Pinot lovers have never had it this good.
We're finishing our tastings of mostly 2009s and, the trending is amazing: We've already rated more outstanding 2009s than in any other vintage. So far, more than 50 percent of the wines reviewed have been outstanding or better, an unprecedented number. In a typical vintage we'll taste more than 600 wines (and nearly 700 in the magnificent 2007 vintage).
The 2009 growing season is the main reason. It came off without a hitch and early on, as the grapes began their stretch run of ripening, winemakers could see the possibilities. Surely, it was an easier year than 2008, where uneven ripening, spring frosts and summer wild fires contributed to the challenge of making great wines. But a surprising number of 2008s offset those that lacked balance.
I imagine that several factors are in play with 2009 as well. Each year, vineyards mature and growers are more in tune with the grapes' development. Winemakers gain experience, too, and there is no way to teach experience.
Then again, give Mother Nature credit where credit is due—I recently tasted some 50 wines with Littorai owner Ted Lemon, with both the Chardonnays and Pinots from a mix of vintages showing the merits of cellaring. I asked him about how 2009 stacks up with his view of the best vintages. "At Littorai, since we have the benefit of working with many of our vineyards for more than 15 years, I think we can say that it is not knowing our vineyards better or having more experience which made the difference in 2009," the Sonoma winemaker said. "To us it is all about the season."
Lemon is also of the mind that the best measure of a vintage's character, or greatness, comes with time. He likes what he made in 2009, but his enthusiasm is reserved, for now. "While the fruit [in 2009] is not as joyous as 2007, there is plenty of it to accompany the structure. So clearly the wines have aging potential. Will they reach it?" Lemon asked. "This depends on how they shed their tannins over the years to come."
"Many sites on the coast had very low malic levels in 2009," Lemon said, referring to malic acid, which gives underripe grapes their tart flavor. "This means that the wines do not have a lot of 'gras,' or fat, from higher levels of lactic acid post [malolactic fermentation] or correspondingly higher pHs. If the wines shed tannins nicely and if they pick up midpalate richness, then  may well be the vintage of the decade. If the tannins do not soften, then someday the wines may seem hard and unyielding."
Lemon's goal is to make wines that improve with age, and he's very successful. And aging is an important measure of a wine's greatness. "To us, any discussion of the greatest vintages of the decade has to start and encompass the extraordinary trio of 2001, 2002, 2003," Lemon wrote in an e-mail. "Leave aside the 2000s, which are truly wonderful right now. It is hard for me to imagine that 2007 will reach the heights of those three, but perhaps I will be proven wrong. So, of course, the discussion boils down to: Are we defining 'great' as how they taste upon release, or at full maturity?"
Lemon makes good points, but out of the gate, based on the 2009 California Pinots I've tasted to far, it's clearly one of the state's most successful vintages to date. The off-the-chart numbers don't lie. Will 2009 prove to be one of California's all-time greats for Pinot Noir? Time will tell.