by Tom Hyland
December 17, 2018
“Pinot Noir, wherever it is grown, is a challenging variety. It’s been called ‘the heartbreak grape,’ and the efforts undertaken by winemakers have been called the ‘quest for the Holy Grail,’ at least in viticultural terms.
Producers in California are as passionate about making the perfect Pinot Noir – or at least one as good as possible – and it’s a mission that has been going on for over 50 years. Today, there are wineries in many parts of the state that have taken Pinot Noir by the horns, so to speak, and have come up with some very impressive results.
How have they done it? Is it soil, climate, when the grapes are harvested, the type of barrels used? As with any wine, it’s a combination of all of these, but perhaps no other grape is as dissected as much as Pinot Noir.
I asked Jon Priest, senior winemaker for Etude, located in Carneros (where Napa and Sonoma County meet at the southern border of Napa), about this. What is the single most important thing in the production of Pinot Noir? He was firm in his response. ‘Absolutely the site. Pinot Noir expresses the peculiarities of a site (terroir) more than most varieties. The potential for quality and individuality only comes from the place in which the vines are grown.’
That being the case, let’s examine some of the major growing zones in California from Pinot Noir, from north to south.
Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
One of the most famous territories for California Pinot Noir is the Russian River Valley, named for the east-west river that flows into the Pacific. The names of the local producers read like a who’s who in California Pinot Noir: Rochioli; Gary Farrell; Joseph Swan; Dehlinger; Dutton Estate Winery; Dutton Goldfield; Kistler; Merry Edwards; William Selyem and several others.
As many vineyards are close to the river (and the ocean) fog plays its part here, limiting sunshine hours per day, and ensuring a long growing season that results in expressive aromatics (floral – roses and carnations – as well as intriguing notes of cola) and lively acidity. The best examples combine beautiful structure with subdued spice notes; the best examples also have a sense of minerality.
Sonoma Coast / Fort Ross-Seaview
The Sonoma Coast is a large appellation, encompassing much of Sonoma County, inland as well as the coast. Thus it is difficult to define the style of a Pinot Noir labeled with the Sonoma Coast AVA designation, which is why some producers speak of the ‘true Sonoma Coast,’ this being a small area near the towns of Fort Ross and Cazadero. This small area is now a separate appellation known as Fort Ross-Seaview (unofficially known as the ‘Extreme Sonoma Coast’); vineyards here are between 900 and 1100 feet above sea level, and are strongly affected by early morning fog as well as coastal breezes. Pinot Noirs from Fort Ross are deeply colored, intensely flavored and structured for several years of aging.
Reviews on recommended current releases of California Pinot Noir
2015 MacRostie Thale’s Vineyard Pinot Noir – Excellent
(Russian River Valley) – Deep garnet; aromas of morel cherry, cardamom and juniper. Medium-full, this has impressive varietal character, medium-weight tannins, very good acidity and notable persistence. The wood notes are subdued and there are notes of subtle brown spice in the finish. Nice harmony throughout. 5-7 years.
2015 MacRostie Hellenthal Vineyard Pinot Noir – Superb
(Fort Ross-Seaview) – Beautiful young garnet; aromas of bing cherry, cardamom and a hint of pepper flakes. Medium-full with very good concentration. Very seductive style of Pinot Noir in which the oak adds a sensual touch. Very good acidity, medium-weight tannins and impressive persistence. Light herbal character in the finish; notes of sandalwood. Best in 5-7 years.”