The state of American Pinot Noir is better than ever (but not for reasons you may expect)
|Pinot Noir on virused vines in Arroyo Grande Valley's Laetitia Vineyards|
It was very easy to be impressed by the overall quality level of Pinot Noirs at the 17th annual World of Pinot Noir, taking place at Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara this past March 3-4, 2017.
|- Michael Maslin, The New Yorker|
I know what I thought of the Pinot Noirs. Since I don’t have to convince myself, after the proceedings I queried a few winemakers (those producing my “favorites”) that I saw there to see if their impressions jibed with mine. For the most part, they did. Perhaps that’s why I preferred their wines over that of others. Hardly an unbiased poll, but still...
|Nathan Kandler in Thomas Fogarty's Rapley Trail Vineyard (Santa Cruz Mountains)|
I do not take it as a complete coincidence that Kevin Law, owner/winemaker of Côtiére Wines in Santa Maria, happened to mention in passing Rhys Vineyards – one of Thomas Fogarty’s Skyline Drive neighbors in Santa Cruz Mountains – in a discussion of more informed use of whole cluster, new oak and extreme (i.e. low yielding/hillside) viticulture. To begin with, Law told me, “American Pinot Noirs are in their infancy compared to France... yet I am incredibly impressed and happy to see the direction of the wines just over the past few years. As a winemaker, in my humble opinion, it is best to not stylize or interfere – rather, to protect and encourage vineyard expression. We’re starting to go beyond ripeness levels and winemaking styles, where boundaries have recently been pushed. Trends and winemaking decisions are starting to harmonize, allowing sites and terroir to become more expressive.”
|The legendary Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa Wines|
Steven Gerbac – who has definitely instituted a new regime at Ballard Canyon’s Rusack Vineyards over the past two, three years – spoke frankly about the “old concept” of vineyard-designate wines: “In the past it was easy for some of us to make and sell 15 different single vineyard bottlings; but honestly, I think the only ones who could truly tell the difference in the wines were the winemakers. The wines were, more often than not, very similar expressions of cola and ripe fruit, rather than unique expressions of individual vineyards.”
“Hands-off” winemaking has played a major part. For instance, one of the most intense, even showiest, Pinot Noirs of the weekend was 2014 Brewer-Clifton Hapgood from Sta. Rita Hills. Says Brewer-Clifton founding partner Greg Brewer, “Our approach, after 20 years, has gone to an extreme, and use of Merry Edwards’ clone 37 in our Hapgood Road planting is a perfect vehicle for our aesthetic of 100% whole cluster fermentation, and raising of the wine in all-neutral cooperage without racking.”
What Brewer and his winemaking team have formulated over time is an approach to Pinot Noir that optimizes qualities of one particular site, which may differ from the way other sites are handled. Côtérie’s Kevin Law has also been minimizing the influence of first-year barrels to accentuate site; but says: “This does not mean I don’t use new oak. We may ask, how much does new oak takes away and how much does new oak enhance a wine? But really, it’s the wine that makes those decisions. The same with whole cluster fermentation – whole cluster can help add longevity, complex aromatics and tannin, but knowing your vineyard is key to knowing how much is too much or too little.”
|Cotiere Wines winemaker/owner Kevin Law|
|McIntyre Pinot Noir in McIntyre Vineyard|
That said, my “Top 20” wines (in alphabetical order) from the 2017 World of Pinot Noir weekend:
2014 Côtiére Wines, Laetitia Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley – This bottling, alas, is the last of this particular vineyard, as Laetitia ripped out almost all the blocks utilized by Côtiére (which were virused) after the 2014 vintage. 30% whole cluster, 30% new oak, and bottling at just 11 months all amounted to billowing, bright red fruit perfumes (drippy cherry/strawberry) tinged with spice; couched in firm, meaty yet zesty, high toned sensations, with a real feel of delicacy, finesse, femininity.
2013 Hirsch Vineyards, East Ridge, Sonoma Coast – According to Jasmine Hirsch, this bottling comes from the warmest of her family’s Fort Ross-Seaview/Sonoma Coast ridge-top sites, describing it as more “masculine” than other Hirsch bottlings. Well, for a masculine wine, this sure is a refined and composed Pinot – sleek, silky, bright, and strikingly light on its feet (12.8% alcohol), while floral with rose petal, black cherry, and the faintest woodsiness.
2015 Lucia Vineyards, Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Intellectually, I often find myself wondering why Santa Lucia Highlands wins me over. This is a wind-whipped appellation, where in most vintages optimal ripeness doesn’t usually arrive until grapes are fairly high in sugar, and alcohols threaten to soar out of control. Yet proof is always in the pudding: the wines have undeniable intensity, but rarely at the expense of finesse and balance. Wines like the Pisoni family’s Soberanes Pinot invariably come up smelling like a rose (pun intended). The cherry/strawberry fruit is pure and pungent, tinged by intriguing whiffs of resiny wild brush. There is flesh and body on the bone, forged by savory phenolics and racy acidity. You can almost smell the slopes, and feel the wind, of the appellation in the glass. It’s like, "why must I always be Mango?"
2014 McIntyre Vineyards, Old Vine, Santa Lucia Highlands – This bottling – which owner/grower Steve McIntyre says comes from the oldest Pinot Noir block in the appellation (46-year-old own-rooted vines of unknown clonal origin) – cannot help but differentiate itself even from the proprietor’s adjoining blocks, all producing wines of pristine, penetrating fruit in 2014. Thanks to a hands-off approach to vinification, the old vines give earthy/woodsy/licorice notes (McIntyre suggests “sorel mushrooms and black pepper”) unlike anything else tasted over the weekend; underscoring a flowery perfume; coming across as refined, tightly grained and zesty/tart on the palate, the tannins furnishing a gentle grip.
2013 Native9 Wines, Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – I may have lied about liking James Ontiveros’ 2014 Alta Mesa Bien Nacido Block G best at the 2017 WOPN. My notes show that I was “wowed” even more by this bottling, from his 8-acre estate block located closer to the coast and its moderating fog influence. The nose just leaps from the glass like liquid ninja, but it’s not just of cherry toned Pinot Noir perfume; it’s also crushed/brown-leafy, mushroomy, somewhat wild, organic; and the fleshy, earth toned fruit sensations wrap around your palate in almost mesmerizing fashion. Since I’ve experienced this before in previous (but not all) vintages of Rancho Ontiveros, I can only surmise a site related commonality in the experiences. As it were, 100% native yeast and whole cluster fermented (manifestations of such being neither here nor there for me).
2014 Presqu’ile Winery, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – This producer has demonstrated a laudably light touch (even with 50% new oak) in all its bottlings, although I’ve been partial to their estate grown cuvée for its particularly flowery character – raspberry/cherry fruit tinged with the slightest shake of sweet kitchen spice – and lithe, sleek, sheer and slender feel, bristling with palate freshening acidity.
2014 Rusack Vineyards, Solomon Hills, Santa Barbara County – From a site that is now included within the far western boundaries of Santa Maria Valley. According to Steven Gerbac, “I like this vineyard because it is the closest to the ocean in the valley, but not overpowered by the usual Santa Maria spice.” Deep sandy loam soil also tends to consistently yield Pinot Noirs of high-toned, flowery character, and finely delineated, acid driven palate sensations. The feel is always edgy yet fine grained; vivid without being boisterous. Neither do I find the slightly herby, tomato-leafy quality (which, of course, has its own intrigue) so often associated with the appellation. My style of Pinot, so what of it?
2013 Wayfarer, Golden Mean, Fort Ross-Seaview, Sonoma Coast – In the finest vein of this extreme coastal appellation, a characteristically gentle, velvety wine expanded to voluminous, almost grand, unblemished proportions; the nose floral and star-bright in cherry/cranberry red fruit tones, and the palate even-keeled and uncommonly svelte, fluid.
|Witching Stick's Van and Anne Williamson at 2017 World of Pinot Noir|