The Hilt Estate Pinot Noir 2016, Sta. Rita Hills
W ith grapevines, as with humans, struggle often produces amazing positive results.
I know you’ve heard the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” With the grapevines for The Hilt that is literally true.
Some of the grapes are grown on windswept, steep hillsides, just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. The vines have to struggle against harsh conditions, and the winemaker says this struggle is what makes the wines so delicious.
The Hilt Estate Pinot Noir ($44-46) is produced from grapes grown in two distinct vineyards: Bentrock and Radian plus some grapes from the famed Sanford & Benedict vineyard. The grapes come from many sites, scattered throughout the property at various altitudes and facing different directions.
The Estate bottling represents the best of all the vineyard sites, between the extremes of The Vanguard and The Old Guard bottlings. Wines under the Vanguard label are opulent and fruit-driven, coming from rolling hills protected from the wind. The Old Guard wines are wild and energetic, coming from the most extreme sites at heights up to 700 feet.
The Hilt Estate is an enticing wine, full of blackberry, black pepper, plum and cherry flavors. Floral and stone fruit aromas jump out of the glass. Everything is in balance with this wine, with muted tannins, crisp acidity, fresh fruit and lingering spice. The mouthfeel is silky, with a long finish.
We enjoyed it with our meal, but also as a sipping wine before dinner. I would cool the wine in the refrigerator for a short time and let it slowly warm up in your glass.
The wine spends 12 months in 8-10 percent new French oak and the rest neutral French oak.
Winemaker Matt Dees calls this wine “the most stunning and complete expression to date of the potential of our windy and wild estate vineyards.”
The Hilt acquired the Bentrock and Radian vineyards uin 2014, but waited until the 2016 vintage to release a wine from their estate property. Dees said the team wanted to take their time to understand the various terroirs on the property.
“The Hilt property is a massive puzzle of small and incredibly distinct vineyard parcels,” he said. “It will take a lifetime to fully understand this mysterious and captivating property, but the results from the 2016 pinot noir and the 2017 chardonnay vintages spoke to us and represented a clear and focused representation of our estate as a whole.”
Dees talks about “growing in the margins” of the 3,600-acre estate because “grapes grown at the limits of their comfort zones can often produce the most energetic, complex and fascinating wines.” The marginal zones allow the wines to ripen more slowly and fully.
The winery is planting small plots of riesling and syrah to try new things. “Our first harvest of riesling will be 2019, but our initial syrah production from 2018 (a whopping 59 gallons) is stunning,” said Dees.
The 2017 vintage will be their initial single vineyard bottling releases in both chardonnay and pinot noir. They also have produced their first pétillant naturel, or pét-nat, a slightly fizzy wine from pinot noir.
Winery: In 2014 The Hilt acquired the historic 3,600-acre Rancho Salsipuedes, home to two distinct 100-acre estate vineyards, Bentrock and Radian in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The two vineyards which comprise The Hilt Estate are extraordinarily complex, offering a wide variety of soil types, aspects and micro-climates, and planted to a diverse selection of clonal materials.
They produce pinot noir and chardonnay in three different tiers: The Old Guard, The Vanguard and The Estate.
The Sta. Rita Hills Valley is a complex AVA, with an ocean facing east-west valley. It can be divided into four quadrants: northern-facing, southern-facing, close to the ocean, and further inland from the ocean. The Hilt’s favorite vineyards are in the northern-facing, closest to the ocean, windswept quadrant. These sites are the worst place for a grape grower, but the best ones for a winemaker.
Radian, the estate’s westernmost vineyard, is referred to by Dees as its “coldest and most evil.” Angular and edgy, the vineyard has a unique “Pinot Bowl” amphitheater nestled within in it.
The ridgeline extends to 700 feet and has soils with perhaps the largest known concentration of diatomaceous earth, a powdery silica formed from fossilized marine remains. Radian produces rugged, dark, structured wines. Some sections of Radian have proven too windy to successfully farm. In other sections the winery is working with wind breaks and shade cloth to give the vines a chance.
Located inland from Radian, the Bentrock vineyard is softer and more elegant, yet still bold and wild. Planted on elevations of 400 to 500 feet above sea level, Bentrock has gentle slopes comprised of clay sediment and Monterey Shale soils. Pinot noir from Bentrock is balanced, fruit-driven and elegant.
Goes with: We had this beautiful wine with grilled ribs, mashed potatoes and creamed corn. The ribs were especially memorable because I made them with my special blend of dry rub spices that I used on ribs that won a recent Clint Bryant charity cook off.
The ribs are made Memphis style with a rub that’s made up of about 20 herbs and spices. I rub them into the ribs, cover them with plastic wrap and leave them in the refrigerator overnight.
Then when I cook them the next day I keep the temperature low (I aim for 250 degrees or less, but sometimes it drifts up to 300.) and cook them for hours. When it looks like they are near done I wrap them in foil and put them in a cool spot on the grill to baste themselves.
The ribs won the Fade’s Barbershop Cook Off a few weeks ago. I also took second place chicken. Besides trophies for ribs and chicken there was a special award for the best of everything else that was cooked. Clint Bryant won that for his incredible gumbo. Clint will organize these cooking events from time to time to bring the community together. They are always a lot of fun.
This time the even raised money for the Ronald McDonald House, the Boys and Girls Clubs and the 100 Black Men of Augusta. I was especially happy to win because the trophies carried the name of Arthur “Little John” McKenzie, a great cook and a wonderful man. I cooked many times with Clint and Little John, and always came away learning something. Little John died earlier this year.
When they are done right the meat falls off the bones and it is full of rich, juicy flavors. This has always been one of my son Michael’s favorite ways to prepare ribs.
This wine also would pair well with duck, lamb, pork chops and a variety of cheeses.
If you have questions about wine you can email Dennis Sodomka at email@example.com
[box] The following is a slightly edited version of my interview with winemaker Matt Dees.
What do you mean by growing in the margins?
Dees: We find that grapes grown at the limits of their “comfort zones” can often produce the most energetic, complex and fascinating wines. Cooler conditions can allow for slower ripening and the development of savory notes, spice nuances and a general tension that makes wines more exciting. At The Hilt, we are definitely pushing the envelope as the properties are home to fierce winds, dizzying slopes, very poor soils and cool, maritime-influenced temperatures that can make growing, setting fruit and ripening a challenge.
What makes Sta. Rita Hills so special?
Dees: There are a number of factors that make that Sta Rita Hills so special. I’d say the main defining characteristics are: 1. east/west transverse mountains and valley that allow us to access the cool temperatures from the frigid west coast Pacific currents 2. The resulting days that are filled with abundant sunshine, but rarely hot temperatures (the so-called “refrigerated sunshine” of Sta Rita Hills) 3. The wide spectrum of soil types, each more exciting and unusual than the next 4. The variation in aspects available in such a small space, with N, S, E and W exposures often within a few acres
You acquired the estate in 2014, but waited until now to release your first estate wine. Why wait so long? Isn’t that expensive?
Dees: We like to take our time in gathering a complete understanding of our terroirs. The first vintage, 2014, we didn’t control 100% of the farming as we didn’t purchase the estate until July. The estate first reacted to our thoughtful farming methods in 2015. The Hilt property is a massive puzzle of small and incredibly distinct vineyard parcels. In 2015 and 2016 we continued our exploration and our study. We found better ways to ferment certain parcels and better way to farm others. It will take a lifetime to fully understand this mysterious and captivating property, but the results from the 2016 Pinot Noir and the 2017 Chardonnay vintages spoke to us and represented a clear and focused representation of our estate as a whole.
You have windy and steep slopes. That makes for challenging growing conditions. How do you cope with that?
Dees: To be honest, a few sections of our Radian Vineyard have proven too windy to successfully farm. We’ve tipped our hat to mother nature and moved to other areas in these situations. In most of our windy sections, we are now working with wind breaks and shade cloth during the early season in some areas to give the vines a chance. It is still nerve racking during the extremely windy days, but we’ve had tremendous success (mainly with chardonnay) in these areas.
You call Radian Vineyard on the west the “coldest and most evil.” Why does this produce grapes that make such great wine?
Dees: The grapes produced from these difficult blocks tend to produce wines of more charm, power and tension. With the chardonnay grown here, the slow, long ripening and the overall struggle create grapes defined by mineral notes and very high levels of mouthwatering acidity. They don’t accumulate as much sugar as other blocks and are therefore more lean and precise. They are electric and high tensile. With the pinot noir from these challenging and cold blocks, the skins seem to stay thick and full of powerful structure. The resulting wines are exotic and spice-driven; powerful but also beautifully fresh and lifted. The struggling vines seem to produce the grapes with the greatest potential.
What are the differences with the Estate bottling vs. the Old Guard and the Vanguard?
Dees: The basic difference is that the Estate bottling is a wine of place, while the Old Guard and Vanguard are wines of style. Prior to finding our home at The Hilt Estate, we purchased and farmed fruit from a number of different areas and vineyards in the area. We found two very distinct styles of wines from this combination of properties, thus the creation of The Guards. When we found our home we wanted to express the place, the flavors of the hills, the wind, the white soils. This Estate program ended up basically right in the middle of the more extreme Guard styles.
The Estate is a deep, rich, full-bodied wine, but I find it very mellow and silky smooth. How do you get a combination like that? Is it because you sourced the fruit from the two very different vineyards?
Dees: Both vineyards bring something special to the party. Bentrock pinot noir tends to be more red fruit-driven with blood orange notes and silkier and more suave tannins. Radian pinot noir is darker and more structured with dusty tannins and black pepper spice. Put those two together and voila.
Anything new on the horizon? What’s next?
Dees: As always, we’ll continue to focus on new and improved farming methods. For example, we’ve been digging a large number of soil pits this spring and summer to better understand the water capacity of our different soil types. We’ll use this information to inform and alter our approach to irrigation with the ultimate goal of decreasing our reliance on drip irrigation. To further this goal, we’re also planting new parcels to more drought tolerant rootstocks such as 1103P and St George.
To expand our horizons and our overall understanding of the estate, we’re also planting small plots of riesling and syrah. Our first harvest of riesling will be 2019, but our initial syrah production from 2018 (a whopping 59 gallons) is stunning.
The 2017 vintage marks our initial single vineyard bottling releases in both chardonnay and pinot noir. We’re incredibly excited to push these further. We’ve also produced our first Pet Nat from Bentrock pinot noir. [/box]
Author Dennis Sodomka