Thursday, November 13, 2008

California Pinot Noir - A New Star

While there are some that think it took the movie Sideways to make Pinot Noir a star in California, the truth is that hundreds of intrepid producers there have been excelling with this variety for some time now. There were a few estates such as Martin Ray (the 1950s) and Chalone (the 1960s) that made great Pinot Noirs back before there was much planted in California, but starting in the 1970s, especially in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, producers such as Tom Dehlinger and the Rochiolis began to show the world what could be done with this variety when it was planted in the proper sites.

Today, there are great Pinot Noir growing districts throughout California, including Carneros at the southern end of Napa and Sonoma, Anderson Valley in Mendocino, the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey and the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County. I’ll write more about these areas in the near future, but today, I want to concentrate on one wine from another great area for Pinot Noir. This area is the Sonoma Coast, or the TRUE Sonoma Coast near the town of Annapolis just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. The Sonoma Coast AVA as it stands today is a large area that takes up much of Sonoma County, with a good part of it not that close to the coast. Politics had much to do with the final boundaries (what a surprise!), so while the name doesn’t have the integrity it should, there is that small part of the AVA I mentioned above that is the source for brilliant Pinot Noirs. The most famous producer here is Flowers, while the most famous vineyard here is Hirsch; lovers of Pinot Noir undoubtedly know about these wines.

A new bottling that may approach these wines in status very soon is the McDougall Vineyard from Dutton-Goldfield. This estate, a partnership between Steve Dutton, one of Sonoma’s best known grape growers and Dan Goldfield, a premier Pinot Noir winemaker, has been a bit of a well-kept secret since its inception in 1998.

The McDougall Vineyard sits at the 1100 foot elevation just a bit north of Flowers and is planted primarily to Dijon clones. The 2006 is a marvelous wine with deep color (typical of this area) and lovely aromas of wild strawberry, cola and vanilla. Medium-full, the wine has striking acidity, youthful tannins and distinct notes of red spice in the finish.

What I like best about this wine is the way it unfolds in the glass. Unfortunately a few too many producers in California tend to treat their Pinot Noirs with too much new oak, which tends to dominate the wine and overpower the fruit. Goldfield aged this wine in small barrels for 17 months, but used only 45% new French oak, which was a wise decision. This has lovely texture on the palate and a beautiful structure with outstanding complexity. This is a seductive Pinot Noir with all the components in harmony and one that comes across with great subtlety. While some producers try to force their Pinot Noirs and make as big a wine as possible, Goldfield takes a more low-key approach, letting the site dictate the style of the wine, resulting in a gorgeous Pinot Noir.

Priced at $55 per bottle, which is fair for a top notch Pinot Noir from California these days, this will be at its optimum in another 5-7 years, but if you prefer to drink it tonight, give it 45 minutes to an hour in the glass and enjoy it with braised duck breast with cherry or plum sauce.

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