CALIFORNIA PINOT NOIR: STEADY IMPROVEMENT YIELDS MANY FINE CHOICES
For decades in California, pinot noir frustrated even the best winemakers. With Burgundy as the benchmark and Oregon making great strides, in California it became known as the “heartbreak grape”. In recent years, though, California has begun to figure out pinot noir. Producers (growers and winemakers) are employing better clones and winemaking matched to more appropriate sites. Today, there are numerous appellations along a 500-mile stretch from Mendocino to Santa Barbara sourcing fine Pinot Noir.
The best sites are characterized by proximity to the Pacific Ocean and are impacted by the associated fog and cooling breezes leading to long growing seasons that encourage optimum ripeness with forceful, fresh acidity, yet notable elegance. The best reveal pure cherry (sometimes red berries or plum) fruit with integrated forest, earth and brown spice notes.
I tasted over 50 wines in the past year. Most were good but I did still find quality/price issues – some still didn’t deliver a level of quality to justify the increasingly high prices. The ones in this report (traveling from north to south) met that criterion comfortably.
California’s North Coast
Remote, rugged and sparsely populated, the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County is an unexpected source of fine Pinot Noir. The wines typically are concentrated, with noticeable tannin structure but deftly balance power and elegance. The 2015 Goldeneye ($55), with its smoky oak, dense fruit, and grace epitomizes this style. The delightful 2015 FEL ($38) also reveals enticing plum and forest notes.
The Russian River Valley in Sonoma County arguably is one of the top sources of Pinot Noir in the world. With the climate cooled by morning fog funneled through the valley from the Pacific Coast, the wines from this region are marked by fullness, complexity and balance. My favorites of this tasting were the large scaled, complex 2015 Sonoma-Loeb “Dutton Ranch” ($40) with lots of dark fruit, spice and oak, and the lively, intense 2015 Sonoma-Loeb “Bateman” ($60) for its pure fruit accented by forest notes. The 2014 Rodney Strong ($25), with solid fruit and tea notes, and the 2016 Raeburn ($25), with pure red fruit and fine acidity, are good values.
The Sonoma Coast is California’s newest “hot” region for Pinot Noir. But ironically that’s mainly because of its cool climate, similar to the Russian Valley heavily influenced by fog, rain and wind from the Pacific Ocean. I was particularly impressed with three wines from MacRostie, especially the 2014 Wildcat Mountain ($56) for its pure fruit, floral hints and aromatic herbs; and the 2014 Goldrock Ridge ($56) with its supple, savory nature; while the 2014 Sonoma Coast ($38) with its vibrant fruit and earth-tinged character was not far behind. For a good value, try the 2015 La Crema ($25) with its plum fruit, woodsy character and fine tannins.
Straddling the southern end of Sonoma and Napa counties, Carneros has transformed from sheep and dairy ranches to prime vineyard land over the last fifty years. Cooled by fog and winds from the bordering San Pablo Bay, the resulting wines typically display admirable delicacy, balance and freshness. The three wines from Carneros in my tasting all were outstanding. The 2015 Frank Family ($35) is quite earthy and spicy, while richly textured. The 2015 Clos du Val “Gran Val Vineyard” ($60) shows abundant juicy fruit, in a complex mix of floral, spice and earth qualities. The 2014 Bouchaine Estate ($35) is nearly as good with sweet but focused berries accented with baking spices.
California’s Central Coast
By Central Coast, I mean Monterey, San Louis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. As with the North Coast, most of the best sites are characterized by proximity to the Pacific Ocean and its influences.
In the northern part of Monterey County, certain microclimates enjoy a balance between the cold winds coming off the Monterey Bay and the heat of the Salinas Valley inland. From vineyards throughout the county, the 2015 La Crema Pinot Noir ($23) is a good value option.
Being very close to the ocean and those strong, cold winds, there are fewer such prime sites in Monterey’s Carmel Valley. Albatross Ridge has found a really good one with coveted limestone soils only seven miles from the ocean. The extreme conditions, including steep slopes, yield sophisticated expressions of pinot noir, such as the 2014 Estate Reserve ($60) with its complex mixture of bright fruit, forest and mineral qualities, and satiny texture.
The south facing slopes of the Santa Lucia Highlands inland from Carmel personify Monterey’s interplay between cooling ocean and inland heat. And the wines, known for deep berry fruit and enticing floral character, have rocketed to acclaim in the last few decades. Unfortunately, many are small production but these two are more available. The 2014 J. Lohr “Highlands Bench” ($35) is a fine example with its full, rich body and silky texture. Talbott Vineyards makes several fine wines from its Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, including the 2015 Kali Hart ($26), which I found to be a good value for its approachable, bright character.
The Arroyo Seco region to the south of the Santa Lucia Highlands also has emerged as a good source. From the Scheid family, one of Monterey’s largest growers, the 2015 Metz Road Riverview Vineyard ($35), nestled on a bench overlooking the Salinas River not far from Soledad, nicely balances bright red fruit with ample herbal notes. Carmel Road winery, part of the Kendall-Jackson stable, has fashioned three beautiful wines in the 2014 vintage from the Panorama Vineyard: “North Crest” ($55) – dark and full with intense spice, “South Crest” ($55) – tangy red fruit and firm but silky mouthfeel, and “First Row” ($55) – delightful floral and spice notes wrapped around deep red fruits.
Further south in San Louis Obispo County, the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley are relatively small in size but a handful of small, artisan producers have shown their promise in a big way. The 2015 Tolosa “1772” ($65) is a fine representative of Edna Valley, marked by textural lushness and beautiful balance. From Arroyo Grande, the 2014 Talley Estate Bottled ($36), which is just one of a long line of Talley bottlings, offers vibrant red fruit, with attractive mineral and spice.
Finally, a few miles farther south in Santa Barbara County (an hour and a half north of Los Angeles) two regions rival Sonoma as California’s best source of Pinot Noir. Typically, Santa Maria Valley wines tend toward elegance, bright fruit and precise structure. Though I had only one such wine in my tasting, I found the 2014 Cambria “Benchbreak” ($25), a selection from the estate’s Julia’s Vineyard to be a fine value. Not surprising, as it is estate grown, family-owned, and sustainably farmed.
Santa Rita Hills sub-appellation within the Santa Ynez Valley is distinctive as it runs in a west-to-east direction that efficiently funnels those cooling fog and winds from the Pacific Ocean. From Sanford, the pioneering winery of the region, the 2014 Santa Rita Hills ($35) delivers energetic red fruit with pleasant earthy and smoky notes. More recently, Sea Smoke has emerged as a benchmark winery of the area. Its 2014 Southing ($60) offers loads of fruit with intriguing savory notes, licorice and firm structure.
Up and down the California coast, Pinot Noir has emerged as a world-class wine. Take a tour for yourself.