The Laetitia Tour

In 1982, French viticulturists from the esteemed Champagne house, Champagne Deutz, searched California for a suitable site to begin growing and producing Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines in America. They likened the soils and climate of the Arroyo Grande Valley to those found in their native Epernay, France and Maison Deutz was born. About 185 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc were planted and for more than 13 years, Maison Deutz enjoyed an excellent reputation for outstanding Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines.

In 1998, Selim Zilkha and his partner purchased the former Maison Deutz winery and vineyard (which had changed names to Laetitia the previous year) and it grew to the currently planted 620-acre estate vineyard. In 2001, Zilkha obtained sole proprietorship of Laetitia and brought in his daughter, Nadia Wellisz, to become executive vice president of the vineyard. It was Zilkha’s commitment to renewable resources (he owned and operated Zilkha Renewable Energy, a wind power development company) that prompted him to convert the fleet of Laetitia Vineyard & Winery vehicles to biodiesel.

Situated in the Arroyo Grande Valley of Southern San Luis Obispo county, Laetitia vineyards grow on a hillside just four miles from the ocean. The grapes enjoy cool sea breezes, coastal fog and the long growing season well suited for cultivating Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Laetitia now produces several styles of Pinot and Chardonnay, including block-designated, reserve estate, individual clonal and estate blends along with high-quality Pinot Gris, Syrah, White Riesling and Pinot Blanc. But their Pinot Noir remains the gold standard. The Laetitia 2005 Pinot Noir Estate ($25), for instance, is a balanced blend of black cherry and plum fruit, followed by layers of cranberry and wild mushroom with a long, memorable finish.

“Pinot Noir is the heart of Laetitia and Pinot is my passion,” says winemaker Eric Hickey. “You’ll always be challenged by Pinot, but I love applying some of the sophistication we put into our Pinot into other varietals like Syrah and Cabernet.”

Laetitia Chardonnays undergo full malolactic fermentation and monthly hand-stirring of the lees (batonage). Laetitia 2005 Chardonnay Reserve ($26) comes from grapes hand-picked from the vineyard’s best Chardonnay blocks and is silky and full-bodied with rich pear and citrus followed by layers of nutmeg, white pepper and long minerality.

During a recent tour of the vineyard, Wellisz explained the somewhat staggered layout of vineyard blocks within the estate. When the French owners planned the original vineyard in 1982, they carefully researched the terrain, planting vines in specific sites chosen for their soil profile, exposure, microclimate and other factors. After seeing the steep hillside where Les Galets Pinot Noir 2004 ($60) grapes compete for water, I understood why that wine is so intense in flavors of stone fruit, cedar, and spice balanced by soft tannins.

It’s a wine that has not forgotten its French roots.

For more info visit www.laetitiawine.com.

Sip Tips

San Luis Obispo county can claim one of the greatest gems of the Central Coast – Edna Valley Vineyard, which enjoys the moderating temperature influence of the east-west valley that brings in the cool mornings and evenings from the Pacific Ocean. I’ve always been a fan of the vineyard’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; the winemakers have held true to the concept that pulling out too much top wine for reserve bottlings diminishes the quality of their other wines.

As such, reserve wines from their estate Edna Valley AVA have held up. In 2004, winemaker Harry Hansen set aside two blocks of the Paragon Vineyard for a reserve bottling. His 2004 Paragon Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay ($30) has the mouthfeel, rich flavor and elegance that made it worth the extra effort. These grapes receive special handling, including two extra weeks of hang time for greater ripeness and flavor. Even once in the barrels, Hansen tasted each barrel in search of what he described as, “The ultimate yum factor.” The release of that reserve is limited, so check with the winery to find your bottle(s). (For more info call 544-5855 or visit www.ednavalley.com.)

SBWinemakers.com is dedicated to wines from Santa Barbara appellations. From the hundreds of wines tasted, top honors went to Chris Whitcraft’s Whitcraft, 2004, Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, Melville Vineyard, unfined, unfiltered. You still can purchase this beauty along with other Whitcraft wines by visiting the Whitcraft Winery and Tasting room at 36A South Calle Cesar Chavez or through the website at www.whitcraftwinery.com.