Pinot noir is the most fickle of grapes, and many winemakers have an intense relationship with it. David Hirsch founded Hirsch Vineyard in northern California in 1980, determined to make great pinot on a site he still calls a “ranch”.
The vineyard has 72 acres and 90,000 vines, all planted and cultivated by vineyard manager Everardo Robledo.
The site is at the northern end of the Sonoma region of California, a few kilometres from the Pacific Ocean. Having visited the region, I can agree with what David Hirsch writes on the vineyard web site: The climate is unpredictable with wide variations in temperature, with wild storms and winds. “As a result, each year we enter into a fresh relationship with the site and learn anew how to farm for balance and site-specificity.”
David’s daughter Jasmine presented examples of the 2008 and 2009 pinots to a group of wine lovers. She said the wines are made “in the vineyard” using natural yeasts, and with limited new oak and minimal extraction of color from the skins.
The pinots receive 16 to 18 months in oak but only 40 per cent of that is new. “Oak should support the wine and not dominate it.” This is a pleasure to hear, given the dominance of new oak in many French wines.
The Hirsch approach also allows natural fruit acidity to reveal itself. Acidity in wine is like salt in food – just the right amount enhances the taste and too much drowns the meal. The acid balance on all four wines I tasted was just right.
The 2008 vintage was full of contradictions, Jasmine explained. Blocks that were routinely picked early came in late, with a variety of berry sizes.
Fires ravaged Northern California in June as the grapes were ripening and smoke descended on the vineyard for 10 days. Jasmine suggested the pinot had a smoky influence. I found the “M” estate 2008 pinot noir a delightful combination of ripe sweet cherries on the nose surrounded by a lively acidic structure.
The wine was made from the best 20 barrels that year. The ripeness is reflected in the relatively high alcohol: 14.6 per cent.
If 2008 was a tough year for making wine, 2009 was the reverse. It was one of the two great vintages of last decade (2007 was the other) in Northern California.
The vineyard is located near the San Andreas Fault, where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates meet and grind. The collision of these masses produced California about three million years ago. The location provides the name for the 2009 San Andreas Fault pinot noir, Hirsch Vineyard’s signature wine. It contains fruit from 21 distinct blocks within the vineyards.
Jasmine said the 2009 vintage was remarkable for the coolness and evenness of the weather during the growing season. It produced wines of great balance, high acidity and complex aromatics that could be cellared for at least a decade.
It tasted of raspberries and cherries, with hints of licorice and lavender, supported by soft tannins. A second taste much later in the evening produced aromas of forest floor and a sour-cherry acidity.
Highlight of the evening was the 2009 reserve estate pinot noir, which has just been released. It is Hirsch’s first reserve, and represents a selection of the nine best barrels from the oldest and finest blocks. Reserve wines are only produced in vintages of exceptional quality.
Only 330 cases were made. Hirsch wines can be purchased online at http://www.hirschvineyards.com.
Jasmine likened tasting pinot noir to going to the theatre. We see the red velvet curtain and we anticipate what is behind the curtain. We can appreciate the color of the curtain but with time the curtain opens to reveal the beauty of the stage and the production. With patience, pinot opens to reveal its beauty.
The reserve pinot is delightful while young but will be even better if we can wait half a decade. It felt denser than the San Andreas Fault pinot noir and was complex in the sense of being delicate yet strong.
The acid-tannin-fruit balance is superb, and it offered a range of dark cherry aromas and flavors. The acidity balances the sweetness of the ripe fruit, supported by a silky soft tannin backbone that integrates well.
* Published in China Post, 24 May 2012, page 10, under the headline “Hirsch Vineyard enlightens wine lovers with exquisite pinot noir”. Find a link here.