West of the West, in a land far away from civilization, there is a beautifully scenic and unique wine region within the Sonoma Coast, and that is Fort Ross-Seaview. The region is home to a small group of prominent wine growers making consistently high quality wines. Being a wine enthusiast I was familiar with the producers, but was surprised at how little I knew of the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA(American Viticulture Area). This relatively new wine growing region is a complicated yet exciting new AVA within the Sonoma Coast.
Fort Ross-Seaview has a unique cool coastal maritime climate. Most of the vineyards are along the Pacific coast on ridges above the cloud line. The elevations start at 900 feet and go up to 1700 feet above sea level. The Pacific coast provides the ocean influences of fog and sea breezes that are ideal for growing Burgundian style fruit.
What makes this AVA so dramatic is not only the coastal influences but it’s much deeper and richer ecosystems and microclimates. Fort Ross-Seaview has several factors that play into their ecosystems; oceans, rivers, ridges, plateaus and forests. Fort Ross-Seaview has a cool climate yielding high acid wines, but parts of it are also above the fog line with direct sunlight, thus also providing a warm climate. In addition to the high plateaus and ridges, there are deep valleys of Redwood Forests, the Redwoods keep the appellation cool, provide humidity and keep the temperatures consistent. So as you can gather from this story, the region is quite complicated and diverse. Climate as well as soils vastly differ in close neighboring plots, yielding very distinctive and unique wines.
The mountains and terrain of Fort Ross-Seaview are some of the most rugged in California, making it extremely difficult to navigate. For example, getting to the remote vineyards of Hirsch can take a couple of hours by car from Sonoma center. The drive between two neighboring vineyards just a few miles apart, like Hirsh and Failla can take up to 45 minutes. This breathtaking yet jagged drive, takes you through the ridges, canyons and valleys. The fierce terrain keeps the region relatively obscure and isolated.
Fort Ross-Seaview is a remarkably young wine growing region and an even younger AVA. Eighteen winemaker make up this region, all having the foresight that the tough terrain would deliver the highest quality of wines. Many said it could not be done, farming in these extreme conditions, but these arduous conditions have proved to be a hot bed for a multitude of high quality producers.
The very first vines were planted in 1817, but it was not until the 70’s and 80’s when the first modern-day wine growers started to produce wines. The 70’s marked a back to the land hippie movement and Mike Bohan was one of the first pioneers to grow grapes in the region. By the mid 90’s many prominent wine growers had trail blazed their way into the rural lands, making wines of extraordinary calibre.
In 2003, Linda Schwartz of Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery and David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards spearheaded a petition to make Fort Ross-Seaview its own AVA. After years of deliberation an AVA was granted in 2012. The Fort Ross-Seaview AVA encompasses some of the major heavy hitters of California, with producers like Fort Ross, Hirsch, Flowers, Failla, Martinelli, Pahlmeyer, Ceritas and Peter Michael to name just a few.
Burgundian grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir thrive most prominently in this region. Even though the region is an established region where we know chardonnay and pinot noir grow best, there are also a handful of other varietals that winemakers have been experimenting with. For those in the know, there are some real captivating wines being made with riesling, trousseau, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
We tasted through eight breath-taking wines and concluded that the wines of Fort Ross-Seaview are a true and unique expression of their terroir, very little manipulation is involved in the winemaking process. The wines express the terroir with their earthiness, minerality, acidity, and tannins.
Fort Ross-Seaview is still relatively under the radar, but in the wine geek community there is a great buzz about the wines of Fort Ross-Seaview, and the wines are highly sought after. In addition, as the US markets grow and mature we are witnessing a shift in appeal from the big rich Russian River wines, to the lean mineral driven wines of Fort Ross-Seaview.
We tasted through eight unique and distinctive wines. The first four were classic Fort Ross-Seaview chardonnays and pinot noirs. The next flight were “the surprises” of Fort Ross-Seaview, grapes varietals that are not normally associated with the region.
Flight#1 – Chardonnay & Pinot Noir
- Hirsh Estate Chardonnay 2014 Sonoma Coast $70 – Hirsch Vineyard is an iconic vineyard because of its diversity of soils and climates within its vineyards. At the very top of the vineyard you can see the ocean and then further down the ridge splits and you have a microcosm of soils, varied climates and diverse terrain. David Hirsch was not the first to plant vines in Fort Ross-Seaview, but is definitely one of the most respected. David’s daughter Jasmine Hirsch has done a tremendous job raising awareness of this AVA and the California wine region as a whole. This classic Chardonnay is aged in 100% French oak barrels. The rocky and sandy soils of this region gives the wine a nice note of earthiness. This chardonnay is vibrant and full of fresh fruit. It is super floral and with nice firm acidity, almost Chablis like. There is a great concentration that fills the palate. This is a wonderful wine that can be drunk now, but will also age beautifully.
- Failla Estate Chardonnay 2014 Fort Ross Seaview $50 – Only a few miles from Hirsch but a bit further inland, Failla is small boutique producer with organically farmed vines. They are fairly young producers(first vintage 1998) in this region making high quality cool climate wines. This Chardonnay is deep and intense. Failla has much more rockier soils than Hirsch and thus the soils give a deep intense mineral tones. The aromas from the Failla Chardonnay are starkly different from the Hirsch. Hirsch was very floral where this is not as much. The wine exhibits the stark microclimates of the vineyards as the fruit is very under ripe with this Chardonnay, the Failla vineyards are a bit cocooned and have less sun exposure than Hirsch. This chardonnay has a savory element to it, a minerality representative of Himalayan rock salt. The wine has deep textures and notes of citrus, verbena and vanilla on the palate. There is a wonderful balance of fruit, acidity and textures. The wine will age nicely to develop even deeper complexities.
- Ceritas Hellenthal Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 Sonoma Coast $75 – Ceritas is hugely committed to organic farming and is deeply involved with their grower partners. Just east of Hirsch Vineyards lies the Hellenthal Vineyards. These vines are protected by ridges and thus does not get the big high and low temps of Hirsch, allowing for a constant and continuous development of flavors. The wine is mineral driven with crisp acidity and profound aromas. This pinot noir has nice earthy components, great fruit notes, and soft tannins. This is beautiful pinot noir, a classic and beloved wine of this region.
- Littorai Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 $120 Littorai is a small family owned vineyard. The whole farm is organic and farmed biodynamically. Littori is on the cutting edge of producing wines that are making a huge impact for California wines. Winemakers Heidi and Ted Lemon are pushing the boundaries and producing less ripe and high acid wines that have more power and intense concentration. This pinot noir is ready now yet will wait for you if you wish to put it down. This wine is not Burgundian, it is truly unique in its own right. The wine has deep layers of fruit and richness and a hint of tannins. The wine exudes fruit and floral aromas, with lots of spice. On the palate there is white pepper, cherries, vanilla and earthy notes. This is a graceful, elegant iconic pinot noir of Fort Ross-Seaview.
Flight#2 – The next Four Wines are the surprises of Fort Ross Seaview.
- Polymath Bohan Vineyard Riesling 2014 Fort Ross-Seaview – This wine was extremely special, and so I was excited to have the opportunity to taste this wine. Polymath Bohan Riesling has not been commercially released and is not available for purchase. This is the only riesling produced in the region. The first vines of rieslings were planted in 1972 on Bohan Vineyard on the second Ridge. Only 68 cases of this wine are produced. There is a hint of sweetness in the wine, with a small percentage of botrytis. It has a flavor profile similar to a chenin blanc, with notes of honey, beeswax and vanilla. There is great acidity and deep minerality in this riesling. It is a bone dry riesling, but you get botrytis on the nose and palate. This wines tastes like the land on which the grapes are grown, like they are from the crazy rugged mountains of Fort Ross-Seaview. Mountain cabernets are unique in this region but mountain riesling are even more very rare and special. I felt so honored to be able to taste a bit of the terroir through this impressive wine.
- Sandland Trousseau 2013 Sonoma Coast $80 – This bottle is from the owners Tegan and Olivia Passalacqua’s own reserve. There are only five barrels of this wine produced, so again such a treat to be tasting this unique wine. Thank you to Sandland for their generosity. The wine is from the exact same sight as the riesling. With my first sip, I am simply WOWED! I immediately fell in love with this wine. Trousseau is ideally grown in Jura France, but Tegan noticed the similarities in the terroirs of Fort Ross-Seaview and Jura. Through experimentation he found it to be a wonderful site to grow trousseau, so he planted 10 rows at 1400 feet. Half of the grapes now go to Sandman Trousseau and the other half goes to Arnot-Roberts. The wine is meaty, gamey and peppery. But a bit more sweeter and creamier than Syrah we had. Pomegranate, plum, cherries, spice and gentle tannins hit the palate. This trousseau is an interesting example of what a region is about, especially a region this extreme.
- Enfield Wine Co. Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Fort Ross-Seaview $70 – Owners Jesus and Patricia do all the farming by hand on this little remote two acre farm that is not even on the map. Many belovedly call this the “Jesus” wine. Not because Jesus and Patricia grow the grapes, but because at 1600 feet in this remote and rural farm, only Jesus could grow grapes on this rugged terrain. Just a little inside local joke. This is the only cabernet sauvignon grown in this region. The wine has soft integrated fruit and firm tannins. The wine tastes like a cabernet franc from Chinon, very atypical for cabernet sauvignon. This wine is light and crisp, while there is no question it is cabernet sauvignon, it has the weight of a pinot noir. The wine displays dark fruits with a savory element that is hard to place. There is a fun hint of jalapeno on the palate and a deep earthiness to the wine. Firm grippy tannins and nice acidity, make this a very distinctive mountain cabernet.
- Failla Estate Syrah 2014 Fort Ross-Seaview $75 – Ehren Jordon of Failla spent several years in Cornas, in Northern Rhone. His passion for making cool climate wines are clearly exhibited in this beautiful syrah. The wine tastes very much like a Northern Rhone wine, but the elements of the Fort Ross-Seaview terroir shine bright. There is very little syrah grown in this region. Typically there isn’t enough heat in the region to ripen Syrah, thus most Syrahs are planted a little more east of the coast. The wine lures you in with its black fruit, cloves, licorice and black pepper aromas. There is a very prominent wild black olive note on the palate, that is consistent to this region. Bright acidity and firm tannins make this wine so elegant. This is a new world wine that exudes old world style. Surprisingly the wine is much more elegant, bigger, and bolder than Enfield Wine Co. Cabernet Sauvignon. Being the Syrah Queen I can truly attest to the remarkable beauty of this wine, setting the standard for what a cool climate California syrah should be.
***Many thanks to Elaine C. Brown(Hawk Wakawaka) for imparting her wisdom and sharing her immense knowledge of the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, and a special thanks to the winemakers of Fort Ross-Seaview for your generosity in sharing the best of the best of your wines. I would also like to thank Journee for hosting the wines of Fort Ross-Seaview, I am honored to be a part of this wonderful community.