The wait may be over. Aubert de Villaine has gingerly tiptoed around making California Pinot Noir for more than a decade. But he appears ready to give it a try. There are still a few elements of caution, as he explained last week, but he's looking for a vineyard to buy grapes. Once that's done, he should be good to go.
I had been looking forward to our visit, since de Villaine is one of the brightest and most measured of vintners I know. He brings a unique perspective to wine and I had hoped we could talk about Pinot Noir, among other topics, and we did. But I had forgotten one important thing: The co-director of Domaine de La Romanée-Conti, as well as a partner in Hyde de Villaine, in Carneros, which makes Chardonnay, Syrah and a Merlot-Cabernet blend called Belle Cousine, hasn't yet made a California Pinot Noir.
It's hard to separate de Villaine from Pinot Noir, but he said he has deliberately avoided Pinot in California for fear of competing with his interests in Burgundy. He has also been cautious about developing HdV; he now has a small winery on the outskirts of the city of Napa and, in a wide-ranging discussion of wine topics, allowed that he's ready to proceed with Pinot Noir.
The logical connection would seem like an extension of HdV, that is, use the same source for HdV's wine, Hyde Vineyard.
While Hyde and Carneros are ideal for Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot and, to my mind, Pinot Noir, de Villaine, 71, thinks the site is too warm for Pinot. Therefore, he is looking elsewhere, closer to the coast, as in Green Valley, in western Sonoma.
De Villaine's winemaker at HdV, Stéphane Vivvier, "has been dying to make Pinot Noir," de Villaine said as we talked about and tasted the recent HdV wines.
He wasn't very complimentary of the state of Pinot in California. At one point he said he was appalled by the ripeness and lack of varietal character in some of the wines he's tasted, but also allowed that he had only tasted a narrow range of them. Some of the wines he's tried were too hot, he said, with no acidity, while others tasted as if they had been adjusted with acidity. One winery he cited as being a favorite for Pinot, however, is Littorai.
"I think that Pinot in California still has a long way to go," de Villaine said. Moreover, there remains in his mind a question about whether California can even make good Pinot Noir.
The main reasons are climate and terroir. To de Villaine, Burgundy has the benefit of centuries of experience with essentially one grape grown in the same sites.
"In California, with hot weather, it's harder to catch the [right moment to pick]," he said. "When I taste California Pinot I try to erase my prejudices, but it's very difficult." He said he is surprised by the use of different Pinot clones in California and thinks that in the future, winemakers will use clones that have evolved in California and are better-suited to a warmer climate.
Still, he's fascinated by California, and has been coming here since he was 25 years old. On that first visit he met Robert Mondavi, which left a lasting impression.
"I remember a meeting with Robert Mondavi, who was working for [Charles] Krug at the time. … Robert Mondavi had an energy that I had never seen in anybody. He was eager to make wines that could match the wines he admired from France and that was his idea. But he had no idea what would happen in California. He had no idea of the explosion that would happen."
Then in a classic moment of reflection, de Villaine added, "You wonder, in 2,000 years, if things will happen as fast as they do now." It was both a reference to the process of matching grapes to soil and climate, a process that is still to be sorted out in California. But one that is happening. The biggest missing link for him, it seems, is that in California—as in most New World wine regions—you rarely have the continuity of the same vineyard team overseeing the same property with the same grape.
At lunch, we talked about something that's been on my mind for some time: If where you start in wine has the greatest influence over your perspective. De Villaine grew up in Burgundy in the 1950s and 1960s and has seen the area go through phases, both bad and good. The past decade or so in Burgundy has been phenomenol.
I allowed that in my view, California Pinot is a huge success and that it does, in many instances, truly reflect its terroir. I wondered, too, whether those who find too many California Pinots too ripe these days remember the era before, when Pinots here were more Burgundian in weight, acidity, alcohol, etc., but largely uninteresting and uninspiring.
De Villaine recalled drinking the 1969 Chalone Pinot Noir, a great and very Burgundian Pinot made by Dick Graff from Chalone Vineyard. He also talked with some fondness about the Pinots from Calera.
"This Pinot Noir thing is interesting," he said. "Remember that there was a tremendous emphasis on lime soils [which are found at both Chalone and Calera], and terroir. It's truer in some areas that others. The idea is that the owner makes a wine that corresponds to the vineyard."
The key, he said, is finding that middle ground between ripe and under-ripe, something he believes he has been able to achieve with the HdV wines today.
Welcome to the world of California Pinot Noir, Aubert.
Your timing could not have been better. Indeed many California winemakers are rethinking that very topic of middle ground.
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — May 2, 2011 7:19pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — May 2, 2011 7:25pm ET
Kevin Harvey — Santa Cruz, CA, USA — May 2, 2011 10:20pm ET
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