Another shockingly bad bottle photo can mean only one thing, another wine from the Enomatic. A great way to taste wine, but a horrible way to photograph bottles. The next time I do such a tasting, I’ll really need to hunt down a bottle that isn’t already in the machine so as to take a slightly better photo. But as always, this isn’t about the pictures, it’s about the wines, and sometimes the words. With that I give you the Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir 2006.
Having written about Pinot Noirs from Australia, France, South Africa and New Zealand, it’s time to turn our attention to the U.S.A. and California in particular. Los Carneros AVA, or Carneros as it is also known, is a region within northern California that is something of a curiosity within the legal geography of American Viticultural Areas. I wrote a bit about AVAs when I covered the Bogle Petite Sirah, and again when I wrote about Stags’ Leap. AVAs typically fall within a single county, in the way that a county is a part of a single state. Carneros is somewhat odd in that it covers an area that is largely within Sonoma county, but partially within Napa county. Strictly speaking, it is not a sub-appellation of either, but producers are also entitled to use the Sonoma Valley AVA or Napa Valley AVA depending on which part of Carneros they are in. Just as the Stags Leap AVA is defined by the unique geography within Napa, the Carneros AVA is defined by its unique climate, the first California AVA to be so defined in 1983.
That climate is moderately cool and windy, but cooler and windier than any of the surrounding area. It is on the lowest hills of the Mayacamas range as they descend toward the San Pablo Bay, the body of water just to the north of the San Francisco Bay. Unlike much of the rest of Napa and Sonoma, there is little to shield it from the influences of the bays, and fog is a near certainty each morning. The soils are shallow clay with poor fertility and drainage, though the wind does prevent vineyards from becoming swamps. Vines struggle under such conditions, which limits yields. It also demands long ripening times, though that can increase flavour concentration within the grapes.
The region has been something of a rising star with regard to cool climate grapes over the last 30 years, but grapes were initially planted in the 1870s. Phylloxera essentially shut down grape production in the area a decade or two later until a regeneration effort got underway in 1942 with some success. However, this was eclipsed by the most recent increase in plantings which began in the 1970s. Production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay suited to the cool climate put Carneros on the map with both varietal still and blended sparkling wine. Today, many other varieties are grown, most notably Syrah and Merlot.
It’s probably worth a paragraph to write about Pinot Noir in California. It is a relative newcomer, as Oregon to the north staked its claim to be the Burgundy of America early on, and it wasn’t until Cabernet Sauvignon had been firmly established in northern California that some producers sought to make use of the cooler regions. While California is geographically closer to the equator and generally warmer, it does not lack for regions with significant maritime influences. The cooler areas of Napa and Sonoma counties, as well as areas of Mendocino county to the north and the Central Coast to the south all proved able to produce good examples, for use both as sparkling and still wine.
Etude is a modern producer, established in the 1980s by Tony Soter. He works with winemaker Jon Priest and viticulturalist Franci Ashton to produce wines of both the Carneros and Napa Valley AVAs. In the vineyard, blocks are based on the underlying soil rather than on efficient grids. (That said, looking at the satellite pictures, I see lots of straight lines dividing blocks.) Unlike most of the surrounding area, the soils themselves are of volcanic origin, and well drained. Their vineyards are mainly Pinot Noir plantings, which encompass almost twenty different clones, including ten less popular and lower yielding heirloom varieties. They source Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties from local growers. In addition to a range of Pinot Noirs (including a rosé) and Cabernet Sauvignons, they have a Pinot Gris, a Pinot Blanc, a Chardonnay and a Malbec. Their winemaking practices are non-interventionist, so as to highlight their terroir and vineyard practices.
I had not tried a wine from or even heard of Etude before this wine, but from looking through their website they strike me as quirky. To support such a claim, I put forth two pieces of evidence. First, they make a brandy from Pinot Noir. Of course, you may ask, brandy is made from wine, and what better to use to make a fine brandy than a fine wine? Except it doesn’t work like that. Fine brandy, such as Cognac and Armagnac, are made from grapes such as Ugni Blanc and Colombard. While those grapes can be made into table wine, they are easy to grow, they give generous yields, and are not typically thought of as noble. Pinot Noir is the opposite on all counts. You get more value from an Ugni Blanc wine that has been distilled into a brandy than you do from the wine required. With Pinot Noir, the opposite is true. So really, making brandy from Pinot Noir is just quirky. I want to say it’s just wrong, but I’m sure they justify it by saying that they only use the grapes not fit for their wines to make brandy.
Second, they employ a falconer. A quick tangent to South Africa is required. I had the pleasure of visiting Constantia, the home of Vin de Constance, one of the most famous sweet wines in the world. On a tour of the vineyards, our host pointed out what looked to be telephone poles planted amongst the vines. He then told us that they put them up to attract Steppe Buzzards, a raptor that winters in South Africa and is useful in eating pests that might otherwise eat grapes or vines. Etude does not leave such things to the whims of migratory flying predators. Instead they employ a falconer and his/her trained falcons to attack starlings that might want to eat their grapes as they ripen. Being a carnivore myself, I have no problem with animals eating other animals, but it’s a quirkly middle ground between using bird scarers and a shotgun.
So that’s the region, the grape and the producer, leaving only what’s in the glass. It’s clear and bright with a medium minus ruby colour and quick legs. On the nose it’s savoury, green funk and pizza spice – oregano and other dried herbs. There are also some fresh strawberries. It show development but isn’t fully developed, and has medium plus intensity. On the palate I get the berries first – strawberries and sweet red cherries, but also some ash and a bit of pencil lead. It’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus intensity, medium body, medium fine tannins, and medium plus alcohol. It’s slightly short with a medium minus length.
While I don’t have a great breadth of Californian Pinot Noir experience against which to compare it, I am confident in classifying this a very good wine. It has a good balance between fresh fruit and more savoury developed characters. The acidity is holding up nicely while the tannins are fine and undoubtedly have softed over the years this has spend in bottle.