The first Pinot Noir I can ever remember tasting was made by La Crema.
So when I had a chance to interview Craig McAllister, La Crema’s head winemaker, I jumped at it. We met for lunch last month at The Crown Tavern in downtown Manchester during New Hampshire Wine Week.
McAllister brought along several wines, including La Crema single-vineyard gems Saralee’s Vineyard Chardonnay and Shell Ridge Pinot Noir. The premium wines will soon be added to La Crema’s line sold in N.H. state outlets.
“We love making our wines, from the entry level to the premium brands,” he said. “But it is really the single-vineyard wines that open people’s eyes to La Crema and what we are capable of producing.”
The artisanal winery, founded in 1979, focuses primarily on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from cool-climate coastal vineyards in Sonoma and Monterey, as well as Oregon’s Willamette Valley. An outstanding La Crema Brut Rose` “champagne” ($40) was added in 2016, and McAllister said a new 2016 vintage Blanc de Blancs is two years away from release.
McAllister, 51, is a New Zealand native, college-educated enologist and married to a California woman he met in 2007 on his first trip to La Crema. In 2009 the winery hired him full time, and eight years later he was promoted to lead a team of four winemakers.
When he’s finished tasting up to 40-50 wines a day, McAllister likes to settle in at home with a beer (or gin-and-tonic) and cook barbecue for his wife and their three children. He loves to play golf.
Producing a La Crema wine, he said, involves a lot of team tasting, identifying good clonal blends, and perfecting quality in every bottle. When I asked McAllister who makes the final decision on a wine, he said, “I prefer that we agree and most of the time that happens … These people are all at the top of their games. My job is not to say, ‘We’re making a wine that I like’. (Rather) It’s to make the best wine we can from the best fruit, so that people enjoy La Crema wines.”
The philosophy is quite simple, McAllister said. “We want people to keep coming back (to our wines), maybe starting at the entry-level ($14-to-$20) and then moving up to our premium wines ($35-to-$70).”
Below are three La Crema wines tasted with McAllister that I highly recommend.
Chardonnay Saralee’s Vineyard 2016, Russian River Valley, $38.99 – Gravelly loam and clay make up the soils of the fog-shrouded 264-acre vineyard devoted to mostly Chardonnay. Four clonal types were primarily selected in this vintage to provide unique traits of green apple, stone fruit, fragrance and minerality. Aged nine months in French oak (27% new), the wine is elegantly smooth, vibrant, and flavorful (apple and lemon). It finishes with an appealing hazelnut note.
Pinot Noir 2016, Russian River Valley, $40 – McAllister says day-night temperature swings of 40-50 degrees are common in the nine coastal vineyards where the wine’s grapes are sourced. The cooling process reduces “heat” hours, leading to the pinot noir’s slow, steady, deeper development. There’s no mistaking La Crema’s trademark richness here, with bright cherry-plum notes on a velvety fame. A nice cola kick adds to the long finish.
Pinot Noir 2015 Shell Ridge, $50 – Here’s an example of a single-vineyard driven “personality” wine. Shell Ridge, named for ancient sea shells found in its sandy soils, sits shorter and in the middle of two higher coastal ridges that get most of the ocean’s breezy brunt. A rainy growing season depressed yields but McAllister said Shell Ridge’s warmer site produced higher concentrated fruit. The intensity carries over in this ruby-colored wine with immense blackberry, cranberry-orange, and licorice flavors. The texture is refined, soft. A distinctive Shell Ridge minerality emerges on a mouthwatering finish.