Thoughts on block bottlings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California
It’s always exciting for a critic to taste through a range of wines from the same variety and winery, whose fruit comes from different places. Testarossa, Williams Selyem, Siduri, Failla, Merry Edwards, MacPhail–they all produce a wide range of Pinot Noirs (Williams Selyem made 16 different Pinots in 2007), and it’s interesting and educational to experience them as expressions of terroir, made, as they are, with the same winemaking sensibility .
One subset of this multi-bottling practice is with block bottlings. This is when the winemaker bottles the same variety from different parts of the (presumably estate) vineyard, in the belief that the various bottlings will show fascinating differences. Transparent varieties like Pinot Noir and, to some extent, Chardonnay are able to reflect small differences in terroir, in a way a heavier variety, such as Zinfandel, will not.
There’s usually a price formula with such lineups. The block bottlings tend to be more expensive than the vineyard-designated bottling, which in turn is more expensive than the non-vineyard-designated appellation bottling (if the winery has one). This model is based, of course, on Burgundy. For anyone in California who’s serious about Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and has access to the grapes, it must be irresistable to produce multiple bottlings.
But what does this mean for the consumer? For a critic whose mission it is to provide advice and guidance to wine buyers, the question begs to be asked: “Can it be said in every case that the block bottling is better than the vineyard-designated wine, which in turn is better than the appellation bottling?” And the answer is decidedly “No.”
I’ve seen it over and over for years. I’ll use a few examples of wines I reviewed last week. Lynmar sent me 11 new 2009 Pinot Noirs, most of them from their Quail Hill estate vineyard in the southern Russian River Valley. I’ve long been a big fan of Lynmar, through the Hugh Chappelle and Dan Moore eras to the Bibiana Gonzalez Rave era of today. In 2004, Lynmar sent me 3 Pinots to review: the Quail Hill, Five Sisters and regular Russian River Valley. I rated the Quail Hill higher than the Five Sisters, even though the latter cost $30 more.
By 2007, Lynmar sent me five Pinots. I scored their Hawk Hill the same as the Five Sisters, even though the latter again cost $30 more. But the other three Pinots were tightly clustered just below them in score, meaning that for all practical purposes they were just as good. (When wines are 3 or 4 points apart, their relative standings can easily switch, given the vagaries of time and bottle variation.) Which brings us to those eleven 2009s I just reviewed. My highest scoring wine was the Quail Hill “Summit”, which I scored more highly than the Quail Hill Old Vines Pinot that cost $50 more. I scored a Block 10 bottling from Quail Hill considerably lower, as it didn’t possess the complexity of the Summit, Quail Hill Lynn’s Blend or Quail Hill Bliss Block, even though all were priced identically, at $70.
There are a couple lessons here. One is that price is no indicator of quality. We all know that, but what’s less understood is that there’s a potential risk a winery takes when it carves up and bottles an estate vineyard into lots of little blocks: it can be a zero sum game in which one side wins while the other loses. This is because, if you blend your best lots into block or barrel selections, you no longer have those barrels available to fill in the divots of other barrels that may be incomplete in terms of aromatics, acidity, depth of flavor, color, tannins, and so on.
Then there’s the case of Iron Horse’s 2009 Chardonnays, which numbered seven, the most they’ve ever sent me. The grapes for all of them came from the winery’s magnificent hilly estate vineyard, near cool Forestville, in the Green Valley. All seven are terrific wines, showing the crisp acidity, dryness, minerality and brilliant fruit Iron Horse Chards always deliver. I scored them all within a few points of each other. Well and good, but the pricing was widely disparate, meaning there was little correlation between price and quality (or my scores, if you prefer). For example, I rated the Estate Chardonnay, at $27, higher than the Heritage Clone and “M” bottlings, (the latter a block selection), both of them priced at $48.
The Burgundian model, of which Romanée-Conti is the most famous, works because vintners there have had centuries to figure out block differences that are dependably real, year after year, decade after decade. (You can think of the six red DRC named vineyards as different blocks of a single 61-acre vineyard, which is smaller than Iron Horse’s 79 acres of Pinot Noir.) The Californians haven’t yet had the opportunity of centuries to get things right. It’s certainly not improper for wineries like Iron Horse and Lynmar to tinker with block bottlings, and in fact, just the opposite: it’s a noble undertaking, not without risk (as I pointed out above), whose goal is laudable and, one hopes, achievable. In another generation or two, Iron Horse and Lynmar may have blocked out their vineyards in compelling ways. But not yet.