Almost three years after I met him in October 2008 at his winery in Sebastopol, California, I still consider the hour or two I spent with Littorai’s winemaker, Ted Lemon, one of the most enlightening moments I’ve had in my years as a wine writer. Lemon, who makes a number of remarkably diverse chardonnays and pinot noirs from the Russian River, the Sonoma Coast and the Anderson Vally, showed a sort of masterful calm as he described the various sites and vintages and how he approached them – and why. He did so as we tasted each wine, but also in showing me a map of Sonoma and the various sites he used, pointing out where cool fog roll in and where the closed valleys get hotter.
The sense of place is at the heart of what he does, with remarkable precision. Tasting one pinot or chardonnay from Littorai is by no means like tasting them all. There is a common sense of balance and elegance in all the wines, but the rich aromas of the Cerise Vineyard pinot, drawn from the warmer end of the Anderson Valley, is quite different, say, from the length and structure of a Hirsch pinot from the Sonoma Coast. Lemon treats each vineyard according to its particular traits (see his descriptions of the various sites here), bringing specific expression of these traits through techniques learned at some of the greatest estates in Burgundy. Don’t call his wines burgundian, though: they are, for him, exclusive expressions of Californian terroir.
The 2006 Roman Vineyard seems, in that sense, a remarkable blending of Burgundian technique with Californian character. Drawn from a site slightly cooler than that of Cerise, it shows how Lemon can bring elegance and finesse to pinot grown in the Anderson Valley, a region that benefits from great day-to-night temperature variations, but without the fog that cools down regions more immediately connected to the Pacific ocean.
The wine, released in late 2008, is a light but complex shade of garnet, yet the flavors are ripe and mature. The fruit, combining cherry and plum, jumps out at first with a light floral accent, but it is soon joined by spicier and earthier notes, with a light, heady sort of pastry or maybe cocoa powder accent adding on to it. The wine is silky and accomplished, with moderate acid, good body and good length. The alcohol, at a stated 14.1%, does not produce any heat, though a little richness and voluptuous character. This is a wine that drinks itself, and could be enjoyed by itself over the course of an evening – though a duck breast certainly wouldn’t do it any wrong.
It is not, however, for extremely long cellaring. Lemon expressed that the 2006 vintage was not necessarily for keeping, pointing more to 2004, 2005 or 2007 as vintages for longer aging. Beyond that, I’d also count more on the Sonoma Coast vineyards like Thieriot – which has been my favorite in both pinot noir and (maybe even more) chardonnay, in my limited tastings of Littorai – to provide the structure and acid for keeping over years and years. In any case, being as rare as they are – most of them are sold through mailing list – they are certainly wines that deserve to be treated and tasted with care.