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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 3)

Pinot Noir likes it cool. The best Pinot Noirs, no matter how dense in flavor, must display a kind of delicacy or finesse. This is Oregon's strong suit. More than any other American Pinot Noirs, the Oregon versions are exemplars of finesse. But this comes at a price.  

In Oregon, the price is variability. The Willamette Valley's cool, rain-swept climate means that every harvest in late September is a race to get Pinot Noir ripe enough before fall rains damage the crop. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. When they win--1993, '94 and likely '98--the results are lovely: Pinot Noirs redolent of wild berries delivered with balletic grace. However, when the vintages are less than ideal, many Oregon Pinots are thin. You can say the same for Burgundy.  

Consistency is hard-won among Oregon Pinot producers, but a few wineries get close to the mark. Foremost among them is Domaine Drouhin Oregon, which relies on densely spaced vines to deliver an unusual resonance of fruit, especially in its Laurène bottling.  

The thinking is that, somehow, more Pinot Noir vines crammed onto the same space produces fruit of greater depth and dimension. Part of Drouhin's vineyard has 3,100 vines per acre, which is three to four times as many vines as conventionally spaced vineyards. This growing approach shows in the wines, which are deeper flavored and have greater resonance.  

Another producer with a denser-than-usual planting is Beaux Frères, or brothers-in-law, an aptly named winery. One of the brothers-in-law is renowned wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. Beaux Frères Pinot Noir is a big wine by Oregon standards, a bit too laced with sweet vanilla-scented oak for some, but the underlying fruit is superb. It, too, has unusual resonance and depth, most likely from closely spaced vines.  

A third contender among the Oregon Pinot producers is Adelsheim Vineyard, which specializes in creating austere, detailed Pinots that age longer and better than most. The Elizabeth's Reserve bottling is invariably Adelsheim's best effort.   Less well-known but worth pursuing is Evesham Wood Vineyard. A tiny operation, it makes some of Oregon's best Pinot Noir. Its Cuvée J bottling is usually one of the state's best Pinots. Both it and the regular Pinot bottling will taste better if you age them in your cellar for several years, as the Evesham Wood style is restrained.  

Other Oregon producers of note include Ponzi Vineyards, Cameron Winery, Argyle, Cristom Vineyards, Chehalem, Ken Wright Cellars, King Estate and Archery Summit.  

Oregon's Pinot producers are not the only ones to watch. California suffers less from rain and annual weather variability in its pursuit of Pinot. What's called the South Central Coast--effectively San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties--is giving chase to western Sonoma County. Vineyards near the Pacific Ocean enjoy an odd, even bizarre, climatic circumstance that encourages ripeness (from dazzling sunshine) yet enforces coolness (through afternoon fog and ocean breezes). It's like driving a car by pressing the accelerator and the brake. Yet, the vehicle of Pinot Noir moves forward.  

Vineyard names to look for include Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, in San Luis Obispo County. Talley is issuing ever more intriguing Pinot Noirs, notably its Rincon Vineyard and Rosemary's Vineyard bottlings. Farther north, in Monterey County, Pisoni Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation is selling dramatically flavored Pinot Noir grapes to small producers such as Siduri Cellars and Flowers Vineyard & Winery, among others.  

In Santa Barbara County, near Lompoc, owner-winemaker Bryan Babcock of Babcock Vineyard makes a Pinot Noir that is fast becoming a California benchmark, with its fragrance allied to a distinctive earthiness. Sanford Winery's Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir is another consistently distinctive bottling from the same area. Not to be forgotten is Au Bon Climat, which issues an array of Pinot Noirs from several of Santa Barbara County's best vineyards.  

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