Friday, January 22, 2010

Pinot Noir: California versus Oregon

In Germany, the Pinot Noir is called Spätburgunder and is to red wine what the Riesling is to white wine: the cream of the crop. In the US, Pinot Noir shows great promise in Oregon and California.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller

The reputation that gets Pinot Noir so much attention, however, is owed to the wines of the Bourgogne in France, where it has probably been cultivated since at least the 4th century. Regardless of where it’s grown, Pinot Noir is not typically a value wine. That is so because Pinot Noir is such a delicate grape that it is difficult and expensive to grow and make into the spectacular wine it can be. It is sensitive to climate and soil, Pinot Noir needs warmth (but not intense heat) to thrive and does well in chalky soils. As the German name implies, it ripens late (spät).

Bill Dailey from the Chicago Tribune tried to do a contest between Pinot Noirs from California and Oregon, using such tools as facebook and twitter. "In general, the Oregon pinots were lighter in color, fruitier in the nose and cleaner on the palate than the Californians, which were dark, smelled more like hay and mushrooms and had more powerful fruit." Interestingly, California came out as winner. Here are the wines that he included in the contest and his assesments.

2007 Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley: Full fruit flavor deepened with woodland notes and a sense of the earth. Evocative nose offered touches of hay, smoke, cedar and spice. Colored a beautiful deep garnet. Serve with seared duck breast, beef stew, foie gras. ✭✭✭ $42

2008 ForeFront, Willamette Valley: A somewhat faint nose bloomed a little in the glass, offering floral and pepper notes. The taste was bigger, dark cherry fruit underlined with cedar and earth. Short tannic smack on the finish. Serve with pasta and mushroom sauce, steak, prime rib. ✭✭✭ $24

2007 Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills: This Willamette Valley wine was markedly lighter in color than the rest. A lean, elegant wine with notes of earth, pine, dark cherry. Serve with grilled salmon, scallops in vanilla sauce, crown roast. ✭✭✭ $38

2007 Rued Winery, Russian River Valley: A kirsch-like nose with flavor touches of cinnamon, cherry and spice. Serve with short ribs, lasagna, cheeseburgers. ✭✭ $35

2007 Sequana Sundawg Ridge Vineyard, Green Valley: A wine from a small wine region in the Russian River Valley. There were cherry, chocolate and plum flavors. Serve with venison in a berry sauce, rack of lamb, roast chicken. ✭✭ $50

2007 King Estate Signature Collection, Oregon: The simplest wine of the lot; sweet cherry predominated with just a slight cedary edge for balance. Bright red fruit on the nose. Serve with Asian pork loin, duck with plum sauce. ✭✭ $29

Bill Dailey’s full article is here.
Pinot Noir Smackdown: Oregon vs California
Jan 6, 2010
Chicago Tribune

The wine journalist Randy Caparoso, who I admire very much, took issue with this article: But as someone who makes a living doing these comparisons, I have to say this: you could select three different Oregon pinot noirs and three different California pinot noirs for another smackdown, and easily come up with the opposite conclusion -- that Oregon pinots are darker, having more powerful fruit and smell earthy, whereas California pinots are lighter in color, fruitier in the nose and "cleaner" (whatever the hell that means) on the palate. The growing conditions and winemaking styles that produce these differences in the two states have become so numerous and varied, it has become virtually impossible for even experienced pinot "experts" (this word, always a state of mind), much less average pinot lovers, to make out the differences in "blind" or "double-blind" tastings. In fact, it's been like that for well over ten, nearing twenty years now: pinot noirs in both California and Oregon are more varied and sophisticated than ever! So why report that one might be "better" than the other? Here is Randy Caparoso’s full article and here is the very interesting second half of it.

Randy Caparoso
Dumb, da dumb, dumb (wine journalist), a snapshot of Oregon's current finest pinot noirs
Jan 13, 2010
Denver Wine Examiner

Pinot noir has become synonymous with the relative cool climate grape growing regions of the Willamette Valley AVA (i.e. American Viticultural Area), stretching along the Oregon coast from Portland to Eugene; and consumers can now look forward to the more serious releases from the rainy, thus oft-maligned 2007 vintage. The better producers, says Penner-Ash winemaker/proprietor Lynn Penner-Ash, shouldn’t be “penalized” because “some winemakers can’t make wine in a cool, wet year.” As one of Oregon's most respected vintners, Penner-Ash pulled out all the tricks learned from her twenty-plus years in the Willamette, picking before, during and after the rains that persisted throughout the month of October. Her pièce de résistance and top-of-the-line, the 2007 Penner-Ash Pas de Nom, is simply amazing – plush, powerful, exotically scented.

For Joshua Bergström, the 2007 vintage was more a matter of patience and circumstance. “We waited six weeks from the time the rains started,” says Bergström, picking towards the end of November. For Bergström, Biodynamic® growing also is the difference. Less dependent upon “chemical diet,” Bergström’s plantings retain acidity, minerality and depth, with lower alcohol, in both “cold and hot vintages,” as evidenced by the deep, generous, pliant 2007 Bergström Dundee Hills Pinot Noir.
For the dry farmed, Biodynamic® certified Brick House Vineyards, according to proprietor Doug Tunnell, 2007 was “the most aromatic vintage in memory… during the harvest the entire winery smelled like a candy confectionary,” resulting in pinots like his 2007 Brick House Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir: hauntingly perfumed, in the fine, delicate style associated with this estate.

Is it a coincidence that other Biodynamic® producers were so successful in the challenging conditions of 2007? The 2007 Beaux Fréres Upper Terrace Pinot Noir is tasting like a banner year (certainly, among the winery's finest vintages ever): a silk tapestry of spiced strawberry and smoke. More proof-positive that you should never pay attention to premature, knee-jerk vintage assessments of the establishment wine press (i.e. dumb, de dumb, dumb); but rather, wait for the wines to actually go into bottle before tasting them, and drawing your own conclusions.

Further south in Willamette Valley's Eola-Amity Hills AVA, winemaker Isabelle Meunier (pictured just above) describes her deep rooted Seven Springs Vineyard (owned and managed by Evening Land Vineyards) as “bullet proof… impervious to rain, unaffected by heat.” The 2007 Seven Springs La Source Pinot Noir was picked during “good days” at the start of the October rains, yet few pinots from anywhere, any year, are as fine and luscious, bursting with wild raspberry, anise, rose petal and blueberry jam. Yet, not to be undone, the single vineyard Eola-Amity Hills bottlings by Cristom’s long respected winemaker, Steve Doerner, are also wildly successful; epitomized by the 2007 Cristom Jessie Vineyard Pinot Noir, a sweet, electrifying mix of red and black berry fragrances, smoky spices, dried cherry skin, and savory, gripping, round and muscular textures.

Since high demand Willamete Valley pinot noirs are often allocated or even pre-sold, it’s a good idea to get a handle on the upcoming 2008s. Perhaps no Oregonian makes wine in greater demand than Ken Wright, who says ‘08 was very cool, almost bleak, especially after a “significant rain the first week of October.” But this was followed by “twenty-two gloriously warm days that gave the grapes the opportunity to assemble everything… tremendous structure, and very agreeable, complex, delineated flavors.” A market indicator: the 2008 Ken Wright Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir, displaying ringingly bright, concentrated wild berry fruit tucked into densely layered textures, begging for more time in the bottle than usual for Oregon. Wright advises us to expect 2008 to be “not be as fleshy as ’06, ’02, or ’94,” but punctuated by an energetic acidity that “reminds me of ’88.”

But Oregon is not only about Willamette Valley. There are, in fact, a number of bright, effusive 2008 Pinot Noirs coming out of Southern Oregon (an AVA lying south of Eugene, extending down towards Cave Junction and Ashland along the California border) now entering the market. Del Rio Vineyard’s bright, youthful new winemaker, Jean-Michel Jussiaume (pictured just above), produced a 2008 Del Rio Pinot Noir that is lithe and flush with wild raspberry and strawberry, reflecting a loose-cluster year, lightened by a poor spring set. In Illinois Valley, in the far western reaches of Rogue Valley, Ted Gerber says his higher elevation Foris Vineyards never have “acidity issues.” In ’08, a “fabulous fall” ushered “ripening all the way through October,” yet allowed for picking at lower sugars (i.e. moderate alcohols). The 2008 Foris Maple Ranch Pinot Noir is alive with berryish fruit, yet deep, tight, compact.

A few weeks ago, I tasted the Pinot Noirs of Soter Vineyards from Oregon. Here are my tasting notes , which I have been published previously here.

Christian G.E.Schiller
Wine Tasting: Soter Wines from Oregon at Out-of-Sight Wines in Vienna, USA
November 26, 2009

Picture; Christian G.E. Schiller and Soter Wine Maker James Cahill

Soter Vineyards is in the Willamette Valley, were about two-thirds of the state's wineries and vineyards are. Buffered from Pacific storms on the west by the Coast Range, the valley follows the Willamette River north to south for more than a hundred miles from the Columbia River near Portland to just south of Eugene. It has been recognized as one of the premier Pinot Noir producing areas in the world, although it is still a young wine growing area. Pinot Noir has been planted in Oregon for a bit more than 40 years only. Sater Vineyard lays at the 45th parallel of latitude, just about on par with Burgundy some 6,000 miles to the east.

2007 Soter Pinot Noir "North Valley", a blend of Pinots from both Estate-grown fruit and also grapes purchased from some of Tony's esteemed neighbors, medium-ruby colored, attack of strawberry and pain grille on the nose, very delicate and lean on the palate, long note of spice on the finish, a typical cool-climate Pinot Noir, the North Valley wines are mostly aged in previously used French Oak cooperage.

2006 Pinot Noir Beacon Hill Vineyard, medium-ruby colored, attack of concentrated dark red fruit and dark chocolate note on the nose, coupled with wet leaves, spicy wild berries, deep fruit aromas on the palate that lasted through a long finish.

2006 Pinot Noir Mineral Springs Vineyard, medium-ruby colored, beautiful nose with a wave of spice, earth, and strawberries, soft and silky on the tongue, with an a lasting spicy light-tannin finish.

All three Pinot Noirs are very approachable, but could improve with bottle age for several years. However, these are clearly not wines that are not drinkable now and need several years of maturing to display all their brilliance. They do that now already. The wines reminded me of top German red wines that are increasingly appearing in the American market. Germany also is an area —- like Oregon --- where people used to say, it does not work for red wines, but now produces extremely elegant red wines with a lot of finesse.

I tasted three Pinot Noirs from Aloxe Corton in the Bourgogne/France, from Santa Lucia Highlands in the US and from Hochheim in the Rheingau/Germany recently. Here are the tasting notes, which have been posted on the Schiller Wine Blog previously.

Christian G.E.Schiller
In the Glass; Pinot Noir wines from California, France and Germany
October 12, 2009

1996 Aloxe Corton, Appellation Aloxe-Corton Premier Cru Controlee, Maurice et Anne-Marie Chapuis, Aloxe Corton, Cote-d’Or
2007 Pinot Noir, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, Martin Alfaro, Corralitos, Californaia
2003 Wickerer Koenig Wilhelmsberg, Spaetlese trocken, Weingut Wilhelm Hueck, Hochheim, Rheingau

Christian G.E.Schiller in Hochheim/Germany - Wickerer Koenig Wilhelmsberg.

Interestingly, the French wine does not mention the grape variety on the label, but the village in which the wine is grown and made is printed in fat letters, with the exact appellation below it; for the American wine it is just the opposite: the grape is printed in fat letters. Well, the focus in the old world is clearly on the terroir. Terroir is a French concept involving the complex combination of micro-climate, geology, topography and soil that determines the taste of a wine. The classification for Aloxe Corton groups all wines into four different groups. Terroir is on the back burner in the new world. The focus here is on the grape variety.

All three wines were great.

The American Pinot Noir was purple red in the glass--a deep red wine. An amazing attack of concentrated dark red fruit and dark chocolate note on the nose. Spicy wild berries, deep fruit aromas on the palate that lasted through a long finish.

The French Pinot Noir was 10 years older and a bit on the brownish side in the glass, but still very fresh and at its height. Smoke and wet leaves on the nose, typical for the Pinot Noir. In the traditional French style of a Pinot Noir, it was lighter in color and body than its counterparts from the warmer climate in California.

The German Pinot Noir was a Spaetlese trocken, thus had elevated sugar content at the harvest, but was fully fermented and became a bone-dry wine, like the French and American counterparts, with 1.3 gram sugar/liter. Koenig Wilhelmsberg is a vineyard in neighboring Wicker, which is in Alleinbesitz, that means Hueck is the only winemaker who owns that piece of land. Smoke on the nose, even lighter in color and body than the Aloxe Corton, but not in terms of tannin and acidity.

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