- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Pinot noir long has been a minor and not particularly talented player on the California wine stage. Vintners have grown it for decades, but they have tended to do so in inappropriate locales. As a result, California pinots lagged far behind the state’s best wines, most of which were made with the two “C” grapes — chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

All that has changed. Golden State pinot today can be very, very good. The best examples manage to taste distinctive rather than derivative. That is, they don’t just emulate foreign models, but instead display delicious identities all their own. So, after decades in the wings, California pinot noir seems ready to star.

Like all of the classic wine grapes, pinot noir came to North America from Europe — in this case, from Burgundy, where it has been cultivated continuously since at least the 14th century. That’s why fine red Burgundy from the Cote d’Or remains the benchmark for wines made with this grape.

A benchmark, however, is a point of reference, not a model to be copied slavishly. Top-notch Burgundy displays an evocative bouquet; layered flavors; and a smooth, silky texture. These general qualities also distinguish fine California pinots, no matter that the specifics of smell, taste and feel invariably are quite different.

The differences make today’s top California pinots so exciting. More vintners are allowing this literally thin-skinned, and so temperamental, grape to express itself rather than any imposed winemaking blueprint or preconception. The results, un-Burgundian to be sure, can be sumptuous.

Talk of grapes expressing themselves may sound like mumbo-jumbo, but it points to two important things — a wine’s aroma, flavor and texture being true, first, to varietal type and, second, to geographic locale, the grapes as grown in a specific place. Good California cabernet, and to a lesser degree chardonnay, has done both of these for a long time. Now California pinot noir is beginning to do them, too.

In large measure because of its thin skin, which results in relatively low levels of tannin and light color, pinot has a less aggressive varietal character than most red grapes. Locale, then, is especially important with it. Twenty years ago, most California pinot was planted in places that were too hot (but that were fine for cabernet), and, depending on when the grapes were picked, they tasted either thin and weedy or fat and jammy.

Select places in California now have proven themselves capable of growing fine pinot noir, resulting in potentially plush, pleasurable wines. Virtually all are near the Pacific coast, where the vineyards benefit from a cool maritime influence. Look especially for wines from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast, Los Carneros, Santa Cruz, the Santa Lucia Highlands, the Arroyo Grande and Edna valleys, and the Santa Maria and Santa Rita regions in Santa Barbara County.

Even in these cool regions, California vines inevitably receive plenty of bright, blazing sunshine. That explains why, as a general rule, Golden State pinots are marked by rich, ripe fruit flavors. In fact, when ambitious producers miss the mark these days, they usually do so by making wines that taste too rich and, hence, lack subtlety and finesse.

All that ripe fruit flavor means that top California pinots almost always benefit from a few years of cellaring. They simply need bottle age to taste nuanced and complex.

Pinot noir remains a tricky and often costly wine to make. Although there are a few good values in the market (Gallo of Sonoma 2002 and Mark West 2003 come to mind), most of the truly impressive California pinots carry fairly high price tags. But because these are wines that will improve with age, they’re well worth saving for a special anniversary or birthday to come.

Here are 10 California pinot noirs, culled from my tastings this summer, that merit a special splurge. Only a few years ago, hardly anyone would have thought of California pinots as special occasion wines. How times have changed.

Etude, Carneros, 2002, $45. From master California vintner, Tony Soter, this wine tastes rich and ripe, while at the same time being silky and sensuous. The more expensive (about $90) Heirloom rendition is even better because it’s more nuanced.

Hartford Court, Seascape Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2002, $55. Hartford Court is on a roll, producing a series of pinots that, although fruit-forward, are elegant and refined. This one definitely needs to be decanted to show all its charms.

MacMurray Ranch, Russian River Valley, 2002, $30. If $30 for a bottle of wine can be called a value, this is it. The wine exhibits the sort of fine-grained texture and long, evolved flavors that distinguish only the finest California pinots.

Melville, Santa Rita Hills, 2002, $35. A relatively new winery in Santa Barbara County, Melville specializes in lush, flavor-packed wines that exhibit excellent balance. This one is luscious.

Morgan, Double L Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, 2002, $45. Morgan has long made excellent wines, but the quality of the portfolio has never been higher than it is now. This particular pinot tastes rich but at the same time refined, a beguiling combination.

Robert Stemmler, Ferguson Block, Carneros, 2001, $40. After a hiatus of a few years, the Robert Stemmler label is back, now under new ownership and with better wines. This one offers light, slightly sweet red cherry and berry fruit flavor in a silky package.

Sanford, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills, 2002, $50. Long one of California’s finest pinots, this wine distinguishes itself because of its superb balance and firm but pliant structure. It exudes class.

Saintsbury, Carneros, 2003, $30. Saintsbury makes a more powerful reserve pinot, as well as a single-vineyard offering from the Brown Ranch, but to my mind, neither of those more expensive wines is better than the regular Carneros bottling, a lithe wine marked by elegance and grace.

Steele, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria, 2002, $30. Richer than many but still displaying finesse rather than power, this wine definitely needs time in the cellar to develop secondary aromas and flavors.

Talley Vineyards Estate Vineyard, Arroyo Grande, 2002, $38. The difficult-to-find and costly ($75) “Rosemary’s Vineyard” pinot from Talley just may be California’s finest, but this more-affordable rendition does not lag far. It marries ripe, rich fruit flavor with remarkable finesse.

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