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Profiles in Pinot Noir: Today

Harvey Steiman
Posted: September 23, 2003

In Pursuit of Pinot Noir
After decades of struggle, American vintners are finding success with this difficult variety
Williams Selyem
Domaine Drouhin
Pinot Noir Tasting Report
Santa Barbara's New Frontier
Santa Rita Hills is making its presence known with cool-climate Pinot Noirs

Pinot Noir production in America began as the unlikely dream of a handful of visionaries determined to reproduce the most complex, ethereal red wine on earth. The pioneers and those who followed them tried and discarded enough vineyard and vinification techniques to fill several books. They tried the techniques they used to make Cabernet Sauvignon. They tried copying old-fashioned Burgundy, even to the point of adding stems to the fermentor, which tired the wines prematurely.

They learned that good Pinot Noir typically requires much smaller yields than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, closer vine spacing and better clones. In the winery, they found that gentle handling extracts softer tannins and richer flavors.

Early on, Williams and Selyem researched every book and article they could find on Burgundy and California winemaking techniques, experimenting until they settled on a style that has become a model for California, just as Ponzi's efforts led the way in Oregon. Williams Selyem packs a lot of flavor onto a polished frame, isn't shy about using oak but doesn't overwhelm the wines with it either, and consistently strikes a balance that lets the fruit character sing.

"It boils down to constant selection, from the vineyard to the barrels," Williams says, "and close observation of the fermentation process, gently guiding it along and hopefully eliminating potential problems before they occur. The rest lies in what we didn't do: pump, fine, filter, or over-sulfur."

As consumers have discovered improved wines, wineries have dramatically expanded their Pinot Noir vineyards to meet the demand. In California, Pinot Noir acreage, which grew gradually from 6,700 in 1982 to 9,260 in 1992, jumped to 23,800 in 2002. Between 1997 and 2002, Oregon's Pinot acreage more than doubled, expanding from 3,000 to 6,450.

Today, a formidable array of delicious California and Oregon Pinot Noirs challenge Burgundy's reds in flavor, texture, overall character and, it seems to go without saying, in price. Best of all -- and again, like Burgundy -- the top wines reflect the character of their individual regions and the personalities of their makers.

Typical of Santa Barbara, mineral and other complex flavors shade the cherry notes in Sanford's elegant La Rinconada Vineyard Barrel Select 2000 (91, $50). From Monterey, Ojai's gorgeous Santa Lucia Highlands Pisoni Vineyard 2000 (93, $50) shows extraordinary depth and polish, its raspberry and black cherry fruit plush in texture. There's also room for big, expressive wines like Paul Hobbs Napa Valley Carneros Hyde Vineyard Cuvée Agustina 2000 (93, $100), and beautifully crafted newcomers like Mueller Russian River Valley Emily's Cuvée 2000 (92, $39), with lush texture leading to a rich, detailed aftertaste.

In Oregon, Archery Summit's magnificently focused Archery Summit Estate 2000 (94, $150) deftly balances spicy oak with dark plum and currant flavors that seem to linger forever. Ken Wright's more delicate style fits his jazzy Willamette Valley Guadalupe Vineyard 2001 (93, $45), which dazzles with raspberry, strawberry and red plum flavors that wash over the palate.

It was unthinkable only a decade ago that Pinot Noirs like these could come from the New World. It's all so new, so recent, that the most tantalizing question of all might be this: Just how good will the next decade's wines be?

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