Pinot Noir from Calera and some thoughts on Californian Pinot Noir in general

Calera is a winery with a focus on Pinot Noir, located in San Benito County in California, about 90 miles south of San Francisco, close to Mt. Harlan.

The founder Josh Jensen had been to Burgundy to learn about wine production, and returned with the lesson that soils rich in limestone were needed to produce good Pinot Noir wine. After som searching i California, in 1974 he bought high-altitude land with such soils. The first 24 acres (10 hectares using measures used “over here”) of vineyard were planted in 1975 and yielded their first harvest in 1978. These initial vineyards consisted of three plots that were give the name Selleck Vineyard (5 acres/2 ha), Reed Vineyard (5 acres/2 ha), and Jensen Vineyard (14 acres/5.7 ha). It might be mentioned that the latter vineyard was named for Stephen Jensen, the father of Josh Jensen, and not himself.

A century before, there had been commercial quarring of limestone on the property, and a well kept 30 feet high masonry limekiln (a sort of oven) from this era is to be found on the property. The Spanish word for such an over, calera, lended the winery its name. A drawing of this oven is used as its logotype.

Additional Pinot Noir vineyards have later been added: Mills Vineyard (12 acres/just under 5 ha) was planted in 1984, de Villiers (13 acres/just over 5 ha) in 1997 (but was only separately bottled under this name from 2007), and Ryan Vineyard (10 acres/4 ha) in 1998.

The wines from these six Pinot Noir vineyards are sold under their vineyard designations, and are all part of then Mt. Harlan AVA. Calera also produces a non-vineyard designated Pinot Noir, just called Calera, from the Central Coast AVA, which is a larger AVA (=American Viticultural Area) of which Mt. Harlan is a part.

Calera also has plantations of Viognier, Chardonnay, and Aligoté, sold under varietal name but not vineyard designation.

Some thoughts on Californian Pinot Noir and a change of style in progress

I might start by adding that although I have rather broad interests in the world of wine, Californian and other U.S. wines have not been my main focus of interest. So this is written by someone who has been drinking a more Pinot Noir from Burgundy than from the rest of the world combined (at least if we’re talking about red wines without bubbles). This means that my perspective – from a distance of one continent and one ocean away – may be different from that of some readers.

That said, my definite impression is that better Californian Pinot Noir has become a lot more interesting in recent years. Not too long ago, a common view on the European side of the “pond” was that Californian Pinots seldom were very interesting, often jammy in style and only had the varietal name (but not the style) in common with wines from Burgundy. Over here, the fame of California was primarily built on Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Bordeaux blends, in particular from Napa, a type of wine where “big, bold and beautiful” (or even “big and bold” irrespective of beauty) traditionally have been more accepted than what is the case for Pinot Noir. To find more balanced U.S. Pinot Noir wines, the source to go to was almost exclusively Oregon. Many Burgundy fans that have looked in the New World may also have preferred New Zealand in general, and perhaps Central Otago in particular, to the U.S.

However, more balanced (or restrained or elegant or whatever you want to call them) New World wines in a more “classical/European” style, is a major trend since a number of years. Of wines that have happened to pass my way, this trend has been most obvious on the Chardonnay side, in wines from both California and Australia. More recently, a number of quite pleasant and Burgundian Californian Pinot Noirs have come my may. A couple of these have been in mixed blind tastings in the last two years or so, and I might as well admit that I have guessed more than once that these wines were from Burgundy. Just to avoid any misunderstanding, if I refer to the actual wines rather than to their price tags, this is definitely meant as praise when coming from me! It definitely seems like Oregon (as well as Nya Zeeland) quickly is getting serious competition from a number of California in the good to excellent Pinot Noir category!

Most of the interesting Californian producers are members of an organisation called In Pursuit of Balance, founded in 2011 and currently having 33 members, of which Calera is one. This organisation gathers those Californian producers that focus on producing balanced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all producers aim to make their wines very Burgundy-styled, but the focus is on balance rather than maximum power. This often means that the producers have sought out cooler locations in the generally hot and sunny California. Such locations are found e.g. on higher altitudes and where the sea breeze cools.

Calera 20150228 nr 2

Most of the wines can be seen, as well as a part of Josh Jensen’s shirt.

Wines tasted

At the end of February, The Wine Advocate, being the publication of Robert M. Parker, Jr., invited to a wine event in London (the only place in Europe visited on their tour) called “Matter of Taste”. This consisted of a walkabout tasting and a number of Masterclasses. As a small twist, the wines featured were almost exclusively those thad had been scored 90 points or more by The Wine Advocate. Since I’m a long-standing online subscriber, I found this to be an excellent excuse for a weekend trip to London. I spent a hectic day attending two Masterclasses as well as slurping my way through the walk-around part.

Since Calera put on a very broad and impressive lineup of wines, both including 2012s (an excellent vintage for Californian Pinot Noir) and a generous amount of older vintages, I took the opportunity to taste all the Calera wines available. Tasting notes from this type of events, when the palate has had to work quite a lot before, tend to be less reliable compared to those from more calm sit-down tastings. However, in this case I did take my time going through all the wines, for what it’s worth.

As it happens, it was Josh Jensen himself who poured the wines, dressed in a strikingly colourful and flowery shirt!

The wines were tasted from younger to older, but I’ve grouped the tasting notes by vineyard. The 2012s were served in the order de Villiers – Mills – Reed – Jensen – Selleck, and I’ve ordered the notes in the same way, with Ryan (where the 2012 wasn’t shown, only the 2007) last.

I also supplemented my impression from this event with a wine subsequently purchased back home in Sweden and tasted in the comfort of my home with plenty of time available.

2013 Calera Pinot Noir
Central Coast

Nose with ripe strawberries, mineral and some notes that remind me of 2011 Burgundies (a cool impression with some green notes). Palate with ripe and sweet fruit and good balance, 88-89 p?

2012 Calera Pinot Noir
Central Coast. Tasted at home in April 2015.

Medium red, clear colour. A nose with a lot of Pinot Noir typicity with ripe cherries, some red berries, some spice and oak notes, hints of liquorice and flowery notes (violets). Medium bodied with cherries, impression of ripe berries and just a hint of alcoholic fire, good acidity, some spice notes, and a berry-dominated aftertaste. A very smooth and easy to drink wine. Rather young, but drinks well now, 89 p.

A well made Pinot Noir in a balanced style, but to me shows a rather obvious New World character.

2012 Calera de Villiers Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Nose with cherries, ripe fruit – slightly flowery. Palate with good concentration, somewhat sweet fruit, good balance and a pleasant aftertaste. Young, 90 p.

2007 Calera de Villiers Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Nose with ripe strawberries, some animal notes and some spiciness. Palate with sweet fruit, good spicy notes, some minerality, and rather noticeable tannins. Rather good balance, semi-mature at present, 90 p.

This wine gives more impression of sweetness of fruit than the 2007 Ryan.

2012 Calera Mills Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Nose with ripe strawberries, cherries and minerality – slightly flowery. Palate with good concentration, ripe strawberries and cherries, and some smooth tannins. Young, 91 p?

1999 Calera Mills Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Noticeably developed with compost and humus, mild spices, and red berries. Palayte with ripe red berries, spice notes, and rather noticeable tannins. The most developed of the 1999s served, and in my opinion at least this bottle had passed its zenith, 89 p.

2012 Calera Reed Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Nose of ripe strawberries, a hint of orange zest, rather flowery. Palate with rather ripe fruit, strawberries, good minerality, and good acidity. Finer balance than de Villiers & Mills, 91-92(+) p.

2012 Calera Jensen Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Nose with ripe strawberries and minerality of the chalky tupe with some elegance. Palate with ripe fruit, good concentration, good acidity, and rather noticeable tannins for a Pinot Noir. Young, 90-91(+) p.

1999 Calera Jensen Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Nose with ripe strawberries and developed notes with undergrowth and animal notes. Palate with ripe strawberries and some well integrated tannins. Rather fully developed and shows fine balance, 90-91 p.

2012 Calera Selleck Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Nose with ripe cherries, almost some candied cocktail berries, and flowery notes with violets. Palate with good concentration of ripe fruit including cherries and rather noticeable tannins, 91(+) p.

1999 Calera Selleck Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Palate with ripe strawberries, some orange zest, and flowery notes. Palate with ripe strawberries, good minerality, tart berries, good acidity, and rather noticeable tannins. Fine balance, a “tight” wine. Rather fully developed, 92-93 p.

2007 Calera Ryan Pinot Noir
Mt. Harlan

Nose with ripe strawberries, flowery notes, discrete development, and elegance. Palate with ripe strawberries, noticeable acidity and minerality, some tannins, fine balance but some heat. Rather developed, 91 p.

The style of the vineyards

Calera’s own descriptions of the style of the six vineyard sites can be found below, using the same sorting order as above:

  • Mills: “Fragrant and spicy, with broad round tannins and a long finish”
  • De Villiers: “Showy and forward with chewy and juicy fruit character, and a rich, lush round mouthfeel”
  • Reed: “Forward and aromatic, lighter and somewhat exotic with exceptional softness on the palate”
  • Jensen: “Impeccably balanced, rich, round and age-worthy wines”
  • Selleck: “Concentrated and complex wines with great perfume and Burgundian style with great aging potential”
  • Ryan: “The young vines from the Ryan vineyard produce wines of bright, lively red fruit just beginning to hint at that definitive Mt. Harlan minerality”

Of the wines where I tasted two vintages, I’d say that Selleck raised to level somewhat above Mills and de Villiers, and in this case I can definitely agree with the description above. The only wine from Reed also impressed me. Jensen and Selleck seems to be richer in tannins than Mills, de Villers, and Reed.

In general terms, these wines struck me as more Burgundian in the nose than on the palate. Yes, I can’t avoid making a comparison to Burgundy when there’s Pinot Noir in the glass. These are wines that are quite good, elegant and balanced Pinot Noirs that have a generosity of fruity and an “overall composition” that without doubt give them a New World identity.

Calera 20150228 nr 1

Swedish version of this post.

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