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There's No Need to Sniff at California's Greatly Improving Pinot Noirs

August 11, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

"California can't make Pinot Noir as good as French Burgundy."

It's a cliche I've heard for a decade, and as with all such generalizations, this one too fails to hold water, uh, wine.

But neither do I believe the reverse that, as I have heard said, "California has made such great strides with Pinot Noir that today it is on a par with the best wines of Burgundy." Anyone who has tasted great French red Burgundy knows that last statement is absurd.

Something in between those statements is true--that Pinot Noir of quality is being made in the United States.

Of Wines Past

Yet as recently as 1980, Pinot Noir in the United States was a pretty sad story. Many of these wines were terrible, smelling more of rubber, burnt wood, leather and green leaves than of wine. Some were made in big, chunky styles best suited for a crankcase. Others were aged too long in oak and thus were oxidized, lacking any hint of fruit.

So few California Pinot Noirs were recognizeable as Pinot Noir a decade ago that wine merchants recommended the variety be torn out and the vineyards replanted with something else. Anything else.

The dedication of a few hearty souls, however, has reversed the situation dramatically, and the birth two years ago of an organization to support this assailed grape, "Pinot Noir: America," has given rise to a new interest in the noble wine, even though it may have had the misfortune to be made in the "wrong" hemisphere.

An amusing note here is that the construction of the name of the support group with a colon in the title, reminds me of the old TV show (soon to return to TV screens as a new series) "Mission: Impossible." At the start I believed the organization's mission was indeed impossible. But interest is catching on.

Indeed, Pinot Noir in America is healthier than it's ever been, wine makers tell me. Yet merchants say that selling it is almost as hard as it was a few years ago.

The problem is not with the wine making. It is with the selling of it. Cabernet Sauvignon is known as a top-quality wine, and as one that's deep, dark and bold. Somehow, the feeling has gotten around that Pinot Noir should be just as dark and bold.

This misconception is fostered in retail point-of-sale signs and comments on wine lists. They refer to Pinot Noir as "rich" and "dark," implying a heavy, concentrated wine. Yet when buyers look at a great Pinot Noir, smell it and sip it, they often find it lighter than they expected and are disappointed.

Blend of Delicacy and Richness

The fact is that great Pinot Noir often has more finesse than power, a rare blend of delicacy and richness that can overpower the senses and make a wine lover swoon. And frequently recently, wine makers have captured the delicate qualities of this elusive grape, making it more like the classic wines of Burgundy.

One benefit of Pinot Noir is that it is usually a more drinkable wine at an early age than Cabernet. Yet good Pinot Noir ages as well as (or better than) Cabernet, a fact many connoisseurs discover only when they accidentally "lose" a bottle in their cellar.

It isn't fair to compare the product of a region two decades old to one that is two centuries old, but the Pinot Noirs of California and Oregon that impress me have amazing quality and compare favorably to better French Burgundies. And when you consider price, America wins. The average bottle of California Pinot Noir is about $13; average price for a good (not a great) Burgundy is about $40.

Discussing California's best Pinot Noirs is best done by looking at the climate. The variety is extremely sensitive to growing regions, demanding cool weather, and I feel the best region for Pinot Noir in the United States is the area just west of the city of Napa.

This "fertile crescent" for Pinot Noir--the Carneros straddling the Napa-Sonoma county line, Sonoma Valley and Russian River Valley--yields different styles of wine, depending on the soils, but they come closer to the French model that has cherry fruit and slight herbal qualities plus a silky, smooth, polished aftertaste. Such wine lacks Cabernet's harsh, biting tannin.

Pinot Noirs from this large region often are lighter in color than some wine lovers are used to--sometimes the wines are barely darker than a rose, or have an orangy hue. But color is my least important concern about this wine.

From Farther North

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