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Preview of 2008 Pinots from J Vineyards & Winery

J Vineyards & Winery was established in 1986 and became one of California’s marquee producers of méthode champenoise sparkling wine. J Vintage Brut, J Cuvée 20 Brut, J Late-Disgorged Vintage Brut, and J Brut Rosé have all been highly lauded. The yellow J logo on sparkling wine bottles is an instantly recognizable brand label and a mark of quality that personifies the winery’s byline, “The essence of style.”

J produced still Pinot Noir beginning in 1994, but the wines were not distinguished. In early 2006, Judy Jordan and her management team made a dramatic decision to reduce sparkling wine output, while still maintaining its excellence, and commit to a still wine program that would compete with other top wineries in the region. Veteran Sonoma County winemaker George Bursick was brought in as Vice President of Winemaking, John Erbe was added as Viticulturist, and Kathryn Lindstrom became the new General Manager and Chief Financial Officer. The J logo was retained for the sparkling wines, and a new label design (below right) was developed for the J Vineyard still wines.

Bursick left a long tenure at Ferrari-Carano Winery to join J and notes among his many influences California winemaker icons John Parducci, Walter Schug and Justin Meyer. The first fully executed vintage of varietal wines at J vinified by George Bursick were from the 2006 vintage and were released in 2008. It has taken two more vintages for Bursick to assemble his preferred winemaking equipment and to solidify his winemaking program. I recently visited J Vineyards & Winery and tasted through the 2008 lineup of Pinot Noirs that were bottled in January 2010 and scheduled for release in January 2011. The wines are distributed in all 50 states and Canada. Some 2007 bottlings are still available and are worth pursuing as well (see review of the 2007 J Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir in the previous article on the Middle Reach).

I came away impressed with the potential of the 2008 Pinot Noirs, all of which had Bursick’s signature silky smooth texture. Bursick noted that 2008 was a “warm and wonderful year with concentrated flavors.” Some of Bursick’s winemaking techniques, such as total oxygen deprivation and seed removal, cause the wines to evolve slowly but provide them with longevity. The former was confirmed by my October 2010 tasting at which time the wines were still youthful and not evolved. The winery’s Chardonnay is fine, the Pinot Gris is the best produced in California, and the sparkling wines retain their world-class position.

Bursick is something of an iconoclast, preferring to try approaches that his peers are not willing to do. He has observed that in Burgundy, the grapes achieve seed ripeness but not sugar ripeness, while in California there is sugar ripeness without corresponding seed ripeness. As a result, he chooses to de-stem the grapes and remove the seeds from the winemaking process. In this way, the seed tannins, which are undesirable when unripe and alcohol soluble, are removed from the process. The result is wines that are stylistically low in tannins and possess a supple mouth feel.

After joining J Vineyards & Winery, Bursick, along with Erbe, instituted a number of innovative viticultural practices focused on site-specific blocks that are farmed individually and harvested separately. A modern computer program has been used to create a modeling profile of all the soils of the estate vineyards. This knowledge is critical for precision viticulture and not without significant complexity, as there are many different soil types in the Russian River Valley, even more diversity than in Burgundy.

At the winery, individual blocks are kept separate (84 separate Pinot Noir lots, 9 different rootstocks, 14 different Pinot Noir clones) to feature each vineyard’s character. The different blocks are then exposed to a number of variables including the use of indigenous and rare, exotic yeasts (some Burgundian strains dating to 1940) and malolactic strains, a variety of punch down regimens, slow fermentations (malolactic fermentation lasts 2 to 4 months with no nutrients added to speed up the process), 2 week post primary fermentation macerations, unique French Burgundian tight-grain cooperage for different wine lots, and battonage during aging. The fermentation program is similar for Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are aged in 30%-50% new French oak barrels for 12 months.

J farms ten estate vineyards consisting of 257 planted acres of diverse hillside and valley floor vineyards primarily throughout the Middle Reach, in the northeastern sub-region of the Russian River Valley appellation. Recently, three new Russian River Valley estate vineyards were acquired which will be dedicated to varietal wine. The new Sally Ann’s Vineyard, Bow Tie Vineyard, and Dotty Stan Vineyard acquisitions accompanied the sale of three vineyards previously designated for J’s sparkling wine. The Pinot Noir vineyards include: Nicole’s Vineyard (45.8 acres of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir clones 2A, Dijon 113 and 115), Robert Thomas Vineyard (47 acres of Pinot Noir, clones 15, 2A, 31, Rochioli, and Dijon 667 and 777), Sally Ann’s Vineyard (16.5 acres of Pinot Noir, clones Pommard, Dijon 667, 777, 828, 943, planted in the spring 2009), Dotty Stan Vineyard (14.5 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, scheduled for planting in 2010), Nonny’s Vineyard (70 acres of Pinot Noir, clones Pommard, Calera, Dijon 115, 667, 777 and 828, undergoing conversion to sparkling wine production), Teardrop Vineyard (.5 acre Pinot Noir demonstration vineyard adjacent J Visitor Center), and Bow Tie Vineyard (37.8 acres alongside Westside Road, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Pinot Noir clones Swan, Dijon 667, 777, 828, 943, and 115, planted in late 2008).

2009 J Vineyards California Pinot Gris

14.3% alc., 20,000 cases, $15, screw cap. Grapes are sourced from Clarksburg (50%), Russian River Valley (43%), and Monterey (7%). Whole cluster gentle pressing, fermented and cooled in stainless steel tanks. No MLF. · Lovely array of tropical fruits with lemon curd in the background. Slightly viscous mouth feel with some persistence on the lengthy finish. A terrific, fruit-forward and crisp food wine that is the best example of this varietal produced in California. Good.

2009 J Vineyards Cooper Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Gris

14.3% alc., 500 cases, $20. From clone 152 grown in the J estate vineyard located in front of the winery along Old Redwood Highway. Gently pressing in J’s Coquard press and primary fermentation in stainless steel tanks kept at 55 degrees. · Floral and citrus notes are featured on the nose with a crisp complement of tropical, melon and orange peel flavors. More sophisticated and mineral-imbued than the California bottling. Good.

2008 J Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.3% alc., pH 3.50, 8,000 cases, $28. From J estate vineyards and select vineyard sites in the western Russian River Valley. Whole cluster pressed gently in J’s Coquard press with separate fermentations of free run and press juice. Combination of indigenous and custom Burgundian yeast strains. 100% barrel-fermented slowly in 40% new French oak barrels. Unusual 6-month malolactic fermentation results in a sur lie character. · Straw color in the glass. Heady, vibrant and clean aromas of white peaches, citrus, pineapple, butter and smoky oak. Very tasty offering of lemon curd, fresh brioche, caramel, butterscotch and oak spice highlighted by a smooth and creamy texture. The fruit takes center stage in this wine crafted in an appealing style that most California Chardonnay drinkers will like. Very good.

2008 J Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.73, 18,000 cases, $35. From estate vineyards and selected growers. 100% de-stemmed, 3-10 day cold soak, natural fermentation, aged 15 months in 30% new French oak barrels. · Moderate reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of dark red berries, red cherry, red plum and rose petals are echoed in the flavors. A charming wine with nuances of earthiness and spice, restrained oak and soft tannins. The most approachable of the 2008 J Pinot Noirs and a reliable table wine. Good.

2008 J Vineyards Barrel 16 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., pH 3.64, 300 cases, $50. A special bottling of sixteen barrels chosen by the winemaker to best represent J’s estate vineyards. Aged 12 months in 30% new French oak barrels. Selected barrels were blended and returned to barrel for an additional 3 months. Sold only at the winery and to wine club members. · The least giving and shiest wine tasted on this day, but offering glimpses of a luscious core of black cherry, plum and blackberry fruit, all wrapped in soft, dusty tannins. Full, firm and concentrated, this wine needs another two years in the cellar. Decant if you drink sooner. Very good.

2008 J Vineyards Nicole’s Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.79, 720 cases, $50. This vineyard is located off Eastside Road on an eastern bench high above the Russian River and across the River from Rochioli Vineyard. This is one of the warmest sites in J’s vineyard collection. After destemming, the seeds are swept out that fall to the bottom of the tank during fermentation. This helps to eliminate green tannin flavor that immature seeds can often impart. Aged 12 months in 40% new French oak barrels. Selected barrels were blended and returned to barrel for an additional 3 months. · Very shy initially, but comes to life with swirling, offering intense and penetrating scents of ripe plum, black cherry and cassis. Flat-out delicious on the attack with intense and persistent flavors of black cherries and cola. Flavors veer to the ripe, roasted side as would be expected from this warm site in a warm vintage. Very good.

2008 J Vineyards Robert Thomas Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.69, 400 cases, $50. Robert Thomas Vineyards is located on Westside Road across from Moshin Vineyards. A cool vineyard amongst redwoods with great soil diversity and a subsurface water table. Because of late harvest, leaves are striped in early October on both the A.M. and P.M. sun side which is unusual for Pinot Noir. A challenging site to farm, but viticultural changes have brought the fruit to ripeness in this vintage. Clones are Rochioli, 2A and Dijon 115. · A husky wine, yet soft in the mouth. Darker cherry and berry fruits with hints of red currant and cola pick up intensity and interest over time in the glass. Noticeable grip of tannin keeps the fruit under wraps now but this youthful wine will be stellar in a year or two. Very good.

2008 J Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.67, 400 cases, $50. Clones are Pommard and Dijon 115 and 777. Aged 12 months in 30% new French oak barrels. Select barrels were blended and returned to barrel for an additional 3 months. · Moderate reddish-purple color in the glass. Perfume of fresh, exotic wild berries and mushroom with a hint of loamy earth and forest trail. Moderately rich ripe raspberry and plum flavors with a hint of oak spice and citrus. Silky smooth with gossamer tannins, beautiful integration of oak, and an appealing crispness. Very delicate on the palate but packed with flavor. Distinctly different from the Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs from J. Very good.

2002 J Vintage Brut Russian River Valley Sparkling Wine

12.5% alc., pH 3.11, 500 cases, $50. After fermentation in the bottle, the wine was aged for nearly 5 years. In 2006, a dosage of liqueur reserve wine was added to balance the wine and jump start a second fermentation. The wine was aged an additional 6 months on the cork before release. 49% Pinot Noir, 49% Chardonnay, 2% Pinot Meunier. · Aromas of lemon zest, white stone fruits and minerals. Moderately intense lemon and pear flavors follow through to the uplifting finish. Very good.

1999 J Vintage Brut Late Disgorged Russian River Valley Sparkling Wine

12.5% alc., pH 3.11, 550 cases, $65. Sourced from several J estate vineyards including Nicole’s and Nonny’s vineyards. Whole cluster pressed in the Coquard press. Vineyard lots and press fractions were kept separate until blending, after which the wine was cold stabilized and bottled in the spring of 2000. The wine was disgorged after 9 years with a dosage composed of a blend of cask-aged reserve wines and pure cane sugar. After disgorging, the wine aged for another 15 months before release. 51% Chardonnay, 46% Pinot Noir, 3% Pinot Meunier. · Heady aromas of citrus peel, honey, minerals and yeast with delicate flavors of lemon, pear, and spice. Bright and crisp with a fine bubble. Very good.

J Vineyards & Winery has a modern and inviting Visitor Center which is open daily for tasting at 11447 Old Redwood Highway in Healdsburg. The J Visitor Center was the first in the Russian River Valley to offer wine tastings with seasonal food pairings. Visitors can reserve a tasting in the Bubble Room ($60 per person) that offers seating and table service. A seasonal three-course menu created by J Executive Chef Mark E. Caldwell compliments J’s three distinct wine styles: white wines, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wine. Two wines from each category are offered plus a taste of J’s Ratafia dessert wine at the conclusion of the tasting menu. I have brought a number of people to the Bubble Room tasting and my guests have always been extremely impressed by the wines, the food and the ambiance. J’s white wines, Cuvée 20 Brut NV and Brut Rosé, and the Russian River Valley appellation blend Pinot Noir are in widespread retail distribution. The limited production Pinot Noir bottlings and Late Disgorged sparkling wine are primarily winery-only offerings.

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