Celebrating Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir

Critical mass is defined as "an amount necessary or sufficient to have a significant effect or achieve a result." Certainly the wines of the newest Santa Barbara County appellation, Santa Rita Hills, have had a significant effect on the wine world in the past several years. They've been written about in every major publication, and the area is now considered to be among the premier regions for growing Pinot Noir.

The short history of the formal appellation reached an apex last fall as the growers and vintners came together for a "Celebration of Santa Rita Hills," a symbolic culmination of their collective efforts; a sort of public proclamation that Santa Rita Hills is ready for prime time and that they will be taking their reputation to the next level.

The daylong celebration, generously sponsored by Foley Estate Vineyard and Winery on the beautiful grounds of their Santa Rita Hills site, featured several educational and tasting seminars, a grand tasting featuring wines from more than 30 Santa Rita Hills producers, and an auction benefiting the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County that preceded the closing cowboy barbecue dinner.

The first instructive seminar, titled "A Taste of Santa Rita Hills," featured a tasting survey of Pinot Noir, as expressed by the soils and microclimates of the region, including insights from the appropriate winemakers on the dais. Panel moderator, Karen MacNeil, wine educator at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, began the discussion by noting that Pinot has "primordial aromas and a textural sensuality" that other varieties do not possess. Here are my impressions from the tasting.

Siduri 2004, Cargasacchi Vineyard: One of the most conscientious growers in Santa Rita, Peter Cargasacchi sells his grapes to a number of high quality producers, including North Coast based Siduri. He pointed out that Santa Rita Hills is akin to a elongated narrow hourglass figure, with cooling breezes moving west to east, coming off the Pacific Ocean, blowing through the region and then exiting near Buellton. This Siduri version, a product of extended maceration, extracts the sweet and bright cherry fruit, as well as incorporating some brown baking spices. A dense core of fruit, so dense it's like sucking on hard candy, comes through on mid palate. Darker complex flavors lie in wait, trying to give up its all and break through the surface sheen of brighter fruit. A great candidate for cellar aging.

Babcock 2004, Grand Cuvee: Sweet cherry and raspberry aromas lead to beautiful and very primary fruit flavors in the mouth. As the brown spices latch onto the ripe fruit flavors, they send a direct message to the sensual part of the brain. Yummy with black cherry, framboise, toasty oak and a sense of minerality. As one panelist noted, this wine has "both great concentration and ethereal lightness." Another winner from Bryan Babcock.

Clos Pepe 2003, Estate: Wes Hagen's wines are often more "natural" than others in the area. That's why it's easy to find a kind of funky, gamey and loamy quality to the aromatics on this Pinot, while the fruit manifests itself as cherry and boysenberry. Flavor wise, it's a lighter style Pinot but still has a chewy substance; it's not boisterous or high toned, rather more subtlety is involved and you need to let the wine sit in the glass in order to get at all its facets. A lovely spicy and ticklish strawberry flavor comes through with patience and exerts a pleasant pull on the back palate and finish.

Melville 2003, Carrie's Vineyard: Enticing dark cherry and deep black cherry aromatics show up immediately. Deep, dark and intense...and that's just what you can tell from the nose. Plenty of strawberry and black cherry fruit on the palate that's chewy and has top down texture already built in to its structure. The intensity of fruit and spice has great backing acidity all the way through; there are no holes in this wine. Waves of complexity just keep on coming, along with a myriad of flavors. Plenty of facets to experience here and then some that still seem buried and will come to the fore with time in the bottle.

Fess Parker 2003, Ashley's Vineyard: Everything about this wine says BIG, including its sixteen per cent alcohol. Big aromatics that hit you in the face include cherry, strawberry, and black cherry. Bombastic in the mouth, it's an over the top, big, rich fruited wine that is flamboyant and in your face. It has plenty of guts from the alcohol but the fruit flavors do more than just go along for the ride: the richness will bowl you over. For those who still think Pinot is wimpy, this is their ticket to a revelation.

Foley Estates 2003, Barrel Select: A hard core of black and blue fruit aromatics are buffered by an underlying spicy character. Scintillating acidity hits you between the eyes, then the chewiness kicks in on the palate, with a textural bent. The bright cherry fruit turns darker and more complex with each taste. This medium bodied pinot, one that is not over blown or over alcoholic, is a true selection of the best barrels that continue aging in oak for six months more than normal. An even-handedness persists with this wine: call it balance if you like but it's smooth and silky all the way around.

Alma Rosa 2004, La Encantada Vineyard: This is Richard and Thekla Sanford's new project; the vineyard lies just west of La Riconada, making it one of the coolest sites in the region. Just released, this Pinot has a very pretty nose, with the sweet strawberry and cherry fruit lifting out of the glass. The fruit is pristine but you'll also smell some telltale beet root, spice and earthiness in the mix. The ripe strawberry/cherry fruit opens up well on entry and expands, hitting the delicious sweet spot on mid palate and then does the slow fade to black. Already showing itself as a lovely wine, it possesses good fruit flavors, mid palate texture and resoundingly fine acidity on the finish.. A complete work; this wine hangs all together on the palate from beginning to end.

January 13, 2006

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