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1996 Walter Hansel Estate Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley

walter_hansel_pinot.jpgOne of the greatest, though imminently forgivable, crimes perpetrated by a large number of even the most knowledgeable wine lovers consists of the tendency to consume great wines before they have had the opportunity to fully develop. Sometimes referred to as "infanticide," this practice varies in its levels of extremity depending on the category of wine.

In my opinion, perhaps the most slighted of all categories in this respect is California Pinot Noir. While it may not have the aging potential of Burgundy (though we don't really know for sure -- no one has been making really serious Pinot Noir in the state for the 50 years it would take to find out) California Pinot can age beautifully over two decades, a fate that it is unfortunately only rarely allowed to achieve.

I only started aging California Pinots beginning with the 1996 vintage, and only a bottle or two survived to recent years to shame me into the realization I had drunk many far too early. But I had the good fortune to purchase a portion of an acquaintance's collection of old California Pinot a few years ago, and I have been reveling in my exploration of these older wines, of which this particular bottle is one.

Walter Hansel made himself a good living in the late 1970s as the owner of a number of car dealerships in Sonoma County, where he made his home. As a lifelong wine lover with a good deal of property in the Russian River Valley appellation, it was an easy choice as to what to do with some extra savings. Hansel's vineyard plantings began in 1978, and were increased in fits and starts over the years to the present holdings of about 65 acres down the road from names like Kistler and Dehlinger. From the first plantings, the grapes were sold to surrounding vintners while the family made small amounts of wine for themselves.

Sadly, Walter Hansel died in 1996, the same year he and his son Stephen had decided to commercially release wine for the first time. That year the winery produced a mere 70 cases of estate Pinot Noir, which this bottle was a member.

After taking over the winery from his father, Stephen was mentored in his initial explorations as a winegrower and winemaker by friend Tom Rochioli, who knew a thing or two about growing Burgundian varietals in the Russian River Valley. With Rochioli's help, Hansel carefully grew the estate with plantings of specific clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay matched to the three soil types that pervaded the family's vineyards.

The estate continues to produce small lots of mostly single vineyard designated wines in quantities between 100 and 800 cases. The fruit for all the wines is carefully hand-harvested before or at dawn, and rigorously sorted in the field, and then again at the winery. The clusters of fruit are destemmed, sorted again, and undergo a cold soak before beginning fermentation. After that point, very little is done to the wine -- it ferments with natural yeasts in open top fermenters, and is aged in various French oak barrels that vary in age from new to two years in age.

It was a distinct pleasure to revisit the first vintage of what has become a quiet member of the upper echelon of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir producers. The wine remains a great testament to the man whose name it bears.

Tasting Notes:
Light ruby in color, fading slightly to pink at the edges, this wine has a heady nose of hibiscus, raspberry, and hints of smoked meats. In the mouth the wine is beautifully structured with excellent acidity, velvet texture, and light tannins that merge with an overall earthy quality. The primary flavors on the palate are rooibos, wet dirt, raspberry, and exotic spices which linger into a finish that is literally minutes long. Outstanding, easily could age for another 5 to 10 years, and a slap in the face for those who think that California Pinot Noir has a short lifespan.

Food Pairing:
We drank this wine with a simple dinner of roast pork tenderloin and sauteed rainbow chard.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: unknown

This wine is nearly impossible to find except in the collections of those who were fortunate enough to take a gamble on the winery's first vintage. If you ever see a bottle, snap it up.

Comments (11)

Jack at F&B wrote:
09.20.08 at 6:26 PM

A producer who would be more popular, etc., if they were charging twice the price. But they don't. So, their wines remain bargains.

John wrote:
09.20.08 at 10:35 PM

"rooibos"? For the first time, I need my Google companion to understand your writing. Wet dirt I'm totally good with.

Dylan wrote:
09.21.08 at 7:07 AM

Haha, that's understandable. If I weren't such a tea lover I wouldn't have been familiar with rooibos either. That's what I find so interesting when it comes to tasting the intricacies of wine; you need to have tasted what it can be compared to. Alder, I'm sure this is the case in your use of rooibos in the tasting.

While on that topic, I wonder if anyone has ever taken a sip of wine only to exclaim that notes are incomparable, they are their own.

Alder wrote:
09.21.08 at 9:17 AM

Sorry all, that tasting note was written hastily. I should have provided the parenthetical reference that Rooibos is also known as Redbush Tea, which is increasingly popular these days for its pleasing, unique flavors. Unfortunately attempts to describe it in other terms are difficult (ever tried describing the flavor of an orange without using the terms "orange" or "citrus" ?). But here goes -- think of a combination of dried rosehips, hibiscus, and oregano.

Claudia wrote:
09.22.08 at 7:56 AM

This particular posting caught my eye as a Pinot Noir lover. I live and work in Germany importing California wine. My father is Walter Schug (Schug Carneros Estate) and I recently was pleasantly surprised by a Pinot Noir vintage 1986 from Heinemann Mountain, Napa Valley (in a double-magnum). It received high praise from the German sommelier group that tasted it. Even "aged" Chardonnays are appreciated. It's unfortunate that I have to import/sell the winery's current vintages (2006 and soon the 2007) way before their peak!

Ryan wrote:
09.24.08 at 9:29 AM

Alder - do you think some of the pinots on the market today would hold up as well as this 1996 bottle? I read articles suggesting the bigger wines produced in California today won't hold up well over time as much as so-called restrained wines. The article I'm thinking of was referring to Napa Cabs, but I know a lot of Pinots have also been criticized lately for the same thing.


Patrick wrote:
09.29.08 at 11:29 AM

Unfortunately, it's wine writers and the wine mags who are partly responsible for so many wines being drunk way too early. When you review a new release and rate it a 9.5 or 95 or two thumbs up, readers want to go out and try it - heck, the writer just said it's delicious.
Wine drinkers need patience and discipline - tempting though that '05 syrah (or riesling or whatever) may be tonight, it'll be better in a half dozen or more years. I put about half of my wine purchases away for future drinking, and even though I only have five or six cases in my basement, they're almost all bottles that will improve over time. While it's hard to put away bottles when you first begin to buy wine, mostly because you want to drink it, it's worthwhile: I can now pull a '90 or '99 or '03 riesling when I want one, and can put the new '05 where it belongs - in my cellar.

Matt wrote:
10.01.08 at 1:33 PM

Hopefully Walter Hansel doesn't get too much more publicity. They've always been one of my well kept "secrets". Fantastic values and tremendously well made wines.

James Barton wrote:
10.24.08 at 9:25 AM


Have you had the opportunity to try a bottle '96 Calera Jensen Vineyard Pinot? It's one of the most stunning bottles of California Pinot I've ever tasted. Extremely opulent at 11 years of age (I had it last year) I would bet it could age another 5 - 10 years.

Alder wrote:
10.24.08 at 9:32 AM


I have indeed had that wine. It is fantastic. I'm a big fan of Calera wines.

Mark wrote:
11.10.08 at 4:29 PM

What is the optimum length to age this wine. I bought a 1/2 case of the WH North Slope 2003 and have had a few bottles so far. I find that by decanting it an hour or so it opens nicely. Should I save the remaining bottles for a few more years??? Thanks

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