I took a Le Dû’s visit to Dehlinger. Here’s what I saw and tasted!

Last week, while in the Russian River Valley for a wedding, I was fortunate enough to visit with one of the great family-run estates of the region: Dehlinger Winery.

Driving through the Dehlinger front gate.

The estate was founded in 1975, eight years before the establishment of the Russian River Valley AVA. Tom Dehlinger had already spent vintages with Napa and Sonoma heavyweights Beringer and Hanzell, but his keen eye saw in the cooler, foggier Russian River the immense potential for Burgundian varietals, which were negligable in the region at the time. Clearly he was on to something, as the Russian River Valley now accounts for nearly 20% of all Pinot Noir plantings in California. With fog rolling in off the Pacific, the diurnal shift can get as high as a 40-degree day/night difference, which is highly conducive to making interesting Chardonnay and Pinot.

For my own part, I’ve gone starry-eyed whenever Dehlinger is mentioned ever since six bottles of their 1994 Syrah passed through Le Dû’s doors in a cellar purchase last year. While the forty-year-old bottles of Rousseau, Pol Roger, Penfold’s, and Ridge may have been the ones to send New York collectors into a frenzy, the perfectly-kept Dehlingers next to them should say enough about its value to such a discerning palate. The staff popped one of the six bottles, and were universally amazed by the freshness, complexity, and sense of place for the 20+ year old California Syrah. It was clear, we agreed, that these folks know what they’re doing.

The Dehlinger estate, viewed from the Pinot Noir vineyards.

My girlfriend and I were greeted by Carmen Dehlinger, daughter of Tom and current Director of Sales & Marketing, and her childhood friend Julia. They had grown up in the area, but had each gone out into the world pursuing other interests before the (entrancing, I’m sure we can all agree) siren song of making wine in Coastal California called them back home. With a heat wave sweeping the West Coast just as it was the East, it was a somewhat atypical day for the region, as the fog burned off long before reaching the valley. As such, we had a clear, dry, 100 degree day to walk the vineyards.

Baby Pinot Noir bunches soaking up the sun. With the high heat, Carmen expected the berries to fatten quickly and even start showing color very soon.

The Pinot Noir vineyards sit on a hill that practically looks like a carton of Neopolitan ice cream. At the bottom of the slope is the white Goldridge soil of sand and loam. Higher up, the famous Altamont soil with a much higher clay content, giving it a joyful pink color. These are the two most distinctive soils of the Russian River Valley, and at the Dehlinger estate, you can see the rapid transition under your feet in 15 seconds while walking up the slope.

Goldridge and Altamont soils, for two unique expressions of Pinot Noir.

The Goldridge soaks up quite a bit more water naturally, the effect of which is multiplied by its position at the bottom of the hill. The high yields on Goldridge soil made its virtues apparent to even the earliest Russian River Valley farmers.

Pinot Noir planted in clay-rich red Altamont soil.

The Altamont soil’s water retention is quite a bit lower, however, the clay content also means a slower rate of extraction by the vines, meaning the vines get just the right amount of stress to produce some truly fascinating complex flavors. This effect also provides a bit more of a buffer during hot stretches before the soil is truly parched.

Sitting down to taste.

After a stroll through the crush pad and barrel room, we sat down to taste: one Chardonnay, two Pinot Noirs, one Syrah, one Cab Sauvignon. Each one was a testament to its category (drinking the Cab while looking out the window at the vineyard it came from was a special experience, like drinking the land itself), but this particular employee of this particular Burgundy shop definitely gravitated toward the Pinots. Being such a hot day, the lighter, more sprightly Goldridge hit the spot as a much-needed refreshment. But most other days, I know that the inky mysteries of the Altamont are irresistible. Made with a modest amount of whole-cluster bunches, it exhibits the extra layers of spice and funk that beg for another glass.

(And whaddya know, Le Dû’s has 16 bottles of 2014 Altamont Pinot Noir ($79.99) sitting in the shop right now.)

In the likely event that you can’t read the small text, here’s how the estate describes the wine: “Originating in the red, clay-rich altamont soil of our ranch’s hilltops, the Altamont Pinot noir is denser and more structured than its sister bottling, the Goldridge Pinot noir. With a remarkable depth of color, and high-intensity fragrance, the 2015 Altamont Pinot Noir is chewy and structural, with velvety and engaging tannins. This age-worthy bottling is one of Dehlinger’s most sought-after wines. Black cherry, violet, nutmeg.”

Dehlinger Altamont Pinot Noir in glass.

Le Dû’s has been beating the drum for Burgundian varietals in the Russian River Valley for many years, so it was quite a treat to visit with one of the most seminal wineries in the establishment of that scene. Dehlinger is still entirely family-owned, with multiple generations of the clan working in the vineyards and the winery. Their vineyard crew is employed year-round, with some having been with the winery for decades. Their treatment of the land is careful and sustainable. And they let the wine speak for itself rather than engaging in gimmicks or in-your-face advertising. In short, Dehlinger is everything Le Dû’s stands for: risk-taking, family-owned, small-production, fun-loving, fair-practices, and just really, really doggone delicious.

Give the Altamont Pinot Noir a spin. It’s outstanding. And if you find yourself out near Sebastopol, California, shoot an e-mail over to order@dehlingerwinery.comand see if they’re available. Visits are by appointment only, but what a lovely visit it is.

  • Connor Smith, Le Dû’s E-Commerce Director

L-R: Connor, Julia, Carmen, Ariel.