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California's Pinot Noirs: Styles Driven by Appellation
Burgundy is the ancestral home of Pinot Noir, and the French have had hundreds of years to learn their soils and fine-tune their vineyards to produce some of the most exquisite examples of this voluptuous wine imaginable. Unfortunately, Burgundy is at the mercy of fickle weather, and a spectacular harvest in the making can be turned into a disaster more times than the French like to remember by too much rain arriving at the wrong time.
California's moderate Mediterranean-like weather combined with cool coastal enclaves -- from Anderson Valley in the north to Santa Barbara in the south -- provide grape growers more security in their efforts to cultivate this most difficult of grape varieties. Yet, California wineries are still sorting out a multitude of variables to produce great Pinot Noir.
Clones are the hot items nowadays. They all have their identifying numbers or names (such as the Martini clone or the Pommard clone) and pedigrees, and come from various areas where Pinot Noir production has been successful. For example, both the Pommard and Dijon clones from Burgundy have been grown in Oregon for years with varying degrees of success. Several dozen pinot noir clones have been identified in the Cote d'Or alone, and there are several hundred among all the regions where the grape is grown. The characteristics of most of these clones are now pretty well known. The task now is to figure out which clone does best in a specific vineyard environment, and then to design the "perfect" pinot noir vineyard from the ground up -- or down, actually.
Fortunately, California growers and vintners are quick learners and not at all unwilling to experiment. From the rudimentary efforts of the 1970s and early 1980s, when Pinot Noir was made pretty much like any other red wine, to the stunning, distinctive success stories of the late 1990s, it appears that the learning process has been greatly accelerated.
While the clone-to-site research continues, the benefits from years of pinot noir brainstorming have at least resulted in the recognition of regional -- or appellation -- differences in Pinot Noir.
It used to be common to find pinot noir plantings in the Napa Valley. No more. Now, Carneros supplies most of the Napa Valley wineries with the pinot noir grapes for their wines. Carneros Pinots offer more strawberry and cherry flavors, and tend to be lighter and more delicate, than Pinots from appellations both north and south of this one at the top of San Francisco Bay.
Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley to the north and west of Carneros, are known for their great texture and fruit complexity, exhibit more dark cherry-like fruit and tend to be more restrained, elegant and refined in comparison to Pinots from the South-Central Coast. Santa Barbara County vineyards like Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley and Sanford & Benedict in Santa Ynez Valley yield fruit that produces forceful Pinots that are deeply fruited and expressive, sometimes with spicy, peppery or smoky qualities, sometimes with an herbal influence. At the other end of the California coast, Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs tend to be graceful, beautifully fruity wines with fine acidity, tending more to red cherry and ripe strawberry flavor components.
Over the last several months, the Vintners Club panel has sampled and evaluated two dozen current-release Pinot Noirs from all over California. Here are the top-ranked wines:
FIRST PLACE WINES
1995 Signorello Pinot Noir, Las Amigas Vineyard, Carneros ($48)
Wonderfully fragrant and aromatic, with scents of ripe strawberries, mushrooms, smoky oak and a hint of green herbs. Rich, round and luscious in the mouth with lots of ripe strawberry-red raspberry fruit, excellent depth of flavor, good complexity and a spicy finish.
1996 Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir Reserve, Carneros ($22)
Forward, fragrant, spicy scents of strawberries and black cherries along with a big dose of oak. A rich and generous wine with lots of very ripe -- but not pruny -- Pinot fruit accented by vanillin oak.
SECOND PLACE WINES
1996 Sanford Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County ($22)
Somewhat floral nose with exotic "forest floor" scents mingled with warm spice, lightly charred oak and red fruits. An elegant offering from this winery otherwise known for its forceful Pinots, the Sanford Pinot Noir is soft and fleshy, with spicy cherry fruit and medium tannins.
1996 Signorello Pinot Noir, Martinelli Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($45)
Very forward and expressive nose of toasty, smoky oak that almost resembles bacon rind, ripe wild strawberries and a hint of clove-cinnamon spice. A glorious wine on the palate, delivering loads of concentrated, deep, ripe strawberry fruit and exotic spice. A spectacular effort that's worth the hefty price.
THIRD PLACE WINES
1996 J. Stonestreet & Sons Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($33)
Forward, deep, slightly smoky aromas of freshly crushed strawberries and vanillin oak lead to similar flavors that have an earthy nuance. Smooth, luscious and round on the palate with good acidity and thoroughly delicious flavors.
1996 David Bruce Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($26)
Delicate, attractive scents of vanilla and cherry-strawberry fruit lead to similar flavors on the palate that are much deeper and forceful than the nose suggests, starting off with a burst of ripe red fruits.
FOURTH PLACE WINES
1996 Beringer Pinot Noir, Appellation Collection, North Coast ($16)
Pleasant, though slightly restrained aromas of cherries and strawberries, rose petals and lightly toasted oak. A generous and delicious Pinot Noir with nice complexity and good acidity, and flavors of ripe strawberries, vanilla custard and a hint of chocolate. Good Value.
1996 Signorello Pinot Noir, Las Amigas Vineyard, Carneros ($45)
Distinctive, slow-to-open nose of smoky oak, black pepper and ripe red cherries. Soft and round on the palate with good depth of flavor and moderate tannins, this bottling will require more time than the 1995 Signorello from the same vineyard to achieve harmonious balance.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.