Monday, July 20, 2009

Ancien Wines: Vintage Pinot Noir

It’s common knowledge that some of the best Pinot Noir receives generous assistance from coastal winds and fog. So why is Ken Bernards, the winemaker of Ancien Wines, choosing the lower Napa Valley? The close proximity to San Pablo Bay is a partial answer, as is the higher elevation here in the shadow of Mt. George. Actually, I’m not sure how much shadow the mountain provides, but it makes for a nice poetic image, don’t you think?

I recently toured the vineyards and sampled the wines of Ancien with Curtis Strohl, the marketing director. We went back in time viewing vines from generations back, observing the different vine pruning and trellis techniques that have evolved in Napa. The Coombsville/Mt. George area has produced outstanding fruit for many years, and is now coming into its own as dedicated and visionary enologists make unique Napa Cabs.

Ken also crafts wonderful cabs, but his passion at Ancien is to produce elegant Pinot Noir from a varied range of vineyards, each an expression of the terroir in which the grapes are grown. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris round out the varieties Ken focuses on here. Each wine is very special, but the Pinots are what I’ve been eagerly looking forward to this day, as I’m a confirmed Pinot junkie.

Curtis set us up under the shade of a sprawling tree and we tasted a number of single-vineyard Pinots, followed by the Chardonnay. The Mink vineyard, which is next door to the winery, provides one example of an Ancien Pinot. Some of the oldest vines of this grape in Napa have been grown here, aided by maritime winds and moisture. One of the secrets of this pinot is the soil, which begins with a few feet of alluvial clays and cobblestones and then a layer of compressed volcanic ash, called tufa. The 2007 Mink Vineyards Pinot Noir delivered on its promise, as did all of the sampled wines.

Ancien suggests that the wine will continue to develop for 7-10 years, which is indicative of a hand-crafted Burgundian-quality pinot. The 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is totally different, but consistent with the Sonoma coastal area varieties. Even so, this one stands out from many others I’ve tried over the years. The 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir, from the Napa side of the Carneros region, brings yet another expression of Ancien’s philosophy to create vineyard-unique wines.

Finally, we go down to the Santa Rita Hills near Lompoc, California for the 2006 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir. Significant coastal influence impacts the fruit of this wine as well. This wine has already sold out, but the others mentioned are still available. Prices range from $36 to $48, well-priced for the quality, and each is an excellent representative of its location, and reflects the crafting of a well-made wine.

Curtis then poured the 2006 Carneros Chardonnay. Normally in a wine tasting the whites are sampled before the reds, but not if the wine is a big Burgundian-style Chardonnay like this one. Then you simply marvel at the wonderful complexity, good acidity, and opulent fruit.

The last wine was a barrel-tasting of the 2008 Sonoma Mountain Red Dog Pinot Noir, as the 06 has already sold out and the 07 just recently bottled. I can see why it sells out early, even sampling from the cask. Maybe I should just buy a case now. Salud!

Coombsville or Tulocay: What’s in a Name

Once again, Judy Diaz has provided a set of not-to-be-missed wineries for me to sample. This time, we’re in Coombsville, a wine district with distinct terroir, but, as yet, without an AVA (American Viticultural Area). There was some debate as to what name to use. The submitted and rejected choice was Tulocay, but as this is also the name of the local cemetery, it did not have a lot of support. “Try the wines of Tulocay, they’re dry as dust”, just brings in the wrong connotations, don’t you think?

Others think Coombsville sounds redneck. Touring the area, feeling the rich volcanic soil, and the beautiful vineyards that lace the hillsides, redneck is the last thing to come to my mind. And after all, it’s not called Hicksville. (Oh boy, I’ll hear it from the Hicksville folks now.) Whatever they finally call it, some very special wines come from this area of Napa, and interest is growing fast.

The proximity to San Pablo Bay keeps the area cooler than the Napa valley floor north of here. Many vineyards are located at 300 to 500 feet. The grapes mature to full ripeness without the higher sugar content of the hotter areas of Napa. Fruit from this region has been used to make outstanding Bordeaux-styled wines for many years, but only recently has the area come into its own for its smaller lot producers.

The red grapes produce wines that are very dark and blue-black in color. Typical flavors of dark fruit and plums, layered with dried herbs and black olives make for unique and flavorful wines. The tannins are silky and fine, with good alcohol levels and acidity, making for nicely balanced wines. The ones I tried expressed a subtle power and grace and made me an instant believer in what this area’s terroir brings to the plate.

We visited three very different, but very good wineries in this tour: Ancien Wines, Porter Family Vineyards, and Tournesol. One thing they all have in common is winemaker Ken Bernards. Ken is the founder and wine maker for Ancien Wines where he pursues his goal to create Pinot Noir from a wide range of vineyard locations. Visionary Winemaker should probably be his full title, as he has exhibited great vision since turning to the craft in 1986.

Beginning as a research enologist at Domain Chandon, he took over as winemaker at Truchard Vineyards, making hand-crafted single-vineyard wines while founding and getting Ancien off the ground. He also helped design the high-tech winery of Porter Family Vineyards. His understanding of the unique terroir of the Coombsville/Mt. George area is probably second to none. Tasting the wines of all three sites, I can attest to his skills.

Our host on this tour was Curtis Strohl, the marketing director of Ancien Wines, who provided good background on the wineries and their history, and introductions to the winemakers. His personal and friendly approach accounted for much of the success of the tour. Thank you, Curtis.

Please see the related blogs on each of these wineries for descriptions of some of the special wines that come from this district.