Roger C. Bohmrich, Master of Wine
September 19th, 2022
In the first part of this exercise, we have seen the surprising diversity of European Pinot Noir outside of Burgundy. The Benchmarks identified in our assessment may be unanticipated, both in origin and number. This certainly applies to those from Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Not many wine drinkers in other parts of the world are aware of these wines; even fewer have tasted the best examples. Quite simply, these Pinots are produced in highly restricted volumes, and the scarce bottles on offer tend to be sold locally to a small circle of savvy buyers.
Chardonnay, a far more elastic grape dependent on technique as much as terroir, has accounted for noteworthy wines in countless regions. While a devotee of Puligny-Montrachet may not be convinced, there are many examples of top-flight Chardonnay from global vineyards. Pinot Noir is another matter. The general feeling is that almost anyone, anywhere can “make” a good Chardonnay; not so with Pinot Noir.
Most tasters would agree that we have yet to discover a wine to equal Romanée-Conti or a Chambertin from a stellar domaine, but there are examples of Pinots which are on par with a Beaune, Morey-Saint-Denis, or Chambolle-Musigny village, and even a premier cru. Some of these brilliant wines are new to the scene and come from unexpected places.
It may be helpful to bear in mind that there are splendid Pinots which are lightly or densely tinted, highly perfumed or more reticent, broad and mouth-filling or narrowly defined and tightly wound, voluptuous or self-contained. In other words, styles of Pinot Noir around the world are far more heterogeneous than the textbook definition would lead us to believe. For that matter, there is no single taste profile in Burgundy – far from it. Burgundy is known for its complexity. Savigny-lès-Beaune differs from Vosne-Romanée as Corton is unlike Musigny. Similarly, there are myriad expressions from California, Oregon, or New Zealand.
Having shown some time ago that California can make Bordeaux-style reds which best the French originals at competitions, U.S. vintners in the Golden State and Oregon are now on the same path with Pinot Noir. Others are hot on their heels. Some of the challengers will blossom in time as new vineyards are planted and vines mature. Winemakers are also learning on the job and becoming more adept at getting the most of their fruit. The best news for Pinot enthusiasts is that this trend is likely to continue as locales once too cold to ripen the grape satisfactorily become viable with a warming climate.
As we noted in Part One, this cataloguing is a judgment call which relies on extensive research. The rules we have set are our own. No doubt others may have their own ideas of names to add or remove. Wines showing promise but with shorter histories have been placed on a Watch List. They will have to prove that an auspicious beginning can be sustained over a minimum of a decade to make the next edition of the list. To put all this together, we have leaned on journalists and authorities who have tasted widely and expertly. It would be nearly impossible – yet a fantasy come true – for any one person to visit all the regions and taste all the contenders considered for this assessment.
Only a handful will ever make it to the shelves of even the most resourceful of retailers. If you have your eye on any of these Benchmarks, put your name on a waiting list with the right sort of merchant or directly with the winery. A standing order, regardless of vintage or price, may be your best strategy to secure a few bottles.
Our natural inclination is to compare one producing area with another. How does a Benchmark from Willamette Valley stand up to one from Baden, Central Otago, or Sonoma Coast? It would be better, we suggest, if these selections were viewed less as a global hierarchy than as a compendium of high-achieving wines with distinctive personalities, all expressing the finest qualities of Pinot Noir in the context of their regions. In other words, all the wines are to be celebrated for their individual merits.
A few thoughts about clones
In order to understand where Pinot Noir actually fits in the profile of these regions, we need to lay out some basic facts, before we consider specific wines. Before we do that, a short discussion of Pinot Noir clones would serve us well.
Winemakers around the world seem to stress the significance of clones, which are accorded an outsized role with respect to Pinot Noir in particular. The first point to make is that Pinot Noir originates in Burgundy: all later variants contain an imprint of the original genetic material. Is there a reason the choice of plant material should be emphasized with this variety above all, especially in New World regions? This view may have taken hold because Pinot is considered genetically unstable, with numerous widely recognized mutations or sub-types within the same family (i.e., Pinot Meunier, Gris, Blanc, Précoce, and so on). Others argue that there are so many genetic variations because Pinot Noir is one of the oldest varieties, one step from a wild vine.
Is the clone really more of a determinant of a Pinot’s expression in the glass than is true of other varieties? It would be easy to come away with this impression after reading marketing material from wineries, or some articles in the press. Even if not stated explicitly, the import of clone is implied. If the contribution of a given clone is so influential, why would it be diluted? In other words, why would a “cocktail” of clones, not just one, be planted as is commonplace in global vineyards? The reality behind the conversation about clones is that their foremost role is to provide insurance to growers. It is true that clones are developed with a view to wine quality; at the same time, they are bred to deal with susceptibility to diseases and favor early ripening, higher sugars, and even to yield open (rather than tightly packed) bunches.
The unspoken truth about clones is that they cannot be relied on to pass on specific flavor characteristics. While there may be a general set of attributes associated with a certain clone, the clonal signature changes with site. Susan Nelson-Kluk of the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) has advised that “European clones…do not always perform the same in California as they did in Europe” (Nelson-Kluk, 2003). Nancy L. Sweet, FPS Historian of the University of California, Davis, takes this further: “The significant environmental impact on clonal performance makes it extremely difficult to generalize about the behavior of specific clones” (Sweet, 2018). These are words of wisdom to consider before we are swept up in the mystique of clones. In the end, a wine based on Pinot Noir, or any variety, reflects myriad influences from soil and climate to cultivation methods and handling in the cellar.
In Burgundy, vignerons do take cuttings from their oldest vines, the survivors of many seasons, in their best parcels. They may be seeking the greater diversity of a sélection massale. There may also be the subliminal thought that, somehow, the exceptional qualities of a certain grand cru can be carried over to another vineyard. Still, relying on clonal selections has been the norm for several decades; it is simply the more reliable and easily executed approach. Clones from Burgundy still earning high marks were certified in 1971 and include 113, 114, and 115. In 1980 and 1981, 667 and 777 were awarded certification. These and others are widely referred to as the Dijon clones. In all, there are 48 certified Pinot Noir clones in France today (Pl@nt Grape, 2022). For many growers in other parts of the world, a clone developed in Burgundy is seen as the foundation of great Pinot Noir in their own region. In some cases, this might even be a so-called “suitcase clone” taken surreptitiously some time ago as cuttings from Pommard or Vosne-Romanée. This discussion leaves out Pinot Noir clones originating in Alsace, Germany or Switzerland. Swiss clones in particular have made an important contribution in the U.S., as we will see.
PINOT NOIR OUTSIDE OF EUROPE
Pinot Noir was among the first European varieties to arrive Down Under in the early 1800s. The “Mother Vine 6” or MV6 clone, widely planted today, originated with these early arrivals. In the 1990s, Australia was part of a program to introduce French (Dijon) clones. Steadfast vignerons established a reputation for Pinot in selected areas, but Chardonnay and Shiraz commanded attention from consumers worldwide. As with many other regions, the finest examples tend to be produced in small volumes and are often frustratingly difficult for international consumers to find.
Plantings of Pinot Noir currently amount to 12,222 acres, less than 4% of Australia’s vineyard (www.wineaustralia.com). Half this grape’s production is dedicated to traditional (classic) method sparkling wine. From the standpoint of quality, four districts stand out and dominate the list of top Pinots, current and aspiring. As is true in other countries, the finest Pinots come from locales where the prevailing climate is cool.
Victoria leads our selection of Benchmarks. In Yarra Valley, Pinot is the foremost variety and makes up 41% of the crop. Soils range from sandy loam to volcanic in the southern part of the valley. Well-recognized bottlings from Giant Steps (part of the Jackson Family portfolio) and Yarra Yering are among the Benchmarks. Another district in Victoria, Mornington Peninsula, has relatively limited plantings, yet Pinot Noir is first, making up half the harvest. The terrain varies from sand to clays and soils of volcanic origin. Here, there are wines to note from Yabby Lake and Kooyong – two from each – together with Moorooduc’s “The Duc.”
Our list of Benchmarks is augmented by a handful of Victorian subzones. Geelong’s By Farr is represented by three wines. A U.S. critic observed that the 2018 Farrside “is just another exhibit in the case that color intensity and flavor intensity—particularly in Pinot Noir—have little to do with one another. The wine features complex aromas of black tea, roses, grilled plums and fresh raspberries…” (Joe Czerwinski, www.robertparker.com 26th Feb 2021). Gippsland boasts the celebrated Bass Phillip Reserve, which sells for a breathtaking price. Huon Hooke says the 2019 is “spectacular”: “A thoroughly beautiful wine, tremendously detailed and fragrant, unfolding more aromas and flavours as it interacts with the air” (The Real Review, 19 June 2022). As of 2020, Burgundian Jean-Marie Fourrier has his hands at the controls of Bass Phillip. (Luckily for U.S. drinkers, the wines are imported by Vineyard Brands.)
In the undulating terrain of Adelaide Hills, vines are planted at a range of altitudes, and Pinot Noir contributes one-fifth of the crush. Loamy sands and clays are found. Two wineries, Ashton Hills and Shaw + Smith, lead the way with Pinot. Halliday Wine Companion (2022 edition) was enthusiastic about the 2020 Ashton Hills Reserve, writing: “The weight is ethereal and exhibits a class,
medium-bodied line and length, all of it lingering around the top and sides of your mouth for eons. So special...” James Halliday extolled the virtues of the very youthful 2021 Shaw + Smith Pinot, saying it is “already a serious complex pinot” with “high-strung aromas of spice and forest floor” and concludes with a “triumphant peacock’s tail finish” (The Weekend Australian, June 2022).
Pinot’s share of harvest is larger, nearly half, in maritime-influenced Tasmania, Australia’s coolest region. Soils vary considerably and include sandstones, basalt with clay and limestone, sands, and alluvial deposits. Despite its local prominence, the variety’s acreage equals merely 3% of the national total. As is true of various global regions in this survey, Pinot Noir in Tasmania figures in both established sparkling and up-and-coming still renditions. One of these is Tolpuddle, which has proved its worth in its first decade. Huon Hooke was enthusiastic about the 2020: “There are powerful meaty, smoky and five-spice savoury aromas; definite touches of smoky-bacon and charcuterie…Tremendous drive, energy and length. A great wine in the making” (The Real Review, October 2021). OSSA is a promising new arrival from Tasmania on the Watch List. Writer James Halliday said of the 2020: “it’s not Romanée-Conti, but it’s frighteningly good” (Halliday, 2022).
There is a new excitement led by those who are convinced of Pinot’s potential as a still red wine rather than as a component of sparkling wines. This seems to be part of the growing attraction of less opulent and powerful reds. The long-term concern is that areas planted to the grape at present will warm beyond the ideal range of growing season temperatures. This is of course a worry in other notable regions which are flirting with the upper limits of temperature for high-quality Pinot Noir (notably Russian River Valley, discussed under California).
Projections suggest that Tasmania, a model of cool-climate viticulture, may not escape dramatic changes later this century. The warming trend is likely to affect sparkling wines first (as has been occurring in Champagne). Ripening of Pinot Noir in the near- to mid-term could actually be enhanced and result in more generous wines which retain sufficient acid levels, similar to recent trends in Germany. Tasmania could become an even more flourishing locale for Pinot as a red wine. Ever-higher temperatures, on the other hand, could have disruptive implications for the varieties and wine styles which currently thrive in Tasmania’s marginal conditions. (See Part One for a discussion of Pinot in European regions affected by a changing climate.)
Benchmarks – Australian Pinot Noir
By state, alphabetically
Ashton Hills “Estate” - Adelaide Hills/South Australia
“Reserve” - Adelaide Hills/South Australia
Shaw + Smith “Pinot Noir” - Adelaide Hills/South Australia
Holm Oak “The Wizard” - Tasmania
Gala Estate “Constable Amos” - Tasmania
Tolpuddle “Pinot Noir” - Tasmania
Wine By Farr “Farrside” - Geelong/Victoria
“Sangreal” - Geelong/Victoria
“Tout Près” - Geelong/Victoria
Bass Phillip “Premium” - Gippsland/Victoria
“Reserve” - Gippsland/Victoria
Bindi “Block Five” - Macedon Ranges/Victoria
Curly Flat “Estate” - Macedon Ranges/Victoria
Hurley “Garamond” – Balnarring, Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
Kooyong “Ferrous” - Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
Moorooduc “The Duc McIntyre Vineyard” - Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
Paringa Estate “Reserve” Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
Yabby Lake “Block 1” - Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
“Block 2” - Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
Giant Steps “Applejack Vineyard” - Yarra Valley/Victoria
“Wombat Creek” - Yarra Valley/Victoria
Yarra Yering “Carrodus” - Yarra Valley/Victoria
“Pinot Noir” - Yarra Valley/Victoria
“Reserve” - Yarra Valley/Victoria
Cooks Lot “Iconique Barrique R18” - Orange/New South Wales
“Iconique Barrique R16R17” - Orange/New South Wales
Vinteloper “Pinot Noir” - Adelaide Hills/South Australia
Maison L’Envoyé “Pinot Noir” - Tasmania
OSSA “Pinot Noir” - Tasmania
Chatto Isle “Isle” - Tasmania
“Intrigue” - Tasmania
Pressing Matters “The Pinot Noir” - Tasmania
Bass Phillip “Estate” - Gippsland/Victoria
Patrick Sullivan “Mill Stream” - Gippsland/Victoria
Curly Flat “Central” - Macedon Ranges/Victoria
Crittenden Estate “Cri de Coeur” - Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
Kooyong “Massale” - Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
Paringa Estate “Robinson” Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
Ten Minutes by Tractor “Estate” Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
“Judd” Mornington Peninsula/Victoria
Coldstream Hills “Reserve” - Yarra Valley/Victoria
Yering Station “Reserve” - Yarra Valley/Victoria
Bay of Fires “Pinot Noir” - Tasmania
Mac Forbes “Pinot Noir” -Yarra Valley/Victoria
New Zealand is a newcomer when it comes to Pinot Noir compared to other countries we have surveyed. The earliest plantings can be traced to the mid-19th century, but New Zealand’s first commercial bottling of Pinot Noir was not until 1978. Even if it got a late start, many observers believe that there is a high ceiling for the variety. Indeed, the country has bet on the promise of Pinot among red varieties. New Zealand’s vineyards and those of Tasmania and various parts of Pacific Coast of the Americas are influenced by proximity to the ocean. At present, Pinot Noir constitutes 7% of New Zealand’s output. 13,936 acres are planted to Pinot, with the largest share in Marlborough (6,751 acres). It is the leading red grape in this region although the volume averages just 5% of the region’s total crush.
Central Otago could be considered a focal point of New Zealand Pinot Noir, as our selection of Benchmarks suggests. Among the top names are Burn Cottage, whose 2018 Pinot Noir earned praise from Bob Campbell MW: “Elegant, aromatic pinot noir with bright, high-energy floral, violet, cherry, fresh herb, star anise and restrained spicy oak supported by fine tannins and juicy acidity” (The Real Review). Other stars of this region are Felton Road, Prophet’s Rock, Quartz Reef, and Rippon.
There are contenders from Martinborough such as Ata Rangi, Dry River, and Kusuda in Wairarapa, whose 2018 Pinot was described in this way: “While the initial impression is one of great delicacy, this medium-bodied wine reveals a sinuous strength on the palate, a framework of wiry acids and silken tannins that supports the charming complexities and extends the mouthwatering finish” (Joe Czerwinski, www.robertparker.com, June 2021). A winery which has risen to the top is Bell Hill in Canterbury. Joe Czerwinski asked: “Is there any doubt that Bell Hill has emerged as one of New Zealand's top Pinot Noir producers?” (www.robertparker.com, July 31st 2019). They are known for lime-rich soils and high-density plantings exceeding 11,000 vines per hectare in some blocks. Ata Rangi’s 2018 Pinot is depicted by Bob Campbell as “elegant, aromatic” and giving “a nod in the direction of Burgundy” (The Real Review).
The foundation of New Zealand Pinot Noir is the Abel clone, allegedly a cutting from a vineyard of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (New Zealand Wine). Many of the leading Dijon clones are also planted. One prominent label from Wairarapa, Schubert “Block B,” relies exclusively on admired French clones, five in all. Biodynamic Quartz Reef “Single Ferment” from Central Otago uses two clones, Abel and 115.
Benchmarks – New Zealand Pinot Noir
By region, alphabetically
Bell Hill “Pinot Noir” - Canterbury
Burn Cottage “Burn Cottage Vineyard” - Central Otago
Felton Road “Block 3” - Central Otago
“Block 5” - Central Otago
“Calvert” - Central Otago
“Pinot Noir” - Central Otago
Mount Edward “Pinot Noir” - Central Otago
Prophet’s Rock “aux Antipodes” - Central Otago
Quartz Reef “Pinot Noir” - Central Otago
Bendigo Estate “Single Ferment” - Central Otago
Misha’s Vineyard “The High Note” - Central Otago
“Verismo” - Central Otago
Rippon “Emma’s Block Mature Vine” - Central Otago
“Tinker’s Field Mature Vine” - Central Otago
Greywacke “Pinot Noir” - Marlborough
Seresin “Sun and Moon” - Marlborough
“Tatou” – Marlborough
Ata Rangi “Pinot Noir” - Martinborough
Craggy Range “Te Muna Road” - Martinborough/Wairarapa
Dry River “Pinot Noir” - Martinborough
Kusuda “Pinot Noir” - Martinborough
Escarpment “Pinot Noir” - Martinborough/Wairarapa
Schubert “Block B” - Martinborough/Wairarapa
“Marion’s Vineyard” - Martinborough/Wairarapa
Neudorf “Moutere” - Nelson
Akitu “A1” - Central Otago
“A2” - Central Otago
Amisfield “Pinot Noir” - Central Otago
Church Road “Grand Reserve” - Central Otago
Two Paddocks “The First Paddock” - Central Otago
“The Last Chance” - Central Otago
Brancott Estate “Chosen Rows” – Marlborough
Spy Valley “Envoy Outpost” – Marlborough
Terra Sancta “Jackson’s Block” - Central Otago
Brancott Estate “Letter Series T” - Marlborough
Villa Maria “Taylors Pass” - Marlborough
“Reserve” - Marlborough
The explosion in plantings of Pinot Noir in California has been astounding. It is a rare occurrence for a particular variety to see such growth. Some say the Pinot craze was set off by the movie “Sideways” in 2004. The protagonist, Miles Raymond, was obsessed with Pinot Noir while demeaning Merlot. Little did it matter that his desert-island wine was 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, the Saint-Émilion great, which relies on a large component of Merlot. The “Sideways Effect” has been debated ever since. The Journal of Wine Economics concluded in 2021 that the movie did in fact lead to a drop in Merlot sales while giving a boost to Pinot Noir (Consoli et al., 2021). The unintended consequence as demand for Pinot surged: the grape was planted in less desirable locations.
Interest in Pinot had started to intensify before the movie’s release, even if the jump was more dramatic in the years that followed. Looking at harvests from 1990 to 2021, Pinot Noir crush volume advanced from 32,295 to 275,233 tons (www.wineinstitute.org). California’s planted area (47,885 acres) may be only about half that of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, but Pinot now places third, ahead of Zinfandel (California Grape Acreage Report, 2020 Summary). Sonoma County leads with 12,872 acres in 2021, followed by Monterey. The variety has a presence in numerous locales influenced by – indeed very close to – the Pacific Ocean. The distance from Santa Barbara to Mendocino, around 475 miles, suggests how varied the grape’s expressions can be (compared to less than 100 miles from Mâcon to Dijon in Burgundy). There are many wines which rise to Benchmark stature and many newer examples waiting in the wings.
The subject of clones seems to be intertwined with the pursuit of Pinot Noir in California. Several authoritative reports are available online and can provide useful background (Sweet, NL; Nelson-Kluk, S; and Smith, RJ). We have tried to highlight certain aspects of the discussion which are often overlooked. Understanding California’s contribution is not straightforward because clones which in the main originated in Burgundy came to be “branded” with the names of California wineries and take on a life of their own. These include the Martini, Mount Eden, Martin Ray, Hanzell, Swan, and Calera clones.
Pinot Noir shines in various locales in the southern part of the state. Santa Barbara County is home to many standouts. Au Bon Climat is an admired Pinot practitioner with multiple sources. Their Blue Series features Larmes de Grappe and long-appreciated Isabelle, an amalgam of the most impressive barrels representing origins from the Central Coast to Mendocino. Brewer-Clifton’s Machado from Sta. Rita Hills has earned high ratings, and their 2019 3D “is satiny and polished, with sleek layers of spicy fruit and juicy acidity calling you in for another sip on the long finish” (E Brooks, www.robertparker.com 15th Mar 2022). Melville, another top name from Sta. Rita Hills, offers several winners. Their Estate bottling, Terraces, and Sandy’s are consistent successes. The winery touts the use of five clones combining California field selections (Swan, Mount Eden) with Dijon 115, 667 and 777 in Terraces. The 2019 from this vineyard earned high marks and “unfurls slowly, offering abundant sweet berry fruit and savory nuances on the long finish” (Erin Brooks, www.robertparker.com 15th Mar 2022).
A name which must be highlighted is Calera, founded by the late Josh Jensen, who was among a handful who elevated California Pinot Noir to world-class level. Influenced by his early experience in Burgundy, he sought out limestone soils – scarce on the West Coast – and settled on Mount Harlan in the Gavilan Mountains, south of San Francisco. Elevations here, at over 2,000 ft., are rare in California. A debut trio of Pinots was released in 1978, and they are Benchmarks today: Jensen, Reed, and Selleck. He developed an eponymous clone and achieved the rare distinction of an AVA, Mt. Harlan, linked to his winery. At a vertical tasting of Jensen from 1978 to 2013 held in 2015, Antonio Galloni found the 1978, more than 35 years old, “a remarkable wine, as it retains an almost unbelievable amount of fruit for its age” and “does not appear to be fully mature” (Vinous, Sep 2015). Rhys is a Santa Cruz Mountains winery making a name for itself. Antonio Galloni says the 2018 Rhys Pinots “are just off the charts brilliant” (Vinous, Sep 2020). Their fascinating website features highly detailed profiles of their vineyards as well as interactive climate graphs comparing their sites to Burgundy.
Some of California’s most distinctive terroir is still in the process of being officially recognized. San Luis Obispo Coast is a recently established AVA where Pinot is a focus. Another is West Sonoma Coast AVA (WSC), which came into being in May 2022. There are nearly forty wineries in the WSC Vintners association. Perhaps now, others may take on the risks and rewards of working this demanding terrain, not far from the Pacific, which is generally cooler and foggier than elsewhere in Sonoma. The key to ripening is altitude: the finest WSC sites sit above the fog line where they can profit from enhanced insolation. Heat summation is between 1,700- and 1,900-Degree Days, well below Russian River Valley’s 2,580-DD (Shabram, 2015 & 2016). The lower growing temperatures of WSC will be increasingly advantageous in the coming years.
This mountainous WSC is represented on our list by names such as Littorai, Cobb, Peay, and Wayfarer. Ted Lemon founded Littorai in the early 1990s, bringing his Burgundian training to California. The 2018 vintage of B.A. Thieriot “is powerfully flavored, layered and spicy with bursts of freshness and a gently grainy texture, finishing long and earthy” (Erin Brooks, www.robertparker.com 20th Aug 2020). Under long-term lease, the vineyard is planted on loam over sandstone with Swan, Calera, Pommard, Dijon 114 and 777, and a proprietary clone (www.littorai.com). Cobb clocks in with two Sonoma Coast Benchmarks, Rice Spivak and Emmaline Ann. Jeb Dunnuck wrote that Wayfarer’s 2019 The Traveler from Fort Ross-Seaview delivers a “flawlessly balanced, multi-dimensional mouthfeel that keeps you coming back to the glass. This is pure gold…100 points” (www.jebdunnuck.com July 2021). Peay has several exquisite Pinots including Pomarium, Scallop Shelf, and Ama. These are not separate parcels; rather, distinctive cuvees from the same vineyard where 13 clones are planted in separate blocks. A tip of the hat to Aubert, with three Benchmarks from the Sonoma Coast led by their CIX Estate. Another notable winery, Peter Michael, has a trio of superlative Pinots from their Fort Ross-Seaview holdings. A fourth comes from Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey, where Kosta Browne crafts creditworthy wines from Gary’s, Rosella’s, and Pisoni vineyards. KB is now involved with making wines in Burgundy.
The truth is that, even now, the styles of Pinot Noir in California range from comparatively lean and etched all the way to rich and voluptuous. The seductive and hedonistic style of Pinot is often associated with Russian River Valley (RRV). J. Rochioli has star status propelled by the consistent performance of a bevy of Pinots. Their 2019 West Block “is incredibly layered on the nose, with blackberry and raspberry jam, tobacco leaves, blood orange and tar” (Erin Brooks, www.robertparker.com 3rd Jun 2021). DuMOL offers two Benchmark-level RRV Pinots, Finn and Ryan. The 2018 Ryan “is a stunning wine” and “finishes very long and layered” (E Brooks, 3rd Jul 2020). Williams Selyem helped propel California’s Pinot wave. Their 2018 Allen Vineyard “bursts with sweet berry fruits and bitters accents, soft, super juicy, quietly powerful but featherweight and finishing very long” (E Brooks, 23rd Jul 2020).
It is common in California for wineries, even smaller ones, to source fruit from multiples areas. For example, Anthill Farms obtains small lots from the Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, and Anderson Valley. They have achieved multiple Benchmarks in a relatively short time. Campbell Ranch is just off the Pacific Coast near Annapolis. Erin Brooks described the 2018 as “an incredibly expressive wine, with a savory blend of crushed cranberry and blackberry fruit accented by notes of fragrant earth, lavender, charcuterie, fir and Angostura bitters” (www.robertparker.com 20th Aug 2020).
There are promising California Pinots which have to be placed, for now, on the Watch List. There is reason to believe that many will soon confirm their standing as Benchmarks. The future is bright for California, above all the locales which remain shielded from rising temperatures over the near- to mid-term.
The list of praiseworthy California Pinots is long and best presented by winery since many offer wines from more than one AVA. We should note that the list is not exhaustive, and other wines could no doubt be added to each of the three categories.
Benchmarks – California Pinot Noir
Alphabetically by winery
Note: Certain Sonoma Coast wines may now be labeled West Sonoma Coast.
Anthill Farms “Baker Ranch” - Anderson Valley
“Campbell Ranch” - Sonoma Coast
“Harmony Lane” - Sonoma Coast
“Hawk Hill” - Sonoma Coast
Au Bon Climat “Isabelle” - California
“La Barge Au-dessus” - Santa Maria
“Larmes de Grappe” - Sta. Rita Hills
“Sanford & Benedict” - Santa Ynez
Aubert “UV Vineyard” - Sonoma Coast
“UV-SLVineyard” - Sonoma Coast
“CIX Estate” - Sonoma Coast
Brewer-Clifton “3D” - Sta. Rita Hills
“Machado” - Sta. Rita Hills
Calera “de Villiers” - Mount Harlan
“Jensen” - Mount Harlan
“Mills” - Mount Harlan
“Reed” - Mount Harlan
“Ryan” - Mount Harlan
“Selleck” - Mount Harlan
Capiaux “Pisoni” - Santa Lucia Highlands
“Widdoes” Russian River Valley
Cobb “Diane Cobb Coastlands” - Sonoma Coast
“Emmaline Ann” - Sonoma Coast
“Rice Spivak” - Sonoma Coast
Domaine de la Côte “La Côte” - Sta. Rita Hills
DuMOL “Finn” - Russian River Valley
Dutton-Jentoft Vineyard “Ryan” - Russian River Valley
“Aidan” - Sonoma Coast
Fess Parker “Bien Nacido” - Santa Maria Valley
Foxen “Bien Nacido Block 8” - Santa Maria Valley
“Julia’s” - Santa Maria Valley
“La Encantada” - Sta. Rita Hills
Hirsch “Block 8” - Sonoma Coast
“Reserve” - Sonoma Coast
“East Ridge” - Sonoma Coast
“West Ridge” - Sonoma Coast
“San Andreas Fault” - Sonoma Coast
J. Rochioli “Estate” - Russian River Valley
“Big Hill” - Russian River Valley
“Little Hill Block” - Russian River Valley
“River Block” - Russian River Valley
“Sweetwater” - Russian River Valley
“Three Corner” - Russian River Valley
“West Block” - Russian River Valley
Kistler “Silver Belt Cuvée Natalie” - Russian River Valley
Kosta Browne “4 Barrel” - California
“Gary’s” - Santa Lucia Highlands
“Pisoni” - Santa Lucia Highlands
“Rosella’s” - Santa Lucia Highlands
“Gary’s” - Santa Lucia Highlands
“Santa Lucia Highlands”
Littorai “One Acre” - Anderson Valley
“B.A. Thieriot” - Sonoma Coast
“Hirsch” - Sonoma Coast
“The Haven” - Sonoma Coast
Melville “Estate” - Sta. Rita Hills
“Sandy’s” - Sta. Rita Hills
“Terraces” - Sta. Rita Hills
Mount Eden Vineyards “Estate” - Santa Cruz Mountains
Paul Lato “Pisoni Lancelot” - Santa Lucia Highlands
“Atticus John Sebastiano” - Sta. Rita Hills
“Seabiscuit Zotovich” - Sta. Rita Hills
“Gold Coast Duende” - Santa Maria Valley
“Solomon Hills Suerte” - Santa Maria Valley
“The Prospect Sierra Madre” - Santa Maria Valley
Peay Estate “Ama”- Sonoma Coast
“Pomarium”- Sonoma Coast
“Scallop Shelf”- Sonoma Coast
Peter Michael “Clos du Ciel” - Fort Ross-Seaview
“le Caprice” - Fort Ross-Seaview
“Ma Danseuse” - Fort Ross-Seaview
“Le Moulin Rouge” - Pisoni/Santa Lucia Highlands
Rhys “Alpine Vineyard” - Santa Cruz Mountains
“Family Farm” - Santa Cruz Mountains
“Skyline” - Santa Cruz Mountains
“Swan Terrace” - Santa Cruz Mountains
Roar “Gary’s” - Santa Lucia Highlands
“Pisoni” - Santa Lucia Highlands
“Rosella’s” - Santa Lucia Highlands
Sea Smoke “Ten” - Sta. Rita Hills
Talley “Rincon” - Arroyo Grande Valley
“Rosemary’s” - Arroyo Grande Valley
Walter Hansel “Estate” - Russian River Valley
“Cahill Lane” - Russian River Valley
“Cuvee Alyce” - Russian River Valley
“South Slope” - Russian River Valley
“The North Slope” Russian River Valley
“Three Rows” - Russian River Valley
Wayfarer “The Traveler” - Fort Ross-Seaview
Williams Selyem “Allen” - Russian River Valley
“Rochioli Riverblock” - Russian River Valley
“Westside Road Neighbors” - Russian River Valley
“Coastlands” - Sonoma Coast
Anthill Farms “Comptche Ridge” - Mendocino
Au Bon Climat “Alexander” - Santa Maria Valley
Benovia “Cohn Estate” - Russian River Valley
“La Pommeraie” - Russian River Valley
Blue Farm “1861 Vineyard” - Sonoma Valley
“Anne Katherina” - Los Carneros/Sonoma
Capiaux “Wilson” - Sonoma Coast
“Gary’s” - Santa Lucia Highlands
Cerritas “Costalina” - Sonoma Coast
Hellenthal “Old Shop Block” - Sonoma Coast
“Rivina”- Sonoma Coast
Chanin Wine Company “Sanford & Benedict” - Sta. Rita Hills
Cobb “Coastlands” - Sonoma Coast
Coastlands “Old Firs Block” - Sonoma Coast
Colluvial “Las Nenas” - Sta. Rita Hills
“MT 18” - Sta. Rita Hills
Domaine de la Côte “Bloom’s Field” - Sta. Rita Hills
“Sous le Chêne” - Sta. Rita Hills
Foxen “John Sebastiano” - Sta. Rita Hills
Hirsch “Bohan-Dilon” - Sonoma Coast
Kistler “Laguna Ridge” - Russian River Valley
Kosta Browne “Russian River Valley”
Peay “Savoy” - Anderson Valley
“Elanus”- Sonoma Coast
Raen “Home Field” - Fort Ross-Seaview
“Royal St. Robert” - Sonoma Coast
“Sea Field” - Fort Ross-Seaview
Rhys “Bearwallow” - Anderson Valley
“Alpine Hillside” - Santa Cruz Mountains
“Horseshoe Hillside” Santa Cruz Mountains
Scar of the Sea “Bassi” - San Luis Obispo
“Vino de los Ranchos” - Santa Maria Valley
Vice Versa “Platt Vineyard” - Sonoma Coast
Wayfarer “Golden Mean” - Fort Ross-Seaview
Williams Selyem “Ferrington” - Anderson Valley
Chanin Wine Company “Bien Nacido” - Santa Maria Valley
Foxen “Fe Ciega” - Sta. Rita Hills
Sea Smoke “Southing” - Sta. Rita Hills
Talley “Estate” - Arroyo Grande Valley
Williams Selyem “Sonoma Coast”
“Bucher” - Russian River Valley
Oregon has become synonymous with Pinot Noir. The state has 23,552 planted acres of the grape, which account for nearly 60% of all plantings (U. of Oregon, Aug. 2021). It is by a wide margin Oregon’s number one variety and is still expanding. While the grape has a presence across all growing areas, four-fifths of vines are concentrated in the Willamette Valley. Here, the vine is more sheltered and the higher latitude (45° N) translates to longer days. Vintners have not sought out more extreme coastal locations where many of California’s most arresting Pinots are now grown.
In fact, Oregon has become a focal point of Pinot worldwide and can claim numerous Benchmark wines. This is a remarkable achievement considering the grape was first planted here in 1965. At the outset, the only clone available was the Wädenswil from Switzerland, brought by David Lett. Despite the later introduction of French clones, Wädenswil has made a substantial contribution. Winegrower Jason Lett, whose father founded Eyrie Vineyards, expressed a clear-eyed view of the impact of clones: “Site and management have such an overpowering influence that clonal selection is almost negligible.” Still, he conceded that “the right clones can make a very good vineyard into one that is sublime” (Lett, 2004). Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that Oregon Pinot Noir has arrived.
The investments of well-known Burgundians including the Drouhin family, Jean-Nicolas Méo, and Maison Louis Jadot provide a clue to the perceived potential of Oregon. There is still more French involvement at Lingua Franca, Domaine Divio, Furioso, and 00 Wines. Isabelle Dutarte has partnered with Véronique Boss-Drouhin at Caballus Cellars and directs another project aptly named 1789 Wines. Beaux Frères, known to many due to Robert Parker’s initial role, is today in the hands of Maisons & Domaines Henriot. They continue to make stellar wine.
Oregon resembles Burgundy in growing season temperature (Fig. 3); it is both rainier and sunnier, however. What is more, this Pacific Northwest state has a Mediterranean pattern with markedly varied precipitation, high in winter and negligible in summer. Precipitation in Burgundy tends to fall throughout the year in a roughly uniform pattern. Clearly, soils differ as well. To simplify, they are primarily based on igneous volcanic basalt in Oregon and may consist of clay, silt, and loam. They may be mixed with sedimentary marine and alluvial deposits in the Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity Hills AVAs. Marine sediments distinguish the Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton AVAs. In Burgundy, limestones and calcareous clays are the basis of vineyards.
Latitude 45.2° N
Winkler Region 1b | GDD 2273 | GST 60.6 F
Aver Annual Temp – 53.3 º F
Lowest Aver Min Temp – 33º F in Dec/Jan
Highest Aver Max Temp – 81º F in Jul/Aug
Aver Annual Sun Hours – 2341
Aver Annual Precipitation – 45 inches
Latitude 47.3° N
Winkler Region 1b | GDD 2196 | GST 60.3 F
Aver Annual Temp – 50.9 º F
Lowest Aver Min Temp – 30º F in Jan/Feb
Highest Aver Max Temp – 76º F in Jul/Aug
Aver Annual Sun Hours – 1849
Aver Annual Precipitation – 30 inches
The list of Oregon’s overachieving Pinots is quite long, if fewer in number than California, which has double the acreage. Still, Oregon has a much larger Pinot footprint than Australia or New Zealand. One label which has risen to the top is Antica Terra. Their 2018 Antikythera “is silty and delicate with intense, layered flavors and a long, pure finish” (E Brooks, 16th Dec 2021). Another winery, perhaps less widely known, is Arterberry Maresh. Their signature Maresh vineyard relies on Pommard and Wädenswil clones. The 2018 bottling has a “complex, highly perfumed bouquet” and finishes “sweet, seamless and impressively long” with floral notes and “discreet, well-knit tannins” (Josh Raynolds, Vinous Media, Feb 2022). There are also exciting newcomers on our Watch List such as Nicolas Jay and Résonance, both with French links, along with Lingua Franca and 00 Wines, whose Richard Hermann Cuvee has been turning heads.
To cite one other Benchmark among many, Bergström’s Winery Block is densely planted along the Burgundian model with 5,000 vines per acre. The family likens it to “an obsessively well-loved Bonsai Garden” (www.bergstromwines.com). Last, Brittan Vineyards Basalt and Gestalt from the McMinnville AVA will be discoveries to many. “The wines are plushily textured, fruity and ripe but never lacking in nuance” (E Brooks, 23rd Apr 2020). Oregon is already a paradise for Pinot Noir. The state offers a bounty of riches, with more to come.
Benchmarks – Oregon Pinot Noir
Alphabetically by winery
Adelsheim “Bryan Creek” - Chehalem Mountains
Antica Terra “Antikythera” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Botanica” - Willamette Valley
“Ceras” - Willamette Valley
Arterberry Maresh “Maresh” - Dundee Hills
“Weber” - Dundee Hills
Beaux Frères “The Beaux Frères Vineyard” - Ribbon Ridge
“Belles Soeurs” - Ribbon Ridge
“Upper Terrace” - Ribbon Ridge
Bergström “Bergström Vineyard” - Dundee Hills
“Cumberland Reserve” - Willamette Valley
“Gregory Ranch” - Yamhill-Carlton
“Le Pré du Col”- Ribbon Ridge
“Shea” - Yamhill-Carlton
“Silice” - Chehalem Mountains
“Temperance Hill” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Winery Block” - Chehalem Mountains
Brick House “Cuvee du Tonnelier” - Ribbon Ridge
“Evelyn’s” - Ribbon Ridge
“Les Dijonnais” - Ribbon Ridge
Brittan “Basalt Block” - McMinnville
“Gestalt Block” - McMinnville
Cristom “Eileen” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Jessie”- Eola-Amity Hills
“Louise” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Marjorie” Eola-Amity Hills
“Mt. Jefferson Cuvee” - Eola-Amity Hills
Domaine Drouhin “Edition Limitée” - Dundee Hills
“Laurène” - Dundee Hills
“Louise”- Dundee Hills
Domaine Serene “Evenstad Reserve” - Willamette Valley
“Grace” - Dundee Hills
“Jerusalem Hill” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Mark Bradford” - Dundee Hills
Eyrie “Estate” - Willamette Valley
“Roland Green” - Dundee Hills
“Sisters” - Dundee Hills
“South Block Reserve” - Dundee Hills
Penner-Ash “Pas de Nom” - Willamette Valley
“Shea” - Yamhill-Carlton
“Zena Crown” - Eola-Amity Hills
Ponzi “Reserve” - Willamette Valley
Trisaetum “Coast Range Estate” - Yamhill-Carlton
Walter Scott “X Novo” - Eola-Amity Hills
Winderlea “Legacy” - Dundee Hills
00 Wines “Richard Hermann Cuvée” - Eola-Amity Hills
“VGR” - Willamette Vallley
Adelsheim “Winderlea” - Dundee Hills
“Ribbon Springs” - Ribbon Ridge
Arterberry Maresh “Old Vines” - Dundee Hills
Bergström “Hope Well” - Eola-Amity Hills
“La Spirale” - Ribbon Ridge
Domaine Serene “Aspect”
“Côte Sud” - Dundee Hills
Furioso “L’Altra” - Dundee Hills
“La Linea” - Dundee Hills
“La Linea Furioso” Dundee Hillls
“Vincenzo” - Dundee Hills
Evening Land “La Source Seven Springs” - Eola-Amity Hills
Flâneur “Bon Vivant” - Willamette Valley
“La Belle Promenade” - Chehalem Mountains
Ken Wright “Guadalupe” - Willamette Valley
“Canary Hill” - Willamette Valley
“Shea” - Willamette Valley
Lavinea “Elton” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Lazy River” - Yamhill-Carlton
“Nysa” - Dundee Hills
“Temperance Hill” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Jill’s 115 Pinot”
Lingua Franca “Estate” - Eola-Amity Hills
“La Bête” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Mimi’s Mind” Eola-Amity Hills
Maison L’Envoyé “Two Messengers” - Willamette Valley
Nicolas Jay “Bishop Creek” - Yamhill-Carlton
“L’Ensemble” - Willamette Valley
“Own-Rooted” - Willamette Valley
Ponzi “Aurora” - Chehalem Mountains
Résonance “Choix du Coeur” Découverte/Résonance
“Découverte” - Dundee Hills
“Pinot Noir” - Willamette Valley
“Résonance Vineyard” - Yamhill-Carlton
Soter “Mineral Springs Ranch” - Yamhill-Carlton
Trisaetum “Estates Reserve” - Willamette Valley
Walter Scott “Bacocho” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Freedom Hill” - Willamette Valley
“Temperance Hill” - Eola-Amity Hills
Winderlea “Estate” - Willamette Valley
Zena Crown - “Conifer” - Eola-Amity Hills
“Slope” - Eola-Amity Hills
“The Sum” - Eola-Amity Hills
Domaine Divio “Estate”
Domaine Drouhin “Pinot Noir” - Willamette Valley
Domaine Serene “Yamhill Cuvée” - Willamette Valley
Le Cadeau “Merci Reserve” - Willamette Valley
Penner-Ash “Pinot Noir” - Willamette Valley
Ponzi “Pinot Noir” - Willamette Valley
Sokol Blosser “Orchard Block” - Dundee Hills
Our survey of Pinot Noir leaves us with one question which is likely to be on the mind of every reader. Of all the countries and regions outside of Burgundy we have assessed, in Europe and elsewhere, is there a clear victor in the Pinot sweepstakes? Is one the best? It would be very challenging to come up with a convincing answer, in part because of the widely varying scale of production. California is the champion based on the sheer number of exemplary wines. Oregon places second by that measure. Both regions also boast numerous contenders who are headed to the top. Germany is in the running. Scale, however, is only one way to decide the winner, if there is one. What is clear is that a lover of Pinot Noir has never had so many delicious possibilities.
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