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Pinot Noir: to blend or vineyard designate?

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Can a Pinot Noir that’s blended from different vineyards be as good as or better than one from a single vineyard?

I asked that question years ago in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and I never did get around to answering it, for a good reason: there is no right answer. Several famous Pinot Noir winemakers told me the same thing. We all know that the most expensive Pinot Noirs do bear vineyard designations, but there’s no reason, in theory, why you couldn’t blend barrel samples from Anderson Valley, the Russian River Valley and the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills and come up with something amazing.

Thought experiment: carefully make such a blend and then serve it, under blind tasting circumstances, to the proponents of terroir who insist they can tell a Sta. Rita Hills from a Russian River Valley with both hands tied behind their backs. Wouldn’t it be something if some great palate sniffed it and declaimed, “Aha! A blend of the North and Central Coasts!” But that’s the stuff of fiction.

At any rate, as I said, you could make such a blend, but then it would have to have the lowly “California” appellation on the label, and you know what that means: nobody would want it. Oh, there’s be a few sommeliers and critics here and there who raved about it, but most consumers would shy away, believing that a despised “California” origin on a wine means it probably comes from the Central Valley and isn’t any good.

This is why folks with access to grapes from up and down the coast, like Siduri, Loring and Patz & Hall, generally don’t make California-appellated Pinot Noirs, preferring the single-vineyard approach. (There are exceptions: Testarossa has a Cuvée Niclaire that’s a blend of their best vineyards and it’s also their most expensive Pinot. But Testarossa is decidedly the outlier here.) This is, of course, the Burgundian approach: your most expensive and theoretically “best” wines are your vineyard designates or blocks within vineyards. The communal wine is your next, less expensive tier, while your regional bottling (“Burgundy”) is your least expensive.

It’s not strange that the Californians borrowed from the Burgundian model, which itself is the product of that region’s particular history, culture and law. But it is worth considering that 12 different single vineyard Pinot Noirs, good as they may be, might not be quite as good as a wine made from blending them all together, which could even out some of the divots.

But these are angels-dancing-on-pinhead musings, and we can put them aside for the moment and consider just how interesting it can be when a talented winemaker gets his hands on fabulous grapes from different vineyards and, with hardly any care about how much money it takes, crafts Pinot Noirs from each of them of the highest quality. Who do you think of when reading these words? I think of Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, whose Fall releases I tasted yesterday.

My full reviews will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast, so I won’t talk about them here today, except to say that there were 13 of them, and they were all 2010s. Most of the vineyards are ones that Bob has bought fruit from for a very long time (Allen, Rochioli Riverblock, Weir, etc.). Now, the 2010 vintage for Pinot Noir was heralded at the time (much as the 2012s are now being touted) because it was cool, and pundits predicted the grapes would get mature without the high alcohol that plagued earlier, warmer years. I’ve now tasted through many 2010 Pinot Noirs and can say that, while the cool weather did indeed result in relatively modestly alcoholic Pinot Noirs, some of them were marred by mold. I assume this was a case in which the winery didn’t do adequate sorting (which is very costly), so that moldy grapes passed into the fermenting tanks. The smell of a moldy wine (not TCA from corks, but more likely botrytis from dampness) is awful.

However, the best wineries have rigorous sorting regimes (which simply means they hire a lot of people to hand-sort through the grapes on a slow assembly line, picking out individual berries that look bad). And Williams Selyem certainly is one of the best wineries. In all thirteen wines there wasn’t a hint of mold. To the contrary, these are splendid Pinot Noirs. Some are more tannic than others, and will require aging. Some are so delicious, you can hardly keep your hands off them, but even the most delicious will age. (Bob and I went through 20-plus years of Allen last year and, while some vintages were weaker than others, it was clear that Allen is a wine for the cellar. But most of Bob’s vineyard designates are.)

Could Bob blend all 13 wines together and come out with something wonderful? Of course he could. He already does something like this with his “Westside Road” and “Eastside Road” Neighbors blends. These both are wines that can stand proudly beside their single vineyard (and more expensive) brethren (or sistren, as the case may be). Tasted blind, it would not surprise me if a seasoned critic preferred one of the Neighbors wines to one of the vineyard designates. I sat with Bob years ago when he was in his little office at the old Williams Selyem winery conducting trials to put together the first Westside Road Neighbors. It was a very informal process, taking little glass vials of the different barrel samples and blending them into a glass beaker. Had he tinkered with the blend on the day before or the next day, it undoubtedly would have been different. There’s an element of serendipity (or random chance) in such things.

But Bob Cabral has many compelling reasons for producing single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. They appeal to the intellect, especially of those with long association with the winery. The growers from whom he buys like seeing their vineyards’ names on a bottle of Williams Selyem wine. There also is, we must not forget, the commercial aspect, referred to above, whereby a winery can change more for a vineyard designate than for a wine with a regional or statewide appellation.

Of Bob’s 2010s, my nod goes to his Far Sonoma Coast Pinots: Hirsch and Precious Mountain. What exciting wines they are. I’ll be up in that neck of the woods next month, on an extended visit, my first in a few years. Can’t wait.

  1. Steve,

    Just the thought of this article gets my mouth watering. I am in agreement with you that there is no “right” answer whether a vineyard designate or blend is the way to go. They’re both the way to go. Aren’t we lucky? My girlfriend and I recently took a trek down to southern California and hit a number of wine regions we hadn’t experienced in person. Being based out of the general Russian River Appellation area, it was an eye opening experience to explore these areas in quick succession including Monterey / Carmel (been there before), Santa Lucia Highlands, Paso Robles, Los Olivos, Santa Rita Hills etc… Combining this with our past experience in Anderson Valley it definitely confirmed our appreciation for such vast and varied Pinot Noir grape growing regions. Yep, we’re definitely lucky!

    Looking forward to your reviews and also looking forward to the wines produced by Ross Cobb at Hirsch. Should be interesting. Cheers!

  2. Steve,
    I have a friend who lived in Piedmont, and until recently, they used the opposite methods of the Burgundians. A grower-producer would make Barolo from his single vineyard, but a true Barolo was a blend of various vineyards in the region, which would give an overall picture of what “Barolo” tasted like that year.

    So, while a North & South California blend might not want to carry the “California” appelation, wouldn’t a blend of various Russian River pinots still be able to carry the “Russian River Valley” appellation while offerring a more complete snapshot of the vintage?

  3. gabe: probably yes, it could.

  4. David Ashcraft, thanks. Sounds like you had a great wine vacay!

  5. Steve, staying with the PN vs CS theme of late, do you think CS is better suited for blending across vineyards than PN? It is obviously blended with other varieties more often, but what about multi-region varietal cab? There are probably as many vineyard-designated cabs as pinot but few CA cabs or pinots blended like Penfolds’ Grange. As a case in point, you’ve mentioned you preferred the 2007 Matriarch to the rest of the Bond lineup.

  6. I think AdamLee has a very good protocol for this question. He has certain standards his wines must meet to carry that vnyd designate. Those barrels that don’t meet that level of quality, can/potentially then go into an Appellation-designate of RussianRiver, that he sells for a very attractive price. Those barrels that don’t meet his RRV designate standards, he declassifies into his SonomaCnty bttlg. I don’t seem to recall him blending any of his (many) vnyds into an up-scale bottling. But he makes so friggin’ many Pinots, it’s hard to keep track.
    Tom

  7. David Rossi says:

    I think that the Vineyard Designate approach is not necessarily about quality, but about creating a wine that typifies the sense of the vineyard. That doesn’t always mean the best wine that can be crafted from all sources. However it is hopefully more unique.

    Also, while our vineyard designates are often our flagship wines, it is not always the case. We decided to drop the vineyard designation on our Anderson Valley Pinot for the 2011 vintage even though the wine all comes from a single specific vineyard. Why? Because we have used several sources in the past and we think building our brand around our style and the AVA rather than a specific vineyard makes sense from a marketing standpoint. It lessens confusion.

    Where we have longer term relationships or contracts we will continue to use the vineyard designation.

    Lot’s of factors go into these decisions for us. Quality is part, but not the whole story.

    David Rossi
    Fulcrum Wines

  8. Steve, thank you for another terrific article. At Tudor Wines our flagship wine has always been our Santa Lucia Highlands wine which is a blend of the best lots from three of the finest vineyards in the AVA from which we produce pinot noir each year. I believe that we can consistently produce more complex, higher quality pinot noir from blending. There are usually 5 to 6 clones in each blend. The vineyards each provide different flavor profiles each year. Only occasionally does a single vineyard produce a wine that we find is worthy of a single vineyard barrel selection. We’ve declassified 35% to 55% of each vintage so only the finest lots produced end up in the blend. Looking forward to tasting with you at the Monterey County Vintner and Growers “Party in the Hanger” event next month. Cheers! Dan Tudor, Winemaker, Tudor Wines

  9. An interesting thought, Steve. I can think of several more high-end Pinot producers whose top wine is CA designated: Kosta Browne’s 4-Barrel for instance; but for my romantic wine-soul, I think the main purpose behind the prevalence of vineyard designated Pinots both domestically and in Burgundy, is to highlight terroir. The best single-terroir wines have a purity and depth of flavor that would get lost in a blend.

  10. It’s interesting that you mentioned a pan-appellation blend of vineyard-designate caliber wines. In 2011, we actually made a wine called “Five Barrel Pinot Noir,” which comes from our most exciting barrels, and includes multiple appellations. The 2011 was made using wines from HYDE VINEYARD, CARNEROS, NAPA VALLEY; JENKINS RANCH, SONOMA COAST; CHENOWETH RANCH, RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY; PISONI VINEYARD, ST. LUCIA HIGHLANDS. Because this wine is exclusively for our club members, we don’t have to worry too much about the lowly “California” designation on the label. It was a lot of fun to make, and is showing really well, even this early. We’ll send you a bottle when it’s released.

  11. Adam Lee/Siduri Wines says:

    Tom,

    Thanks for the kind words as to our process. Dianna, Ryan (our assistant winemaker), and I taste all of the barrels blind from a specific vineyard….not knowing age of barrel, section of vineyard, or anything other than the fact that we are tasting the Keefer Ranch Vineyard (for example). We individually rate each barrel on an A-F scale…and then each one of us comes up with the best blend we can…no matter how many or how few vineyards. We then taste those blends blind and decide on one of them to be the single-vineyard wine. If we aren’t certain that a vineyard deserves to be vineyard designated, we taste our best blend blind in a tasting with previous vintages from the vineyard and see if it is of the same quality level. In 2011, for example, we made only 1 single vineyard Pinot from the SRH (down from 3) and none from Oregon.

    As to the broader question of blending Pinot from Appellations…while I get the idea (and we have done it a few times), I generally think that there is plenty of blending to be done within the single-vineyard framework. So blending clones, or sections, or soils, or barrels…that all occurs within single-vineyard designated wines.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  12. Adam Lee, thank you so much for giving us a glimpse into the winemaker’s perspective.

  13. Always interesting to see a US perspective. I grow Pinot Noir in Central Otago, New Zealand. Our industry is pretty young (we recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the first commercial release of PN in our region), but we are quickly progressing down the single vineyard expression model. A lot of our wines made from young vines (sub-10 years) are blended and one of the larger producers has chosen the regional blend. However, most of us are taking the single vineyard expression pathway so well expressed by Burgundy. Blended wines can and sometimes are more complex and interesting than single vineyard expressions (particularly when the individual site is less than ideal or the vines lack age) but that’s not what great Pinot (and in my opinion Riesling) is about. It’s the vine that most faithfully transparently reflects site, season, viticulture and sympathetic winemaking (terroir in a broader context). There was a reecent article about some Aussies that eschewed site for winemaker practises – this fundamentally misses the point in my opinion with Pinot, and speaks of a poor site having to be supplemented with wine making (polishing the turd in crude terms).

    As we understand our sites better and the trade/consumers get taken on that journey with us, we always end at the importance of site. In the next 25 years I can only see this getting more important as we chase true site expression.

  14. My experience is that vineyard designated wines arise in a few different ways. The classic is the winery that only makes wine from a single vineyard that bears the brand’s name. Stony Hill or Screaming Eagle might be examples. Another classic motivation arises when the winemaker recognizes special qualities from an unusual vineyard climat, negotiates a deal with the vineyard owner to use the name (usually involving paying more for the grapes), and makes a wine which displays special qualities allowing the winemaker to recoup the extra money (and more) paid to the grower. Heitz Marthas or Duckhorn Three Palms are examples. These above two motivations to vineyard designate are the most often legitimate in my experience.

    There is also the winery that has several vineyards and one of its vineyards or a block in one shows special qualities on which the winery feels they can capitalize, charge more, enhance their image. This is like Sterling Winery Lake or Sterling Diamond Mountain bottlings. Another is the winery that keeps many lots separate and bottles them with different designation just because they are different, not because they are better. Finally there is the winery that, irrespective of whether special qualities are involved, vineyard designates a wine or several wines purely to enhance revenues and cachet for the brand.

    All this is complicated by the “trademarked vineyards” who push their names onto a label and actively market their vineyard name.

    It’s a bit of a mess and the only thing that sorts out such a mess is time. The vineyard designation either develops a solid reputation over many vintages or it doesn’t. It has no value to me as a customer unless it conveys a long established and legitimate reputation. In Burgundy it took a few centuries to sort this out. It will probably take as long here to sort thru the noise.

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