WineInk : Post-Pinot Posse
Thoughts on why people love Pinot.
If you were at Free Range Kitchen in Basalt for the Pinot Posse dinner earlier this month, then you had your fair share of Pinot Noir from a host of outstanding producers. I made a point of asking many in attendance the obvious question, “Why Pinot?” and I got a lot of obvious answers. Most said simply that they love the flavors and the aromas that a good glass of Pinot Noir has to offer. Fair enough.
While according to the statistics the most favored red-wine grape in America is Cabernet Sauvignon, my anecdotal evidence in a thousand conversations and more with wine drinkers says that the most popular red variety is surely Pinot Noir. It’s another reason I subscribe to that old refrain “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” as uttered first by Mark Twain.
But, seriously, when you ask someone what their favorite wine is these days, it is the rare bird who doesn’t answer, “Pinot.” And, virtually every wine list, especially in this town, has a Pinot offering or two that top their sales. Over the past decade, due precisely to that anecdotal evidence, planting of the Pinot Noir grape has exploded, and many more American wine regions are fast becoming Pinot hot spots. Just ask those who were at the Pinot Posse tasting.
No other grape is as versatile, as difficult, as transitory, and as loved as Pinot Noir by wine connoisseurs and winemakers. Long deemed to be fussy, Pinot Noir is nonetheless grown around the world in some of the most unlikely places one might expect. Originally prized by Cistercian Monks in 1330, who cultivated the grape in the Burgundy region of France, it now thrives in places as diverse as California, Oregon, Argentina, Italy, South Africa, and Australia.
From Central Otago, on the southernmost flanks of New Zealand’s South Island, which lies 45 degrees below the equator, to Ahr in Germany, which, at 50 degrees north is the northernmost, red-wine growing region on the planet, over 300,000 acres of vineyards are planted to the grape globally. France and the United States lead the way in production, as you might expect, but countries like Austria, Moldavia, and, yes, even Great Britain, host Pinot vines. By the way, in Germany, Pinot Noir goes by the moniker of Spätburgunder. Typical of the Germans.
One could say that Pinot Noir is the global grape.
So, what’s the attraction? Well, for starters, elegance, and flavor. Pinot Noir can be produced in a number of different styles, and each can be, and should be, reflective of its place of origin. But, it is the flavor profiles of the wine that makes Pinot Noir so popular. Usually light to medium in body and weight, it is a dry wine with gentle tannins, acidity that zings, and medium-to-moderate alcohol levels that range between 12%-15%. Cherries and berries, raspberries in particular, converage with other flavors ranging from hints of a forest floor to salt from the sea.
Burgundy wines from the source are a revelation, and the wines of the region — particularly from the 24 Grand Cru vineyards of the Côte de Nuits — command some of the highest prices of any wines in the world. A trip to Burgundy to see the patchwork, postage-stamp-sized vineyards, many of which to this day are farmed by horse and hand, is like a trip to Mecca for those who are passionate about Pinot.
Wines from Burgundy tend to be light in style, translucent, and elegant. The takeaway taste from the best of these wines exudes the flavor of the terroir — that would be the aroma of the earth and flowers and mushrooms and soils and, well, everything, including the manure that is found in the fields where the grapes are grown. Once you taste it, you never forget it.
Tasting Pinot Noir wines from the global vineyards — those produced in other regions of the world — still shows the influence of the motherland. Many winemakers craft their wines to reflect the original concepts of ancient Burgundian winemakers who explored the subtle variations found — not just in a region, but also in single vineyards, individual blocks, or even single rows of vines.
At the Pinot Posse dinner, one could see this influence from Burgundy in the wines made in the Willamette Valley of Oregon by Jim Prosser for his J.K. Carriere wines and from David O’Reilly — both of whom poured products from individual vineyard lots. The Owen Roe 2019 Clonmacnoise Pinot Noir was sourced from the Durant Vineyard in Oregon’s Dundee Hills, which sits cheek to jowl to vines owned and farmed by the Drouhin family of Burgundy at their estate Domaine Drouhin in the Dundee Hills. For his part, Prosser’s wine — the J.K. Carierre 2021 Vespidae Pinot Noir from his estate vineyard — reflected the acidity that is so often found in the best wines of Burgundy. Prosser once apprenticed in Burgundy with legendary Pinot producer Christophe Roumier in Chambolle-Musigny, and, to this day, that experience shows in his wines.
The Willamette Valley is the “Burgundy of the Northwest.” Here producers and consumers celebrate the beauty of the Pinot Noir grape with near religious fervor. They also tout the ability of the region, with its varied soils and cooling climate, to be the perfect place to grow the grape. The region is, in wine terms, still in its infancy, with the first grapes having been planted in just the late 1960s, but there are now close to 600 bonded wineries in the region.
But, it is California that is home to perhaps the greatest number of diverse regions where Pinot thrives, and there are a plethora of different styles of the wine that are being produced. At the Posse dinner, guests were able to get a taste of some of these wines.
While traditionally many of California’s Pinot Noir producers favored bigger more intense expressions of the varietal, there is, today, an established movement of winemakers who are inclined to pick their grapes a little earlier and to keep the alcohol levels a little lower and produce wine that reflect their place of origin.
Adam Lee founded Siduri and was a pioneer in producing wines in small lots that were unfiltered and unrefined in order to best emphasize the character of the grapes. He poured his new wine under the moniker Clarice (an homage to his grandmother) that carries on the tradition of respecting the nuances of the Pinot Noir grape.
And, winemaker Ed Kurtzman contributed a Sonoma County wine from his August West collection sourced from the Graham Family Vineyard in the Green Valley appellation in the heart of the Russian River Valley AVA.
For me, the vast coastal regions of California and the variety of places where Pinot Noir thrives marks the future of the grape. In this space in the past, we have explored the Carneros AVA of Sonoma and the Napa Valley, the Sta. Rita Hills not far from Santa Barbara, and the Anderson Valley to the North, just inland from the Mendocino Coast. Christopher Streiter poured wine produced from a single vineyard less than 10 miles from the Pacific in the West Sonoma Coast AVA, a Senses Wines 2021 Sonoma Coast Kanzler Pinot Noir. It was sublime.
So, why Pinot Noir? I go back to the answers I got from the diners at Free Range whom I posed the question to: “Because I like the way it tastes.”
Sometimes, the simplest answer is the best.
Convene 2019 Campbell Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
This was the first time I have had a chance to taste through Dan Kosta’s newest wines under the Convene label, and it is clear that the former founder of Kosta-Browne wines has a new hit on his hands. He says the Convene wines will give him an opportunity to work with winemaker Shane Finley on producing blended Pinot Noir wines that mix and marry different lots or blocks of the grapes. This single vineyard wine from Campbell Ranch — a remote Sonoma Coast locale — is rich, deep garnet in color and opulent with a basket of fruits for your tongue to choose from. It was pleasure to pursue.
“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.