The Improbable Vineyard
There are many impressive things about the Calera Wine Company. The quality and longevity of the wines is probably the most noted. But driving around the vineyards perched atop Mt. Harlan, its very existence - the unlikely birth of the vision now come fruition, is the most impressive thing. How did Josh Jensen come to the top of these hills and have the gall, vision and courage to plant vines up here?
The limestone soils are the short answer; they are the buried treasure. They brought Josh to Mt. Harlan and they contribute heavily to the quality and longevity of the wines. But there is more to the terroir of this site. There is altitude (an average of 2200 feet above sea level), which is crucial to tempering the intense heat found in this part of California. There is the clonal selection, or lack thereof, which adds to the Calera mystique. The clone is now called the Calera Clone, but it originated not as a clone, per se, but rather as cuttings brought over from Burgundy. Most of the vineyards have been planted from material pulled from the original plantings. This process, called Massale Selection, can bring greater diversity to the vineyard by allowing the vines to adapt to their site and then propagating them into new vineyards. (It is my understanding that vines are highly adaptive and can mutate slightly rather quickly.) It is a more organic form of diversity than planting selected clones. The rustic way in which this plant material was brought here left room for imperfections. Many of the vines show signs of virus. This is not exactly a good thing but not exactly a bad thing either. It falls in the realm of imperfection that may lead to something interesting. There is rootstock - or lack thereof. Some of the vines up here are planted on their own roots, including the Mills Vineyard. This is something that is rare in the wine world, although not as rare as I once thought. It leaves the vines susceptible to Phylloxera, but allows them to show their true colors. Some people liken it to tasting heirloom vegetables as compared to commercially bred and influenced varieties. There is the ecosystem. Being this high up and completely surrounded by forests is something very special. So many vineyards of the world are just one plot among many others. This is a closed system, and the isolation and purity of the site are palpable. There is the varied terrain and aspects. The vines are planted on every aspect imaginable. The mountain rolls and turns and rises steeply and then falls gradually, and everywhere there are vines. This site has personality to spare. Trying to translate all of the possibilities of these vineyards is like doing high-level math in your head. And upon reflection, it is perfect that Josh Jensen is the man who created it.
There is the winery to consider as well. Ideally and romantically every great wine is made in the vineyard. And a winery is a winery is a winery, but even this part of Calera is unique. It is an old limestone processing plant built into the side of the mountain. It takes gravity flow to a new level with 7 different tiers for receiving, fermenting, crushing, and storing plus two barrel levels and a bottling and storage level. The wines are generally whole cluster fermented with indigenous yeast. The building viewed from the parking lot has a sort of Mad Max utility to it. It is perfect.
I wanted to visit the vineyards on Mt. Harlan to get a visual and visceral idea of the Mills vineyard. I had just tasted through the vertical that we are offering at Nopa and the flavors and nuances were still fresh in my mind. I hoped to see the Mills Vineyard and have everything I was seeing click cleanly into place with everything that I had tasted. This did not occur exactly as planned. The Mills Vineyard does make more sense to me now. The gently south facing slope, the hills to the west, the creek bed at the bottom and the open aspect to the east - all of these things can be worked into the equation that is the Mills Pinot Noir. But the real epiphany was of a broader scope. It involved the personality of the Calera Wine Company as a whole and of the wines in general. The entire lineup makes more sense now - not just the individual personality of the different vineyards, but also of the company and the people behind it. No matter how many times I visit a winery or vineyards and feel this understanding blossom, it never ceases to amaze and enthrall me. It is proof to me over and over again that the most valuable and lasting thing a wine can offer is sense of place.
Posted December 12, 2009 • Filed under Wine
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