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Cool-Climate Pinot Noir
Some grape varieties require a cool climate for best results, foremost among them pinot noir. Whereas cabernet sauvignon thrives in warm, sunny growing areas, such as the Napa Valley, pinot noir is best suited to temperate, foggy, even marginal appellations. Pinot noir buds early and ripens early, and the longer the berries can stay on the vine before becoming too ripe, the more complex the resulting wine will be. Too much heat and sun cause pinot noir to ripen before it has a chance to develop its full potential for flavor and aroma.
Pinot's preference for cooler climes is best illustrated by observing that in France, pinot noir is grown almost exclusively in the chilly, northeastern regions of Burgundy and Champagne, and is not found at all in the southwestern region of Bordeaux, where cabernet sauvignon and merlot dominate. The French cannot understand why Californians plant pinot noir in the same area as cabernet sauvignon.
California possesses mostly a warm, Mediterranean-type climate insofar as wine growing is concerned. But there are small pockets offering cooler temperatures located throughout the state, almost always found near the coast or along a river valley that makes its way to the sea. Mendocino's Anderson Valley, Sonoma's Russian River Valley, Carneros at the top of San Pablo Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains are examples of these cool regions in the north state. To the south, Arroyo Grande Valley, Santa Maria Valley and the western portion of the Santa Ynez Valley enjoy temperate climates because the coastal mountains in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties run uniquely east to west, instead of north to south, drawing to vineyards located there the cooling influence of ocean fog. These areas produce excellent pinot noir.
North of California, Oregon is divided into two separate winegrowing regions divided by the Cascade Mountains. To the east, the climate is warm and dry, with most of the rainfall blocked by the mountains. On the west side of the Cascades, however, the situation is reversed. Here, two valleys -- the Willamette and the Umpaqua -- are favored by a marine climate, creating the cool, temperate conditions in which pinot noir thrives.
Finding a cool, well-drained site for pinot noir grapes is only the first step in producing good wine. Other important considerations include proper management of the vineyard during the growing season, knowing when to harvest for best results and, most importantly, using the proper wine-making techniques for the specific grapes harvested. These variables account for the wide differences in Pinot Noir bottlings, and help to explain why some Pinots from the same vintage and the same growing area are better than others, as well as why Pinots from one growing area are better than those from another growing area.
Over the last few months, the Vintners Club has held several blind tastings of Pinot Noirs. In one tasting, six Pinots from California were judged against six Pinots from Oregon, with most of the wines coming from the 1993 vintage. In another, the panel evaluated 12 Pinots from the 1993 and 1994 harvests from the South Central Coast northward to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Finally, the panel judged 12 new-release Pinots from 1993 and 1994 from a variety of California growing areas, including the North Coast, the Central Coast and the South Central Coast.
The results from evaluating these 36 wines point to the fact that while 1993 was a very good year for Pinot Noir, 1994 was even better. Almost twice as many wines from 1993 were evaluated by the Vintners Club panel compared to 1994 (21 to 12), yet seven Pinots from 1994 were ranked in the upper half of the rankings, compared to nine Pinots from 1993.
In order to provide as much information about the best of these wines as early as possible, the tasting notes portion of this column departs from the regular format to focus on the top four wines from each of the three separate tastings.
FIRST PLACE WINES:
1992 Ponzi Pinot Noir, Reserve, Willamette Valley ($30)
Very fragrant, appealing nose of wild raspberry-red cherry fruit, vanilla, clove spice and mildly toasty oak. On the palate, there's lots of vanilla accompanied by generous, rich, red fruit flavors, plus a hint of white pepper; excellent depth and concentration. Medium tannins; smooth, round and supple in the mouth, and very delicious now.
1993 Bernardus Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($25)
Pleasant, complex aromas of strawberries and red cherries enhanced by light vanillan oak, cinnamon and tobacco leaf. Moderately rich in the mouth with flavors that replicate the nose; slightly tart. Complex and well made with fruit from one of the state's best vineyards, the Bernadus Pinot Noir shows good potential for improvement with a couple of years in the cellar.
1994 Fess Parker Pinot Noir, American Tradition Reserve, Santa Barbara County ($28)
Slightly herbal nose that offers ripe cherry-berry fruit accompanied by a warm earthiness characteristic of good Pinot Noir, plus some toasty oak. Medium-full bodied, the wine's flavors focus on berry fruit and toasty oak, with the earthiness coming through nicely. Medium tannins; somewhat coarse finish.
SECOND PLACE WINES:
1993 Calera Pinot Noir, Mills Vineyard, Mt. Harlan ($35)
Smoky in the beginning, the nose opens slowly to reveal cherries and strawberries, cinnamon spice and roasted coffee. Generous and nicely concentrated on the palate, the wine offers delicious, ripe, sweet red fruit flavors buoyed by excellent acidity. Medium tannins; slightly chewy finish. There's more than enough fruit here which needs just a little more time than usual to get through the new oak. A good candidate for cellar treatment.
1993 Cambria Pinot Noir, Reserve, Santa Maria Valley ($35)
Wonderfully aromatic, offering scents of vanilla custard and ripe cherry-berry fruit. A big wine with medium-full body and medium-full tannins, there's plenty of ripe cherry-berry fruit here, along with spice and vanilla. Two to three years of aging will soften and round out the palate and add to the wine's inherent complexity.
1994 Cambria Pinot Noir, Julia's Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($22)
Riper fruit characterizes this wine compared to the '93 reserve from Cambria, with this wine offering fragrant red cherry-strawberry aromas plus lots of oak influence -- medium-high char, toasted almonds and vanilla. Extractive and delicious with flavors that replicate the nose. Very slightly hot in the finish. A generous price for such an impressive wine.
THIRD PLACE WINES:
1993 Witness Tree Pinot Noir, Vintage Select, Willamette Valley ($25)
Plenty of toasty new oak in the nose which almost eclipses the pretty cherry fruit and clove spice. There's also a hint of leather in the nose, which many found appealing. Mouthfilling, with deep, though currently angular, berry-cassis fruit accompanied by lots of new oak. It's almost unfair to judge this wine now, since it was obviously made for aging; excellent potential.
1993 Sanford Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Forward, fragrant aromas of ripe strawberry fruit, vanilla and a hint of Burgundian earthiness. This medium-full bodied effort offers ripe, almost jammy, strawberry fruit accompanied by a hint of acceptable volatile acidity (giving the wine a balsamic vinegar-like edge). Best consumed over the next couple of years.
1994 Sanford Pinot Noir, Central Coast ($18)
Fresh, appealing, fruity scents of red cherries and light mintiness lead to similar flavors on the palate, where the fruit fairly "sings" due to the excellent acid balance and easy oak. A delicious, lighter-style Pinot that will work with a wide variety of foods, grilled salmon and baked chicken springing immediately to mind.
FOURTH PLACE WINES:
1993 Sanford Pinot Noir, Barrel Select, Santa Ynez Valley ($30)
The light ruby color doesn't prepare one for the deeply extracted raspberry fruit on the palate, which also exhibits vanilla, cedar, mild herbaceousness and warm earthiness. Layer after layer of flavors excite the palate, suggesting a grand cru Burgundy. The complex, appealing nose is equally Burgundian, with raspberry-like fruit accompanied by black pepper and smoky bacon rind. One of Sanford's best Barrel Select Pinots, as superb as the legendary 1989 Barrel Select Pinot Noir.
1993 Meridian Pinot Noir, 64% Santa Barbara County/36% San Luis Obispo County ($14)
Slow-to-open, initially smoky nose eventually becomes quite complex, revealing deep black cherry-strawberry fruit accented by forest-floor earthiness, cinnamon spice, toasty oak, glove leather and a hint of green herbs. Concentrated and delicious in the mouth, exhibiting spicy red fruit and medium tannins. Excellent value for the price.
1994 Hartford Court Pinot Noir, Arrendell Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($42)
Only 400 cases of this stylish and delicious Pinot Noir were produced, which accounts for the hefty price. Lots of clove spice right off the nose, followed by ripe strawberry and a touch of herbs. Generous on the palate with medium tannins, the wine is fairly bursting with ripe strawberry-like fruit plus toasty new French oak; long, clove-tinged finish. The winery is a new member of the Artisans & Estates group of wineries operating under the Kendall-Jackson banner. To get on the winery's mailing list, call (800) 769-3649.
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.