If you haven’t heard of Samra Morris, take note, this Bosnian-born woman is a winemaker to watch. She is, indeed, the first Bosnian female winemaker in California. Samra has both a Bachelors and Masters degree in Food Sciences from The University of Sarajevo, College of Agricultural and Food Sciences. Post-graduation, Morris interned in the Department of Enology at The University of Sarajevo before deciding to pursue a winemaking career.

Samra came to Napa alongside her military air force husband whose station assignment moved from her home town in Bosnia to Travis Air Force Base just outside of California’s esteemed wine country. “I’m the luckiest Bosnian,” she said during our recent tasting together.

Her career in the wine business started with a tasting room position, then on to a vineyard internship for St. Supery, after which she spent three harvests with winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown and eventually became part of the cellar team for Michael Mondavi Family Estate.

Today, Samra is head winemaker for Alma Rosa in Santa Rita Hills, Calif. , a sub-AVA of Santa Ynez Valley AVA, located in Santa Barbara County, the most southern wine producing region within the state’s Central Coast.

As many know, the Santa Barbara region, in general is noted for its cool climate, brought on by the Transverse Ranges—mountainous ranges that glide east-to-west, funneling the cool maritime air from the Pacific Ocean. The combination of those cooling sea breezes and a range of aspects and altitudes means that the key grapes of the region, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are able to achieve full phenolic ripeness, but maintain a high enough acidity to balance the structure fruit concentration.

But Samra didn’t come to Santa Rita Hills to do what everyone else is doing. Beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Alma Rosa produces Rhone varieties including Syrah and Grenache; Alsatian varieties such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. And that these “alternative” Santa Rita Hills expression is what Samra brought to the table for a recent media tasting.

Alma Rosa Winery vineyards in Buellton, California. Photo Credit: Ciro Coehlo
Alma Rosa Winery vineyards in Buellton, California. Photo Credit: Ciro Coehlo

Below are my notes on the wines we tasted during our virtual get-together. Tasting profile and conclusions were all written prior to the virtual event.

Notes from the winery were added following our meeting.

All photos courtesy Alma Rosa.

2020 Alma Rosa Vin Gris of Pinot Noir [$35, 13.2% ABV]

Appearance: pale pink-orange

Aroma: medium (+) intensity—blossom, roses, raspberry, strawberry, pink grapefruit, red cherry, pink lemonade (fruits almost ‘candy’ in nature; florals very fresh)

Palate: dry, high acid, medium alcohol, medium body, medium (+) intensity—confirms the nose

Finish is medium

Conclusion:  This is a good wine (and one that I look forward to drinking the rest of tonight with dinner). The aromatic intensity jumps out of the glass almost immediately and the palate carries through every expectation. The high acidity keeps those fresh fruit flavors front and center from start to finish. Though not complex by any means, the vivacity of those fruits is pure joy. And it’s a joy to be experienced now—no need to hide this beauty in the cellar for any length of time. The finish stops at a medium length, yes, but that mouthwatering pucker will have you reaching for another sip.

From the winery: Sourced from our own El Jabali estate vineyard, our 2020 Vin Gris is an elegant and refreshing rosé expression of our estate Pinot Noir.

2020 Alma Rosa Grenache Rosé [$30; 13% ABV]

Appearance: pale pink-orange (note: just a quarter of a shade darker than the previous)

Aroma: medium (+) intensity: floral (white blossoms, baby’s breath, lavender), strawberry, red cherry, white pepper, cantaloupe and green melon

Palate: dry, high acid, medium body, medium alcohol, medium (+) intensity—confirming the nose, adding a little bit of salinity and/or minerality; this one has a noticeable phenolic grip as well

Finish is medium (+) in length

Conclusion: This is a very good wine showing a bit more complexity than the first, both in the range of primary characteristics (which include that undertone of salinity/mineral earthiness) as well as that touch of texture. Further, the finish length is just a tad a longer than the previous, falling at a medium (+).

The balance is excellent. Though the acid level is high, because of the more concentrated flavors and the addition of those phenolics, it is perceptively less intense. The fruits are just ripe to fully ripe in their expression, adding to an almost rounded mouthfeel (but not quite, as that acidity is truly the backbone of this wine keeping everything from becoming flat or flabby). While I’m not usually a fan of the aromas/flavors of either baby’s breath or white pepper, here they add a wonderful complementary spice note. Like the previous rosé, I think this wine, too, will be best enjoyed in the immediate future. Enjoy.

From the winery: Fruit for our 2020 Grenache Rosé was sourced from our own El Jabali estate vineyard, a living piece of Central Coast history planted by winery founder Richard Sanford in 1983.

2019 La Encantada Pinot Blanc [$35; 14.9% ABV]

Appearance: pale lemon (with a twinge of green)

Aroma: medium aromas—yeast, toasted bread, yellow apple, white blossom, white nectarine and peach, kiwi fruit, yellow grapefruit/pomelo, a hint of toasted wood and vanilla and baking spice (like nutmeg)

Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, medium (+) body, medium flavor intensity—confirming the nose

Finish is medium (and a tad hot)

Conclusion: This is a good wine that, if tasting blind, I would have mistaken for a Chardonnay, given the body and structure of the wine. I’m suspecting some lees aging and stirring, some time in barrel, and perhaps even a percentage of ML. The wine is borderline creamy in texture, with ripe stone and tropical fruits taking over the primaries. I do get subtle hints of oak aging (wood, vanilla, baking spice). I really did have to swirl the wine around (both in the glass and in the mouth) to pull out those flavors, however. The immediate perception was all about those yeasty/bready tones.

While a generally balanced wine, I do find that the alcohol sticks out a bit both during and after the tasting with a bit of extra heat. However, knowing that this is a Pinot Blanc and that the varietal tendency is toward a large increase in sugars toward the end of ripening, I would say that this is most likely the intended style and what the winemaker has done well is pick at the peak of that development before there was a major drop in acidity (which, again, the varietal tends to do).

In the end, because of the slightly out-of-balance profile and the medium length finish, I’ve concluded that this wine is of good quality.

 2019 La Encantada Pinot Gris [$32; 15.1% ABV]

Appearance: pale lemon (oops, with a piece of floating cork *blush*)

Aroma: medium intensity—yellow apple, green pear, yellow peach and nectarine, apricot, mandarin orange, butter/cream, lemon, white blossom, toast, hint vanilla, clove and nutmeg

Palate: medium (+) intensity—confirming the notes above (in fact, had to taste to pull out some of those notes mentioned above) and adding a little bit of white pepper and lime zest

Dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, medium (+) body

Finish is medium (and again, a tad hot)

Conclusion: This is a good wine that, though not very intense aromatically, shows a great variety of primary and secondary characteristics once on the palate. There’s a good level of acidity that pushes the primary fruits to keep in pace with those powerful secondary notes.

Again, my question comes to balance with the alcohol. It even smells hot and the medium finish ends with flavor gone and a bit of burning on the both tongue and the gums above the teeth.

Pinot Gris, too, has tendency is toward a large increase in sugars toward the end of ripening, so a higher level of alcohol is not a huge surprise. While the former showed a more controlled level of balance, this, for me, was just a bit out of whack. In so saying, the wine is not faulty in anyway and there is enough intensity of fruit concentration that there are those who may not even notice the alcohol level on this wine. So, while the wine cannot be qualified as better than good, it’s certainly better than acceptable (and by no means poor).

From the winery: The La Encantada vineyard, originally planted by Richard Sanford in 2000, produces wines that exemplify the greatest attributes of the Sta. Rita Hills’ southwest corridor year after year. Just two miles west of the Alma Rosa estate on Santa Rosa Road, La Encantada grows the vast majority of the Pinot Gris found in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation.

For more information about Alma Rosa, their wines, and to purchase wine directly, please visit the Alma Rosa website.

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