The topic intrigued me – are California Pinot Noirs built for aging? We all know that Burgundy wines grown with Pinot Noir grapes have the climate, terroir, barrel, and bottle age to last for more than two decades. Typically, California and Oregon Pinot Noirs are released after an average of two years of aging.
When I had a chance to talk with Vito Gambini, President of Clos de la Tech, he talked to me about how there is a little-known, small category of California Pinot Noir wineries that make wines built for aging. Wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA include Clos de la Tech, Brittan Vineyards, Saintsbury, Paul Lato, Ridge, Eden, and Littorai. The wineries plant vines in locations that are relatively cool to keep acidity levels high and use specific barrel aging programs. Clos de la Tech is a mere four miles from the Pacific Ocean and nature’s cooling effect brings incredible balance to the wines.
In the 1990’s, T.J. Rodgers visited the tiny village of Vosne-Romanée in France with his wife Valeta Massey and became enamored with Burgundian Pinot Noir. At the time, he was the CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, and these wines inspired him to plant one acre of Pinot Noir grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA near his home. His experience as a scientist gave him the confidence to combine Old World wine practices of growing, harvesting, and the vinification of grapes with cutting-edge technology like drones, irrigation systems, water techniques, and equipment.
But he didn’t do it alone. He hired top-tier industry people. He hired a topographer to look at soil composition to make sure it aligned with Burgundy, and he finally selected the Cruz Mountains due to its similarities. Vito told me a great story about T.J.’s persistence in scheduling a meeting with Aubert de Villaine, co-owner and co-director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. After an extended period of contacting him to arrange a meeting, Aubert exclaimed, “I can’t handle you bugging me monthly and agreed to meet. That meeting set him on a course to make pinots that are built to age.
That meeting led to the eventual formation of Clos de La Tech Winery, known for producing age worthy and complex Pinots. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is known for steep vineyards, severe coastal weather, and small yields. The winery name is inspired by the Burgundy Houses of France using the French translation meaning “small walled vineyard” and “La Tech” is inspired by Rodgers’ former career. The first vintage was in 2000 and most wines are sold direct to the consumer and because of the steep location, the winery isn’t open to the public.
The Old World
Once the grapes reach the caves, the Old-World approach begins. The 100 percent whole grape clusters are hand-picked, placed in an open-topped tank that holds about one barrel of wine, fermented in native yeast, and then foot-crushed. This allows control of the seeds and stems, resulting in better wine. From there, it flows through three caves using gravity as the guide as it flows with each cave being designated for a different task from fermentation to aging to bottling. In the last cave, it stays three to four more years in the bottle, before it is released five to six years after harvest.
The New World
Clos de La Tech has 45 acres of vineyards across three sites. The vineyards are organically farmed, but not certified organic. There you will find drones mapping the vineyard using artificial intelligence to store and recall key information. Because of the elevation of the vineyards, T.J. worked with the company on the design of a special tractor that can navigate harvest on their steep slopes. He also invented several machines used for his winery.
Another example of the focus (and deep pockets) that T.J. had was when he was having issues finding the materials for the concrete he needed to build the caves. Instead of sitting back and waiting, he built a concrete factory to satisfy this demand.
Is it possible for California to make grand cru caliber Pinot Noir? It was T.J.’s quest to make a grand cru burgundy that is capable of aging in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He wanted to recreate the complex fruit and earthiness that are hallmarks of these wines, but with the concentration and structure built to last.
I tried five wines from 2017 coming from five separate vineyard blocks that ranged in complexity.
- 2017 Clos de la Tech Domaine du Docteur Rodgers – it’s a powerful and balanced wine built for aging. I tasted cassis, herbal notes, tobacco and black fruit.
- 2017 Clos de la Tech Domaine Valeta Sunny Slope – lots of earthy notes with cherry, plum, leather and mocha. This was the most fruit forward of the wines that I tried.
- 2017 Clos de la Tech Domaine Lois Louise Twisty Ridge – this was a rich wine with blackberry, black cherry, oak, black pepper and herbal notes. It’s a big and muscular wine.
- 2017 Clos de la Tech Domaine Lois Louise Cote Sud – The was a wine with notes of black and red fruit, earth, fig, lilacs, and expressive herbal notes. This was a wine that I wanted to keep exploring as it changed over time.
- 2017 Clos de la Tech Santa Cruz Mountains Estates – this was another big wine with big red and black fruit, black pepper, earth, truffle, all spice and smoked meat. It’s full-bodied with a ton of texture.
I asked the question of how the winery measures how it is fulfilling its mission of making world class Pinot Noir. They conduct educational seminars and blind tastings to see how they benchmark against burgundy wines. Vito tells me typically the results are split down the middle.
I didn’t have the opportunity to taste them side by side with grand cru burgundies, but I can tell you the Santa Cruz Mountains can make some good pinot noirs that absolutely can be aged and benefit with the gift of time.