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An inconvenient truth about Pinot Noir

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Critical attitudes toward California Pinot Noir have varied over the decades. When I first started paying attention to wine, the belief was just becoming entrenched that warmer regions, especially Napa Valley, were unsuitable for the great grape of Burgundy, because (it was said), the grapes got too ripe, and thus lacked the silky elegance, or one might say the dynamic tension you want in a great Pinot Noir.

I accepted that argument, because all I was, was a lowly newbie, so who was I to disagree with the experts? This was despite my having had a Napa Valley Pinot Noir, from the now defunct Louis K. Mihaly Winery, which I liked so much, I bought a half case, my first multiple-bottle purchase ever.

So everyone tore out their Pinot Noir vines from Napa (and few dared to plant the variety in warmer places like Paso Robles), and the rush was on for cool regions: starting with Carneros (which, briefly, was heralded as “California’s Burgundy” in the 1980s), then the Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and broad stretches of the Central Coast, most famously in the western Santa Ynez Valley we now call the Santa Rita Hills.

That was all well and good. I would say the first nine or ten years of the 21st century were the Golden Era of California Pinot Noir. Wines of majestic distinction arrived, differing in their particulars depending on where and how grown and made, but asserting their right to sit beside Cabernet Sauvignon as co-bearers of the title, “California’s Greatest Red Wine.”

Well, that was before the 2010 vintage, as stubbornly cold as anything we’d witnessed in many years. Followed by 2011, even colder, shockingly so–the year summer never came. The market now is receiving the Pinot Noirs of these two vintages (a few 2012s are trickling out, but not the important ones, which should begin arriving in the Winter-Spring of 2014). And we are learning, the hard way, one of the oldest lessons in wine: When you grow a variety at the limit of its ability to ripen, you will get great wines in a warm vintage, and mediocre wines in a cool one.

The problems I’ve encountered with rot, mold, green tannins and flavors and vegetal notes in Pinot Noirs from 2010 and 2011 are worse than anything in my previous experience. It’s been truly shocking. Erratic, too: wineries that bottle numerous vineyard-designated Pinots (as so many do nowadays) will have one that’s ripe, and another that’s green and moldy–often from the same appellation. There are some famous brands that, in my opinion, should have declassified their wines, especially the 2011s; but declassification is rare in California.

The numbers express it interestingly:

2011 Pinots I scored over 90 points: 127

2009 Pinots I score over 90 points: 489

Granted, there are some more 2011s yet to come, but the ultimate number of over-90s is not going to approach 250, much less 489. So what we gave up when we tore out that Napa Pinot was, at least, consistency of ripeness. What we gained, I suppose, is the same situation as in Burgundy: not every year is a “vintage” year.

What of 2012? As I wrote on Sept. 18 of that year, “2012 is the year nothing happened. No rain, no frosts, no damaging heat waves, no chilly temperatures, no smoke taint from wildfires, no mold, no spring shatter.” A week and a half later, something happened: we had a bigtime heat wave. I noted, “If you gathered in your Pinot Noir before the heat struck, you’re fine. If not, high alcohol will be a problem.” There were even reports of sunburn, especially in the Russian River Valley. When the harvest was over, Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, favorably compared the quality of his 2012 Pinots to the 1997s, when he’d been at Hartford Court. Yet, in the same conversation, he alluded to “a little bit of botrytis in some Pinot blocks,” which I took to be caused by rain that moved in after Oct. 21. So you can see that 2012 also was not a perfect vintage. But we’ll just have to see what the bottles offer.

  1. This is an interesting perspective on recent vintage with a few things I’ve not heard much before. As an SRH winegrower, I had some different experiences. 2010 was indeed cool but not detrimentally so. In fact, for most area vineyards it was a nice long season and just before most people pulled the trigger, a wicked 5 day heat spike came through. If you got out before or in the first few days, no harm done. If not, hope you like burnt fruit and jammy characteristics.
    2011 was indeed a bit cooler, longer season with a smattering of late rain. The botrytis pressure was significantly heavier than many years but that ultimately came down to farming practices and not trying to push the envelope on ripeness as the rot got exponentially worse, Brix by Brix. I’m willing to bet your higher scored ’11s came from farms that got lower rainfall, were smaller acreages in general and were picked at civilized maturity levels. Did you see a trend in your impressions by region?
    Very interesting stuff, thanks for the thought-provoking read.

  2. Thanks for breaking down your numbers, Steve. Can you add one? You scored nearly 500 Pinots at 90 or higher in the 2009 vintage. How many total Pinots from the 2009 vintage did you review?

  3. Steve,

    A few rather disparate points:

    1) There’s no doubt as to your larger point — that when you move to cooler and cooler areas you increase risk (I make Oregon Pinots too, so know that well). Hopefully the highs are higher, but the lows can be lower as well.

    2) If I remember correctly, Louis K. Mihaly Winery became Silverado Hill Winery, and is now Silverado Wine Studios (or some such thing….once home to Crushpad). That puts it down near the town of Napa, so definitely a cool part of the Napa Valley. The one Napa Pinot Noir that has fascinated and often enthralled me is the El Molino Pinot Noir from a vineyard in Rutherford.

    3) While 2010 was incredibly cool, the August 23-27 heat spike, followed by the September 23-25 heat spike really pushed sugars up in Pinot Noir. Despite the fact that it was such a cool vintage, the average brix at harvest was higher in Pinot Noir in Sonoma, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara than in any year since 2004 (which was quite hot). Generally, that heat killed off botrytis as well. Certainly you could have green tannins, particularly if you picked on sugars solely.

    4) 2011 was 2010 without the heat spikes. It was, as you said, the summer that wasn’t. You have to go back prior to 2002 to find brix lower in Pinot Noir (I didn’t go back further, fwiw) and then the rains came on October 3-7 and again on October 10. These rains fell predominantly in the North Coast….while the Central Coast was largely spared. In my tastings, there are North Coast before the rains, the Central Coast, and the North Coast after the rain Pinots. All very different. — That being said, I don’t think having Pinot Noir in Napa would have made much difference. Napa Cab in 2011 was picked, on average, at the exact same brix as Sonoma Pinot Noir. — Are you tasting any 2011 Cabs yet?

    5) Finally, 2012. If rot was an issue (and honestly I didn’t see it), it would have been an issue because the set was so good that all of the berries set in a cluster and some of them were squeezed, putting juice in the cluster and that would lead to rot. When that happens it is very localized, like in individual clusters and not widespread at all as it often is due to a rain. And, in 2012, Pinot Noir was all in the house before any rains.

    thanks….

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. GrapesRGreat says:

    I for one have loved the 2011 pinots I’ve tried so far and am buying rather deep (comparatively) of my favorite producers. It seems to me that 2011 may very well make California Pinot mimic the minefield that is Burgundian Pinot. Good producers are willing to drop fruit and sort out anything that looks less than pristine, and if done correctly you end up with some really elegant and silky results (see 2011 Anthill Farms Sonoma Coast). Maybe we are just spoiled in knowing that the bottle we’re buying will be decent at least, completely unlike Burgundy where producer and vintage seem to be everything.

  5. My experience with 2010 and especially 2011 is that the long hangtime gave the wines subtle tannins and depth of flavor, while the low temperatures gave the grapes such generous natural acidity that the resulting wines were as close to flawless as I’ve ever seen. While these wines are not as lush and fruit-forward as the ones from warmer vintages, I would venture to guess they have more aging potential than wines from warmer vintages, which taste best when they are young.

  6. Your finally wising up Mr. Heimoff. Temperature is not the only parameter to growing high quality Pinot Noir BTW I was in Santa Rosa yesterday and it was 95, but who care right? Russian River Valley has already been labeled and marketed as cool, as has Bonnville, in the Anderson Valley which was probably 100 yesterday.

    I’ll make a prediction that “lowly newbies” will get tired of cool climate Pinot Noir, and will seek out ones from warmer areas with more character. Boom!

    Jake

  7. Paul Sequeira says:

    Most critics would agree with you, Mr. Heimoff, but most Pinot lovers that I know are crazy about the cool restraint of both 2010 and 2011 Pinot Noirs. Judging from your review history, this is certainly not your preference, though you’ve given the “cool climate” position lots of lip service like the rest of the wine media. It may be cool to be cool, but these two vintages will provide a fitting coda to the era of over-the-top Pinots that dominated most of the last 20 years. I suspect that many producers who have produced a riper style in the past will be moving in the other direction after they experienced the balanced wines from these historically cool vintages. I suspect that these vintages have changed the California wine industry for good, no matter what arbitrary number you attach to them.

  8. Bill Haydon says:

    The problem with growing Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay for that matter) in California is that it is not just one of temperature. The more difficult matter is one of soil, particularly the issue of limestone/chalk. That, as much as cool climate, is what makes Burgundy Burgundian, and California has virtually none of it. Josh Jensen found some on Mount Harlan, but he had to sacrifice anything close to Burgundian temperatures to get it. From a purely soil perspective, Southern Indiana and Western Kentucky would be great to grow Pinot and Chard in, were it not for the humidity and oppressively hot nights. Napa Valley soil, on the whole, is simply too fertile and too vigorous to stress Pinot vines in the same manner that they grow in Burgundy. One has to look at both sides of the coin: temperature and soil.

    The John Kongsgaards of the world can say “Burgundian” until they’re blue in the face, but without that combination of limestone based soil and cool temps, no amount of natural yeast and lees stirring will make their 14.7% Frankenwines any more Burgundian than the Michter’s Rye Old Fashioned that’s currently in my glass.

    To paraphrase The Blues Brothers, “you’ll never get that sweet Burgundian sound without Mr. Fabulous and his limestone.”

  9. Dear Paul Sequeira, I wrote that there are some excellent 2010s and 2011s but that the vintage is far more inconsistent that previous years because of the cold. I didn’t say anything about my preference for any particular style of vintage. The point I was trying to make was that, with these cooler vintages, consumers have to be selective, not just “blind buy” based on a winery’s reputation. One other thing: I may be more sensitive to mold in the aroma and taste of a wine than many people.

  10. Jake,
    Holy hell, someone ought to alarm those young Burgundians that the newbies are going to “tire” of them…

  11. As is always the case when buying wines from a challenging vintage it pays to know how strictly a winery sorts it’s fruit and how carefully the vineyard is tended. Although I’ve had some great and balanced 2010 and 2011 Pinot Noirs as a grower I hope no similar vintages roll around any time soon.

  12. The importance of limestone, as with so much talk in wine, is often presented as fact. Yet the science to back up these claims is not forthcoming. As with too many other subjects, There is not nearly enough questioning of ‘conventional wisdom’ in the world of wine

  13. Samantha! I was being a little cheeky yesterday. But seriously, if people in California want to make Pinot Noir that is exactly like burgundy, than maybe they should move there. The beautiful thing about Pinot Noir (as Steve has mentioned in past blogs) is that it can reflect site more than other varieties. We shouldn’t try to copy burgundy in my opinion, we are in California which is incredibly exciting and diverse!

    Jake

  14. Marlene Rossman says:

    To be honest, I have tasted through all of the Masut (Fetzer) 2011 lineup and I must say that they are
    perfectly balanced, have great purity of fruit and satisfy both the person who loves the Burgundian slant (me) and the person who is gung ho for BIG, RIPE, CALI PINOTS (my DH).

  15. Jake,
    Well kid, I just may love you now. Been saying the same thing, for years now, don’t try and make Burgundy in California, Burgundy is already doing it. Embrace what California is and can do, make your own thing and there is a market for both!

  16. Samantha, sounds good to me!

  17. Paul Sequeira says:

    Mr Heimoff,

    I agree with you that wines are more variable in these two cold years, no question. However, to rate a vintage on its less successful wines would be like rating a band on its worst albums or rather rating an album on its worse songs. To me at least, these two vintages offer higher highs and lower lows than easier vintages, precisely because “marginal” vintages push wines to extremes. My argument would be that Pinot Noir lovers, whose standards of wine perfection are often defined by Burgundy, are used to variable vintages and are more inclined to rate a vintage based on its best successes rather than its more frustrating misses. To judge 2012 a better vintage for Pinot Noir than the previous two would be a mistake. There will be many palatable wines in 2012, but I doubt that any of them will reach the high mark of the best from 2010 and 2011.

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    To your point:

    “The problem with growing Pinot Noir . . . is one of soil, particularly the issue of limestone/chalk. That, as much as cool climate, is what makes Burgundy Burgundian, and California has virtually none of it. Josh Jensen found some on Mount Harlan, but he had to sacrifice anything close to Burgundian temperatures to get it. …”

    André Tchelistcheff discovered Burgundian-like chalky soil in Paso Robles. The site was the original Hoffman Mountain Ranch. Today, that vineyard is owned by Adelaida Cellars (which continues to make Pinot Noir from the property).

    Self-evidently, Paso can’t “pass” for Burgundy’s climate.

    For those who wish to explore the subject of soil more deeply, check out this book:

    http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-57322-004-0

    https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/william-bryant-logan/dirt/

    For a more “academic” perspective on soil, check out:

    http://www.academicwino.com/2013/05/evolution-of-soil-determines-terroir-in-wine.html/

    Finally, for those who wish to explore the subject of oak, check out this book:

    http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-393-04773-8

    https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/william-bryant-logan/oak/

    ~~ Bob

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