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Friday Fishwrap
Pinot Noir Quality Transcendent

By Stephen Eliot

There is no question that 2009 and 2010 were challenging vintages hereabout, and it is hard get winemakers to say anything nice about 2011. It would, however, be hard to believe that there was anything other than clear skies, balmy days and perfect, cool evenings in the vineyard if all you were tasting these days was Pinot Noir.

We are putting the last editorial touches on our upcoming issue, and part of what that always entails is a careful retasting of every wine that suddenly performs at a much higher level than ever before or one that hits an atypically discordant note after years of success. We also revisit any wine that is under consideration for a rating of or higher just to make sure, and, needless to say, that is one of the more enjoyable monthly tasks that we face.

We started this week by revisiting several dozen high-achieving new Pinot Noirs. The day was long, the work was real, and, at the risk of sounding too much like cheerleaders, we were rewarded by nothing less than a genuine embarrassment of riches. That, nonetheless, is not the point of this morning’s musings.

It has long been my belief, and I have so stated here, that Pinot Noir is especially adept at revealing ever-so-elusive terroir and speaking quite clearly to the place in which it was grown. Perhaps that is because, in both France and California, so many producers work with so many different and individual vineyards, there are simply far more opportunities to see the notion at work. We have seen through the efforts of Ravenswood, Ridge and from past Rosenblum offerings that Zinfandel can take on any number of guises, and I confess to occasionally wondering if more Cabernet or Syrah bottlings might reveal the same infinite and yet very specific variations that Pinot effortlessly shows if more of their makers made multiple small lots from several vineyards each year. There is plenty of evidence that that would indeed be the case, but after tasting our ways through lots of very good and different wines from Dutton Goldfield, Saintsbury, MacPhail and Kosta Browne to name but a few, it was easy to come away with my convictions about Pinot intact.

The other thing that strikes me about good Pinot Noir is the distinctive and indelible mark that a winemaker leaves on his or her wines. Pinot again provides a unique opportunity to see this at work as we now have plenty of instances where several, and sometimes many, top-notch winemakers all work with fruit from the same vineyard. Vineyard names like Bien Nacido, Sanford & Benedict, Rosella’s, Garys’, Pisoni, Keefer Ranch and Rochioli are seen on more than one label, and, when tasted together, carefully made Pinots of the same provenance assuredly do not blur into sameness.

There are, I would argue, certain grapes that yield wines of real transparency that respond more readily than others to the influences of vineyard and vintner. They are ultimately those that make something that transcends simple beverage and inspires connoisseurship, and, while I am not about to turn my back on any of the great red varietals, Pinot Noir remains for me the most intriguing and infinitely interesting of the bunch.

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