The other day, I tried the new Chasseur Pinot Noirs--which are among the most exciting 2004 Pinots I’ve tasted from California--and the blind tasting reminded me how different these wines are in style from the Sonoma winery's Chardonnays.
The two sets of wines are excellent and routinely earn outstanding marks. But while winemaker Bill Hunter draws his inspiration for both from Burgundy, right down to winemaking methods and an emphasis on terroir, his Pinots are, to my taste, made with an entirely different emphasis than the Chardonnays.
The Chardonnays tend to be dark yellow-gold in color, bold, rich and extracted, with full-blown malolactic fermentations and lots of creamy oak and lees influence. These wines – there are usually four or five made each year -- feature all kinds of exotic flavor aromas and nuances. Occasionally, they are so rich they’re unctuous, with an aroma that reminds me of crème brulee or brioche.
On Saturday, I opened a bottle of the 2004 Russian River Chardonnay (93 points, $30) and it surprised me in a pleasant way. Not only was it as rich and layered as I had remembered, but it had gained a measure of elegance and finesse, with just a few short months in bottle. The acidity kept the flavors dancing.
The Chardonnays spend more time in oak (about 14 months) and on the lees than the Pinots do, says Hunter. He likes what the yeast autolysis (the breaking down of yeast cells) does to expand the flavor of the wine. It’s not always a character Chardonnay purists like, because it changes the wine's character from primary grape flavors to more complex ones.
The Pinot Noirs are different in that the whole emphasis is on keeping those primary cherry, raspberry and wild berry flavors as the centerpiece. The Pinots are just as concentrated as the Chardonnays, but they barely show any signs of oak character.
“Most people don’t realize that Pinot Noir is a more delicate grape,” says Hunter, “and I treat Pinot more like a white wine.”
I’d put the 2004 Chasseur Pinots in the run-don’t-walk camp if you want to buy any. They are further proof of how far and how fast this grape has come in California.
My two favorites, the Sylvia’s, from Russian River ($52), and the Joyce, from Sonoma Coast ($55), are as good as it gets. Ripe, rich, vivid, deep, complex, elegant and sophisticated.
Also check out the 2004 Freestone Station, from Russian River ($55), which shares the other wines’ intensity, yet has a measure of delicacy as well. Both the regular Sonoma Coast and Russian River bottlings sell for less.
They’re excellent wines--well crafted, exquisitely balanced--and they show that Chasseur does what it takes to make distinctive wines, bending the styles to suit the grape and the winemaker’s preference.