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Bernardus and Bien Nacido Vineyard: Big Winners in Pinot Noir Taste-Off
The first-place winery is usually considered the winner in a Vintners Club Taste-Off, in which the top three wines from each of four 12-wine elimination tastings are reassembled and retasted against each other to determine the best of the best of the particular variety. In this year's Pinot Noir Taste-Off, there was, certainly, a first-place winery winner, but one vineyard also stood out as a champ.
The Bien Nacido Vineyard is the most prestigious and best known vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley appellation in Santa Barbara County, a region that owes much of its reputation as a producer of world-class wines to the remarkable Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Pinot Blancs and Syrahs produced from Bien Nacido grapes. In the Club's latest Pinot Noir Taste-Off, the Bien Nacido Vineyard provided the grapes for the first-, fifth- and sixth-place wines, a remarkable achievement.
In addition to these three Santa Barbara County wines, two more of the finalists came from the county, for a total of five South-Central Coast Pinots. Another finalist came from the Chalone appellation, a small growing area in the Gabilan Mountains near the Pinnacles National Monument east of the town of Soledad in Monterey County. Three each came from Carneros and Sonoma County.
Don Blackburn, winemaker for Bernardus Winery in the Carmel Valley of Monterey County, is French trained and oriented. All of his early impressions about wine came from his education and apprenticeship in France. His passion for Burgundian wine lead him to focus on sites in California that might yield equally impressive fruit. "I believe now that the two best pinot noir vineyard regions are Santa Maria and Russian River," he says. "After that come Carneros and the Pinnacles. For me, Bien Nacido is the best source of pinot noir because the fruit from there is more virile and expressive and the wines are more expressive and charming."
In Blackburn's opinion, the Bien Nacido Vineyard "provides optimal conditions for a great Pinot Noir. The soils are marine, light sandy loam, and the vineyard produces a small crop of grapes with extremely intense flavors and color. The temperatures are moderate, benefiting from cool Pacific breezes and early morning fog, and are stable throughout the growing season. These grapes need no fancy touches to correct a natural shortcoming."
Blackburn has been making Pinot Noir from Bien Nacido fruit since the 1993 vintage. He describes these wines as "very expressive and forward; a little spicy and slightly smoky and peppery." It's also the "easiest wine that we make at Bernardus," he says. "If the site is well-suited to making a great wine, the winemaking process is straightforward and the wine will express its inherent greatness," Blackburn explains. "If the vineyard isn't well suited, no amount of heroic efforts or artistic craftsmanship will create a great wine." According to proprietor Bernardus "Ben" Pon, "For Don, the textural element -- the mouth-feel -- is the most important expression of wine. With this old-world sense of taste, Don seeks to make wines that flatter the palate and are seriously delicious."
Bien Nacido Vineyard consists of nearly 900 acres, of which over 200 are planted in pinot noir. Many wineries buy these grapes, often designating which rows they would like. Late last year, the Vintners Club panel evaluated Pinot Noirs from 12 wineries all made with Bien Nacido fruit. The only other occasion such a "vineyard survey" has been possible was a tasting of twelve Chardonnays from different producers all using fruit from the huge, 1000-plus-acre Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros.
Bien Nacido Vineyard is one of just a few viticultural nurseries in California for certified budwood, and has the distinction of being the largest "increase block" ever planted (an increase block is a vineyard or a section of a vineyard from which cuttings may be used for the propagation of "certified" grapevines). All the vines were originally from stock grown by the University of California at Davis.
1995 Bernardus Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($35)
Expressive nose of ripe wild strawberries, tobacco leaf, dried herbs and smoky oak. Generous, silky, supple and luscious with exquisite balance, the wine's complex flavors include strawberry and red cherry fruit, white pepper, nicely integrated, spicy oak and a touch of warm earthiness. Head and shoulders above the competition, the 1995 Bernardus is a classic expression of Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. Only 284 cases were made.
1994 Chateau St. Jean Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($18)
Slow-to-open nose that eventually shows pleasant cherry fruit enhanced by vanilla custard and lightly toasty oak. A big wine for Pinot, with lots of ripe, plummy berry-cassis fruit with cherry highlights mingled with fragrant vanilla. More brawny than elegant, but deeply flavored and showing good acidity.
1994 David Bruce Pinot Noir, Chalone ($30)
Forward scents of fresh, ripe cherries, strawberries and red plums, cinnamon-clove spice and vanilla. Delicate and elegant in the mouth with medium tannins, the wine's flavors replicate the nose and are but modestly complex. A tasty wine, nevertheless, that will serve well with food.
1995 David Bruce Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($18)
Fragrant, mildly toasty nose offering cherry-strawberry fruit, violets, shy herbaceousness and cinnamon spice. Firm, yet rich in the mouth and moderately complex, with lots of bing cherry fruit and warm spice. Excellent ageing potential.
1995 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir, "La Bauge au Dessus," Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($30)
Distinctive aromas of orange zest, ripe, jammy strawberries and smoky oak. Smooth, rich and supple in the mouth with lots of sweet strawberry fruit buoyed by bright acidity, the "La Bauge" is generous, wonderfully fruity and absolutely delicious.
1996 Foxen Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($30)
Foxen always makes extraordinary wines, and this Pinot is no exception. Forward, fragrant scents of vanilla, freshly crushed wild strawberries and clove spice, enhanced by fig compote and shy dried herb notes. A generous, elegant wine in the mouth with medium tannins and ripe cherry-strawberry fruit that is concentrated and deep, plus a hint of dried herbs in the long finish.
1994 Buena Vista Pinot Noir, Grand Reserve, Carneros ($22)
Strawberries and raspberries in the nose, accented by some warm, loamy earthiness, smoked bacon, med-char oak and a decadent mushroom-like component that is sometimes described as "good barnyard." Luscious and supple in the mouth with generous flavors focusing on ripe red fruits and mild spice. A complex, flavorful wine with medium tannins, and a great value at this price.
1994 Signorello Pinot Noir, Los Amigos Vineyard, Carneros-Napa Valley ($35)
Very smoky nose that somewhat masks the fruit. Delicate and mildly spicy on the palate offering luscious textures and medium tannins, the wine's fruit resembles dried cherries mingled with strawberries. Still quite young, with good ageing potential.
1994 Cambria Pinot Noir, Reserve-Unfiltered, Santa Barbara County ($42)
Spicy nose of strawberries and black cherries, smoky oak and lots of vanilla, accented by notes of rose petals, cocoa and wild mushrooms. The flavors replicate the nose and are comparatively restrained at this point, with the vanilla being prominent; smooth and supple, with good acidity and a long, vanilla-tinged finish.
1993 Byron Pinot Noir, Reserve-Unfiltered, Santa Barbara County ($22.50)
Complex, intriguing nose of cola and cherries, moderately smoky oak, a hint of tar, plus warm spice. Moderately complex flavors of red fruits and new oak, with undertones of raw red meat, which some tasters found inconsistent with varietal Pinot Noir.
1994 Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir, Carneros ($26)
Scents of toasty oak and cherry-berry fruit, mingled with a leafy component and mushroom-like earthiness. There's plenty of flavor here -- strawberries and smoky oak -- but also some tartness that some found off-putting.
1995 La Crema Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($21)
Toasty, slightly earthy, strawberry nose that is comparatively less intense than the others in the group, with a minty component that soon blows off. Smooth, silky and elegant with moderately deep strawberry fruit, this wine lost points with the panel for its restrained nose.
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.