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Jasmine Hirsch takes the lead

For the first time, wines from this famous Sonoma Coast estate have been made by a member of the Hirsch family. Elaine is treated to a preview of the results.

Hirsch Vineyards has begun to release the Pinots from their 2019 vintage and in January I met with Jasmine Hirsch and consultant winemaker Michael Cruse to discuss and taste through the wines.

The vintage is significant in that for the first time, second-generation vintner Jasmine Hirsch made the wines, representing an increased connection between the people leading the farming and the person making the wine.

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History

David Hirsch was one of the first to plant vineyards in the region known as True Sonoma Coast. Already in 1980 he planted a 1.20 hectare block with Riesling and Pinot Noir, at that time more for fun rather than thinking about becoming av full time winegrower and winemaker. The first years, all grapes were sold to Williams Selyem, and later on also Kistler Vineyard (not anymore), Littorai and Siduri. Over the years, David worked hard to understand his land, to see the details and the anatomy of his vineyard. Working close with several great winemakers who bought his grapes, he learned more and more about each single block in his vineyard, which had expanded into 29.15 hectares.

Still he wanted to go even deeper, and the only way he could truly see the microdetails and improve the quality of his vineyard management, was to start to make his own wines. The first true vintage was 2002, however, David told me he made some wines for fun earlier. He told med that the 2001 actually tastes pretty good!
Typically, wines are red at Hirsch Vineyard. There’s only 1.60 hectares of Chardonnay planted, so production of the white wine is small. There are now quite a few pinots made, with Bohan-Dillon from the youngest vines as the lightest and most deliscious of them all. The San Andreas Pinot Noir (until 2006, this was sold just as Pinot Noir) is a blend of different clones, mostly Dijons clones, but also Pommard and Swan, and approximately 75 percent of the grapes comes from blocks planted between 1980 and 1990. 

 

There’s also a Pinot Noir “M”, named after Davids wife Maria, a barrel selection with the most elegant and perfumed lots of Pinot Noir. Since 2009, the wine is sold as Pinot Noir Reserve, and that vintage and wine tasted from barrels is one of the most profound pinots I’ve ever tasted from Sonoma Coast.
Since 2007, there are also small lots of single block wines that are very interesting. These wines are the result of understanding the vineyard and its different blocks through their own winemaking.
Since 2010 the young and talented Ross Cobb of Cobb Vineyard (they make a great series of pinots from the Freestone in the southern part of Sonoma Coast) is the winemaker. He finished the blend of the 2009s, and did that with honor.

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Vineyards

As with all things, Hirsch Vineyards has a visible outer side, and an inner, hidden foundation. On the outside: the vineyards flow wave-like over the coastal ridge traversed by Bohan Dillon Road, west of Cazadero. At 1500’ the Pacific Ocean is visible three miles to the southwest through the redwoods and firs that dot the slopes and meadows. This is the coastal rainforest. Rainfall, mostly from October to April, is abundant at an average annual eighty inches. The summer climate is dry, desert-like. When the land was in sheep, lambing occurred near Christmas to allow the sheep to fatten on the green, growing spring grasses and go to market before the land browned and died back.

The climate is highly erratic, unpredictable, with wide annual swings in moisture, temperature, storms, and wind. As these factors are in constant flux, their cumulative effect creates a changing, complex environment on the soils and plants: no year is like another. This climatic chaos is coupled with a geology containing a highly varied mélange of sandstone-based soils and assorted rock placed at random across the rolling hills and ridges on which the vineyards are planted: an erratic climate working on highly variegated soils and exposures and slopes.

 

What is behind this geologic jumble? A mile to the west of the ranch and down in the recess of the planet’s crust, the Pacific and North American plates contact and grind away. This is the land of the San Andreas Fault. This is where the polar opposites come together. And it is in this telluric clash that the complexity is brewed that defines Hirsch Vineyards, its grapes and wines. The fault is the mother of the country, predating the coastal shelf, which was pushed, up only ‘yesterday’ in geologic time: two to three million years ago. It is the cause of the soils’ continual slipping and sliding as the land moves downward toward the streams and the ocean.

The actions of the San Andreas and the heavy rains and high winds, assisted by the chainsaws of man and sharp hooves of sheep, have created the current landscape and agronomy. Gone are the deep soils and compost of the rain forest, all washed away into the creeks, leaving thin soils over sandstone based assemblage of intermixed heavy clays, sandy loams, and clay loams. Blended into this mix in random ratios is a mélange of rocks varying in origins and type from igneous to metamorphic to sedimentary shale so degraded it can be crushed by hand. And the rolling hills with varying slopes face out in all directions and at all angles from level to forty percent. This means that vine ‘A’ may be in a well drained sandstone that holds little water, conducive to slow growth and even ripening, but vine ‘B’, a few yards away, is in a high magnesium, heavy clay that has very high water retention and consequently grows a vine with high vegetative vigor and uneven ripening.

Tucked away on a ridge five miles up a dirt road, the land flows away in all directions to the high blue horizon typical of the coast. Only two hours from San Francisco, it is a place lost in the rural past of northern California. The outside beauty, profound in its purity and scale, tears at your heart and words are inept; then winter arrives and the storms roll in one following another, like frenzied wild horses, and the rivers of rain and shrieking winds rend the very landscape.

And all this is reflected in the wines: the clarity, the complexity, the concentration.

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Winemaking

The vineyards roll across the hills like waves at the edge of the world. An intense relationship between geology and climate has created sites perfectly in tune to the cultivation of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, which reflect both the complexity of their site and the traditional characteristics of the variety.

From the first planting in 1980, a philosophy of viticulture has been slowly evolving that is specific to Hirsch Vineyards. Just as our pinot noir and chardonnay vines, influenced by the local environmental conditions, have grown and adapted to the site, we have learned to work out an appropriate cultural approach by trial and error in the field. The mixed geology fostered by the San Andreas Fault and our dramatic climate makes for growing conditions far different than other sites, even those quite nearby.

The Old Vineyard was planted in 1980 to one acre of a massale selection of Pommard and Wädenswil pinot noir and two acres of Riesling. In 1988 the Riesling was budded over to the Mount Eden selection of pinot noir. From 1990 to 1994, thirty-two acres were planted to these clones. In 1995 the 114, Swan, and 777 clones were planted on nine more acres. Two and one half acres of chardonnay were planted in field 10 (a 40% slope) in 1994.

By 2000 we realized that much could be improved upon in the design and planting of the vineyards in order to produce better and more fruit on a consistent basis. Twenty-five acres of closely spaced vines were planted in 2002 and 2003. (See the Vineyard Map for more about each block.) By this time we had reached the limits of useful feedback about farming from the wineries buying our fruit. This lead to the decision to build the winery on site.

 

A cursory review of the vineyard data schedule shows the large difference in planting density between the old and new fields. Also you will note an expansion in the kind of rootstocks used. New methods of site mapping, investigation, and soil analysis were employed. These lead to changes in preparation, planting, and training. We stayed with the same trellising system, vertical shoot positioning (VSP), but employed new hardware for enhanced stability and flexibility in the employment of the desired cultural practices. The narrower tractor rows on the steep side hills called for new farming equipment. In all ways the focus was on the site and our goal: to find effective ways to work with the highly varying conditions of soil and topography and an ever changing, unpredictable climate in order to produce fruit through which the unique, complex characteristics of the site would emerge vintage after different vintage.

In terms of field and block design, the intense attention put on site investigation resulted in planting a large number of discreet blocks based mostly on the water retention property of the soil. For example, field 12, all of 5.88 acres, contains nine separate blocks. There are tremendous soil and drainage changes across this field including a hill of almost pure sandstone in the southwest corner where the chardonnay is planted. Dividing the field into multiple blocks is costly and adds difficulties to installation and farming. The benefits are (1) a proper rootstock can be used for each soil type; (2) specific preparation can be done block by block in a precise manner; (3) clones can be used in a discreet way; (4) irrigation will be separate for each unit; (5) an attempt can be made to achieve the highest quality (most profound expression of the site in a given vintage) at the highest level of production (all this has to be paid for); and (6) the vines will be farmed and harvested in separate lots for the winery. This is what a site specific elaboration of a philosophy of viticulture has meant at Hirsch Vineyards.

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Inside information

Perched on a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Fort Ross, Hirsch Vineyards is the birth ground of great pinot noir on the extreme Sonoma Coast. David Hirsch founded the vineyard in 1980 to grow fruit and make site-specific wine. From the start all efforts have been on the growing of fruit that makes wines profoundly characteristic of the site vintage after vintage.

The wines from Hirsch Vineyards give the passionate drinker an experience of the clash of opposites meeting in Nature and Life: the edge of the continent washed by the sea; the eviternal grinding of the North American and Pacific plates along the San Andreas Fault; the wet winters and dry summers caused by the ocean and desert climates; the dripping rainforest and parched pastures; the contact and intermingling of cultures: Native American, Mexican, Russian, European; the change in rural economy from logging and ranching to winegrowing.

In the wines of Hirsch Vineyards you find a natural balance and consistency in the harmonious resolution of these opposites. This complex, unique site produces fruit and wines of unusual acidity and balance with a vintage specific concentration of pinot noir or chardonnay fruit. These are wines to be enjoyed now or laid down for future consumption.

 

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