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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pondering Pinot: The Graceful Grape

Pinot Noir. Considered the most “feminine” and delicate of grapes, Pinot Noir has the ability to entice your senses without overpowering them. Pinot is a small berry with a thin skin and grows best in cooler regions. Small berries produce small amounts of juice, hence typically higher price tags. So if you want to change up your drinking routine and avoid clobbering Cabernets, smack-down Syrah’s, and manhandling Merlots, I have picked some premier Pinot’s to persuade, seduce, beguile and tempt you with their lithe qualities.(NOTE: The original, longer version of this article for Valentine's Day first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter)

Big Table Farm 2012 Resonance Vineyard Pinot Noir
Don’t let this label fool you: a) this is a real calf named Auggie, and, b) this is not some kitschy wine in spite of a hand drawn calf. There is an earthy nature to this wine, typical of Oregon Pinots with their volcanic soils, and this has plenty of warm dark fruits like blueberry and blackberry, pomegranate, cassis, a hint of cola and an acidity that works its way through the entire sip. Made unfined and unfiltered, the lack of  “cleaning” the wine too much gives it more subtle flavors and richness. Therefore what resonates is a lush, vibrant wine reflective of its place. ($48,

Bryter 2012 Tre Sette Pinot Noir
Most Pinot Noirs are made from several different clones of the grape, thereby giving variance, structure, color, and added dimension. But Bryter’s Pinot from the Sonoma Coast uses only one clone -777 (Tre Sette means three sevens in Italian) and uses that to perfection, showing how good a single-clone Pinot Noir can be. What you get in your glass is a mysterious, earthy Pinot with notes of cola, cedar, blueberry, blackberry, black cherry and an ethereal leather quality bounded by a clean acidity. ($68,

Clos de la Tech 2009 Pinot Noir Domaine Lois Louise
Santa Cruz seems an unlikely place to make Pinot Noir, and owner TJ Rodgers who founded Cypress Semiconductor might seem an unlikely nerd in the wine world. But he makes rich and vibrant wines like this one, with blueberry, black cherry, plum, a vanilla note throughout, medium tannins and a light acidity. There is a robust heft to this, much lighter than, say Cabernet, but heavier than many Pinots’ due in part to its cold and windy location at 1,700 feet, directly facing the Pacific Ocean.  ($42,

Cornerstone 2012 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, White Label
Outside of California there is no better-known or more highly lauded Pinot Noir growing region than Oregon’s Willamette Valley, east of Portland. This wine offers darker red fruits of strawberry, black cherry, a touch of apricot and a hint of earthy mushroom and green apple. There’s a mild acidity behind the judicious use of oak and there is a smoothness to this that cannot be overstated, making it velvety on the tongue and because the fruit is darker, there are broader pairing possibilities for your dinner table. ($59,

Elke 2012 Donnelly Creek Pinot Noir
Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, west of Highway 101, is an ideal, though still somewhat unknown and underappreciated area for crafting dependable Pinot Noir. The 15 mile long Valley remains relatively cool due to the brisk Pacific winds that snake down from the coast, but this is perfect Pinot weather. Elke proves that quality Pinot need not be terribly expensive. These 20-year-old vines produce black cherry, cola, raspberry, a mild acidity and an earthy quality framed by mild sweet oak. ($36,

Lutum 2012 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir
Pulling fruit from one of the most famous vineyards in Santa Barbara County is one thing - not screwing it up is another - and Lutum nails the essence of the Sta. Rita Hills region with their pomegranate, cranberry strawberry and cherry rendition of these grapes with their own mild acidity and hints of dried oregano and thyme. There is an appealing and very restrained tartness to this wine, pulling back the typical berry fruit and replacing it with an almost sour cherry quality. The wonderful irony is this wine is made in Lompoc, a former temperance community. ($60,

Red Car 2012 Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir
Pinot grows best in cooler areas, and none is quite co cool as the Fort Ross-Seaview region of Sonoma’s northern coast, which was once a Russian settlement. Owner Carroll Kemp, who was producer on the Jonny Depp/Marlon Brandon film, The Brave, clearly is brave to make excellent wine from this rugged region. A nose of sensuous ripe red fruit tricks you as you drink this, but it’s lighter fruit than you might expect. It is, however, resonant with strawberry jam, plum, black raspberry, orange zest, cranberry, and a wisp of thyme. The flavors are deeper, richer and more mature due to the slow and steady growing conditions. ($68,

Riverbench 2011 Mesa Pinot Noir
Santa’s Barbara’s Santa Maria Valley produces a lot of wine. Riverbench, so named because their property sits on a bench of land above the Santa Maria River, benefits from the cool Pacific Ocean breezes funneling through the valley. Made from the Martini clone, this wine provides inklings of dusty cinnamon and cocoa and feels as light on the palette as the red tail hawks that fly above the vineyards. It is full of delicate strawberry, black cherry, blackberry, and vanilla with a cheerful acidity. Winemaker Clarissa Nagy has a deft touch with all her wines and this is a classic, clean, graceful, and elegant Pinot Noir. ($48,

Rusack 2012 Pinot Noir, Santa Catalina
You may not have known that Catalina Island was a strategic point to smuggle liquor into Los Angles during Prohibition. You also may not know that today wine grapes are grown here. More similar to French Burgundy, Rusack--whose winery is located in Santa Barbara--crafts a wine that is ripe with cranberry, pomegranate, cherry, and strawberry, a hint of cola and a medium acidity. This is brighter and lighter than most on this list and with fewer than 100 cases made, it’s also more exclusive, but also proof that with the right team, good wine can be made most anywhere. ($72,

Talbott 2012 Sarah Case Pinot Noir
The Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey has represented some of the best Pinot fruit in the state and Talbott’s Sleepy Hollow Vineyard is one of the most respected. This Pinot with ripe black cherry, blackberry, strawberry, a slight cola note along with a seamless acidity careens across your tongue and if you pay attention, there is a minute smoke note on the finish. It finishes with sparse tannic structure, clean acidity and a velvety creaminess. Talbott has been making exceptional, elegant Pinot Noir for years. ($75,

Willamette Valley Vineyard 2012 Pinot Noir, Bernau Block
It’s always great to brag that your wines have been served at the White House, or have appeared on TV shows like Grimm, and Friends, and this winery can claim just that. But what really matters is how a wine tastes. Replete with earthy cranberry, blueberry, strawberry, mild oak and soft tannins with a slightly tart kick, this wine ideally captures the volcanic soils, which are ripe in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. ($53,

Bouchard Pere & Fils 2011 Vigne de L’Enfant Jesus
The beauty of France is that they have been at Burgundy (Pinot Noir) for hundreds of years—case in point; Bouchard was started in 1731, before the U.S. was even independent. But if you’re only familiar with U.S. versions of Pinot, then red Burgundy might take a little getting used to. Typically well-executed versions like this one (whose name translates as the “vine of the infant Jesus”) rely less on bright, ripe fruit and more the earthy, dark nature of soil and grape. Mushroom, leather, acidity, more dark fruit like cassis, blackberry, and blueberry is all here but is seductively muted. Then as time progresses, this wine opens up and the floral and berry components begin to emerge and you wonder how wine can be so spiritual. ($100,

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