California is blessed with almost perfect growing conditions for grapes. This is a good thing. But sometimes it can be too much of a good thing. Over-ripeness and large-scale winemaking have been obliterating the fruit for the past 40 years. Many of the wines have become so ripe, over-extracted and in your face that they’ve lost all sense of terroir. I’m not saying that all California wines are like this but lots are, especially the large, branded wines. There are some wines on the market today, very popular wines by the way, that are so far removed from the grape they’re made from it’s almost funny. Pinot Noirs that taste like Aussi Shiraz and Chardonnays that are all butter, caramel and sugar line the shelves of supermarkets and box retailers. Enough is enough.
Over the past decade or so, there’s been a movement in California being led by young, dynamic winemakers across the state that are eschewing these in your face wines and getting back to the land. They are crafting wines with little to no manipulation. They want the wines to taste like the grape and place they are made from. Their mission is to get back to balanced, elegant wines that transmit terroir. They think it’s time to make wines taste like they did before prohibition and in the 1970’s when elegance trumped power. This is a far departure from some of the large wine conglomerates who are being forced to take notice.
But it’s not just about new, young wine makers. There are some producers who’ve been crafting balanced, elegant wines for decades. They’ve resisted the temptation to follow the herd and have kept true to their principles and style. Some producers to look for are Au Bon Climat, Ridge, Littorai and Calera.
2013 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast
Jim Jensen went to Oxford University for a master’s degree and wound up in France working in a cellar in Burgundy. He knew then that he was destined to make wine in a style as close to Burgundy as he could but in California. When he returned home to California he spent years traveling around the central coast looking for soils similar to those in Burgundy. He even went so far as pouring hydrochloric acid on the soil in the hopes of finding limestone, the calcium-rich soils he fell in love with in France. In 1974 he finally found some in a former lime quarry in the mountains above San Benito County east of Monterey. He purchased 324 acres (almost impossible today!) and got to work. Many thought he was crazy. But Mr. Limestone, as he is called, new exactly what he was doing.
Jim was way ahead of his time. When everyone else was starting to chase ripeness, big wines and big scores he held steady to his elegant, Burgundian style of wine making. It only took about 35 years for everyone else to come around to his way of thinking. His Central Coast wines, a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are some of the best values and most consistently good wines coming out of the state. He sources grapes from about a dozen vineyards up and down the coast, ferments with indigenous yeasts, uses mostly whole clusters to make balanced wines of precision.
The 2013 Central Coast Pinot Noir was sourced from 10 vineyards. Each lot was fermented separately in open-top fermenters. The wine was then moved to French oak barrels, 10% new, for eleven months before being blended and bottled. This was a bit closed at first but it really opened up after a few minutes in the glass. There is a core of red cherry fruit underneath some earth, underbrush and violet. It’s silky smooth with bright acidity and great texture. Plenty of fruit and spice with a long finish. At under $20 you can’t beat this for the price.