I keep hearing talk that California Pinot Noirs are “evolving,” and I might agree, but again, that nebulous term states neither what they were nor what they’re evolving into. Two tastings recently in New York City offered perspective to this notion, not with the results I might have expected.
For the first tasting Milla Handley and her assistant winemaker, Kristen Barnhisel, presented a vertical tasting of 13 of Handley’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs, from two different 2009 pre-release bottlings back to 2000, 1998, 1997 and 1993.
Handley’s wines were thoroughly enjoyable, and if anything, tasted more akin to Pinots from Oregon than from more southerly regions in their own state. This indicates how foolish it is to treat California Pinot Noir as if it were a monolithic category. At the same time, the fact that these wines fly under the radar and are not widely coveted suggests that Americans still prefer the richer, weightier, showier styles. (How rich and juicy? I’ll get there in a minute.)
The tasting demonstrated that the Handley wines are clearly ageworthy. Although the vineyard sourcing has varied slightly over the years, the wines carry a signature aroma of red fruits, notably cherries, with a darker note of smoke or mineral. They are bright and taut, sometimes nervy, driven by crisp acidity balanced by an elegant fruit extract. These are not showy wines; indeed, the nose is often subdued, though the more recent vintages, sourced from older vines and more diverse vineyards, are more aromatic, and promise to be even more complex. What most characterized the wines, however, both a freshness, and a sense of being grounded: The wines offered full palate coverage without undue weight; the mid-palate had a subtle if striking gravitational pull, grounding them and the taster. They were alive, vibrant, sometimes pulsating. A lifted finish graced the best wines with delicacy. And the older wines suggest that the younger wines will only become more complex in time.
These wines don’t stand for profundity, but they are truly balanced, with verve to match. The home vineyard, in the western, cooler part of the Anderson Valley – is only 20 miles from the ocean, at about 250 feet above sea level — and is clearly capable of producing good quality fruit. A mix of clones is planted on clay loam (20-30%) with a sandstone base. The depth of the soils is such that the roots can travel 3-4 feet deep for water and nutrients. Handley’s RSM Vineyard (named for her late husband) is a different matter entirely. Planted in 1999 and 2000, it is in the hills behind the winery about 900 feet above sea level. She primarily planted Dijon clones, notably 115 (compared to the Roederer and Martini clones on the home vineyard). The soils are different — fractured sandstone and some shale; the root have not yet been able to penetrate deeper than about 2 feet, and the yields have never exceeded a meagre ton an acre! It has only produced a single-vineyard wine in 2005 and 2009, both wines being persistent and impressive, with the 2009 showing more density, spice, and lifted complexity, benefitting from additional vine age.
So: have these wines evolved? Yes and no. The wines themselves have the capacity to evolve gracefully and harmoniously. Future vintages promise even greater complexity. What has not changed is the style: no chasing fashion trends here, no move to “bigger = better” only to discover that an unequal sign would have been more appropriate.
It never ceases to amaze me how less accomplished wines get so much more attention from the so-called experts than the tasteful, poised Handleys. Just as well: these experts don’t deserve them.
1993 Pinot Noir Developed Pinot Noir Nose: Wet fallen leaves, earth, underbrush, but still fresh red berries underneath. Medium-bodied and taut, with full palate coverage; delicate, even, with a mineral segue to a refined, pretty finish. Fully integrated. Flavors as per nose: tart red berries and cherries, mineral and earth.
1997 Pinot Noir Much riper nose suggesting a much riper season. Less bright than the 1993, and slightly volatile. Medium-bodied and elegant, but plumper than the 1993; fully integrated with a medium finish. Cherries and mineral again.
1998 Pinot Noir Reserve Deeper ruby. Darker, with a more focused nose expressing cherries and spice; considerably more complex: earth, cinnamon, clove and mineral. Fuller and denser on the palate, with a clear “grounded” presence leading to a longish “mineral” quality to the finish. Firm acidity integrated but keeping the wine bright.
2000 Pinot Noir More restrained than the earlier wines, with high-toned floral notes; also cherries and raspberries. Medium-bodied, crisp and even; very well-knit with more concentration than the 2002. More intense mineral character, nervy and more persistent. Firm layer of minerality under the red fruits. Still fresh and three-dimensional, with lifted fruit and a high-toned vibrating finish.
2002 Pinot Noir Medium crimson. Quite earthy and more intense aromas. Pretty on the palate with purity of red fruits and underlying mineral. Less complex and a bit shorter but still showing the same bright, crisp cherried palate profile.
2003 Pinot Noir Darker crimson with more concentration. Reserved fruit; more mineral and lavender character. Medium-bodied and very crisp, with more concentration on the palate. Seems a bit closed initially but an earthy retronasal character emerges, joined with hints of developing fruits. Pretty.
2004 Pinot Noir Deep crimson. Dark, bright cherried nose. Fullish, rich, with surprising weight and flesh on the palate. Showing considerable density, underlying minerality – very clear and transparent. Even, with a pulsating finish; relatively long. (Earliest harvest on record; very small crop).
2005 Pinot Noir RSM Vineyard Impressive, lovely lifted nose. Pure and very expressive as it opens out. Fullish and with a riper impression of soft fruit and tannin, but the balance of fruit extract, firm acidity and almost imperceptible tannin drive the wine. Very persistent with mineral threads throughout. Impressive, with a longish finish.
2005 Pinot Noir Medium cherry: this is the most primary wine yet in the flight. High toned; mineral, develops complexity as it opens. Big and mouth-filling, with a lush attack held in check by crisp, fresh acidity. Grounded finish of sweet red fruits.
2006 Pinot Noir Quieter nose; more restrained with more apparent mineral notes. Medium-bodied, even, taut and nervy. Mineral, smoke, bright fresh red and sour cherries. Medium mineral, smoky finish.
2007 Pinot Noir More density than the 2006 with the beginning of smoke and earth emerging on the nose; concentrated, even and long on the palate. Relatively closed with a medium finish.
2009 Pinot Noir Medium deep ruby, with a plumper, ripe, more open nose. Medium-bodied+, plump, even and well-integrated. Bright sweet red fruits, fresh acidity, underlying mineral; seems really grounded. Vibrant, streamlined finish driven by the acidity’s tension.
2009 Pinot Noir RSM Vineyard Showing much more concentration as the vines age. A spicy density to the nose, with much more complexity, showing notes of clove and vanilla. Full-bodied, with a soft attack, then grip and structure take charge. Firm, impressive and long, with full palate coverage. Acidity well integrated. Long finish with lifted subtle complex aromatics of dark red fruits, minerals, vanilla and spices.
The second tasting? Next entry. Stay tuned.