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Pinots on Parade

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 18, 2008 12:15pm ET

By coincidence, the first three presentations at the California Wine Experience in New York gave us a quick world tour of Pinot Noir. My colleague Bruce Sanderson started with a Burgundy tasting, followed by columnist Matt Kramer offering tastes of three Pinots from New Zealand, Oregon and the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Finally, Jim Laube and I started off with three Pinots in our tasting of wines from Rising Stars in California and the Pacific Northwest.

I liked them all, but the panoply of styles vividly demonstrated how different Pinot can be. They ranged from the fragile delicacy of Louis Jadot Clos Vougeot 2005 to the mouthfilling intensity of Londer Estate Grown Pinot Noir 2005 from California's Anderson Valley, the blast of acidity and minerality in Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir Earth Smoke 2006 from New Zealand to the suppleness and gentleness of Penner-Ash Shea Vineyard 2006 from Oregon.

That, of course, is part of the magic of wine, this reflection of place, which Pinot seems to express more clearly than other grapes. But in the end, what matters most to me is how much pleasure the wine can deliver. Part of that pleasure derives from the intellectual appreciation of where it comes from and what that means. But it still must be a complete wine, one that delivers delicious primary fruit and complex secondary flavors in a frame that caresses rather than scrapes away with too much tannins, alcohol or acidity.

And in that regard, the New World Pinots can meet Burgundy on an equal footing. That's my opinion, but the French have been very successful over the years at convincing us that their terroir trumps everything. By now, however, it has become abundantly clear that France has no exclusivity on terroir. The differences—between New Zealand's Central Otago and Marlborough, between Oregon's Yamhill-Carlton and Dundee Hills districts, between California's Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills—are palpable to everyone's palate now.

So it amused me when Pierre-Henri Gagey of Jadot felt compelled to up the ante on the terroir discussion when he invoked Burgundy's history. They have been growing Pinot 2,000 years, at least since the Romans planted it there. "The grape became adapted to the individual appellations within Burgundy over the centuries," he argued.

Brilliant. Take that, New World, with your several decades of history with Pinot. You'll never catch up!

The four red Burgundies in Sanderson's tasting were all from the highly touted 2005 vintage. Of the four, my favorite was Chandon de Briailles Corton Les Bressandes. I loved its refinement, its silkiness and its delicate balance of raspberry and wet earth character mixed with hints of pomegranates and flowers. I was less enthralled with the prickly tannins in Bouchard Père et Fils Beaune Grèves Vigne d l'Enfant Jésus, though I liked the meaty undertone to its red plum flavor. The tough tannins and overt oak character of Faiveley Gevrey-Chambertin Les Cazetiers mystified me. The delicacy of Jadot Clos Vougeot matched well with its spicy tartness, but where was the flesh?

All of this set me up perfectly for Kramer's first wine, the Pyramid Valley from New Zealand. Although he said its region, Canterbury, and specifically the northern part, was not very well known for Pinot, I remember being impressed with wines such as Mountford and Giesen in the past, which are made there. But not in this style, which featured racy acidity, minerality and vivid red fruit flavors. I loved the nerve of the wine. And its ripe fruit, a characteristic which featured in the Domaine Drouhin Laurène 2005 from Oregon and the Rhys Santa Cruz Mountains Alpine Vineyard 2006.

As we listened to Kramer and tasted the wines, Laube passed me a note. "Grapes like sunshine!" he wrote. "Duh," I noted.

The three Pinots we presented in our Rising Stars tasting also featured seductive fruit character, but you wouldn't characterize any of them as fruit bombs. They were more like fruit rapiers, slipping their essence of cherry, berry or plum easily into their wrappings of silk and elegance. The two Oregon wines, both from the ripe 2006 vintage, found what I consider an ideal balance of fruit and other stuff. The California wine, from 2005, comes from a vineyard at the cool end of Anderson Valley but high above the fog, so the vineyard gets lots of sunshine and the grapes ripen beautifully. You can taste it in the wine's generous but not overripe flavors.

All the Burgundies cost more than $100 a bottle, the New World wines around $55 to $65. You pay a premium for those 2,000 years.

John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  October 18, 2008 7:50pm ET
Harvey, you are a gentleman. What you are saying, diplomaticly, is that the best of the new world Pinots are, in their own way, as good as the best of the French burgundies-that the French have no monopoly on terroir. Good for you.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 19, 2008 2:40am ET
I like the way pinot especially shows so many different sides. This, to me, is what makes it the most interesting of the main varietals. The anticipation of wether it will be earthy or fruity, racy or silky, coffee & spice, forest or flowers, red or black, or any of a 100 other nuances. Expands my palate. Never get stuck on one type.
Wallace & Pat Slater
Evans, GA —  October 19, 2008 10:49am ET
We had the pleasure earlier this month of spending 5 days in Oregon's Willamette Valley and tasting over 100 Pinots. While some were better that others I never tasted a Pinot that I would not like to have in my cellar. If the French need a leason in terroir let them spend some time in the Willamette Valley and experience the differences in Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains and Eola-Amity Hills. Scott Paul one of the 19 wineries we visited also imports Burgandy. In my opinion the Burgandy was no match for most of the Willamette Valley Pinots we tasted.The Wife and I are looking forward to enjoying the 10 cases of Pinot that we had shipped home.
Dan Murphy
Tampa, FL —  October 19, 2008 2:17pm ET
"Fruit rapier": I love it, a brand new term for the fine wine lexicon. And a most beautifully descriptive one too. Perfect to describe a wine which wields its fruit skillfully rather than oppressively. "Rapier" sounds so much more elegant than "thermonuclear fruit bomb", after all.
Matthew Segura
Pleasant Hill, Ca —  October 19, 2008 7:07pm ET
Harvey,What were your impressions of the 2006 Rhys Alpine Vineyard? I know the published score wasn't so hot, but different people have different preferences (obviously). Thank you.
Tim Sinniger
Bend, Oregon —  October 19, 2008 8:08pm ET
Bravo Harvey! Terroir has its place, but I believe that all of the great Pinot Noir growing areas, France, New Zealand, California and Oregon all have something different and unique to offer in the expression of this delicate grape. I cellar some red Burgundies as well as some California Pinot Noir, but since I live here in Oregon I mostly drink Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. I look forward to trying more New Zealand Pinot and some of the ones emerging from Chile. It will be interesting to see, as some have wrote about, if a hierarchy of Willamette Vineyards emerges, grand crus and the like. I believe they will...in time. Watch out Burgundy!

Tim Sinniger

Northwest Wine Fan
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 20, 2008 9:18am ET
Thanks for these comments. I liked the Rhys Pinot for its concentrated flavors a little better than Laube did when he rated it, but I did find it very firm and a bit austere. It is perhaps a wine that needs time to show what it has, but on this occasion I found the Penner-Ash, Roco and Londer wines in our Rising Stars tasting better much closer to the caress I want from Pinot Noir. Even Matt admitted to me, as we chatted before the morning session, that his wines were more "severe" than our Pinots, "more the dominatrix than the flirt," as he put it so colorfully.
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  October 20, 2008 2:28pm ET
James Laube's comment "Grapes like sunshine" reminds me of a quote attributed to Galileo: "Wine is sunlight held together by water." How wonderful.
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
miramar beach, fl —  October 21, 2008 11:30am ET
your comments about the different tastes of the wines in the different areas of the world points out the falicy of the 100 point system. Is it fair to judge wines of New Zealand agaist those of say France? Or even California against Oregon? You point out that terrior determines taste. Shouldn't wines in an area be rated against each other rather than against a mythical wine with no consideration of the different terriors?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 21, 2008 12:42pm ET
This is not the place the get into another argument over the 100-point scale, except to note that a rating indicates how highly the reviewer thought of the wine when it was tasted. Whether you do it on 5 stars, "good" to "outstanding," thumbs up or down, or 50-100 points, that's all it is. Characteristics may differ, but there's still a general assessment to be made on how good the wine is (which can then be correlated with the price to see if buying the wine makes sense to you).
Mr Damian Zaninovich
Bakersfield,Ca —  October 21, 2008 2:02pm ET
Diminishing the French contribution to wine is foolish. Who is every winery trying to emulate or put themselves up against? For my taste they have no peer unless all one wants is a fruity beverage to drink on release.
2 years NZ, orig, from USA —  February 11, 2009 7:21pm ET
Respectfully written. I find we try to hyper-focus on one interpretation of wine. As Americans we try to equate and score a subject encompassing the many languages of taste. It took me living abroad to understand that. Pyramid valley is producing wines from an array of varietals. All might I add are site specific. I would recommend everyone to try these.....except for maybe the Pinot Blanc, but that is only my opinion.

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