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Coastal Pinot Noir, Still and Sparkling
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Mar 8, 2016
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Sea Smoke Estate Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills (California) Pinot Noir “Southing,” 2013 ($80):  Lately, the wines of coastal California seem to be capturing my fancy.  Comments of sea breezes, fresh fruitiness and cool-climate acidity pepper my tasting notes for many of my higher-scoring wines, whites and reds both.  These wines hail from coastal Sonoma County down to Monterey and Santa Barbara, often from isolated sites where growers have identified conditions that promote full flavor development in the grapes along with refreshingly high acidity.

Most recently, my coastal wine enthusiasm was sparked by two Pinot Noirs and a sparkling rosé from Sea Smoke, an estate winery situated in the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, in Santa Barbara County.  I had tasted the Pinot Noirs many times before, going back to the 2005 vintage, when the estate vineyard was only six years old.  As the vineyard has matured, the Pinots seem to have grown into themselves, becoming more expressive and nuanced.  The delicious sparkling wine, made entirely from Pinot Noir, is further testimony to the quality and expressiveness of the estate fruit.

Sea Smoke produces three estate Pinot Noirs, of which “Southing” is considered the most elegant and nuanced.  Its grapes reflect the diversity of three soil types, ten French Pinot Noir clones and an elevation range from 350 to 650 feet that the 168-acre Sea Smoke vineyard encompasses.  That vineyard sits 7.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean and faces south along the east-west Santa Ynez River Valley that channels cool air and fog inward from the ocean.

The current release of Southing Pinot Noir is 2013 but I happened to have a bottle of 2012, which I opened alongside the 2013.  In the comparison, I realized rather dramatically that Sea Smoke Pinot Noirs are not the easiest to appreciate the moment that you pour them.  The 2013 at first was dark and solemn, difficult to evaluate and difficult to enjoy in my modest-sized tasting glass -- but with a year in the bottle, the 2012 emerged immediately fragrant, delicate and harmonious.  In a proper large Burgundy glass I could glimpse the majesty of the 2013, though, and the more that wine aired, the more expressive it became.  The next day (stored overnight in the fridge) it was even better, while the 2012, already approachable, had lost none of its charm.  Sea Smoke Southing is obviously a Pinot Noir to take seriously.

In the Southing Pinot Noir, I can sense the combination of south-facing ripeness with marine-air fog and coolness that defines the vineyard.  The 2013 is very full-bodied, a statuesque Pinot Noir with high alcohol (14.6 percent) and mouth-filling, ripe flavor, but it has freshness of acidity as well as light and depth within its weight.  Its aromas and flavors focus more on red fruits than black, typical of a cooler-climate Pinot; the aroma suggests red cherry, cranberry, savory spices and delicate floral perfume, while its flavors include black cherry and a flinty mineral note.  After their initial firmness, the wine’s tannins are finely textured and they integrate well into the wine’s fruit expression.  The 2012 is softer and its aromas and flavors tend toward black fruits and herbal notes, but they share with the 2013 the common chord of minerality and an admirably long finish.

Sea Smoke’s current release sparkling wine is 2012 Sea Spray L.D. ($80).  It is a classic-method (second fermentation in the bottle), rosé, brut-style wine made entirely of Pinot Noir.  A few aspects of its production are unusual.  The first fermentation occurs in stainless steel, but then the wine ages in French oak barrels (once-used and older) for nine months on its fermentation lees to create a base wine with enhanced flavor, texture and character.  After bottling, the re-fermentation and aging process lasts 24 months before the bubbly is disgorged.  Altogether, the wine ages 33 months, a normal period for classic-method sparkling wines, but the aging of the base wine is longer than usual.  Perhaps for that reason, Sea Spray is a very ‘winey’ sparkler, rich in precision red berry fruit and floral notes rather than toasty notes from yeasts.  At 9 grams/liter of dosage, it is dry but it is also enticingly fruity.  This is a classy, refined sparkling wine that strikes me as quintessentially Pinot Noir and undeniably Californian.

2013 Southing Pinot Noir, 92 Points
2012 Sea Spray L.D., 92 Points