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An Early Taste of 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

I attended the annual Taste of Mendocino in San Francisco on Tuesday. The event brings together wineries, food purveyors and tourism-focused businesses from all over Mendocino County. There was a wide array of wines to try and some focused seminars. Of particular interest was a seminar looking at 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.

2011 was a problematic vintage in much of California. It was a cool year and thus late-ripening. That wouldn’t have been a big problem, but heavy rains hit mid-harvest. The Fall weather was too cold to dry the bunches adequately. Aggressive rot resulted in many cases. Anderson Valley didn’t escape these problems. However, as in most regions, there were individual vineyards that did get lucky. This diversity of fortune and the way winemakers dealt with the challenges was fascinating as was experiencing the resulting wines.

Zac Robinson, who owns and runs Husch Vineyards with his sister Amanda Holstine, passionately described the effect those 2011 rains had on his personal vineyard [from which he sells all of the fruit]. “Being a farmer sucks. Grapes were rotting so fast you could almost see it happening,” he exclaimed. It’s clear 2011 is a year he’ll never forget.

Robinson, his wife and some friends went out into that vineyard the night before harvest. Clippers and flashlights in hand they sought out, cut and dropped every single bunch that displayed even the slightest hint of rot. Pickers move fast, especially when there’s the threat of more rain or a lot of tense growers on their schedule. Robinson wanted to make sure there was no possibility for bad fruit to reach a winery. “You don’t want to take five-dollar bills and cut them in half, but you have to do it if you care about quality,” he said.

Other vineyards emerged unscathed. Phil Baxter, winemaker at Baxter Winery, said the vines he uses at Valenti Vineyard were totally untouched by rot. That vineyard is the highest he works with, roughly 1,600 feet and just 5 miles from the ocean. Presumably the greater sun exposure, lack of fog and high winds common at elevation kept moisture from lingering on the grapes. Baxter’s luck didn’t hold elsewhere though. Valenti is the only 2011 vineyard-designate he made.

Some winemakers avoided rot by picking early. They didn’t have advance knowledge that the rains would be so severe, but felt they’d gotten enough ripeness and didn’t want to take chances. The resulting wines are particularly light in color and alcohol but still have good flavors and aromas. For example, Van Williams2011 Witching Stick Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir weighs in at just 12.8% alcohol. “You’d have to try very hard to produce Pinot Noir that low in alcohol in a normal year,” he pointed out. The wine is pretty and delicate on the nose. It’s a smidge tart on the palate but will be less so after some time in bottle or with a bite of wild mushroom risotto.

Those who didn’t pick early took other measures. Mary Elke said her vineyard got slammed with four inches of rain during harvest, something that had never happened before in her 22+ years of wine-growing. Along with selective picking and sorting, she adjusted her winemaking style slightly. She limited extended maceration and reduced crush pressure to minimize the chance of any botrytis influence. That means her wine is also lighter in color than normal. However, the yield was actually higher than average and the “Boonville Barter” is a friendly, tasty bargain at its $20 price point.

Brian Mast took yet another approach for his 2011 Waits-Mast Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir. He picked “a full week after the rains and did extra leafing [leaf removal] around clusters to promote airflow.” Mast said he saw no botrytis at all. The extra ripening time gave him a fuller, darker wine and the alcohol is more typical at 14%.

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 3.55.15 PMWith all this variation in circumstance and approach, are there common threads among the wines? Deb Schatzlein, winemaker-owner at Bink, calls it a “red fruit year” and that’s certainly true. You’ll find all varieties of red cherry, raspberry, cranberry and rhubarb, but no black cherry or dark berries. Jason Drew, winemaker-owner at Drew and winemaker for Balo whose 2011 he poured in the seminar, characterized the tannins as “silky as opposed to velvety” and believes “the wines will age gracefully.” He was speaking mostly of the Balo, but I found it applies to a number of others.

2011 was an aberration in many ways but just one in a series of odd years. Sarah Cahn Bennett returned to her family’s Navarro Vineyards a few years ago after finishing studies in viticulture and enology. Since then she’s spent much of her time in the vineyard and says, “I haven’t seen an ‘average’ vintage yet.”

While 2011 was generally a very difficult year in Anderson Valley that doesn’t mean it’s a vintage to avoid. The better growers and winemakers took a number of different approaches to mitigate Mother Nature’s bad mood and have produced some good stuff. Many of the wines aren’t “typical” for Anderson Valley, but there’s plenty to enjoy and, as Phil Baxter pointed out, the challenges led to unique and interesting details in the nose and palate.

The 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir wines presented

2011 Mary Elke “Boonville Barter” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley
Light ruby color with aromas of cedar, forest floor and cherry. Medium-bodied palate, moderate and integrated light-grained tannins. Flavorful with brown sugar, red cherries, dry wood and sarsaparilla. An easy-drinker and a good value. 13.5% alcohol. Recommended.

2011 Waits-Mast Pinot Noir Wentzel Vineyard, Anderson Valley
Medium-minus ruby color with aromas of a gentle forest breeze. Tangy cherry, spice and marshmallow creme flavors are backed by fine-grained tannins. Give it a little time in bottle or swirl like a dervish. 14.0% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

2011 Witching Stick Pinot Noir Cerise Vineyard, Anderson Valley
Light- to Medium-minus ruby color but more generous on the nose. Aromas of dark flowers, sandalwood, dry herb and red cherry. More red cherry on the palate along with dry herb. The tannins are moderate and fine-grained. It’s a wee bit tart but well-suited to food and just 12.8% alcohol. Recommended.

2011 Balo Estate Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley
Medium-minus ruby color and a savory nose of dark spice, including clove, herb and red fruit. Body is on the generous side of medium with matching fine-grained tannins. Dark spice and herb flavors embellish a core of wild cherry. Highly Recommended.

2011 Harmonique Delicacé Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley
It may be some time before this wine hits market as the current release is 2007. Earthy cherry, spice, herb and even leather on the complex nose. Body is medium-plus with very fine-grained tannins matched well with acidity. Cola, cherry and spice flavors lead into a juicy finish. 13.2% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

2011 Husch Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley
Medium-minus ruby and one of the more effusive noses with the 2011’s with cedar, forest floor, raspberry and spice aromatics and flavors to match. Recommended+.

2011 Bink Pinot Noir Thomas T. Thomas Vineyard, Anderson Valley
Another wine from grapes picked before the rain it nonetheless shows dark red cherry aromas and flavors in addition to earth, spice and meat. Medium-plus body and moderate, very fine-grained tannins. 13.5% alcohol. Recommended.

2011 Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley
Mellow spice, wood and red fruit on the nose. Medium-plus body, fine, moderate tannins and notable acidity with flavors of red fruit, delicate spice and wood.

2011 Baxter Pinot Noir Valenti Vineyard, Anderson Valley
Medium-minus ruby with aromas of dry herb and peppery, foresty spice. Relatively bold red fruit flavors with herb and spice are framed by acidity. Tannins are moderate with talc-like. 12.5% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

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