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World of Pinot Noir 2014: Random notes

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At the morning seminar on the Pinots of Willamette Valley, my friend Gillian Handelman, of Jackson Family Wines, remarked that Oregon winemakers seem to talk a lot more about soil and rocks than do California winemakers, who lean more toward climate in explaining their Pinots. That immediately rang true to me, and I wondered why it might be so. A few things occur to me:

The historical reference point for Pinot Noir in California is Sonoma County, where the soils are so impossibly jumbled, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault system, that you can walk two yards and find different structures. That may be one reason why: Winemakers were stymied trying to understand their soils, so they very naturally turned to climate. Then too, as someone observed, up in Oregon-Washington, every kid is raised with the story of the great Missoula Floods, which formed so much of those states’ terrain. “It was our creation myth,” said Oregon journalist Katherine Cole, who moderated the Willamette seminar. So it may be that Oregonians have rocks more deeply imbedded in their imaginations than do Californians. Finally, it may be because in Willamette, Pinot Noir is pretty much exclusively the red grape, whereas in California, it’s everything from Pinot to Cabernet and Zinfandel. Pinot seems to draw more from the dirt than most other red varieties, so maybe Oregon winemakers look more toward Burgundian explanations of terroir than Californians. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think Gillian hit the nail on the head.

The seminar on the wines of Louis Jadot’s Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules was stunning. I’ve gone to few vertical tastings in my life in which a continuity of style was clearer, or where the necessity of aging more apparent. We tasted eight wines, from 2010 going back to 1985, and it was easy to find the same elements in them all. But really, only the 1985 was drinkable (to me)–and that, just barely; I’d love to try it in another 20 years. Jadot’s winemaker, Frédéric Barnier, conceded as much. When asked by an audience member if he didn’t feel the need to change the style in response to consumer demand for earlier-drinking wines, Barnier said, in effect: No way. Good for him.

Later, at the walkaround tasting, I found myself gravitating toward the 2011s, from both Oregon and California. Some of them were stunning. The one I particularly recall was the Baxter 2011 Valenti Vineyard, from Mendocino Ridge. (I no longer review Mendocino wines for Wine Enthusiast; Virginie Boone does. She scored it 92 points. I might have gone a little higher, and added a Cellar Selection designation. But Virginie and I are in the same ballpark.)

I’m still formulating my views on the 2011 Pinots. Katherine, the Willamette moderator, told a story about a Burgundian producer she interviewed. When she asked him about a certain vintage would develop, he crustily replied (I paraphrase Katherine’s quote), “How am I supposed to know? You can’t understand a vintage for at least fifty years.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it takes time, and any serious reviewer who doesn’t revise his estimations of a vintage is lazy or dead. Early on, I had serious problems with 2011 Pinots from California. Lots of mold. But there always were some great wines from producers who either sorted out the moldy berries or who sourced their grapes from vineyards (often mountains or hillsides) where mold was not a problem, even in the cold 2011 vintage. So at the walkaround tasting I was really blown away by some of the 2011s. The Baxter is the only one I’ll mention here, but the great ones all were low in alcohol, incredibly streamlined and elegant, brisk in acidity and not overwhelming in fruit. You can call them Burgundian, I suppose. This raises the question of how to evaluate a vintage, overall, when it contains extremes of both sides: extraordinary wines as well as moldy ones. My feeling is to lower the overall score, in terms of numbers, but try to express, in the text, that consumers who choose well will find unbelievably gorgeous wines. This is not always an easy message to get across, but then, of course, the individual scores and reviews of the wines also express how I feel about them.

Finally: Frédéric Barnier on numerous occasions made a distinction between wines that are “good” and those that are “interesting.” I raised my hand five or six times, during the Q&A, to ask him to elaborate; but alas, Katherine never called on me, so all I can do is surmise. I wanted to ask him: Can a wine that’s not good be interesting? Can a wine that’s good be uninteresting? This is fascinating stuff, and I hope to muse on these concepts in the future.

 

  1. Steve,

    Quick question on the Jadot tasting – what made these wines undrinkable except the oldest one? Noticeable tannins? High acid? And a big question – if you came across a domestic pinot made in the same style but you were not aware of the producer, would you give them the benefit of the doubt that these might also be ‘stunning’ wines that just need a lot of time?

    I continue to wonder about the tasting of young wines by all reviewers and their thoughts about ‘drinkability’ and ‘ageability’, especially in the age of wines that are more and more being created to drink now.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Cheers!

  2. Larry, undrinkable compared to the ’85. I mean, going backward from the ’10, they were all fine wines. But they grew progressively mellower until the ’85 at which point I was like, Wow, what a beauty. I’d drink it now. So I guess “undrinkable” should be viewed in context. I certainly didn’t mean undrinkable due to lack of quality. It was the tannins and acids. As for your second question, yes. I think there are more and more CA Pinots being made in that style that certainly need age. As I wrote in my blog, I’m really taking a new look at the 2011s. In the best cases, the wines are exquisite. Are they 40 year wines? I don’t know. But 8-12 years in a good cellar? Absolutely.

  3. Thanks for the prompt reply – and I know that your ‘undrinkable’ didn’t imply ‘bad’ in this case.

    As I said, I think it has to be difficult to view a vintage like 2011 that was a bit more ‘challenging’ and whose wines may take more time to ‘flesh out’ through the same lens you would other vintages. Do you take into account these types of things when reviewing a wine (vintage variation, etc) and do these things affect how you review and ultimately rate the wine?

    I think this is an important question to understand for consumers when reading reviews and assessing whether a wine may be ‘their style’ or whether to really hold off drinking for awhile.

    Thanks!

  4. Matt Mauldin says:

    Steve, I’m with you on the 2011 CA and OR Pinot Noirs. I attended the Saturday WOPN Grand Tasting, and many of my positive initial impressions of the 2011 vintage have held up over the past year. The 2011′s on the higher echelon producer level, are so pretty and perfumy and silky throughout what I’ve tasted from CA and OR. The 2012′s certainly have a pleasing richness, but the 2011′s, to me, are wines to love.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Regarding your comment . ..

    “So at the walkaround tasting I was really blown away by some of the 2011s.”

    . . . next Tuesday I will be attending the Sonoma in the City trade tasting. And next Sunday attending the Family Winemakers of California trade tasting.

    Both on a mission to find exemplary Pinot Noirs.

    So “naming names” of producers (beyond Baxter) whose 2011s turned your head would be welcomed — else I (and I suspect so many other attendees) will be skipping over sampling the 2011s in the room in favor of early release 2012s.

    On the subject of Jadot’s Clos des Ursules, were the 1990 or 2002 bottlings in your vertical tasting line-up? Two well-regarded vintages that lend themselves to serving as “benchmarks” for the wine’s development.

    And finally: in the American vernacular, the word “interesting” has become a cocktail party “conversational dodge” to avoid hurting the feelings of one’s host/hostess. Rather than overtly declaring “It’s not to my taste,” or more directly “I don’t like it.”

    Akin to “intellectual”?

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2012/07/27/what-is-an-intellectual-wine/

    But short of “profound”?

    ~~ Bob

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Friday I was sampled on an “interesting” / “intellectual” wine:

    2011 Scholium Project “the Prince in His Caves” — a skin contact Sauvignon Blanc — with a tint of orange to it.

    The aroma was atypical for this grape variety. Likewise the flavors.

    Other than a whiff of “cat pee” (pyrazine) note suggesting a kinship to Sauvignon Blanc’s herbaceousness, I would be hard-pressed to say what the hell it was.

    [Related article on wine descriptors: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Here-kitty-kitty-Wine-critics-love-cat-pee-2720808.php#page-1

    Would I taste it again? Yes -- to reinforce the "data point" in my organelpetic memory.

    Would I buy it for my persona consumption? No -- because its "outlier" nature (aroma and flavors) would challenge anyone to find the appropriate food match -- other than white asparagus.

    ~~ Bob

    For further reading . . .

    From WSJ [Wall Street Journal] magazine
    March 5, 2009, Page 24ff):

    “Barrel Fever;

    Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, ecstasy — and madness.

    Abe Schoener, philosophy professor-turned-vintner, knows something about that.”

    [Link: http://magazine.wsj.com/hunter/second-chapter/from-philosopher-to-vintner/tab/print/

    By Alice Feiring

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Erratum.

    “organoleptic”

  8. TomHill says:

    Bob sez: “Interesting”…. “Rather than overtly declaring “It’s not to my taste,” or more directly “I don’t like it.”

    Bob,
    I use “interesting” in describing a wine fairly often, especially when I’m describing a wine that is not a mainstream wine. Not sure, though, that I’d characterize my use as a “conversational dodge”. I usually indicate in my tasting note whether I like the wine or not, though. My usage is to indicate that it is not a mainstream wine and may not appeal to everyone’s taste.
    For example, JimCowan’s Isa skin-contact LakeCnty SauvBlanc. “Interesting” is how I describe it. No SauvBlanc varietal typicity to speak of, but a lot of savory character that I happen to like. But some people actively dislike the wine. To each his own, I guess.
    Tom

  9. I wish I’d had the opportunity to ask Frederic what he meant by interesting. I don’t think he meant it disparagingly or dismissively, or in the Chinese way (may you live in interesting times, which is almost a curse). I think he meant intellectual–a wine to make you think. Which really, when you come down to it, is a very great compliment.

  10. I had a similar experience a couple of days ago, but with Cabernet Franc. Chinon and Saumur Champigny viz my wines from the Livermore Valley. The French wines (especially the 05 Chinon) were interesting in the way of “trying to get my head around” them, certainly not a pejorative.

    Liking something and declaring it good is a fraught dynamic in the world of wine; and I think all qualitative judgments must follow a sense of confidence in one’s understanding of the wines/regions/vintages/producers.

  11. Joel Burt says:

    I think it is a bit incredulous to say only one of the wines was drinkable. I thought the Clos des Ursules vertical was fascinating with good vintages pitted against challenging ones. My favorites were the 2008, 1990 and 1985. The 2003 reflected the vintage and was quite the outlier.

  12. Katherine Cole rocks

  13. Great sessions! Interesting observation that I’d never considered regarding the OR vs CA winemaker.

    As much as I appreciated the ’85, I could not let any of the ’97 go to the dump bucket. I would have to agree with you Steve on the majority needing more age.

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