Pinot Noirs with SoCal cool

Sonoma’s Hirsch winery produces Pinot Noir with the intellectual quality of burgundy and the sensual ripeness of California

Image: Chris Burke

The Hirsch winery doesn’t get a lot of visitors. Not on account of its wines, but because of its location. Situated 450m up on California’s craggy Sonoma Coast, this hilltop winery is properly off-grid: to get there from the winding coastal road, you have to drive for more than an hour up through gloomy redwood forests and steep alpine pastures. The landscape here is dramatic and dynamic – shrouded in fog one minute, bathed in blazing sun the next and said to be blessed with more soil types than France. And it’s this variety that makes Hirsch tick. It gives each of its Pinot Noirs a site-specific quality that sees its legions of fans often draw comparisons with burgundy. 

“We’re not trying to recreate burgundy here, though – that wouldn’t be very Burgundian!” laughs 38-year-old general manager Jasmine Hirsch as she leads me, wine glasses in hand, down to Block 8, a plot with iron-red soils that produce some of Hirsch’s very best Pinot Noir. There we taste 2015 Hirsch Block 8 Pinot Noir, which combines intense cassis and pomegranate with the minerality of fresh sod. It feels unfettered, fast-moving, alive. 

“We are heading more and more towards transparency, trying to figure out what each plot wants to make,” says Hirsch, tucking a strand of wild blonde hair behind her ear. “That means using less oak and picking earlier to achieve a fresher, more mineral, lower-alcohol style – ripeness can be such a homogeniser. The light, the cool winters and the fog give us Pinot Noir with a lot more red/orange fruit to it – orange peel, pomegranate, redcurrant, bergamot.”

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Hirsch was famously one of the co-founders of In Pursuit of Balance, a movement that sought to promote a more restrained, terroir-driven style of California winemaking in contrast to the powerful, very “made” styles that proliferated under the reign of wine critic Robert Parker. For many new-wave Californian winemakers, she’s a a hero. 

Down a track bordered by clover, poppies and rocket, we stop to taste at West Ridge, a plot with heavy black clay that stresses the vines into producing exceptionally delicate, floral wines. Then it’s on to Block 7 for the 2015 Hirsch Raschen Ridge Pinot Noir, which captures in one glass the intellectual quality of burgundy and the sensual ripeness of California. “It’s like meeting someone in a bar and thinking they’re really sexy, then getting them home and finding they’re also a total brainiac,” says Hirsch. My feelings exactly. 

Back at the top of the hill, at a weathered picnic table, we lunch on Raschen Ridge, strawberries and creamy cheeses from cult California cheesemonger Andante. “These days we all have the same phones, cars and clothes, but food and wine still have so much diversity, regionality and specificity,” says Hirsch. “More than ever, it’s important we celebrate that.”

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