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Mount Harlan
Though not really in the same spirit as some larger viticultural areas, it would be impossible to discuss the state of American Pinot Noir without addressing the extraordinary "micro-appellations" of Chalone and Mt. Harlan. Both appellations are in the Gavilan range above and between the Monterey and San Benito AVAs east of Monterey. It is one of the few areas in California with limestone based soils. Additionally, both are essentially single winery AVAs with extraordinary histories.

Mount Harlan is the home of Calera, the winery founded by California's current day Pinot Noir guru, Josh Jensen. His vineyards are at an altitude of 2,200 feet, and despite some reports to the contrary from journalists who have never actually been to the area; Mt. Harlan provides the cool temperatures and long growing season favored by Pinot Noir. Indeed, the average annual temperature is between 58 and 60 degrees.

The vineyards were established in 1974 after an exhaustive search for the limestone soils that were similar to those Jensen remembered from working the 1970 vintage at Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. What the limestone means in Burgundy is good drainage, which is important in an area prone to inopportune rainfall. What it has meant on Mt. Harlan, an area with very little rainfall, is a draconian yield. This was especially true in the early days when Jensen was driving water up the side of Mt. Harlan by truck.

His winemaking philosophy is completely non-interventionist, with the centerpiece being an eight-story gravity flow winery, which allows him to go from grape to bottle without mechanical handling. Jensen relies on wild yeasts and never filters his wines. Additionally, being a true "terroirist" he has divided his Pinot Noir holdings into four separate and distinct vineyards. Reed, Jensen, Selleck, and Mills are vinified and bottled separately, providing a fascinating opportunity to taste and compare. The range is complemented by a pleasant though quite different Central Coast bottling which allows him to stay in business.

To say the single vineyard Mt. Harlan Pinot Noirs are exotic would be an understatement. They are incredibly concentrated with outrageous bouquets, yet on the palate they display a sense of lightness. They are wines which are exceedingly difficult to compare to other Pinot Noirs and one is left inevitably with the conclusion that they are not Cote-de-Nuits, not Cote-de-Beaune, but Mt. Harlan. If you are passionate about Pinot Noir, the wines of Calera cannot be missed.

As for Chalone, the vineyards are located some 30 miles as the crow flies further down the Gavilan range, and are exceedingly remote. At about 1,650 feet they are above the fog line, and the vineyard is made all the more impressive by the dramatic backdrop of the jagged mountains of the Pinnacles National Monument.

The area was originally planted by a Frenchman in 1919, and the holdings were extended in 1946. Chalone's reserve Pinot Noir is crafted from these 1946 plantings and accordingly shows all the concentration one would expect. A tiny winery was constructed in 1960 by some amateur enthusiasts, and was subsequently purchased by Richard Graff, a Harvard music graduate who had been studying at U.C. Davis. The first release of Chalone was in 1969 and the property is now a publicly held corporation in a coalition with several wineries including Carmenet, Acacia, and Canoe Ridge in Washington.

Chalone's Pinot Noirs are built for the long haul, and made in a very elegant and restrained style. Though not bursting at the seams with varietal intensity, their track record in the cellar is unquestionable. These are wines for contemplation, and are correspondingly difficult to evaluate in their youth. After several years of age the wines tend to open up with a minerally complexity accented by soft floral notes. Along with Calera, these wines stand out as being quite separate and distinct from the rest of California's Pinot Noirs, and deserve a place in any well-stocked cellar. (Wine/Appellations)