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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 2)

Saintsbury grows its clones mostly in one block, segregating each clonal batch and making individual lots of wines. These are aged in neutral-tasting oak barrels, which allow the clonal differences to reveal themselves.  

When you sit in Saintsbury's wine "library"sampling six different Pinot Noirs isolated by clone, you quickly see just how great the differences are. It takes no wine-tasting expertise to recognize the intensely perfumey, raspberry scent of clone 115, which is almost an exaggeration of what some people consider a classic Pinot Noir flavor. Clone 667 shows a strong "black fruits" scent. It's rich, slightly gamy, but coarser. Clone 777 has a strong note of black cherry, while the widely planted Pommard clone displays its characteristic chewy, chunky, dense qualities with its signature "cola" scent.  

Which clone is the "best"? As all Pinot Noir growers already know, a blend of them. "I like the grip and mid-palate astringency of the Pommard," says Graves. "Clone 115 makes a complete wine; about 30 percent of our Reserve bottling is composed of 115. I like all the Dijon clones," he adds. "They have a different mix of flavors and tannins than I'm used to seeing."   Until very recently, no one thought--few even dared to think--that America had anything on Burgundy. Great American Pinot Noir had long been the wine version of a UFO: many sightings but no real proof. Tantalizing reports filtered in for decades.  

Then, as now, it came down to location. Pinot Noir, like a flying saucer, is a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't sort of grape, even in Burgundy. Walk 500 feet and you've literally lost the thrilling flavor of the adjacent plot.   One such early "sighting" was the now-legendary telegram sent to the late Martin Ray, the purist winegrower whose 2,000-foot-elevation vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains sometimes yielded extraordinary Pinot Noir. In 1936 the famous New York-based wine connoisseur Julian Street, no friend of California wine making, telegraphed Ray:  

Your Pinot Noir 1936 tasted tonight is first American red wine I ever drank with entire pleasure. Color superb bouquet beautiful. Flavor unmistakably Pinot Noir big and full. Wine still somewhat hard with slightly bitter aftertaste nevertheless remarkably fine. I am astounded. Warmest congratulations.  

It was then, and is today, all about that one vineyard. Martin Ray's original vineyard--with his original clonal selections--is today Mount Eden Vineyards. The present winemaker and co-owner, Jeffrey Patterson, continues the tradition, creating classic Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, which is dense, a bit burly, profound and long-lived. It's utterly different from the silky perfume-like characteristic of Russian River Valley wines, yet no less a member of that breed.  

Such sightings continued with one or another Pinot Noir of fleeting impression popping up in various spots. In 1969, for example, one of the more frequent Pinot sightings came from Chalone Vineyard, 1,600 feet above the town of Soledad in the dry Salinas Valley of Monterey County, California. Although the limestone soil gave Chalone's Pinot Noir a classic Burgundy-like goût de terroir, or savor of site, the streaming sunshine sapped the wine of delicacy. It was then and remains today an intriguing, if less-than-classic, Pinot Noir.  

Another such sighting popped up in the 1980s with Calera Wine Co. near the town of Hollister. Owner Josh Jensen was looking for limestone soil--a Burgundian standard--and found it about 20 miles from Chalone on the eastern flank of the Gavilan Range. (Chalone is on the western flank.) Again, the resulting Pinot Noirs were rich, meaty, sun-filled experiences redolent of chocolate but wanting in delicacy and grace. Still, they suggested possibilities.  

Such occurrences were not confined to California. By the early 1980s, more than a few observers were convinced--and remain convinced--that the most promising place in America for Pinot Noir is not California, but Oregon, specifically the 100-mile-long Willamette Valley in the northwestern part of the state. Oregon became a sort of Roswell for its extraordinary, if sporadic, Pinot Noir occurrences.  

Take, for example, the most famous Oregon Pinot Noir event, which actually occurred in France in 1980. The Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve 1975 Pinot Noir came within two-tenths of a point of beating the first-place 1959 Chambolle-Musigny, a wine from shipper Joseph Drouhin, who organized the tasting. Drouhin was obviously impressed. Seven years later the Burgundy firm purchased vineyard land in the Willamette Valley and established Domaine Drouhin Oregon.  


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