By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 9 November 2019
One of my missions on my recent California trip was to find decent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which could compete with Burgundy.
For years many thought California was too warm for these cool climate grapes, but in the 1980’s Carneros’ converted sheep pastures south of Napa emerged as the hotspot for these grapes for both still and sparkling. Since late 1990’s and beyond there has been another shift, this time towards Sonoma’s cooler coast where I found a renewed sense of innovation and excitement.
Chardonnay, an easier grape to grow than Pinot Noir, was first to impress in cooler subregions of Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and its subzone Green Valley with a growing band of artisan winemakers closely following Burgundian techniques, but aiming to produce something uniquely Californian.
“Burgundy is our touchstone”, says David Ramey of Ramey Winecellars (pictured right), a passionate Chardonnay advocate. “Our wines are neo-Burgundian, but it is all to do with texture. What I am looking for is not just classic elegance, but mouthfeel – how the wine feels in the mouth - is very important”, he says.
I met up with Ramey at his winery on the outskirts of Healdsburg, a pretty town in northern Sonoma – which at the time of writing is under possible evacuation plans as October wildfires are spreading close. Ramey has been making Chardonnay in California since 1996, when he began whilst working for Christian Moeuix at Dominus in Napa. Today he owns no vineyards, but like many winemakers sources grapes from growers.
I tasted his six Chardonnays comparing Russian River Valley and Carneros. All made in the same way using whole bunch pressing, wild yeasts, barrel ferment, lees stirring and no filtration – but displaying a real difference in aromatic complexity deriving from soils and microclimates of Carneros’ Hyde and Hudson vineyards and Russian River’s Ritchie and Rochioli.
“Sonoma is generally cooler than Napa, often by 9 degrees and much more fog influenced”, says Scots-born Andy Smith (pictured right) of nearby DuMOL winery, based south of Healdsburg in Windsor.
Like Ramey, Smith is a passionate advocate of Russian River fruit. “Its mild foggy climate and low vigour soils give Chardonnay freshness with rich dense fruits”, says Smith.
Russian River valley, spreading south of Healdsburg down to Santa Rosa, was once an old apple growing area. Today, apples have been swopped for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with 70% of plantings here to Burgundian grapes.
Smith knows the area intimately focusing on 28 different plots (90% are dry farmed – he only irrigates very old vines) in a small concentrated zone in southwestern Russian River – and he also buys from growers in Sonoma Coast region.
Sonoma Coast was first explored by David Hirsch and now countless winemakers source fruit from here with Littorai, Peay, Kistler, Saintsbury and Kutch amongst my favourites. The AVA spreads inland beyond dense redwood forests into dry flatlands, but ‘true’ Sonoma Coast is on ridges above the rocky coastline 3 to 8 miles from the ocean near Freestone and Occidental where harvests are two whole weeks later than Carneros. DuMOL’s most westerly vineyard here is Joy Road planted on deep sand within a redwood forest, whilst Jamie Kutch sources from Bohan vineyard, 3 miles from the sea high up on 1,300ft ridge.
The old apple growing area of Green Valley (pictured above) on Russian River’s southwest edge is also cool and foggy, being close to Petaluma Gap, cool ocean air sweeps in. Marimar Torres (pictured right) of the famous Catalan winemaking family converted an old apple orchard to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in 1982, although Californian authorities told her there was no demand for the latter variety.
37 years later she makes impressive Chardonnays from two vineyards named after her mother and father: Don Miguel in Green Valley and Dona Margarita in Freestone Valley in Sonoma Coast – and is handing the reins to the new generation, daughter Christina.
Despite initial doubts about Pinot Noir’s success in Russian River – it is now one of California’s top destinations for the grape with an exuberant classically Californian style, with darker and richer fruits than Carneros.
One of the first to plant Pinot Noir in Russian River was Joseph Swan, making his first Pinot Noir in 1973 with advice from Andre Tchelistcheff of Beaulieu Vineyards. Swan even had a special tiny cluster Pinot Noir clone named after him. Last year Swan’s daughter Lynne and son-in-law Rod Berglund celebrated the winery’s 50th anniversary.
Like Smith & Ramey, Berglund (pictured right) was mid-harvest when I visited him arranging his picking dates and punchdowns, but had time to show me four of his Pinot Noirs: meaty rounded Cuvee de Trois, light silky Trenton Vineyard, richer intense fruits from steeper Solas Vineyard and my favourite rich powerful Trenton Estate Pinot Noir from sandy loam goldridge soil.
“Russian River Pinot Noir is all about nuance and non-uniformity”, says Smith of DuMOL, who also makes fine Pinot Noir here. “Napa is just too perfect, but in Sonoma we like variability in our wines – and we make them in a pure, classical, slow and thoughtful way here”, he says.
The new range of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs now emerging from Sonoma have wonderful precision and consistency, initially quite steely – but they also have an immediacy of texture and mouthfeel, a style which appeals to the American palate.
With California’s high production and grape costs, they are not cheap – but with Burgundy prices at an all-time high, Sonoma’s neo-Burgundians look pretty good value in comparison.
Sonoma Coast: DuMOL ISOBEL CHARDONNAY 2013 ***STAR BUY***
£58 Raeburn Wine
A site driven wine from Charles Heintz vineyard with mineral notes, herby undertones, lovely balancing acidity, honey and citrus flavours.
Sonoma Coast: KUTCH SONOMA COAST CHARDONNAY 2017
£48 Roberson Wines; Justerini & Brooks
From 47 yr old vines planted close to the ocean: floral, salty notes, bright citric and apple flavours, vivid freshness, quite linear.
Green Valley: MARIMAR TORRES LA MASIA CHARDONNAY, DON MIGUEL VINEYARD 2017
£29 Henderson Wine, Fareham Wine Cellar
Initially full ripe fruits and creamy texture, lightly spiced, savoury, nutty finishing sleek and elegant, quite European in style.
Russian River: RAMEY RITCHIE VINEYARD CHARDONNAY 2013 ***STAR BUY***
£60 Woodwinters; Majestic Wine; AG Wines; Berry Bros & Rudd
Mature lychees and honey notes; rich complex old vine Chardonnay with Ramey’s signature lush mouthfeel.
Russian River: DuMOL HIGHLAND DIVIDE PINOT NOIR 2017
£64 for 2016 Raeburn Wines
Elegant red fruit aromas, silky soft mouthfeel, freshness, ripe cherry fruits, lovely length
Russian River: DuMOL ESTATE PINOT NOIR 2015
£79 Raeburn Wines; £83 Vinorium
Scented tea, rosepetal, rich intense fruits, earthy notes, ripe tannins from Coffee Lane vineyard
Sonoma Coast: SAINTSBURY PRATT VINEYARD PINOT NOIR 2016
£35.99 All About Wine, The Drink Shop
Dark cherry, cassis fruits, dried herb and lavender notes; freshness with lushness.
Russian River: JOSEPH SWAN TRENTON ESTATE PINOT NOIR 2013 ***STAR BUY***
£37.99 Raeburn Wines
Mature bouquet, rich rounded fruits, soft silky tannins, impressive length.
Join Rose’s Burgundy v Jura tasting with French charcuterie: Wednesday 11 December, The Royal Scots Club, Edinburgh £60 www.rosemurraybrown.com