For decades in California, pinot noir frustrated even the best winemakers. In recent years, California has begun to figure out the grape. Today, numerous appellations along a 500-mile stretch from Mendocino to Santa Barbara source fine pinot noir.
Winemakers are focused more on making food-friendly wines more reflective of their origins. The buzzword for many producers is “minimal intervention.” In the vineyard, this generally means choosing the best sites, usually with proximity to a body of water and the associated fog and cool breezes. These lead to long growing seasons enabling optimal ripeness and naturally fresh acidity. Wineries also increasingly are using only sustainably farmed grapes.
In the cellar, this means, to varying degrees, native yeast fermentation, less new oak, few if any additions and overall gentler handling. The best reveal pure (mostly cherry) fruit with integrated forest, earth and brown spices. The wines below are the best I tasted in recent months (listed with tasting notes in order of preference in each category).
Remote, rugged and sparsely populated, the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County is an unexpected source of fine pinot noir. These consistently good wineries have delivered again.
• 2016 Goldeneye: Ten Degrees ($125) big, ripe, assertive, balanced; Confluence Vineyard ($86) oaky, earthy; The Narrows Vineyard ($86) juicy, plump, tight; Anderson Valley ($58) dark, lush, spicy; Gowan Creek Vineyard ($86) large, structured; Split Rail Vineyard ($86) juicy, full.
• 2017 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve ($30) dark, savory, lavish, fine value.
• 2017 Siduri: Edmeades Vineyard ($50) deep, silky, spicy; Anderson Valley ($40) deep, juicy.
• 2017 FEL ($38) opulent, structured.
The Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, benefiting from cooling fog and long growing seasons, arguably is one of the world’s top sources of pinot noir.
• 2017 Chappellet Grower Collection: “Bateman” ($60) lively, concentrated, silky; “Dutton Ranch” ($45) fresh, savory.
• 2016 Inman Family: Olivet Grange Estate Vineyard ($73) bright red fruit, savory, earthy; Pratt Vine Hill ($68) bright red fruit, spicy, fresh.
• 2016 Rodney Strong ($25) tart, fresh, earth, savory.
• 2016 MacRostie Thale’s Vineyard ($56) lively, earthy.
• 2016 J RRV ($40) deep, dark, seamless.
Sonoma Coast, with its rolling hills and proximity to cooling Pacific Ocean breezes, is the new frontier for pinot noir. I was particularly impressed with three wines: 2016 Inman Sexton Road Ranch ($68) dark, concentrated, structured; 2015 Sosie Spring Hill Vineyard ($43) intense, spicy, velvety; 2017 Migration ($42) deep, broad.
I had one good sample from Carneros, the region rising from the San Pablo Bay that straddles southern Sonoma and Napa counties. I again enjoyed the sleek 2017 Frank Family ($38), a regular favorite.
Certain microclimates in Monterey County enjoy a balance between cool Monterey Bay breezes and the warm Salinas Valley. From the Santa Lucia Highlands: 2016 J. Lohr Highlands Bench ($35) fresh, firm, savory; 2017 McIntyre ($38) intense, silky. From Arroyo Seco: 2016 J. Lohr “Fog’s Reach” ($35) zesty, tannic, chewy.
Santa Barbara County sports two regions that rival Sonoma as California’s best source of pinot noir — Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley, especially Santa Rita Hills. Unfortunately, I had only one sample in my tasting — 2016 Sea Smoke “Southing” Santa Rita Hills ($60). But it was a good one: juicy, rich, full and lingering.