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The one grape, the two words, “Pinot Noir,” evoke heavy emotions in the wine world. Some would beg, borrow and steal to taste the ethereal, earthy nature of the world’s best pinot noirs.

What propelled this thin-skinned, difficult-to-grow grape to stardom?

Without a sip to understand its grip on otherwise reasonable wine enthusiasts, pinot noir sounds like something the grapegrower would avoid at all cost. The grape’s thinner skins can lead to wines with less pigmentation than other popular varieties like cabernet sauvignon that are valued for their deep, opaque color. Growers say pinot noir’s fickle nature in the vineyard leads to hang-wringing and outright tears.

Yet, when pinot noir shines, it creates some of the most intriguing wines in the world. In a Mediterranean climate like Napa Valley, the grapes ripen with a full spectrum of aromatic red fruit aromas and flavors. The color of the wines are deeper, especially when the grape skins, which provide the color in a wine, are left in contact with the juice for longer periods before or during fermentation. This extended skin contact also adds tannic structure, helping the wines to age. Add to that the climate mitigating ocean breezes and fog that maintain acidity in the grapes, and thus the wine, and we end up with the ultimate triumvirate: full flavor, freshness and age-ability.

Pinot noir first came to California in the mid-1800s. Whether it was brought by Agoston Haraszthy of Buena Vista Winery, Charles LeFranc of Almaden Vineyards, or Frenchman Pierre Pellier remains a matter of debate, but by 1880 it was planted in Napa Valley by Gustav Niebaum, founder of Inglenook Winery.

The Stanly Ranch in Carneros soon became its mecca, with significant pinot noir plantings on the ranch’s 300 acres. In 1942, ahead of his time, Louis M. Martini bought 200 acres of the Stanly Ranch and experimented to find the best pinot noir clones. Andre Tchelistcheff made a Beaulieu pinot noir in 1946, which quickly became the benchmark for its style in California. From there, Carneros Creek Winery, Acacia, Saintsbury and a host of others became known for their pinot noir plantings and wine.

Carneros remains a special place for pinot noir. Its close proximity to the ocean keeps the wines vibrant while letting them show off intense aromatics. The region dominated Napa Valley pinot noir submissions at the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel this past month, yet there were wines from fog-touched Oak Knoll, as well as the Spring Mountain District.

Panelists reviewed a total of 22 pinot noirs at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, which were tasted across three flights: one of the 2012 vintage and two from 2013.

What most struck panelists about the wines was the stylistic move toward greater balance: less overt oak flavors, finer tannins, and less jammy, over-extracted fruit. In past tastings, numerous wines appeared cab-like in structure, and relied heavily on oak and sweet fruit flavors.

Sara Fowler, winemaker at Peju Province Winery, said the wines “are moving away from being over-sweet, over-processed. They are leaner, tastier and naturally expressive.”

Chris Phelps, consulting winemaker and winemaker emeritus of Swanson Vineyards, added, “The wines have varietal character; a good expression of pinot noir.”

Dr. Liz Thach, Master of Wine and professor of Wine and Business at Sonoma State University, noted, “The wines showed elegance and freshness; there was a backing-off of oak.”

John Skupny, owner of Lang & Reed and industry consultant, summarized the suggested retail prices for the group, counting six wines under $40 and 11 under $50. Skupny commented, “These pinot noirs represent some good values; reasonable from what is seen from other areas.”

Panelists’ favorite wines include the list’s least expensive ($27) and most expensive ($75) pinot noirs, and they fall in between the lowest (13.5 percent) and highest (15.1 percent) of the labeled alcohol percentages.

The top pinot noirs of the 2012 and 2013 vintage are:

Michael Mondavi Family 2012 Isabel Mondavi Pinot Noir, Carneros ($50). Intense red cherry fruit joins violet floral aromas in this medium deep ruby-colored wine. This is a fuller-bodied style pinot noir, not shy on alcohol, but all in balance.

Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyards, Los Carneros ($75). Red berry and plum fruits join rose and violet floral on a dense palate with a dark berry finish. Tightly wound now, this wine should soften with time.

Starmont Winery 2013 Pinot Noir, Los Carneros ($27). Deep red plum aromas lead to a mix of red and dark berry fruits on the palate with beautifully integrated oak spice flavors. The wine’s concentrated fruit, refreshing acidity and tannins are all in balance, allowing for aging, but it is delicious right now.

Baldacci Family Vineyards 2012 Elizabeth Pinot Noir, Los Carneros ($65). This wine shows intriguing complexity with rich red plum and cherry fruit, earthy flavors, and a bit of white pepper spice on the finish. The intense flavors flow on a richly textured body that is neither flabby nor over-concentrated; a beautiful wine.

Frank Family Vineyards 2013 Lewis Carneros Reserve, Los Carneros ($65). A darker ruby color, this pinot noir has bright red cherry fruit and a zing of black pepper spice on the palate.

Artesa Vineyards & Winery 2013 Estate Reserve, Napa Valley ($40). Vanilla and other warm baking spices mingle with red cherry fruit and a touch of toasty-ness that make this pinot noir a sip of tasty cherry pie.

(Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.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.)

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