Pinot Noir: It’s All About Location
Exploring Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands
California's Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands have tucked within their undulating foothills, the right weather patterns and geologic diversity to grow world-class Pinot Noir. Both regions benefit from proximity to the Pacific Ocean, where cool ocean breezes and morning fog help Pinot Noir retain its bright acidity and deliciously complex aromas. These are the marine-influenced playgrounds that Monterey-born and bred winemakers David Coventry and Nicole Hitchcock call home; both specialize in cool climate varieties.
For Nicole, winemaker at J Vineyards, the Russian River Valley offers an exciting range of microclimates within its heart-shaped borders. The westernmost edge of the appellation's boundaries are less than ten miles from the ocean, and cool air funneled through the Petaluma Gap sets the stage for a long, slow growing season.
As morning fog burns off, warm days turn into crisp nights, and temperatures can drop as much as 40 degrees from the daytime high. This wide diurnal shift makes the Russian River Valley ideal for growing varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here, grapes retain freshness and elegance while building structured, supple tannins from the warm afternoon sunshine. The region's dramatic geologic history, shaped over millions of years, adds yet another dimension to in the valley's complexity.
Individual lots of Pinot Noir harvested at J are fermented separately, giving Hitchcock a broad palette to work with. "Our approach to blending has been to include lots from our estate vineyards throughout the valley,” says Nicole. "Classic characteristics become more specific depending on which part of the AVA we're talking about. Farthest south, at our Canfield Vineyard, we see more savory notes, red fruit and higher acidity levels. In contrast, at our Bow Tie Vineyard at the northern tip of the region, the comparatively warmer climate yields ripe berry and cola flavors." The J Pinot Noir wines are poised and impeccably balanced with fine, silky tannins.
Further south, the Santa Lucia Highlands, a sub-appellation of the Monterey AVA, runs in a narrow band along the flank of the Santa Lucia mountain range. The growing district shares some characteristics with the Russian River Valley, but there are differences too. It's there that winemaker David Coventry crafts spice-accented, soulful Pinot Noir, sourced from Talbott Vineyard's iconic Sleepy Hollow estate vineyard.
Sleepy Hollow Vineyard is just fifteen miles from the Pacific Ocean. "We’re at the far northern edge of the AVA,” says Coventry. "We’re pushing the envelope for where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can fully ripen. We planted in the coolest possible place because it gives us a long hang time, great fruit intensity, bright acidity and thick grape skins.” He notes that high-quality tannins are key, "I'm looking for tannins that are silky and ripe. That's one of the hallmarks of great Pinot."
As with the Russian River Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands enjoys a wide diurnal swing thanks, in part, to a massive trench begins less than 100 yards off of Monterey Bay's reedy shoreline. Nicknamed the Blue Grand Canyon, it's the largest submarine canyon on the West Coast. The weather effect it creates ripples inland for miles and is one of the most striking features of this sleepy California AVA, viticulturally speaking.
"We get a great deal of marine influence that cools everything down, and shuts down the vines' photosynthesis," says Coventry. "The vines shut down because of the wind, because they're resisting dehydration. Vines don’t mind hot days, but they need cold nights, and we're lucky to have that."
These conditions create wines of ideal balance, explains Coventry. "One metaphor I like to use is this: The wines we make here are like a teeter-totter, at the fulcrum is the balance of the fruit,” he says. “You can hang oak on it, but only to the extent that the fruit supports it. At Talbott, we’re going for intensity and pure fruit expression, and that’s what this site gives us. I push the riper side of things for sure, but never to the detriment of the acid balance of the wines. I’m trying to paint a bigger picture on a bigger frame. To me, ripeness is essential. You can obscure so much of the beauty of any wine by having less than optimal ripeness.”
Given her Monterey roots and Russian River winemaking pedigree, Hitchcock is enthusiastic about one of the newest wines in the J portfolio: J Black. Staying true to the J signature style of wines with ripe fruit notes, full mouthfeel and plush texture, J Black is a multi-appellation blend of 70% Montery (predominantly from the estate Olsen Ranch Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands) and 26% Sonoma County (mainly Russian River Valley), with a touch (4%) from Santa Barbara’s Santa Maria Valley AVA.
“I am excited about this wine because we can share what we do with J Pinot Noir to a wider audience,” says Nicole. “It’s a bit riper in nature, and that’s what we were aiming for with this fruit sourcing and how we ripened this,” says Nicole. “We dialed in the mouthfeel and texture so that it’s nice and lush and round, with smooth, silky, supple tannins.”
More than any other wine, Pinot Noir has a smooth, silky and graceful style all its own. "When I’m thinking about Pinot Noir, I want something feminine, elegant, beautiful and sublime," Coventry confides. It would seem that both winemakers have achieved this lofty goal, perfectly capturing the tone and tenor of each region.
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