USA – Red Wine of the Year
Amongst the plethora of wineries on this planet and ever-increasing choice, or perhaps bewilderment for the consumer, there is a select group of iconic brands and individual winemakers that stand head and shoulders above the rest. They are the benchmark for all other producers and greatly respected by fellow winemakers and equally revered by wine enthusiasts.
In the old world and spiritual home of pinot noir, such names as Domaine de le Romanee Conti and Armand Rousseau in Burgundy are holy. In the new world sanctification goes to Calera Wine Co in California, USA and its legendary proprietor, Josh Jensen, a true pioneer of the Californian wine industry and master of the most precarious of all grapes.
Jensen’s foresight, perseverance and the fascinating Calera story is brilliantly told in the book, ‘The Heartbreak Grape, A Journey in Search of the Perfect Pinot Noir’, by Marq de Villiers, (McArthur & Company – ISBN 13-9871552786109)
Jensen purchased his Mt. Harlan property in San Benito County in 1974 taking two years searching throughout California to find the limestone soils that he had drawn inspiration from in his time in Burgundy, France. He found it 90 miles south of San Francisco and about 25 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, at Mt. Harlan with its elevation at 2,200 feet above sea level, making it one of the highest and coldest vineyard properties in California.
You could say the ‘rest is history’ but even with nearly four colourful decades of experience and evolution at Calera Wine Co, Jensen is still trailblazing, whether it be his amazing gravity-feed winery or achieving organic certification in 2008, things don’t stand still at Calera.
In relativity to the dimensions and bravado of many Californian and Oregon pinot noir producers, Calera wines have always been elegant to the point of understated, much like Jensen himself, completely unpretentious and self-effacing for someone who has set the standards for so long, and remains touchstone.
Then there’s Calera’s wines incredible ability to age, defying the sceptics of new world chardonnay and pinot noir to have such pedigree, only coming in to their own in their first decade in bottle and cruising to the second decade and beyond.
Moreover, Calera Wine Co has an amazing library release program where small quantities that have been cellared at the property are available at incredibly reasonable prices. Very few wineries offer aged wines these days, but Jensen did so from the very beginning of establishing Calera. So if you are looking for enlightenment on how new world pinot noir can age, this is the ‘go to’ place as you can be guaranteed the wine has been aged in optimum conditions.
The current library release is 2001 Calera Mills Vineyard – Mount Harlan Pinot Noir at US$60 a bottle however, I revisited the 1997 Calera Reed Vineyard – Mount Harlan Pinot Noir, which is an incredible wine, at 14 years old, is drinking superbly.
The Reed Vineyard is named in honor of William (Bill) G. Reed, Sr. a close family friend who was one of Jensen’s original partners and investors, and a great supporter of the winery. It is a tiny 4.4 acres of pinot noir divided into an upper and lower block located on a north/northeast facing hillside and generally the last vineyard to ripen each year. Relative to Calera’s other single-vineyard pinots, the Reed Vineyard wines are normally more forward and aromatic, perhaps less dense in style yet generally creamy and soft on the palate.
But I can’t help think that the 1997 Reed Vineyard must have been atypical or a riper, more concentrated vintage as the wine now shows considerable weight, depth and complexity. I’ve had the wine several times over the last few years, even serving it up blind at a pinot noir winemakers workshop to which it was extremely well received.
Personally, it’s the most profound pinot noir I have ever experienced from the new world, displaying the high desirable secondary complexities one associates only to great red burgundy, and yet this wine is distinctly, Californian – that is one doesn’t see a direct likeness to burgundy, but certainly nuances off. Certainly that’s a good thing, to be clearly unique and expressive of its own ‘sense of place’.
My Calera Reed Pinot Noir 1997 tasting note reads: a hedonistic bouquet of forest floor – hot summer cedar forest – engulfs the senses reminiscent of great Chianti Classico with those wonderful scents of earthiness and dried herbs. There are waves of secondary aromas, ever-increasing in complexity as the wine breaths out, initially more savoury and animal with hung meats, Jamón ibérico, ducks guts, as in the smell of garlic, five spice and duck fat when you carve a whole roast lacquered duck, amongst smells of hessian, hay barn and pine mushrooms.
Then you get a build up of dark red fruits, a real richness of conserved berry fruits and steamed Christmas pudding, turning to more dried fig, hints of liquorice yet also tangier notes of tamarind and balsamic.
With about 30 minutes breathing, it is still evolving to an incredibly mesmerizing bouquet with a wonderful seductive sweetness of red berry fruit, like reduced strawberry and raspberry compote, and blueberry sauce poured over a pan-fried Margaret duck breast. But then it seems to take on more of an accent of red berry fruits with subtle menthol scents and signs of acidity on bouquet as if to suggest it still has some youthfulness or certainly nowhere near peaking.
A very savoury black earth nuanced palate entry is reinforced with dark soy and Indian spice box, lots of dried muscatel and fig flavours but then changing to higher notes of sweet blueberry and black cherry, the layers of creamy textured, richness of fruit giving way to a meaty and savoury, taut structure with black olive flavoured tannins and a degree of assertiveness or tension that is so often lacking in new world pinot. Definitely nothing is lacking here – a wine of profound complexity and sheer enjoyment, completely harmonious and captivating.
If there is one element that vigneron’s and wine writers agree on universally, is that vine age directly influences wine quality and complexity. In 1997, the Reed Vineyard vines were clocking 22 years-old, and at the time I liberated this bottle, it had some 14 years development. With many of the vines now 36 year-old, Calera Wine Co. is simply unparalleled in pedigree.
Another unique element to Calera is its availability around the world, as Jensen decided to export his wine from the very beginning. His winemaking colleagues in California told him he was mad, and that he could sell everything he makes in America, like they do. But Jensen has had the last laugh on this, having a well-established global distribution network, he has endured many market crises, and never more so than now with the US market in dire straits.
Thus, you will find Calera Wines in many major wine markets, albeit in tiny quantities. The Calera Central Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are excellent value, entry level regional blends, and if you can find it, the Vin Gris of Pinot Noir is one of my favourite rose wines, one of those rare roses of truly defined pinot noir flavour.
The single vineyard wines, current vintage 2008, should be purchased immediately on release and put in the darkest, most inaccessible corner of your cellar and given a minimum of six years in bottle – as Burt Williams, the former co-owner and winemaker of Williams Selyem winery, said to Matt Kramer, “Nobody ever went wrong drinking a Pinot Noir when it’s six years old”. If you can hang on to them a little longer, like 10 to 15 years, you will surely be reward for your patience. The same applies to the Calera Mount Harlan Chardonnay – a recently tried magnum of 1995 was drinking superbly and had plenty of time left in it.
Visit the Calera website for agents in your region www.calerawine.com