Monday, July 2, 2012

Got Dirt? Terroir At Laetitia Vineyards

If you have ever driven along Highway 101 in California’s Central Coast wine country, you may have wondered about all those Pinot Noir vineyards you see along the road in southern San Luis Obispo county.  They belong to Laetitia Estate Vineyard and Winery.

Press releases don’t usually make for very good reading, but this one had my attention all the way through.  It’s a great explainer about how - even on one estate - the terroir can vary greatly.  That gives a winemaker a lot of tools to work with when blending wines.  My thanks to the nice folks at Parker Sanpei for passing this along to me.

Terroir Matters

The growing conditions at Laetitia Estate Vineyard & Winery make 
all the difference to Pinot Noir

(Arroyo Grande, CA) -- With over 600 acres of rolling hills under vines, an encyclopedic variety of soils, and a view of the Pacific Ocean, Laetitia Estate Vineyard & Winery possesses the sort of terroir that many Pinot Noir producers dream about.

In 1982, the hills that run alongside Highway 101 attracted French viticulturists to explore the possibility of planting vines for sparkling wine. Their suspicions were confirmed: the climate, topography and soils would be ideal for plantings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a small portion of Pinot Blanc. The vineyard was established and the Maison Deutz winery was born. 

But it wasn’t until several years later, when the property was sold and renamed Laetitia Estate Vineyard & Winery, that the true potential for varietal Pinot Noir would be discovered. Today, the vineyard is planted to 57 blocks of Pinot Noir, each of them bearing a completely different personality than the next, due to clonal selection, position, soil makeup and microclimate. 

“We are right on the edge of where Pinot Noir can be grown,” said Vice President of Vineyard Operations, Lino Bozzano. “We get warm winters which result in early bud-break. Our springs and summers are very cool, giving us ‘cool sunshine,’ which exposes each grape cluster to heavy sunlight for intense color and skin tannins. And our falls are warm with classic Indian Summer conditions that allow us to fully ripen the fruit.  It’s the long growing season – February to October – that ‘slow ripen’ the berries for that classic Laetitia style.”

On the winemaking end of the spectrum, Winemaker Eric Hickey adds that the diversity across the property creates a huge “spice rack” that is particularly helpful when he blends the wines. “What chef doesn’t like to have a lot of spices to choose from?” he asks.

This diversity is especially apparent in Laetitia’s three vineyard-designate Pinot Noir wines: La Colline, Les Galets, and La Coupelle.

La Colline , “The Hill,” is the vineyard that greets visitors to the winery at its entrance just off Hwy 101 northbound.  Planted to highly reflective Chamise shaly loam which sends heat back into the leaf canopy, La Colline’s hillside has a nearly perpendicular aspect to the sun during the growing season. These conditions conspire to make La Colline Pinot Noir one of the jammiest from vintage to vintage, typically with ripe cherry flavors and a complexity that hints back to the older age of the vines. 

Les Galets, “The Stones,” is aptly named for its position on a volcanic hill abundant with Diablo clay soil. “This is one of our rockiest sites,” said Bozzano. “Planted at seven-hundred feet with direct influence from onshore ocean winds and low-fertility soils, the vines have to work extremely hard to produce anything. The result is small, intense clusters, which make for a full-bodied, powerful Pinot.”

La Coupelle, ‘The Cup,” is the newest single-vineyard Pinot Noir offered at Laetitia. Planted on sun-absorbing heavy clay soils and protected from ocean winds, La Coupelle is one of the estate’s warmest sites for Pinot Noir.  As a result, wines show more dark fruit notes, earth, cola, and powerful tannins.

In terms of the clonal selections’ influence on each single-vineyard Pinot Noir, Hickey explained, “We have always noted that these three locations are areas where the site’s influence dominates both the clone’s influence and any vintage influence.  In other words, site is everything to these wines.”

So much so, in fact, that Hickey and Bozzano can pick a Laetitia Pinot out of a crowd. “I was recently at a blind tasting with fifty other Pinot Noirs,” said Bozzano, “and I was able to pick out the Laetitia.  It’s the fruit profile and the texture of the wine that tips me off – bright acidity and a focused palate.”

“For me, it’s that mysterious spice note entwined in the fruit profile,” said Hickey.  “I like to call it the ‘Laetitia spice.’”

Since 1982, the Laetitia Estate Vineyard & Winery has produced elegant wines that champion the exceptional character and diversity of the Arroyo Grande Valley AVA.  Originally founded by an established French Champagne house, the Laetitia estate carries on in the long-standing traditions of Burgundy and Champagne with a focus on small-lot Pinot Noir and sparkling wines. 

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