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افتراضي 2016 World of Pinot Noir: Are American Pinot Noirs from “good” vintages actually good

Entry to Bacara Resort in coastal Santa BarbaraAs in previous years, the 2016 World of Pinot Noir in coastal Santa Barbara’s Bacara Resort this past March 4-5 was an incredible opportunity to glean the state of American Pinot Noir; particularly California Pinot Noirs from the 2013 vintage which, by all accounts, was a remarkable one (re the California Institute’s detailed,unequivocally positive report on the “warm and dry spring with near ideal conditions for bringing grapes to maturity...”).

But do remarkable vintages equal remarkable wines? Permission to speak frankly, if somewhat like a wine geek spoiled by the recent embarrassment of richly endowed, undeniably world class Pinot Noirs currently being grown up and down the West Coast, from British Columbia to Santa Barbara: the 2013s in general are not blowing my mind -- at least no more than the fewer 2012s and 2014s tasted over the past weekend.

Sure, there is the usual spate of fantastic wines among the 2013s, giving you everything you want in an American Pinot Noir: generous, beautifully perfumed varietal fruit; silken, layered texturing; lively yet unrepentantly opulent feels (this is America, mind you, not Burgundy, France) with a sense of proportion.

But overall, there was also a disconcerting number of 2013s that seemed to sacrifice other varietal traits – namely, spice, some semblance of delicacy, floral notes (especially rose petal) or terroir related transparencies (i.e. scrubby or loamy nuances) – for a sheer, ripe opulence. A good number of 2013 California Pinot Noirs were smelling, and tasting, downright sweet – more suggestive of red cherry or cranberry than of raspberry, blueberry or even strawberry – which led me to even think, is this a “White Zinfandel” vintage for California Pinot? In a number of less pleasant examples, this sweetly perfumed fruitiness was not helped by intrusive levels of volatile acidity (i.e. VA), adding that duller-sweet, vinegar-like quality to aromas and flavors.

2013 Pinot Noir in Laetitia Vineyard (Arroyo Grande Valley)Yet here’s the paradox: neither excessive alcohol nor oak or actual residual sugar seemed to be real issues. Most of the 2013s hovered near or just above 14% alcohol, which is about par in this day and age, even with the usual label-fudging. I didn’t taste one Pinot Noir that came across as sweetly (i.e. overly) oaked; unlike what was more typical of American Pinot Noirs 10, 15 years ago. And much of the overt sweetness of fruit came across as retro-nasal – sweet sensations more strongly influenced by aromatic tones in the nose rather than on the tongue – since residual sugars seemed no higher, and no lower, than in “normal” years of late.

Example: I watched one super-experienced sommelier (tasting alongside me) pick up a single-vineyard 2013 bottling by one of Sonoma Coast’s most prestigious Pinot Noir specialists, and physically wince when tasting it. “I mean, I always love their Pinots,” she said, “but I can’t believe how over-the-top this wine is.” I poured myself a taste and found an ultra-ripe cherry/berry aroma and full (14.4% alcohol) yet tightly wound wine; densely layered with tannin and glycerol, while finishing completely dry. Yet the sommelier was entirely correct – the wine also came across as over-the-top in a perceptively sweet fruitiness, despite its dryness, crossing a line into the realm of annoyance.

Here’s the thing: I happen to have huge respect for American Pinot Noir producers. Unlike, say, most Cabernet Sauvignon producers, most of them don’t seem to be seduced by the almighty 100-point score. They are genuinely interested in achieving terroir driven expressions, especially in single-vineyard bottlings. They don’t believe in “200%-new-oak.” They tend to err on the side of lower intervention winemaking. And unlike most Chardonnay or Zinfandel producers, they are not overly obsessed with achieving “varietal” consistency; graciously acquiescing to vintage variations (which can be hell on artisanal Pinot Noir). Not all of them, of course, but a good chunk; which is why so many of us love American Pinot Noir.

Press room at 2016 World of Pinot NoirSo what’s up with the 2013s from California? (There wasn’t enough representation from Oregon at WOPN to draw conclusions). Curious about the gulf between what I know about the vintage and what I actually tasted in Santa Barbara, on Sunday after I got home I picked up the phone to call my old go-to for honest and authoritative information on anything related to Burgundian grapes: Greg La Follette of La Follette Wines.

Quoting Mr. La Follette, in so many words:

2013 was a very good year for California Pinot Noir; and in similar ways, so was 2014. But in a lot of ways, these “good” years can be just as problematic as the “tough” years. Certain things, like wild fermentations, are endemic to so-called “easy” vintages. In years when there is plenty of sugar and the grapes are coming in great shape, you can just as well end up with sluggish fermentations and secondary microbiological super-bugs running around wreaking havoc, which is exactly what happened. We saw a lot of stuck fermentations and VA in 2013.

There are a lot of receptors sensitive to those conditions, which can be exacerbated by use of less SO2. You end up with a big bloom of VA and stinkiness in the fermentors. We are going through one of those cycles right now, where the trend is to back off on SO2. Everybody’s questioning how much SO2 to use; when really, the question should be when and how to use SO2.

Plus, for whatever reason, a lot of winemakers have been getting away from the use of microscopes. They have less training. Many of them don’t even know how to use a microscope. There is less knowledge of fundamental aspects of fermentation. You become susceptible to the influence of trends, which are hard to do without the basics. This sort of reminds me of many of the problems we saw in the early 1980s.

Greg La Follette in Sangiacomo Vineyard (Sonoma Coast)As you know, I have never practiced “safe winemaking.” Pinot Noir responds famously well to unsafe winemaking, but there are pitfalls. The collective action of Pinot Noir producers diving into the latest batch of trends can have an adverse effect on what you may now perceive as a byproduct of a vintage. Is 2013 a “sweet” vintage? Well, in both 2013 and 2014, a lot of the sweetness that you find is not so much because grapes are picked at higher sugars, but because of the nature of the sugars.

Ripened grapes accumulate primarily two types of sugars, glucose and fructose. In a good year, when grapes are in balance, the temptation is to turn to wild yeasts, which are wimpier yeasts that preferentially consume more glucose, leaving fructose sugars behind. In a year like 2013, you might end up with slightly more residual sugar than normal – 1.5 to 2 grams, as opposed to 1 gram or less. That’s okay, you’re still below the threshold; but the tricky part is, wild yeasts leave more fructose than glucose behind, and fructose tastes twice as sweet as glucose. So your 1.8 grams of fructose sugar tastes more like3.6 grams of glucose.

Another trend is towards increased use of whole cluster. In 2013 we had riper stems than normal, which is a good thing. Therefore it was a good idea to do whole cluster fermentation; which, as you know, also builds fruity aromas called esters – the fruitiness often associated with wines like Beaujolais Nouveau. Esters only increase aromatics that can be perceived as sweetness. Together with higher amounts of fructose in the residual sugars, you end up with your phenomenon of a “sweeter” tasting vintage.

I’m glad we got that straightened out.

As for the wines themselves: each year I am pleased to find a slightly different line-up of wines at World of Pinot Noir that strike me has having a leg up – or at least a more shapely, or seductive, leg up – over others. First, I was mightily impressed by two producers in particular – Patz & Hall and Rusack Vineyards – which I have not counted among my personal favorites in previous tastings, at least not in recent years.

Patz & Hall kicked Pinot-butt by balancing the 2013 vintage’s fruit intensity with keenly focused vineyard delineations: particularly a 2013 Patz & Hall Gap’s Crown Vineyard from Sonoma Coast (the west facing slopes of Sonoma Mountain, looking into the Petaluma Gap), exuding black fruit and spice sprinkled strawberry fruit, dense, velvety and full without being weighty or cumbersome. You could contrast this with the more floral, fluid, strawberry and kirsch layered 2013 Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard from Carneros (on the Napa Valley side), revved up by bright natural acidity. The 2013 Patz & Hall Chenoweth Ranchfrom Russian River Valley (Green Valley) seemed to hold back with a quieter, strawberryish concentration in the nose, and then kick into a couple more gears on the palate with a vibrant, round, fleshy, seamless wall of flavors, inundated by the bright red fruit feathered by foresty, spiced notes.

I don’t know exactly what it was, but in the middle of going through over 60 Pinot Noirs on the first day of WOPN, I seriously started thinking about the crazy-catchy opening chords of T-Rex’s Bang a Gong when tasting the 2013 Rusack Solomon Hills Vineyard from Santa Maria Valley – the violet tinged, physically drippy, juicy, wild raspberry/strawberry fruit driven like a rhythm guitar by spiky acid and ample tannin (wellyou’redirtyandsweet, cladinblack, don’tlookback...). Maybe it was the beat, but more likely the wine, but I found the same satisfyingly metered, lip smacking energy in the 2013 Rusack Sta. Rita Hills (50/50 from Fiddlestix and Sebastiano Vineyards), veering more towards cherry cola tinged by a dried leaf earthiness. On the other hand, the 2013 Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards was shyer in the nose – more of a reticent cherry/pomegranate than the exuberant, lush red fruits of the mainland Santa Barbara bottlings – yet finished surprisingly on the palate, with an almost sticky fingered, brightly acid driven intensity, offset by politely silken texturing.

The banging music mercifully stopped, as it were, just after I tasted the Rusacks and moved on to the Patz & Halls; and I started hearing more majestic, and appropriately meditative (at least for Pinot Noir exercises), Borodin strings.

The author with Geoff Rusack in Santa Catalina Island Vineyards
Among other producers sporting a lyrical array of single-vineyard cuvées, I confess that the 2013 Côtiére Presqu’ile (Santa Maria Valley) was my personal favorite – primarily because I’m a sucker for lighter, feminine, flowery perfumed (in the Presqu’ile, more like spicy rose petal potpourri) styles with noticeably sharp acid. During that, I think I was hearing Mozart. The 2013 Côtiére Laetitia (Arroyo Grande Valley) is crafted in the same flowery, tart edged vein, with an even more upbeat cherry perfume, tinged by a lavender-laced, almost herbes de Provence–lke sweetness. The 2013 Côtiére La Encantada(Sta. Rita Hills), however, is denser, meatier, more savory on the palate; juxtaposing plummy, dark cola notes alongside flowery perfumes – finishing with that levitating Côtiére touch. Bravo!

If forced to make a second Sophie’s Choice of favorite Pinot Noir of the weekend, it would probably be the 2012 Kit? Hilliard Bruce Vineyard(Sta. Rita Hills); one of the few 2012 California bottlings shown, with an enthralling peppercorn/cardamom spice (a nuance lacking in the unruly 2013s), lacing rose petal, raspberry and smoked meat qualities in a zippy yet broad, judiciously full flavored palate-feel.

From among the few Oregon producers present, the Pinot Noirs of Patricia Green Cellars stood in graphic contrast among the sea of hefty fruit bombs from California. The 2013 Patricia Green Estate Etzel Block (Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley) had that beautiful-ex-girlfriend appeal – pretty cherry/berry perfume highlighted by peppermint spice plus a sullen side of somewhat old fashioned rubbery/leathery boot; nonetheless couched in a compellingly lean, lanky, zippy, medium sized body. Love it or leave it. The 2013 Patricia Green “Dijon 115” Freedom Hill Vineyard (Willamette Valley) was a little more grippy in its black cherry concentration; with a nice, if nervy, tart edge snap (think Rosamund Pike’s spooky-seductive smile in Gone Girl).

Out of the hundred-something tasted, a few more of the more impressive wines swaying down the runway at the 2016 World of Pinot Noir:

2013 Freeman, Akiko’s Cuvée (Sonoma Coast) – Floral/rose petal laced raspberry/cherry Pinot fruit shines brilliantly through with a remarkably light and delicate feeling on the palate; with a zesty edge, and an entirely finesseful, elegant touch. My kind of wine.

2013 Talley, Rosemary’s (Arroyo Grande Valley) – Focused (make that laser-like) nose of strawberry, underlined by the slaking “acid” scent of cranberry or pomegranate; these bright fruit sensations playing out in a silky, meaty, sinewy body, electrified by lip smacking acidity. I also wrote, more succinctly, “wow.”

2012 Flying Goat, Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills) – Flush with luscious strawberry and blackberry toned fruit aromas, with notable yet altogether compelling toasted oak spices; bright and upbeat on the palate, the yummy (yeah, I occasionally use the prissy term), spiced fruit qualities extending over a long and silky frame.

2013 MacPhail Family, Mardikian Estate (Sonoma Coast) – The word now out is that it’s best to enjoy winemaker James MacPhail’s distinctively crafted wines – known for his aggressive yet undeniably fine touch with the grape – while you can, since he has recently relinquished control of his eponymous brand and operation to its parent company (Hess Collection). I could comment on this being another example of corporate management not quite getting what makes businesses successful in the first place (the little things that mean tons to Pinot Noir lovers; like terroir focus executed with vision, originality and artistry), but I won’t (whoops, too late). As in previous vintages, the 2013 Mardikian is heady, densely muscled, shamelessly opulent, meticulously rounded; at the same time, not without its peculiarities, like a pungent, wild-brushy herbiness and licoricey spice – the oft-times feral imperfections that make Pinot Noir so deliciously “Pinot.”

2013 Maggy Hawk, Jolie (Anderson Valley) – Speaking of peculiarities: I found myself dallying over this wine – from Anderson Valley’s Deep End (the AVA’s westernmost, cooler climate sites) – spending a good 5 minutes sitting and pondering its exuberant, sweetly spiced nose, puntuated by caraway (or a vanillin licorice) and exotic floral notes upon which I could not quite put a finger (I’m leaning towards earthy/sweet Oriental lilies). Neither is the Jolie a light-weight (14.5% alcohol) on the palate; yet the sensations still come up finesseful and pinpoint with plenty of natural acidity, lighting up the strangely scented fruit.

The author with James MacPhail2013 Stephen Ross, Stone Corral Vineyard (Edna Valley) – Intoxicating, sensuous strawberry/black cherry perfumes with an allspice "complexity" (I hate that word in wine lingo, but there you go). Pinot purity in the mouth; soft, velvety entry, becoming broad, round, downright voluptuous in the middle, and dense and layered towards the finish.

2013 Ancien, Toyon Farm (Carneros) – "Super spice" was my first impression (no, I didn't start singing Curtis Mayfield; although I am now, as I write). Whatever the case, the nose is pungent with peppery spiced black cherry, backed by perhaps a slightly unfashionable toasty oakiness; medium-full yet fairly thick, dense and sinewy on the palate; the spiced black cherry fruit becoming meaty, almost toothsome.

2012 Fiddlehead, Seven Twenty Eight - Fiddlestix (Sta. Rita Hills) – Another 2012 that I found a refreshing distraction from the fruity 2013s; the Fiddlestix vineyard’s signature bass toned, loamy/earthy notes underlining a harmony of black cherry and darker berry fruit qualities; good zip, meaty density and fluidity to its length of earth toned flavors.

2013 Hilliard Bruce, Sky (Sta. Rita Hills) – In 2013 this vineyard estate’s Sky cuvéepositively soars with high toned, flowery, raspberry/cherry perfumes that manages to avoid overly sweet confection; instead, the fruit is manifested by exceptionally fine, tight, medium-full sensations; pleasingly sharp, harmonious, tightly wound on the palate.

2014 ROAR, Gary’s Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) – Lusciously rich strawberry nose with the herby, scrubby sensations (sagebrush, pennyroyal, bay laurel) that make Santa Lucia Highlands wines so compelling; deep, fleshy, round and, again, sticky-rich and unimpeachably balanced on the palate, in the appellation’s perennial defiance of the usual nattering nabobs of negativity's protestations about alcohol (14.9%).

2013 Bruliam (“Bu”), Gap’s Crown (Sonoma Coast) – Does the hat (i.e. vineyard) make the man (producer), or vice-versa? I lean towards the hat, because this vineyard source sure makes this producer look good – beautifully round, yet fleshy with tannin muscle below, eschewing the licentious, perfumey fruitiness of the vintage for a more compact mix of cherry, black-towards-blue berries, and subtle spices (pepper, star anise).

2013 De Loach, Olivet Ranch (Russian River Valley – I was attracted by the coiled, sleekly textured yet edgy (with bratty teen-tannin) qualities of this medium-full bodied wine; the nose, more floral than fruit driven, heightened by the lacy perfumes intertwined with subtle yet intriguing spices (pepper, nutmeg, and the requisite, albeit tastefully restrained, French oak).

2013 Timbre, Bien Nacido Vineyard “Old Vines - Lead Vocals”(Santa Maria Valley) – You say ee-therand I say eye-ther. Especially sommeliers, who often ask for this style of transparently pigmented, light-weight Pinot Noir that some may call feeble, but others call gentle, feminine, “balanced.” What you cannot dispute is that this gimmicky-named Timbre bottling retains a pretty clarity of cherry/berry perfume, complimented by sweet kitchen herb spices.

2013 Gypsy Canyon, The Collector’s (Sta. Rita Hills) – While, in this instance, I don’t think it’s meant to appeal particularly to sommeliers – but rather, to reflect this tiny estate’s rugged, sandy terroir, hidden in a narrow nook well off the beaten track of Sta. Rita Hills – this producer has been consistently exploring the light, lacy, ultra-fine side of the varietal profile, which doesn’t keep it from billowing with flowery, cherry-berry perfume, inundating the senses through a gently tart finish.

2014 Laetitia, Whole Cluster (Arroyo Grande Valley) – Among the few 2014s being shown, I liked this one for its infusion of sweet cherry, dried kitchen herbs and licorice in the nose; a zesty medium-to-full body pinned down by zippy acid and moderate yet firm, youthful tannin.

2014 Melville, Block M (Sta. Rita Hills) – Another one of the more impressive 2014s – very pretty, lifted raspberry/strawberry fragrance; very fine, silky, and lively with snappy acidity, imbuing the pristinely poised fruit with crinkly, palate freshening qualities.

2014 Siduri, Pisoni Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) – This combination of steady winemaking hands and iconic vineyard source more than meets expectations; tightly wound yet focused, with black fruits dominating red berry perfumes, tweaked by scrubby notes of sagebrush and sweet peppercorn; dense, thick, layered “awesomeness” (why did I write that?) on the palate.

2014 Westwood Estate, Pommard Clone, Annadel Gap Vineyard (Sonoma) – From, evidently, an up and coming property adjacent to Sonoma Valley, between the Sonoma Mountains and Hood Mountain, a laudably intense, nostril tingling wine, teeming with smoked pepper-spiced black and red berryish fruit; rounded with a good girth of meaty tannin and generous, pliant fruit.

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