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Pinot Noir 4.0: An exploration of extreme terroir in California and Oregon

18 comments

 

This is my take on the situation. I hope to hear from you about yours. Agree, disagree, whatever you add will be appreciated. Thanks.

* * *

Pinot 1.0 extended from approximately the Repeal of Prohibition (1933) through the 1950s. Growers knew they wanted to plant Pinot Noir because it was the great grape of Burgundy. But they had little or no concept of where it grew best, so they installed it in places they had already cultivated for varieties like Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc: Napa Valley and the eastern Russian River Valley around Santa Rosa. The climate wasn’t always right, growers didn’t have access to good clonal material, and they didn’t understand that Pinot Noir isn’t vinified the same way as Zinfandel. The result was wines that were not outstanding. As late as 1986, Friends of Wine magazine—then the leading consumer wine magazine in America—stated categorically, “California Pinot Noir has yet to achieve an acclaim parallel to that of Cabernet.”

This began to change with the advent of Pinot 2.0. It was an extraordinarily creative time. Beginning with tentative efforts in the late 1940s (Tchelistcheff going to Carneros, for example), growers gradually understood with more precision that Pinot Noir needs to be planted in cooler coastal areas. By the late 1960s, the race was on, towards places like western Santa Ynez Valley, the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Anderson Valley, Carneros and the central and westerly stretches of the Russian River Valley. The quality of the Pinot Noirs improved, especially with the importation of Dijon clones in the late 1980s-early 1990s and a more thorough understanding of winemaking technique. Critics began to sit up and take notice.

Pinot 3.0 was simply an extension of this trend. Growers began to discover specific terroirs within the cooler regions, and to further adapt their plant materials and techniques to those particular micro-climates and soils. For example, the greater Russian River Valley began to be understood in terms of smaller sub-regions within it: Laguna Ridges, the Middle Reach, the Santa Rosa Plain, and so on. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw a huge improvement in the quality of Pinot Noir: riper wines, more delicious and savory and balanced, that, in the view of many, gave Burgundy a run for its money. Then came Sideways, and the public eagerly hopped onboard.

But enough is never enough when it comes to fine wine. Pinot 4.0 began in the last several years, encouraged to some degree by the rise of organizations like In Pursuit of Balance, and spurred by a new generation of sommeliers. But this new phase of exploration seeks wines that go beyond mere hedonism and deliciousness to capture what the wine writer Richard Olney calls Pinot Noir’s “mysterious, sensuous, transcendental, ethereal” nature.

How does a winemaker capture such a will-of-the-wisp transcendence? Olney says it is only through “the genius of the terroir,” a concept the Burgundy expert, Allen Meadows, further elucidates in his analysis of La Romanée-Conti itself. Its terroir is such that it produces “subtle and reserved, even austere” wines that do not “shout or call attention to themselves, but require the connoisseur to come to it rather than it coming to the taster.”

This is a momentous step. It’s no longer enough for the greatest Pinot Noirs to appeal only to the senses. Pinot now must appeal to the intellect. It becomes a cerebral experience: more French New Wave film than Hollywood blockbuster. Wines, to paraphrase Meadows, that require us to sit back and think and talk about them.

Now that we have identified, in California as well as in Oregon, the cool-climate sites, we can take this journey to the next level: which is to explore individual vineyards of extreme interest and complexity. These generally are hilly. Their soils are austere, with no water-holding capacity. Weather conditions may be marginal, such that not every year will be a “vintage year.” The challenges to grapegrowing in such sites—from frosts to pests and steep slopes—are daunting: they require the most intensive viticulture. But the results, which will take winemakers many years to fine tune, are bound to be amazing. Pinot 4.0 represents, in California and Oregon, the most daring challenge to Burgundy that has ever been mounted.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “Pinot 1.0 extended from approximately the Repeal of Prohibition (1933) through the 1950s. Growers knew they wanted to plant Pinot Noir because it was the great grape of Burgundy. But they had little or no concept of where it grew best, so they installed it in places they had already cultivated for varieties like Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc …”

    During those formative years, most wine grape growers planted in areas where the land was expansive, affordable, easily cultivated, and boasted a nice, warm, sunny clime that supported an agreeable lifestyle.

    That meant inland on valley floors. The “low hanging fruit.”

    No one willingly wanted to work and live in the far outreaches of Sonoma suffering its cold ocean breezes, fog, higher precipitation, risk of frost, et cetera.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    “Pinot 3.0 … By the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw a huge improvement in the quality of Pinot Noir: riper wines, more delicious and savory and balanced, that, in the view of many, gave Burgundy a run for its money.”

    A corollary (Pinot 3.5?): Those same cold climate Dijon/”suitcase” clones planted by neophytes in the wrong places — characterized by the climate being too warm, the soil being too fertile and too well irrigated, and poorly chosen density/trellising/canopy management practices — yielded historically higher alcohol wines that seemed like Pinots on steroids.

    That’s what many In Pursuit of Balance partisans rebelled against.

  3. Patrick says:

    During Pinot Noir 1.0 and well into 2.0, what many people planted as Pinot Noir was closer to Beaujolais-type grapes rather than the Burgundy clones. Many CA Pinots were indistinguishable genetically from wines called “Gamay Beaujolais”. Better clonal research (and some thievery) remedied that in the 90s, setting us up for Sideways and Pinot 3.0.

  4. Bill Stephenson says:

    For my taste, nothing beats a good Sonoma Coast PN. Sadly, those same wines beat my pocketbook so I have been looking for alternative sources.
    My search has led me to find wines from grapes grown in micro-climates in Humboldt County (Briceland) and Southern Oregon (Brandborg).

    As Mr. Henry points out, unless you are a Mondavi, affordability of land is key, and it seems more and more growers and winemakers are finding these hidden pockets of optimum soils and climates far from the traditional AVAs. They may not have the pedigree, but the wines are of high quality and you don’t feel as though your paying an extra 30-100% for the label.

  5. Oregon Pinot Noir has come a long, long way, as you rightly note. But extreme conditions may not always be necessary for good wines. The majority of the low-cost Oregon Pinot Noir (under $20 full retail) is grown in Southern Oregon. It’s not up to the quality of the best of the Willamette Valley, but it’s darn good for the price. The truly great Oregon Pinots – and I am seeing more and more of them every year – are also proving to be long term agers. I’m drinking wines that are 10-15 years old and nowhere near done. As opposed to the myriad disappointing Burgundies (at much higher prices) from the same time frame.

  6. Thanks, Bill, for the mention.

    It may be true that Soms and “insiders” are just now getting around to the idea of exploring some of the less well known growing regions for Pinot Noir.

    We have been quietly producing Pinot Noirs in Southern Humboldt since our winery was established 30 years ago in 1985. The thing is, our local fans drank it all, so there was no big incentive for my parents Joe Collins & Maggie Carey, who founded the winery, to try to promote our brand outside of our little corner of the world. They are widely credited with establishing this growing area, starting with manual degree day records dating back to 1977.

    There are now some notes up on Cellar Tracker, an article on Appellation America: http://www.appellationamerica.com/wine-review/778/Humbolt-County-Terroir.html and reviews on PrinceofPinot.com, for those who are interested in more info. Sorry to direct traffic away from the discussion, and for the apparent self-promotion. It is true enough. It is worth mentioning that producers have to start, or the Soms will have no wine to taste from those interesting places.

    Perhaps I should send some samples in for you to taste?

  7. I iook forward to your continuing this over time, Steve.

    I’ve been free here with my Pinot Noir passions and prejudices in the past. My mate and I share passion for Pinot and, substantially, from the same regions. Pinot Noir is intensely terroir driven, and there are so, so many diverse expressions of it.

    For our tastes, you just can’t beat Santa Barbara County and SLO. Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Arroyo Grande… majestic and brilliant Pinot. And the trail of our tastes is pretty climate traceable since our second favorite area is Santa Lucia Highlands, then select Russian River / Green Valley, then other non-Napa northern Cali, etc. Kinda straight up the coast.

    SRH/SMV Pinots are often the centerpiece of our evening, the most interesting “person” at the dinner table (and, frankly, Marion and I are pretty interesting in our own right, but our Pinot is more so ). They are vivid and passionate – but (addressing your 4.0 description) this isn’t for lack of subtlety or lack of engagement. There’s just more to them overall.

    We routinely compare these to a favorite selection of red Burgundies which, for the most part, remind me most of Arroyo Grande / SLO. (Our own sales portfolio has several Dijon-area wines, and a splendid Fixin, among others.) I know Oregonians like to talk about their wine being “more Burgundian than thou,” but the whole SPIRIT of Burgundies I know best is alive and flourishing in SRH and SLO.

    FWIW.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Bill Stephenson:

    And affordability of land is a deciding factor EVEN IF you are a Mondavi!

    (Third generation, for sure.)

    A vigneron friend who is a pioneer of Sta. Rita Hills told me at lunch a few years ago that — all these years later — he still hadn’t earned a profit from his vineyard/winery.

    A well-respected region for high quality/affordably priced Pinot Noir is Monterey.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    PaulG:

    Anecdotally, I am hearing that the bumper crop of 2014 Oregon Pinot Noir is pushing folks to release them early because they are max-ed out on space to store them in barrels or as finished product in bottles.

    Your thoughts from the Pacific Northwest?

    Bob

  10. Bob, 2014 was a bumper crop to be sure, and along with high quality came forward, attractive wines that are immediately enjoyable. Whether there are backlogs from 2011 and (possibly) 2013 I cannot say.

  11. Andrea Fulton says:

    As the Sommelier at the Joel Palmer House in the heart of the Willamette Valley I am beyond privileged to work with a list that features over 500 Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs going back to 1998. And, Steve, I wish you could have tasted the 1999 Willakenzie “Aliette” Pinot I tasted last week. Yes, we have different Terroir, and that presents a different flavor profile, and yes, there are some Grand Cru Burgundies that will continue to soar above Pinot from any other place on the face of the earth. But these Pinots are so few and far between that it is unrealistic to hold these up as the only standard bearer. The vast majority of Wine drinkers will never have a chance to taste them, much less be able to afford to experience them on any sort of regular basis. When we look at the whole of Pinot Noir Production in Burgundy, there are Pinots from Oregon that can stand side by side with their French counterparts.
    When I have the opportunity, I implore my guests to hold the wine in their mouths, close their eyes, do a little retro-nasal breathing, and let the wine speak to them.
    In the spirit of people like Richard Olney who are passionate about Pinot I offer up my declaration:
    When one is presented with Greatness,
    One has a tendency to dance around the bright light.
    But there is no escaping the Brilliance.

    I have spent the better part of 30 years loving Pinot Noir.
    When made with understanding, it transcends analysis.
    The Balance it is capable of displaying, speaks to that of a work of Art.

    If I were to try to describe Pinot Noir, it would be that it infuses you with the very essence of what Farming is all about.
    You taste the Soil, the Sun, and the Seasonal Influences that lie at the heart of all Agricultural endeavors envisioned only by Man,
    and carried out only by the will of God.
    The use of oak and aging only seek to preserve the very nature of that which Mother Nature has bestowed.

    In Pinot Noir you bask in the warmth of Ripe Fruit, achieve strength in the framework of Acidity, and surrender to the length of the Finish that has no name, but steals your heart.
    (PS Please remember Andre’s incredible contribution to American Pinot Noir during his tenure as a consultant at Hanzell Vineyards with winemaker Brad Webb.)

  12. Dear Andrew Fulton, thank you for such a lovely comment. As for André, well, he was The Maestro. I wish he were still alive to experience our modern Pinot Noirs from Oregon and California.

  13. Bob Henry says:

    André lives on in the fond memories of his protégés and admirers.

    Soon to swell in number when this documentary is released:

    “André – The Voice of Wine”

    http://themaestrofilm.com/thefilm.htm

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Andrea,

    Regarding Brad Webb . . .

    From Wines & Vines magazine
    (January 2009):

    Read more at: http://www.winesandvines.com/sections/printout_article.cfm?article=feature&content=61190
    Copyright © Wines & Vines

    “WINES THAT CHANGED THE INDUSTRY:
    Technical breakthroughs and stylistic leaps in North American wines over nine decades”

    By Jim Gordon with Linda Jones McKee and Hudson Cattell

    http://www.winesandvines.com/sections/printout_article.cfm?article=feature&content=61190

    Excerpt:

    Hanzell founder James Zellerbach and his winemaker, BRAD WEBB, created an innovation incubator at their little hilltop winery above Sonoma Valley. With Zellerbach’s fortune and enthusiasm behind him, Webb introduced a slew of new cellar equipment and techniques in the winery’s early vintages of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The quality of hillside vineyards like Hanzell’s was already well known, but never before had a winery applied so much gentle but technical care to its wine. Webb commissioned what are believed to be the first small temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenters, an early nitrogen-sparged bottling machine and other rarities such as a custom stainless steel crusher-destemmer that still looks contemporary today, a small stainless steel basket press and an electrode to measure dissolved oxygen.

    Oh yes, he also was possibly the first enologist to identify, isolate and use a specific malolactic strain, which was named ML 34. While the winery recognizes 1957 as the first commercial vintage, it has a bottle in perfect condition of 1956 Hanzell Pinot Noir from BRAD WEBB’s personal cellar. One of today’s leading Sonoma Valley winemakers, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, particularly remembers the quality of the 1959 Hanzell Pinot Noir. “It is definitely the wine that set the stage for the modern California wine business.”

  15. Bob Henry says:

    PREFACE: Rather than wait for my 10:20 PM comment to pass “moderation,” I will repost it below with one less troublesome article link.

    [I invite Steve to delete the 10:20 PM version as redundant.]

    Andrea,

    Regarding Brad Webb . . .

    From Wines & Vines magazine
    (January 2009):

    “WINES THAT CHANGED THE INDUSTRY:
    Technical breakthroughs and stylistic leaps in North American wines over nine decades”

    By Jim Gordon with Linda Jones McKee and Hudson Cattell

    http://www.winesandvines.com/sections/printout_article.cfm?article=feature&content=61190

    Excerpt:

    Hanzell founder James Zellerbach and his winemaker, BRAD WEBB, created an innovation incubator at their little hilltop winery above Sonoma Valley. With Zellerbach’s fortune and enthusiasm behind him, Webb introduced a slew of new cellar equipment and techniques in the winery’s early vintages of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The quality of hillside vineyards like Hanzell’s was already well known, but never before had a winery applied so much gentle but technical care to its wine. WEBB commissioned what are believed to be the first small temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenters, an early nitrogen-sparged bottling machine and other rarities such as a custom stainless steel crusher-destemmer that still looks contemporary today, a small stainless steel basket press and an electrode to measure dissolved oxygen.

    Oh yes, he [WEBB] also was possibly the first enologist to identify, isolate and use a specific malolactic strain, which was named ML 34. While the winery recognizes 1957 as the first commercial vintage, it has a bottle in perfect condition of 1956 Hanzell Pinot Noir from BRAD WEBB’s personal cellar. One of today’s leading Sonoma Valley winemakers, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, particularly remembers the quality of the 1959 Hanzell Pinot Noir. “It is definitely the wine that set the stage for the modern California wine business.”

  16. Andrea Fulton says:

    Steve, it’s Andrea not Andrew, but thanks for the kind words!

    Bob,
    Thanks so much for posting this…I am excited about the documentary!

    The contributions to our industry by Hanzell might have gone by the wayside, were it not for Bob Sessions who maintained the standards with respect and diligence for 30 years. May he rest in peace.

    btw, Andre designed the original stainless steel temperature controlled fermentation tanks and had them constructed by a dairy in the East Bay.

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Andrea,

    You’re welcome. Happy to share.

    André gave a compelling interview for Bob Benson’s book titled “Great Winemakers of California.”

    Worth reading — or rereading.

    Use this link to Steve’s blog titled “Napa Valley Pinot Noir: gone, but not forgotten” for my comment excerpting André’s thoughts on Pinot Noir:

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2016/01/08/napa-valley-pinot-noir-gone-but-not-forgotten/

    And see next related comment . . .

    ~~ Bob

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Likewise worth reading (or rereading) is Steve’s remembrance:

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2014/04/22/13348/

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