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Tasting Aged Williams Selyem Pinot Noir: Bottled Surprises

Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs crafted by Burt Williams and Ed Selyem were amazingly fruity and complex when young and seemed to age better than most California Pinot Noirs of the 1980s and 1990s. Burt often claimed the wines peaked around 6 to 7 years after release, but most people found it very difficult to avoid drinking them before that time.

At the 2010 World of Pinot Noir, there was a retrospective tasting of ten vintages of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir beginning with the “Burt” years (wines crafted by Burt Williams) including 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996 and 1997, and the “Bob” years (vinified by winemaker Bob Cabral who succeeded Burt at Williams Selyem in July 1998) including 1999, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005. The wines were all from the library of Williams Selyem Winery guaranteeing their provenance. My notes from the tasting revealed that the wines made by Burt Williams were still stunning examples of California Pinot Noir with all his wines exhibiting graceful aging except the 1991 vintage which was on the down slope.

The 1985 Williams Selyem Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is often considered the most seminal wine in the history of California Pinot Noir. This wine won the Sweepstakes at the California State Fair Wine Competition. It was voted the best of the 2,136 wines entered by 416 wineries in 1987. 295 cases of this wine were produced and sold for $16 a bottle. Noted sommelier, Rajat Parr, posted on Instagram on December 18, 2013, that he had tasted the 1985 wine from what looks to be a 750 ml bottle in the posted photograph and commented, “Cheers to all those doubted that CA Pinot don’t age!”

The award Williams Selyem received for the Sweepstakes at the California State Fair Wine Competition is currently displayed at the Williams Selyem winery hospitality center. It was found hanging on the wall at the old winery at Allen Vineyard and restored. When Burt saw it last year at the winery’s pick-up weekend, he was surprised to see it, and commented in his usual unassuming manner, “Oh, that’s nice.”

What were Burt’s secrets? First, he carefully chose his grape sources. Second, he was a meticulous winemaker. His technique involved intense sorting, de-stemming grape clusters and adding back 20% to 30% whole clusters to the bottom of his dairy tank fermenters, a 5-day cold soak, inoculating with a yeast he acquired from Martinelli’s Jackass Vineyard, initiation of hand punch downs with the onset of fermentation, and no pumping using gravity only or assisted gravity with gas. Free-run juice was sent to barrel, the residual must and juice was bucketed into the press, gently pressed, and added to the top of the barrel. Varying percentages of new Francois Frères oak were used depending on the vintage and the wine.

Periodically, I get the urge to sample older vintages of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir. This is partly out of nostalgia and partly out of curiosity. Storage is everything when it comes to old wine and one must be very cautious buying older vintages of Williams Selyem wine on the secondary market if provenance is not well known. In the last couple of years I have had extraordinary drinking experiences with Williams Selyem Pinot Noir that Burt shared directly from his cellar. The safest bet is magnum format, but these bottlings have become scarce of late.

My tasting reported here and other tastings over the past couple years, would lead me to encourage you to go for it if you find a Williams Selyem Pinot Noir from the early to mid 1990s that has been aged comfortably in a private cellar. 1995 is probably your best bet. As you can tell from my comments here, not all wines will be great, but most are of interest, and some are very giving. The best attitude to take when drinking these old Pinot Noirs is to appreciate them for what they give and not for what they lack.

Most of these reviewed wines came from a private cellar. All appeared to be unfiltered. The wines have become more savory and less fruity over time, closer to the Burgundian paradigm. They are certainly in various stages of decline, but not decrepit by any means. A 1995 Hirsch Vineyard bottling was sadly corked.

In my humble opinion, Burt Williams is the greatest Pinot Noir winemaker of my generation. Why he is not a consultant for one of the many Pinot Noir producers in California is a real head scratcher.

1993 Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.3% alc.. I have had this wine on two other occasions in the past few years in both 750 and magnum format and was pleasantly surprised. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass with slight yellowing of the rim. The wine exhibits an old Pinot patina with a bouquet of dark red fruits, dried herbs and leaf. Very silky on the palate with supple tannins, picking up some fruit intensity over time in the glass. Seems like a wine made from slightly under ripe fruit yet soldiers on. Still quite nice the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle.

1994 Williams Selyem Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.4% alc.. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass with no bricking. Aromas of ripe black cherry, raisin, wood pile, old leather and barnyard. Plenty of secondary character highlights the charming spiced black cherry core which fills the mouth with pleasure and shows lasting power on the finish. The tannins are marshmallow soft, and the acidity holds the fruit to attention. This wine will thoroughly please lovers of older Pinot Noir.

1994 Williams Selyem Olivet Lane Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.0% alc.. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color with slight yellowing of the rim in the glass. The nose offers an array of secondary characters including old book, vitamin, and potpourri to accompany the modestly aromatic cherry and red berry fruits. The wine is clearly fading, but is still likable with a flavorful core of red cherry fruit backed by juicy acidity and mild fine-grain tannins. Very smooth in the mouth, with a satisfying finish, holding up well in the glass over time.

1995 Williams Selyem Olivet Lane Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.0% alc.. · Moderately dark mahogany red color in the glass with mild sediment. The aromas of cherries and spice soar from the glass upon opening but fade over time. Middleweight flavors of fresh black cherries and raspberries with a hint of seasoned oak. The fruit is fading, but the wine still has some satisfying fruit on the refreshing finish driven by juicy acidity. Most enjoyable within 30 minutes after pulling the cork. A great aged wine.

1995 Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.7% alc.. · Beautiful deep mahogany color in the glass. Very sexy nose with fresh aromas of black cherry, spice, potpourri and peat. Still fresh and vivid with plenty of full-flavored, very ripe dark berry and dark cherry fruits with an appealing earthy bent. This was a remarkable bottle that belied its age and was simply extraordinary. When tasted the next day from a previously opened bottle, not surprisingly it had faded.

1996 Williams Selyem Precious Mountain Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.3% alc.. · Moderately deep reddish-purple hue in the glass. Bouquet of underbrush, earthy flora, mushrooms on the grill and old book. Earthy and rustic, but retaining some charming black cherry, raspberry and cranberry fruit. The wine still has some pleasing fruit intensity, complimented by a hint of spice with no intrusion of oak. Seamless and pleasurable for a 17 year old wine.

1996 Williams Selyem Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.7% alc.. · Moderately dark violet color in the glass. Vivid Moroccan spice and black cherry leap out upon opening but fading over time, taking on pleasant aromas of dark cherry, leather and incense. Middleweight essence of juicy black cherries and black plums with hints of spice, Hoison sauce, and tobacco. Very silky with gossamer tannins and still offering some fruit pizzazz but with a heavy oak sheen. An enjoyable but not exceptional old wine.

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