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Pursuing the Holy Grail of Pinot Noir
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jan 1, 2019
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Emeritus Vineyards, Sonoma Coast, Pinot Noir Pinot Hill Vineyard 2015 ($67):  New wineries and new vineyards emerge constantly in California, but few have the heritage that Emeritus Vineyards can claim.  Its origin dates to 1999 when Hallberg Ranch, a 115-acre estate in the Green Valley district of Russian River Valley, came up for sale.  Pre-Prohibition, this site had been a vineyard but subsequently it became orchard land.  Because of its size, its cool climate and its classic Goldridge soils (mineral-rich sandy loam), this “extraordinary piece of land” captured the imagination of Brice Cutrer Jones.  The founder and, until 1999, the owner of Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, he purchased Hallberg Ranch and with his friend and now vineyard manager, Kirk Lokka, set out on his mission to make Pinot Noir that would rival California’s finest.  In 2007, Emeritus Vineyards acquired the Pinot Hill vineyard in the Sebastopol Hills.

Burgundy was the inspiration in planting Hallberg Ranch.  Vines were planted with typical Burgundian close spacing (2000-plus vines per acre), and encompass eleven clones, including field selections from Côte de Nuits vineyards and a selection from Brice’s friend, Aubert de Villaine.  After a few years of selling grapes, Emeritus Vineyards released its first Pinot Noir in 2004.  A turning point occurred in 2007, when Brice and Kirk began dry-farming Hallberg Ranch.  Between Hallberg Ranch and Pinot Hill, Emeritus has almost 150 acres of Pinot Noir and is the largest dry-farmed estate in Sonoma County.

According to Kirk, dry-farming affects the quality of the vine and its fruit in many ways.  In the Goldridge soil with underlying clay loam, the unirrigated vine’s roots extend as much as 20 feet, exposing themselves to various soil layers.  The dry-farmed grapes develop their flavors and their sugar ripeness in parallel, resulting in more flavor at lower alcohol levels, and also retain natural acidity.  He also believes that lack of irrigation favors concentration in the wine.  Finally, dry farming enables the vines to adapt to adverse weather conditions.

In the drought vintage of 2015, Kirk saw no signs of water stress in his two dry-farmed vineyards. In fact, the two wines -- my featured Pinot Hill Pinot Noir and the Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir -- show plenty of freshness, as well as the concentration typical of a vintage with a small crop.

Of the two 2015s, I favor the Pinot Hill because to me it is a thrilling Pinot Noir -- perfumed, sleek and tensile with delicacy of texture and purity of fruit expression.  The wine shows its cooler terroir, a site that is early to see fog in the morning and late to lose it. It is a steep site at 100 to 300 feet elevation and can typically be 10 degrees cooler than Hallberg Ranch.

Specifics: Aromas and flavors suggest red cherry and raspberry, dried flowers, fresh herbs. Flavors are pronounced, focused and pure, showing intensity and delicacy at the same time. The wine’s acidity is high; it’s this acidity more than the moderate tannin that defines the wine’s structure. The texture is lacy one moment and smooth the next (keep tasting, try to decide).  I expect this wine to evolve beautifully for many years.

The 2015 Hallberg Ranch ($44), in contrast, is a fuller Pinot with deeper flavors and richer texture.  The aroma speaks of red cherry and black cherry in equal measure, with exotic notes of orange rind, toast, and tea, while the flavors include pungent spice and earthy notes.  The wine is round in your mouth and smooth as can be, giving an almost-sweet impression in its richness without being heavy or dense.  The vineyard is in the cool Green Valley AVA within Russian River Valley and shows the freshness of a cool site, but in contrast to the 2015 Pinot Hill, the wine carries the rich, round Russian River Valley signature.  Some wine lovers will prefer it for that reason.

Emeritus 2015 Pinot Hill Pinot Noir, 94 Points
Emeritus 2015 Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir, 92 Points