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Back to Basics
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jan 2, 2018
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Cuvaison, Carneros - Napa Valley, “Spire” Pinot Noir 2015 ($52):  Not so long ago, the heartland for California Pinot Noir was the Carneros district that spans the southern part of Napa and Sonoma counties.  Then our lexicon broadened to include Sonoma’s Russian River Valley of course, and Santa Barbara, and then Green Valley, Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and Sta. Rita Hills.  The wine lover exploring top quality California Pinot Noir today has a large territory to cover.  In all the excitement, do we risk overlooking Carneros?

A quick perusal of my tasting notes suggests that over the past couple of years I, for one, have spent far less time with my nose in a glass of Carneros Pinot Noir than those of other California AVAs.  Now, with the new year, it’s time to turn back to basics.  I’m starting with Cuvaison, a winery founded almost 50 years ago, in 1969, that produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay exclusively from its estate vineyard spanning more than 200 acres.  The winery was not only at the vanguard of fine Napa Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production but also an early proponent of cool-climate terroir for these varieties.

Over the years of farming its large estate, the Cuvaison team has deconstructed its vineyard into specific blocks, identifying 44 Chardonnay sites and 20 blocks of Pinot Noir, each representing a different combination of rootstock, clone, soil type and exposure.  Besides producing a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the estate as a whole, Cuvaison also produces several small-lot wines made from the grapes of a single vineyard block.

The 2015 Cuvaison “Spire” Pinot Noir is just such a wine.  This block was planted in 1980 with clone 115, one of the most important of the “Dijon clones” from France.  It is a low-yielding site at the highest elevation of the Cuvaison estate, facing west to capture the warm afternoon sun.  According to winemaker Steve Rogstad, the Spire block routinely delivers wines of more depth and concentration than other sites on the estate.  In 2015, yields were about 40 percent lower than normal, intensifying the wine’s character.

When you smell this wine, you’ll find plenty of fruit aroma, such as dark plum, blackberry and black cherry, but what’s fascinating are its non-fruit aromas that range from dried herbs to licorice, savory spices and dry earth.  In your mouth, the wine’s flavor profile is similar, combining dark, sultry fruit notes with savory earth and spice notes.  The wine is dry and full-bodied, with soft, dusty tannins that are very well integrated, and its long finish again reveals those dark fruit notes.  This is an easy-drinking Pinot Noir -- in the sense of having gentle tones and smooth tannins, not in the sense of being a juicy, bright-fruity wine that demands immediate enjoyment.  Although it is in fact wonderfully enjoyable now, the 2015 Spire Pinot Noir has the concentration and weight to mature in bottle for some time. 

Cuvaison has also recently released a single-block 2015 Chardonnay named “Adda” ($50).  This wine comes from some of the winery’s oldest and lowest-yielding Wente clone vines, planted on an east-facing hillside to help retain acidity.  Rogstad harvests the grapes at various levels of ripeness, ferments the lots separately, and blends the finest barrels to make this wine.  The wine’s aromas and flavors feature ripe stone-fruit notes, such as apricot, with lime, fresh herbs, and floral notes, as well as toastiness from oak and a brioche character from lees contact.  The wine is dry and full-bodied with a seductive, creamy texture that contrasts with the wine’s fresh acidity, creating a sensation of richness and brightness at the same time.  Although this wine is delightful now, my impression is that it will benefit from a year of aging to enhance richness.

The immediate star at Cuvaison is the 2015 Spire Pinot Noir, an excellent opportunity for returning to the basics of California Pinot Noir.

92 Points