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The Real Pinot Country

March 22, 2000|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There has been a tendency in parts of the wine world to think that the growing of good Pinot Noir is confined to areas north of San Francisco. The good stuff, so the theory goes, starts in the Carneros District near the city of Napa and extends north through Sonoma County and on up through Mendocino and then into Oregon, all the way to the suburbs of Portland.

You and I know better, of course. This is certainly not to discredit the lovely wines of the Russian River or Willamette valleys, but merely to suggest an alternative much closer to home.

In fact, for years some of the most sought-after Pinot Noir in the country was grown by Chalone Vineyard in chalky soils high above the Salinas Valley east of Soledad in Monterey County. That winery still exists, though its wines lost some of their cachet as production increased and other producers began to surpass them in quality. Happily, as their newest release indicates, Chalone is back.

Another area in Monterey County, the Santa Lucia Highlands on the west side of the Salinas Valley, has only in the last few years become an important provider of Pinots. Perhaps the most notable grower is Pisoni Vineyard, which sells to half a dozen wineries, many of which have succeeded handsomely with its fruit. Indeed, the success of those wineries has encouraged Pisoni to bottle Pinot Noir under its own label.

South of Monterey, in San Luis Obispo County, one finds good Pinot Noir from the Edna Valley and from the Arroyo Grande Valley. Talley Vineyards in the Arroyo Grande area not only makes wonderful wines for its own label, but it also supplies grapes to many of the important producers in the Central Coast, including Au Bon Climat, Babcock and Ojai.

The most prolific provider of Pinot Noir in the more southern environs of California is Santa Barbara County. And within the county, the Santa Maria Valley has for more than a decade been rated among the best Pinot-producing areas in the west. In particular, Santa Maria wines tend to have more opulent fruit and deeper flavors than most other areas, even if they sometimes get a bit more outspoken and brushy than they should.

A word about prices: Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape to grow successfully. It wants cool growing areas, which tend to be low-yielding and relatively expensive. Furthermore, Pinot Noir itself is a low-yielding variety. As a result, the wines tend to be fairly high-priced, and Pinot bargains are few and far between.

That said, a well-made Pinot Noir has a velvety richness unmatched by any other grape. For that reason, it is, in its native France, the maker of some of the priciest wines grown. Here in California, it is second only to Cabernet Sauvignon.

* 1997 Au Bon Climat "Isabelle," California, $50. Despite its price, I could not help adding this sprawling, bold wine to the list. It is long on ripeness and awash in sweet oak spice, yet its peripheral notes of black olive, loamy earth, smoke and tobacco set it apart from the simple ripe-and-oaky recipe. It might need three to five years to better integrate its sometimes disjunct parts, but do not overlook this wine if you want to see how much flavor can get packed into a Pinot Noir.

* 1997 Babcock Vineyards, Santa Barbara County, $26. Bryan Babcock's wines can be as deep and broad as those coming from Au Bon Climat, but this one contrasts nicely with the "Isabelle" by mixing ripeness, richness and medium depth in a wine that is mildly herbal and decently fruity.

* 1997 Cambria Winery "Julie's Vineyard," Santa Maria Valley, $24. This nicely balanced, well-proportioned Pinot brings together elements of red cherries and vanilla in a clean, moderately oaked, medium- to full-bodied package underpinned by just a touch of fine-grained tannins.

* * 1998 Chalone Vineyard, Chalone, $35. In today's market, this two-star winner looks like a bargain. Even if you are not one to put boxes of wine away for a later day, this Pinot would be one to remember for a special occasion. It is convincingly keyed on deep, cherry-like qualities and uses rich oak as a foil to that considerable fruit. Proper acidity and a wisp of tannin firm up its otherwise smooth and velvety feel and promise half a dozen years of improvement.

1998 Echelon Vineyards, Central Coast, $13. Here is a pleasant, clean and correct wine, and at this price that makes it as close as one can come to a bargain in a Central Coast Pinot. If not quite as plump and velvety as the best, it is the kind of light yet rich wine that can work well with food.

1997 Orfila "Limited Bottling," Arroyo Grande Valley, $30. No, this is not one of the better buys in this list, but it does show the reach of Arroyo Grande Valley fruit as well as call attention to this rapidly improving winery in San Diego County. The wine is nicely focused, if a bit angular and tough at the finish. Remember the name because Orfila, known as Culbertson in an earlier incarnation, increasingly seems ready to come to center stage.

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