Note: Back when I reviewed them, I set aside a few wines to taste when they are more mature. In this occasional series I report on wines from the cellar that I probably should have tried earlier, but thought them worth a shot anyway.
By all rights, all four of the wines should have been dead and gone. No one should expect much of 30-year-old California Pinot Noir from wineries unfamiliar to most of today’s wine drinkers. Imagine my surprise when two of them turned out to be pretty darn good, almost outstanding.
The bottles were classic cases of "lost in the cellar." I kept them for a few years expecting to taste them at, oh, maybe 10 years, to see if California Pinot Noir had a future. I never got around to it. And they were still there last night. So, what the hell, I figured, let’s open ‘em up and see. If they’re no good, I wasted a few minutes opening bottles. If they tasted OK, maybe it’s a blog.
I poured the glasses, left the room, and my wife shuffled them around. Might as well taste them blind.
The first two bottles lived down to expectations. The first looked brown, smelled oxidized, and had probably been toast for years. The second had a nice whiff of brown sugar in the nose, and a silky texture, but it was truly gone. Not something anyone would love to drink.
In the third one I could smell cherries and toast. I took a sip. Light and tangy, even some raspberry notes among the underbrush aromas, a hint of mint as the finish lingered effectively. It had better texture and length than a lot of young Pinots I taste these days. The flavors reverberated.
I scored it 87 points unofficially, and it probably was better 10 years ago. It was Belvedere Bacigalupi Vineyard Sonoma County 1979.
The fourth had that earthy, forest floor character, the kind of aromas you can find in classic old Burgundy. On the palate there was also an animal quality, probably from some level of brettanomyces. That usually turns me off, but the fruit was still there and the cherry and currant character lingered nicely on the expressive finish. In the end, it struck me as a thoroughly integrated wine, with elegance and presence. Maybe it’s not my preferred flavor profile, but it had compelling qualities. It got better in the glass over the course of an hour, then faded. My unofficial score: 89 points. I know some people who would be doing a jig over that farmyard complexity, but that is what kept it from going over 90 for me. This one was was Felton-Empire California Maritime Vineyard Series 1979.
With both of the good bottles, the clincher was their textures. They were silky, with enough lively acidity to feel refreshing, and they showed no overt alcohol bite. In my book, that’s good Pinot Noir.
It turns out both wines, though not from wineries currently among today's darlings, anticipated trends that now have major currency in California for Pinot.
Bacigalupi Vineyard, planted in the 1960s, is in Russian River Valley, which has earned a strong reputation for good Pinot over the years. It’s still my favorite region in California for Pinot. Belvedere was one of the early California wineries that bottled some single vineyards, under what they called their "Grapemaker" series.
The Felton-Empire bottling used coastal vineyard grapes from Sonoma, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Coastal vineyards in those counties now produce some of California’s most prized Pinots.
Reading the back labels was a hoot. In light of how mainstream Pinot has become, it’s easy to forget that it was a novelty in those days. Few thought California had any serious possibilities with the grape. The Felton-Empire bottle, for example, takes care to note that the wine used "traditional techniques, including small oak barrels for aging." One of the over-the-hill bottles notes that Pinot Noir is "a distinguished wine from ... the same grape that produces Chambertin, Pommard and Romanée-Conti, in France."
We have come a long way, baby.
Dennis D Bishop — Shelby Twp., MI, USA — February 18, 2009 3:13pm ET
Apj Powers — Dallas, TX — February 19, 2009 1:13am ET
Apj Powers — Dallas, TX — February 19, 2009 1:19am ET
Rob Dobson — Regina, Sask. — February 20, 2009 11:07am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — February 20, 2009 11:30am ET
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