There is probably no other grape variety that reflects its terroir more than pinot noir. Winemakers have a lot of tools to use in the winery to extract the most from the juice, but pinot noir is greatly influenced by the soil and weather -- a condition the French call, "gout de terroir" or taste of the earth.
Pinot noir has more than 800 unique organic compounds, which help define a wine's aroma, color, and flavor. Their dominance varies from one growing region to another. Burgundy pinot noirs have high acid but an enviable grace and texture. New Zealand pinot noirs are racy with lean, taut fruit. Oregon pinot noirs have higher alcohol and more extracted fruit. Of course, there are exceptions to every generality, but understanding the influence of soil and weather helps you determine your favorite pinot noir.
With the growth of nursery-cultivated clones, pinot noir has been able to prosper as growers identify which clone does best in their particular soil and microclimate. But clones create a degree of sameness, which leaves the distinctive qualities of pinot noir to soil and weather.
"We have some good examples of how site trumps clones," says Steve Fennell, winemaker and general manager of Sanford in Sta. Rita Hills, one of our favorite regions for pinot noir.
A student of earth sciences, Fennell understands the impact of soil and weather. His two primary vineyards – the historic Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada – offer the perfect contrast because the soil for the first is primarily clay and for the second it is shale. But both are blessed by cool, marine breezes that arrive at night and stay until mid-morning, then return by mid-afternoon. Cooling breezes are consistent to good pinot noir because they protect the grapes' thin skins from sunburn and allow for slow ripening.
We asked several winemakers from our four favorite pinot noir AVAs in California to help us identify the unique characteristics that soil and climate bring to their wines.
RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY
David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars stresses that Russian River Valley's climate has the most impact on pinot noir. Rising hot air creates a low pressure zone, which draws denser, cool air through the Petaluma Gap.
"When we wake up during the growing season, it's often to fog at a temperature around 57 degrees. As the sun warms the region, the fog slowly burns off and the temperature rises. It's this daily diurnal temperature fluctuation – say 57 to 87 – that gives the Russian River Valley its unique characteristics – a combination of fresh, juicy acidity coupled with a charming richness."
He argues pinots from cooler climes don't develop the valley's warm richness and pinots from hotter regions don't retain natural acidity as well.
Ramey Cellars Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2014 ($50). An elegant, pretty wine, the Ramey has bright cherry flavors, long finish and a dash of spice. One of our favorites.
The Anderson Valley is California's most northern fine wine-growing region in proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Ryan Hodgins, winemaker for FEL Vineyard says, "One of the outcomes of this is characteristically cold winters that push our growing season quite late and shift prime ripening time towards fall and autumn, as compared to late summer in other Californian regions. As a result, Anderson Valley pinot noir tends to be more acid-driven and lighter-bodied than pinot produced farther south. The fruit profile also tends to be a bit darker.”
FEL Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2015 ($70). Cliff Lede of Lede Family Wines launched this brand in 2014 and it has been a hit with us ever since. The wine shows good but balanced acidity, black cherry flavors and a dash of spice.
SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS
James Hall, winemaker for Patz & Hall, says that the Santa Lucia Highlands enjoys the attributes of both the Central and North Coasts because of its location. It's semi-arid climate allows for an early bud break and a late harvest while cooling fog from Monterey Bay slow the ripening.
"The fruit character is brambly, slightly herbal with penetrating red fruits – a bit like raspberry leaf tea and cherry jam," he says. "There is a scale and density to the wines that is derived from the very cool nights and warm days, which cause thick skins to develop -- the source of rich body and aromatic intensity."
Patz & Hall Pisoni Vineyard Sana Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2013 ($90). Super concentrated, full-throttle wine with bing cherry, red currant and cola notes with hints of chocolate and cloves.
STA. RITA HILLS
Tyler Thomas, winemaker for Dierberg, says he enjoys the expressive dark fruit profile of this region's pinot noirs.
"While that in itself may not seem unusual for great wines, it's that the power of those aromatics often creates the expectation of largeness and richness in the palate. And this is where Sta. Rita Hills shines: it actually delivers freshness, refinement, and precision with its texture. To me, this is the trademark of great pinot noir: large, perfumed aromatics, delivered on a fresh, delicate palate."
Fennell of Sanford wines finds an earthy, savory profile in this appellation's pinot noirs.
Dierberg Sta. Rita Hills Drum Canyon Vineyard 2014 ($52). This is elegant pinot noir with distinct acidity. Perfumy aromas are followed by intense black cherry flavors and a hint of spice and black pepper.
Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($70). This extraordinary and well-balanced pinot noir has earthy, forest-floor aromas, mature cherry flavors, ripe tannins and a dash of spice. It's colossal in weight.
We'll continue the discussion of this extraordinary grape variety next week.