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Playing it cool: Californian winemakers

More and more Californian winemakers are planting vineyards in cool-climate regions, with some elegant results, writes PAUL FRANSON.

That old claim that every year in California is a great year may soon be forgotten. Abandoning safe climates that produce good wines year after year, adventuresome Californian winemakers are planting vineyards in areas once thought too cold for growing grapes, betting that spectacular vintages in good years are worth the danger of occasional poor years. Most cool-climate vineyards are so new that no one knows if they’ll succeed. But they’re making impressive wines. ‘Some years, we may never get the grapes ripe,’ notes Randy Ullom, winemaster at giant Kendall-Jackson, with Pinot Noir vineyards within sight of the cold Pacific Ocean, ‘but when they hit right, they’re out of this world.’

The most exciting cool-climate wines are Pinot Noirs grown along the Coast, but the move to cool climates is happening throughout the state. The reason is simple. Many grapes make superior wines if grown in marginal climates. ‘Cool climates magnify varietal character,’ says Bob Iantosca of Gloria Ferrer Winery in Carneros. ‘A great variety produces the best quality if it’s grown in the coolest regions where it can ripen,’ claims Dan Goldfield, winemaker and partner at Dutton-Goldfield Winery in Sebastopol, in the cool Russian River Valley. John Kongsgaard, who makes wine for several wineries, including his own Arietta and Kongsgaard labels, agrees. ‘The harder it is to ripen grapes – as long as they do ripen – the better the wine will be.’ He adds a caveat: ‘Cabernet Sauvignon can be an exception.’


Winemaking consultant Bill Dyer, who works with Marimar Torres at her Green Valley and Freestone vineyards in western Sonoma County, observes that California winemakers started growing grapes in moderate climates where it was easier. ‘There’s a natural progression to push the limits and try to make better wine.’Pinot Noir, long le mouton noir of California wines, is the greatest beneficiary of new cool vineyards. Pinots from warm climates lose their Burgundian charm, emulating undistinguished Rhônes, but those from cool areas feature bright fruit and refreshing acidity.

Go west

The most acclaimed Pinots grow along the cold Pacific Coast in Western Sonoma county. Among them are cultish Kistler, Williams & Selyem, Marcassin, Littorai, Hartford Court, Flowers and Siduri from hilltop vineyards. Flowers Winery’s Camp Meeting Ridge, for example, lies only two miles from the ocean on the first ridge inland. The ridge is 455m high, but the vineyard is 60m lower and protected from winds. It lies above the persistent fog, enjoying bright sunlight and cool temperatures. ,br />
It’s not an easy place to grow grapes. ‘We usually get hit with rain at bloom time, keeping yields low,’ says Walt Flowers, ‘but the long hang time gives great colour and extraction.’Cool areas of the Central Coast, including Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey also produce superb Pinots. One of the coldest grape-growing areas in northern California is Freestone, 11km from the coast. ‘It’s cold,’ says Ullom. ‘Sometimes you never see the sun in the valley floor.’There, Marimar Torres, Joseph Phelps and other growers are planting vineyards in favoured sites, as Dan Goldfield’s partner, grower Warren Dutton, has done. ‘We get intense flavours from the long hang times and thick skins,’ says Goldfield. ‘They’re the smallest berries I’ve ever seen.’ He says the vines naturally limit yield without thinning to compensate for the rugged conditions, and produce only 17hl/ha (hectolitres/hectare).

Torres’ new vineyard includes 4.8ha in Dijon clones on a 73ha property. Densely planted, the Doña Margarita Vineyard lies in sandy loam over fractured sandstone providing the superb drainage and ability to hold water. ‘The terroir of the specific site is much more important than the overall appellation in this area,’ Torres notes, alluding to the huge and varied Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area the vineyard lies in. Phelps planted 36ha in Freestone, mostly with Pinot, though winemaker Craig Williams says they originally intended to grow Chardonnay. ‘We decided to explore Pinot because of the favourable southern exposure.’ In some ways, Merlot from cool climates is more interesting than Pinot Noir, long regarded as a cool-climate grape. Growers are now planting Merlot in areas once considered more suitable for Pinot. ‘We used to regard Merlot as an extension of Cabernet Sauvignon and planted it where Cab does well,’ notes Robert LaVine, director of grower relations for Robert Mondavi Company’s Coastal Operation, which buys and grows grapes in Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. ‘But we’ve discovered that it excels in cooler areas.’

Like Pinot, Merlot grown in cool areas produces smaller berries with greater concentration and focused black fruit, notes Ullom. Estancia’s vice president and senior winemaker Ken Shyvers says that cooler areas produce wines that are fruitier and more acidic. Among the areas where Merlot does well are warmer spots in Carneros and the upper reaches of the Russian River Valley where Pinot was once planted. Williams agrees: ‘We’ve been sliding Merlot and even Cabernet down Napa Valley to where it’s cooler,’ he says, noting that the winery just pulled up 8ha of Chardonnay in cool central Carneros to plant Merlot. To ensure the move succeeds, growers plant newly available Bordelais clones better suited to the cool areas, and have changed trellising and canopy management as well as crop loads to ensure ripening in these cool areas.Bob Iantosca, winemaker at Gloria Ferrer in western Carneros, was inspired to plant Merlot after tasting wines from cellars at nearby Cline, Havens and Truchard. He says the cool location produces deep concentration of flavour. The vines are planted on favourable rocky south facing slopes, but he finds it critical to reduce crops to ensure ripening. The winery also removes leaves to get sunlight on the berries.Cool climates also help Merlot cousin Cabernet Franc. John Kongsgaard sources it from rare volcanic sites on Lee Hudson’s ranch in Carneros, and he notes that fruit from this location produces more perfume, with notes of violets rather than the usual leather and coffee. ‘The grapes stay on the vines longer to reach the desired sugar levels, and that produces milder tannins,’ he explains.

There is a downside to growing Merlot in cool climates, however. ‘There are definitely years when it falls short,’ warns Linda Trotter at Merlot-pioneer Gundlach-Bundschu Winery in southern Sonoma county, near Hudson. Fortunately, part of the winery’s Merlot is planted on warm southwestern exposures, part on the cooler valley floor. This gives her options in sources and blending. ‘The key is sufficient hang time. Still, it’s a challenge to grow,’ she admits. Another drawback to the cooler regions is that not everyone prefers these leaner wines. Beringer Blass’ Ed Sbragia, who has built his reputation on huge reds, thinks the cool Merlots are good for blending, adding bright fruit without intensity. ‘Others might bottle them on their own,’ he admits. ‘It just depends on the style you prefer.’


All-weather grape

Syrah is a relatively new grape in California but is very promising. It does well in cool and warm climates, notes Shyvers. ‘In hot areas, it’s fruitier and more herbal but is concentrated in cooler sites.’ John Kongsgaard is best known for his Carneros Syrah, which has the intense white pepper nuances found in Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, flavours rare in warmer Syrahs. That’s what University of California at Davis professor Carole Meredith and her husband Stephen Lagier find in their cool Syrah vineyard in the Mount Veeder area. Lying at 395m on an Eastern exposure and receiving the full force of cooling afternoon winds from San Francisco Bay, their wines have the spiciness and gamey flavours of Northern Rhône wines. ‘You don’t find that in most California and Australian Syrahs,’ Meredith notes.Chalone Wine Group has even planted Cabernet in cool southern Napa Valley near Carneros on a steep hillside with a sunny southwestern exposure, but CEO Selfridge admits it’s a bit of a gamble. ‘It will be interesting to see how Cabernet does there,’ he muses. One reality of cool vineyards is risk. For a Kendall-Jackson or Mondavi with sources throughout the state, an occasional failure isn’t serious, but a small crop can threaten a small winery. Luckily, it’s a gamble some growers are willing to take. ‘The spectacular years make up for the others,’ vows Ullom.These factors do make the wines expensive. While few of these Pinots have yet achieved the fame – or price – of Napa Cabernets, they’re edging in that direction. ‘It’s more expensive to farm and pick, you get lower yields and it’s riskier,’ notes Dan Goldfield. ‘If you can’t sell the bottle of Pinot for $40–50 (£28–35), it’s not worth the effort.’

Paul Franson is a wine writer based in California.

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