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La Rochelle Pinot Meunier (Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River) 2012

Pinot Meunier, La Rochelle
Pinot Meunier, La Rochelle
Steven Kent Winery

Pinot Meunier is a mutation of Pinot Noir, as are Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. While the last two, which are white grapes, seem to have found homes for themselves around the planet, poor Pinot Meunier has been kind of ignored.

In fact, the only place where it is truly taken seriously is in Champagne. Along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier is a hard-working grape variety in this cold region. Because of its tendency to bud later and then ripen earlier, it offers a built-in safety factor in case some of your other vines fail. This could be the case if you have a late spring frost or hail and heavy rains in early fall.

It is generally not considered a grape that gives us long-lived wines, and for that reason gets little respect. What it can do in Champagne is add a component of softness and roundness early on – making a wine, like Krug, that is expected to age for a long time accessible at a much younger “age.”

So who would have thunk that I’d receive a sample of a (still) California Pinot Meunier from the producer, Steven Kent Mirassou? This name may sound familiar because of Mirassou Wines that was purchased by Gallo from his family. He has an eponymous winery in Livermore, but his passion for Pinot spawned the La Rochelle line of Pinots – both Noir and Meunier in prime Pinot country, Sonoma.

The Saralee’s Vineyard Pinot Meunier is only in its second vintage, following a couple of vintages of this grape coming from Four Sisters Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast. The only explanation I've seen (in their blog) is that “there was a communication gap – the size of the Grand Canyon,” so they had to source the grapes elsewhere.

Having never sampled the Four Sisters Vineyard wine, I can only speak to my experience with this one bottle. And it was a very good one.

The wine itself looks like a Pinot Noir – light to medium red with a white rim, and sheer enough that I could read my watch through it. This is exactly what a good Burgundy should look like. The wine smells very earthy, even dirty (in a good way) but also offers floral – especially rose petal – notes. On the palate you get all of that as well as raspberries. It reminds me of a 2009 village-level Burgundy in many ways – fruit, dirt and accessibility when young.

The acid structure is firm, but there are few discernible tannins. The wine is aged in what is called a 30/30/30 program. First year wood = 29.5%; second year wood = 38%; third year or neutral wood = 32.5%. And 50% of the oak comes from Virginia. I know very little about Virginia oak, but it’s an interesting factoid nonetheless.

This type of oak program (wood source notwithstanding) is designed to impart some flavor characteristics from the new wood, structural qualities from the second-year wood and the neutral wood is used to develop the characteristics of the grapes themselves without adding anything to them. Afterward, all the wine is blended together for what you hope will be outstanding balance.

I think they've done a commendable job, and would highly recommend this wine. It is available from the Website for $38.