What does make California pinot noir special?
|Santa Cruz Mountains' pinot paradise at Rhys Vineyards|
I was entertaining a little girl up in my room, lord
California wine and French perfume, lord
She started talking about the war, lord
I said, I don't want to talk about the war...
- Randy Newman (Lover's Prayer)
Or so it seemed at both the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association's Pinot Paradise Technical Session this past Sunday (March 27), and RN74's In Pursuit of Balance Pinot Noir panel and tasting the following Monday in San Francisco. The sad part is that both events involved pinot noir producers, who I've always though of as souls of sensitivity; or at least, knights of infinite resignation, given their difficult medium: a grape that tests vignerons mightily -- one vintage giving wines as sweet and pure as Sissy Spacek, and another vintage giving wines that make you recoil in the Carrie of it all. Does not trial and tribulation make one all the wiser?
Maybe not. The first gauntlet was thrown by Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard winemaker/proprietor Jeff Emery, who professed to not quite understanding contemporary style pinot noirs picked at sugars beyond 23 Brix° and finished with lower acids, riper fruit, and alcohol levels above 14%. A pinot soused soul crying in a Central Coast wilderness for restraint, finesse, and greater potential longevity. Problem being: the two wines Emery presented as evidence -- the 2001 Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir and 2004 Santa Cruz Mountain Bella's Reserve Pinot Noir -- are not exactly epitomes of charm, however taut, tart, and moderately scaled (around 12.5% alcohol) they may be.
|Evening Land Vineyards' cerebral Sashi Moorman|
Which is what I found so disconcerting about the In Pursuit of Balance symposium in San Francisco, however laudable its stated purpose, to "promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California Pinot Noir." Generally speaking, echoing Emery in Santa Cruz Mountains, the panelists professed a preference for either pinot noirs picked earlier at lower sugars (when possible, of course, since Mother Nature is not always cooperative), lower pH, higher acidity and less of that "physiological ripeness" often spoke of by denizens of the presumably opposite style, or a preference for vineyards located in relatively cooler climes and less permissive soils which give them a higher percentage chance of producing their idea of a balanced pinot noir.
|Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen|
Then again, a lot of them were as exciting as any I've ever experienced. Of the six panelist sitting on the In Pursuit of Balance stage, I think the most sensible comment was made by Evening Land Vineyards winemaker/grower, Sashi Moorman, who expressed the sentiment I often feel when I taste an exciting pinot noir. "There is so much preoccupation with alcohol and balance, pH and acidity, we tend to forget what makes the best wines special," said Moorman. "When I think of the great pinot noirs that have made me literally weak in the knees, I never say 'this wine is so well balanced'... it's usually the aromatic or unique qualities of pinot noirs that make the difference."
|Failla and Ehren Jordan, Failla Wines|
2009 Failla, Hirsch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast - Framboise-ish intensity in the nose, these red berry sensations strapped tightly over a medium weight body; silky, seamless, sensual to the touch.
|New sensations: Chanin pinot noirs|
2008 Chanin, Le Bon Climat Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley - Baskets of strawberryish fruit tingling the nose, with just as much lift and zest on the palate.
2007 Storrs, Christie Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains - Here's a full, sweetly ripened style (14.5%) that is also very fresh and pristine; the strawberry/raspberry fruit fragrant and plump with thickened, meaty texturing. If this is "wrong," I guess... I don't care.
|Native9's James Ontiveros|