With the exception of sparkling wine producers, wineries that focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay rarely play the blending game. But with Fort Ross Vineyard, there’s a not-so-secret third varietal that winemaker Jeff Pisoni gets to play with: Pinotage. While this ‘Symposium’ wine is labeled a Pinot Noir, there’s a little something extra blended in, giving the traditionally light, silky varietal, a hearty backbone and intense texture.
Pinotage was developed in South Africa in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold who was attempting to combine the best of two varieties: Pinot Noir and what was then referred to as Hermitage (today’s Cinsault). Since that time the clonal creation has become somewhat of South Africa’s “heritage grape,” if you will. It’s with that sentiment that South African natives and owners of Fort Ross Vineyard, Linda and Lester Schwartz sourced Pinotage bud wood from the original founding blocks of their native homeland shortly after establishing their Sonoma Coast vineyard estate. They are, in fact, the first private growers to import such cuttings and, eventually, sell commercially. Their estate Pinotage consists of two Fort Ross proprietary clones, MM1 and MM3, developed at UC Davis from that originally imported budwood.
I love the name of this wine. The blocks where the Pinot Noir grapes are harvested for this wine are called Stagecoach Road because the vineyard is located along, you guessed it, Stagecoach Road. But the amusing part of this anecdote is that the road is so-named because it is the very same Black Bart used when he robbed the Wells Fargo Stagecoach in 1877. The interesting thing about this vineyard is that it sits in a bit of a pocket on the estate, so the Pacific Coast fog tends to sink right in, lengthening the ripening period and creating some deep, brooding flavors in the grapes and, thus, the wines. With that in mind, I think they should change the name to Black Bart’s Pinot Noir. Just a gentle suggestion…
Fort Ross Vineyard focuses their vines to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The interesting thing about tasting from a winery with focused varietal selection is how different the resulting wines are based on individual block location, clonal selection, and of course the winemaking methods. The grapes for the Fort Ross Vineyard 2015 Mother of Pearl Chardonnay consist of old Wente clones, grown atop the estate’s highest elevated vineyards. Winemaker Jeff Pisoni highlights the complexity of the resulting fruit with his minimalistic winemaking approach.
In 1988 South African natives Lester and Linda Schwartz had been living in the Bay Area for just about 10 years when they decided to purchase the, then, untouched property atop the cliffside slopes of the Sonoma Coast. Convinced the land was suitable for grapevines, Lester ordered two dozen dormant rootstocks, planting a test vineyard with 16 varieties, three trellis systems, assorted clones and rootstocks. It took four years, but the couple found the most successful plantings were of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and spent the next ten years cultivating their 53-acre vineyard, complete with roads, subterranean drainage, and irrigation system. Alongside a small vineyard crew, Lester and Linda created thirty-two blocks of vines, carefully choosing which blocks were most suitable for which clones.
A taste of Fort Ross Vineyards wines means a taste of focused Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and a testament to what the cool climate and proximity to the Pacific Ocean does for these grapes. Indeed, among the Fort Ross Vineyards lineup, one can taste single-vineyard and even single-block expressions of either of these two varietals and experience how specific vineyard block orientation affects both the tastes and textures of resulting wines.
Of course one can’t get the full Fort Ross Vineyards experience without tasting a glass of Pinotage. Yes, during the course of building their vineyard acreage, Lester and Linda sourced bud wood from their native South Africa (where Pinotage claims the country’s “heritage grape” title), had it quarantined and tested through UC Davis, and became the first private growers, and eventually commercial producers, of Pinotage.