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The Sonoma Pinot Noir Maker That’s Taking a Chance with a New Bubbly

It's a stellar addition to the 2016 lineup of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

Benovia’s 2016 “Bella Una” Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, 2016 “La Pommeraie” Chardonnay Russian River Valley and 2016 Tilton Hill Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast. Photo: Courtesy of Benovia Winery
Benovia’s 2016 “Bella Una” Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, 2016 “La Pommeraie” Chardonnay Russian River Valley and 2016 Tilton Hill Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.

Sonoma County has a brand-new sparkling wine to celebrate. Benovia Winery, in the heart of Russian River Valley, has released a Blanc de Noirs for the first time, a 2015 from the Martaella Estate vineyard that hugs the winery itself.

Benovia isn’t exactly a newbie with the bubbles, having made a Blanc de Blancs from the same vineyard in 2012. And as a producer, it’s far from alone on this front. Benovia winemaker and co-owner Mike Sullivan, who admits to being a lover of sparkling wine and Champagne, describes the trend: “I think there is a flourishing interest among small artisan producers in making a traditional méthode champenoise sparkling wine in Sonoma County,” he says. And for good reason. “The best reflect an almost ideal climate for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And the resulting wines have bright, natural acidity combined with tremendous richness and intense fruit aromas.”

While Sullivan has several estate vineyards to work with, he was particularly interested in what character would emerge in a sparkling from Martaella. “I was curious to see how high-density planting, reduced yields and heritage clones would translate into a sparkling wine,” he says. “From our Blanc de Blancs, I knew that the Chardonnay from our estate expressed citrus fruit and bright acidity as a sparkling wine. I thought the Pinot Noir from the same vineyard would give the wine more richness and roundness and complement it with strawberry and cranberry fruits.”

All that and more, as it turns out. The Benovia 2015 Blanc de Noirs ($60) opens with aromatic red pear, wild strawberry, white blossom, hazelnut and a touch of toast. The lovely bubbles on the palate deliver a crisp but rich mélange of creamy citrus, peach, gingered pineapple and tart cranberry.

And one new Benovia release makes a trip through the new 2016 lineup of still Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs too tempting. The wines are stellar across the board—expressive, complex, vibrant, balanced and elegant.

On the Chardonnay front, Sullivan believes that good producers as a whole are pulling the variety back from the blousy, over-oaked stage that peaked in the 1990s. As he puts it, “The marriage between French oak and Chardonnay was like catnip to winemakers.” (Or maybe to consumers, who lost their minds over that big whiff of new oak in the Chards of the day.) Now, he says, house style is maturing. “We’re finding what our balance is, for the wines to be expressive of both vintage and site.”

Benovia's 2015 Blanc de Noirs

Benovia’s 2015 Blanc de Noirs  Photo: Courtesy of Benovia Winery

The Benovia 2016 “La Pommeraie” Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($50) makes his case—for his own house style, at least. Aged for 16 months in French oak, only 35 percent new, it gives off the earthy minerality of the vineyard, combined with lovely floral aromas. Its midpalate is juicy and complex, with mouth-filling citrus that lingers.

On the Pinot Noir side, Sullivan has seen a pull-back, too, from the ultra-ripe fruit and high-alcohol wines of the 90s. The Benovia 2016 Cohn Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma County ($75) is a balanced iteration (with alcohol hovering about 14 percent) of fruit that once went to Williams Selyem and Kosta Browne. Warm spice (anise) and minerality on the nose lead to a palate that’s not afraid to express savory salinity and herbal qualities, along with florals and tart cherries. It’s rich but delicate, showing power without weight.

Striking a very different note, the Benovia 2016 Tilton Hill Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($62)—from a very chilly ridgetop in far west Sonoma—is a high-risk, high-reward wine, according to Sullivan. Dark spices and forest notes introduce intense dark plum and red berry fruit driven by bright acid and prominent but velvety tannins.

The Martaella Estate vineyard.

The Martaella Estate vineyard.  Photo Courtesy of Benovia Winery

Bringing the best of the elements together is Benovia’s 2016 “Bella Una” Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($80), made only in good vintages. Vibrant mint, spice and floral aromas swirl on the nose, while rich dark cherry fruit on the palate is supported by distinctive textures, suggesting a long life in the cellar.

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