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Early thoughts on the 2008 California Pinot Noirs

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Between the evident success of the ‘07 Pinots and the anticipated success of the ‘09s, the 2008 California Pinot Noirs have perhaps gotten a bit squeezed out of the limelight. It’s kind of like the 1960 Bordeaux. Not a bad vintage at all, but overshadowed by ‘59 and ‘61. (Penning-Rowsell calls the 1960s “a warning not to be put off too much by cries of ‘off-vintage.’”)

2008 was yet another coolish year along the California coast, the fourth in a row (subsequently followed by a cool 2009). Early winter was very stormy, but by February the rains pretty much stopped, as California’s drought (now apparently over) kicked into place. April saw massive frosts that reduced crop quantity and was later to prompt uneven ripening, while summer wildfires led to fears (some of them since realized) of smoke taint. Harvest was early and light. Initial vintner comments suggested that most felt 2008 was a wild and crazy year, a useful (rather than great) vintage for Pinot Noir.

I have now formally tasted only about 110 ‘08 Pinots, but the vintage’s outlines are coming into clearer focus. One has to be careful about rushing to vintage judgments. For one thing, most of the “better” wines have not yet been released (and by “better” I mean the higher-priced, vineyard-designated bottlings that vintners generally lavish most of their care on). Many of the Pinots that have been released are uncomplicated wines that are not meant to be taken seriously and cannot be seen as having anything to do with vintage quality (like the Castle Rock from Mendocino County, $12, or the Robert Mondavi Private Selection, which cost $11 and has a California appellation).

Such wines as may shed light on the vintage were, in some cases, put on the market too early, which could be due to economic pressures at the winery. When a big red wine is very young, it can be dominated by primary fruit characteristics (jammy, candied, fructosey) and unintegrated new oak, where the caramelized wood seems appliquéd, rather than an integral part of the wine. (Siduri’s 2008 Pisoni Vineyard is such a wine.) Tasting very young wines does not make assessing a vintage easy, because it can be hard for even an experienced taster to know whether the wine’s apparent simplicity is a function merely of naive youthfulness (which will develop as the wine matures) or if the wine really is simple because the vintage wouldn’t let it be complex. The only way to come to a valid and permanent conclusion is to taste a great many wines, which in 2008’s case will not be possible for another 12-18 months (as the wines come out).

The highest score I’ve been able to give to a 2008 Pinot Noir is 94 points, which I gave to 4 wines. Since these scores have not yet been published in Wine Enthusiast and won’t be before March 1, I’m not at liberty to identify the specific wines. But I can tell you that two of them were from the Santa Maria Valley, one was from the “true” Sonoma Coast, and the other was from the Green Valley. A pair of beauties I can reveal (because both were published in the Dec. 31 issue) were W.H. Smith’s Hellenthal Vineyard and Maritime Pinot Noirs, both with a Sonoma Coast appellation. I’ve always loved Smith’s Maritime bottling, a small production wine of great intricacy.

A recurrent problem with the ‘08s is sharpness, related in some cases to actual green, stalky aromas and flavors. (Some of this no doubt was due to the frosts, which caused uneven ripening.) The 2007s were uniformly pleasurable across the board, but the ‘08s are spottier and more varied. Consumers will have to pick and choose carefully; in the case of wineries that produce a range of vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs (in the Siduri, Testarossa, Loring model), there can be significant differences between bottlings. Some grapes got high in sugar (sweet) before they were physiologically ripe, resulting in imbalance; it all depended on where the vineyard was, and how it was farmed. The very coolest areas (which is where the best Pinots come from, but also where the frosts were hardest) had the highest risk of greenness.

So concerning the ’08s, I like what Peter Cargasacchi told me via Facebook: “I would argue that the lows are lower, but the highs are higher.” We’ll see. The wines will continue to be released during this year and on into 2011. There may be bottles I score in the high 90s; maybe there’s even a perfect 100 out there. But at this point, I don’t think the 2008s will be on a par with the 2007s. And, as I noted earlier, the 2009s look to be perfect, at least, on paper.

  1. I would agree with Mr. Cargasacchi, draconian selection was imperative- but at the very high end we have some very serious, aromatic and structured Pinot Noir from our vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

  2. Central Coast Pinot Noir says:

    On the Central Coast (Edna Valley, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Sta. Rita Hills, etc) there was an early spring rain and hot, humid heat wave within the same week of flower fertilization. In many vineyards in the area, a few calyptras of the flower were stuck (about 10-20% per cluster) and prevented or greatly slowed fertilization of the flower into a berry.

    For Pinot Noirs, this caused a symptom more common in Syrahs called “millerendange” or “Chicks and Hens” where at harvest clusters have many full ripe berries (Hens), and these very small green undeveloped berries (Chicks) are interspersed throughout the cluster.

    I also heard from many winemakers that during destemming, an unusually high amount of jacks (the little green part attached to the berry) ended up in the clean must. This may be related to the chicks and hens problem. Only those with extremely vigorous post destemming fruit sorting got rid of most of these jacks.

    The elevated amount of undeveloped berries and jacks may be where you are getting your description of “green, stalky aromas and flavors” for this vintage. However, I have barrel tasted wines from Ultra Premium brands in these areas and found that the symptoms listed above had little to no effect on dark, extracted Pinot Noirs crafted for cellaring.

  3. Go Steve, keep giving those Santa Maria Pinot’s high scores!

  4. Almost every discussion of California wine performance has to be interpreted through the lenses of terroir/climat difference and of artistic choice differences. Even in 2007, which by all accounts, was near perfect in the North Coast Pinot Noir territory, there are wines that have come out far too green and wines for which the grapes were left hanging too long or had crop loads that were too high.

    That is why I am less worried about vintage difference in CA than one ought to be in many other places in the world. Burgundy, by its very limited geography and even the rules of engagement, is a far more monolithic place than CA with its PN territory stretching Santa Barbara to Mendocino.

    But, I keep hearing, and Steve, I wonder if you do as well, about smoke taint in wines from the north of San Francisco. It is rarely said publicly, but I get the impression from some winemakers that they see it in their wines. And I heard a story the other day (winery to be unnamed until they come public with it) that large stocks of 2008s are being dumped unceremoniously, even some going directly into distillation material–i.e., being abandoned as wine.

  5. On the money Steve. 2008 is not as good as 2007, but at the end of the day it is California not Oregon so vintage variation is a bit less pronounced. I make Pinot from Anderson, RRV, Sonoma Coast and SLH, and the Russian River and Sonoma Coast are as good as 2007. The Anderson and SLH are good, but not on the same level as 2007.

    2009 in the barrel is riper than 2008 and maybe even 2007, but that may not mean better. We’ll see.

  6. I’m surprised that you found greenness in this vintage. I thought it was an outstanding year for early stem and seed lignification. Maybe this led winemakers (like me) to include more stems than usual.

  7. Enjoyed a 2008 AlmaRosa SRH Pinot last night. Ver food-friendly with lots of acids, ripened fruit and only 14.1% ABV. I’m not sure how that wine performed on the list of 08s, but we are impressed as always with Richard Sanford’s work. And I agree with Peter’s assessment as well.

  8. Charlie, I’m hearing the same stories of smoke taint. We’ll have to see if it’s a problem.

  9. Stephen Hare says:

    I would also agree that the 2008 vintage for Pinot will be widely variable. There will be some rather spectacular wines that were made as a result of careful vineyard practices and, as Nathan said, “…draconian selection[s]…” on the sorting table. As to whether the public will respond by purchasing these expensive wines remains to be seen.

    My general experience in dealing with the public and their interpretation of vintages (i’ve been face to face with the wine buying public since 1973) is that however Napa Valley Cabernet goes, so goes the overall California vintage. Is it fair? No, but most of the buying public does not want to take the time or effort to separate out the vintage quality from one region to another. A very small segment does pay attention but most do not. So how does the 2008 vintage for Napa Valley Cabernet shape up? If it turns out to be an excellent vintage, the rest of the ’08′s will sell well. I have a feeling that ’08 will be a variable vintage for Napa Cab as well and given the current economic state, many excellent wines may remain on the retailers shelves until they are deep-discounted to clear out the inventory.

    With regards to 2009, while it is noted above that, at least for Pinot, the vintage looks perfect. Alot of varietals excelled in 2009 in many parts of the state and it should be a banner year for overall wine quality for those varietals. But have you paid any attention to Napa Cab. from 2009? Regardless of what the PR machines may claim, 2009 looks to be one of the most dismal Cabernet vintages in decades. As the quality of those wines reveal themselves over time and the major publications start calling a spade a spade, the balance of great 2009 non-Cabernet wines will be overshadowed in public perception by the below-average Napa Cabernet vintage.

    Perhaps wineries may wish to recall the hard lessons from the 1989 and 1998 Cabernet vintages. Just hyping the wines does not make them taste better. Mediocrity in the bottle will give mediocre results in the press and the public will pick that up and avoid anything associated with that particular vintage. To those winemakers who made 1989 Cabernets, how long did it take you to sell that vintage (18, 24 months)?

  10. Stephen Hare says:

    Yes, smoke tain was a big issue for some in 2008. There are ways to filter it out but you also filter out alot of flavor.

  11. Steve,

    You are BOUND to get tons of folks saying that you are wrong for what you tasted – period. And us winemakers will continue to say that 2008 was the BEST vintage ever . . . until 2009 arrives!!!! (heh heh heh)

    I’m very excited about the vintage for pinot noir from our area. In general, the 08 pinots I’ve tasted from this area are well balanced with nary a green note and plenty of acid and structure. We have yet to bottle our SVD and clonal selectiongs – but will do so prior to WOPN where you can try them as very newly bottled wines!!!!

    The year certainly was challenging in our area, with low lying vineyards getting hit twice with frost – in April and then again in October. Many vineyards in the Sta Rita Hills were hit hard, for instance . . .and if you had not picked prior to the October frost, your wines will not live up to their potential . . .

    I’ll keep watching for further reviews from you to see what you say about the ‘higher’ end pinots from 08, as well as some of the lower priced appellation wines as well . . . and we’ll just have to wait to see if the Central Coast pinots stack up to the rest of CA . . .

    Cheers!

  12. Steve, have you ever experienced smoke-tainted wine before? What kind of smells and flavors could one expect or notice more from smoke-tainted pinot? Aside from the obvious smokiness. Thanks and keep up the great work.

  13. I suppose sometimes we need a so-so vintage to remind us how good the great ones are. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the premium bottlings.

  14. I my part, I tasted through our line up of 2008 just last week in anticipation of a late spring release. I found much more bright red fruits than in the past. More of the hight toned aromas like rose petal and strawberry. I found the wines much more approachable than the 2007 are even now. I see myself drinking my 2008 first, and leaving the 2007s to get a little more age on them.

  15. I don’t see smoke taint as an issue for consumers outside of missing a few bottlings that they usually buy. I think most wineries that had the problem either pitched the wine or sold it off bulk. I don’t think that many(if any) wineries would try to sell it tainted due to the impact on their reputations. It was a financial loss for many that I know, but better that than the negative impression a tainted wine would give.

    Admittedly most of my piers produce higher priced bottlings, but even $12 pinot brands don’t want their product to taste like an ashtray.

  16. Dear Nick, I don’t recall ever tasting a smoke tainted wine.

  17. Shouldn’t our ’08′s still be in the barrel? What’s with the discussion of bottled 2008s? where did we go wrong when we slam Pinot Noir in the bottle with a mere 10-12 months barrelling? I thought Pinot needs that second spring in the barrel? Teritrary fermentations anyone? Further concentration from months 12-20 via evoporation? We age our Pinot Noir (along with most other dry reds) a full 20-22 months. Do we actually think the one-year program is better winemaking or better dollar making?

  18. Randy: good questions. I hope some winemakers will reply.

  19. Stephen Hare says:

    Randy is right. Wineries generally do not age in the barrel nearly as long as they used to (there are a few who still do extended barrel aging…Heitz and Mayacamas to name two) 20 to 30 years ago, most winemakers never put their best wines in new oak. They would break-in the new oak barrels with a lesser wine for a period of time ranging from a few months up to one year. The best part of the barrels life was considered to be its second and third year.

    But now the public has been trained to equate lots of fresh oak to great wine. 200% new oak is not uncommon anymore. The higher alcohol levels of todays wines increase the oak extraction. Wines get bottled earlier to try and maintain some kind of balance between the fruit, acids and oak. Whether the practices of lots of new oak, low acids and higher alcohol levels are for the long term best interest of the wine is a debatable point. The consumer will ultimatley be the judge as they vote with their wallets, but who influences their votes?

  20. Randy,

    Hi there. First off, bottling early doesn’t imply “slam Pinot Noir in the bottle.” That is simply hyperbole to try and make your point.

    I don’t know where you got the idea that Pinot Noir “needs that second spring in bottle.” I wasn’t aware that any wine benefited from formulaic winemaking – most especially Pinot Noir. That being said, there is a movement to earlier bottling – certainly in CA and amongst a number of Burgundian producers as well (Leroy being the most prominent). For our own wines we taste each wine and make a wine by wine dertermination as to what best benefits each wine. Sometimes we’ve bottled early, other times not. It is a winemaking decision for us – what we believe produces the best wine. — Even then however, it is not waiting for a tertiary fermentation (I assume you mean ml by this) as this is finished in the spring following the harvest (that is true btw for virtually every producer I know in CA, OR, and Burgundy). Nor is it hoping for evaporation – we try to keep our barrel room appropriately humidified to avoid as much evaporation as possible.

    Hope that helps.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  21. Randy,
    My Pinots are bottled in mid December and released in June. This gives me 15 months in barrel and 6 months in bottle before release. Hardly a speedy elevage. They won’t be sent for review until May at the earliest.

    I do what I do because I think going “overharvest” helps my wines, but I have tried many Pinots that are bottled in 10 months and they can be delightful. Some wines are ready earlier and the winemakers want to capture the fruit at that stage.

    I don’t age in barrel 20-22 months because I am not striving for additional concentration and I find that bottle age accomplishes more for the integration of the wine after 15 months in barrel than more barrel age would. And not to get too “inside baseball”, but VA levels are also a consideration with extended aging and I don’t need the anxiety. Of course I would love to try your wines and I am sure they are just wonderful.

    Finally, I don’t think that the marketplace should be ignored. I don’t see many artisan Pinot winemakers(not Jess Jackson) on the Forbes list of Weathiest Americans. If their business model is for earlier release then great. Yours is later and that is great too. It is why there isn’t just one brand on the shelf.

  22. vinorojo86 says:

    Randy, I personally have tasted many great wines that have not been aged in oak for more than a year, I really don’t think it’s “slamming it in the bottle” as you say. It is a judgement call that really needs to made according to the varietal and style of wine you want to make. Undoubtedly there are producers that try to get their wines on the market asap and therefor do not age them in barrels as long as others (these wines are usually common table wines, not fine wine) but that is not the only reason. If your oaking a big massive red, then yeah you could go with 20-22 months, but if you’re aging pinot with 20-30% new oak that you don’t want (or need IMO) to come off as heavily oaky, I think most times, a shorter aging period will do. I just don’t think we can apply any one barrel aging time across the board for all wines.

  23. Randy, Steve et al

    I think the length in bbl is a direct reflection of what style one is shooting for. We bottle our appellation/village wine in august as its meant for earlier consumption and we can preserve some primary fruit by bottling early.

    Our Estate/Single Vineyard wines are always 16-18 months and reflect our desire to produce more of a vin de garde.

    So i would agree with you in some respects (not sure what you mean by tertiaty “fermentation”? if you mean brett/pedio/lacto- we try to stay away from those. Maybe you mean tertiary development? In that case I would concur.)

    We are now starting to get an accurate handle on the quality of our 08′s in barrel, so this discussion is very timely.

    Regarding smoke taint: I tasted some dreadful stuff from Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast in barrel- my heart goes out to the producers that had to deal with that; some really crazy stuff. Outside a few specific areas, most were un-touched, will the entire vintage be painted with the broad brush stroke of smoke damage?

  24. Most 2008 Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs, got filtered to removed the smoke taint, (which if left in, does not affect the taste as much as it leaves a pronounced aftertaste, akin to BBQ potato chip, or ashtray).. then some producers are blending in some RRV or SC Pinot to fatten it back up, as it loses some important textures and flavors from the process.

    Then after all that it still may or may not be released under the primary label, but you’ll see a lot of it go to in house secondary labels.

    There does not appear to be ANY bulk spot market for 2008 AV Pinots, so I’m unaware of people “dumping” it.

  25. Adam,

    Herein lies our winemaking differences. If you check you rs and acid concentrations pre-spring and then again in June, they’ll be slightly lower come late spring when the barrel room warms slightly… even 3-4 degrees will awaken the microbes. Both yeast and bacteria become scavenger microbes and consume tiny bits of what ever they find in solution. This is esp the case when you rack and blend in the winter time and marry all the communities and their differing amounts of convertible sugars, acids, etc. These micro fermentations give off heat, alc and yes, additional flavor profiles that WERE NOT in there when one bottles on the one year cycle. I don’t like nor use much new oak (store bought flavors), so my 3-7 year barrels’ pores are more clogged than those who use brand spankin’ new barrels thus my ageing happens at a slower pace. We filled approx 165 barrels in ’09. I bought 6 new barrels and 3% new oak is pleanty.

    Hyperbole perhaps, but I don’t feel world-class wines should be slammed or gently placed with N. in bottle before the second spring, otherwise we’re simply making California Cocktail Quaffers and there’s nothing wrong with that but quaffers are cocktails.

    As far as higher rates of evaporation, I think it’s a good thing. I pick my grapes earlier so the extra “reduction” in my mind is good. My humidity is purposefully low and having done this now for 8 years, lower humidity costs more… more labor topping and more wine loss, but the concentration is necessary… at least for my style. This is a classic conversation about making money vs making age worthy art. No one can argue, one year barreling costs less, you get your wine to the market quicker, but are you giving your wine the real opportunity to fully and properly develop? I think not.

    I can spot a 9-11 month barrel aged wine a mile away. The high % of new oak with a much higher oxygenation rate might have something to do with it, but the wines just taste… like they’ve been bottled prematurely.

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