by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Dar
Pinot noir is often called the “heartbreak grape” because its thin skin often breaks and is susceptible to disease, thus breaking the hearts of growers who dare to plant it. But now being grown in the right locations, pinot noir is breaking fewer hearts today.
In California, the right location is usually near the Pacific Ocean where coastal fogs and breezes cool the grapes and lengthen their hang time to extract more acidity and fruit flavors.
In Oregon, it’s the cooler regions of the Willamette Valley that produce the best pinot noir.
In a recent virtual conference, three West Coast winemakers touted their growing conditions but expressed concern for the impact of climate change.
Michael Accurso, winemaker with EnRoute in the Russian River Valley, said “We once struggled with ripening the fruit, but with climate change we have to watch over ripening.”
Darrin Low of Domaine Anderson in Mendocino County said climate change has been gradual in California, unlike in Burgundy where winter frost, summer heat and hail have led to a significant crop loss.
But. despite the obstacles, the winemakers said nothing compares to making pinot noir, a wine that not only expresses the soil but also the craft of the winemaker. Each winemaker uses different tools to make their best pinot noirs.
For Kate Ayres of Penner-Ash in the Willamette Valley it is broadening the profile of her pinot noir by sourcing grapes from 18 vineyards in six sub appellations. Her delicious 2018 Penner-Ash Pinot Noir ($45) is layered and expressive with strawberry jam and violet aromas, cherry and plum flavors, dusty tannins and a savory note that begs for a second glass.
Accurso likes to use different clones to achieve an expressive pinot noir. He said the soils are pretty consistent, but a clone can give a perception of sweetness while another gives structure. He sources grapes from Green Valley and the Middle Reach regions of the Russian River Valley. His 2018 EnRoute “Les Pommiers” Pinot Noir ($60) has ripe raspberry and blackberry flavors, velvet mouthfeel and a streak of forest floor to keep it interesting.
EnRoute was founded in 2007 by the partners of Far Niente.
Low likes the diurnal shifts of the Anderson Valley where temperatures can range from the 80s during the day and 50s at night. He said it is the “perfect place” for pinot noir, a rating the champagne house of Louis Roederer saw when they located in this remote location in 1981. Anderson Valley has only 2,500 acres of vineyards as compared to the massive 15,000 acres in Russian River Valley.
Low said the unique weather patterns of Anderson Valley produce more approachable pinot noirs. His 2017 Domaine Anderson Estate Pinot Noir ($45) has an expressive floral nose and black cherry flavors with fine tannins and balanced acidity.
The regions represented by these three winemakers are hardly the only ones that produce special pinot noir. Burgundy has had an historic hold on the most prestigious pinot noir, but recent weather patterns there in 2018 created a blemished vintage. Santa Barbara County’s warmer climate creates a riper pinot noir while the fog-cooled Carneros region of Napa Valley is known for its lighter, tighter pinot noirs. New Zeland’s Central Otago region has bright, ready-to-drink pinot noirs.
Alas, Burgundy no longer has a hold on expensive wines. Oregon and California pinot noirs often soar over $100. The pinot noirs from Kosta Browne sell for $165.
Here are some other pinot noirs we recently tasted:
Rodney Strong Russian River Pinot Noir 2017 ($25). One of the most reasonably priced pinot noirs, this easy-to-drink gem has a silky texture with dark fruit flavors and good acidity.
Sea Smoke “Southing” Pinot Noir 2018 ($80). From Santa Rita Hills, this expressive pinot noir had a lot of loving attention in the winery: punch downs twice a day, 14 to 18 days of maceration, only free run juice lightly pressed before being racked to barrels. The result is a soft texture with effusive plum aromas and flavors.
Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2017 ($58). The entry level wine in a series of single-vineyard gems, the Anderson Valley pinot noir is a blend of three estate vineyards. Aromas of strawberries and tobacco with red berry flavors and soft tannins.
Sea Slopes Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2018 ($35). Reasonably priced in this expensive category, this pinot noir made under the direction of talented winemaker Jeff Pisoni gains from the cooling maritime breezes that slows the ripening process and delivers bright and expressive cherry, plum fruit.
Cono Sur Ocio Chile Pinot Noir 2016 ($100). Chile’s pinot noirs from Casablanca are becoming more recognized. This version is serious with intense aromas and concentrated red fruit flavors.
Migration Sta. Rita Hills Drum Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($70). Velvet texture, rich plum and blueberry flavors with hints of sage and vanilla. Migration’s 2018 Sonoma Coast pinot noir is a great value at $42.
Inman OGV Estate Pinot Noir 2017 ($73). We’ve been a big fan of Kathy Inman’s pinot noirs from the Russian River Valley. This flagship pinot noir from the Olivet Grange Vineyard has generous aromas and raspberry, cola flavors.
Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2018 ($45). Layers of ripe red fruit flavors and tantalizing hints of clove and herbs.
Calera Mt. Harland Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($75). Drawing grapes from a vineyard at an elevation of 2,200 feet, Calera has a dense and concentrated pinot noir with layer fragrance and supple raspberry and pomegranate flavors with a shot of earthy mushrooms and black pepper.
Escudo Rojo Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($18). Ripe plum and blackberry notes with easy tannins.
Fortress North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($23). Fruit forward in style with sweet black fruit flavors, moderate tannins and a hint of mocha.
Beronia Crianza 2017 ($15). Tempranillo, garnacha and mazuelo come together in this simple, medium-bodied quaffer from Rioja. It also comes in a smaller 375 milliliter bottle. Herbal aromas and red berry flavors.