My week in Napa allowed me to taste a considerable range of California wines. It’s interesting to compare varietals from California with their counterparts from the regions I taste in our New York office, particularly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Burgundy.
Pinot Noir from California offers a different profile in both flavor and texture than that of red Burgundy. Though both are recognizable as Pinot Noir, their respective climates and soils lead to different results. Think of it as two suits from different designers: The fabric may be wool, but the interpretation and cut differs in the details.
With Pinot, the details are in the structure, weight, expression of fruit and longevity.
Red Burgundies have higher acidities due to the cooler climate. In the Côte d’Or, Pinot Noir ripens well in the best years; however, there are still two or maybe three years in a decade when they fall short of perfect ripeness. In recent years, 2000 and 2004 are examples.
Much of California’s wine regions are too hot for Pinot. In the cooler climates of Carneros, Sonoma and Santa Barbara, cooling breezes and morning fog temper the heat and allow for the long, slow ripening that Pinot requires. Still, the grapes mature easily. Full ripeness means higher alcohol.
These climatic differences translate to higher acidities in red Burgundy, with alcohol levels in the 13 to 13.5 percent by volume range. Their California counterparts typically have lower acidity (acid can be added in California, but not in Burgundy) and higher alcohol (15 percent is not uncommon). This combination gives the California versions the impression of more weight.
Rainfall is another issue in Burgundy. When the growing season is wet, fungal diseases demand attention to prevent rotten fruit that lowers yields and results in off aromas and flavors. If the berries are swollen at harvest, the wines are softer and don’t age as well. The 2000 vintage is an example. In California, with the exception of Sonoma Coast, it is fairly dry. There, irrigation is necessary to grow quality fruit.
Burgundies tend to have crisp, fresh, pure fruit flavors of red and black berries and cherries and wild fruit. I find California Pinot to have darker flavors, more on the black fruit side of the spectrum, and pushing into plum. There is also a macerated fruit character. The exception to this is the 2003 vintage in Burgundy. That summer was extremely hot, the crop small and the harvest early. The fruit character of the ’03s leans more toward the California style.
There is also a more distinctive mineral element in red Burgundy. I associate this with the stony soils, although there is no scientific correlation between the existence of limestone and clay and the flavors of mineral in the wine. The soils in the areas where Pinot Noir is grown in California are much more diverse. While some are gravelly and others consist of clay or marine fossils, I don’t find as much mineral flavor.
One of the major differences is that Pinot Noir in California is very approachable and delicious as a young wine. The best Burgundies from a great vintage require time to mellow and show the aromatic complexity which lovers of red Burgundy prize. The jury is still out on how California Pinots will age. I haven’t had enough experience with older versions. And many of the vines are still very young, with new areas only recently planted to a wider selection of clones.
I have had great red Burgundy from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Earlier this year I tasted a Pierre Damoy Chambertin-Clos de Bèze 1962 that was stunning. Most of all, let’s not forget that Pinot Noir has been cultivated in Burgundy for more than 1,500 years!
What both styles of Pinot Noir offer is choice. Though I haven’t had a California version that delivered the sheer seduction and multifaceted character of great, mature red Burgundy, the 2005s I enjoyed last week provided a lot of pleasure. I recommend pulling the corks on those while you wait for your 2005 Burgundy to develop.
Anacleto Ludovic — paris france — September 6, 2007 3:52pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — September 6, 2007 4:38pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — September 6, 2007 5:17pm ET
Robert Kim — Las Vegas, Nevada — September 6, 2007 6:11pm ET
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — September 6, 2007 9:54pm ET
David A Zajac — September 7, 2007 11:15am ET
Anacleto Ludovic — paris france — September 7, 2007 11:42am ET
John Osgood — New York, NY — September 7, 2007 12:18pm ET
James B Morgan Jr — Cleveland, Ohio — September 7, 2007 1:25pm ET
John B Vlahos — Cupertino Ca. — September 7, 2007 1:55pm ET
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — September 7, 2007 2:36pm ET
Anacleto Ludovic — paris france — September 7, 2007 3:53pm ET
Rebecca Root — Healdsburg, California — September 8, 2007 3:48pm ET
Bruce Sanderson — New York — September 9, 2007 1:19pm ET
Eric P Perramond — Colorado Springs, CO — September 9, 2007 5:58pm ET
Anacleto Ludovic — paris france — September 10, 2007 11:20am ET
David A Zajac — September 11, 2007 8:32am ET
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — September 11, 2007 3:34pm ET
Larry Link — September 12, 2007 12:25am ET
Bruce Sanderson — New York — September 12, 2007 9:05am ET
Greg Piatigorski — CA — September 21, 2007 5:13pm ET
F N Fontana — October 30, 2007 5:23pm ET
Bruce Sanderson — New York — October 31, 2007 9:22am ET
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