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Marcassin will not release 2008 Pinot Noirs; winery blames wildfires

May 21, 2013|By S. Irene Virbila
  • Marcassin Vineyards, whose Chardonnay has been described as one of the best in the world, won't release 2008 Pinot Noirs because smoke from a wildfire "marred" the character of the wine.
Marcassin Vineyards, whose Chardonnay has been described as one of the… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

The tiny, high-end Marcassin Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, known for its superb Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, has dealt itself a blow: “We are passing (probably permanently) on the 2008 Pinot Noirs,” writes John Wetlaufer, who owns the Sonoma Coast estate with his wife, the phenomenal winemaker Helen Turley, in his latest letter to those on the winery's mailing list.

What the hey?

The explanation, wildfires in 2008 caused smoke to cover most of Northern California for two months, according to ETS Laboratories, which has developed a test to screen grapes for smoke taint. Unlike wine estates in manicured Napa Valley, Marcassin is located in a fairly remote area of the Sonoma Coast, close up against a wilder landscape subject to the occasional forest fire.

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"The Marcassins are deeply colored, rich and round in the middle, and long and complex in the finish,” Wetlaufer writes. But they are “marred” by “atypical and exogenous smokiness attributable to the early summer brush and forest fires centered in the Anderson Valley" 35 miles to the north. He goes on to say that though analysis shows the wines fall within acceptable limits for no smoke taint, "the nose knows."

Winemakers in Anderson Valley where 129 fires raged that summer and thick smoke covered the vineyards for a solid three weeks have been struggling with the issue with their 2008s, turning to fining or micro-filtration machines to treat affected wines. Some are bottling only a small percentage of their wines, or have declassified the wines and/or sold them off in bulk at a reduced price. Not every winery had a problem with smoke, though. And white wines were much less affected than reds.

For Marcassin, giving up the entire vintage of their Pinot Noirs, which sell for $250 to $300 a bottle retail, will have huge consequences. But Turley and Wetlaufer aren’t fudging or budging. “Years ago we promised that the Marcassin label would never go on a bottle or a bottle out the door of which we weren’t proud. It is thus au revoir to the ’08 Pinots, and there is nothing to say but 'dommage.' ”

Ouch.

For me, no question but that their decision is the correct one. If their wines are going to continue to command such high prices and to be held in such high esteem (influential wine critic Robert Parker routinely gives their wines scores in the high 90s and has said the Marcassin Chardonnay "may be the greatest Chardonnay produced in the world"), they have to deliver. Every vintage. And while some would argue that smokiness is a good thing in a wine, in this case, it’s not inherent to the grape or terroir, but introduced from the outside, from that brief exposure to a forest fire’s smoke miles away.

Dommage.

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Twitter: @sirenevirbila

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