Despite being tough to grow and work with, it is said that Pinot Noir is one of the most versatile grape varietals produced (light-medium bodied, fruit-forward, and distinctive because of the climate and soil grown in) and easy to pair with just about any food. So with more than 100 clonal variations of Pinot Noir being planted in regions around the world, including Oregon, California, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, France, Spain, Germany and Italy, how does one begin to explore the wide range of styles produced, determine which style best suites your palate and makes it jump with joy as the first sips of this red liquid graces your tongue?
Well besides the obvious of visiting a winery, heading to a wine bar for a comparative flight tasting, or just buying a wide range of wines based on a region and price and tasting in the privacy of one’s home, you can attend a Master-Seminar-501-of-Sorts event and explore seemingly countless styles of this high-in-resveratrol elixir. And that’s just what I did recently. I attended the 9th Annual Pinot Days’ Grand Festival Tasting at the Fort Mason Center here in San Francisco, and let’s just say that out of 140 producers from California, Oregon, New Zealand and Burgundy I found a number of wines that made me use the adjective “yum” many times over (editor’s note: “yum” may be overly simplistic but is succinct in its immediacy).
While I haven’t yet perfected the art of taking notes in crowded rooms while simultaneously tasting the wine and listening to the pourer tell a tale, I did manage to jot down a few notes about some noteworthy wines. (To make up for my lapses, please click on the below links for more detailed information.)
First up, Benovia Winery located in Santa Rosa, California. Four years ago they transitioned to organic viticulture practices and presently source fruit from their estate vineyards in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Mountain as well as grower partners in those appellations and Anderson Valley in Mendocino to “create small lot, superbly balanced, artisan wines.” Their “goal is to know each vineyard block and its special qualities, to attentively meet each vine’s needs, and to promote optimum ripeness and flavor development.” 2012 proved to be a remarkable growing season for Benovia Winery, as evidenced by two exceptional wines, Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65) and La Pommeraie Pinot Noir ($56). The Cohn Vineyard PN, sourced from old vines in the Russian River Valley, was light, bright, and redolent of cherries and spices. The La Pommeraie PN, sourced from a Martinelli Family Vineyard in the Russian River Valley (which at one time was an apple orchard and is named in honor of this history), quickly became my want-more-choice due to its earthy complexity.
Besides Benovia, a number of wineries at the event emphasized their trying to stay true to the terroir of an area, not forcing the grape to be something it isn’t, and using organic and sustainable growing methods. One such winery was Emeritus Vineyards located in Sebastopol, California. Described as a family-owned vineyard with a minimalist approach to winemaking, nearly one third of the ranch is farmed organically and aged in French Oak barrels. The winemaker, Nicolas Cantacuzene’s, believes “… that a great Pinot’s appeal is emotional and visceral; seducing with nuance rather than complexity or intensity,” and this is evident in the wines I tasted. The 2010 Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($47) was lovely with a nice blended taste of earth and spice but with a little heat on the end. The 2010 William Wesley Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($65) was big, bright, complex, and yet the spices “such as clove, leather and forest floor with a dark raspberry undertone” were soft, delicate. See? Yum!
I also swooned over the wines from Failla, located on the Silverado Trail in St. Helena, California. Per Robert M. Parker, “FAILLA is a top-notch source of high quality, European-inspired wines that combine flavor, intensity and elegance.”
And that doesn’t surprise me as Ehren, the winemaker, is described as being a Francophile since his adolescence. Failla has been owned and managed by Ehren and his wife, Anne-Marie, since 1998. They source grapes from a few different regions including the Sonoma Coast, Santa Rita Hills, and Russian River Valley. While I enjoyed all the Pinot Noir’s poured, my favorite was the 2011 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($45). I wrote that it tasted bright, sophisticated, lush, and the acidity was gentle. The tasting notes from Failla’s website suggests “Briary berries and griotte mingle delightfully with sarsaparilla and briny olive. Firm tannins provide structure to the typical Keefer lushness and juicy black cherry palate.” This is a winery and winemaker to watch!
Next stop: Kanzler Vineyards. Kanzler “is located on the east-facing slope of a small valley nestled in the cool coastal hills between Bodega Bay and Sebastopol, California.” Kanzler is a family-run operation and the owners’ son, Alex, is the winemaker (he is also the assistant winemaker for VML Wines in Healdsburg, California). Their philosophy — Nature takes the lead but they follow with a gentle hand, “coaxing [the wine] to be it’s best” — is evident in the wine I tasted, their 2011 Kanzler Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($52). I noted it was complex yet simple and according to their tasting notes, “The wine is vibrant, juicy and eminently drinkable right after the [sic] pulling the cork, but picks up weight, intensity and nuance with decanting … elegant ….” Check out the above link for a full description sure to entice your palate.
So who’s been to Livermore, California? I haven’t but I plan on visiting soon, especially after tasting the wines poured by La Rochelle Winery. Steven Kent Mirassou’s family introduced the Pinot Noir grape to California in the 1850s and today, even though La Rochelle sources Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from a number of renowned vineyards throughout the state, they strive to “let the individual vineyard’s terroir, its special sense of place, shine through.” California is their playground and each wine I tasted was distinct, all delicious. I thought their 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($38) was light, bright, yet balanced. It is 100% Pinot Noir, sourced from Paraiso, Sarmento, White Sage, Tondre Grapefield and Mission Ranch vineyards, and “symbolizes [their] goal of creating wines of complexity and balance; wines that reflect a winemaking philosophy and the region that produces the fruit that goes into it.” While I enjoyed the 2009 PN, I couldn’t get enough of their 2010 Soberanes Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands ($75), which is from their Grand Cru Collection and available in very limited quantities. This wine is made from 100% Pisoni clone Pinot Noir. I was enjoying it so much, I didn’t write anything other than “luxurious.” Their tasting notes elaborate on my one-word description: “there is a sublime sense of ethereal heft here … a dancing richness, epitomized by the slow yielding of dark fruit to red, viscosity to lengthening acidity.” I wish I could get in my car and head to their vineyard now. But I will, one day soon. The only question is which tasting to attend: Barrel Room or Reserve Room?
The last stop on this 140-producer Pinot Noir tasting tour was Wrath Wines, located in Soledad, California. (You must visit their home page, if for no other reason than to read their etymology of the word “wrath.” Fabulous!) “Wrath wines represent a nexus of nature and an unbridled passion for winemaking … and reveal attitude, passion, and an inherent respect for what a vineyard can give us.”
Even though they appear last in this post, I actually stopped at their table first as a wine blogger friend insisted this was a must. And she was correct. I tasted over five wines, all delicious, all a stand out as supported by my use of the word “yum” written next to the names of four variations of 2010 Pinot Noir, three hailing from the Santa Lucia Highlands and priced at $49 each. How I wish I could visit Wrath Wines presently and recreate this experience so I could elaborate more eloquently. Instead, I must point you to their Single-Vineyard Series list of Pinot Noir wines, wines such as their San Saba Vineyard located in Monterey, or their McIntyre, Boekenoogan, or Tondré Vineyard wines, all culled from the Santa Lucia Highlands.
I’m not sure why I only tasted wines from California as I love Pinot Noir from other regions, but I learned I seem to favor those from the Santa Lucia Highlands and that my palate is slowly yet assuredly opening to the brilliance of the function of acidity (though I still prefer, at least for sipping pleasure, it to be soft, hinted at): to me, it cuts the dense sweetness of dark and jammy berries and instead lets their unique qualities shine through. I can see how some people think Pinot Noir is the ultimate grape, capable of being paired with almost any food, any weather. What is your must-drink Pinot Noir?