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Different Styles, Similar Results

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 28, 2006 5:18pm ET

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.

Kerry Powers
August 28, 2006 6:28pm ET
I agree with you on the above Russian River Pinots. My other favorites from this area include Martinelli Zio Tony Ranch 2004, Rochioli Russian River, as well as the obvious Kosta Browne Russian River. I just had a La Crema Russian River 2004 ($30) that had many of the same characteristics of the above choices, but was a much better value.
Alfred Gregori
August 28, 2006 7:01pm ET
James,When will the ratings for the the 2004 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir hit the magazine? I saw a recent review of the 2004 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir in the Wine Spectator Insider. Thanks
Randolph M Loos
USA —  August 28, 2006 10:26pm ET
I just returned Sunday from two weeks in Healdsburg. We met Bill Hunter about 18 years ago when he was making wine for Chauffe Eau cellars. Even then he was a burgundian... chards and pinots for him. It's been great to see him get his own label and decent facilities. We got with Bill on August 20th and barrel tasted three of the new chards and 8 of the 2005 pinots. If you like the 04's (which we do) I think you'll be amazed at the 05's! No... he doesn't pay us to say nice things about him. Just great juice!
R Scott Hudson
August 29, 2006 12:22am ET
Well, is "as good as it gets" as good as the '04 Kosta Brownes? [wink] [wink]James,Thanks for the tips on these small producers.
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  August 29, 2006 9:38am ET
James, have you ever tried pinots from Favia? I had the '04 La Josephina recently and it was quite lovely. Thanks for the tips.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 29, 2006 11:16am ET
I just signed up for the Pinot club! Thanks James!By the way, have you heard about the impending shakeup at Wine Advocate? http://www.decanter.com/news/93121.html
Paul Murray
La Canada, CA —  August 29, 2006 1:45pm ET
I would hope that these would be good pinots for $50+. This just illustrates what an awesome deal the Kosta Browne Russian River is at $38. I hope that lasts for a little while longer before they realize how much they could charge and still sell out!
Randell Phalp
Lenexa, KS —  August 30, 2006 3:01am ET
Jim: This post begs the question; "If Bill Hunter came to you tomorrow and said he was going to give up making one or the other, which would you argue for him to retain as his signature varietal, pinot noir or chardonnay? Defend your selection. Red X Randy (Grandview Red-X Liquors, Grandview, MO)
Brad Coelho
New York City —  August 30, 2006 10:52am ET
Many thanks for the EARLY information. Had I heard of Marcassin, Kistler, Sea Smoke, or Kosta Browne before the gold rush of point chasers jumped all over their mailing lists, I would be a very gracious man! I'll keep my ear to your updates religously...access to 'underground' information that you provide us with is an excellent service and more than worth the price of admission. Thanks again, Cheers.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  August 30, 2006 4:16pm ET
Jim: I just received my allocation and order form for Williams-Selyem's 2004 single vineyard Pinots. Assuming you've tasted some or all of them, what do you think of them? Which are the best?
John Gavin
CA —  August 30, 2006 4:39pm ET
Well I don't know what the answer is, but Brad Coelho's post certainly reminds of the problem: Bill Hunter and his wines have been around FOREVER! You could have ensured your allocation back in the 20th century. These wines didn't just suddenly become good because Jim Laube or some other critic praised them. .When I first started discovering wine I learned about new and old producers from friends, waiters, wine store clerks, and just tasting whatever I could. If we're not all going to be running after the same small batches of wines like lemmings just because Jim or somebody else likes them, that's what we have to get back to.

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