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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.

  1. Question for you, or others, Steve: I’ve oft heard it stated that PinotNoir (and Nebbiolo), and now Chardonnay, I guess, are varieties that can magically express terroir better than any other grape varieties, like Zinfandel or Cabernet or Syrah.
    The question: What is it about Pinot (or Nebbiolo) that makes that variety unique in being able to express terroir?

  2. TomHill, I wouldn’t presume to explain it chemically. But I will quote Aubert de Villaine, the vigneron at Romanée-Conti: “Pinot noir does not exist. It’s a ghost. A transparent vehicle to show off the flavors of a piece of earth.”

  3. Or a clonal selection. I’ve heard it said that Pinot, more than any other varietal, expresses type from it’s clone.

  4. Bob Smith says:


    I’ve come to some of the same conclusion over the year’s – I’ve stopped buying block and vineyard bottlings from some wineries because the QPR for the block or vineyard was not there or the differences between bottling was negligible.

    However, there are wineries like Dehlinger that produce from a single estate vineyard but each year Tom Dehlinger makes a decision on whether there are blocks in the vineyard that have produced something “special” and are worthy of a separate bottling. He also factors in the impact of leaving those grapes out of the estate wines. So some years there will be a “Reserve” or “Old Vine” or “Octagon” bottling but there are many more years without these.

    I also continue to buy block and vineyard wines that may not show as well as the wineries appellation wines but they do reflect distinct block or vineyard traits, dare I say “terroir”… They can also improve more with aging.


  5. Michael J says:

    I always believed that most other varietals have a core of dominant characteristics that tend to reflect that specific type regardless of terroir or wine making style. Pinot noir and chardonnay can vary so greatly due to wine making style, AVA, vinification methods, etc. With one producer pinot noir can be so light and delicate and approachable early on showing bright red fruit, whereas others can make a rigidly structured style requiring much time to soften before it shows its true mature potential.
    I am sure someone will counter with the argument that many styles can vary greatly as well, but these two in particular have such a wide range of personalities just in Northern California alone!

  6. Personally I look forward to experiencing the differing flavors from locations within an appelation or subappelation more than from locations within an estate. Maybe that’s because as Steve says we haven’t had the centuries to nail down any of our subappelations let alone dial in block differences within 60 acres. That goes for labeled product for sale, but barrel samples of differing blocks within an estate is a great thing to showcase to our very best visiting customers!

  7. As Jeff mentioned, Pinot Noir shows a lot differently depending on the clone. In the instance of Lynmar, (according to their website) they grow 14 different clones of Pinot Noir, and 4 of Chardonnay married to a variety of rootstock resulting in over 50 individual blocks. That is a huge ‘spice box’ to play with. It allows production of a variety of styles of wine, from balanced, harmonious blends to those created from a single block(presumably a specific clone/rootstock isolate). We all have different preferences in PN (I like Pommard and 2A)

    I am not a winemaker but have been around them when they blend, which gives me some insights into how they think. That’s why I believe Steve’s comment about designates taking away from non designated wines probably doesn’t happen that much. Wineries such as Lynmar who have a diverse portfolio of material draw on the different characteristics of the blocks to create a wine that integrates as many of the components as needed which defines what would be their signature wine. Making wines in a top down approach by keeping specific blocks out of blending trials will potentially undermine the overall appeal of a wine meant to typify the estate. They are not likely to leave anything out of the blending trials but chances are they won’t use all of their Pommard/110-R block, for example in making that blend, so they may have a couple tons left over to create a single block wine as an alternative wine to offer. These exercises help the winemakers as well as the consumer in identifying clonal characteristics. I too may not like a particular single clone bottling but can appreciate that for someone who does love the particular character shown in that bottling (presumably lower production too)that they would expect to pay a higher price.

  8. Steve, you state that “…price is no indicator of quality.” That is right MOST of the time.
    However, I am sure you and all of us geeks can come up with many exceptions.

  9. Marlene, sure we can come up with exceptions. In fact, I’d say there’s a correlation between higher prices and higher quality. Maybe I should have said “Price is no guarantee of quality.”

  10. Darek, I’m sure you’re right that showcasing block samples to your best customers is a success. The customer feels flattered, like they’re “in” on something that few others get to experience. However, that doesn’t speak to the quality of the wine — just to the customer experience. I didn’t mean this post to be a diatribe against block selections, which is why I went out of my way to praise it. I was just pointing out to consumers that just because they see a block selection on the label doesn’t make the wine better, or more satisfying, than the winery’s regular bottling.

  11. I think many of these Californian wines rely too heavily on Burgundy for guidance. That includes style, technique, and also the AVA/vineyard/block designations too. Their wines are uniquely Californian, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Price your wines however you deem fit. The market will correct it. Burgundy will always be there, California needs to move out of its shadow if it wants to be taken seriously

  12. T.J., I think the Burgundian pricing hierarchy makes a lot of sense. Borrowing it doesn’t mean the Californians have to try to make “Burgundian” wines in a “Burgundian” style, which is probably impossible anyway. It’s just a rational, 3-tiered schedule, so people can buy in to the winery at whatever price they want.

  13. Dear Steve, Thank you for saying that all seven of the Iron Horse 2009 Chardonnays are terrific. We are very proud of them. One reason for a price difference is the quantity produced. Most of the vineyard block wines are at about 220 cases. With all my best, Joy

  14. I am kinda surprised no one has chimed in on vine age here and what an impact that plays in individual site expression. My (albeit limited) experience has pointed toward the conclusion that clonal differences are very pronounced in younger vines (10 years or less) and that as the vines age (and the roots reach deeper) the clonal difference starts to fade and the block site (micro-climate) starts to take over as the defining influence. With little to no pinot vines that are over 35-40 years old in Ca, we haven’t had much time at all to see this materialize, But I think we all look forward to what more mature pinot vines can do in Ca!

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