Pinot Noir, the grape variety, is thought to have existed for more than 2,000 years. It took on numerous names, one being Moreillon (aka Morillon), rumored to come from the Moors in North Africa. Noirien was another oft-used name; noir means black in France, and the first mention of Pinot Noir, using today’s current spelling, was in that country in 1375.
Whether Agoston Haraszthy of Buena Vista, Charles LeFranc of Almaden Vineyards or Frenchman Pierre Pellier brought Pinot Noir to California is a matter of debate, but we do know that the grape appeared in Napa Valley vineyards, such as Gustave Niebaum’s Inglenook, in the late 1800s.
Initially, Pinot Noir was hardly regarded; no one, including known winemakers H.W. Crabb and Eugene W. Hilgard, was recommending the grape or producing a wine from the thinner-skinned variety.
When Georges de LaTour entered the wine production side of the business in 1902, he first chose lower end reds. But by 1907 he was planting Pinot Noir—15 acres of it— along with Cabernet Sauvignon. Beaulieu added to their Pinot Noir plantings in 1909 with 10,000 more vines.
Ahead of his time, Louis Martini bought 200 acres of the Stanley Ranch in Carneros in 1942—a place that would become a mecca for Pinot Noir in Napa Valley—and experimented to find the best Pinot Noir clones.
Andre Tchelistcheff produced two gorgeous vintages (1946, 1947) for Beaulieu that quickly became the benchmark style for California Pinot Noir. Hard to replicate in other years, the special 1946 and ’47 wines are said to have haunted Tchelistcheff thereafter.
One of the biggest changes for Pinot Noir in Napa Valley today involves where it is grown. The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintner Tasting Panel sat down last month to look at current vintages of Pinot Noir in Napa Valley, tasting close to 30 wines from the 2015 and 2016 vintages. Panelists did not shy away from discussions on the suitability of Pinot Noir in Napa Valley’s warm climate.
Vintner Bill Dyer touched on the southern migration of the grape in the valley, explaining, “Carneros gets the winds; it is cool and a good place for Pinot Noir. It used to be planted in the North, where it is too warm.”
Long-time winemaker Tom Rinaldi came out and asked: is Napa Valley simply too warm?
At the heart of the question is the fact that Pinot Noir’s beauty is in its perfumed aromatics and bright acidity, which can get lost in warm growing seasons.
But it was not missed that the discussion was being held during a particularly cool summer (2018) with plenty of cloud cover and an early search for thick sweaters in the closet. And Carneros, the southern-most appellation of the valley with direct impact from the Pacific Ocean’s chilling influences, remains a cooler growing area housing much of the region’s Pinot Noir vines.
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Respected wine writer Jancis Robinson MW points out in her “Oxford Companion to Wine,” that although Oregon was set to be America’s answer to Burgundy’s highly regarded Pinot Noir wines, cooler areas in California such as Carneros “redefine the more southerly state’s reputation for Pinot.”
Making Pinot Noir in a warm climate requires a lot of vigilance. You want to extract color and tannins for a structured wine, yet retain the lovely aromatics and bright acidity that Pinot Noir is famous for. It is not an easy feat.
When the right balance is struck between California’s ripe, generous fruit and juicy acidity, the wines show off rich red and black cherry and red plum fruits with compote-like concentration and a silky ride along the tongue into a long, full flavored finish. Many of Napa Valley’s Pinot Noirs include generous amounts of sweet oak-spiced flavors, adding another dimension to the wines.
Panelists chose the following wines as their favorites:
Baldacci Family Vineyards 2015 Elizabeth Pinot Noir Los Carneros ($50) has lovely red fruit and integrated oak spice aromas on the nose with sweet oak-spiced black cherry fruit on palate.
Black Stallion Estate Winery Limited Release 2015 Pinot Noir Los Carneros ($35) comes out of the gate with fresh oak spices around a core of juicy red fruit.
Merryvale Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir Los Carneros ($38) shows off its sweet oak spice with darker black cherry fruits.
Saintsbury 2015 Lee Vineyard Pinot Noir Los Carneros ($62) provides a rich mouthful of ripe, red cherries.
Castello di Amorosa 2016 Pinot Noir Los Carneros ($42) leads with baking spice complexity and fresh red cherry and red plum flavors.
Clos du Val 2016 Gran Val Vineyard Los Carneros ($65) brings a whirl of red and black cherry fruit, with herb and sweet oak spice complexity, to the table.
Napa Cellars 2016 Pinot Noir Napa Valley ($25) has black cherry fruit and violet floral aromatics which lead to spiced black and red cherries on the palate.
V. Sattui Winery 2016 Pinot Noir Los Carneros ($42) has intense black cherry aromas with juicy acidity; a refreshing, uncomplicated sip.