Log In / Join Now

2008 California Wine Experience: 21st Century Pinot Noir Greatness

Matt Kramer showcases three Pinot Noirs that come from different regions, but all share a true Burgundian style

Tina Benitez
Posted: October 21, 2008

The theme of Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer's seminar on Friday morning may have come as a surprise to those who know him as a longtime Burgundy fanatic: Not only does he believe that New World wine regions can make Pinot Noirs that match red Burgundy in quality, he also thinks they can be truly Burgundian. To make his point, he picked three Pinot Noirs from different regions; all of them were distinct, but all had one thing in common: a Burgundian approach to winemaking.

"These aren't just any Pinot Noirs," said Kramer. "What we have are three Pinot Noirs—one from New Zealand, one from Oregon and one from the Santa Cruz Mountains—but what we really have, as strange as this must sound, are three Burgundies. That may sound blasphemous or maybe presumptuous, but in the 21st century of Pinot Noir, we find ourselves in a situation where we are beginning to recognize that there really is more to Burgundy than this fabulous terroir, or the unique soils."

Kramer told the crowd that all three winemakers were heavily influenced by the Pinot Noirs of Burgundy and follow Burgundian techniques of winegrowing. "It's a dedication to, a consecration of a piece of ground, soil, a site ... having numerous clones of Pinot Noir planted and planting in just the right way, with the right spacing and the right rootstocks," said Kramer. "This is what really makes Burgundy Burgundy."

The tasting started with the Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir Canterbury Earth Smoke 2006 (not yet rated, $65), which Kramer described as "elegant and weightless." Winemakers Mike and Claudia Weersing fell in love with Pinot Noir while working in Burgundy, and when looking for a site for their own vineyard, decided on the Canterbury region of New Zealand. Though it isn't as known for Pinot Noir as some other areas of New Zealand, the soils are chalk, with 15 percent active limestone, similar to the soils in Burgundy. The Weersings' tiny 1.7-acre Earth Smoke vineyard only produced 70 cases of the 2006 vintage, their first, and this bottling made its U.S. debut at the Wine Experience.

The crowd polished off an impressive amount of Domaine Drouhin Laurene 2005 from Oregon.  

The second wine, the Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Oregon Laurène 2005 (NYR, $65). The Willamette vineyard was founded in 1987 by Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, which has been making wine in Burgundy since 1880. Not only was the wine made by a Burgundy native, said Kramer, with grapes selected from a patch of close-spaced vines on Drouhin's 90-acre vineyard, but it is also Burgundian because of its character, with strong, gamy notes and aromas from the Pommard clone used in the vineyard. Overall, he added, Drouhin's Burgundian mentality shines through in the wine's finesse and delicacy and in its ability to age for 10 years at least. It is a good example of the 2005 vintage, according to Kramer, which is "collectively, great wines of great definition and great structure."

The tasting ended with the Rhys Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains Alpine Vineyard 2006 (82, $49) from California. Owner Kevin Harvey, a former engineer, and winegrower Jason Jardine, whose first vintage was 2004, developed the Pinot Noir in true Burgundian style, according to Kramer. Grapes were grown at high elevation, with very low yields from organically and biodynamically farmed sites, and the wine is rich and dense, with strong mineral and cherry notes, typical of a Burgundian Pinot Noir.

"Burgundy has [been] a tremendous inspiration," said Kramer. "We're finding that Burgundy has gone beyond Pinot Noir itself. There are growers in California, Oregon, in Australia, in New Zealand, who are as Burgundian, indeed more Burgundian, than the Burgundians themselves."

Watch the Wine Experience

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.