Nothing Comes Easy for Pinot Noir

Posted: Jan 31, 2009 12:01 AM
Nothing Comes Easy for Pinot Noir

Pinot noir, one of the most difficult wines to make well, seems to be the new darling among many wine consumers, most of whom know little of the drama behind this little rascal of a grape.

Persnickety and easily prone to fits of pique, pinot noir is hard to grow, hard to make into fine wine, ages erratically in the bottle, can change from ugly colt to stalwart stallion without warning (and vice versa!), and at its best is exalted as one of the greatest of all wines.

The king of the hill is red Burgundy, famed for its greatness when it is great. But not every bottle of Burgundy is great, and therein lies the New World quest to make one that is.

One certainty about pinot is that it might be the most site-sensitive of all wine grapes in that it can make a decent red table wine in many places, but it takes certain specific soils and climes to give the winemaker the raw materials that make a world-class liquid. One misstep, and even great grapes can be ruined, leaving us with dross.

The debate about which is more important, the soil or climate, to the making of great pinot has raged for years, but all would agree that without sites that are cool enough, the grape ripens oddly and leaves us with nothing classic.

Some believe that the colder the better, even if the grapes are grown in areas where the vine has to struggle year to year to make sufficient flavors.

In the United States, only two states -- California and Oregon -- have such locations. And as large as the former is, it has only a handful of regions where classics are now being produced on a regular basis. The best sites for pinot noir in California are thus prized. And the wines they make are selling for a lot of money to knowledgeable wine lovers.

Of the dozen or so cooler regions that Californians have identified as making the best pinot noirs, one of the most widely accepted as best is a fairly large area of western Sonoma County in which four distinct sub-regions have been identified, and where a few of the boundaries overlap.

Sonoma Coast: This is a large, gerrymandered-looking region that extends down from Mendocino Countys border on the north coast through a narrow coastal strip to just inside the Marin County line, and then swinging over to Santa Rosa.

Russian River: Best known of the four regions, it is roughly a huge square all west of Highway 101, and reaching as far as a few miles from the Pacific, with some pockets on hillsides considered a bit better (and riskier) than vineyards on flat bottomland soils.

Green Valley: A smaller region contained inside Russian River and to the far west of that region, with few wineries using its fruit, most of them family-owned farms.

Freestone: A tiny region thats rated coldest of all in the county and one that potentially is best of all.

One of the newest viticulture designations in Sonoma County is Sonoma Coast, and its wines do have a slight similarity, usually with a bit more herbal influence. But the area is so large that generalizations are hard to make.

By far the most widely used regional statement on a bottle of great pinot is that of Russian River Valley, whose boundaries were set up based on how the local ground fog weaved in and out of the various rills and culverts.

Great pinots here are more defined by berry fruits (raspberry, strawberry, red currants, fresh cherries) than by darker flavors. And the herbal influences seem more muted.

It is that fascinating lilt of mint, tarragon, or je ne sais quoi that marks many of the more structured and age-worthy wines of Green Valley.

And finally we get to Freestone, a region so small in pinot terms that few have heard of it. It has grown excellent pinot noir grapes for about 30 years, but some vintages have been so cold that some winemakers have shied away from the fruit, assuming the wines it makes would be too vegetative.

But the quest to make great pinot knows no bounds, and recently the Joseph Phelps Winery of the Napa Valley, a cabernet sauvignon specialist, released its first Freestone pinot noir.

It came almost 10 years to the day that Phelps bought a ranch in the area and then spent a rumored $30 million to plant 40 acres and build a winery -- and after four vintages had been declassified as not worthy of the Freestone name.

The 2006 Freestone pinot instantly becomes a key player in the region, alongside such tiny projects as Dutton Goldfield, Radio-Coteau, and even smaller brands.

Most of the wines from this area are now in the gun-sights of pinot collectors, and most now sell for $40 to $60 a bottle. A few are well above that. The Phelps wine was released at $75, alongside a similarly priced chardonnay.

At a small press preview of the two wines in San Francisco recently, a dozen members of the media sampled the wines. The consensus: The price wasnt out of line with the quality.

And finally, for those interested in trying a top-rate pinot from the area, I know of none worth trying that sell for less than $40 a bottle.