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Why Some Europeans Will Never Understand New World Pinot Noir
    --Or What The Hell Is Ernie Loosen Talking About Now?

By Charles Olken

I was still in graduate school, and that was a long time ago, believe me, when I learned the difference between California Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordelais reds. It was not a pretty lesson, and, of course, it was taught at a time before the California wine revolution of the 1970s so there was not much Cabernet around and most of it was made in old redwood tanks and aged in old barrels. But, with the good work being done at Beaulieu by Andre Tchelistcheff and with the coming on the scene of the folks at Ridge, the emergence of the Robert Mondavi winery and the formations of places like Spring Mountain, Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, I and the world had new lessons to learn about California Cabernet.

To say that those lessons were learned with grace and acceptance would be a massive exaggeration, especially when one thinks about the way Europe and the Euro-centric American wine drinkers reacted. We here in California knew early on, certainly by 1970, that California Cabs had come full circle. Yes, they were somewhat riper than their European forebears but they were tasty, balanced and delicious. Even with the Paris tasting of 1976 proving them wrong, the Europeans never really accepted the success of our wines.

Now, we get another lesson in European bias from none other than Ernst Loosen whose collaboration with Chateau Ste. Michelle on Riesling has yielded a string of superb efforts that has advance the cause of that noble grape in ways that have earned it multiple awards, including being, in most vintages, the highest rated table wine Riesling in our annual review of bottlings from the West Coast.

So, why then is Mr. Loosen now back on his Euro-biased high horse when it comes to Pinot Noir? It is a little bit maddening, especially when one realizes that Mr. Loosen does not make Pinot Noir in his native Germany, and, furthermore, his grown-here Riesling is related to but different from what he makes back home in the Mosel.

Of course, it is “different from”. This is not Germany. This is not France. We are instructed by their lovely wines, but we are not slaves to them. Yet, Mr. Loosen would have us imitate France when it comes to Pinot Noir. He recently set about to make Pinot up in Oregon, and his comments that “I certainly hope we make the most ‘Burgundian’ and ‘Old World’ styles” take us back four or five decades when the French would have had California make “Bordelais”, “Old World” style Cabernets.

Well, I, for one, say “no thanks”. We gave up trying to be Europe decades ago. And while we all can applaud the movement to restrain the over-ripeness that shows up in some wines in the name of intensity, most locals—drinkers and winemakers alike—understand that varietal character and expressions of local terroir are not to be lost.

Indeed, with the exception of a few Pinot Noirs, no grape has done a better job locally than Pinot Noir in finding that sweet spot where ripeness brings depth and beauty while still retaining balance, harmony and subtlety. And that sweet spot, despite Mr. Loosen’s comments, are not typically at 12.5% alcohol.

Here at Connoisseurs’ Guide, we are now in the midst of tasting Pinot Noirs for our October Issue. Very few locals can ever achieve true grandeur in Pinot Noir at that 12.5% level. And, yes, there are some very ripe, sometimes luscious Pinots that sacrifice focus for intensity, but when one tastes the products of the leading producers and finds precise varietal fruit and perfectly supportive acidity at alcohol levels of 13.6% to 14.5% ABV (alcohol by volume), we are left to wonder what the hell is Ernie Loosen talking about?


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Link to the original article?
by Blake Gray
Posted on:9/8/2016 3:25:11 PM

Charlie, I'm 95% sure I'm going to agree with you on this, but this is the first I've heard of Loosen making any statements. Where and when did he say this? Can you link to coverage? Thanks.

Good Rant...
by TomHill
Posted on:9/9/2016 8:15:12 AM

Good rant, Charlie. I wish ErnieLoosen well w/ his foray into OR Pinot...but if his model is RedBurg...he'll not likely to succeed. But I should point out that he's making Oregon Pinot, not Calif Pinot.

   You & I grew up w/ Calif Pinot and followed it on its arc to greatness that it has now achieved. Back in the days (by crackey) of MartinRay and DavidBruce, the goal was to make Pinot that resembled RedBurg as much as possible. Tons of new/charred Fr.oak, stem inclusion, the whole shebang. And some of them were pretty interesting (I've oft wondered how some of those Pinots of David would fly w/ the current IPoB crowd..they were fairly low in alcohol). And, at that time, Calif Pinot producers were trying to woo those lovers of great RedBurg into their camp...a rather Quixtoic task. It wasn't until the Calif Pinot producers decided, instead, to make great Calif Pinot that they started to achieve the success they now enjoy. 'Tain't RedBurg...but it's danged good Calif Pinot.

   Loosen would do well to make great Oregon Pinot, rather than try to replicate RedBurg. His chances for success would be much greater. We shall see.


Link To Original Article
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/9/2016 9:13:50 AM

Blake--I'll take 95 points from you anytime. :-}



Pinot Noir Is Not Riesling
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/9/2016 9:26:48 AM


Truer words were never spoken. I don't doubt that Mr. Loosen is one of the world's most worthy makers of Riesling. He's been doing it practically all his life.

And I don't doubt that he drinks a lot of Burgundy. He certainly can afford it. But he ignores the evidence. He makes a lot of Riesling at low alcohols. No one makes Pinot Noir at 10 or 11% He makes exceptional WA Riesling at over 12%, which is higher than what he does in the Mosel. Why is that? Because the Columbia Valley is not the Mosel.

No one in Burgundy makes Pinot Noir at 10 or 11%. Why? Because PN in Burgundy is not Riesling in the Mosel. PN in Burgundy is more likely to be in the 12-13% range, and the most expensive Burgundies run closer to and above 14%. 

CA PN is not grown in Burgundy. Yet, we know that makers like DuMOL, Donum, Talley, Testarossa, Dehlinger, Williams Selyem and dozens of other producers make nicely formed, keenly focused, terroir refelecting PNs that run up and above 14% without giving up their allegiance to the better parts of the variety. 

Yes, he is making Oregon Pinot Noir, and those wines often are lower in alcohol than those from CA. But Mr. Loosen did not argue that OR PN must be below 13%. He argued that all PN everywhere in the world must be below 13%. 

Even most IPOBers are not making PN at 12.5% ABV.

French red wines and historical levels of alcohol
by Bob Henry
Posted on:9/10/2016 2:21:21 AM

Today I belatedly read this series of articles in Wine Spectator:

"Finding the Sweet Spot," Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator (April 30, 2012, pp. 64-74)



"Truth be told, aversion to alcohol and ripeness in wine is anomalous.  The history of modern wine in many regions, most notably those in northern Europe, has reflected a continuous effort to harvest riper grapes and increase alcohol.

"In the 1840s in Bordeaux, an analysis of wines from Lafite, Latour and other great châteaus revealed alcohol levels at only 8 percent to 10 percent, according to Edmund Penning-Rowsell's standard history 'The Wines of Bordeaux.'  Over time, vintners did everything they could to increase alcohol.  . . .

". . . Through most of the 20th century, red Bordeaux wines were released at 12.5 percent to 13 percent alcohol, with chapitalization routinely responsible for as much as 1.5 percent [-age points] of the alcohol.

". . . Since the 2000 vintage, top châteaus typically achieve natural alcohol levels of 14 percent or even 15 percent and rarely have had to chapitalize."

Steiman's article quotes California Pinot Noir producers Wells Guthrie, Pax Mahle, Ted Lemon, Rajat Parr, and Michael Browne on making New World wines.

Another excerpt:

"Other winemakers pushed back against the new, higher-alcohol style.  Ted Lemon started Littorai in 1994 to focus on making wines in California that would be more closely modeled on the Burgundies he loved.  Shortly thereafter, the winemaker took a shot at what he considered to be overoaked, overripe wines, then coming into fashion. "As the oak ages and the alcohol begins to dominate, as the primary fruit withers, they die anonymous deaths," Lemon wrote.

"Today, he's a bit more mellow, admitting, 'There are winemakers making the higher-alcohol style whose wines carry [those] levels without appearing alcoholic.'  But for his own wines, he's stuck to his original belief, aiming for Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that come in under 14 percent.

"But not much lower, because, Lemon adds, 'We have never believed that lower alcohol levels should be an excuse for vapid, dilute wines.  Great wines always have concentration and power to accompany their complexity and finesse.  That power should come from a balance of components and not from alcohol."

The parentheses are important
by Blake Gray
Posted on:9/11/2016 9:19:23 AM

Go back and take a look at the article again. Here's the sentence that is pissing off defenders of 14.9% alcohol Pinot Noir:

Loosen expressed unbridled dismay at the rising alcohol levels [above13%] of Pinot Noir in New World expressions, when really, he thinks Pinot Noir should be all about “elegance, finesse and balance.”

It doesn't look to me that Loosen said all Pinot Noirs should have alcohol at 13% or below. It looks like the writer added that interpretation because the numbers are in parentheses -- and it's not a quote. If Loosen had said something about 13% being the dividing line for Pinot, the writer could have paraphrased that without parentheses. The writer might have injected her opinion, or maybe she just doesn't know what Loosen meant. It's not clear.


Sorry guys, I think Loosen's entitled to his opinion. He's proud that his Oregon Pinot is at 13% or below and that's fine, it's his wine. But the only statement in the article about where the too-ripe line for Pinot is that clearly came from Loosen is "It’s when you see a really overripe Pinot Noir of around 15% that you think, all that balance and focus has been lost." That's hardly a controversial place to draw a dividing line. I know that if I'm in a restaurant and the somm suggests a Pinot and I see that it has 15% ABV, I'm gonna order something else. It may be possible to make a good Pinot at 15%, but I'd just rather not drink it. I guess I'm with Loosen on this. Sorry, Charlie.



Sorry, Blake
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/11/2016 9:37:30 AM

If this were a legal proceeding, you might win the day. But it is not. It is a blog, and it contains a fair reading of his comments, in my opiinion.

Where we can agree is that Mr. Loosen did not say specifically that 13% was the cutfoff point beyind which Bacchus destroys all Pinots. He just implied it. 

No Subject
by Bob Henry
Posted on:9/12/2016 1:21:20 AM


You wrote:

"I know that if I'm in a restaurant and the somm suggests a Pinot and I see that it has 15% ABV, I'm gonna order something else. It may be possible to make a good Pinot at 15%, but I'd just rather not drink it."

Are there other grape varietals that you would drink whose ABV approaches 15%?  (Grenache?  Zinfandel?)

Other non-wine beverages?  (Sake or spirits?)

If I don't smell or taste the alcoholic heat in a higher ABV wine, then I am indifferent to it.  (And praise the winemaker for "hiding" the heat.)

And since we can never know if that 14% (14.5%) labeled wine is truly 15% (15.5%), that means exercising a lot of tolerance.

~~ Bob

Quoting from Dan Berger's column in the Napa Valley Register:

HEADLINE: “Wine labels, government and the truth”



. . . the federal regulation says that for wines over 14.0 percent alcohol, there is a 1 percent fudge factor. That is, if a wine is listed as having 14.5 percent alcohol and it can have as much as 15.5 percent.  ...

HEADLINE: “Bigger: Is it Better?”



Winemakers have long known that the higher the alcohol, the “richer” the wine is. That is, higher alcohols give a wine the impression of sweetness and the higher the alcohol, the greater that impression is.

Recently, two winemakers old enough to remember that [1970s] period [of 12.5% ABV wines] reminisced about that old line referring to “14 percent alcohol.”

“Remember that?” asked one. “Well, today’s 15 percent is the old 14 percent.”

“No, it isn’t,” said the second winemaker, “16 percent is.”

. . .

I was chatting with a winemaker the other day whose name would be mud if I were to identify him. He is old enough to recall when red wine was both actually and figuratively dry.

“We got a bottle of —” and he named a particularly famous Napa Valley cabernet, “and we tasted it. It was sweet. Well, the label said it was 14.8 percent alcohol, so we took it to the lab.

“It tested out at nearly 16 percent! And the acid was quite low, and the pH was nearly 4.0,” an indication of a very unbalanced wine.

“So they are now making wine that is sweet,” he said with a look of disdain. “And this wine gets scores in the high 90s from people who should know better.”

. . .

[Bob's aside: the 2013 vintage of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon lists its ABV as 14.9%.]


Too many Cabernets are caricatures of the grape
by Bob Henry
Posted on:9/13/2016 1:00:19 AM

Postscript to Dan Berger's quoted comments.

Today I attended a wine industry trade tasting, showcasing many of Napa and Sonoma's leading wineries.

Most of the Cabernets from the 2012 and 2013 vintage tasted "sweet," like dyhydrated prunes.

The Heitz Cellars Cabernets were the notable exception, tasting "dry."

While I didn't consult the labels on the bottles, it would not surprise me if these Cabernets were pushing 15% ABV.

Cabernets have become the new Zinfandel.

Once again quoting Dan Berger:

HEADLINE: "The collapse of cabernet"



... Cabernet has undergone a makeover that has, probably forever, made it little more than a parody of itself, entering a realm that 20 years ago I never would have believed.

Today, California cabernet is a virtual wine, made to be consumed as an aperitif and as young as possible.  ...

What we have today, mainly at the $30-and-above price point, are wines that are the near antithesis of this: high in alcohol (almost nothing of supposed quality is less than 14.5 percent; some are 16 percent), very low acid levels (which almost guarantees that the wines won’t age well), and actual residual sugar in many.

This is wine that some reviewers say smells like chocolate, mocha, smoke and roasted nuts. These aren’t aromas derived from fruit; they come from the smoked oak barrels in which the wines were aged, clearly an idea that was never at play decades ago.

The most telling — and damaging — aspect of today’s cabernets is what I hear from wine makers, and always off the record. The phrasing may differ, but the sentiment is the same: “I may make cabernet, but I don’t drink it any more.”


No Subject
by Bob Henry
Posted on:9/13/2016 1:10:16 AM

The word antithesis needs to be put into compare and contrast historical context

     "What we have today, mainly at the $30-and-above price point, are wines that are the near antithesis of this ..."

Let me do so by quoting the preceding paragraphs from Dan's column:

"... let’s look back on what cabernet used to be. It was dry red wine. It was aged in oak not for oaky flavor, but for maturity and complexity. It was modest in alcohol – 12.5 percent for the vast majority; a few 'over-the-top'” wines reached 13.5 percent.

"Also, it was designed to be aged a little bit, and a few a lot longer. When very young, the wines were tannic and needed taming. I still have some 1970s cabs in the cellar that are in great shape.

"Moreover, once the wines got some bottle age and a bit of bouquet, they went nicely with food. Since they had good acid levels, food was a near necessity, and the list included steaks, chops, stews, roasted chicken, game and more."

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