Helen Turley and the Taste of Pinot Noir

Marcassin's winemaker describes the range of flavors she seeks with her wines
Jun 17, 2010

If you had to reduce wine to one variable, ripeness would be at the top of most lists. Wine is nothing if it's not about flavor, and in our times the issue of ripeness, or underripe or overripe, is often at the heart of wine appreciation or analysis.

It's hard to discuss wine without delving into what constitutes ripe, which also goes hand in hand with alcohol levels (although it doesn't have to).

As winemakers have been able to cull more flavors from grapes, and consumers have embraced that greater range and depth of flavor, ripeness often means grapes with more sugar, which in turn translates to higher alcohol levels.

Helen Turley, as much as any winemaker I've met, has a clear vision and understanding of what ripeness means to her, and she shares some thoughts on that matter in a video I shot at her home in Calistoga a few days ago.

Of late I've interviewed many winemakers on this topic and Turley, along with Manfred Krankl, among others, is able to define what ripeness means to her, in terms of berry flavors, what she wants to achieve in her wines (in this video she talks about Marcassin Pinot Noir, both from her property and neighboring Three Sisters from the 2004 vintage) and how she goes about accomplishing that.

Her husband, John Wetlaufer, shares his thoughts about what constitutes ripeness as well, including aromatics. Great wines follow the aroma—that is, what you smell is what you taste. The classic Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir aroma is built around a mix of dark berries—blue, wild and raspberry—and occasionally olla berry, plum and cherry.

During our several visits for interviews, we tasted and drank nearly 20 different wines, mostly Pinots, and I find all of them rather remarkable. The older Pinots and Chardonnays (tasted from magnum) not only held up well, but retained both the fruitiness of youth with the shades of complexity that come with time. The 2004 Three Sisters tasted for this video had a youthful charm and vitality.

As I left, John gifted me a book that I'm reading now that I think most of you will find intriguing. It's The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession (2004, Putnam House), by Chandler Burr.

And about that grouse we talked about in the video: One of Turley's and Wetlaufer's first serious wine epiphanies came when they were staying at a cabin in Minnesota and a grouse flew into a window and broke its neck. They froze it and planned to eat it for Thanksgiving, which they did. To compliment their thawed, plucked, gutted and roasted fowl they went to Sherry-Lehmann wine shop in Manhattan and bought a premier cru red Burgundy from Savigny-lès-Beaune, which they both recall as being "off the charts."

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