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Two Brilliant Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jun 2, 2015
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Handley Cellars, Anderson Valley (California) Pinot Noir 2011 ($32) and “Estate Reserve” 2012 ($42):  Handley Cellars’ Pinots are among the great, unsung (or at least under-sung) Pinot Noirs of California.  Every year, Milla Handley turns out numerous Pinot Noir wines from Anderson Valley fruit that are all seductive, delicious and unobstructed by excess ripeness or oakiness.  The wines do vary in richness, intensity and flavor profile because they vary in their vineyard site(s), their clone(s), the yeasts used to ferment them, and the fine-tuning of winemaking details.  But they share an exuberant expression of Pinot Noir fruit.

I recently compared several current release Pinot Noirs from Handley Cellars, mainly 2012 wines and mainly small-lot wines.  One of my favorites was the lone 2011 wine in the line-up, the 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($32), which also happens to be one of the largest volume Pinots that the winery makes, at 2,159 cases in that vintage.  Another favorite was one of the small-lot wines, the 2012 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($42), only 339 cases produced.

None of the Handley Pinot Noirs I tasted could be described as a tensile Pinot Noir, but the 2011 Anderson Valley leaned somewhat in that direction because it is from the cool and challenging 2011 harvest.  In fact, this wine is a blend of grapes from cooler vineyards within Anderson, including Handley’s estate vines, and grapes from the region’s warmer inland areas, including Helluva vineyard and Ferrrington vineyard near the town of Boonville. (The latter two vineyards are both sources for single-vineyard Pinots from Handley in some vintages.) 

At this stage the 2011 wine has lovely balance, combining rich flavors of black cherry with fresh, precise notes of pomegranate and boysenberry, and a slight tang of minerality.  The wine’s texture is well knit and firm, with just a bit of noticeable tannin.  This is a tight but also a big Pinot Noir that is delightfully fresh now and will likely improve.

Handley 2012 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir comes from a more precise terroir than the straight Anderson Valley Pinot, specifically from the vineyard area surrounding the Handley winery and tasting room, near Philo.  Milla Handley made her first Reserve Pinot Noir in 2004, and the vineyard was certified organic the following year.  The vines selected for the 2012 Estate Reserve included a block planted with Martini clone vines and, for the first time in this wine, vines that were grafted to Dijon clone 777 in 2010 -- thus combining traditional California Pinot Noir fruit with fruit representing a new direction of California Pinot.

In tasting this 2012 wine, I gave it the high compliment of describing it as “round” and “complete.”  It enters your mouth with smooth texture all around -- not a trace of jarring tannin -- but it is lively within its smoothness.  The deep yet uplifted aroma suggests black cherry and blackberry, with a floral whiff and a hint of orange peel.  The flavors echo the dark berry aromas and introduce dark chocolate, with highlights of citrus. (The wine reminded me of a very dark chocolate bar flecked with orange peel, a delicious study in contrasts.)  That this wine can have such pure, ripe fruit flavors and yet be only 13.6 percent in alcohol is a tribute to both the vineyard and the winemakers.

I suspect that the 2012 Estate Reserve will be a more difficult wine to find because of its small production, but the 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir should be more available.  Both are brilliant wines, and worth a try.

2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, 91 Points

2012 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir, 93 Points