Pinot Noir 4.0: An exploration of extreme terroir in California and Oregon
This is my take on the situation. I hope to hear from you about yours. Agree, disagree, whatever you add will be appreciated. Thanks.
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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.