I recently had the opportunity to attend a GuildSomm event in the beautiful tasting room at Artesa, a winery in the Los Carneros district at the southern end of Napa and Sonoma counties. The subject of discussion: Carneros Pinot Noir. Several winemakers were on hand to discuss things like microclimate, soil variations, and the various challenges to growing a notoriously finicky grape. (Apparently vineyards with direct marine exposure are coveted because the high winds keep the fruit dry). But to my surprise (I’m not a sommelier or a winemaker) part of the talk also centered on the region’s reputation, or lack thereof. As a longtime fan of Carneros Pinots I had no idea they are considered to be low on the radar of most of the world. They shouldn’t be, this I can say for sure.
Pinot Noir is a cool-climate-preferring Burgundian grape known for making really delicious wines that are medium-bodied and big on cherry fruit and forest floor notes. They often express a wide range of aromatics that can include baking spices, violet, oakmoss, rose, blueberry, coffee and cherry cola. They are food-versatile crowd-pleasers, and the good ones are often quite spendy because it’s a very hard grape to grow. It’s wayward, prone to mutations, powdery mildew and lots of other grape-malfunctions and it requires a lot more babysitting than, say, Zinfandel. That said, regions less famous for great Pinot Noir can be great values because you’re not paying for high-cachet real estate. If you want to spend a ton of money on Pinot Noir you definitely can. Assuming you don’t, some regions to look out for include San Luis Obispo, Alsace, and my buddies in Los Carneros.
Six Bottles to try
Artesa Pinot Noir 2012 (Los Carneros, CA $20)
Bright tight acidity and an exuberant red fruit nose with floral undertones. Strawberry and tart cherry unfold on the palate. Significant oak, a slightly caramelized character and a long finish. Pair this with just about anything.
Adam Les Natures Pinot Noir
Almost the polar opposite in the Pinot spectrum, Alsatians don’t “jump out of the glass” and in this case, the nose is almost too subtle. But give it a few minutes and it’ll come out of its shell. This organic pinot noir comes from granite soils and happy pesticide-free grapes. Nose of redcurrants and other tart red fruits-pomegranate, raspberry. Significant tannin structure but not overwhelming, kind of voluptuous actually. The winemaker’s recommendation on this is to pair it with red meat, which you can do. But personally, I think turkey or duck would enjoy a night out with this guy, if you eat those things. If you are an herbivore, I will say my first impression was that this wine would be awesome with butternut squash ravioli and brown butter. It’s also wide-ranging in its fondness for cheese.
Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara, CA, $20)
Pinot Noir is the classic red grape of Burgundy, and has become a staple of California’s coastal-influence AVAs. Santa Barbara’s Au Bon Climat makes a lot of wines that tend to go for a lot more than $25, but don’t think the more affordable price means the quality isn’t great. This is an incredibly versatile food wine and a major crowd-pleaser, light-hearted and casually elegant, with dominant notes of alpine strawberry and plum. Fruity and well-balanced. Seriously, pair it with whatever you happen to be eating.
Baileyana Firepeak Edna Valley Pinot Noir (Edna Valley, CA, $23)
One of the winemakers I almost never stop nattering about is Domestic Terroirist Christian Roguenant, who is the genius behind the Niven Family wines including Baileyana. The central coast of California is Pinot paradise and this guy is a confirmed Grape Whisperer and makes some of the best awesomeness-to-dollar-ratio wines in the state. Spicy, sleek, silken. Dominant notes are all classic Pinot: Cherries and red plums, dense florals, forest floor and loam, coffee, cocoa, and traces of baking spice (nutmeg pops up in this one and I think allspice). I think this is a marvelous companion to a summer evening on which you have chosen to go outside and apply various foods to an open flame. If you took it camping, which it would do obligingly because it is LeScrewcapped, you would deeply dignify whatever you put on the grill and I include the s’mores because Pinot Noir actually has a secret love of chocolate and graham crackers. Then again, don’t we all?
Domaines Schlumberger Les Princes Abbes Pinot Noir (Alsace, France, $15)
Alsace is a magical land, at least as far as wine goes. One of its best tricks is floral, velvety Pinot Noirs. This one is a best friend to white meat, though those of us who prefer the vegetarian side of things will find it gets along well with things like potatoes and mushrooms and leeks. Ruby to slightly purple. Candied cherry and balsamic notes along with raspberry and a strawberry jam quality. Florals are present but muted; roses and peonies, not a lot of violet. Compact, firm tannins let you know this wine probably didn’t come from Sonoma. It’s tight and astringent, but not too much. Actually finely balanced and very, very tasty. Very good complexity and a vivacious but refined nature. The right occasion for this wine is “I feel like it.”
Etude Carneros Estate Pinot Noir 2014 (Los Carneros, CA, $40)
I’m going to be honest; I’ve held a grudge against Etude for over a decade after having a very unpleasant experience in their tasting room. This is probably worth getting over because, as I was reminded recently, they make a damn good Pinot. This is a splurge price point for me and it might be for you as well. Do it at some point. Out of everything I tasted at that event, Etude was the wine I found the most compelling (and all of them were good). It’s rich and silky, with a heart of cherries, alpine strawberry and pomegranate. It’s heavy on spice notes including some incense-like notes (sandalwood comes up) and something a bit like wintergreen or birch bark. It is a high-intensity wine with a ton of depth. If you shell out for this bottle, enjoy it among other things that make you feel rich. Like an opulent meal and your favorite people.