As the pinot world turns
Finer American pinot noirs than ever dominate the 11th Annual World of Pinot Noir in Shell Beach...
March 4-5, 2011 – There were significantly more, and finer, pinot noirs than ever from the West Coast shown at 2011’s World of Pinot Noir. If anyone tells you differently? Tell them to take a hike...
The world of pinot, in other words, is spinning faster and faster. Two immediate observations:
- The idea of “typically over-oaked” American pinot world is now, officially, a a thing of the past. Tasting through the ’06s to ’09s shown at WOPN, qualities of fruit focus and natural acidity now predominate across the board, with toasty or smoky nuances pretty much pushed into backdrops. It was especially pleasing to find wineries hitherto associated with oaky styles now pretty much on the same bandwagon.
- There’s been a lot of talk recently of the “high alcohol problem" of American pinot noirs (the sheening of American pinots?). Sure, recent warm or “ripe” vintages have given everyone cause for alarm, but the 2011 WOPN conclusively demonstrated that the concern is probably over-hyped. Even after tasting over 100 pinots on each day, I can count on one hand the number of times my palate felt raked by a wine striking me as hot, awkward, or pent-up with rampant alcohol or raisiny fruit. Conclusion: neither California nor Oregon pinot specialists are as deaf or dumb as some have been making them out to be. If anything, it’s amazing how finesseful their touch has become, considering the endlessly challenging circumstances making each vintage an adventure (be it rains or drying heat in Oregon, or fire or ice along the Californian coast).
Meaning: never, never choose your pinot by percentages you might read on a label. Pay more attention to the skill of the winemaker, or the reputation of that brand (providing that rep doesn’t come from shrill reviewers who use numbers and tend to describe wines as “opulent” or “hedonistic” – writers who can’t tell an alcoholic, and neither a good or bad, pinot noir from the side of a barn). Either way, if you buy by numbers you’re only depriving yourself of possible pleasures. Don’t even believe anything I tell you: tasting is always believing.
Finally, as always, when it comes to good pinot noir it’s more a matter of style and terroir – the latter variable, a pervasive sense of where a pinot comes perceived through the sensations themselves – when it comes to exploring this ever expanding world of pinot. For instance, I may prefer a seamlessly knit, silken, perfumed and earth toned Keefer Ranch pinot noir from Green Valley by the likes of a trusty vintner like Failla or Freeman, over a dark, chunky Pisoni grown pinot from Santa Lucia Highlands or a brawny and intense Sea Smoke from Santa Barbara. But I’d be dead wrong if I said a Keefer produces a more valid style of pinot noir than any grown by Pisoni or Sea Smoke. Pinots by such high quality producerss are never “better” than each other: they’re just different, especially in respect to terroir; and anyone who tells you otherwise… well, you know where to tell them to go.
Enough dickering – in order of my favorites:
2009 Landmark, Spring Hill (Sonoma Coast, California) – You always gotta rank the most “oh-wow” wine first, don’t you? This was oh-wow because it’s this winery’s first-ever single vineyard bottling from this particular vineyard (located in the heart of the windswept, decidedly cold climate Petaluma Gap) – so newness is a factor here, folks – and because more than any other pinot tasted at WOPN this past weekend, a strawberry-fields-forever varietal fruitiness seemed to burst through velvet textured layers, energized by a vibrant core of zingy acidity and finely flushed tannin. A sheer richness lends a full feel, while sensations remaining fresh, immaculate, primal, electric; while charging discreetly through an obscenely long finish.
|Spring Hill, in the rolling hills of Sonoma's Petaluma Gap|
2009 Failla, Keefer Ranch (Russian River Valley, California) – Sweetly intense harmony of Christmasy fragrances – steeping plums, wild cherries, smoke tinged brown spices – tacked on to a lithe, flowing, bright and energetic body of components, arranged in pinpoint fashion. Yes, I may be a bit of a wuss, going for this balletic style, but at least it’s not a wine that invites incessant harping about technique, alcohol or oak – everything adroitly, almost prenaturally, knit, and just… there.
2008 Failla, Occidental Ridge (Sonoma Coast, California) – When I tasted this Failla cuvée, I thought, “okay, this is just getting silly – why does simple deliciousness come so easily for this brand? Does it really matter? Intoxicating perfume – huge strawberry nose tinged with multiple baking pie spices – essaying forth on the palate in lively, luscious, finesseful flavors that never seem to end, despite a rock of solid tannin tightening the center.
2009 Failla, Pearlessence (Sonoma Coast, California) – From a vineyard in the Sebastopol Hills – the southernmost, and coolest, section of the Russian River Valley – Pearlessence enters softly, with a bouquet of red roses and strawberry alarm tingling the nose; and just as obligingly steps on the gas in the mid-palate, enveloping the senses with zesty, long, lovely, scrumptious red fruit flavors riding on fine boned tannin beneath a sheer, silken veneer.
2009 Freeman, Akiko’s Cuvée (Sonoma Coast, California) – This is co-proprietor Akiko Freeman’s yearly barrel selection of the spiciest, silkiest cuvées from among the winery’s best cold climate sites (largely in the hills west of Occidental on the western edge of the Russian River Valley AVA, with choice bites from Sebastopol Hills further south). A violet-red transparency signals a host of flowery, lacy perfumes suggesting black cherry and strawberry. Slender, lush, silken, spiced berry sensations come with an almost dancing sense of delicacy and ebullience. As that Leonard Cohen song goes, hallelujah...
2008 La Follette, Sangiacomo Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) – In vintages past, pinots from this vineyard – located at the base of Sonoma Mountain in the Petaluma Gap where fog collects and creates a refrigerator effect on a daily basis during peak ripening seasons – have consistently retained both an exotic, sweet spice (often suggesting tropical flowers and/or ginger) and wild, earthy sensations (winemaker/partner Greg la Follette has always described the latter as “feral”) most unusual, to say the least, in pinot noir grown anywhere (Old World, New World, maybe the next world...). In 2008 the exotica is there – the nostril penetrating, flowery perfume mingling with smoky spices – while the earth tones are not so much feral as faintly organic, more along the lines of composting loam and crushed brown leaves in autumn. Love it or leave it, folks. But if this floats your boat, you’ll like how the ultra-rich and earthy sensations also run rampant through the palate – lively, twisting, enervating for the weak, energizing for the terroirists – sliding beneath a blanket of silk from one side of the mouth to the other. As the Man once put it, are you experienced?
2008 Littorai, The Pivot Vineyard (Sonoma Coast, California) – The nose here is tight and youthfully concentrated – compellingly sweet preserves of black plum and strawberry – yet as soon as the wine hits the palate, the aromatically tight fruit profile becomes large and resplendent, forming a thick, proportionate wave of velvet flavors, tinged by smoky oak, rocking and rolling through the rye with all the grace and contradictory sensuality those phenomenally few pinots seem to achieve.
2008 Alma Rosa, La Encantada (Sta. Rita Hills, California) – Sometimes a pinot is so pretty, so honest and pristine, you just want to cry. Especially with the Richard Sanford’s La Encantada, which seems to address you without pretension or artifice – just hugely intense, bare naked, knockdown pinot noir fruit expression: baskets of cherries, strawberry preserves, dark cocoa and cinnamon spices, and a silky, sensuously textured sense of finesse and femininity. Although less might be more, what “little” there is here is a helluva more than in the vast majority of American pinots.
2008 Suacci Carciere (Russian River Valley, California) – From one of the coolest sites in Sebastopol Hills – on a fog choked slope in Blucher Valley with natural Frigidaire funneled directly up from the adjacent Petaluma Gap – this is a beautifully fragrant pinot noir, mixing raspberry, strawberry, smoky brown spices and scrubby earth nuances in the nose, followed up by luscious, fluid, juicy flavors couched in a zesty, sexy, curvaceous body. Think Sophia Loren in leather – inconceivable.
|Siduri's Adam Lee|
2009 Freeman, Keefer Ranch (Russian River Valley, California) – Keefer also seems to rule in ’09 (Failla’s being drop-dead gorgeous), and in the hands of proprietor Ken Freeman and his winemakers (Ed Kurtzman and Eric Buffington), the aromatic notes are floral and pretty, dripping with sticky red berries, while the palate feel is compressed yet dense in concentrated red pinot fruitfulness; zapping the palate with intermittent swaths of sweet berries, in between the prickles of acidity and belt tightening tannin. Hang on, because this one seems to be in it for the long term.
2007 Hartford Family, Land’s Edge (Sonoma Coast, California) – Sourced primarily from the winery’s plantings around the hamlet of Annapolis at the north end of the extreme Sonoma Coast, where a climatic marginality is likely to yield fine boned pinots of pungent perfume and distinctly earth toned, woodsy/forest floor complexities. All these qualities hold sway in this bottling: plummy, black and red berry perfumes infused in the woodsy aromatics and enhanced by judiciously smoked oak. It’s on the palate, though, that the wine really starts to rattle and hum, and where the delineations become enlightening: the woodsy, perfumed fruit flavors seeming to expand and seep through every pore until the feel becomes full, fleshy, juicy, unbelievably rich, with nary a nick or bruise. Having tasted this vintage and bottling a couple of times before (finding it “very nice”), I was almost shocked by the evolution of these sensations – a vinous equivalent to a Nicollette Sheridan dropping-of-the-towel – which goes to show, as Chuck Berry once said, you never can tell.
2008 De Loach, OFS (Russian River Valley, California) – Almost quietly, De Loach has stepped up its pinot program to the point where it no longer takes a backseat to any in this vaunted region – thanks to the full court pressing of the Boisset family, and the notably dramatic growth of winemaker Brian Maloney. There’s transparency in both the ruby red color and the upbeat, high toned, multifaceted red fruit concentration in the nose of this wine – screaming a fragrant, effusive purity of pinotness – coming together in a viscous, dense and velvety palate feel, revved up by zesty acidity, with medium strength tannins forming a sturdy, if totally unobtrusive, core of strength.
2008 Bergström, Bergström Vineyard, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) – Oregonian participation in WOPN is usually relegated to a chosen few, but those few were chosen well enough to provide shed some illuminating contrast and similarity in comparison to the far more numerous California entries. Whereas the better California pinots are still unabashedly fruit forward with lower volumes of flower related aromas, the finer Oregon pinots are more floral with quieter intensities of fruit related aromas. Generalizations, of course, but certainly true in respect to this particular bottling of Bergström: lacy, lilting, fragrant red berry perfumes tinged by earth tones that are more dirt and evergreen than decaying scrub or forest floor, and minus the drippy sweet fruit tones prevalent in, say, the better North Coast pinots. On a ponderous, medium-full palate, there are youthful indescretions: a steely acid bite and tight, strapping tannin all but concealing a show of leggy, bright, red berryish pinotness, and contributing to an overall feel of precision and promise. It is no wonder Oregon winemakers, to a person, are now strongly urging their followers to embrace the softer, more exuberant ‘09s, or else the comely, feminine ‘07s, rather than dive straight into the ‘08s, which will undoubtedly prove more satisfying in the long run (i.e. in four to eight or ten years).
|Stoller winemaker, Melissa Burr|
2007 Stoller, SV Estate, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) – If there is any question that the ‘07s from Willamette Valley have been transitioning into sleek, sultry, intoxicating pinots – pinot noir for adults, amused more by thoughtful grace and depth rather than youthful, gum chewing sass – this cuvée seals the deal: intriguing fragrances of wild red berries, still in attractively sweet primal stages, mixed with breathy earth tones suggesting loam and fallen leaves; manifested in soft, tender, lush, slinky qualities on the palate, firmed by moderate, rounded tannin, extending the multifaceted pinot qualities long and gently through a luscious finish.
2008 Flying Goat, Dierberg Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley, California) – Hugely attractive nose of strawberry preserves, teasing the senses, and smartly framed by rich, smoky oak. On the palate, more pay dirt: generous, fleshy, juicy pinot flavors strapped upon a sleek, toned musculature. Immensely satisfying case of how the best of California’s concentrated, fruit forward styles of pinot can possess all the finesse in the world, even while tipping the scales in volume of fruitiness.
2008 Talley, Rincon Vineyard (Arroyo Grande Valley, California) – There’s a tendency towards a fat fruitiness in pinots from Arroyo Grande Valley, but there’s always been a tauter, wilder, almost sauvage quality to Talley’s growth, consistently negating that sun kissed ripeness. The nose in the ’08 in floral and perfumed – raspberry, wild blackberry, and touches of cherry cola – but underlined by scrubby earth, smoke and clove-like spices. On the palate, the scrub and wild, sweet toned berry qualities take on juicy qualities, thickened by meaty tannin and brightened by energetic acidity. As good a pinot as ever from this celebrated estate.
2008 Evening Land Vineyards, Seven Springs Vineyard La Source, Eola-Amity Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) – Whereas, at this writing, most of the finer ‘08s from Oregon are spiny and reticent, La Source seems have been fashioned in a less austere style, teeming with pretty, sweet red berry and cassis perfumes, with smoky spices and burnt leafy earthiness in the nose; entering the palate in soft, gentle, hushed yet sweetly concentrated tones. There is a firm sense of youthful, coiled tannin packed into the center of a svelte, satiny, Twiggyish body, and enough concentration of the earth toned fruit to make for a long, sweet finish. Very stylish, very terroiristic.
2008 Evening Land Vineyards, Occidental (Sonoma Coast, California) – The instincts of this house is to underplay pinot noir fruitiness – or at the very least, contain a typical Californian ripeness into lower keyed structures – and so it’s the tension between that self-discipline and the actual lusciousness and masculinity of the fruit profile in this wine that makes this bottling so interesting. The nose is of sweet, juicy red fruit, juxtaposed with strangely attractive, deepening earth notes suggestive of either new leather gloves or rubber boots, depending upon stores in your memory bank. Then on the palate, the Occidental really rises and shines: outwardly soft, fleshy and inviting in the entry, becoming dense and sturdy with tannin in the middle, finishing with enough muscle to give the earthen red fruit qualities a broad feel and almost swarthy complexion.
2008 Chasseur, Umino (Russian River Valley, California) – Umino is another Sebastopol Hills pinot planting, located at the north end of Blucher Valley, the coolest section of this sub-region. Strawberries and cherries are wild in this pungent nose, underlain by notes of new leather and brown leafy undertones. Aggressively full, rich and concentrated qualities on the palate – not much femininity here – but the feel is fleshy, seamless, velvety, satisfying; notwithstanding firming tannin and toasty oak edges protruding through the middle and expanding the masculine profile. However you may feel about winemaker/proprietor’s Bill Hunter’s approach, an artful, impressive package.
2009 ROAR, Gary’s Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands, California) – Gary Franscioni co-owns this vineyard lying at the center of the hillsides falling within the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA with Gary Pisoni, and his bottlings under the ROAR label always offer a nice, finesseful contrast to those under the Pisoni label. The nose here is stunning – luscious, exuberant pinot fruit of strawberry jam mixed with wild cherries – and the bright, exciting,, high toned fruit qualities are packed into a tight, juicy, mouth-watering medium weight body, underscored by mouth-watering acidity and just moderate tannin.
2009 Lucia (Pisoni Family), Gary’s Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands, California) – Lucia is the Pisoni family’s sister label, producing pinots that are not quite so aggressively structured as pinots from the Pisoni estate, yet deep, dark, and saturated all the same. Violet red color and a smoky, spicy, generous mix of black and red wild berries in the nose; followed up by a lush, full, fleshy body containing a densely textured, toothsome sweet fruit profile in the middle, with enough balance and composure to remain unperturbed by bang-up smacks of fruit and oak tannins. Filling, yet delicious, stuff.
2009 Dragonette, Presidio (Santa Barbara County, California) – This vineyard falls west of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA’s delimitations, and is one of the foggiest, coldest sites in the county. The nose is deceptively subdued – sweet red berries dusted in crushed, brown forest leaves – but the earth saturated pinot fruit flavors are packed into a fleshy, medium weight body, outwardly round but tightly wound at the core, finishing long, with a lip smacking, savory sweetness. Unique; nicely done.
2009 Pfendler, Estate Grown (Sonoma Coast, California) – Nestled near Sangiacomo’s Roberts Road vineyard on the western flanks of Sonoma Mountain in the Petaluma Gap, Pfendler’s plantings have been producing moderately scaled pinots that should satisfy all the needs of the nagging “anti-alcohol” crowd we’ve been hearing more from lately, yet with the deep, saturated colors (in this wine, a blue/violet red) and expansive feel appealing to lovers of more generously endowed pinots. The nose here is bright and puristic – raining wild cherry and raspberry fruitiness – and after a lush, velvety entry, the fruit qualities loom large and seamlessly in the mouth, pushed upwards by the crisp acidity typifying more and more of the wines we are seeing from this promising, future AVA (for more details, visit the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance page).
2009 Belle Glos, Las Alturas (Santa Lucia Highlands, California) – If you’re into “gobs” of fruit and depraved, public displays of varietal flesh, this belle’s for you, you animal you. Hey, it’s also a nice wine – the pinot harlot with the heart of gold – particularly in respect to its bull’s eye display of spiced, strawberryish varietal focus enriched by sweet French oak, positively gushing through the nose and over a salacious palate. There’s enough acidity to snap the gorgeous fruit to attention, but the base intentions are still perceived through its outwardly soft, luscious, shamelessly fruit bombing profile.
2007 Sierra Madre Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley, California) – This long revered vineyard source is now found primarily under the estate’s own label, and it’s a red haired beauty: very sweet, concentrated red plum/strawberry perfume, star bright and fragrant in the nose; velvety, medium-full body with a good, taut, firming tannin center, filled to brimming with the intense, red berry pinot flavors.
|Alma Rosa's Richard Sanford|
This could go on and on, but I’m going to try to cut this short by listing other outstanding pinot noirs with more abbreviated descriptors. All of following, mind you, wines that I, for one, would be thrilled sip anytime, any day. From A to Z:
2008 Alma Rosa, Sta. Rita Hills (California) - Fine, friendly, luscious finesse.
2009 Bergström, Shea Vineyard (Willamette Valley, Oregon) - Plump, red berry pudding
2008 Cargassachi, Sta. Rita Hills (California) - Sea salt, red berries, sharp and silken rolls of fruit.
2008 Chamisal, Estate (Edna Valley, California) - Brilliant red cherry focus with real silk and snap.
2008 Chasseur, Blank (Russian River Valley, California) – Broad, meaty layers of lush strawberry.
2009 Copain, Wentzel (Anderson Valley, California) - Full, aggressive, peppermint and cherry intensity
2008 Costa de Oro, Reserve Oro Rojo (Santa Maria Valley) - Lavish, smoky, pepperminted strawberry density.
2008 De Loach, Green Valley (California) – Flowers, herbed tea, red berries and silk.
2009 Dragonette, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills, California) – Fragrant cherry cola, bright and high toned.
2007 Etude, Heirloom (Carneros, California) – Pillowy, plush cherries, full and round.
2009 Evening Land Vineyards, Seven Springs Vineyard Summun (Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon) – Lush, silken, feminine transparency.
2008 Expression 38°, Gap’s Crown (Sonoma Coast, California) – Fleshy, leather lined red and black fruit.
2008 Expression 44°, Zena Crown Vineyard (Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon) – Bursting perfumed fruit and leather gloves.
|Failla's Ehren Jordan in the extreme Sonoma Coast|
2009 Failla, Hirsch Vineyard (Sonoma Coast, California) – Amazing grace, velvet, perfectly composed strawberry notes.
2008 Foley Estates, Rancho Santa Rosa (Sta. Rita Hills, California) – Fresh wild cherries, fleshy feel and zingy acidity.
2008 Freeman, Russian River Valley (California) – Sumptuous mix of black fruits, and strawberry, plump and full.
2008 Freestone, Sonoma Coast (California) – Brilliant cherry/strawberry varietal spice; zesty, medium-full body.
2008 Gary Farrell, Russian River Valley (California) – Classic smoky/toasty, lush and beefy Russian River style.
2009 Gypsy Canyon, Sta. Rita Hills (California) – Gentle, refined, soft and luscious red pinot fruitfulness.
2008 Hartford Family, Arrendell Vineyard (Russian River Valley, California) – Lusciously ripened, dried cherry/red plummy, fleshy indulgence.
2008 Hilliard Bruce, Sta. Rita Hills (California) – Affable, pure strawberryish varietal fruitiness.
2007 Hitching Post, Highliner (Santa Barbara, California) – From the famed Fiddlestix Vineyard; floral perfumes, meaty fruit and dense textures.
2008 Jalama, Heartbreak Joseph Blair (Santa Barbara, California) – Another ultra-cold climate planting west of Sta. Rita Hills; earthen, smoky, crushed autumn leafy red berry perfumes and sharply defined acidity.
2008 Kessler-Haak, Clone 2A (Sta. Rita Hills, California) – Dollops of strawberry jam and wild berries, brightened by zesty acidity.
2009 Kosta-Browne, Russian River Valley (California) – Full scaled, meaty, smoky, yet teeming with rich red berry fruits.
2008 Le Fenêtre, Sierra Madre Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley, California) – Red roses, cherries, strawberries and smoky peppermint spices with feminine allure.
2008 La Rochelle, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard-Block A (Santa Lucia Highlands, California) – Sweetly intense red berries and woodsy green perfumes, heady and sharp.
2008 Landmark, Kanzler (Sonoma Coast, California) – Flowery strawberry and baked cherry pie fruit and spices; full tannin and velvet upholstering.
2008 Landmark, Grand Detour (Sonoma Coast, California) – Raspberries and new leather with rich, round detailing.
2009 MacPhail, Sonoma Coast (California) – Combines flesh, muscle, and sweet toned fruit penetrating a wall of sturdy tannin.
2009 Melville, Sta. Rita Hills (California) – Absolutely luscious, pure, strawberryish fruit with velvet texturing brightened by lively acidity.
2008 Orogeny, Green Valley of Russian River Valley (California) – Buckets of fresh red berries in zesty, buoyant, medium body.
2008 Rusack, Reserve (Sta. Rita Hills, California) – Plump, ripe strawberries in masculine, musclebound packaging.
2008 Seagrape, Hibbits Ranch (Santa Barbara, California) – Another exciting cold climate growth west of Sta. Rita Hills; super-spicy, vibrant, sweet fruit and loamy earth toned;; by Karen Steinwachs (also winemaker of Buttonwood Farm, and former Fiddlehead cellar rat).
2008 Sinor-La Vallee, Aubaine Vineyard (San Luis Obispo, California) – Pleasingly plump, fragrant, cherry cola, sweetly oaked style.
2007 Stephen Ross, Stone Corral Vineyard (Edna Valley, California) – Sprigs of mint, bright strawberries, solidly crisp and slender.
2007 The Ojai, Solomon Hills Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley, California) – Sweet red fruit perfumes with green leafy herb nuances; sumptuous fruit overriding solid tannin.
2008 Pey-Lucia, Frisquet (Santa Lucia Highlands, California) – Effusively perfumed red fruits wrapped in crisply creased silk.
2008 Pey-Marin, Trois Filles (Marin County, California) – Achingly rich, scented immersion in the gentle, flowing, feminine side of pinot.
2008 Sea Smoke, Southing (Sta. Rita Hills, California – Violet ruby, red berries and baking spices, fleshed out in medium-full, zesty sensations.
2009 Siduri, Sta. Lucia Highlands (California) – Decadently rich, round, fleshy blend of Gary’s and Rosella’s Vineyards, enriched by smoky oak.
2009 Thomas George Estates, Russian River Valley (California) – Showy, velvety, unbridled Russian River expression of pinot; red fruits steeped in smoky, minty spices.
2007 Tolosa, 1772 (Edna Valley, California) – Effusive, spiced cherry pie aromas and round breadth of ripened varietal qualities.
2008 Vergari, Sangiacomo Vineyard (Sonoma Coast, California) – Intensely spicy, earthy, smoky, silky fruit profile zapped by lively acidity typifying Petaluma Gap.
2008 Zotovich, Sta. Rita Hills (California) – Strawberry preserves on toast, with velvet textures punctuated by fruit sharpening acidity.
|La Follette's Simone Sequeria (winemaker) & Nancy Bailey (GM)|