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Tasting Note

Posted November 30, 2018 Elegant, offering raspberry, pomegranate and cherry flavors that are well-structured. Notes of forest floor show midpalate, with an enveloping finish of spice and brick.

And the answer is...


Varietal

We have an elegant yet structured red that offers bright red fruit and some spice and earth. Let's start by determining the grape variety.

Tempranillo is the first to go. While the cherry and forest floor notes are a good match for the grape, the overall fruit profile of these wines tends to be darker; think black cherry and plum as opposed to raspberry and pomegranate. Additionally, Tempranillo's hallmark tobacco and cedar character is missing from our note.

Syrah is also not a great fit. While it does show red fruit, blue and black fruit come into the mix too. You would also expect Syrah to have more smoky, gamy notes on top of the earth and spice we have here. Let's move on.

Cabernet Franc could be a match, as it's a medium-bodied wine that has elegance, red fruit and earth details. However, the grape's telltale green, herbaceous notes are missing here, making our wine unlikely to be Cab Franc.

Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir can have many similarities, notably their red fruit–forward profile, which our mystery wine has. But let's look at what's not here. For one, our wine does not display the tannic grip that Nebbiolo has. The wines are very floral, showing hints of violets and dried roses. They also often exhibit notes of anise and licorice, sometimes tar, leather and even tobacco in some versions, which again are missing from our note.

Pinot Noir on the other hand, while it can also be complemented by delicate earth and spice notes, puts more of an emphasis on its fresh, bright red fruit, like our mystery wine, with its raspberry, pomegranate and cherry flavors. Pinot is a better fit.

This wine is a Pinot Noir.

Country

Of the countries and regions on our list, two stand out as places where Pinot Noir isn't really a prominent grape: Washington and Spain. You might find some Pinot in Catalonia or other parts of northern Spain, but for the most part, the country focuses on Tempranillo and Garnacha, and its cool-climate red grape of choice is Mencía (which interestingly is similar to Pinot). Ditto for Washington. There are only 500 acres or so planted among the state's 55,000, mostly in the southern part of the state near the Columbia Gorge; Rhône and Bordeaux varieties like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are Washington's biggest players.

Italian Pinot Noir, also known as Pinot Nero, is mostly found in the northern regions of Friuli and Alto Adige, where temperatures are cooler. These versions tend to be lively, easy-drinking wines with bright red fruit. They are unlikely to be particularly well-structured, and forest floor and brick seem a little out of character for Pinot Nero. Let's move on.

There has been a recent surge in Pinot Noir production in Australia, notably in the western coastal regions near Victoria, as well as on the island of Tasmania. There are now roughly 10,000 acres planted. Aussie Pinot's fruit is pretty similar to that of our mystery wine, although many styles show tarter fruits like rhubarb and cranberry. They also have plenty of spice, but what really sets them apart is their abundant herbaceous notes, such as sage, thyme and mint, sometimes veering toward the floral, like rose petal and lavender, or giving off aromas of black or green tea. These are conspicuously missing from our note.

Let's also note the structure of our mystery wine, which is an attribute found more often in California Pinot Noir than any other regional iteration of the grape, except maybe grand cru Burgundy. Pinots from the state are also fruit-forward, showing ripe red fruit that rarely ends up on the tart end of the spectrum. The wines also show spice and earth notes, just like our wine.

This Pinot Noir is from California.

Age

With exceptions like grand cru Burgundy, Pinot Noir is generally meant to be drunk young, and the vintages available on the market reflect this. There's no significant sign of aging in our note: The fruit and earth notes are fresh. Among recent vintages, 2016 and 2015 were outstanding for Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara and Sonoma. The 2015s, however, are marked by noticeable tannins, which are not mentioned in our wine.

This wine is from the 2016 vintage, making it two years old.

Appellation

We know this Pinot is from California, so we can take Australia's Limestone Coast, Italy's Langhe, Spain's Priorat and Washington's Red Mountain of the list, leaving us with Sta. Rita Hills and Rutherford.

Rutherford is located between St Helena and Oakville in Napa Valley. The AVA is on the valley floor, where the weather is markedly warmer than on the surrounding hilltops. Thus, grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, along with other Bordeaux varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Franc, do best here. It's simply too hot for Pinot Noir to thrive.

Sta. Rita Hills, in Santa Barbara County, is much cooler due to its proximity to the ocean and the fog that creates cooler summer temperatures. The growing season here is often a full month longer than anywhere else in the state. For this reason, Pinot Noir is right at home here. Sta. Rita Hills makes elegant yet structured Pinot, with bright red fruit and good acidity. Its soils, made up of sand, clay and diatomaceous earth deposits, can lend some mineral and earth notes to the wines.

This wine is from Sta. Rita Hills.

Wine

This is the Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills Hapgood 2016, which scored 94 points in Wine Spectator's Aug. 31, 2018, issue. It retails for $65 and 78 cases were made. For more about California Pinot Noir, read senior editor James Laube's latest tasting report, "Fast Track," in the Oct. 15, 2018, issue (and if you take a peek at the cover, you might spot our mystery wine).

—Aaron Romano, associate tasting coordinator

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