There is something about pinot noir that seems to inspire an almost mad passion about the grape and its wine. It probably has to do with the grape’s notoriously temperamental nature, as well as its legendary ability to reflect the characteristics of the soil, climate and environment in which it is grown (what the French call ”terroir”).
Winemakers seem to be drawn to the dual challenge of making good wine from such a difficult grape that is also a uniquely expressive wine. Unfortunately, most winemakers fail at one or both of these challenges more often than they succeed. But when they do succeed, for winemakers and consumers, it’s like finding the Holy Grail.
The Burgundy region of France has long been prized as the source of the most spectacular Pinot Noir in the world. Pinot Noir from Oregon (which I reviewed in my last post) is now considered by many to be the second best place in the world to grow the grape. However, knowledgeable wine consumers know that California can produce Pinot Noir that rivals and even exceeds that of Burgundy and Oregon.
With producers identifying more appropriate growing sites (namely cooler climates with longer growing seasons that enable the grapes to ripen while retaining good acidity), matching better quality clones to particular sites, cultivating with extra care, and employing improved vinification techniques, there are countless good to outstanding wines now available for consumers. Yet my recent tastings of California pinot noirs from the 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintages demonstrated the quixotic nature of the quest for the Pinot Noir grail.
California Pinot Noir producers still have a challenge in getting the price/quality relationship right. Certainly, California Pinots are good in their own right and are (often significantly) less expensive than Burgundy. It’s just that Pinot Noir generally is not the wine to choose if you are looking for a good price/quality ratio. Still, my tastings did turn up more good values than the last time I did a major review of California Pinot Noir.
Style wise, most California Pinot Noir is vinified darker, fruitier, more concentrated and larger scaled than Burgundy’s reference point. But I think I detected the beginnings of a stylistic shift among winemakers. The best wines in the tasting delivered more elegance, finesse and earthy complexity than I’ve tasted previously, while still containing mouthfilling flavors and intense perfume.
My recent tastings included a representative sampling of California’s major pinot noir growing regions. Recommendations are presented moving from north to south. My favorites are in bold but all wines are recommended in their price range.
First, I found two wines labeled with just a “California” designation. Such wines are most likely to sport an every day price. The 2008 Murphy-Goode ($14) and 2009 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve ($18) of good varietal character for the money.
Mendocino County is best known to this palate for fine Zinfandel and Gewurztraminer but in recent years has taken its place among the top sources of Pinot Noir, especially from the Anderson Valley. The 2007 Paul Dolan, made from organic grapes, ($30) was the only Mendocino wine in my tastings but it showed admirable depth, richness and balance.
Sonoma County contains arguably the most abundant sources for Pinot Noir in the state. Combined, the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and western part of Carneros account for probably more outstanding Pinot Noir than anywhere else in the state.
The Russian River Valley, which stretches through central Sonoma County, produces many of California’s most celebrated and expensive Pinot Noirs.
- 2009 Rodney Strong ($20). This pioneering Sonoma winery is making the best wines in its 40+ year history, up and down its extensive portfolio.
- 2009 Davis Bynum ($35). Making Pinot in the valley since 1973, now part of the Jess Jackson empire.
- 2008 Sequana Dutton Ranch ($40). This winery is anther successful venture from the owners of the Hess Collection in Napa Valley.
- 2007 Patz & Hall Chenoweth ($55) This 20 year-old Chardonnay and Pinot Noir specialist sources fruit from around the state to make almost exclusively single-vineyard bottlings.
The Sonoma Coast is California’s newest “hot” region for Pinot Noir. It is a large area but already contains several of the state’s most respected vineyards.
- 2009 La Crema ($24). This thirty year Pinot and Chardonnay specialist continues to craft fine examples of the grape.
- 2008 MacRostie ($30)
- 2007 MacRostie Wildcat Mountain ($40). Winemaker Steve MacRostie, who established his own operation in 1987 in Carneros, now is making impressive wines from this new vineyard.
- 2007 Patz & Hall ($42)
Carneros straddles southern Napa andSonoma and has become a popular source of chardonnay and pinot noir, thanks to the moderating influence of the San Pablo Bay.
- 2008 Domaine Carneros ($35). This excellent sparkling wine producer has fashioned this wine from organic grapes.
- 2007 Patz & Hall Hyde ($60)
California’s Central Coast also has emerged as a wellspring of outstanding, though often outstandingly expensive Pinot Noir. Several regions deserve attention.
Certain microclimates of Monterey County have been cultivated successfully by small, quality minded producers. Two wines crafted from selected vineyards within Monterey – 2009 La Crema ($24) and 2008 Pali “Summit” (Monterey and Santa Barbara blend, $29), from a fairly new negociant and Brian Loring, one of the state’s most respected pinot winemakers – are a good introduction to the region.
The Arroyo Seco region in the southwestern corner of the county has produced some good Pinots, like the 2008 J. Lohr “Fog’s Reach” ($35), a fine single vineyard wine from one of the state’s larger wineries. But its the Santa Lucia Highlands overlooking the Salinas Valley that especially has emerged as prime Pinot country, producing some of the state’s most dramatic and sought after Pinot Noirs.
- 2008 Kali Hart ($21). This is a second label for Talbott Vineyards, one of the stat’s most prestigious Chardonnay producers. Named after the owner’s youngest daughter, this Pinot is made in an approachable style using estate fruit.
- 2008 Alta Maria ($25)
- 2008 Sequana “Sarmento” ($32)
- 2008 Highflyer “Doctor’s” ($38). This comes from the same group that is producing exciting wines under the Sommerston and Priest Ranch labels.
- 2008 Talbott “Sleepy Hollow” ($40). The is the signature vineyard from this Monterey winemaking pioneer and fine clothing purveyor.
- 2007 Patz & Hall “Pisoni” ($80)
Next to Sonoma, Santa Barbara County has emerged as one of the state’s premier Pinot Noir regions, with two great Pinot Noir AVAs. The 2009 Byron Santa Barbara County ($17) offers a good preview of the structure concentration, and ripe flavors typical of the area.
At the northern end of the county, the Santa Maria Valley is home to the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard and a growing number of impressive vineyards. The valley also sources a growing number of wineries. My tastings revealed an impressive portfolio from Byron, one of the pioneers of the area. Byron planted the first vineyard to vinifera grapes in Santa Barbara County in 1964 and has been in the forefront of winemaking achievement in the area ever since.
- 2008 Santa Maria Valley ($26)
- 2008 Nielson ($34)
- 2008 Bien Nacido ($40)
- 2008 Sierra Madre ($40)
- 2008 Julia’s Vineyard ($40)
- 2008 Monument ($60)
Santa Barbara County not surprisingly has experienced the Sideways effect more than any other region, not surprising given that the movie was set there. But the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Maria Valley in particular had become recognized for some of the state’s best Pinot Noirs long before the movie. Certain growing areas within Santa Barbara County recently have produced such quality that the county can now contend with Sonoma as California’s best Pinot Noir region.
At the northern end of the county, the Santa Maria Valley benchlands are home to the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard and a growing number of pinot noir vineyards.
From a narrow opening near the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Ynez Valley broadens inland encompassing the vineyards and wineries that inspired the movie “Sideways.” The Santa Rita Hills in the western end of the valley, the home of the celebrated Sanford & Benedict vineyard, has garnered special attention in recent years. The ten-year-old hillside vineyard of Sea Smoke is producing some of the area’s best grapes. Rather than focusing on bottlings of individual blocks, Sea Smoke crafts different expressions of the site. These two new releases, while different (Southing is more elegant and seductive; Ten is more powerful and extracted) are both breathtaking.
- 2008 Sea Smoke Southing ($52)
- 2008 Sea Smoke Ten ($80)