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American Pinot Noir Grows Up

August 16, 2000|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

All too often, it's said that the only great Pinot Noirs are made in Burgundy. The Burgundians hold this view, not surprisingly, but even in this country there's a Burgundy cult that scarcely accepts the existence, let alone the value, of Pinot Noirs from California and Oregon.

In fairness, Burgundy's fans have a case. Red Burgundies, from stratospherically priced Domaine de la Romanee-Contis to more affordable offerings from producers like Denis Mortet, Robert Groffier and Daniel Rion, are very well-made, interesting, complex wines. They share a deep stylishness that is rarely achieved outside Burgundy.

Nevertheless, even the best of them, with few exceptions, fail to measure up to the West Coast's leading Pinots in body and intensity.

I do not argue that California Pinots are better than Burgundies, but I am increasingly thrilled with what our local producers are achieving. For years, the low-yielding mountain soils of Monterey and San Benito counties allowed makers like Chalone and Calera to earn well-deserved reputations for excellence in Pinot Noir. Even Europeans grudgingly admit that those two wineries have earned their spurs.

Since the mid-'80s, however, a whole host of producers have been producing good wine on a consistent basis. Still, in almost every case, production of high-quality Pinot Noir remains limited to a few cool-climate places, perhaps no more than half a dozen in all.

In central California, those locales include Santa Barbara County (especially the Santa Maria Valley), the Arroyo Grande Valley of San Luis Obispo County and the highlands of Monterey County. Farther north they include the cool, marine-influenced Carneros District at the bay end of Sonoma and Napa counties, the western grape-growing regions of Sonoma and Mendocino counties (including the Russian River Valley and the Anderson Valley) and Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Despite occasional exceptions to the rule, one would be hard-pressed to find any other part of the West that can regularly boast very good Pinot Noirs from more than a single producer.

The reviews that follow are chosen from my recent tastings of more than 90 American Pinot Noirs. Each of the wines captures the best of its growing area while still being true to the rich, complex fruit; supple, almost velvety, texture; and surprisingly firm background tannins that are the hallmarks of the variety.

The wines are not inexpensive but, when compared to equivalent Cabernet Sauvignons or red Burgundies, they are not out of line. Unfortunately, Pinot Noir is not a variety that offers many bargains. But its fanatic followers do not seem to care.

* * 1998 Ancien Wines, Carneros, $28. Outgoing yet sturdy, fleshy yet firm, this well-stuffed youngster blends suggestions of black cherries, creamy oak and dried violets in a very fine rendition of the California style. It will benefit from a few years of age to soften its ending tannins.

* 1998 Archery Summit Winery "Premier Cuvee," Oregon, $39. Oregon Pinots, no matter how ripe they get, tend to be a little firmer and brisker in feel than their California counterparts. This one is reminiscent of the 1996 red Burgundies, in that its acidity is somewhat noticeable and its tannins are somewhat too blunt. Yet, like the French '96s, this one also has nice fruit underneath and will be better after three or four years of cellaring.

* 1998 Brophy Clark Cellars, Santa Maria Valley, $18. This Brophy Clark wine and the one that follows provide a clear lesson in the difference that a few miles can bring. The Santa Maria Valley is the more open of the two, with rounded flavors of ripe cherries and strawberries and a distinct brushy note of complexity.

* 1998 Brophy Clark Cellars, Arroyo Grande Valley, $16. The Arroyo Grande Valley is not very far from the Santa Maria Valley, but it tends to produce slightly more tightly structured wines. Still, the family marks of roundness and pleasant fruit are as noticeable here as in its sibling, and both will make pleasant mealtime companions now and over the next few years.

* * 1998 Chalone Vineyard, Chalone, $35. This wine is based on deep cherry-like fruit and uses rich oak as a foil. Proper acidity and a wisp of tannin firm up its otherwise smooth and velvety feel and promise half a dozen years of improvement. Chalone Pinots last a long time if properly stored. A 1973 consumed last New Year's Eve was in nearly perfect condition and overshadowed some of the Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons of similar age.

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