Focus on Mendocino County

It may come as quite a surprise for you to read that out of the many regions California has to offer, Mendocino County is without-a-doubt my favorite. In a choice between a reputable producer from Mendocino, and Pinot Noir from any other domestic wine producing region, I would choose Mendocino every time. My reason for this fairly off-the-wall choice is that, to me, Mendo Pinot gets “back to basics” (in the best way possible). It’s how Pinot Noir should taste. Balanced alcohol, structured acidity, often unfiltered, and a lot of the time using whole-cluster fermentation, which I’ve found (when done right) adds a whole new level of complexity and elegance.

Currently, fewer than 100 wineries exist in Mendocino County, so it’s certainly David against Goliath when it comes to battling it out with Sonoma and Oregon. However, the ace-card has up its sleeve is that Mendocino can be credited with being the origin of the organic wine movement in the U.S. Currently over 28% of Mendocino wineries are presently certified organic or biodynamic, more than any other Californian wine region.

Organic cultivation in Mendocino has been present since the 1850’s, when it was first farmed. The region has been hugely influenced by independent family farmers and their ongoing respect for the land, with many of these families having lived for two or more generations in Mendocino. This strong connection between the land and the earth continues today, not least of all in the vineyards.

Ever since European immigrants trekked north from San Francisco in the 1850’s (after failing to find their wealth in the gold rush), they instead discovered the Mendocino climate to be ideal for growing grapes. The region has continued to flourish ever since. It’s also this isolation from the rest of California that has kept the vineyards relatively untapped and home to fewer bonded wineries than other neighboring regions. As a result, neighboring counties purchase just over half of Mendocino’s grape harvest each year and blend it into their own wines.

The grapes that now dominate Mendocino tell the tale of its European heritage, with varieties such as: Zinfandel (often considered to be an American grape, is actually of Italian/Czech descent), Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Charbono and Grenache. Nevertheless, there should be no doubt that Pinot Noir remains king!

But it’s not all red, as Mendocino is home to numerous noteworthy whites. Chardonnay dominates by a long-shot, but wineries have started diversifying into plantings of Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Viognier and even relatively obscure varietals such as Arneis, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Blanc. Roederer Estate and Scharffenberger make excellent sparkling wines, and Greenwood Ridge, Jeriko Estate, Rivino and Zina Hyde Cunningham produce stellar examples of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

The majority of producers in the smaller AVAs use a simple Mendocino designation, most likely due to its elevated level of recognition by the consumer. This all-encompassing AVA includes the Anderson Valley, Yorkville Highlands, Mendocino Ridge, McDowell Valley, Potter Valley, and Cole Ranch (America’s smallest AVA). Fetzer dominates the region in terms of production, and Parducci is the oldest, founded in 1931.

To go back to my original thoughts: Mendocino Pinots can easily hold their own against – and quite often beat-out – the best that California has to offer. Since the region is located so close to the Pacific (therefore benefiting from the cooling effects of the wind), the unique geography gives the grapes a long hang-time through the long-hot summers, maintaining acid, sugar and flavor balance. Other wineries to be on the lookout for include: Husch, Navarro, Handley, Breggo, Chiarito, Grant Family and Goldeneye.

Published: Sept. 15, 2012

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