I attended a tasting at the Wine Country in Signal Hill, Calif. of Pinot Noir wines from the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley AVAs in Santa Barbara County, Calif. Most of the wines were rated in the 90s by Tanzer and the Wine Advocate(WA).

I was drawn to the tasting for the opportunity to taste a bottle of 2012 Pinot Noir from Domaine de la Cote, a new, highly acclaimed winery that started operation in 2013. Wine writer Jamie Goode referred to the 2011 la Cote vineyard Pinot Noir($90) from Domaine de la Cote as a wine “that will blow your mind” and rated it at 95. Domaine de la Cote wines are made to reflect their terroir as typified by their 2012 Pinot Noir which was fermented with 50% whole clusters using native yeast and aged in 0% new oak barrels.

The following comments at the K&L wine store web site describe how the vineyards at Domaine de la Cote were planted and how they express their terroir:

“Domaine de la Cote is a collection of 6 vineyards planted over 40 acres on the furthest western edge of the Sta Rita Hills appellation: Memoirous (3.5 acres), Bloom’s Field (7.5 acres), Siren’s Call (3 acres), Clos Juliet (1 acre), La Cote (9.5 acres), and 15.5 acres of appellation Sta. Rita Hills. Dramatically rising to an elevation of 700 feet above the Santa Ynez River, the Domaine lies on an account 25 million year old siliceous (silex) and diatomaceous seabed 7 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Originally part of the Evening Land Vineyards program, the Domaine was purchased by Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman, along with their partner, at the beginning of 2013. Sasha Moorman discovered the site and developed the vineyards with Chris King in 2007. Under his direction, the vineyards were planted entirely to California heritage selections at extremely high vine densities between 4.000 and 7,000 vines per acre, unprecedented at the time for the appellation. Although the Domaine spans a mere 40 acres, the diversity of its climates is staggering: each vineyard has a unique geology, aspect, elevation and microclimate. Such distinct expression of site, or terroir, in such close proximity, is unparalleled in California.”

The wines tasted were rated using a 3* system in which wines not tagged with a * are not recommended and are either flawed or lacking in aroma/flavor. The wines were tasted in the following order:

  1. 2012 Alta Maria, Santa Maria Valley 13.7% $28
    80% whole cluster, aged 22 months in neutral oak
  2. 2012 Domaine de la Côte, Santa Rita Hills $12.5% $43 Tanzer 90 WA 90
    50% whole cluster, native yeast, oak aging using 0% new oak
  3. 2011 La Fenetre, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley 13.2% $39
    ph 3.6 ta 6g/L , aged 18 months 30% new oak
  4. 2012 Ojai Vineyard, Solomon Hills Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley 13.2% $48
    WA 92 Tanzer 92

*5. 2010 Au Bon Climat, “la Bages au-dessus”, Santa Maria Valley 13.2% $33 WA92
aged 20 months in 50% new oak

*6. 2012 Byron, Nielsen Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley 14.2% $32 WA 92

*7. 2012 Melville Estate, Santa Rita Hills, 14% $33 WA 94, Tanzer 92
40% whole cluster, aged in 100% neutral oak

*8. 2012 Alama Rosa, Santa Rita Hills, 15% $28 WA 91 Tanzer 90
ph 3.51 ta 6.5g/L

*9. 2013 Samsara , Santa Rita Hills, 14% $36 Tanzer 91
25% whole cluster, native yeast, 100% neutral oak aging

10. 2012 Ken Brown, Santa Rita Hills, 14.3% $32
ph 3.63 ta 5.3 g/L, 37% new oak aging

The wines that are recommended(*) were all intensely aromatic and flavored with ripe dark fruit but with little of the spicy aromas from oak(except for the Byron) — in some of the wines this was due to use of neutral oak in aging. They were lush in texture with little apparent astringency and bitterness from tannin and seemed to lack the structure to age well. They didn’t seem to warrant the ratings given by Tanzer and the Wine Advocate. It should be noted that the wines were served at room temperature in a crowded tasting room(> 70deg). The temperature at which Pinot Noir should be served is around 62deg. As the temperature increases, wines taste more alcoholic, more aromatic, show more flaws, are less tannic and seem lusher and less structured, and seem out of balance, which is precisely what was observed. The Alma Rosa at 15% alcohol, was dark purple in color and smelled noticeably of alcohol. The * ratings were based on imagining how the wines would taste if served at the proper temperature.

Besides the improper temperature that the wines were served at, it was disappointing that the Domaine de la Cote showed so poorly. It was a nondescript wine that had no aroma and flavor to speak of and was very unimpressive. It certainly was not deserving of the rating by Tanzer. Pinot Noir wines are known to go into a dumb phase especially after being flown, shipped or driven a long distance. My wife and I used to wonder why wines taste better at the winery than they do after buying them at the winery, driving home and then having one for dinner.

That the wines from Santa Rita Hills are high in alcohol is not a result of the the winemaker’s choice to make very ripe wines to impress the wine press. It’s merely a reflection of the climate where the grapes are grown. Santa Rita Hills is situated such that its vineyards get enough sun to ripen the grapes and cooling breezes in the evening from the ocean to preserve their natural acidity. This results in a long growing season in which the grapes exhibit dark colors, their stems fully ripen and the grapes develop intense and complex flavors with sufficient acidity to produce balanced wines. Winemakers in Santa Rita Hills are clearly well made using winemaking techniques so that the wines they produce reflect the terroir of the vineyard (native yeast, whole cluster fermentation, and neutral oak or minimal new oak in aging).

The wines were tasted with a friend who confirmed my observations about the wines and how well they went with the following cheeses that we tasted with some of the wines:

1 – English Butler’s Black Slick Blue, a soft and intensely flavored blue cheese

2 – A soft St Andre cheese enhanced with 100% cream and similar in flavor to Brie

3 – Old Amsterdam Gouda, an intensely flavored, aged Gouda cheese

4 – Swiss cheese

The wines we tasted with the intensely flavored cheeses(1,3) did not go well with the cheese and were diminished in flavor and lushness by the intensity of these cheeses. The St Andre and swiss cheese also did not blend well with the wines. That the wines didn’t go well with the cheese or didn’t improve might be because the wines were very lush when tasted by themselves and were not astringent from tannin because of the elevated temperature at which they were poured. When cheese is tasted with a tannic red wine, it strips the tannin from the wine and makes the wine taste better(smoother, lusher).

The main lesson learned from this tasting was that when going to a tasting in which the wines are clearly served at too high of a temperature(e.g. high alcohol wines) is to mention this fact to the person pouring them and suggest usage of a temperature control unit to store the wines in before pouring them.

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