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Sublime ambition

With no end in sight to Pinot Noir's ever-rising popularity, California vintners seek to achieve that elusive ideal: wines that express terroir.

April 25, 2007|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

RAISE a glass of California Pinot Noir, and what are the aromas that greet you? There's fruit -- wild strawberry, black cherry, plum -- but a great Pinot Noir employs its fruit as a meeting point for other nuances: scents of dark loamy earth and coastal forest, lavender and rose, a spice cabinet of savory herbs. When you sip, you encounter haunting complexity of flavor, velvety textures and, most important, hints to where it was grown. After more than 100 years of growing the grape, California winemakers are still chasing that ideal.

Pinot's calling card, after all, is terroir expression, its uncanny ability to convey a distinct sense of place, just in its aromas and flavors. No other grape is as evocative; none has its powers of seduction.

Cabernet may still hold the pole position in California, but for the moment, Pinot has all the momentum. Through fits and starts, that momentum has been gathering.

Today, producers are scrambling to meet demand, and there's a swelling middle ground of new, somewhat generic Pinots: tasty, juicy wines with generous extracted fruit flavors, plush textures and soft tannins, often sweetened by generous oak. These wines may be yummy, but they're hardly distinctive.

For the most exciting California Pinots these days, you have to head out to the edge, exploring wines from producers who are experimenting with the frontier regions of grape growing.

Since Pinot's poignant, vulnerable star turn in the 2004 movie "Sideways," we've become a nation smitten with it.

According to industry analyst ACNielsen, sales of domestic Pinot Noir have doubled in the last two years.

Since 2000, acreage has more than doubled, with thousands of acres of new plantings each year; entire Chardonnay vineyards are being grafted over to Pinot Noir in Monterey County and even in the Central Valley. A glut that materialized in 2004 was obliterated by the post-"Sideways" uptick in demand, one that shows no signs of waning.

In the background

SUCH meteoric growth makes it hard to remember that before 2001, Pinot fans formed a subculture in the California wine world; it was beneath the notice of many lovers of Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot.

The Pinot Noir grape has been in the ground in California since the middle of the 19th century. Author John Winthrop Haeger ("North American Pinot Noir") notes that in 1858, Buena Vista winery founder Agoston Haraszthy included the variety among those for sale at his winery in Sonoma County.

Soon after, nursery catalogs referred to red varieties by their presumed Burgundian origin, like Chambertin and Pinot d'Epernay. Settlers preferred hardier varieties such as Zinfandel and Charbono, however, and almost as soon as it took root, Pinot fell into decline.

Nevertheless, it managed to survive both phylloxera and Prohibition, and as early as 1941, author Frank Schoonmaker believed Pinot Noir to be "the one serious rival to Cabernet Sauvignon in California." Pinot Noirs routinely won gold medals in state and county fair wine contests, and by the early 1960s, Napa Valley had as many acres planted to Pinot Noir as to Cabernet.

But in the early '70s, the grape's popularity declined dramatically behind its contemporaries, Cabernet and Chardonnay, each of which had been given a huge boost in public perception by the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. It didn't help that the grape fared poorly when subjected to aggressive, modern winemaking techniques.

Critics of the period complained of vegetal aromas, weedy flavors, thin textures and painful astringency.

But in the late '70s, things began to change. In California and Oregon, winemakers learned to employ the finesse that the grape required, and wineries such as Sanford, Calera, Au Bon Climat, Acacia and Saintsbury emerged as signature Pinot houses. These were joined by an astonishing core group of growers and winemakers from the Russian River Valley, including Merry Edwards, Gary Farrell, Tom Dehlinger, the Rochioli family, and Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. A similar flowering was occurring in Oregon.

The expansion of acreage devoted to Pinot was accelerated in the 1990s by the propagation of clones from Burgundy that were well-suited to the outer reaches of California's climate. Known collectively as Dijon clones, these ripened earlier than anything then in the ground; suddenly regions previously considered too marginal to support any grape production became viable sites.

Today, in search of that elusive sense of a great terroir for Pinot, California vintners are growing it in undreamed-of places, sometimes on the fringe of existing appellations and sometimes miles from any grape-growing area.

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