Is Pinot Noir the grape of California’s future?
It’s difficult to predict because the thin-skinned black grape needs almost ideal – and cooler – conditions to produce quality fruit. Sunny, warmer California presents an issue.
Yet California’s innovative winemakers are adapting their unique terroirs to Pinot Noir and no longer feel intimidated by the grape’s fussiness. From the extremes of producing syrupy, oaky wines or lean, acidic versions has emerged refined, balanced wines of local vineyard identity.
The 2018 California Grape Crush report confirms this trend. Pinot Noir’s volume increased to 7 percent from 6.2 percent in 2017 to surpass French Colombard (6.8%) as the state’s No. 4 highest volume grape varietal. Chardonnay (15.8%) remains No. 1, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon (15.1%) and Zinfandel (8.6%).
All things being equal, California pinot noir might even represent a better consumer value compared to Oregon’s higher-priced Willamette Valley bottlings.
Here are some to consider based on recent tastings.
Artesa Estate Vineyard 2016, Los Carneros, Napa Valley (SRP $45, 14.1% alc.) – The estate’s pinot noir plantings grow atop a series of five steep ridges cooled by Pablo Bay breezes. The soil mix is diverse – clay, sandstone, shale. For Artesa’s estate pinot, three distinct clonal types (out of 10) are selected from eight precise blocks. Winemaker Ana Diogo-Draper, a Portuguese native, creates one small lot at a time to allow each parcel to express its individual character. Such micro-farming patience and passion paid off in Artesa’s 2016 vintage: It’s elegant and harmonious, driven by soft cherry/raspberry fruit and mouthwatering acidity. Only 2,950 cases were made. Another option is Artesa’s entry-level “Los Carneros” Pinot Noir (SRP $28), which earned 90 points from Wine Spectator and is available in New Hampshire ($22.99).
Clos Pegase Mitsuko’s Vineyard 2018, Carneros (SRP $40, 14.5% alc.) – Following a tumultuous 2017 harvest (wildfires, heavy rainstorms), 2018 was back to “normal” for Napa Valley. The pinot noir ripened slowly and retained good amounts of natural acidity. While still young, Clos Pegase shows signs of being a silky standout over the next 3-5 years. My sample exhibited a classic ruby-color, tart cherry brightness and subtle vanilla spices. The dry, lingering finish is very appealing. Only 1,300 cases were made. Kudos to Scottish-born winemaker Robin Akhurst.
Sea Slopes 2017, Fort Ross Winery, Sonoma (SRP $35, 13.5% alc.) – The winery’s vineyards run up to ocean cliffs along Sonoma’s North Coast. Cool maritime winds offset the daytime heat. Despite challenging 2017 conditions, winemaker Jeff Pisoni and his team stayed focused on selecting the best fruit and sticking to a minimalist production process. Sea Slopes is pure in fragrance (wild flowers) and fruit (vibrant cherry/cranberry). It’s selling in N.H. for $28.99 (5,440 cases produced).
Gary Farrell 2017 Russian River Valley Selection, Sonoma (SRP $45, 13.7% alc.) – Grapes were sourced and hand-sorted from seven top vineyards (the legendary Rochioli Vineyard is one) situated along the Russian River’s 110 mile-long journey to the sea. Little of 2017’s chaos affected winemaker Theresa Herida, who has crafted a superb, velvety pinot noir that she says captures “the voice of the valley” for balance and elegance. The beautiful garnet color and crisp raspberry and cherry-cola notes won me over. About 10,500 cases were produced.
Kenwood Vineyards 2017 Six Ridges, Sonoma (SRP $30, 15.2% alc.) – Winemaker Zeke Neeley grew up in the area and knows the mountain ranges that carve out the Russian River Valley and influence mesoclimates. Grapes from several vineyards are fermented separately on the skins, then aged for 11 months in French and Hungarian oak. This small-lot production pinot noir offers cinnamon, chocolate and almond notes along with ripe red fruit and a creamy mouthfeel. The wine says California more than it does Burgundy to deliver at very satisfying impression.
Read more about wine on Jim Campanini’s blog at www.grapefullyyours.live