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Mendocino Ridge: New Frontier for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

Mendocino Ridge is a newer American Viticultural Area approved in 1997, yet has some of the oldest producing vineyards in Mendocino County. The first plantings, primarily Zinfandel, were established by Italian immigrants and date to the late 1800s. The Zinfandels produced from old vines planted by turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants have been legendary. In 1988, the winery, Kendall-Jackson, proclaimed that the Mendocino Coastal Ridge was one of the world’s greatest Zinfandel regions. Today, Zinfandel is still the pride of this AVA, but the area now holds promise as California’s newest hot spot for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The Mendocino Ridge AVA is a non contiguous trio of ridges that is defined by vineyards at least 1,200 feet or more in elevation and within 10 miles of the Pacific Ocean. It is California’s first and only non contiguous AVA. Because of the hilly terrain of the AVA, lower elevations are not included. The ridges are above and surrounded by Coastal Zone fog, fostering the name “Islands in the Sky.” This catchy name is trademarked by Dan Dooling, owner of Mariah Vineyards, and one of the winegrowers along with Steve Alden of Perli Vineyard to successfully achieve appellation status for the region. The Manchester Ridge Vineyard, pictured below, shows the ridge top location of this vineyard and its proximity to the coastline.

There are 262,400 acres (410 square miles, 36 miles long from north to south) within the outer boundaries of the Mendocino Ridge viticultural area, but the actual viticultural area encompasses only 87,466 acres which lie above 1,200 feet elevation. Of these 87,466 acres, approximately 1,500 to 2,000 acres (2% of the total acreage) of the ridge tops are suitable for vineyards. The side-slopes are very steep (often above 70%) and covered with timber, making them unfit for planting. The Ridge is a twisting 12 mile uphill westward drive from the Anderson Valley floor along Greenwood Road. The region is essentially a northern extension of the true Sonoma Coast viticultural region.

The climate in the Mendocino Ridge is different from the Anderson Valley below. Perched above the fog and frost threat, the vineyards bask in the early morning sun, and early afternoon maritime breezes cool down the fruit, never allowing the temperatures to rise as high as the valley below. The diurnal variation during the growing season is significantly less than the Anderson Valley below (20º versus 40º). There is enough rainfall and ground water to dry farm vineyards. According to winemaker Van Williamson of Edmeades, “Mendocino Ridge grapes produce wines intense in fruit, high in acidity and structured for aging in the cellar.” Veteran winemaker, Greg La Follette, is a proponent of Manchester Ridge and notes that the high elevation of the vineyards leads to low leaf area promoting sugar storage in the berries. La Follette commented on the first Pinot Noir harvested from Manchester Ridge Vineyard in 2005 and said, “This vineyard is bound to be another Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge - even better.”

The soils of the Mendocino Ridge are unique “timber” type and since the vineyards are located at the top of ridges (see Manchester Ridge Vineyard in photo above), they are well drained. In contrast, the soils of the surrounding areas are deep alluvial in type in the Anderson Valley and upland range land in type in the Yorkville region. There is plenty of sunlight but the proximity to the ocean prevents the vineyards from becoming too hot. Like the Sonoma Coast, yields are small in large part to the extremes of spring weather. Bud break tends to be early but the shoots grow very slowly due to the coolness and harvest arrives at the end of September.

The first winery in the AVA was Greenwood Ridge Vineyards founded in 1980. The original Greenwood Ridge Vineyard was planted by Tony Husch in 1972 and was acquired in 1973 by Greenwood Ridge owner Allen Green. There is now some Pinot Noir planted here. Other Pinot Noir plantings in the Mendocino Ridge AVA include DuPratt Vineyard (1 acre of head-trained Pinot Noir), Manchester Ridge Vineyard (161 plantable mountaintop acres at 2,000 feet, currently 19 acres of Pinot Noir and 11 acres of Chardonnay farmed under the direction of esteemed vineyard manager Martin Mochizuki, pictured above), Mariah Vineyard (grafted over to Pinot Noir, farmed by Dan Dooling), Perli Vineyard (2,200 feet, 6.5 acres of Pinot Noir), Signal Ridge Vineyard (approx. 15 acres, farmed by Roger Scommegna) Sky High Ranch Vineyard (1,600 feet, planted in 2003, owned and farmed by Ferrari-Carano), and Valenti Vineyard (1,300 feet, 6 acres of Pinot Noir, clone 667 planted in 1999 and 3 acres of Zinfandel budded over to 115 and Rochioli selection in 2007). Wineries producing Pinot Noir and located in the Mendocino Ridge AVA include Baxter Winery, Drew, and Phillips Hill Estates. Wineries sourcing fruit from the Mendocino Ridge AVA include Arista (Perli Vineyard), Ferrari-Carano (Sky High Ranch), and Auteur, B. Kosuge, Berridge Wines, J. Jacamon, Marguerite Ryan Cellars, Russian River Vineyards, Tandem, Taft Street, and Tom Eddy (all from Manchester Ridge Vineyard). Currently, there are roughly 100 acres of Pinot Noir planted in the appellation.

The one common feature that I discovered in all the wines from Mendocino Ridge was an exotic flower component in the aromatic profile. The wines show a combination of bright acidity and healthy tannic backbone that predicts longevity. Because of the limited acreage, the wines of the Mendocino Ridge AVA will always be limited in quantity, but the quality should demand your attention.

2008 Russian River Vineyards Limited Left Edge Selection Manchester Ridge Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Chardonnay

14.1% alc., $34. Wente and Dijon clones. Aged 10 months surlees in 50% new and 50% neutral oak barrels. · Pale golden yellow color in the glass. Aromas of lemon zest, white peach and butter. Plenty of interest on the palate with flavors of pears, tangerines, lemons, roasted nuts and creme brulee. Appealing richness with bright acidity leading to a citrus-laden refreshing finish. Not as rich as the Tandem bottling but equally satisfying. Very good (+).

2008 Drew Valenti Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir

13.6% alc., 362 cases, $36. Very low yields due to severe frost resulting in intensity with relatively high acidity and firm tannins at lower sugar levels. The first Valenti Vineyard vineyard-designate Pinot Noir. Clones 114, 667. · Slightly restrained, even after an hour in the glass, showing dark cherry and berry, hay field and floral aromas. Tasty core of black cherry and black raspberry fruit which is saturating on the palate. Noticeable, but not intrusive ripe tannins with a smooth entry and follow through leading to a clean finish. This wine will continue to improve with cellaring as the tannins integrate and soften over time. If you can’t keep your hands of it now, decant. Very good.

2007 Auteur Manchester Ridge Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $35. · Alluring aromas of berry compote, pine sap, dried rose petals and minerals. Delicious berry fruit especially raspberry, with a sidecar of Moroccan spice, earthiness and fungiform flavor. There are ripe, grainy tannins and a subtle citrus tang on the finish. This is a wine of exceptional complexity that reveals itself in layers over time.

2007 B. Kosuge Wines Manchester Ridge Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 300 cases, $38. · Demure but intoxicating perfume of dark berry jam, oak spice and floral bouquet. Lovely blackberry and raspberry fruit that is discreetly concentrated and clothed in silky, supple tannins. Great purity of fruit with an interesting undertone of forest floor, wood pile and mushrooms. The lingering finish keeps bringing you back. This beauty has the whole package. Will get even better with another year in bottle.

2007 Tandem Manchester Ridge Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $54. · Deep reddish-purple color in the glass. Charming perfume of black cherries, plums, grapes and exotic flowers adding notes of mocha and roasted nuts over time in the glass. Darkly fruited with heaps of black cherry and plum flavors and an underpinning of savory herbs and oak. Juicy and vibrant with a polished tug of acid on the finish. A charming wine with impeccable balance. Very good.

2006 Taft Street Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 326 cases, $35. Winemaker is Evelyn White. · Nuanced perfume revealing black cherries, melon, pomegranate, herbs, green tomato and oak. Very pleasing cherry and berry attack with some mocha in the background. A silky mouthfeel and impeccable balance make this wine very easy to drink. Very good.

2006 Tandem Manchester Ridge Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Chardonnay

14.9% alc., $54. · Golden yellow color in glass. Aromas of exotic flowers, lemon, peach, pear, vanilla and seasoned oak. The flavors echo the nose with added notes of oak spice and brown butter. Clean, crisp and supple in the mouth with perfect integration of oak and alcohol and a lasting aromatic finish. An exceptional wine that is among the best Chardonnays I have every sampled from California. White lightning. Very good (+).

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