Tasting Highlights: Mendocino v. South Santa Cruz Mountains

Four Great Cool Climate Pinots from High Flying Regions, 2 from vineyards near Corralitos in the South Santa Cruz Mountains that are grown on gravelly soils and that are heavily influenced by the cold water of the Monterey Bay and 2 are from maybe California’s coolest region in Mendocino County, these all have great terroir character and modest alcohol, while still offering a great depth of flavors. Certainly both regions are a awash with stunning wines these days and there is so much excitement about these areas, especially from Pinot Noir fans that what a more Burgundy like style of wine. The Anderson Valley, Mendocino County and Yorkville Highlands just might be the most thrilling area for wine right now, I have had a mind blowing array of wines come across my desk and table in recent months and over the last few years, and while Pinot is still the most sought after, I just love the Syrah from this area, plus Carignane and Petite Sirah! I tasted these four wines together as a comparison panel, it’s just a tiny sampling of these areas, but all of which deserve your attention. Please note, I work for Windy Oaks Estate and as part of our wine education I included one of our wines, I am not rating it here as to avoid a conflict of interest.

2015 Drew Family Cellars, Pinot Noir “The Fog-Eater” Anderson Valley.
This reminds me of De Montille’s Volnay, but maybe even better, just fantastic Pinot Noir from Jason and Molly Drew at Drew Family Cellars, this 2015 Fog-Eater Anderson Valley is wonderful concentrated and packed with fabulous fruit, coming from top sites including Valenti Ranch, Balo, Fashauer and Joshua’s Vineyard. This vintage, low yielding and cool was fermented 100% native yeast with 20% whole cluster and raised in all neutral French oak barriques and was a studied blend of Rochioli, Pommard, 115, 667 and 777 clones grown on Oceanic Sedimentary and Alluvial gravel/loam soils, all of which make this gorgeous wine sexy as hell! 2014 and 2015 have been outstanding vintages for Drew and I can’t think of another Pinot and Syrah producer that has done better, these might be some of the greatest wines made in California to date, a huge success and Jason and Molly deserve massive credit for them, and if you think that is hype, just try them, these are awesome wines of class and stylistic charm that very few can match. The 2015 Fog-Eater is alive with flavors starting with crushed flowers, peppery spices, mineral tones and it’s beautiful garnet/ruby hue in the glass along with cinnamon, tea spices and tangy cranberry. This acid filled wine stays laser sharp and dynamic throughout, though very textured and silken, it’s a wine with a sweet ripeness, but with a harmonious mouth feel, at 13.6% it never strays into overkill, absolutely thrilling, drink over the next decade.
($45 Est.) 95 Points, grapelive

2015 Halcon Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Oppenlander Vineyard, Mendocino County.
Wonderfully pure and like a ballerina on the palate with beautiful detail, brightness and a heavenly perfume, the 2015 Halcon Vineyards Oppenlander is a gorgeous light footed wine with stellar length and a soulful palate! At 13.2% this cool climate Pinot feels Burgundy like and shows it’s terroir perfectly, Oppenlander is only 10 miles inland from the coastal hamlet of Mendocino and most be one of the coldest sites in California for Pinot, it joins Drew and The Princess & The Peasant as some of my new favorite wines from this region, joining top Anderson Valley producers like Copain, Baxter and Cliff Lede’s Fell label, just to named a few. Delicate and focused, winemaker Scott Shapley (of Roar) has done a masterful job of getting everything out of this wine and showcasing the best of this extreme vineyard, he used 35% whole cluster, which gives so much verve and nervy spices, while allowing lush fruit and floral notes to express themselves, this vintage was 2/3rds clone 115 and 1/3rd Pommard and it was native ferment, unfined and unfiltered, it shows amazing lift and satiny textures. Pretty rose petal, Again spices, gravelly stones, blood orange and sweet herbs add to the complexity of this layered and lithe/leanPinot that has a ripe core of cherry, strawberry, plum and lingonberry fruits with just of touch of cola bean and vanilla. Impressive, lively and everything you’d want from the region, Paul Gordon’s Halcon Vineyards Oppenlander Pinot Noir is just one of many stunning new releases from this winery, drink over the next 3 to 7 years.
($35 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive

2015 Alfaro Family Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Lindsay Page Vineyard, Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains.
The 2015 vintage, extremely low yielding, is a full flavored effort from Richard Alfaro that seems to get better each time I try it, in fact it is now showing world class depth and concentration with a sweet palate of black and red fruits, but with a modest 13.5% natural alcohol highlighting the cool climate of the Pacific influenced cool climate of Corraltos in the South Santa Cruz Mountains. Much in demand as a farmer these days, Richard Alfaro continues to craft over performing wines under his Alfaro Family Vineyards, with star guys like Arnot-Roberts, Ceritas and Kutch all getting fruit from him. Besides his lovely and modern Pinots, Alfaro does exceptional Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner and Albarino too, and these wines, along with his Syrah deserve attention, and best of all they are stupid good values! The 2015 Lindsay Paige Vineyard Pinot delivers intense fruit, vibrant acidity and ultra smooth mouth feel with density and a seductive palate of black cherry, wild blackberry, plum and smoky sweet toastiness as well as a bang of spice, earth and mineral, as a whole this is decedent/opulent stuff, but still elegant and balanced, it has an impact no question, similar in style to 1990’s Rochioli(s) which is no bad thing, this is a lot of wine for the money, drink over the next 3 to 5 years.
($42 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive

2015 Windy Oaks Estate, Pinot Noir, Limited Release 100% Wild Yeast, Schultze Family Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains.
Since I’m a wine educator for Windy Oaks Estate, I’ll refrain from rating this wine, but since I am doing a class comparing the South Santa Cruz Mountains v. Mendocino County Pinot Noirs I will include this note, which is my personal thoughts only, not a winery pitch, and no score will be posted. Jim Schultze’s Windy Oaks Estate is Burgundy inspired, sitting in the hills above Corralitos backing up to the redwoods and with a panorama view of Monterey Bay it’s an extremely cool site with very late harvests that allows for deep fruit development while showing delicacy and finesse. At 13.7% the Wild Yeast 2015, aged in 40% new French oak for 18 months, shows a fuller body than most vintages, it has a richly textured mouth feel and pretty oak shadings with black cherry, raspberry and a long smooth finish. Rose petals, smoky oak, tart herbs and brandied plum flavors add to the whole in a well balanced way in this concentrated year, this is a wine with solid palate impact and will certainly benefit from short term bottle aging and if drunk now should get decanting and served with care to maintain a cellar temperature to ensure the freshness of flavors, this also really wants cuisine to match it’s character, I’d suggest duck breast and or wild mushroom dishes. While the other Limited Release 100% Whole Cluster is more nervy and exotic this one has more polish and clarity, so depending on your personal tastes each has their own unique qualities. Only four barrels made, 97 Cases in total.
($58 Est.) N/R

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