House Pour: Your Guide to Californian Pinot Noir

Hey you. Yeah, you. I heard you like Pinot. That’s why you’re reading this, aren’t you? You’ve had your fair share of NSG, Chambolle, Pommard, now you want to explore something new, just like the rest of us. But do you really think that Cali Pinot can live up to Burgundy’s established status? Is it all about sweet fruit flavors and milkshake texture? Are all the exceptional examples expensive af? Welcome to House Pour, a guide that breaks down (not so) famous grapes and gets to the bottom of things by drinking (fo’ real).

Before we jump into where California is and how it presents its Pinots to the world, let’s first give the folks at home a bit of the basics. We have the chance to truly follow up the previous House Pour with a similar grape, but this time a much more widely planted one. Pinot Noir, the ancient grape associated with winemaking greatness, originates from Cote d’Or (Burgundy, France). It is part of the Pinot family, which is so closely knitted together that it is better to call the grape Pinot and the different variations of it Gris, Noir, Meunier, Blanc, etc. Countries that have notable Pinot Noir plantings are France (Champagne, Burgundy, Sancerre, Alsace & Jura), the US (Willamette Valley & California), Germany, Italy (Trentino), New Zealand and Australia (Tasmania & Yarra Valley).

Like Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir prefers cool areas. If it’s grown in a warmer climate, the sugars might develop too rapidly, leaving the wines flabby and lifeless without the crucial acidity. Its thin skin doesn’t make things any easier, leading winemakers to battle rot and fungal diseases every year. It’s like Britney Spears singing “Toxic”, but what she really wants to sing is “Everytime”. It needs somebody to hold it, shelter it, clean it and be there when it has a mental breakdown. But when it succeeds and blossoms into a stable being, it tends to give iconic wines. Does Pinot need oak, longer fermentation, cold-soaking? A good set of (rhetorical) questions. The general answer would be – it really depends on what the winemaker wants to get out of the grape. Lower temperatures lead to brighter fruit flavors and higher acidity, while longer fermentation on higher temperatures gives more extracted and tannic wines. To get the most “natural” character out of Pinot, more and more winemakers are turning to organic and/or biodynamic viticulture to protect the grape’s delicate chemical balance.

The most interesting thing about Pinot Noir-producing regions in California is that they all have similar climatic conditions – a long growing season, allowing the grapes extended hang time to gradually develop flavors and a much-valued balance of sugars and acids. This is considered golden since most people associate American wines with high alcohol and sweetness, led by examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah. AVAs closer to the Pacific Ocean (such as Carneros and Sonoma Coast) have higher rainfall and fog cover, complemented by much lower temperatures then inland areas. As mentioned earlier, winemakers usually battle fungal disease, rot, delayed ripening and harsh maritime winds that slap the vines senseless. Natural causes are the source of struggle today, but just a few decades ago, Prohibition was the real bitch. The Volstead Act, a divisive, much-disputed act, had relentless consequences for the US wine industry. It led to many vineyards being ripped out in favor of other agricultural crops. The 21st Amendment (the Repeal of Prohibition) passed in 1933 put an end to all the lunacy, but the wine industry started recovering roughly 40 years after.

As I am not much of a Cali wine drinker, the thing that surprised me the most at this tasting was the wide diversity of styles each AVA had to offer. Some let Burgundy lead the way, some tailored their style to the hefty American palate, others went in an entirely different direction. The 2014 vintage proved to be superior, giving wines of stellar quality, while all the ‘13s lacked something, be that complexity, varietal expression or just good ol’ structure. Santa Barbara County won our hearts and is undeniably going to be a source of inspiration in future purchases. One thing is certain, there has never been a more exciting time to drink wine, so I’d advise you to leave all stereotypes at the door and let the magnifique liquid do the talking.

Starmont Pinot Noir 2013
Carneros, Napa County

Did you know that the default Window XP Bliss background is actually a vineyard and not a hill? I kid you not, the photo was taken in Carneros just after all the phylloxera-infested vines were pulled out of the ground in the mid-90s. I told you this was going to be an educational website. This AVA is one of the oldest and most celebrated areas in California. It is where Pinot Noir grew its roots and, together with its Burgundian partner in crime, Chardonnay, became home to some of the world’s most celebrated Champagne houses. Starmont’s Pinot (formerly part of Merryvale) silently crept onto #4 on our list. A pleasant wine, showing expressive ripe fruit on the nose, soft tannins and juicy acidity. It’s debatable whether or not oak belongs here, since it masks a good amount of purity destined to shine in this wine. A cranberry-tobacco mix makes it to the finish line, ending with a good chunk of bitterness. Some found this pleasant, others disastrous. All in all, a very dubious treat.

Price: S$64 (€40)
Purchased: 1855 The Bottle Shop
You might also like: Etude Grace Benoist Ranch Estate Grown Pinot Noir, Cherry Pie Pinot Noir

 

Wine Spots Pinot Noir 2016
Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County

Sonoma Coast is quite a husky AVA (American Viticultural Area, i.e. appellation), but it’s almost identical to Carneros in terms of climate and grape varieties. Due to the crude weather conditions and excessive oak use, the quality here has been inconsistent for years, but as laws tightened, so did the wines. Now, Pinot grapes are grown on sandy soils, resulting in leaner and tighter wines if given a long and proper growing season, that is. Wine Spots’ representative is pretty straightforward in its intentions. Candied fruit on the nose in forms of raspberry, strawberry and cherry. The wine is medium-bodied, smooth and very tightly knit on the palate with ripe and rich flavors of black cherries, some wild dark forest fruits, a little bit of juicy cranberry character, a hint of sour cherry bitterness and a touch of red plum. Screams fruit, fruit, fruit, but no complexity beyond that. What made everybody jump here was the 14.5% alcohol which was beautifully integrated with the tannins and acidity, ending up among the best-balanced wines of the tasting.

Price: S$60 (€38)
Purchased: iShop Changi
You might also like: Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

 

Belle Glos ‘Dairyman Vineyard’ Pinot Noir 2013
Russian River Valley, Sonoma County

This is where things get cool, literally. With its trademark thick fog that acts like a blanket and keeps the temperatures vitally low, Russian River Valley screams wine romance. Or a Hitchcock movie. Depends on what you’re into. When I started researching Cali Pinot, I had zero idea about what to buy. A lot of friends recommended Belle Glos, a winery under the Caymus umbrella, quite popular both in and outside of the US. It’s ridiculous how hard this failed to represent anything previously listed, thus losing the popularity contest single-handedly. This is an Arnold-Schwarzenegger-bench-pressing-300-kilos Pinot. Deep purple in the glass, with charging aromas of ripe blackberry, overripe strawberry, raspberry jam, orange marmalade and a fistful of baking spices. No finesse whatsoever, but the power covers for that without a problem. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great wine – balanced, complex, dense and well-structured – for a Zin or Shiraz. Pinot just doesn’t deserve a carnage like this.

Price: S$80 (€50)
Purchased: Water & Wine
You might also like: Cirq Treehouse Pinot Noir, Peter Michael Le Caprice Pinot Noir

 

Chanin ‘Duvarita’ Pinot Noir 2014
Santa Barbara County, Central Coast

Ah, Santa Barbara – home to the most sought-out and luxurious Pinots in Cali. If you watched Sideways, you might just get an idea why. Lower rainfall here works like nowhere else, reducing the risk of fruit decay, leading to perfect ripness. Soils range from calcareous limestone that aid acidity preservation to sandy and clay-loam soils that lead towards fruit-driven styles. Antonio Galloni called this wine “a total knockout” and we couldn’t agree more. Ranked #1 out of 11, Chanin brings energy to the table. Textbook aromas of Indian spices, rosemary, dried/fresh red fruit, all wrapped up in a nice veil of violets and pencil shavings. Unbelievably well-balanced and lean, with a mineral marked acidity that acts as the perfect backbone. Someone stated that it reminds them of “mud, cycling, sunshine and happiness”. I say, fuck, if a wine doesn’t bring back memories, especially those joyful ones, what is its worth in this world of confusion, discontent and disillusion?

Price: S$84 (€53)
Purchased: Vinified Wines
You might also like: Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, Tyler Pinot Noir

 

Knez Pinot Noir 2013
Anderson Valley, Mendocino County

Moving north of the North Coast, we reach Anderson Valley, an AVA known for approachable, no-fuss Pinots. Knez is best known and highly praised for their “hands-on in the vineyard, hands-off in the winery” philosophy. The 2014 was miraculous, producing wines of exceptional quality, but unfortunately we didn’t see the same in ’13. The roles in nature were switched – winter was warm, while summer started with lower temperatures than usual. Yields were the same as in previous years, but the juice quality was much lower. Though regional expression is on perfect point in this Pinot, the oak is just too emphasized. It’s very mature for its age (the ladies like that), with notes of fresh berry fruit, oregano, sea salt and old cabin wood coming into focus. It reminded us of walks through the forest after a heavy pour and romantic dinners in the tree house (that’s right, I had tree house dinners when I was eight). Finishes off a bit hollow with a touch of minerality.

Price: S$51 (€32)
Purchased: Vinified Wines
You might also like: Littorai Les Larmes Pinot Noir, Anthill Farms Pinot Noir

 

Brea Pinot Noir 2016
Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County

With one of the longest growing seasons in California, Santa Lucia Highlands opens its doors to wines of complex flavors and tangy acidity. Since the grapes here are picked six weeks following its neighbors, they tend to develop many more flavors in an even matter. Chris Brockway, legendary natural winemaker and owner of Broc Cellars, has a thirst for biodynamic farming of classic varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This Pinot is a nice upgrade of the initially tasted Knez. Destemmed and aged in neutral French oak, it offers aromas of musk, dried cranberry, pine and overripe strawberry. Medium-bodied, velvety texture. Bright and grippy, with beautifully shaped tannins and judged acidity running through juicy, chewy flavors of red cherries and a hint of spice. The alcohol tends to get hot on the finish, where the wine also loses the initial excitement. A fair price point nonetheless.

Price: S$43 (€27)
Purchased: Vinified Wines
You might also like: Hahn Family Wines ‘SLH’ Pinot Noir, Morgan Winery Twelve Clones Pinot Noir

 

Folk Machine ‘Antle Vineyard’ Pinot Noir 2015
Chalone, Monterey County

Shalon! No, that’s not right. Hmm, ok, let’s not dwell on Semitic expressions, but rather continue with the swell Monterey County. Chalone is a tiny AVA, a bit isolated from the Pacific Ocean. What makes it a prestigious area is not the climate, but the soils, made up of decomposed granite complemented by limestone, which comes from decayed marine organisms (often compared to Burgundy). You’d never say that for a region you never heard of in your life, amirite? From these shallow, dry and free-draining soils, we get a charmer. Mediterranean herbs on the nose (rosemary especially) expose plum, cranberry and sour cherry on the palate. Medium (+) body. Very, very satin-like texture with a superb integration of tannins and acidity. Lovely long-lasting finish. The only thing that makes me want to cry is the lack of complexity. This wine could have been grand if it went beyond primary characteristics, but oh well, it’s a good enough reason to set on a quest for more Chalone goodness.

Price: S$51 (€32)
Purchased: Vinified Wines
You might also like: Enfield Wine Co. Antle Vineyard Pinot Noir, Fulcrum Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir

 

Domaine de la Cote La Cote 2014
Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County

My man Rajat Parr is killing it up in the Hills (together with Sashi Moorman, of course). The area is blooming with Pinot plantings, even though it’s closer to the equator than any European wine region on the map. As mentioned, high temperatures are a no-no for Pinot, but here it just doesn’t care. Charine Tan, an expert in Santa Barbara wines, guided me through the style produced in Sta Rita. She says that this area gives more linear and structured wines that are capable of aging for years, even decades to come. This is the closest to Burgundy we got at this tasting. Awesomely complex nose showing tones of Middle-Eastern spices & sweets, dried red fruit, mushrooms, herbs and quite a strong gamey aroma. More extracted than its French counterparts (could be the vintage or just the style), but finishes off with beautiful string-like finesse and minerality. Definitely needs a couple of more years to show its true spirit, but this is fire. A runner-up to the Duvarita.

Price: S$134 (€85)
Purchased: Straits Cellars
You might also like: Enfield Wine Co. Antle Vineyard Pinot Noir, Fulcrum Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir

 

Au Bon Climat ‘La Bauge Au-Dessus’ Pinot Noir 2013
Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County

Coming from “one of the good vintages” in California, Au Bon Climat’s Pinot did not lack behind Rajat’s for a second. A similar philosophy is used by Jim ‘Wild Boy’ Clendenen, who regards Burgundy as the benchmark to which he should aspire, buying clones of Pinot Noir from France to replicate these world-class styles. The fruit of 2013 was fermented in open-top fermenters using the punch-down method to extract the best out of the grapes. Afterwards, the wine was aged for two years in 50% new Burgundian oak. Dark and cloudy ruby red in the glass. Surprisingly, this had a nose closer to Sangiovese than Pinot – notes of warm red fruit (cranberry, strawberry), cherry pit, shaved chocolate and Mediterranean herbs. Medium-bodied with a pure and lively character, opening up to tones of dark cherry and savory oak spice. Definitely needs decanting. Alcohol tends to stand out a bit on the finish, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind. Decent length with a splash of minerality.

Price: S$80 (€50)
Purchased: Water & Wine
You might also like: Cirq Treehouse Pinot Noir, Peter Michael Le Caprice Pinot Noir

 

Ghostwriter ‘Belle Farms’ Pinot Noir 2013
Santa Cruz Mountains, San Francisco Bay

Master Somm, Ian Cauble, states some powerful stuff about Ghostwriter – “I challenge you to name anyone in California bottling a broader and more consistently delicious arsenal of fairly priced, eco-friendly and truly hand-crafted wines.” I don’t know if he’s being patriotic or just business-oriented, but tasting the Belle Farms just didn’t show the oomp expected from a highly praised winemaker like Kenny Likitprakong. I’m not doubting the quality of the whole winery, but this particular label just didn’t galvanize anybody. Loads of VA both on the nose and the palate, masking everything for the first 30 minutes or so. It opens up to notes of green tomato, forest floor, wild strawberry and grandma’s closet. Medium errrrthing – body, acidity and alcohol. Tannins are almost non-existent. The earthy funkiness prevails, but offers less and less of everything else as we drink it. I must admit, it was a drag writing this tasting note, so I’m glad it’s finally over.

Price: S$70 (€44)
Purchased: Vinified Wines
You might also like: Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir, Thomas Fogarty Pinot Noir

 

House Pour is an approachable guide to the world’s (not so) famous grapes. We’re a group of friends that meet once a month, bring bottles to the table and have a good ol’ time. If you’re inspired by the idea, please spread the love within your wine community. If you’re based in Singapore, don’t hesitate to join us or enquire on hosting your own event! DM at @grapenomad or email at grapenomad@gmail.com.

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