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Finding Terroir in Lost Canyon

The concept of terroir is both straightforward and well-accepted. Wine grapes’ character does change depending on where they are grown. Those differences influence the wine. However, when tasting a wine, it is not always easy to separate the effects of terroir from those of winemaking decisions.

Winemakers make hundreds of decisions between crush and release. Many of those choices — fermentation vessel and temperature, yeast selection, oak treatment, additives, sur lie aging, etc. — reverberate in the appearance, aromas, tastes and textures of a wine. Some effects, such as the aroma of coconut coming from barrels, cannot be confused with terroir. However, they can mask genuine signatures of the site.

Lost Canyon Winery  aims to show how diverse the Russian River Valley AVA can be by exposing the unique terroir of high-quality vineyards — three planted to Pinot Noir and one each for Chardonnay and Syrah. To that end, winemaker Brad Longton vinifies the different batches of a single variety as similarly as possible. Grapes are picked at approximately the same brix levels. Only native yeasts are used. Details of whole cluster inclusion, cold soak, extended maceration and frequency of punchdowns are essentially identical. Oak treatment is also 90 - 95% the same. To highlight unique, single-vineyard terroir and maintain quality, volume is kept low. Total production for the five Lost Canyon wines is just 1,800 cases. 

The Lost Canyon Tasting Room in downtown Santa Rosa

The focus of Lost Canyon is clear and their methodology seems logical. But is it effective? Do the three Pinot Noir really demonstrate significant differences in terroir between their respective vineyards? I put together a blind tasting of those wines and other Russian River Pinot Noir for myself and a small panel of experienced tasters. I knew the Lost Canyon wines were in the mix, but not which wines they were. The panel knew only that they were tasting Pinot Noir from Northern California. Noe of us had tasted Lost Canyon wines previously. And, at the time of the tasting, I didn’t know anything about Lost Canyon’s goals or technique. In short, we were simply evaluating the wines for quality and what they expressed with no expectations whatsoever.

We found all three of the Lost Canyon Pinot Noir to be very good. The wines were also remarkably different from each other, to the extent that we were surprised they all came from the same winery. The wines are also different enough that people have clear favorites among them depending on their preference of Pinot Noir style.

Tasting Notes for 2009 Lost Canyon Pinot Noir

2009 Lost Canyon Pinot Noir Goff-Whitton Vineyard, Russian River Valley, $45
The nose is medium+ intensity with aromas of rich black cherry, caramel, cola, eucalyptus, and vanilla. The body is solidly medium+ with acidity that falls just short of medium+ and fully-integrated tannins. The creamy, boldly flavored Goff-Whitton tastes of wild cherry, sandalwood, spice and rhubarb. It will go well with light meat dishes on up to filet mignon. It is sufficiently smooth and engaging to drink on its own as well. 14.5% alcohol. Highly Recommended+

2009 Lost Canyon Pinot Noir Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, $45
Medium intensity aromatically with a core of macerated red cherry plus notes of bubblegum, spice, vanilla, orange an earth. Taken as a whole, it's aroma reminds me somewhat of cherry-vanilla ice cream. In the mouth it is on the generous side of medium with acidity and smooth tannins to match. The flavors are pretty, but laid back, and show tart red cherry, vanilla, cedar and dry forest floor. 14.4% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2009 Lost Canyon Pinot Noir Morelli Lane Vineyard, Russian River Valley, $45
Medium+ intensity on the nose with aromas of cedar, raspberry, caramel, mushroom, coffee grounds and spice. Medium-bodied with medium+ acidity and flavor intensity. I tasted cedar, game, spice, raspberry and earth. 14.1% alcohol. Highly Recommended+

The three 2009 Lost Canyon Pinot Noir are distinct from each other. They also reflect, at a minimum, the climatic differences between the three vineyards. Here is more detail on those sites:

  • Goff-Whitton Vineyard: This vineyard, established in 1999, includes 25 acres of Pinot Noir clones 115, Pommard, 113 and Beringer planted in Goldridge Loam. It’s a slightly undulating site in Graton, just west of Hwy 116. Partially lined with eucalyptus trees, it used to be an apple orchard.
  • Saralee’s Vineyard: A long-established vineyard in the northern part of the Russian River Valley. It’s also benchland but the soil is clay and the site is the warmest of the three and the first to shed its fog each morning. The clones are 115 and 777.
  • Morelli Lane Vineyard: This 25-year old vineyard is on Harrison Grade Road. It’s northwest of Occidental and on the backside of the hills that form Green Valley’s southwestern border. The terrain is fairly flat, but at 600 - 700 feet. The soil is Goldridge Loam and the clones 115 and Pommard.

It’s interesting to compare the wines from Goff-Whitton and Morelli Lane, since both are predominantly from 115 and Pommard clones in Goldridge Loam. The former is in a warm area, both lower in altitude and farther from the ocean than Morelli. The resulting wine is ripe and fleshy with a mouthful of black cherry. The eucalyptus trees next to the vineyard also make themselves known in the wine’s nose. In contrast, the Morelli Lane wine represents one of the very coolest parts of the Russian River Valley. It is a lean wine with zingy acidity and lighter, less ripe red fruit that lets subtle notes such as mushroom to show through.

About Lost Canyon Winery

Lost Canyon is, along with Fritz Underground Winery and Jenner Vineyards, under the proprietorship of Clayton Fritz. Whereas Lost Canyon is focused on single-vineyard Russian River Valley wines, Fritz makes appellation blends from Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley. Jenner offers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. All of the wines are made by Brad Longton and at the same facility.

The Lost Canyon brand used to be under different ownership. At that time, it had a tasting room in Oakland near Jack London Square. Fritz bought the company in 2008, because of it’s long-term contracts with prime Russian River Valley vineyards, but overhauled the winemaking. Lost Canyon now has a tasting room in downtown Santa Rosa. Most of their wine is sold direct to consumers.

Other Lost Canyon Wines

Lost Canyon makes a Trenton Station Syrah which I've not tasted. The Lost Canyon Chardonnay comes from the Ruxton Vineyard on Harrison Grade Road near Occidental and not far from Morelli Lane. Ruxton was a prune orchard until it's conversion to vineyard in the 1960's. The current vines are roughly 35 years old Wente clone Chardonnay. The soil is a very dusty, sandy Goldridge Loam over serpentine bedrock.

2010 Lost Canyon Chardonnay Ruxton Vineyard, Russian River Valley, $35
Lemon-green in color with aromas of warm butter, yellow apple, dusty oak, savory bread and spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla). The palate is medium+ weight with bracing acidity excellent length. The fruit is simultaneously ripe and tart with lemon, green and yellow apple and pear all showing. There are also feral and mineral notes. 14% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

Winemaker Brad Longton

Brad Longton is a native of Perth, Australia. But, while he worked one season in Margaret River and another at Brown Brothers in Victoria, the vast majority of his training came in the United States. He has lived here for 12 years. For seven years, he has been the Fritz winemaker. Prior to that he held positions at Heitz Cellars, Clos du Bois and Murphy-Goode.

Longton got his start in the industry as a salesman in wine shops. He took winery jobs and internships to learn more about wine so that he could better sell it. However, he quickly discovered that he enjoyed working on the production side much more than in sales.


The wines reviewed above were provided by the winery.

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This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photo courtesy of Lost Canyon. All rights reserved.