The Nuances of Single-Block Wine: Black Kite Cellars

In the world of California wine, a single-vineyard bottling denotes that 95% of the fruit must be sourced from that vineyard. But what then, does it mean when a bottle is made from a single block? While grapes harvested from a single block means that they are inevitably coming from a single vineyard, thus also adhering to the 95% from that vineyard rule, blocks can be any size. However, they are typically individually designated for their distinct terroir. Remember that generally speaking, even in a single vineyard, there can be many micro- and meso-climates. Winemakers and viticulturists notice these distinct terroir differences and as a result, often decide to split up a vineyard into blocks. Because they are unique from each other, they might approach each block with its own set of vineyard practices and harvest dates. Those different choices mean that in the end, if blocks are vinified and bottled separately, they can yield very different wines.
The view from the top of Kite’s Rest Vineyard, overlooking Anderson Valley in the distant right of the photo. The vines pictured here are the Redwood’s Edge Block.

Looking at terroir, blocks are distinguished by their unique soil type, orientation, elevation, sun exposure, slope angle and temperature, and may often be planted to specific clones. To take a closer look at the way unique terroir characteristics can be bottled into single-block wines, I made a visit to Black Kite Cellars’ Kite’s Rest Vineyard in Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. There, I met with owners Tom and Rebecca Green Birdsall. Their Kite’s Rest Vineyard is situated in what is known as the “deep end” of Anderson Valley, about a 25-minute drive (off Highway 128 in Boonville) on an old logging road through the depths of the region’s iconic Redwood forests.
Tom and Rebecca standing in front of the River Turn Block’s autumn, leading into winter vines.

2003 was the first vintage for Black Kite Cellars and Tom and Rebecca admit that prior to this, “We spent time drinking a lot of Pinots to decide exactly what kind of style we liked.” The couple came to purchase the property in a roundabout way, from Rebecca’s father who had purchased the vineyard many years ago. Being involved in the wine community of Sonoma County—Tom is on the Sonoma County Tourism Board—they decided it would be both a wise investment and a fun adventure to take on the Kite’s Rest Vineyard. They had also previously traveled to Burgundy on a nine-day bike riding tour of the region and fell in love with Pinot Noir.

“That summer [after they purchased the property],” Rebecca reminisces, “I dove into understanding the appellation, the area, vineyard management techniques and yields.” In 2004, Jeff Gaffner separately vinified the blocks of the vineyard, and in 2005, the first commercial release of Black Kite Cellars hit the market. The name of the wine is an homage to Rebecca’s father, whose favorite bird is the black-shouldered kite.
A picturesque autumn view of the River Turn Block.

The Kite’s Rest Vineyard is comprised of three blocks, each with four acres of planted vines. In addition to the three block bottlings, they also produce a single-vineyard bottle that is comprised of all three blocks—their Kite’s Rest Vineyard bottling—making for an educational terroir tasting when all four bottles are poured side by side. Below are my observations and these single-block Pinot Noirs from Black Kite Cellars come highly recommended!

2014 Kite’s Rest Vineyard Pinot Noir
A black cherry, spiced raspberry and plum-scented nose brings forward the fruit aromas over a thin layer of smoked wood. Those same fruit components can be tasted in the mouth—black cherry and spiced raspberry—with a woodsy, forested characteristic wrapped up in its medium-bodied appeal. Earthy spice coats the tongue and nicely complements the gentle tannin. This is an engaging single-vineyard Pinot Noir. [Terroir - Comprised of each of the three blocks below, making up the entire Kite’s Rest Vineyard.]

2014 Redwood’s Edge Block Pinot Noir
The aromas of the Redwood’s Edge pay homage to the block’s name: wood, mushroom and rose petals scents juxtapose the cranberry and plum fruit. Again, the palate here has a lot of that same spice characteristic as the single vineyard, though this wine possesses a light- to medium-styled body. It feels a bit more structured and angular in the mouth, with notes of black tea, cranberry and baking spice-filled orange zest. This is a complex and flavorful Pinot Noir from the highest-elevation block of the vineyard. [Terroir - Soil: loam | Clones: Dijon 114 & 115 | Vine Orientation: North/South | Elevation 321 feet | Sun Exposure: North-facing, partially shaded | Slope Angle: 10-20%, natural terrace]

2014 River Turn Block Pinot Noir
A bit richer and with even more earth than the Redwood’s Edge, the River Turn brings damp wood, wet forest floor, rose petals and black cherry cola to the nose. This Pinot is no doubt a bit heavier in the mouth, with more weight and texture. I detect a touch more oak, though it is well-integrated and nicely balanced by the black cherry fruit and earth on the palate. This is a darker, more hearty Pinot Noir than the Redwood's Edge or Stony Terrace blocks. [Terroir - Soil: sandy, silt, loam | Clone: Pommard | Vine Orientation: East/West | Elevation: 32 feet | Sun Exposure: North-facing | Slope Angle: 0%, flat]

2014 Stony Terrace Block Pinot Noir
The Stony Terrace took a while to unravel its aromas, first opening with faint mushroom and herbal scents, but then finding its cherry fruit among the prominent traces of forest. Possessing slightly brighter fruit than the River Turn, here there is red cherry cola and orange zest, with more acidity than the other bottlings. The body is also lighter, and there is good grip and structure here. This is a balanced and well-rounded Pinot Noir with an expressive character. [Terroir - Soil: gravel, loam | Clone: Pommard | Vine Orientation: East/West | Elevation: 217 feet | Sun Exposure: North-facing | Slope Angle: 5-10%, natural terrace]

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