What do people want in their wine? Is it as simple as great flavor – or as complicated as complexity, richness, and age-worthiness?
Ask most consumers and they’ll opt for the former. Ask those of us who either collect wine or write about it and it’s likely to be the latter. That’s why there is often a disconnect between readers who spend no more than $15 for a simple pinot grigio and critics who dole out $200 for a mind-blowing burgundy.
When we recently tasted a couple of J. Lohr pinot noirs, the lightbulb went off when several guests said Lohr wines were among their favorites.
J. Lohr has been making wines in California since the late 1970s and his vineyard holdings are from Paso Robles, Santa Lucia Highlands, and St. Helena. It is known more for their cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, but our recent focus was on their pinot noirs.
What makes them so popular? It’s their hedonistic appeal, stupid.
Facebook/J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines
Any wine enthusiast who demands finesse and refined flavors will not find them as appealing. They clobber the palate with juicy, extracted fruit whether the grape variety be red or white. They are almost a meal in themselves, thus pleasing consumers looking first for big, rich flavors.
To find out J. Lohr’s secrets, we turned to its winemaker Steve Peck. In an email he explained what goes into making the J. Lohr Fog’s Reach and Highlands Bench pinot noirs.
“We are making wines we like to drink and hope that consumers agree,” he said.
He says he starts with grapes that have longer hang time than most others – “something like 65-70 days post veraison (ripening determined when grapes change color), as opposed to 42-65 days which might be a more typical practice.”
This allows for darker-colored wines that aren’t necessarily loaded with tannins – those mouth-puckering acids that excite collectors because they allow for aging but turn off most consumers who want something immediately approachable.
Secondly, Peck bleeds off about 25-30 percent of the juice immediately after crushing. This allows for more color as the skins stay in contact with less juice.
Finally, a short cold-soak of the grapes draws out the color before the tannins set. Afterward, the juice is pumped back over a cap of seeds, stems and skins. The temperature rises until Peck gets the alcohol level he wants, then he lowers the temperature to limit tannin extraction.
We know, it’s chemistry gobbledygook you don’t really care about. But the point is that a lot can be done in the vineyard and at the winery to achieve that supple texture and richness you like. For many winemakers, this is too much intervention and a process not intended for all grape varieties or all vintages.
Try these delicious Monterey County pinot noirs and you’ll see what we mean and what Peck is trying to achieve. J. Lohr makes some incredibly lush and rich chardonnays and a number of premium Bordeaux blends as well.
J. Lohr Highlands Bench Pinot Noir 2014 ($35). Peck says this is more “new world” in style, which to us means there is more extracted and riper fruit. But there is a brambly character to this wine too. Lots of rich, extracted strawberry and black cherry flavors.
J. Lohr Fog’s Reach Pinot Noir 2014 ($35). We like the earthy character of this wine. More refined in an “old world” style, it shows off an herbal character to match the copious black cherry fruit and a hint of anise and spice. Like’s its sibling, it’s quite dark.
Duckhorn's Goldeneye pinot noirs are proving to be among the best Anderson Valley has to offer. They will cost you an arm and a leg, though – the standard pinot noir is $56 and it goes up to $120 for their remarkable Ten Degrees single-vineyard pinot noir.
Texture identifies the six luxurious and rich pinot noirs. The Ten Degrees pinot noir comes from the best lots and barrels – a proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove. We loved the 2014 Split Rail Vineyard pinot noir ($82) for its complex, lush mouthfeel, boysenberry and cedar flavors.
At $52, the Goldeneye Anderson Valley pinot noir will stand up to anything in this price range. It has varietal black cherry and cranberry flavors with earthy, leathery notes.
Chateau Souverain California Chardonnay 2014 ($13). Winemaker Ed Killian has a killer series of wines that are very reasonably priced. Although “California” is a very broad appellation lacking flavors unique to a specific vineyard, the chardonnay and companion merlot and cabernet sauvignon are well-made, delicious wines for the price. Nothing fancy here, but reliable and full-bodied. The chardonnay has citrus aromas and pineapple flavors with a dash of spice.
Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Malbec 2014 ($17). We had an opportunity to taste three malbecs from this producer. The Trivento Reserve at $11 is a good buy, but for a few bucks more this reserve delivers much more fruit and body. Firm body yields blueberry and plum flavors.
Benziger Family Winery Sonoma County Merlot 2014 ($19). This is quite a deal for what you get: a full-body, balanced merlot with black cherry and plum flavors and a good dose of spice and tannin.