Pinots Near The Pinnacle
Steve Heimoff attends a Williams Selyem vertical tasting at the 2010 World of Pinot Noir festival.
At the recent World of Pinot Noir festival, Bob Cabral, Williams Selyem’s winemaker since 1998, held a two-part tasting symposium: “The Burt years,” reflecting Pinots made by his predecessor, Burt Williams, and “The Bob Years.” Although these wines are rare and necessarily expensive, we thought readers might enjoy reading about this ten-wine vertical tasting. (Note how the alcohol levels increase over the years. Also note: Because this was a non-blind tasting, these scores are not official Wine Enthusiast ratings and will, thus, not appear in our Buying Guide.)
THE BURT YEARS
1991 Allen Vineyard (Russian River Valley): From the original 40-year old vineyard planted beside the winery, an exquisitely aromatic wine, brimming with baked raspberry tart, rose petal, meringue, sweet cocoa and buttered cinnamon toast aromas and flavors. Pure and limpid, so refined and sweet, yet bone dry. Defines the elegance and finesse of a perfectly-aged, great Russian River Pinot Noir. As grand as it is, has years of life ahead. Made from the Pommard selection, with alcohol of 13.1%. Stunning. Score: 100.
1992 Olivet Lane (Russian River Valley): Heavier and more ponderous than the Allen, very full-bodied and ripe in blackberries, cranberries, cherries and pie crust, with a chocolate biscuit richness. Surprisingly robust for an 18-year old wine, and seems likely to develop for an additional 8-10 years, such is the tannic density. From Martini clone grapes planted in 1975. Alcohol is 13.9%. Score: 95.
1995 Russian River Valley: A blend of various great vineyards, including Olivet Lane and Rochioli East Block. Shows a purity and finesse rare in a 15-year old Pinot. With near-perfect tannins and crisp acids, it still has vibrant flavors of cherries, raspberries, cranberries, pomegranates and cola. Doesn’t show the density or power of the single-vineyard wines. The small addition of Rochioli East Block must have been to fatten up the wine. Alcohol is 13.6%. Score: 93.
1996 Hirsch Vineyard (Sonoma Coast): Shows the exotic, feral nature of this vineyard, with wild raspberry, blueberry, cherry liqueur, mocha, clove, balsam, anise, chamomile, cola and sandalwood notes. Utterly fascinating, ever-changing in the glass. Completely dry and crisp, and gently tannic, with a mouthfeel of pure silk and satin. Near perfect, with many years ahead. The alcohol is 13.8% and the grapes were a blend of the Mt. Eden and Pommard selections. Score: 99.
1997 Rochioli Vineyard (Russian River Valley): Made from West Block, one of the oldest and best parts of the vineyard. The most transparent wine of the flight, showing terroir-infused minerals and organic notes to the cherries, cola and raspberries. Turns very spicy and chocolatey on the finish. Now through 2017, at a minimum. A masterpiece, limpid, pure and impossibly intoxicating. From the Pommard selection, with 13.6% alcohol. Score: 98.
THE BOB YEARS
1999 Precious Mountain (Sonoma Coast): Dense and ripe, with dark chocolate, red and black cherry pie filling and sweet, smoky cedar. Very rich and extraordinarily fine, with bright coastal acidity. Shows exotic licorice, raspberry and Indian spice flavors in the middle. Shockingly intense, tremendously delicious. Now-2019. Alcohol is 14.3%. Score: 96.
2001 Flax Vineyard: Dense and closed now. Shows deep notes of black and red cherries, cola, sassafras and sandalwood. Very dry, with loads of sweet, smoky oak. Needs time. 2012-2022. Alcohol is 14.3%. Score: 96.
2002 Westside Road Neighbors (Russian River Valley): A blend of local vineyards along the Middle Reach. Still jammy and young in fruit. Delicious, if a little clunky in tannins. Now-2016. Alcohol is 14.3%. Score: 93.
2004 Rochioli Riverblock (Russian River Valley): Heavy and dense now. Marked by oak and tannins, but rich in raspberry and cherry pie, with lots of Indian spices. Needs time. 2012-2022, at least. Alcohol is 14.4%. Score: 94.
2005 Litton Estate (Russian River Valley): Very dark. Juvenile and dramatic in fruit and structure, but very tannic. Hints of violets, sandalwood, black cherries, cola, Indian spices. Needs time. 2012-2022. Alcohol is 14.4%. Score: 95.
At the conclusion of the tasting, winemaker Cabral held up the Feb. 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, in which I scored the 2007 Litton Estate Pinot Noir a perfect 100 points. Then he poured everyone in the room a glass—the high point of an all-around wonderful tasting.