Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Exploring California Pinot Noir

This year, 2013, one of my resolutions was to explore more California Pinot Noir. That's not to say I am unfamiliar with pinot from California, I was afforded many tastes during the nine years I worked in the wine industry there. Most of the "cult" wines graced my glass at one point or another, and I even was on the mailing list for Radio Coteau and Sea Smoke over a period of several years.

As is wont to happen though, my tastes changed (I prefer "evolved"). Right around 2008/2009 I started seeking more pinot noir from Burgundy and Oregon. The typical reasons manifest in my story too; becoming tired with over-ripe and overly alcoholic wines, seeking something new, craving more acidity and red fruit orientation.

Now, with the successive cooler vintages in California, I am anxious to see what is coming from my former home. I hear breathless praise of higher-acid wines with structure and balance coming out of the usual suspects, and the wine forums are buzzing with ever present comparisons to Burgundy and even Oregon. The years 2009, 2010, and 2011 have all gotten praise from various quarters, and after enough of that hype, I decided I wanted to see for myself what was going on. As a blogger, I am enjoying tasting through all these wines, good and bad, and trying to present them to you, reader. Of note to any PR or marketing folks who read this blog, I am continuing to accept California Pinot Noir even as I scale back acceptance of other wines.

Here are some recently tasted examples of pinot noir from California:

2009 La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir: Big, brawny nose of tar, smoke, plum/blackberry, and black tea. Some alcoholic heat too. On the palate, very ripe with blackberries and cherries galore, anise, dark chocolate, and sweet plum flesh. Some pepper tickles the edges of the palate, thankfully reducing the abundance of fruit present. The finish is unfortunately a hot mess, literally. Alcoholic heat that stings as it goes down. Unfortunate, because without that, this is a pinot I can see a lot of people really enjoying. Pairs best with big flavors, like steak! $40 SRP. 15.5% abv.

2009 Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: Muted nose with hints of forest floor, black cherry, and anise notes as a secondary aroma. Some wet-barrel smell came out with swirling. On the palate it's very light-bodied and somewhat bland, the strongest note is the anise. Subtle flavors of dried red currant, cherry, and pleasing minerality do show up eventually though. Nice acidity, keeping the body light and fresh. An easy drinking pinot noir but lacking in character. $32 SRP. 14.2% abv.

2009 Sojourn Pinot Noir Gap's Crown Vineyard Sonoma Coast: Nice red fruit on the nose, with raspberry, strawberry, and spices all balancing each other well. A hint of wood but not bad, as it enhanced the bouquet. There's a juiciness to the bouquet that I found very appealing, as if this wine is bursting with life. On the palate it's definitely young and still sorting itself out. More cherries and strawberries come out, some firm tannin, but a lack of acidity was somewhat disappointing to me. I was hoping for a more textural pinot, this one is smooth and soft, very easy to drink, but a little on the simple side. Still, I have a few more bottles so I'll check in with this again at a later date. $48 SRP.

2009 Sojourn Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: Opens with an intense, raspberry-preserve aroma that carries through to the palate. Hints of pepper try in vain to make themselves known but ultimately get washed out by the raspberry jam. The purity of fruit was itself exceptional, but that was pretty much the only thing going on in this wine. Acidity tarted up the back end but it felt tacked-on, and wasn't at all integrated. No subtlety or nuance here, just pure, hedonistic fruit. $42 SRP.

2010 Siduri Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills: Shows some reduction on the nose but that blows off, revealing aromas of strawberry licorice, pepper, cherries, and spice. Very smooth on the palate with a fun, interesting savory note to temper the sweet red fruit. Flavors of cherry pie, baking spices, and bright red fruit. The finish is clean and tapers off gently. Overall this is a fun, delicious pinot noir from an excellent producer. $25 srp.

2011 Siduri Pinot Noir Sonoma County: Similarly showing a bit of reduction, which in this case blew off faster than in the Sta. Rita Hills bottling. Beyond that, plenty of deliciously tart red fruit, cherry Jolly Rancher, and a bit of wood. On the palate I found this somewhat plain but not lacking for sheer "yum" factor. Lots of flavors of ripe red fruit - think strawberry and raspberry - which themselves have great acidity. Beyond that though, there isn't much going on. $28 srp.

2011 Siduri Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: Very funky at first, showing cola and stem aromas mixed with black cherry and spices. Plenty of ripe fruit starts things on the palate but those flavors are quickly balanced out by some complex wood and spice notes, and an earthy black peppercorn flavor that I was thoroughly enjoying. Lots of funk shows on the palate too but not in a bad way, it fits into the complex nature of this wine. Delicious stuff for under $25 srp.

2011 Hahn Winery Nicky Hahn Pinot Noir California: Pours a beautifully vibrant ruby color in the glass, a testament to its youth. The nose is full of ripe, jammy cherry preserves, baking spice, some woodsy aromas, and a touch of earth. Cherry jam dominates the palate, providing a soft, rich mouthfeel. The baking spices come out to play a little bit on the finish, which in itself is nice if a bit short. 100% pinot noir, according to the data sheet I have. 14.5% abv. $14 retail.

2010 Garnet Vineyards Pinot Noir Carneros: Loads of raspberry and strawberry aromas followed by a bit of white pepper spices. I think there's a bit of funk here too, some nail-polish remover came out as the wine warmed up. I think this pinot is very varietally correct on the palate, with light red fruit, peppery spice, hints of earthy funk, and lots of acidity. The finish is medium length, tapering off nicely, however, the bottle was open about five hours before the finish got to be any reasonable length. It might need a bit of age or an hour in a decanter before it shows all its facets. 13.5% abv. $19 retail.

2009 High Flyer Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands: Immediately I noticed the alcohol on this wine, which seems to fight with intense red fruit aromas and spice. There's a bit of volatile acidity but to me it adds an interetsing facet. Plenty of spicy red cherry and raspberry on the palate, along with a healthy dose of oak. I liked the finish here, after about four hours, because it was so smooth and gentle. Overall, a solid bottle of pinot noir from a producer I've never tasted. $36 srp.

The Siduri wines were the most complete out of any on this list, which just goes to prove that price doesn't always matter. I will contend though that it does matter to some extent whenever you deal with a grape as finicky as pinot noir. Still, the rest of the wines showed themselves quite well at their price points. Admittedly I struggled a little bit with the Sojourn wines, given their critical acclaim, but I suspect I need to get used to that style and perhaps better understand the regions which they come from.

If the above list is any indication, 2013 will be a fun year for me as I continue to explore California Pinot Noir. Keep checking back through the months as I will keep posting whenever I get a nice sample size of wines to taste.

Many of these wines were samples for review purposes.

Beau Carufel


  1. Fun and interesting approach.

    I noticed a 2010 in there....based on my knowledge, the 2010 vintage caught a lot of people by surprise with a big blast of heat late in the season. Most vineyards were not prepared and brix spiked above what many were looking for.....including the (normally lower %) Clos Pepe vineyard. Based on your style, something to consider.

    I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on a few smaller producers that are dedicated to producing less fruit driven wines that have the acid you mention. If you are able, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Presqu'ile (Santa Maria Valley) or Storm (Santa Ynez, winemaker for Curtis). If I were blind folded I'd swear the Presqu'ile was an Oregon wine. Cheers Beau!

  2. Hey Shawn, I will put those names on my short list of producers to try. As you can tell from the above, I was sampling many larger producers to get things rolling. Are you familiar with Cobb, Littorai, Wind Gap, Hirsch, and Arcadian? Those are some other small producers who are now on my radar for more balanced pinots. Any thoughts?

  3. Or have you tried Melville in the SRH area?

    1. I have and enjoy the Melville wines, or at least, I did last time I had them. I confess, it's been several years though.