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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.

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