California Pinot Noir Comes of Age; Bad News/ Good News

By: Alan Boehmer

Public interest in Pinot Noir has exploded since the movie Sideways. A groundswell of interest within the wine industry anticipated the public preoccupation with this varietal at least a decade ago and California wineries have taken bold steps to raise the bar on the quality of New World Pinot Noir wines.

Advances in Pinot Noir quality have been propelled by the widespread planting of the new Dijon Pinot Noir clones in Santa Barbara and Sonoma counties. Further refinement has been achieved by matching individual clones to specific soil types; and to the surprise of many wine lovers, planting several distinct clones within the same vineyard to provide additional complexity - one clone highlighting bright fruit, while another adding a measure of spiciness, for example. Might this be a 21st century correspondence to the 19th century practice of planting a certain percentage of blending grapes (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec) in the vineyards of Bordeaux in order to provide added complexity, balance and individuality?

The bad news comes, as expected, from France, where strong traditions prevent the kind of exploration and expansion that we have seen in California and Oregon. As a result, red Burgundy (the original Pinot Noir) has always been and will continue to be in limited supply just as a new generation of wine lovers places it in increasing demand.

A recent (2005) survey of 970 red Burgundies offered for sale in California wine retail outlets revealed that the average price of a red Burgundy officially rated at 90 points or above is currently US$98; this, with all wines priced over $200 excluded!

Compared with the cost of French Pinots, California Pinot Noir appears to be a positive bargain. The current average price for California Pinot Noirs comparably rated is $47. Superb unrated examples can be found in the $25-35 range.

So are the French Pinots substantially better than their California counterparts? To this writer's palate (my first red wine was a 1959 Chambertin Clos de Beze) the short answer is No.. Modern California Pinots are a result of decades of tireless trial and error. Mostly error. Lots of it. But throw into the mix great strides in viticulture and a careful matching of varietal clones with specific soils and climates: a delicious alternative at half the price.

California Pinot Noir has come of age. No, it may never taste quite like red Burgundy, but California preferences differ from French preferences. California Pinots are typically aromatic, dense, fruity, delectable, palate-filling wines with strong notes of cherry and mild tannins. The French versions have traditionally favored balance and elegance, but may be moving in the direction of fruitiness and oak influence.

California's success with this testy varietal has many interesting chapters, but recent events underscore the fervor with which these wines are being pursued by California vintners. A new AVA (American Viticultural Area, a.k.a. appellation) was created in Santa Barbara County in 2001, based largely on the enormous success of Pinot Noir in that region. The new Santa Rita Hills AVA, is home to many of the wineries on the forefront of research and experimentation with this varietal.

Over the past decade many of the top rated California Pinots have come from the Russian River AVA in Sonoma County, but new inroads have been made by coastal regions such as Sonoma Coast, Mendocino Ridge, and the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.

An unfortunate characteristic of California Pinots is that they have little representation in the lower tier of wine merchandising. Yes, there are under $10 bottlings. We've yet to find one that is comparable in quality to the under $10 Syrahs. One of the few exceptions is the 2002 Camelot Pinot Noir California, $7.50. Other examples are beginning to appear, but inexpensive Pinot Noirs only hint at the depth of flavor and layered complexity that this varietal is capable of delivering. Good examples of California Pinot Noir are rare below the $20 price point, but splendid ones are often found in the $25-35 range. So our advice is to skip the mid-priced Pinots and spend a few extra dollars for a memorable wine.

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About the Author:

Alan Boehmer has directed hundreds of wine tasting events in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Luis Obispo, where he makes his current home. Longtime advocate for California wine, he joined Suite 101 New World Wine in 1998 as one of the earliest contributing editors, writing for their California Wine topic. He now edits Suite 101's more expansive New World Wine topic.

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