Food & Drink

Exploring Pinot Noir From California’s Finest Vineyards With Winemaker Greg Stach

Most wines take on the identity of where they are produced, but few offer a wider variety of styles than Pinot Noir. As the grape ripens late in the growing season, it needs a cool climate to express its most expressive aromatics as well maintain proper acidity for balance and aging potential.

Numerous wineries throughout California have worked for many years searching throughout the state for the best Pinot Noir sites; these vineyards are situated in sites from Russian River Valley in Sonoma in northern California to the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County in the southern part of the state. Each vineyard lends certain characteristics to the wines, which makes Pinot Noir such a fascinating wine – this is truly an exploration of terroir.

These days, several wines estates in California work in this manner, producing multiple Pinot Noirs from various vineyards; one of the most successful has been Landmark Vineyards, located in Sonoma County. This is a bit ironic as Landmark was founded in the 1970s as a winery that specialized in Chardonnay; today Chardonnay remains one of the firm’s signature wines, with Pinot Noir becoming a rising star.

I recently interviewed Stach via Zoom, to learn his thoughts about the vineyards he works with as well as his ideas about Pinot Noir in general. One of the vineyards he sources fruit from is La Encantada in Santa Barbara County. While you might think Southern California would be too warm to produce high quality Pinot Noir, Stach points out that this is site is situated in an east-west valley, with this particular vineyard located very far west, thus closer to the Pacific Ocean. “The vines just get blasted with winds, non-stop early in the season,” comments Stach. These breezes from the ocean help mitigate the heat, making this particular micro-climate cool enough for Pinot Noir.

“It’s probably our leanest Pinot Noir,” notes the winemaker. “I always get a lot of rose hip and rose and forest floor flavors. I love the wine, it’s very special.” I enjoyed the current 2018 release very much as well (my tasting notes are below), especially for its black spice notes and black cherry fruit.

A second site for Pinot Noir at Landmark is the Escolle vineyard in the Santa Lucia Higlands in Monterey County. Nearby is Steinbeck country, and along with lettuce and other vegetables, Pinot Noir is one of the area’s most important crops. “The soils here are deep and well-drained,” says Stach. “This is one of the colder spots in Santa Lucia.”

The winemaker says he is not exactly sure why, but he believes the cool temperatures at this site result in a “bigger, plummier wine” than the other winery Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara or Sonoma.

A third Landmark Pinot Noir is from the Hop Kiln estate in Russian River Valley; located on Westside Road, this is the heart of Russian River Valley. “I really love the richness of this wine,” comments Stach. He notes that for the 2018 vintage, from a cool growing season, the grapes were harvested in the second week of September. “These are pretty much the first Pinot Noir grapes are picked in this area.”

Summing up these single vineyard Pinot Noirs, Stach remarks, “these are prototypical Pinot Noirs of where they are coming from. This Russian River wine is bigger and richer … there’s a lot of table cherry fruit, rather than the bright cherry fruit you get in the La Encantada. There are some cola notes, which I associate with the Russian River.”

As for food pairings, Stach says, “the Russian River wine is big enough to stand up to barbecued brisket,” while for the La Encantada, “you could go either way. You could do salmon or roast chicken with it,” while he also thinks any dish with mushrooms would also be a great pairing.

It’s been exciting to see how Pinot Noir producers throughout the state have discovered so many terrific sites, and Landmark has certainly done their part to let the world know how special California Pinot Noir truly is.

My tasting notes on these three Landmark Pinot Noirs.

Landmark Vineyards Pinot Noir Hop Kiln Estate 2018 (Russian River Valley)

Bright garnet; aromas of black cherry, cardamon and hints of licorice and black mint. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration; very good acidity, medium-weight tannins, evident oak notes. Good persistence, black spice notes in the finish, along with a note of black cherry jam. Impressive, this can be enjoyed now, but will reveal more character on another 2-3 years; peak in 6-8 years, perhaps longer. (91)

Landmark Vineyards Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard 2018 (Sta. Rita Hills)

Deep garnet; aromas of black cherry, raspberry, white pepper and a hint of cumin. Medium-full with excellent concentration, this has ripe black fruit and black spice notes on the palate. Medium-full tannins, nicely integrated wood notes, very good acidity. There is good persistence along with distinct black spice notes in the finish. Give another 2-3 years to display greater complexities; peak in 10-12 years. (92)

Landmark Vineyards Pinot Noir Escolle Vineyard 2018 (Santa Lucia Highlands)

Beautiful young garnet with crimson edges; aromas of Damson plum, black raspberry and hints of sage and Asian spice. Medium-full with excellent concentration, a rich, layered mid-palate and excellent persistence. This is a ripe Pinot Noir with noticeable extract, very good acidity, medium-full tannins and excellent complexity. This is a sexy style of Pinot Noir that will pair well tonight with duck breast with raspberry or plum sauce, or it could be laid away for 10 years, perhaps even another year or two after that. (94)


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