derive from a more general regional application. The stature of such vineyards as Bien Nacido, Durell, Sangiacomo, Beckstoffer George III and To-Kalon, Old Hill and many others testifies to the efficacious effect of individual micro-climates on vines and grapes. The point, however, is that the wines produced from such hallowed areas honor not only the character of the vineyard but the nature of the grape. Great wines perform both functions, seamlessly, with balance and integration.
These remarks serve as prelude to reviews of a handful of single-vineyard pinot noirs produced by MacPhail Family Wines, a division of Hess Family Wine Estates. Three of these pinot noirs originate in the Sonoma Coast AVA, the other three from the Anderson Valley AVA in Mendocino County. The first wine is not single-vineyard designated, while the rest in this roster are.
James MacPhail launched his brand in 2002, focusing on pinot noir and chardonnay from Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley. He built his winery in Healdsburg, in his backyard, in 2008. Hess Collection acquired the Macphail brand and inventory — but not the winery — in 2011, freeing James MacPhail to make wine and not concentrate on the business side of wine-producing and -selling.
I like these wines a great deal, though they emphasize the muscular and dimensional possibilities of the pinot noir grape rather than its elegance and delicacy. Still, in their wealth of detail and their thoughtful background, they remain fine examples of the potential of single-vineyard bottlings.
These wines were samples for review.
We begin with a wine that is not single-vineyard designated, the MacPhail Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, drawing on eight vineyards from areas in the vast Sonoma Coast appellation, including the well-known Dutton, Pratt and Sangiacomo vineyards. The wine aged 11 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels, 30 percent one-year-old and 30 percent two-years-old. The color is dark ruby shading to a transparent rim; cherries, cherries and cherries in every form — black and red, spiced and macerated, slightly fleshy and roasted — characterize the aromas and flavors here, with hints of plum, pomegranate, cranberry and sassafras. The texture is sleek, lithe and supple, while the wine’s structure feels large-framed, deep, a bit brooding, all leading to a finish packed with fruit and spice and dominated by graphite minerality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 1,025 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $40.
We’ll stay in Sonoma Coast — a widely diverse AVA more than 500,000 acres in extent — for the MacPhail Wildcat Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast. The vineyard is owned by Steve MacRostie, no slouch himself when it comes to making pinot noir, and perches on a hillside in the Petaluma Gap, straddling Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs, where the maritime winds and fogs are a profound influence. A dark ruby hue shades to a transparent garnet rim; the first impression is of red and black cherries and currants infused with rhubarb, cranberry, sassafras and cloves, with high notes of graphite and mint and low tones of leather and loam, picking up, with air, interesting hints of melon and apple skin, iodine and iron. In other words, lovely and intriguing complexity but leaning toward the grape’s muscular potential, its darkness and power. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 225 cases. Now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $49.
Nineteen wineries make designated pinot noir from grapes purchased from Sangiacomo Vineyards in Petaluma Gap. The MacPhail Sangiacomo Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, offers a luminous, transparent medium ruby color and aromas of ripe and slightly roasted red and black cherries and raspberries. The wine aged 11 months in French oak, 28 percent new barrels. A few moments in the glass bring up hints of violets, sassafras, smoke and tobacco and notes of plum and sour cherry. There’s a slight aura of dried herbs here — sage, cedar — and a tang of acidity to keep the wine lively and engaging. A silky-smooth texture benefits from a lift of graphite minerality and lightly dusted tannins. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 250 cases. Now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $49.
For the remaining wines, we move north to Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. The MacPhail Toulouse Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley, aged 11 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels, the rest one- and two-years old. Though the color is transparent medium ruby, there’s nothing shy or ephemeral about this pinot noir, which builds power, depth and presence in the glass. It’s a warm and spicy wine, bursting with notes of lightly braised cranberries, black and red currants and hints of cola, cloves and smoke, violets and lavender, briers and brambles, while a few minutes in the glass produce elements of leather and loam. This is a fleshy, full-bodied pinot noir, gushing with ripe, meaty, spicy red and black berry flavors in a structure that grows increasingly dense, chewy, velvety and tannic. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 525 cases. Try from 2017 through 2022 through ’24. Not my favorite style of pinot noir, but certainly well-made. Excellent. About $49.
The MacPhail Anderson Creek Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, comes on rather strong for my taste, being a wine whose lip-smacking viscosity and keen acidity augment a lack of grace and elegance. It aged the standard 11 months in French oak, new barrels at 40 percent, if you believe the back label, or 50 percent, if you go by the printed technical sheet. (Let’s coordinate, team!) Pungent with aromas of pomegranate, rhubarb and sassafras, cherries and plums, the wine is supremely satiny and drapery-like on the palate, admitting touches of loam and mocha and a bit more oak than its cousins in this roster. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 225 cases. Try from 2017 through 2022 to ’24. Very Good+. About $49.
OK, now we’re talking. The MacPhail Wightman House Pinot Noir 2013, Anderson Valley, derives from a two-acre vineyard planted to one clone, the Martini; it aged 11 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels. The color is medium transparent ruby shading to an almost invisible rim; aromas of spiced and slightly macerated black cherries and raspberries are preceded by notes of iodine and beetroot, with hints of violets, lavender and cloves; the whole effect is exotic without being pushy or flamboyant. This is an intense pinot noir, dense and chewy with dusty, velvety tannins and enlivened by bright acidity that powers the wine from mid-palate back through the graphite-laced finish. Though it sounds as if the entire motif here rests on authority and substance, the wine achieves a fine balance between energy and the elegance of tendril-like effects centered on mint, black tea, delicate roots and filigrees of wild blueberries. 14.7 percent alcohol. Production was 100 cases. A great effort for drinking now through 2020 to 2024 or ’25. Exceptional. About $55.