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THURSDAY THORNS
02/05/2015
Pinot Noir: Very Good and Still Getting Better

By Stephen Eliot

It is easy enough to argue that, over the last generation or so, no California wine has shown as much improvement as Pinot Noir. It was not a player in the great awakening of the 1970s hereabouts. It won no acclaim in the storied Judgment of Paris, and, even among the most sanctimonious champions of “balance” who fancifully see California as having lost its way in succumbing to richness and “irrational exuberance,” Pinot is not criticized as a varietal whose hallowed local beginnings have somehow been betrayed. There were a few noteworthy producers such as Chalone, Mt. Eden and Hanzell that seemed to understand Pinot Noir early on, and, in the late 1970s, names like Acacia, Calera and Carneros Creek began to draw attention, but it was really not until some twenty or so years back that number of good Pinots began to achieve critical mass and, in a significant way, prove the grape’s mettle here on the West Coast. The secret, of course, is that it began to be grown in the right places.

There is no question but that Pinot Noir is a temperamental varietal, and it has famously earned the title the “heartbreak grape” as well as a good many less-polite epithets from those who have chosen to grow and make it. It will not reach its heights in the same climes favored by Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel et al, and, in its early years, too much of the stuff was planted in places too warm for its liking. The shift in focus to cooler coastal districts later on set Pinot on the path to success, and, at least on first glance, the California version is no longer a work in progress.

The truth is, however, that even the most accomplished Pinot makers will tell you that they are constantly rethinking and refining their approaches to the grape, and, most every time we sit down with them to discuss Pinot’s new success, they will talk more about what is next than what is. As good as things are, the common view is that Pinot will only get better, and subjects like vineyard management, clonal selection, rootstocks and tweaks in cooperage and winemaking technique quickly become the topics of conversation. And, of course, no winemaker discussion about Pinot Noir ends without lengthy musings regarding terroir and an ever deepening understanding of its specific impact on quality and varietal expression.

Given the decidedly varied voices in which Pinot is capable of speaking from one vineyard to the next, it is now not uncommon to see four or five individual bottlings from the same winery, and some producers boast an imposing portfolio of a dozen or more. We understand the unease and confusion that many may feel when confronted by the lengthening lists of different Pinots from the same maker, but dedicated Pinot Noir lovers have always seemed a breed unto themselves and endlessly revel in the smallest differences that terroir and even a few rows either way in a vineyard can make. There is an ongoing debate these days about whether Pinots blended from multiple vineyards are inherently greater or lesser than those wholly owing to one site, but the search for a priori answers, as most generally do, only draws attention away from what is in the glass, and, as always, we prefer to evaluate wines one glass at a time.

In the end, we do not see the question about the “best way” to grow and make Pinot ever being amicably answered and are too busy tasting too many good wines of divergent styles to climb up on the au courant soapbox of “true believers.” Rather, we count ourselves among the many who find increasing pleasure in the diversity and remarkable quality shown in so many local versions, and we look forward with great optimism to the next vintage and the one after that.


 

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