You think you need to travel to The Mecca of Pinot Noir to satisfy your appetite for the variety? Well, I have news for all of you starving wine lovers. Though it is hard to deny that a week in Beaune, France would do wonders for the wine soul, I can point to so many places in California where Pinot Noir has gone to the next level. Where? Could it be the Russian River Valley, the Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast? While those places do indeed have some of America’s very best Pinots, today I’d like to talk about the Santa Lucia Highlands.
History tells us that the earliest plantings in this AVA took place in the 1790’s, but it was not until the 1980’s and 1990’s that the area was re-discovered by farming families: Pisoni, Franscioni, Manzoni, Boekenoogen and others. Today there are many artisan productions proving this area’s potential for greatness. At the forefront of the movement is Bernardus, whose single vineyard Pinot Noirs are nothing short of spectacular. While Proprietor Ben Pon had been known for developing a strong case for Bordeaux blends (Marinus) out of Carmel Valley, his more recent launch of Pinot Noir is grabbing attention from the top critics in the wine world. Wine publications such as the Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate and the Wine Enthusiast, have given the wines superb accolades and high scores.
In my recent tastings I was really wowed by the 2011 single vineyard offerings. The Soberanes shows great balance and trueness to the varietal. The Sierra Mar takes the varietal on a darker fruit journey and is pretty delicious. The Pisoni is scary good and so young that it could take a year of two before it is ready, though one could roast a leg of lamb and be pretty happy with this wine. The Garys’ is complete and distinctive as it offers a more savory personality. My very favorite is the Rosella’s. This wine is so spectacular that I could easily turn away a fine Gevrey-Chambertin and pour this one in its place. Gentle and bright, yet deceptively powerful, the wine just stays, stays and stays on the palate. It may now be the time to invoke a new saying, “Can Burgundy rival America’s best single vineyard Pinot Noir?”
I am so incredibly excited! About what, you ask? The 2012 Oregon Pinot Noirs, a vintage the Wine Spectator called, “Ideal conditions produced generous wines; not over the top.” The magazine rated the vintage 92-95 points. I am on a mission to taste 50 or more of the current releases from some of the best wineries in the state. This process will take a couple of months. I will have a full report by the first of July. The following wineries are among my hit list: A to Z Wineworks, Adelsheim, Argyle, Chaehalem, Domaine Serene, Elk Cove, King Estate, Ponzi, Rainstorm, RouteStock and Seven Hills Winery. I have a few others that I will include as well. So what about recent vintages?
Oregon is one of the wine world’s most marginal growing regions. Over the past four decades, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris have been the stars, especially in the Willamette Valley. Even adding to the fun are the growers and vintners themselves. If any of you have ever spent quality time with these folks you will have learned that they can be cagey, cantankerous and collaborative. If you are not into it, they won’t even acknowledge your presence (I am only kidding here). But one thing that is undeniable is that the Oregon wine folks are super passionate about what they do. The result is: they live in a growing region that is reserve for the strongest souls in the wine biz. Potentially, the Willamette Valley can have some really difficult vintages. Hearts are anxious and spirits are strong as each harvest comes into view.
I have tasted some 2010’s and 2011’s and there are so many very good wines. The 2011’s are by and large a bit leaner and reticent of recent years. As I begin to taste the 2012’s I am really liking them. The first few have come across a pleasingly plump, yet nicely balanced. Yes, this promises to be a vintage to remember. Seems those guys at the Wine Spectator are very much on target! My current favorite for all to try is the 2012 Argyle. The wine is so pretty and ready to enjoy. This wine is a precursor of what is to come. Stay tuned, you may even be able to forget about Burgundy for a while… Well, maybe not. For the time being, 2012 Oregon Pinots will be the envy of the marketplace. By the way, May is Oregon Wine Month, wouldn’t this be a great way to celebrate?
We’re big fans of the Wagner family. Not only are they the minds (and hands) behind Caymus, one of our favorite California Cabernets, they also expanded their portfolio to include other varieties, and like Caymus, they do these wines oh so well.
We’re featuring a couple of them today because they really two ideal holiday wines: Conundrum white and Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir.
Conundrum, called as such because you never know what the exact blend of grapes is in this wine, is a customer favorite. It is full of ripe fruit flavors, a creamy texture and lingering finish. It’s a wine that can last through the dinner, especially pairing with anything that has a touch of spice. It is a delicious all-night party sipper for any holiday fete and an all-around palate-pleaser.
The Meiomi (pronounced mey-OH-me) hails from the coastal vineyards of California, the perfect climate for growing a cool-climate variety like Pinot Noir. Delicious red fruits and sweet spice make this a rich yet not-too-heavy wine perfect for holiday parties and dinners. It’s terribly food friendly, but also has all those characteristics that make it a superbly delightful wine sipping on its own. At such a great price point, it could be your go-to dinner party red.
So stock up on these two to pull out for holiday dinners, hostess gifts or just sipping by the fire.
It’s been 7 years since we watched Miles and Jack take that life-altering road trip through Santa Barbara wine country, but the enthusiasm for Pinot Noir remains strong. People are still seeking great Pinot, and even better, great, affordable Pinot. And it can be had! We are enjoying more and more deals in the wine world, including great Pinot Noir.
As a rememberance to Miles and his passion for Pinot, here is how he explained it to Maya:
“It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. Right? It’s, uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And, in fact, it can only grow in these really specific, little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
Of course, this speech could also be taken to describe some people and relationships, which is why it is so moving. So take time to enjoy and savor the next glass of Pinot Noir you enjoy – it is a delicate grape, and one that deserves attention. Cheers!
Our wine alert today is the Cristom 2008 Mt. Jefferson Cuvee Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley of Oregon. If you haven’t heard, the 2008 vintage in Oregon for Pinot Noir is, as the New York Times stated, superb. As is this wine! You can read more about the wine and winery on our website, or watch our tasting video below. And as a special treat, here are a few questions we were able to ask the very talented Cristom winemaker, Steve Doerner.
Q: Before coming to Cristom, you worked in California wine country. What are some of the main differences you see in winemaking in Oregon vs. California?
A: Well, it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve been in California so I’m not sure I’m even qualified to answer this question any longer – a lot has changed in both places in both vineyards and wineries. But if I had to answer in a general way I would say that because of a higher degree of vintage variation in Oregon the winemaking has to be a bit more adaptive. For example, adding acid verses chaptalizing are at opposite sides of a spectrum. You hope you don’t have to do either but in some vintages we do one or the other, where as in California not only is chaptalizing illegal but it would rarely be necessary if it were not.
Q: What do you find most challenging about working with Pinot Noir?
A: Pinot Noir is very transparent – it reflects what is done to it in both the vineyard and the winery more than most varieties. Because of this it doesn’t hide any errors made as well as some varieties can. I try to mitigate this by doing as little as possible in the winery so that what the wine is reflecting is coming mostly from the vineyard and the particular season in which it was grown. In that sense I don’t find it as challenging as it’s reputation. We just try to grow and obtain the best grapes possible and then get out of the way.
Q: What did you think about the 2008 vintage of Pinot Noir in Oregon?
A: It was a great vintage but enough has already been said about it that I think I can defer to others – it really doesn’t need any more hype.
Q: Can you describe the essence of Oregon Pinot Noir in one or two sentences?
A: In general Oregon Pinot Noir seems to have a great balance between fresh fruit, lively acidity and a touch of earthy complexity.