Monday, January 22, 2018

Humboldt: Digging Deep into California's Wildest, Most Remote Wine Region

For a state with a long history of winegrowing, wine from Humboldt County, California, is a relative newcomer. Located north of Mendocino, this is a vast area characterized by rugged coastlines, jagged mountain ridges, steep slopes, dense forests, and large swaths of untouched natural beauty. 

In my experience, wine from Humboldt is generally characterized by brisk acidity, crisp fruit, and complex earthy and savory elements. Don’t head to Humboldt looking for jammy, high-octane, teeth-staining wines. Organic viticulture, minimalist winemaking, and an experimental approach set the aesthetic for winemaking in Humboldt. 

Many vineyards are planted at elevations between 500 and 1,600 feet, as the elevation can rise quickly when heading inland from the coast. But it’s not necessarily the elevation that leads to Humboldt wine’s cool, vibrant style, but the persistent influence of the Pacific Ocean. A lot of coastal mountain ridges in California run North-South, but in Humboldt the ridges run East-West, and they’re steep. The perforations in the coastal mountain ridges suck in cold air from the ocean, while several creeks and rivers cut long, winding paths inland. This is also the wettest region of California, as round after round of winter storms crash in from the North Pacific, bringing massive waves, cold air, wind, and plenty of rain. 

This is where tiny Humboldt vineyards carve out a living. Due to its remoteness and rough terrain, vineyards are very few and far between. The total area planted to grapevines has hovered around only 120 acres in recent years, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

But each vineyard exists where it does because a dedicated grower decided to take a gamble and plant wine grapes. Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon lead the pack in terms of acreage planted, but small plots of many other grape varieties are scattered around Humboldt. 

Joe Collins, founder of Briceland Vineyards, is Humboldt County wine’s pioneer. In the early 1970s, when Joe finished college in Berkeley, he ventured deep into Northern California. He brought with him experience in home winemaking and an experimental ethos that found a perfect match in Humboldt County. A self-taught winemaker, he read a lot of books, and met up with long-time North Coast winemaker Jed Steele, who was working at Edmeades in Mendocino. Joe began sourcing Mendocino County grapes before he had any real operations in Humboldt.

In 1977, Joe planted some of the first grapevines in Humboldt County, an experimental effort of about 100 vines and a half dozen grape varieties. In the early 1980s, he planted more grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Briceland (named after the small eponymous Humboldt town) put out its first vintage in 1985. For the next few years, it subsisted on Mendocino County fruit. Beginning in the early 1990s, Joe was able to source reliable fruit (in small quantities) from a number of very small vineyards in Humboldt.

Early on, Joe focused a lot on Pinot Noir-based sparkling wine, but the range of wines increased as different varieties began to pop up around the county. Joe Collins and his wife Maggie Carey are now retired, and they have handed the reins to the next generation, Andrew and Rosie Morris. Andrew has kept the Briceland tradition going, but he’s also shifted focus a bit toward vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs (and other grapes).

In 2016, I visited Humboldt for the first time, to camp in the mountains and surf some massive waves with my brother for his 30th birthday. The waves, the mountains, the forests — I was blown away by the raw power and beauty of this area, known as the Lost Coast. I enjoyed a visit to Briceland Vineyards, which I detailed in this 2016 post, and spent time tasting and talking wine with Andrew Morris.

I was so excited by the wines, I knew I had to taste them again, at a table, in a less awe-inducing setting — my house. So Andrew sent me a mixed case of these wines, and I decided to gather up some wine friends and share my love of Humboldt wines with them. Overall, the wines were well received. The whites stood out for their precise varietal  examples of Sauv Blanc, Arneis, and Gewurztraminer. The single-vineyard Pinots are excellent, while the Syrah and Petit Verdot offer fascinating takes on these grapes, with flavors that may surprise you, and structure that will impress.

For me, each wine in this lineup had a certain signature, a stylistic quirk that was both unique and delicious. Below are my notes on the wines, which I tasted sighted.

2016 Briceland Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Reserve - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Love this stuff! Bursts with grapefruit, sea salt, lemon curd, spicy oregano, cut grass and sea breeze. Brisk and bright on the palate but I love the rich textural elements in this wine. Green melon, orange, lemon, apricot, the fruit is met with salt, chalk, mineral-driven complexity, with oregano, herbal tea, honeysuckle. No one element dominates, this is a harmonious and complex Sauvignon Blanc. (91 points)

2016 Briceland Vineyards Arneis Spirit Canyon Vineyard - California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Lovely aromatics and white peaches and yellow and white flowers, some lemon zest and spicy white pepper notes. So pretty on the palate, beautiful textural depth but nervy acidity. Lots of orange, kiwi, apricot and lemon fruit laced with chalky minerals and ocean spray, some floral and spicy undertones. A really exciting interpretation of this grape, which you don’t see much of in California. (91 points)

2016 Briceland Vineyards Gewürztraminer Ishi Pishi Ranch - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Bursting tropical aromatics of pineapple, kumquat, lychee, baby’s breath, dandelion. Dry and lovely waxy texture on the palate with bright acidity. Lots of floral-herbal complexity, honey, waxy notes, all blending nicely with the kumquat, white peach, apricot fruit. Lovely, vibrant stuff, super spicy and rich but dry, this is killer. (90 points)

N.V. Briceland Vineyards Rosé of Pinot - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Very pale watermelon color. Pretty aromatic display of strawberries, wild raspberries, nettle, rose hips, white tea. Medium-bodied, vibrant, lip-acidity frames the wine nicely, supported by strawberry and red apple peel. Some spicy herbal tea, lemon verbena, nettle and rose hip elements add complexity. Definitely more on the spicy herbal end of the rose spectrum, but I find this delicious and intriguing. (88 points)

2012 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Spicy and beefy on the nose with pickles and pepper on top of juicy cherry and red plum fruit. On the palate, impressive depth and structure to the tannins, refreshing acidity. Black cherry and pomegranate fruit laced with black pepper, sage, charcoal, smoky earth. Lots of depth for aging, but really delicious right out of the gate. (90 points)

2013 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Phelps Vineyard - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Pretty ruby color. So pretty and floral and spicy on the nose, with rose petals, rhubarb, eucalyptus, pine tree, on top of fresh red cherries and raspberries. On the palate, crisp acidity frames the wine wonderfully, but there’s a solid backdrop from the tannins. Red cherry, pomegranate, raspberry, the fruit is fresh and chilled but juicy, and this is laced with rose petals, sweet herbs, wet earth. Lovely now, lots of years of improvement ahead. (92 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
A deeper ruby color. Black cherries burst on the nose, juicy raspberries, rose petals, some cola and sweeter herb notes here, but also a rich, wet soil note. On the palate, this is so fresh and juicy with lots of ripe cherries and raspberries, mixed with cola, rose petals — a lot of complexity in here, and the structure to age from solid tannic grip. (91 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Ronda's Vineyard - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Deep ruby color. Aromas of suave cherries and raspberries, with rose petals and clove, some creosote and bay leaf kind of notes that are really attractive. Silky texture despite power from the tannins, there’s such refreshing acidity in this wine. Cool raspberry and red plum fruit, laced with savory spice and herb notes (tobacco, rose hips, clove, bay leaf, pepper), and some dark, earthy mineral tones as well. I’d love to see where this goes in three to five years. Wow, this is gorgeous stuff. (93 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Pinot Noir Alderpoint Vineyard - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Medium ruby color. Gorgeous aromatics of cherry cola, wild raspberry, red apple peel, and a complex variety of sweet herbal/floral and spicy/savory elements: roses, rhubarb, raspberry leaf, black tea, clove, pepper – lots to unpack. Vibrant acidity, medium tannic grip, the balance is really solid here. The fruit is so pretty and delicious, cherries, plums, raspberries, McIntosh apple, and mixed with leathery, spicy elements and deeper floral/earth tones. Such complexity here and lots of time for the cellar. (93 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Zinfandel Ishi Pishi Ranch - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Bright ruby color. Smells so pretty with bright red fruits (red apple, tart cherries, raspberry) with lots of menthol, tar, wild herbs. On the palate this is silky and tangy with soft tannins, goes down easy but the complexity is impressive. Raspberries and cherries mix with spice cake, clove, violets and pepper. Delicious stuff, so tangy and lively. (91 points)

2015 Briceland Vineyards Zinfandel Dark Horse Vineyard - California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Medium ruby color. Nose shows cherries and currants mixed with clove, spiced tea and raspberry leaf. Juicy, fresh and lively on the palate with smooth tannins and crisp acidity. Raspberry and black cherry fruit mixes so well with flavors of cola, earth, leather, roses and clove. Delicious stuff. (90 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Syrah Dark Horse Vineyard - California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Smoky aromas with herbs and pepper and dark plums. Fresh on the palate, moderate tannic backbone, the wine is packed with black cherries, tart plums. I get notes of earth, pepper, sage. This is a saucy but tart Syrah. (89 points)

2014 Briceland Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Ishi Pishi Ranch - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Aromas of juicy black currants, sweet cocoa, leather, spiced tea, grilled herbs – nice! Sturdy tannins, medium acidity, well-framed with flavors of black cherries and dark plums. Bright but nicely structured with delicious savory, herbal, earthy and leathery tones. I’d love to bury this for four to six years. (90 points)

2013 Briceland Vineyards Petit Verdot Ishi Pishi Ranch - California, North Coast, Humboldt County
Aromas of dark plums, tart black cherries, I love the complex elements of cocoa, charcoal, pepper, spiced black tea – lovely complexity in here. Tart but structured on the palate, although this isn’t hardened or rigid like a lot of young PV can be. Bright currant and roasted fig fruit mixes well with savory spice and earthy/charcoal elements. Lovely stuff, will continue to evolve for quite some time. (91 points)

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