The lazy days of summer have come and gone and the busy harvest season has arrived. With the change of season, many people are forgoing their glass of sauvignon blanc or rosé for something a bit heartier, but maybe not quite as full-bodied as a cabernet sauvignon. Pinot noir is often a great varietal pick.
Many winemakers will agree that pinot noir can be one of the most difficult wines to make. The challenge is that it often needs to be just right: the perfect balance of fruit and oak combined with easy tannins and moderate acidity. In fact, there can be more uncertainty among growers and winemakers about what to do with pinot noir than practically any other grape. How should the grape be pruned, cropped, picked (early or late) and what style should it be made in are all great questions that winemakers face with pinot noir. And these are important questions. A great-tasting pinot noir can be inspiring, whereas a mediocre wine can be quite disappointing.
Burgundy has been the hallmark place for making classic pinot noir. It has all the right elements of making beautiful pinot noir, including the right location, topsoil, subsoil, weather, sunshine and geographical orientation. Another notable area for producing quality pinot noir is the Carneros appellation in the Napa Valley. This area is close to the maritime influences of San Pablo Bay and it is known for its cool and breezy weather. This climate makes it ideal for cool climate grape varieties such as pinot noir.
The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel decided to explore the quality of Napa Valley pinot noirs during their latest wine tasting, where they reviewed 21 (three flights of seven) Napa Valley pinot noirs. The wines tasted ranged from four different vintages (2009-2012) and varied slightly in price, ranging from $22 to $75.
Wayne Donaldson with Donaldson Wines kicked off the conversation by saying it was a complex set of wines. “These were all big pinot noirs. I think there has been a change of style in pinot noirs, but I felt many of these wines were too extracted and had too much oak.”
Many of the panelists agreed. “These wines were rich and although they had good character, they just didn’t have the elegance of Burgundy pinots,” noted Jac Cole. “I thought they were too concentrated and were lacking in fruit.”
This led to a brief discussion on the varying range of alcohol levels in pinot noirs. The panelists agreed that it wasn’t so much the alcohol level that made one pinot noir taste better than the other as it was the balance of fruit and oak. Kristin Belair with Honig pointed out that generally speaking, many Napa Valley winemakers make bigger-style pinot noir. “The balance of oak and fruit becomes really important, and I liked the fruit in many of these wines.”
Jon Emmerich, winemaker with Silverado Vineyards who doesn’t make pinot noirs, questioned the wineries’ model for making the wine. His personal preference is for wines that have less oak and are not so extracted, but he also noted that some wineries might want to make the bigger, more intense wine.
Saintsbury winemaker Chris Kajani expressed her opinion on this issue by noting that some winemakers desire a pinot noir that can be aged for several years. These wines tend to have more alcohol, higher tannins and are bigger-structured wines. “Our 2011 Carneros pinot noir, however, was released not too long ago and was made to be consumed over the first few years, so it has more fruit and lower tannins.”
Bill Dyer with Dyer Vineyards shared a different point of view. “I thought many of the pinot noirs we tasted were well-made wines. I was impressed by the richness, roundness and silky finish that I tasted in some of these wines, particularly in the wines by Ceja Vineyards and Renteria Wines.”
At the conclusion of the tasting, the majority of the group agreed that it is difficult to make pinot noir in Napa Valley. Whether you agree with the panelists’ conclusions or prefer a fuller-bodied pinot noir, the following wines are those that the panelists found to be the stand-outs:
2009 Ceja Vineyards Carneros Pinot Noir ($40) — The Ceja family proudly continues a three-generation tradition of growing choice grapes in the beautiful Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The Ceja Carneros pinot noir is fresh and floral with red plum, black cherry blossoms and hibiscus notes.
2010 Domaine Chandon Carneros Pinot Noir ($35) — Well-known for producing high quality sparkling wines, Domaine Chandon also produces some noteworthy still wines. The handcrafted varietal wines of Domaine Chandon pay homage to their unique understanding of traditional champagne varietals and the renowned Carneros appellation. The concentrated fruit yielded in 2010 resulted in a pinot noir with intense plum, cherry and boysenberry aromas and flavors, with hints of sandalwood and pipe tobacco. The structure is present and not overt, creating a nice balance between oak and tannins, which will benefit over time.
2011 Laird Family Estate Carneros Pinot Noir ($55) — Laird Family Estate is proud to present its first Phantom Ranch offering. Located on the most picturesque vineyard in Napa-Carneros, this is an elegant pinot noir from hand-selected vines. With only 243 cases produced, this wine offers complex aromas and flavors of ruby red grapefruit, strawberry jam, fresh raspberries and vanilla, all of which are complemented by a medium-body mouthfeel and silky tannins.
2012 Napa Cellars Pinot Noir ($22) — Napa Cellars embodies the classic Napa Valley style — ripe, rich, balanced and collectible. This 2012 pinot noir is an elegant wine that delivers beautiful, earthy aromas of baked cherry pie, with subtle cigar box and cedar notes. Faint flavors of strawberry and dark cherry erupt on the palate and are supported by a fantastic hint of cranberry in the finish. This wine is well structured with excellent depth and balanced acidity.
2011 Paul Hobbs Winery Carneros Pinot Noir ($75) — Winemaker Paul Hobbs is highly regarded for his ability to identify exceptional vineyards. He selected the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros for this 2011 pinot noir. Deep ruby in color, the aromas of this pure yet voluptuous pinot noir set the stage with blueberries, black raspberry and caramel. The palate is precise yet supple and is brimming with dark red cherry and raspberry, cocoa, anise and sassafras. Silky tannins and caramel linger on the finish.
2011 Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir ($36) — Winemakers at Saintsbury taste through all barreled pinot noir as they search for lots with just the right balance of tannin and acid, coupled with fruit flavors that are rich, dark-red and complex with just the right amount of vibrant acidity. This lush pinot noir gives off aromas of forest floor, dark cherry, plum and mahogany. It offers a smooth and enticing mid-palate, and a lingering finish.
(Tiffany van Gorder is the general manager for Napa’s Balzac Communications. You can contact Tiffany at email@example.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.)