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American Pinot Noir

Great American Pinot Noir is no longer the wine version of a UFO
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

(continued from page 1)

What Dyson really bought (along with the building and existing inventory) was the brand--and the critical commitment from the Rochiolis and other growers loyal to Williams & Selyem to continue supplying grapes.  

The landmark transaction shows just how far American Pinot Noir has come. It wasn't always so. As far back as 1897 an article in the San Francisco Chronicle made no bones about slighting California Pinot Noir: "Much wine is made and sold in California as Burgundy, but we have produced no wine which resembles the Burgundies of France. Our Pinots have proved a failure, probably from the lack of proper methods and care in fermentation."  

That's all changed. More exciting yet is that the success is just beginning. Although fermentation techniques certainly play a role in Pinot Noir quality, today's stunning new Noirs really are all about vineyards--their location, what's planted there and even how it's planted.  

Take Saintsbury in Napa Valley's Carneros district, which abuts breezy San Pablo Bay. In the early '80s, it looked as if Carneros might be California's ideal place for Pinot Noir, thanks to its cool climate. The wines that originally emerged--especially Saintsbury--were appealing. They were generous Pinot Noirs, plumped with a pure raspberry/cherry Pinot fruit.  

But soon it became apparent that that's all they were. Carneros Pinot Noirs lacked depth, dimension and the kind of breadth of flavors that sets apart Burgundy's Pinot Noirs. Saintsbury, among others, went back to the drawing board.  

Saintsbury co-owner David Graves is honest about those challenges and the winery's evolution. A serious, even scholarly, man, Graves doesn't flinch in acknowledging the limitations of those early Pinot Noirs. "There's no doubt that we've evolved into something richer and more concentrated, but with a recognizable Carneros core of fruit," he says. "It's been the result of a lot of things: a different, vertical canopy in the vine trellising so the sunlight penetrates better. Different, better rootstocks. Denser spacing of the vines. And not least, a lot more clones."  

Clones, or strains, are part of America's new Pinot Noir accomplishment. All grape varieties have multiple strains, genetic mutations that occur naturally in the vineyard. For centuries, growers have kept a lookout for them, as some strains yield better or show greater disease resistance.  

More than any other red grape, Pinot Noir mutates more readily. The range of Pinot Noir clones is vast, numbering in the hundreds. Starting in the 1970s, French vineyard researchers based in Dijon in Burgundy began to isolate these clones and run trials on them, giving them numerical designations such as 113, 114, 115 and so on. They were looking for consistent taste characteristics (a pronounced raspberry scent, for example), good crop levels and disease resistance.  

After decades of investigation and selection, a number of "new" Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) clones trickled onto the market, cultivated by commercial vineyard suppliers. Collectively, these are known as the Dijon clones. They have performed especially well in very cool climates, such as Oregon and northern California.  

Saintsbury latched on to these clones with its usual aggressive vigor, setting up clonal trials in its vineyards. After all, just because a clone performs well in Burgundy doesn't automatically make it ideal for Carneros. Besides, American growers already had a good collection of "older" clones, brought in over the decades and identified by names such as Pommard or Martin Ray or Joe Swan, all referring to the original source of the cuttings.  

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