CLONE ENCOUNTERS OF THE GRAPE KIND

It is often said that great wine is made in the vineyard and although it is possible to make poor wine from good grapes, it is virtually impossible to make excellent wine from sub-standard grapes. With the kind of grapes produced in Santa Barbara county, most winemakers who start with quality grapes intervene as little as possible in the process of turning their fruit into great wine.

One such winemaker is Etienne Terlinden of Summerland Winery and his private label Cordon Wines. His Summerland reserve tier is dedicated to single-vineyard bottlings from top vineyards in our county. “Each of these wines expresses the distinctive terroir of an individual vineyard,” he says. “Once a vineyard is selected, close contact is kept with the growers throughout the year to maintain the highest quality and desired yields for the fruit we harvest.”

Along with Terlinden and winemaker and consultant Michele Pignarre le Danois, I observed, tasted and analyzed dozens of Pinot Noir barrel samples. We selected the best ones for blending to achieve the characteristics they sought in their vineyard designate, 2005 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley. Terlinden explained, “Within the diverse spectrum of Pinot Noir planted in the Bien Nacido Vineyard, we selected the oldest section of thirty-five-year-old vines in T-Block, planted in 1973, for the core of our program.”

Bien Nacido is a preeminent Santa Maria vineyard where the cooler temperatures and extended growing season yield the tannins needed for depth of flavor and ageability. On top of that, each grape clone has additional variety and complexity. This gives the winemaker an extensive palette from which to select individual distinctive components for his or her wine.

“Our early Pinot Noir clones were mostly Martini and Pommard and our customers grew to love them,” says Nicholas Miller, of Bien Nacido Vineyards. “When we decided to experiment with new clones we didn't want to lose the character of the clones we had. We therefore inter-planted new clones between the older, wider-spaced rows, so in many blocks we are now farming two blocks of several clones with separate viticultural practices in the same physical area. While these new clones are producing fantastic wines, what is really interesting for me to see is that in all of the Bien Nacido tastings I do with wine critics, I'd say at least half the time they choose the classic Pommard and/or Martini Pinot Noirs out of the lineup of Pinots from all of the clones we grow. It’s hard for me to say the new clones are ‘better’ but rather I believe they offer a more complete portfolio for our customers to choose from.”

With le Danois and Terlinden I tasted several dozen barrel samples of Pinot Noir from that classic growth of Martini clone vines (known for yielding lighter, more elegant wines). These wines started out identical in every way including vineyard section (soil, subsoil, drainage, water, weather), viticulture (vine canopy, sun exposure, crop size management, time of picking), fermentation yeast, duration of skin exposure and fermentation time. The only variable was the barrels used to age the wine. These oak barrels were all French, but varied in which forest the trees grew in and were also different in cooperage, amount of toasting and age. From these barrel samples of this single clone, single vineyard Pinot Noir, le Danois and Terlinden selected their blending choices.

The various representations of this clone were definitely evident when we tasted the wine from different barrels after 10 months of ageing. So why does the grape clone present itself differently in different barrels? “Wine is a living thing,” le Danois says. “The sample I just tasted was from a one-year-old barrel and those are turning out to be my favorites. This one shows the wine’s balance without giving too much oak barrel influence to overpower the fruit but with enough tannin to give the fruit its impact.”

Before each taste the winemakers analyzed the wines’ aromas. “Of the more than five hundred possible aromas in a mature wine, this early in the wine’s evolution you get the primarily fruity components,” le Danois explains. “Later on come the floral and wood components.”

The Critic Factor

Though the high quality of Santa Barbara’s grapes give winemakers the luxury of being patient, outside forces can pressure vintners to micromanage. In the competitive wine trade critics like Robert Parker wield a powerful influence on the way some winemakers design their wines. I asked le Danois and Terlinden whether they try to create their Pinot with a particular French or American style in mind. “Growing up in Europe we drink wine when we are young and with the food styles of our country,” le Danois replied. “That is where we develop our palates and appreciation for truly balanced wines that tend to be subtler than some American wines that emphasize one component such as fruit. Etienne and I are European (Terlinden is American of Belgian heritage and fluent in French). We look for round, balanced wine with flavor, length and structure. I try to create the same balance with these wines as I do with French wines, but I seek the flavor profile that is best for American grapes grown in American terroir: alcohol, acid and tannin, with fruit in proportion to those elements.”

Terlinden says he looks for grapes where the clone matches the terroir and climate. “I don’t try to work backwards to create a wine to fit a specific market or critic’s taste,” he says. “I make wine that reflects the best qualities of our grape clones and terroir. Some winemakers might pick their grapes early in an attempt to be “Burgundian” in style. Santa Barbara does not have the weather or soil of France, so I pick slightly later because I wait for the flavors to be the best I can get to represent the grape clone in the soil and terroir suited to it. If people want the subtle finesse and delicate flavors of French Burgundy, they should purchase French wines. We are not mass-market wine producers. People who seek out Summerland wines know what they want in a wine that comes from grapes best suited for the vineyard where they are grown – not grapes manipulated to be something they are not.”

Terlinden sampled from the barrel he designated as “029” and smiled with satisfaction. “This one has something special, a depth and layering as well as balance,” he exclaimed. Le Danois obviously agreed as her independent notes included four stars next to number “029.” She also gave high stars to another barrel sample for its rich viscosity and mouth feel.

One thing was clear to me – no two samples were exactly the same in aroma or flavor profile. Pretty amazing what a single grape clone can do when all factors are identical in the life of the vine and grape. In our tasting, the only variable was the wood barrel. Now consider the further potential when the best samples of the dozens tasted of that clone are blended to produce the reserve wine.

After wrapping my mind around that one, I imagine how much the winemaker can achieve when he or she can also select from a variety of grape clones.

Sip Tips

My latest bang for the buck wines come from Kim Crawford Wines in New Zealand. I sampled five of his varietals, all under $20, and they had the high quality expressions of that country's quality grapes. You can't miss with the 2005 Marlborough Pinot Gris, a 50/50 blend of sun-exposed and sun-shaded fruit – a new blending concept to me. The 2004 Tietjen-Briant Gisborne Chardonnay, will please those who love a balanced, full-bodied Chardonnay that can support toasty oak and the butterscotch of malolactic fermentation.

Old Spanish Days and Elements Restaurant will present a wine tasting event on the final Sunday afternoon of Fiesta in the Courthouse Sunken Gardens, August 6. After four days of mariachis, margaritas and enchiladas, this should be the ideal way to conclude Fiesta celebrations. Elements co-owners Andy Winchester, Larry Kreider and Paul Becking (Becking is also executive chef) have gathered more than 20 of the finest wineries in the Santa Barbara area to pour at the event, with the West Coast Symphony providing background music. Of special note to wine lovers: a number of hard-to-find wines will all be available for purchase that day, an opportunity that is unusual for festival type wine tastings.

Tickets are $65 per person and may be purchased at Arlington Ticket Agency (963-4408) or through Ticketmaster, www.ticketmaster.com. For additional information on all Old Spanish Days events, visit www.oldspanishdays-fiesta.org. Elements: 884-9218.