Early thoughts on the 2008 California Pinot Noirs
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.