02 December 2012

Visiting Fort Ross Vineyards, California

Fort Ross Vineyards are just north of the Russian River where it flows into the sea. After a few miles of driving along the twisty coastal highway, Route 101, with its distracting dramatic coastal scenery, and going around hairpin bends where the road is shored up against slippage you come to Meyers Grade Road, which surprisingly is a better road to drive on than the main coastal highway. There’s a small sign on Rte 101 pointing to wine tasting 3.5 miles along the road, and that is Fort Ross.

The property is large, a hundred square acres, spread over the top of the high hills. After entering by the Fort Ross sign you drive along a narrow path, through an electric gate and past a pond to the tasting room on the edge of a steep drop.

The smart building was opened just three months before we arrived and is managed by the affably professional Damien who pours with panache.

I met owners Linda and Lester Schwarz, transplants from South Africa, who had also transplanted Pinotage bud-wood direct from South Africa, rather than acquiring vines from commercial nurseries. This process took five years of quarantine before they could start to plant.

Lester drove me to see the vineyards, through forests thinning because the once dominant Tan Oak trees are dying of a virus. On steep slopes are clearings where Lester planted his vines. He’s had to terrace the steepest hills and some of the vineyards reminded me of those lining the Rhine in Germany.
The vintage has passed and the leaves are golden yellow. Here and there is a  bunch of Pinotage grapes left by the pickers and now wizened. We chewed them and experienced a sweet jammy flavour. There were also grapes from a second flowering, green at the time of harvest, and now ripe but dismissed by Lester as no good. But they did taste good to me.

At the top of one hill is a reservoir. Lester wasn’t allowed to place it lower down where it would collect run-off water, but can only collect what rain falls into it. Which seemed to be a lot.

We were promised far distant views from the highest peak but as the car strained up a near vertical dirt track between vines we saw clouds moving rapidly in the trees on surrounding hills and within moments the sun had vanished and visibility closed in. We had to descend before rain made the tracks unsafe.

Back in the tasting room, which has great coastal views when clear of clouds, we tasted three Fort Ross Pinotages. The wines are made by Jeff Pisoni, of Pisoni Vineyards and Winery but not here at this building which is too remote.

Linda told me she only releases her wines when she considers them ready. 2007 is the most recent vintage; also available is 2005 and 2006. Linda says Pinotage is tannic and needs time for the tannins to soften.

2005 – Just released. Soft, very soft with a gentle spiciness

2006 – Tad sharp edge to it and a tannic finish, I’d give it little more bottle age.

2007 –  Mature nose but this is fruitier spicier with brighter tannins. Fort Ross kindly supplied their 2007 vintage for my Pinotage seminar at the American Wine Society conference where it received many compliments.
It was great to meet Linda and Lester after communicating with them over  many years via email and to taste their Pinotage at last after reading so many complimentary reviews of them. 
I want to return during summer and see the views from the top of the vineyards and drink more Fort Ross Pinotage..

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