Feb 18, 2013
Passion And The Pursuit Of Pinot Noir
The extreme heat that had gripped Napa valley in early October had finally released its hold when I made the trek south to Carneros to visit Etude.
I had a brief stop in the winery to sip on some pristine Pinot Gris (scented with ripe pear, Gala apple and vibrant citrus) while chatting with winemaker, Jon Priest over bubbling Pinot Noir grapes fermenting in Etude's open-top fermenters.
2012 marked Etude's 30th year.
Although homeless in their early years, in 2003 Etude took over an old Remy Martin facility in Carneros and made it their own. The Pinot was all in when I arrived, the harvest basically complete. The 2012 vintage culminated in a strange set of circumstances, according to longtime Beringer winemaker, Laurie Hook from Napa. All the late varieties had come in early and all the early ripening varieties, late.
Ergo, everything got ripe at the same time creating a rush to get the berries off the vines and find room for them in the wineries.
A process usually spread out over a longer period of time.
So, while Napa was still racing, Etude's winemaker, Jon Priest (right) had enough time on his hands to take me on a slow tour of the famed Grace Benoist vineyard, in the best possible way - on horseback.
I'd been to Napa and Sonoma prior to this trip but I'd never experienced it the way I did during this particular visit.
A few days earlier I'd been in a helicopter surveying the diverse geography and terroir of the northern Napa Valley on a 100-degree day with viticulturist, Will Drayton (Drayton works with Beringer, Stags' Leap and Etude).
That day, although not quite as high above the valley, I was still getting to see some pretty amazing geography.
Back at the Etude winery, the clay soils and lower elevation are not suited to Pinot Noir, but the story is much different at the Grace Benoist Ranch (right).
The Grace Benoit Ranch vineyard is situated at the edge of San Francisco Bay. The elevation here climbs to 400 feet above sea level and the soils are rocky and volcanic - this yields smaller vines and clusters but a higher quality of berry. Much of Carneros is clay and silt, which Priest notes is not well suited to Pinot Noir - also, Carneros is also the only appellation, which straddles both Napa and Sonoma and is it's own designation.
The Grace Benoist vineyard is 600 hectares in size. Of those 600, 200 hectares are planted with an assortment of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot (for Chateau St. Jean) and Syrah. Priest thinks of the different, unique blocks within Grace Benoist as separate vineyards entirely, because they differ so greatly. Priest pulls Pinot Noir from 60 different lots in this vineyard and in 2012 they had 75 lots in total. Included on the property, 12 Pinot Noir clones, heirloom selections, some up to 100 years old.
The 30th vintage for Etude was a good one according to Priest. The berries were small and although there was not a lot of juice, the skin concentration was good. Etude's trademark cold soak and extended maceration process was not common in making California Pinot Noir when they began. It's a controversial subject, Pinot Noir is a delicate grape and fermentation can take off quickly. Etude tries to extract as much colour as possible during cold soak and ultimately avoid some bitter tannins in this process. The results speak for themselves and the wines have won critical appraise vintage after vintage.
Etude Chardonnay, 2010 - Fresh and lemony on the nose with fresh mineral notes. The fruit is sweet and bright in the mouth, the acidity mouthwatering. There is a finesse, almost delicate character to this wine I thought was truly lovely.
Etude Pinot Noir, 2009 - A lovely intensity of cherry, 5-spice and vanilla, a bouquet of roses and violets with a core of undergrowth/forest floor. Expect plenty of bright acidity, berry and cherry fruit layered with spice and cedar with cocoa across the finish. Fine sweet tannins - gorgeous.
Etude Heirloom Pinot Noir, 2009 - Pow - sweet ripe cherries and raspberry, lilacs and violets, cedar chips and beets rounded out with exotic spice. Intense yet chic, sweet spices and chocolate with luscious berry flavours and an incredibly lengthy finish. Very elegant. A bottle you'll pray is bottomless.
"Etude was founded on the philosophy that winemaking begins in the vineyard long before the harvest and that superior grape growing diminishes the need for intervention by the winemaker, resulting in authentic varietal expression. This remains our approach today as we continue to build the Etude legacy."
- Jon Priest
~Daenna Van Mulligen
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