WineInk: On The Promontory
Pinot Noir Rises
The scene was a house on a hill next to the Snowmass Ski Area. A group of guys, “boys week” they call it, all in the medical profession, mid-50s, gathered after a day on the slopes to grill steaks, tell lies and drink. Their drink of choice? Pinot Noir.
Back in a day not long ago, a gang of this ilk’s drink of choice would have been a Coors, a shot of whisky or tequila cocktail followed by the best of California Cabernet. But this group of friends has found their subtler side. Rather than go bomber-big with Napa Cabs they were sipping – and discussing – the Pinot Noir they brought with them for their boys week.
“We all chipped in and one of the guys was driving up from Scottsdale, so he volunteered to bring up a few cases that we had ordered through our golf club,”one of the physicians explained. “Yeah, we used to be beer-and-a-shot guys but times change.”
And palates change.
A quick perusal of the boys’ bounty showed some 2018 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, a 2016 ROAR from the Santa Lucia Highlands on California’s Central Coast and an Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I asked what they were drinking at home. “Cherry Pie (the Carneros Pinot from Jayson Woodbridge) has been my wife’s favorite, our house wine if you will,” said another of the august group of skiers. “And we are in some wine clubs so we keep some things from Santa Barbara and the Central Coast in the cellar. We have a few Burgundies as well that we open on special occasions.”
While I was struck by the group’s metamorphosis, what was really nice to hear was the way these guys were drinking: With purpose and intent, paying attention to the details of their wines’ provenance, the winemaker, and the styles of pinot that that they were popping. These weren’t just a new generation of wine drinkers. They were an “experienced” generation whose habits – and interests – have changed.
And Pinot Noir has changed. American Pinot Noir in particular is having a moment. Just last month, this column detailed the public New York Stock Exchange offering of Duckhorn wines—a company that has become perhaps as well known for their production of Pinot Noir through their Goldeneye, Kosta Brown, Calera and Migration brands, as they are for their original Napa Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. And this past week word came from “up north” in Oregon that the Ponzi family (also profiled in WineInk in August) have sold their pioneering Pinot Noir-based brand to the family that has produced Champagne Bollinger in France since 1829. Both business transactions indicate the power of Pinot to the pocket book.
While Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay remain the king and queen, respectively, of wine grapes, Pinot Noir has become the fifth most planted red wine grape on Earth. In America it is the third-most planted varietal of either color. The majority of the great domestic Pinot Noir-centric regions are along the California Coast ranging from Santa Barbara (Sta. Rita Hills) to Carmel (Santa Lucia Highlands), into Napa (Carneros) and Sonoma (Russian River Valley) and eventually the Anderson Valley in Mendocino. All of these regions benefit from cool moderating influences that come, in differing ways, from their proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
And Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home to Ponzi amongst other premier producers, is bisected by the 45th Parallel, a sweet spot for Northern hemisphere wine as it is halfway between the equator and the North Pole. While it can get extremely hot in mid–summer, the Willamette is still considered a cool climate growing region which is critical to the production of the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grapes.
Of course, Pinot Noir’s ancestral home is the Burgundy region of France where
it figuratively flows in the bloodstreams of those who produce it, as family wineries have roots that go back for centuries. Wine historians date the origin of the viticultural traditions in the region to about the time BC became AD, though there is division about the derivation of the original Pinot Noir grape.
In the last three decades Pinot Noir has also established a significant presence in the Southern Hemisphere. In New Zealand, where it is the most planted red grape, the Central Otago region on the South Island reigns supreme. The Coastal zones of Australia, including the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne and Tasmania (an island way, way down south) have become cool spots for Pinot Noir. The Walker Bay and Elgin regions of South Africa and the Rio Negro region of Argentina’s Patagonia also have been producing great versions of the grape. Once again all of these regions are close to their respective oceans and profit from the fogs and breezes of the sea.
The obvious answer is that people like the flavors that the grape imparts. But that in itself is a loaded comment. The still wines produced from Pinot Noir can be many different things depending on where they come from and how they are handled. In Burgundy, the motherland, finesse, and elegance are treasured in the wines. The flavors of black cherries and raspberry can mingle freely with cola and the essence of the earth in some bigger permutations. But mostly, it is the taste of the fruits that appeal to the global palate, be it bold wines or wines that are more delicate.
But it is not easy being a producer of Pinot Noir. Vintners are dealing with a relatively thin-skinned grape that is often described as “finicky.” While other varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon have thicker skins and are heartier, Pinot can be susceptible to myriad conditions in the vineyards. It is thought that smoke taint, a product of wildfires, can have a greater effect on Pinot than other grapes, and that, in this day and age, is a growing reality.
Then there are temperature swings that can damage the grapes. In early April Burgundy saw three straight nights of below-freezing temperatures just as the first buds were beginning to develop on the vines. Despite burning fires and coating the grapes with water to protect the vineyards in the pre-dawn hours, many famed Pinot Noir vineyards suffered damage. To be a Pinot Noir producer can be a dangerous game. Some might ask “Why Pinot?” in a different way.
But, bottom line, as my friends on their boys week well know, “Why Pinot?” is a question with an obvious answer. Because it’s delicious.
A Trio from Argyle
Three wines. Three styles. Three vintages. One grape.
The diversity of Pinot Noir was brought home this past week when I sampled a selection of three wines that had been sent to me by Argyle, a well-known producer of Pinot Noir in Dundee in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.
The first wine I tried was a young 2020 Argyle Rose´of Pinot Noir made by the versatile winemaker Nate Klostermann. “The goal was to create a generous and textural rosé that is also dynamic and balanced,” he said of his endeavor. A pink beauty, the traditional Pinot Noir aromas and flavors were, in fact, dynamically balanced.
Next I twisted the screw cap on a 2018 Argyle Willamette Valley Reserve Pinot Noir, a wine produced from four different vineyards. “This wine takes you from north to south in the Willamette Valley,” said Klostermann of the wine that is defined by a silky texture and a sense of its origins in Oregon’s Pinot Paradise.
The final wine, going chronologically back in time, was a 2016 Argyle Knudsen Vineyard Brut. Yes, a sparkling wine — Pinot Noir is, after all, one of the three allowed grapes in Champagne — that was produced from 100% Pinot Noir grapes grown on the winery’s original vineyard planted in 1974. Not a hint of color, just perfect bubbles with a touch of rose and hint of cherries on the nose. A special wine.
The Consciuous Collection Auction previewed in WineInk two issues ago raised $1.6 million to fund support of pandemic-stricken workers. The h item with the highest bid was for a stay at Sting and Trudi Styler’s Il Palagio wine estate in Tuscany. The price? $140,000.
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