Owner Josh Jensen, an Oxford graduate, became interested in wine at an early age. And after graduation his interest led him to Burgundy where in 1970 and 1971 he apprenticed at Domaine Romanée Conti and Domaine Dujac. Domaine Romanée Conti is the greatest Domaine in Burgundy and has a history dating back hundreds of years. Domaine Dujac was founded in 1968 and produced fabulous wines in 1969 just before Josh arrived. Domaine Dujac’s founder, Jacques Seysses, set up his Domaine with Domaine Romanée Conti as a role model – good choice! And over the years Jacques has achieved some remarkable successes. So from that beginning you had to know that Josh was serious. He started at the top.
Josh was told by the Burgundians that in order to make seriously great Pinot Noir that you had to have limestone soil. So with that in mind he came back to California searching for a site with limestone soil. After 2 years of searching, he finally found the spot. Located about 90 miles south of San Francisco and some 25 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, near Mt. Harlan, was a large parcel of land with a limestone deposit of several million tons. In early 1974 he purchased the site. Situated at 2200 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest and coolest vineyard properties in California.
The property had been the site of a commercial limestone quarry in the 1800s. A very well preserved 30 foot tall masonry limekiln still stands near what is now a Viognier vineyard. The name Calera is the Spanish word for limekiln. And, the limekiln is the symbol of Calera which appears on every bottle of wine. This dedication to the limestone site for his vineyards is once again an indication of Josh’s seriousness and his respect for the advice he was given in Burgundy.
In 1975 he planted the first 24 Pinot Noir vineyards in three separate parcels. They are Selleck (5 acres), Reed (5 acres), and Jensen (14 acres). These vineyards produced their first crop in 1978 which totaled a whopping 65 cases (15 Selleck and 25 each Reed and Jensen). Today those original vineyards are mature, but production is small with only about 2000 cases in total produced in an average year.
In 1977 Josh purchased the land to build the winery. It was a very fortunate purchase. Located on Cienega Road about half way between the vineyards and the town of Hollister, there was a multi-level rock crushing facility on the property that was built into the steep hillside in the 1950s. It was abandoned and never used, but was accessible via a paved road and had telephone and electrical service which to this day are unavailable on Mt. Harlan. The infrastructure of the facility became the basis for Calera’s gravity flow winery where the wine moves through the winemaking process without the use of pumps.
And, after the completion of the winery Josh set out on expanding the vineyards. In 1982 Josh purchased an adjacent 300 acres of limestone laden mountain land. In 1983, he planted 2 acres of Viognier on the site becoming one of the first in California to plant that varietal. On the same slopes in 1984 Josh planted 6 acres of Chardonnay and 14.4 acres of Pinot Noir (the Mills Vineyard). In 1997 a 15.6 acre parcel of Pinot Noir was planted between the Jensen and Mills Vineyards. In 2007 that vineyard was named de Villiers and for the first time produced a single vineyard Pinot Noir. In 1998 five acres of Chardonnay and 10 acres of Pinot Noir were planted. The Pinot Noir vineyard was named Ryan. And, Calera is also one of the original producers of Aligote in California. The first wines were grafted in 2004 and more in 2008 and 2009. Today there is a small ½ acre parcel in production.
In 1990 the Mt. Harlan AVA (American Viticultural Area) was approved. This AVA covers 7400 acres high in the Gabilan Mountains. Today the only vineyards in this AVA are those belonging to Calera.
My history with Calera goes back to the very beginning. My friends (the late Greg Doerschlag, one of the orginal contributing editors to the old Underground, and a few others) and I were early visitors. Josh still remembers us roaring up the mountain in our Porsches as do I (we were coming from a dinner at the late Richard Wing’s great Imperial Dynasty Restaurant in Hanford.) (To see my article honoring my great friend and chef, Richard Wing, click here.) After that visit, I reviewed the 1978 and 1979 Calera Pinot Noirs in The Underground Wineletter, Volume II, Number 2 in the fall of 1980. I believe this was the first ever review of Calera wines. Here is my introduction: “Owner Josh Jensen is dedicated to making great Pinot Noir in California. As such, he joins the growing band of fanatics who demand an ultimate challenge, for making good Pinot Noir in California is by means easy (see Volume I Number1). However, in the mountainous terrain of the Gavilan Mountains east of Chalone…, Josh found the rocky, limestone soil that closely approximates that of Burgundy. Here he planted 24 acres of Pinot Noir in three separate vineyards. … Each vineyard has a separate character and the wines will be bottled under separate vineyard designations. The first crop from vines in their 4th leaf was in 1978. The quantities produced were minute, but the wines show promise. As the vines mature, production should reach 2-3,000 cases. Calera is a winery to watch.” And then I went on to comment on the wines. In speaking of the 1978s I said this about the 1978 Calera Pinot Noir Selleck Vineyard: “…this wine seems to be somewhat better than the other two…” And, in speaking about the 1979 Calera Pinot Noir Jensen Vineyard I had this to say: “…fruity/spicy Burgundian nose, it is not unlike a Dujac Burgundy…” (To read my entire commentary click here.)
After a long hiatus, I recently paid a visit to Calera. The facility has been continually improved over the years and now has barrel cellars carved into the hillside, an underground wine library, offices and a wine laboratory, and state of the art equipment.
It is most impressive and quite different than what I remembered from the last visit over 30 years ago. For 36 years Calera has been producing consistently excellent wines. I tasted a range of the 2010s from Calera’s 35th anniversary year. The 2010s look to be some of the best wines yet produced. I also tasted a variety of wines from 2009 and 2008 as well as a few older wines (including two of the inaugural 1978 vintage bottlings). My notes on wines tasted from barrel at the winery and from bottle later are shown below:
Pinot Noir (Tasted from Barrel)
The 2010 growing season was late with the harvest beginning in late September and continuing into November. I tasted 2 different lots of Pinot Noir that will go into the Central Coast bottling. They both had lots of fruit and flavor and were very pure and balanced. I would expect that the 2010 will follow in the footsteps of the terrific 2009 Central Coast bottling. The single vineyard bottlings have exceptional fruit and balance. They should be among the best all time Calera Pinot Noirs.
The 2009 vintage had a mild growing season which produced wines with wonderful fruit and lovely balance.
2010 Calera Pinot Noir de Villiers Vineyard Mt. Harlan. With a deep color this wine has a lovely perfume. It is well structured with delicious blackberry tinged fruit. Rounded and flavorful this is a delicious Pinot Noir – Outstanding Potential.
2010 Calera Pinot Noir Ryan Vineyard Mt. Harlan. Dark in color this Pinot Noir has a deep perfume of plums and blackberries with a spicy floral undertone. Packed with fruit the wine has plum and blackberry flavors accented by a floral nuance. There is depth and structure and a long finish – Outstanding Potential.
2010 Calera Pinot Noir Mills Vineyard Mt. Harlan. With a deep color this wine has a gorgeous berry perfume with floral notes. It is balanced with lots of fruit and flavor and shows complexity and finesse – Outstanding Potential.
2010 Calera Pinot Noir Reed Vineyard Mt. Harlan. This is a gorgeous Pinot Noir. It has a deep color and a lovely complex perfume with floral berry note and a faint exotic nuance. It is structured and balanced with lots of fruit and flavor showing exotic hints and just a kiss of spice – Outstanding Plus Potential.
2010 Calera Pinot Noir Jensen Vineyard Mt. Harlan. With a deep color this wine has a great perfume of blackberry fruit with floral nuances and hint of spice. It is intense with great fruit and lots of flavor. Balanced and long on the finish this is really delicious – Outstanding Plus Potential.
2010 Calera Pinot Noir Selleck Vineyard Mt. Harlan. This wine exhibits a gorgeous combination of finesse and complex flavors. It is seductive with a deep perfume that show an intense floral quality with berry and spice notes. There is lots of supple spice tinged fruit and layers of flavor with beautiful balance and a long lingering finish – Exceptional Potential.
2009 Calera Pinot Noir de Villiers Vineyard Mt. Harlan. With a deep color this wine has a nice berry perfume with a floral nuance. It has lots of fruit and very nice flavors with balanced tannins – Very Good Plus Potential.
2009 Calera Pinot Noir Ryan Vineyard Mt. Harlan. This wine has a deep color and a lovely perfume. It has lots of berry fruit and is well structured and flavorful – Very Good Plus Potential.
2009 Calera Pinot Noir Selleck Vineyard Mt. Harlan. This is a really lovely Pinot Noir. It has a deep color and a gorgeous perfume with lots of berry fruit and floral nuances. It is supple, lush and rounded with layers of fruit. The wine is balanced with a long finish – Outstanding Plus Potential.
Pinot Noir (Tasted From Bottle)
The 2008 vintage experienced the first frost ever at Mt. Harlan and the crop was dramatically reduced. The most impacted vineyard was Selleck where only 25 cases were produced and that wine is not being offered for sale. Yields in other vineyards were also down sharply with some well below ½ ton per acre. The wines have intensity and structure and will repay aging. In fact, to be fully enjoyed now they should be decanted and hour or two before serving.
2009 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast. Deep in color with a gorgeous floral berry tinged perfume showing a hint of green olive this is a very lovely and elegant Pinot Noir. It has loads of supple bright cherry tinged fruit with floral green olive nuances. Very pure with great balance and a lovely finish this is one to buy – Outstanding. $24
2008 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast. With a deep color this wine has a nice perfume and lovely berry fruit. It is rounded and balanced with nice fruit and flavor – Highly Recommended. $ 24
2008 Calera Pinot Noir de Villiers Vineyard Mt. Harlan. This harvest yielded only 0.44 tons per acre or 462 cases of wine from 15.6 acres. With a deep color and a nice spicy berry perfume the wine is rich and full with lots of fruit and some tannin. Open for 3 days this wine softened. This Pinot Noir will require some time to fully develop. Put it away a few years. It should be gorgeous. If you choose to drink it now it needs several hours in a decanter before serving - Outstanding. $35
2008 Calera Pinot Noir Ryan Vineyard Mt. Harlan. This vineyard yielded 1 ton of fruit per acre in 2008 or 972 cases from 13.1 acres. The wine has a deep color and a lovely floral perfume with berry and spice nuances. It has lots of fruit and flavor with good backbone and a nice finish. It was much better after 3 days in the opened bottle. Again this Pinot Noir needs some time – Outstanding. $40
2008 Calera Pinot Noir Mills Vineyard Mt. Harlan. In 2008 yields here were 0.47 tons per acre yielding 510 cases from 15.4 acres. This Pinot Noir has a deep color and a stunning perfume of cherries and berries with floral spice accents. There is lots of fruit on the palate and a firm underlying structure. The wine has depth and flavor and just needs a bit of time to soften. Again this wine was much beter after three days in the open bottle. It need decanting before drinking – Outstanding. $45
2008 Calera Pinot Noir Reed Vineyard Mt. Harlan. This 4.4 acre vineyard is the smallest of Calera’s Pinot Noir vineyards. From 1982 to 2008 the average yield has been 1.48 tons per acre. In 2008 the yield was a tiny 0.37 tons per acre and less than 75 cases were produced. The wine has a nice color and deep berry perfume with floral spice accents. It has lots of rich fruit wrapped in a very firm structure and needs time to round out. As is the case for virtually all the 2008s this wine benefited from 3 days in the bottle. If you dink it now decant it and give it a lot of air – Outstanding. $50
2008 Calera Pinot Noir Jensen Vineyard Mt. Harlan. Yields in 2008 were 0.86 tons per acre and 829 cases were produced from 13.8 acres. This is a really lovely balanced Pinot Noir. It has a very nice color and a lovely complex perfume showing cherry fruit with floral and spice accents and a faint smoky nuance. It has gorgeous floral tinged fruit with just a touch of spice and is balanced and supple with a long finish. This wine is the most forward and the best balanced at this point. But it still benefits from some air – Outstanding Plus. $70
2007 Calera Pinot Noir Ryan Vineyard Mt. Harlan. This is a lovely Pinot Noir with a dark color and a deep perfume of berry fruit with floral nuances. It is rounded with lots of fruit with just a tinge of spice. Balanced and flavorful this is drinking beautifully – Highly Recommended Plus.
2007 Calera Pinot Noir Jensen Vineyard Mt. Harlan. This is a beautiful Pinot Noir. It has a deep color and a lovely perfume with floral and spice notes. The wine has intensity and flavor and is balanced with lots of fruit and a long finish – Outstanding.
1988 Calera Pinot Noir Jensen Vineyard Mt. Harlan. Like 2008, 1988 was a very short crop. This Pinot Noir has aged beautifully. It has a deep color with a faint amber tone and an amber edge. The perfume is gorgeous with plummy fruit tinged with spice. On the palate the wine is rounded with plummy fruit tinged with spice and floral, faintly earthy undertones. It has lots of flavor and is beautifully balanced with a long finish - Outstanding.
1978 Calera Pinot Noir Reed Vineyard Mt. Harlan (1/10). This bottle came from my cellar where it had rested since release. Tasted from barrel the wine showed a lot of fruit and it has developed beautifully over the last 33 years. Only 25 cases of this wine was made in this inaugural year for Calera. Tasted from barrel it seemed to have the most fruit of the three Pinot Noirs. (To read my tasting notes from barrel click here.) With a deep amber tinged color the wine has a gorgeous perfume of dried leaves, rose petals and hint of spice with a faint exotic tinge. It is lovely with lots of finesse and complex flavors hinting of dried leaves, rose petals, spice, and dried cherries. Balanced and soft with a long finish this is a delicious Pinot Noir – Outstanding Plus.
1978 Calera Pinot Noir Jensen Vineyard Mt. Harlan (1/10). This bottle also came from my cellar where it had been since release. Total production was again only 25 cases. My initial notes on this wine from barrel noted the tannins. (To read my tasting notes from barrel click here.) It is attractive but very different than the Reed. Deep in color with a faint amber tone there is a nice perfume hinting of spice, caramel, and a faint floral woodsy undertone. It has tart plum fruit and is tasty with flavors that show hints of spice with a woodsy floral nuance. The wine finishes very crisp with a bit of a tart cherry quality – Highly Recommended.
2010 CaleraChardonnayCentralCoast. Light yellow in color with a faint golden hue this Chardonnay has a lovely perfume with floral, peach, and citrus nuances with a faint hint of vanilla and spice. The wine is really tasty with lovely fruit complimented by faint floral spice and citrus undertones and it finishes clean and crisp – Highly Recommended. $18
2009 CaleraChardonnayCentralCoast. Light yellow in color this Chardonnay has a floral perfume with a tinge of spice. It is very fruity and quite tasty with a faint spiciness and a citrus tinged finish – Recommended Plus. $18
1999 Calera Chardonnay Mt. Harlan. Light golden yellow in color this Chardonnay has a lovely floral citrus tinged perfume with a faint tropical nuance. It is rounded and lush with supple fruit showing a faint honeyed tropical nuance and is long on the finish – Outstanding.
2009 Calera Viognier Mt. Harlan. Light yellow in color this Viognier has a floral perfume with a hint of spice. It is lovely with floral flavors and just a faint spiciness – Highly Recommended. $30
2010 CaleraViognierCentralCoast. With a light yellow color this wine has a nice perfume with faint floral spice and citrus nuances. It is light, fresh, crisp and elegant with floral tinged flavors and a citrus tang on the finish – Highly Recommended. $16
2010 Calera Viognier Mt. Harlan. Pale yellow in color this Viognier has a gorgeous perfume of honeysuckle with hints of citrus and spice. It is very elegant with lovely floral tinged flavors and melon and citrus nuances. The finish is lovely with a nice crispness. This is a Viognier with style and finesse – Outstanding. $30
2010 Calera Viognier Dolce CentralCoast. This wine is available only in half bottles. Quite remarkably it has 13.5% alcohol and 13.4% residual sugar. Light gold in color the wine has a deep perfume of apricot and mango with a hint of spice. It is sweet and lush with very pure fruit flavors of mango and apricot with floral spice nuances. The wine has intensity and elegance with a long sweet finish – Outstanding. $24 1/10
2009 Calera AligotéMt. Harlan. Aligote is the original white grape of Burgundy with plantings now largely confined to the Southern region. It is rare in California and Calera’s production is very small. This wine has 11.6% alcohol. It is light yellow in color and has a lovely floral citrus tinged perfume. It is light crisp and refreshing with floral citrus flavors tinged with a slight mineral nuance – Highly Recommended. $20
2010 Calera Aligoté Mt. Harlan. Unlike the Pinot Noir, the small 1/2 acre plot of Aligoté is very prolific. In 2010 the vines produced 7.1 tons per acre which resulted in 189 cases of wine. The alcohol is only 11% and this Aligoté has gorgeous balance and really tasty fruit. The perfume is lovely with floral notes accented by hint of citrus and pear. The wine is elegant and shows great finesse with subtle floral flavors complimented by tinges of citrus and pear with a faint spice and mineral undertone. This is a unique and delicious wine with a bright crisp finish – Outstanding. $20
Vin Gris of Pinot Noir
2010 Calera Vin Gris of Pinot Noir Central Coast. Light red in color this wine has a lovely berry perfume with hints of raspberry. It has lovely fruit with hints of raspberry and cherry and a bright crisp finish – Highly Recommended. $16
The story of Calera is one that began on rocky terrain. But, now in its 36th year it is the location and dedication of Josh Jensen that has created a winery that has consistently produced wonderful Pinot Noirs. The vines struggle to produce and this is reflected in the quality and the character of the wines. But, even though the vines may produce very small crops, the grapes ripen and are normally picked at 25-26 Brix which yields wines with alcohol levels in the 14-15% range. And, despite the alcohol levels the wines are balanced. These are Pinot Noirs that age beautifully and reflect their unique origin. However, as good as these wines are, I cannot help wondering what the wines might be like if the grapes were picked a little earlier to lower the alcohol a bit. This is the great issue facing all Pinot Noir producers today, particularly some of the new ones that are really pushing for maximum extraction. But, Calera’s track record with Pinot Noir clearly sets them apart. The Mt. Harland Chardonnay, Viognier, and Aligoté are also consistently very fine. And, not to be ignored are the Central Coast bottlings made from purchased grapes from a variety of vineyards. They offer value for the money. And the back label on every bottle of wine is packed with information. This is a real benefit to the consumer and one that other wineries should follow. If you have not yet tasted any of the wines from Calera, you owe it to yourself to give them a try. Calera offers a wine club whereby you can select different wine assortments and also buy other wines at a discount. Also, their website is superb and loaded with information.
Check it out at www.calerawine.com