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A Thursday afternoon Pinot Noir tasting



I did a small tasting session yesterday up at Jackson Family Wines for some folks and, as it was highly informative, I thought I’d share some of the findings here.


All the wines were 2012 Pinot Noirs. Here was the lineup:

Foxen Fe Ciega

Siduri Clos Pepe

Domaine de la Côte, Bloom’s Field

Foxen La Encantada

Cambria Julia’s

Loring Cargasacchi

Brewer-Clifton 3D

Lutum Sanford & Benedict

Brewer-Clifton Machado.

You’ll notice that all the wines were Santa Rita Hills except for the Cambria. I thought it would be nice if we included the Julia’s (a wine we at Jackson know well) to see if we could detect it and also if it showed a “Santa Maria Valley” character as opposed to a “Santa Rita Hills” character. After all, the two appellations have nearly identical climates, although the soils are different, and are separated only by the 101 Freeway and a little bit of latitude.

My top wines easily were the two Brewer-Cliftons, the two Foxens and the Loring. All showed what I think of as the fleshiness I want in a great California Pinot Noir: rich, ripe, almost flamboyant fruit, great tannins and acidity, enormous complexity, and deliciousness right out of the bottle yet with the capacity to age. Interestingly, all five were at least 14% alcohol by volume. By contrast, the wine with the least alcohol, the Domaine de la Côte, at 12.5%, was my least preferred wine.

The tasting was blind, and all of us thought the Bloom’s Field was dominated by oak. Even though the tech notes say there was zero percent new oak, still, the wine was aged in barrel for 20 months, and the vanilla and char were overwhelming. I think the problem was that the wine simply didn’t have the power to support the extracted wood. It’s fine to aim for a low alcohol wine, but not at the cost of trading away richness and ripeness. This is California, not Burgundy. If you take ripeness away from our Pinot Noirs, there’s not much else that remains.

The Lutum, which was made by Gavin Chanin, was an interesting wine, but even though the alcohol was offfically 13.7% I found it a bit hot and rustic. I think, concerning these lowish alcohol levels, that we really have to resolve this discussion about how to keep Pinot Noir “balanced” and yet retain its opulence. Balance for the sake of balance seems silly to me, if by “balance” you mean simply alcohol below 14%. I don’t think “balance” is determined by a number. Shouldn’t deliciousness and opulence be a part of the equation?

Incidentally, the four Foxen and B-C wines were fabulous, but aside from neither of them having an obsession with alcohol levels, they were separated by the fact that Greg Brewer loves whole cluster fermentation whereas Billy Wathan destemmed all his berries. And yet their wines were magnificent, stunning and, yes, balanced. This shows that the degree of whole cluster is irrelevant, provided, of course, that those stems are lignified if you do include them.

Did I identify the Julia’s? No. Mea culpa. It was right in the middle, score-wise.

Anyhow, I can think of worse ways to spend eternity than tasting Pinot Noir and talking about it! Salud, and have a great weekend.

  1. Should have done the tasting today… “hey, let me taste that Siduri again… mmmm, this stuff is really good!” 😉

  2. Nice notes and I agree that those who try to make a statement with alcohol levels have missed the whole damn point of Pinot Noir.

    Ride the wave nature has given in any vintage!

    BTW–I woke up yesterday and found *I* work for KJ too, although far less directly. Nice to be a (grower) part of your team vis a vis Siduri!

  3. Some wines can indeed be dominated by oak even though only neutral barrels were used. I was questioning a winemaker (I think it was at Chalone) about overly oaked Chardonnays a few years ago and he said, “Some wines are not over-oaked, they are under-wined.” Makes the same point.

  4. Patrick: Exactly.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    An overlooked winemaker in the Central Coast: Rick Longoria, who I first met when he was the winemaker at Gainey.

    Backgrounder on his Fe Ciega Vineyard Pinot Noir bottling;

  6. Bob Henry: how cool to see your mention of Rick Longoria as I had the chance to taste some of his excellent Pinot at the Taos Winter Wine Festival this past week-end. By the way for those not aware of this event, it is a great opportunity to ski all day–two mile runs with 3k elevation drops, no crowds on the slopes. Then with your head cleared out, drop in for some wine tastings at the end of the day. Also ran into Josh Jenson of Calera out carving the powder.

  7. Dusty Gillson says:

    This is probably the most gravely incorrect and damaging statement I’ve heard you make:

    “It’s fine to aim for a low alcohol wine, but not at the cost of trading away richness and ripeness. This is California, not Burgundy. If you take ripeness away from our Pinot Noirs, there’s not much else that remains.”

    I’m surprised that no one else picked this up, but if you take this statement at face value, why does anyone in California bother to make Pinot Noir? Certainly you don’t get 94 points just from showcasing ripeness do you?

    I just hate to see you play into the “Only Burgundy has terroir” faction.

  8. A tasting of Anderson Valley Pinots could be a nice change of pace from the tired and true expected appellations.
    We welcome you to experience the rugged appeal of Mendocino’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noir where terroir is never under estimated.

  9. Eugenia Keegan says:

    Hi Steve! Just curious….who was in the seminar? And any feedback from the attendees? Thanks, E

  10. Hi Eugenia, this wasn’t a seminar, it was just a small private tasting for some people at JFW.

  11. Steve,

    Interesting comments about balance in PN…wonder if you’re attending the March 16th ‘In Pursuit of Balance’ event @ the Metreon in SF? Organized by Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr and featuring only CH and PN wines/wineries/winemakers. Taken from the group’s About Page: “…members of the media and trade have been vocal in calling for greater restraint and balance in wine and this has become one of the hottest topics in the wine world.”

    Best, Regina

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