The Hilt: Cool Climate Wines from the Radian and Bentrock Vineyards

Radian Vineyard’s Pinot Bowl

In 1844, the Mexican governor of California granted Rancho Cañada de Salsipuedes (“leave if you can”) to Pedro Regalado Cordero.  Fast forward 178 years, and Rancho Salsipuedes is home to two of California’s top vineyards for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, Radian and Bentrock.  These are the estate vineyards of The Hilt, which also sells grapes to the foremost wine producers of Santa Barbara County. We recently visited The Hilt to taste wines with its very talented winemakers, Matt Dees and Drew Pickering.

Located at the far western end of the Sta Rita Hills appellation (see map below), Rancho Salsipuedes changed hands over the years, and in 2007 the current owner Premier Pacific Vineyards planted 190 acres to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in two separate but adjoining parcels, now called Radian and Bentrock. Seven years later Rancho Salsipuedes was purchased by Stan Kroenke, owner of Napa’s Screaming Eagle as well as several professional sports teams including the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and London’s Arsenal football club (soccer).  Recently, Kroenke opened a new winery and tasting room for the Hilt near Lompoc on Santa Rosa Rd.

The mostly north-facing, 100-acre Radian and 92-acre Bentrock vineyards are predominantly (90%) planted to Pinot Noir with the remainder planted to Chardonnay.  While adjoining, the vineyards are quite distinct. The steeply sloped Radian vineyard lies at the westernmost point of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation; elevations range to 700’ with full exposure to the unobstructed winds coming from the Pacific just 13 miles away. It has rocky soils with outcroppings of diatomaceous earth. Bentrock is to the east of Radian, a bit loser in elevation (400-500’) and not nearly as steeply sloped with more clay and shale soils but also including a diatomaceous component. The windy, cold climate of Radian and Bentrock results in low yields (about 2 tons/acre) of small berries with thick skins. The grapes ripen slowly and evenly, reaching phenolic ripeness at relatively low alcohol levels. The vineyards are divided into 60+ parcels, each of which is fermented and aged separately.

Matt Dees has been head winemaker at The Hilt (originally called La Poesia de Jonata) and Jonata, another of Kroenke’s properties, since 2004. The inaugural vintage of The Hilt was 2008. Matt’s winemaking talent is revealed in the very high quality of the wines he makes with the assistance of Drew Pickering.

The wines we review below come from the 2018 harvest, a classic, cool vintage throughout California. With a bit of time in bottle, these wines are now at their best.  The 2019 vintage was almost as good as 2018, while the 2020 vintage (still in barrel) suffered some heat spikes.

The Wines

The Hilt 2018 Estate Chardonnay Sta Rita Hills ($45) 93 The Estate Chardonnay is a combination of the Radian and Bentrock styles sourced from the Radian, Bentrock, and Sanford & Benedict vineyards. Rich fruit plays a more central role in this bottling beginning with Meyer lemon, apple, and toasted nut aromas. On the palate, it offers authoritative flavors with bright acidity and exceptionally good balance. Matured in 34% new and 56% neutral French oak and 10% stainless steel for 11 months. 13% alc. 4000 cases.

The Hilt 2018 Chardonnay Bentrock Vineyard Sta Rita Hills ($85) 96  The Bentrock Vineyard Chardonnay parcel is lower than Radian and a bit warmer with deeper soils, resulting in optimally ripened fruit that works best with some exposure to new oak. The 2018 vintage starts with hints of minerals and smoky oak. Very bright and refreshing on the attack, similar in this respect to the Radian, with an expansive texture, layered complex flavors, and sound phenolics. Clones 76 and 95 fermented and aged 12 months in 33% new French oak with partial malo. 13% alc.

The Hilt 2018 Chardonnay Radian Vineyard Sta Rita Hills ($85) 95  The Radian Chardonnay opens with scents of green citrus and fresh orchard fruit. It’s pure, bright, fresh and focused with tangy acidity and nice textural tension on the palate with an interesting saline note, too. From the higher part of the Radian Vineyard up to 1000’ elevation, majority Clone 95, pressed using horizontal and basket presses and fermented in 85% neutral oak and 15% stainless steel barrels. Bottled after 11+ months in barrel. pH 3.14 13% alc.

The Hilt 2018 Estate Pinot Noir Sta Rita Hills ($45) 93 Medium dark ruby. The Estate Pinot Noir reveals the earthy, darker side of Pinot Noir beginning with bright sweet dark cherry scents that are mirrored on the palate with notes of earthiness. Richly concentrated and full flavored with good acidity on the palate. A mix of Dijon and Heritage clones matured in 8% new, 92% neutral French oak for 11 months. 13% alc. 4000 cases.

The Hilt 2018 Pinot Noir Bentrock Vineyard Sta Rita Hills ($85) 94 Opening with very fragrant, rich garrique accented dark red fruit. Generous, expressive fruit is held in check by a firm, taut structure. Smoothly textured with fine tannins and a thick, extracted and long finish. A mix of Dijon and Heritage clones. Aged 12 months in an 80/20 mix of neutral French oak and stainless steel barrels. 13% alc.

The Hilt 2018 Pinot Noir Radian Vineyard Sta Rita Hills ($85) 96 Darker and more savory than the Bentrock, the Radian Pinot Noir opens with fruit, floral and earthy scents. The palate is suave and rich, revealing impressive depth and balance. A mineral underpinning and abundant structure suggest a wine that will age well. Well-knit tannins and refined extract on a very long finish. Made of mostly Dijon clones. Matured 12 months in neutral French oak. 13.4% alc.







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