Split a single vineyard down the middle and tell two winemakers to pick their fruit at the exact same time. Offer them the identical winemaking equipment and require that their stylistic winemaking decisions be equivalent. Bottle the two wines on a specific date and taste the two side by side in one sitting. If it’s Pinot Noir they’ve crafted, the two wines will surely defy all common parameters put in place. In fact, they might taste so unique from each other you’re calling one a 2002 and the other a Cab Franc.
Pinot Noir may be the most elastic varietal in viticultural history. Its expression of terroir in the glass is as colorful as its midnight blue hue when ripe on the vine. Like putty, Pinot Noir reflects every fingerprint inflicted, each microscopic maneuver adding up to much bigger changes on the palate in the long run. Given this chameleon-like nature, it is no surprise Willamette Valley Pinot tastes so different from its Russian River counterpart, grown several hundred miles south. But on the grand scale of state-versus-state comparison, Pinot Noir’s ever-changing character is a little easier to investigate.
Masculine vs. Feminine
At the first annual Pinot Days Grand Tasting in Santa Monica, California, adjectives like “lush,” “opulent” and “syrupy” are being tossed about like confetti. Some 85 wineries - mostly Californian - have gathered under one roof to showcase how they’ve handled Pinot Noir. Many of the wineries brought their winemakers and they stand out immediately. They wear tired faces, still recovering from the previous harvest. What’s being poured here is not so much Pinot Noir as the triumphant blood of a year-long bout with the most ornery and romantic of foes.
Many of the wines are 2007s, a delicate vintage in Oregon but because of excessive heat and drought in many parts of California, the Pinots on display are big and bold. A few Oregon representatives are on hand, pushing their bustier, less bashful 2006s and dodging questions about the “challenging” 2007 vintage. Holding the samples up to the bright lights hanging from the rafters, there is little clarity and plenty of deep, inky purple.
Hitching Post is pouring, a family owned Central Coast operation immortalized by Paul Giamatti in Sideways. Their 2006 Pinots are refreshingly light and floral, so soft they’re sneaky. A few stands over, Central Coast outfit Derby Wine Estates is pouring their 2006, a seemingly trim and soft spoken Pinot until I glance at the label and notice an ABV of 14.8 percent. Suddenly I am experiencing the same haunting range I associate with Willamette Valley Pinot. The California wines are generally heavier with an emphasis on darker fruit flavors, but the extent of the former and latter can be measured only on the widest of sliding scales.
Carneros wineries with heavy reputations like Domaine Chandon are strutting their stuff and fielding questions from an endless line of empty glasses. While complex, their 2007 is quite burly, a Dundee Hills Pinot Noir on performance enhancers. Impressive up-and-comers like Hirsch Winery of extreme western Sonoma County talk up the nurturing effects of gentle coastal winds in between pouring their own Pinots. I savor the length and earthy undercurrents of their two Pinots but can’t help but ask if there’s a little Cabernet or Merlot blended into the robust wine. The answer is no.
Aside from the occasional deviation from a daring winemaker who decided to pick two weeks early or move from berries only to whole cluster pressing, the California Pinots tread heavily, but with noticeable personality and range. These Pinots are nothing if not masculine, at least compared to the leaner, delicate, feminine Oregon Pinots I am more familiar with. And when a fellow Portlander comments about how easy the drive is to northern California for weekend sales trips, I crack a smile, fascinated by what 500 miles can do to Pinot Noir.
The masculine versus feminine breakdown is often construed as a geographic one. American Pinots tend to be more lush and fruity than those from the Old World. Moreover, European Pinot tends to be lighter and earthier than New World Pinot. There are countless exceptions, of course, especially with a grape winemakers are still trying to figure out. But now that the West Coast is an established enological gem of international interest, there are quotas to meet, standards to adhere to and distinctions to be made. Northern California - specifically Napa and Sonoma - is America’s leading tourist destination for wine buffs. While careful craftsmanship is still prized, wine is big business here and for many companies to survive a wine that sells is often better than a wine that wows.
Statewide, California produces about five times as much Pinot Noir as Oregon and its friendly climate and countless wineries attract over 20 million tasters a year. Nine out of 10 bottles of wine produced in the US from the Golden State. In short, California vintners are subject to greater competition and a broader consumer base. The masses that flock to California are chasing wines that have earned some of the best scores in American Pinot Noir’s roughly fifty-year existence. And many of these scores echo praise for a certain California style of winemaking, one that favors rich, powerful, heavy-handed Pinot Noir.
Tired of the norm, a small group of like-minded California winegrowers has recently pushed for lighter, more Oregon Pinot Noir. Eric Asimov wrote a telling piece last spring entitled “Finesse And Light: California Pinot Noirs With A Manifesto” for the New York Times (March 10, 2009). In it, he paints this unconventional uprising as a healthy rebellion, one born out of a cooler year (2006) that produced less sugary fruit and more elegant wines. Asimov draws on the European idea that Pinot Noir is meant to be savored with food and therefore should not drink like a meal in itself.
Pinot Noir is a niche within a towering industry, even in California. Those in the know appreciate its stubborn ways and laud a well-made batch. Unlike many Oregon wineries whose sole focus is Pinot Noir, many California wineries split their attention among several thriving varietals. This is not to say there aren’t California projects completely invested in Pinot because there are many. Yet, with higher production levels and an environment favorable to a host of varietals, there is simply a greater risk of a California producer to treat this grape of grapes like Syrah or Chardonnay when it demands to be treated like a dysfunctional baby. But these factors don’t hold a candle to the main culprit in Pinot’s state-to-state variation.
Whereas Oregon’s Willamette Valley shares the 45th parallel with Burgundy, France, California Pinot country is more akin to the northern Rhone region. Additional sunshine lengthens the California growing season, upping brix levels and the potential for potency in the finished product. In Burgundy and northern Oregon, harvest is almost predetermined. The brief summer growing season gives way to autumn precipitation abruptly, affording a skinny albeit variable window for picking fruit every year. In California, a longer growing season alleviates pressure on when to harvest. For better or worse, grapes can hang on the vine longer in the Santa Lucia Highlands or Sonoma Coast, extending the age-old gamble of balanced, fully developed fruit versus post-mature, overly concentrated raisins.
Pinot Noir loves well draining soil and both states boast an abundance of it. Rich, volcanic Jory soils in the Dundee Hills of Oregon are responsible for many of the state’s most acclaimed Pinots, renowned for its ability to strike a tasty accord between acidity and earthiness. Sonoma County alone has more soil types than all of France, affording it tremendous flexibility in Pinot Noir profiles. The topography is higher reaching in California Pinot country, especially in Sonoma County where vines prefer to be up and away from the prominent coastal fogs. Closer proximity to the Pacific Ocean means cool nighttime temperatures for northern California, which balance out daytime highs that generally exceed those of Oregon. The threat of snow is virtually nonexistent in California AVAs, but because the vines are dormant during the winter months this remains a less critical factor.
Stretching distinction further, Pinot Noir has the most genetic mutations of any varietal. The University of California-Davis has over 100 registered Pinot Noir clones. Essentially, there are so many steps to making drinkable Pinot that it’s highly unlikely for two winemakers to carry them out identically, let alone complete them all. Some don’t last past harvest, the varietal’s low yield and fragile build bankrupting even the brightest winemaking minds in the business.
Wine law accounts for a significant shift in winemaking philosophies between the two states. Currently, California still adheres to the federal standard which requires that for a Pinot Noir to be labeled as such, it must contain at least 75 percent of that varietal. Oregon’s law is stricter, demanding at least 90 percent Pinot Noir for it to bear the varietal name. These laws apply to all varietals, but pertain closely to stubborn Pinot Noir, which often needs a helping hand in balancing the flavor or boosting the color of the bottled product. Many argue that the stricter regulations pave the way for purer Pinot Noir in Oregon, but that’s a debate too lengthy for this story.
What California Pinot does almost always reflect is the ample amount of sunshine. On average, California producers pick at Brix levels (sugar content readings) significantly higher than those of Oregon vintners. This leads, generally, to a higher alcohol content in California Pinot, if not a syrupy consistency and a flavor scale that leans more towards fruity than earthy. As a result, California producers are less likely to chaptalize (adding fermentable sugar), a practice frowned upon by purists in Oregon but still practiced by many wineries.
Back at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, I am pleased to be tasting such a different Pinot Noir. There is chatter about climate change and the possibility of Merlot in the Willmatte Valley fifty years from now. I try to imagine that, coupled with an influx of tourists during the summer months and wonder what kind of Pinot Oregon will be bottling then. After all, there may be no varietal as expressive and symbolic as Pinot Noir. If it’s a hot vintage, the wine will boldly speak of that. If the grapes were mishandled, flaws will end up in the glass. If it’s grown at higher elevations, it will express the layered struggle of doing so. And if it was created in California it will surely stray from its Oregon brethren. It’s not that the other wines of the world are not products of their environment. It’s that Pinot Noir is to such an extreme. Like a polished mirror, Pinot reflects every thing that comes near it.
Mark Stock, a Gonzaga grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.