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by Darren Delmore, May 14, 2013
“I wish I could be a cheerleader for this,” Jim Klein of Navarro warned me about the ageability of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, “but things get old. Nobody wants to see 80 year olds go at it.”
Although not entirely true (Google “Granny Fetish”), Navarro’s winemaker may be right about the fact that the ever delicate Pinot Noir grape isn’t Cabernet, and therefore might not get any tastier with time. “I wish I could tell everyone ‘oh yeah set ‘em down’, but I think our Pinot Noirs taste great until about twelve years old. I have seen ‘em age longer but they’re an aberration. Wine is there to be drunk and enjoyed and to think you have to be a postage stamp collector… There’s so much postage stamp mentality in collecting wines and at the end of the day a stamp is just ink and paper.”
Zach “Snowball” Rasmuson, who lived and worked in the valley for over 12 years, has a slightly different opinion on the issue. I asked him what happens to Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs when they age and he proffered the word “balance”. He cited a key moment in 2000 when he worked at Husch that opened his eyes to the ageability of Pinot Noir.
“I had this opportunity to do a vertical at Husch back to the mid 1970’s,” he said. “The wines were impeccable. They showed a freshness that shocked me at the time.” Zach had dreads down to his Boston‐bred buttcheeks in those days, and the wines he was tasting were 10‐15 years old, with alcohol levels from 12 to 13.5 percent. Growers picked their vineyards earlier and at lower sugar levels in the 1970’s and 1980’s than they do now, resulting in lower alcohols, higher acids, and lower PH levels in the finished wines. These are all the three components that can make a wine age longer and get more delicious with years in the bottle.
Goldeneye Winery is often cited for making the modern times‐style of rich, oak‐driven Pinot Noirs. I was curious about what happens to these wines with some age. “They get gout,” Zach joked, before giving me the straight answer. “We’re babes in the new world in terms of producing legitimately excellent Pinot Noir wines. In the last fifteen years we’ve found the correct places to plant, and are just now discovering what potential they have to age. I recently tasted the ’98, 2003, and 2004 Goldeneyes and they were all showing very well.”
Jim Klein did a retrospective tasting of the Navarro Vineyard Pinot Noirs for the Anderson Valley Vintners’ Association recently, which provided a chance to look at some older vintages of their wines. “We had the ‘92 and it was tasting good. Some vintages age better than others. Some maintain fruit. I like wines that have fruit, and being a winemaker I deal with new wines with a lot of fruit. As wines age they get more sherry like. Wines that are in that younger stage – five to nine years old – they have a bit of that licorice‐anise thing from aging but they still have that cherry fruit.”
“With eight to ten years of bottle age, Anderson Valley Pinots put on some fat,” Witching Stick’s winemaker Van Williamson said to me during my first trip to the valley in 2003. He had opened up a shiner bottle of 1997 Edmeades Pinot Noir that was in a weird box buried behind the winery, and sent me home with a bottle of it to give to my mother for Christmas. After tasting through all his Zinfandels at that time, this older Pinot Noir was a revelation.
I wondered if there was any correlation about wines from the cooler climate Deep End having more longevity than Pinots that are grown in Boonville proper. “I would say that our Deep End lasts a little longer,” Jim said. “That wine has always been estate bottled and we’re pretty meticulous in how we tend our vines during the year and that shows in ageability. I had a nine‐year old Deep End at last year’s Pinot Fest barbecue at Husch that somebody brought – that would’ve been from ‘01 or ‘02. Somebody else had a wine from the Boonville area from the same year and that wine was gone. You might say the wines from the cooler areas have a bit more longevity. I’m not in this game for the ageability side of things. I’m always tasting and thinking about the next vintage and how I can make it better.”
With California Pinot Noir, I’m personally a proponent of what’s called “short‐term cellaring”, which means stashing bottles for 3‐5 years from the vintage date. I’ve mostly had decent results, with a handful of Pinots from the warmer areas like Santa Rita Hills or Santa Maria Valley fading their fruit faster than wine critics who’d praised these wines expected. This leaves you with somewhat of a dull glass that’s still drinkable, but just boring. When I first got into buying and aging red wine, my logic was everything had to be aged for ten years, no matter what the varietal was. I learned my lesson with over the hill ripe wines from Australia that aromatically turned to prunes and homeless pubic hair, California Pinot Noirs that tasted like the kitchen compost bucket, and high scoring Santa Barbara County Syrah that simply smelled like someone ate at Libby’s and farted in my wine glass. And these were all wines that wine critics claimed had an aging window of 10‐15 years. To their credit, my first modest collection of wines wasn’t stored properly (in a coastal garage a block from the ocean), and because of the inconsistent swing of temperature, I feel that those wines went on fast forward and evolved quicker than they might have had I stored them in a temperature controlled wine cellar or refrigerator set at 55 degrees.
Another way of getting Pinot Noir to age and stay fresher longer is the way you choose to seal your bottle. Enter Allan Green of Greenwood Ridge Vineyard. “We are big advocates for screw cap,” he said. “We had one vintage where we had a lot of problems with corked wines. We took a trip to Australia and New Zealand and everything is in screwcaps. I figured if it works with them it’ll work for us. All of our wines are Stelvin (closure) now.”
Allan started making Pinot in the early ‘90’s from Roederer’s vineyard. “We planted in ‘96. We have 4 acres. The wines are different between Anderson Valley and the Ridge. The ridgetop location is out of the fog much earlier than the valley. We have more hours of sun in September and October. We didn’t keep our earlier Pinots beyond ten years because I was worried that the corks would go south. Now that I have them in screw caps I’m going to keep them longer. There’s multiple factors in aging – there’s the oxidative aspect then there’s the reductive aspect (screwcap). One thing people don’t think about when you bottle a wine with a cork is you have a very small headspace. With a screwcap you have an inch or more in there. You probably have more air in the screwcap bottle when it’s bottled than you do with a cork.”
One of the most respected young winemakers in the valley is Phil Baxter. He already has a reputation for making ageable wines, and he and his wife Claire even cellar their wines until they feel they are ready for release. I asked him if this all stems from his winemaking experience in Burgundy at Domaine Bougeraie. “Going to Davis is great,” he said. “You learn a lot about wine and theory and the details for science but they prepare you to work for Gallo. That wasn’t the route I took. When I went to Burgundy I worked really closely with the staff. You can learn the theories but you got to do it. My Burgundy education. Everything I do is based on a hunch. My wife noticed that everything we do is the slow long way. Starting with the fermentation. We don’t inoculate with yeast. We don’t inoculate for [malolactic fermentation]. Because of that my biggest danger zone is over winter. We don’t do the 10‐month aging kind of thing – we do the 18 to 24 month thing with neutral oak. We don’t get the slutty character from new oak. It’s like the slow food of wine. Everything we do is long and slow and that carries into the wine. They’re better on day two. That’s the way they were born.”
I asked him what makes Anderson Valley Pinot Noir age longer than their southern counterparts. “It’s the ideal combination of tannic structure and acid. I’m a huge acid fan. You get a lot of cranberry and black tea structure. The fact that Anderson Valley Pinot Noir can get ripe on that austere level… I don’t think the 2012’s are going to be the most age worthy wines, but they will get big points and be showy. I think 2009 is my quintessential of the two – you get good concentration and the acids were there.”
I wanted to investigate how Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ages with short‐term cellaring. I solicited a group of bottles from a handful of wineries, and these were wines from 2007 or older that the participating winemakers felt were holding up rather well. I noticed some similarities in the vintages they picked: 2007, 2005, and 2004 were famous wine‐growing years here, but I did try a couple 2006 wines in this report. The notes are below.
“The real value is the enjoyment you get out of that bottle,” Jim Klein summed it all up.
2007 Twomey Anderson Valley
Both savory and powdered doughnut scents lead into the olfactory friendly world of this epic, purple‐red wine from Silver Oak. This reminds me of a warm vintage Willamette Valley Pinot Noir with its rich yet restrained cherry flavors and sage, mint, and rosemary aromatics. The Twomey is in outstanding shape with no bricking on the rim. Comes in with its own cloak of sweetness on the entry before the herbal savory brightness takes over and storms into a powerful, concentrated, bitter finish. Very dry and with 1‐3 years of life left to live. This wine is in need of food because of its bone dryness and high acidity. This inaugural release of Twomey Anderson Valley Pinot Noir has long been sold out.
Drew 2007 Monument Tree Vineyard
The darkest of Drew’s 2007’s has a nose of the redwood forest, raspberry, sandalwood, and a confectionary note like a box of Wonka Tart n’ Tiny candy. The oak, fruit and earth are in balance. A lavish mouthfeel skirts through a world of raspberries, cherries, herbs de Provence, peppermint and rooiboos tea on the warm finish. Six months ago a bottle of this showed stronger tannins and robust fruit. 2007 MacPhail Frattey Shams Vineyard
One of the most sinister names of a vineyard (Frattey Shams), it conjures up images of tarred and feathered adolescents, dancing female flanks in frayed cut off jeans, and Coors Light fueled freshmen hung off raging balconies in the nude by their ankles while Frat brothers squeeze Hershey syrup up their anuses for initiation. This 2007 MacPhail Frattey Shams is the oldest wine in appearance, with unfiltered deposits too, this wine is what I think of when I hear the term “wild yeast”. All of MacPhail’s wines are fermented without the addition of commercial yeast strains, and the Frattey Shams smells wild, funky, and moody at first. With a deep swirl it reveals an awesome combination of pennyroyal, buttered herb, cranberry, patchouli and spice. At first taste, the French oak is winning out on the remaining raspberry laden fruit at the moment. The wine leaves you with a fresh rhubarb taste in the mouth and a bitterness. At its peak.
Black Kite 2007 Stony Terrace
An unreal gust of ripe raspberry, warm cherry pie, pine needles and sweet French oak on the nose. Think Joan from Mad Men. Flamboyant fruit and baking spice aromatics lead into a dark rich core of ripe yet contained Pinot on the palate. As mysterious and alluring as the label itself. Definitely the richer style of Pinot Noir and an absolute bombshell from the valley. 2004 Baxter Toulouse Vineyard
Holding well in color for a nine year old wine. Smells like a dried flower arrangement of red roses, teashop, caramel, and only slight leathery secondary aromatics. Has a resin sap quality in the mouth, with cinnamon and Mothers Iced Oatmeal cookies. Not underripe by any means, with plenty of mellow, dried red fruit and good spice.
2006 Greenwood Ridge Estate Mendocino Ridge
California Sangiovese like color and aromatics. – red fruit, some tea spice, rootbeer, vanilla, and new cat litter. Healthy, bright ruby red color with just a hint of some age at the rim. Sweet, delicious oak cloaks the taste of it all, with a bit of heat on the finish. A lip smacking red wine that could be Barossa Grenache, Redwood Valley Sangiovese, or Pinot Noir. Hard not to love this 2006 for its amazing freshness: a combination of great winemaking and Stelvin closure.
2005 MacPhail Toulouse Vineyard
The wine opens up with a new car leather nose, but with a swirl, the fluid that’s showing its age but still with a healthy red core has cool seaweed, pencil lead and eraser, grenadine, buttery sage, and pepper aromas. On the palate it comes in rich on the raspberry side. This is an epic wine and definitely at its peak. From the thick, heavy glass bottle days of Cali Pinot, and the vintage that made MacPhail famous. ¥¥