Sunday, February 13, 2011

The pinotphile on the mountain top

At the age of 71, William “Bill” Smith sold his brand and winery La Jota Vineyard (he kept the vineyard) to Jess Jackson, who incorporated that in his empire of high end wine estates. The reason Bill sold his company wasn’t because he wanted to retire, he had other plans than that.

“No, I’m an old man, I don’t like to drink tannic cabernets anymore, and my wines of La Jota takes so long time to mature so I wanted to do something else – and since I love Pinot Noir and it makes a wine that’s ready to drink young, I wanted to make some pinots”, he told me. “And it would keep me busy”, he adds.

So in 2001 he founded a new company, W H Smith Wines, and custom crushed his first two vintages 2002 and 2003 in Sebastopol. But his plans didn’t stop there, so he built his own winery (a cave) next to his Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard on the top of western Howell Mountain, just few miles from his former La Jota Vineyards winery.
Bill still makes two wines of Cabernet Sauvignon from his own vineyards on Howell Mountain, but his core production is the five pinots from purchased grapes in all over Sonoma Coast. They are all made in the same way. Grapes are harvested early in the morning and then trucked in small boxes to the winery on Howell Mountain, then sorted, totally destemmed but not crushed. After a few days of cold soak, the juice is fermented in small open top fermenters of stainless steel, but rather than doing pigeage (punch down) for extraction (the more common technique for Pinot Noir), he use remontage (pump over).
Only French oak (of course) is used for ageing, both new and two and three year old, and the wines normally spend around 10 months in the barrels. During that time, some bâtonnage is done.
The wines of W H Smith are not ripe and rich as those of Kosta-Browne, nor intense and ultra pure like those of Melville Estate. They are more in the style of those of Calera and Au Bon Climat, light and fresh, elegant and a bit rustic, in that sense quite classic. Some people don’t like that at all, others love it. As for me, I appreciate the different styles for their different personalities, and I find the somehow rustic and sometimes a bit old fashioned pinot notes in Bills pinots to be very attractive. Since I also like old style burgundy wines, the wines from W H Smith suits me just perfect. They combine, in a very fascinating way, both the old and the new world.

2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir / 88 p
For this wine Bill sources the grapes from several vineyards in Sonoma Coast and Russian River, and this is most of all a kind of second wine to the vineyard designated bottling. The wine is kept in mostly neutral French oak barrels for around nine months and it’s always the lightest and most delicate of the five pinots from Bill Smith. The color is pale cherry red in a very burgundian way (rather than the more common darkred color of California pinots). Delightful, fragrant red berries are found on the nose, mostly cherries and cranberries, also a kind of earthy note reminiscent of stems and there’s just a small note from the oak. The palate is fresh, quite light and elegant with fine red fruit aromas and silky tannins, and the aftertaste is lean and refreshing. Serve this beautiful wine just as a burgundy at 15 degress Celsius in a classic burgundy glass.
Drink it 2011-2014.

2007 Maritime Ridge Pinot Noir / 90-91 p
This is also a blend from different vineyards in the Sonoma Coast area, predominately the Hellental Vineyard, Umino Vineyard and Hanes Vineyard (which add the darker and more concentrated fraction of the blend), but also from Marimar Vineyard in Green Valley. According to Bill, this is his top selection and normally is his most intense and complex wine. Compared to the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, this one is darker, more intense and deeper, which slightly sweeter and more ripe cherry notes, but less earthyness and almost no oak at all. With air, the wine opens up a bit and then offers more complex nuances. On the palate, is riper but not sweeter, and the acidity and fine tannins give the wine a very elegant structure, which in many ways are similar to what’s being found in fine reds of Burgundy. There’s just one thing missing – the chalky minerality. The aftertaste is fresh, silky and seductive, and it lingeres for quite a while as well. It’s a beautiful wine that really needs to be decanted to open up and show that silkyness. Serve it at 15-16 degrees in large burgundian glasses.
Drink it 2011-2017.

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