Based in the Black-Sears Winery on Howell Mountain, Littorai (derived from the latin for Coasts) is the efforts of Ted and Heidi Lemon. Founded in 1993 after an illustrious career including a number of years as the winemaker for Guy Roulot in Meursault (To the best of anyones knowledge the only time an American has held the top spot in a prestigous Burgundy Domaine.), to focus on Ted's passion for premium coastal pinot noir and chardonnay.
The Hirsch vineyard is run by David Hirsch in Sonoma Coast, just to the north of Jenner. Littorai have long sourced their fruit from there, using blocks 5, 6, 7 and 9, although these days they just source from blocks five and six. Block five is an east facing slope with slightly more mature vines than block six, which faces north and has a more gravel based soil. The vineyard blocks are planted to mainly Dijon clones on American rootstocks.
The fruit undergoes a rigorous selection process, before being destemmed and fermented in open topped steel fermentation tanks. The steel tanks allow for more control of temperature keeping the ferment going at about 10 degrees celsius for upto ten days in order to gain optimum extraction from the fruit. Then the ferment is allowed to build in temperature as the wild yeasts start to convert the sugars into alcohol. If the wines require it they will be punched down by hand, or if really necessary the juice from the bottom of the tank will be pumped over to further extract tannins and flavours from the cap. After the fermentation they may again spend a few days in maceration to gain additions tannins and flavours before being racked out into french oak. Roughly fifty percent of the barrels are new, with a medium toast to them. The wines will spend between a year and 18 months on the oak before being bottled without racking or fining.
I first tasted the wines of Littorai at the Wines of California tasting down in London two years ago. James Hocking of the Vineyard Cellars had invited me to their annual tasting at the Vineyard at Stockcross that weekend, so I took some time off to go down to London for the tasting before going to the Vineyard at Stockcross for the major tasting. Ted was there along with Justin Baldwin from Justin Vineyards, and Dave Miner from Miner Family vineyards. I tasted the range of Littorai wines - Thieriot Vineyard, Savoy Vineyard and Hirsch. The Hirsch stood out of the three, although I must say they were all fabulous, but the hirsch could have passed for a Burgundy. At the time I knew nothing of Littorai or of Teds background, but now it is easy to see where that comparison comes from.
It was impressive then tasted against a range of other more well known Pinots such as the Duckhorn Goldeneye, which is in itself a fantastic Pinot from Anderson Valley. But on the Sunday afternoon I got the chance to taste it again with Ted Lemon hosting a tutored tasting in one of the function suites of the Vineyard at Stockcross. It must have been tasted towards the end, because my notes are even less legible than usual, which suggests that I had had a few. The one note I have that is legible just says WOW!!!! underlined several times.
I got the chance to taste it again the other day. By now it has had an additional 18 months in bottle. The nose is very dominant with aromas of rose petals subdued by a dark cherry and foresty floor like scent. There are hints of spices - peppercorns and star anise with kaffir lime leaves and rich black tea - Kenyan or Russian Black tea spring to mind. On the palate it is very smooth, with the fruit playing a more dominant role - bing cherries and cranberry with a touch of Venezualan chocolate and a hint of licorice root. Amazingly long length on the palate with the spicier notes of the flavours fading into prominance. The tannins are perfectly balanced in the wine which leaves a silky touch across the gums. I would stick my neck out and say this is the best Pinot I have ever tasted outside of Burgundy, and it would give many top domaines a damned good run for their money. For a Californian Pinot it is quite reasonable at £105 on our list, compared to some London restaurants that charge nearly double that. But if you are looking to spend that kind of money on a halfway decent Vosne Romanee, then you wouldnt be too far off the mark with this wine.