Hand someone a Napa Valley wine described as deep colored, dark berried, full bodied, concentrated, with generous oak flavors, tannins and alcohol, and it would be fair to guess that a cabernet sauvignon was about to touch their lips. But that could also be pinot noir in their glass, such is the voluptuous style that Napa Valley’s pinots have shown for over a decade.
Yet a recent tasting of current pinot noir vintages by the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel shows that change is afoot in the valley.
Two dozen Napa Valley winemakers gathered at the Rudd Center at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone recently to taste and discuss three flights of pinot noir wines from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 vintages (the bulk from the latter two).
What they discovered was a collection of wines that showed fruit first (black cherry, red cherry, and plum being the most common), followed by integrated oak spice and balancing acidity and tannins.
Kari Auringer, winemaker at Bryter Estates, spoke of the style divergence, noting, “I used to think of Napa pinots as cabernet-lovers’ pinots. Now, they are pinot-lovers’ pinots.”
Hugh Davies, owner of Schramsberg Vineyard, added some insight into the changes. “Napa Valley pinot noir continues to evolve. As we look at Carneros, there are so many pockets of young or new plantings. There are new, exciting opportunities: more diversity of clones is bringing a broader range of pinot flavors in Carneros today; there are lower yields in general; and the wines are more fine-tuned. More money is being spent in the vineyard and we see it in the wines.”
The cooler Carneros region has for long been associated with premium pinot noir in the valley. It is considered the mecca within the valley for cool-climate-loving pinot noir. The grapes retain their inherent, delicate red fruit aromas and flavors when grown in cooler climes. Using all or a portion of Carneros fruit has influenced the style of Napa Valley pinot noirs overall, providing balancing acidity and perfumed red fruits to the riper fruit flavors produced up valley.
That is not to say there are no cab-like full-bodied, opaquely intense Napa Valley pinots with generous tannins and oak flavors. There are. Kenn Vigoda of Judd’s Hill, saw house styles dominating regardless of whether Carneros fruit was used or not.
Certainly, choosing the perfect Napa Valley pinot noir wine for dinner will help when you know what to expect from the producer’s wine. To assist, we provide the Panel’s favorite pinot noirs of the tasting with their flavor profiles below:
Ancien 2014 Mink Vineyard Coombsville ($50). A sub-appellation with rolling hills and cooling influences, Coombsville produces wines that ripen easily while retaining balancing acidity. This Ancien is a taste of this delectable style, matching prominent red cherries and oaky spice with a refreshing lift of acid.
Davies Vineyards 2014 Hyde Napa Valley ($55). Strap yourself in for this wine — it is a delicious wave of warm, sweet spices (vanilla, cinnamon) and red berried fruit that may just whisk you off to nirvana. Davies’ red wines are deep, concentrated, full-bodied and packed with flavor. This pinot follows suit.
Renteria Family Wines 2014 Brown Ranch Los Carneros ($105). While this wine was the most expensive of the group, it proved its worth with each deeply, complex sip. The 2014 is intensely flavored with fruit-forward dark plum, blackberry, red and black cherry fruit that melds beautifully with oak-aged flavors. Nothing sticks out awkwardly on the palate; the wine is a seamless taste of fresh, deeply fruited pinot noir.
Saintsbury 2014 Lee Vineyard Los Carneros ($62). Saintsbury has been one of the standard bearers of premium Napa pinot noir since the early 1990s. For a long time, a winery wouldn’t do a comparative tasting of valley pinots without Saintsbury in the line-up. The winery gained instant pinot fame when it released some of the valley’s first single-vineyard pinot wines. Their current 2014 Lee Vineyard pinot noir has more substance than some of its older vintages with juicy dark black cherries and black fruits paired with dark spice flavors.
Schermeister Cellars 2012 Paladini Vineyard Los Carneros ($47). With just a year under its belt as a member of the Napa Valley Vintners, this winery wasted no time in seducing the palates of panelists. Deep red cherry and dark strawberry fruit mingle with a mix of herbs and black pepper spice on a perfectly structured body with fruit intensity, acidity and tannins all working seamlessly together for a fresh, flavorful sip of pinot noir.
Trefethen Family Vineyards 2013 Oak Knoll District ($45). Not too many people are aware of the fact that Janet Trefethen helped cultivate a foodie culture in Napa Valley well before the valley was dotted with fine restaurants. Only a handful of eating establishments existed when Janet gathered chefs and vintners together at her winery home for fine dining experiences. The 2013 pinot that shows up on their dinner table today has bright black cherry and fresh oak aromas and flavors.
ZD Wines 2014 Los Carneros ($50). ZD wines are confident in their style, never wavering from deep aromas, fruit concentration, and generous oak spice. Its fans and club members are some of the most fanatical you’ll encounter. This wine stood out for its deep, inviting black cherry and red plum fruit layered with integrated sweet spice on a refreshing backbone of acidity and silky tannins.