Pinot Noir – A Comparison of New World Styles
Pinot Noir is mysterious, illustrious, temperamental, magnificent, and one of the most widely bottled varietals. It is also probably the one wine that is most widely discussed (maybe thanks to curious phenomena of the movie “Sideways”). It is a fun discussion, with lots of passion and broad smiles, while folks exult on the virtues of their favorite pinot noir bottle.
While France boasts of the best (and priciest) pinot noir in the world, there are many New World regions that make good – and some would argue great – versions, especially USA, New Zealand, Australia (primarily the Yarra Valley), Argentina, and Chile. The styles run a large spectrum, depending on climate, terroir, age and tending of the vineyard, and wine making techniques. Arguments abound about the alcohol levels, aging, color, etc. from any one region.
One thing we can all agree on – it is great to get a bunch of knowledgeable pinot noir fans together, open up a bunch of bottles, and start tasting. We did just that, over the course of a number of nights – many with some of our taster friends in Loveland, CO. In this article, we review a compilation of our tasting notes of California, Oregon, and New Zealand pinot noirs.
We will also have a follow up article to discuss these pinot noir regions, and talk about the styles of the Old World versions.
The California Wines
No other state in the US is more Pinot prolific than California. Each region brings us unique takes on pinot noir, and there is more and more effort to take on different styles within regions. Here are the results of our recent tastings.
Cambria Julie 2011
The Cambria – Julia Vineyards serves up a ripe core of plum, cherry and wild berry notes in an openly fruity, appealing, well-crafted red. This wine is an easy to drink, drink-now wine with a great price point (less than $25). It has a rich finish, smooth texture, and a nice lingering after-taste. It was the favorite of many of our tasters, with a rating of 3.75 out of 5.
Littorai Cerise Vineyard 2007
You’ll find lots of aromas of blackberry, wild berry and raspberry, with tastes of similar, but subtle red berries. There are notes of mineral and loamy earth tones, with a bit of herbal finish. This is a wine with light to medium body, with a delicate mouth-feel. It reminds some people of a French Burgandy, which is unusual for a Californian pinot noir. The Littorai has become a bit of a cult wine, so it may be harder to find. Check out their website – they do ship direct. Overall, this is a stunning bottle – rating 4.7 out of 5 by our tasters.
Byron Santa Barbara 2011
A good Pinot for the price, rich and gutsy, with intense plum and raspberry fruit and firm tannins. We would consider this a wine with medium to heavy body, and is a good example of the beautiful floral and mineral character you’ll find in Santa Barbara pinot noir wines (maybe a bit more extracted, and higher alcohol, than other higher end Santa Barbara wines). It’s definitely a drink-now wine, good for every day consumption. We also consider this a great value wine, and a wine which will go with lots of foods, including red meats. It was rated 3.5 out of 5 by our tasters.
Sea Smoke Southing 2006
This is the classic wine from Santa Barbara, and considered by many to be the top class of California. Firm and well-structured, with a mix of spicy dried berry, currant, blackberry and blueberry, picking up a nice touch of mineral and herb (such as a bit of sage) and ending with well-integrated tannins. This is a medium bodied wine, having a smooth and lasting finish. Unfortunately, it is extremely hard to get – they ship direct, but there is a long wait list to get this wine. We’ve been collecting Sea Smoke for a while, and we’re very lucky to have it. If you see a bottle, grab it. It is the favorite of many of our tasters, ranking 4.9 out of 5.
Merry Edwards Meredith Vineyards 2006
Merry Edwards is a pioneer, an innovator, and now the grand madam of California Pinot Noir. This particular wine is a good example of a very rich style from Russian River Valley, having a medium to heavy body. You’ll find the typical red berry flavors of Pinot Noir (raspberry and black cherry are prominent with this wine), but with some interesting herbal and mineral notes on the finishing. This is one of the great wineries, producing award winning wines every year. However, this particular bottle did not have the tannin structure to last much longer – it was a bit weak on the finish. Wines from 2009 and 2010 are much better. Tasters rated this wine 3.25 out of 5.
Soliste is one of those hard to find cult wines, sold only through their mail order list, or found at high-end restaurants. We were very fortunate to have come upon a few bottles, including the outstanding 2010 L’Espérance Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($65). Our tasters all felt that this wine might be the best US pinot noir they’ve ever experienced. It is a moderate reddish purple color in the glass, with intense aromas of black cherry, black raspberry, with a bit of sweet herbs and spice. The taste is silky soft. feminine in character, with layers of black cherry and black raspberry fruits touched by an array of sweet and savory herbs. The wine fills the mouth with pleasure that carries over to the long and expansive finish. This wine has a lot of flavor, so pair it with game birds (perfect with duck), lighter red meats (such as veal), and fish with flavor – we used this wine with halibut finished with The Serious Foodie Calimyrna Fig/Orange sauce. We rank this wine very close to our other California favorites, with a 4.9 out of 5.
The Oregon Wines
We think of Oregon, primarily the Willamette Valley, as being in the perfect “pinot zone” with regards to climate and soil. Indeed, many PinotHeads believe that Willamette Valley pinot noir mimics Burgundy – but not exactly. And that’s what makes pinot noir so wonderful.
Domaine Serene 2009
This is a great example of the Oregon style from one of the most respected and consistent producers. Their wines are always rated 90 and above at Wine Spectator, and one of their wines was rated one of the top wines in 2013. 2009 was a particularly good year for Oregon Pinot Noir. This wine is medium body, with more tannins than some of the other wines. There is a predominance of blackberry flavors, a bit of butterscotch, and finishes with lingering refinement. Check out their Yamhill Cuvee, and their high-end Evenstad Reserve. Our tasters rated this wine 4.5 out of 5.
This is a highly-sought-after Oregon pinot noir, although demand has fallen off a bit over recent years. Still, this bottle was rated at 90 points by Wine Spectator, and is cellar worthy for another 5 years. This version is very lively, with a nice food-friendly acid balance – we would say it has lots of character. We love its raspberry, rhubarb and tea aromas, with lots of structured red berry and herbal flavors , cruising through the long finish with style. We rank this wine near the top of our Oregon favorites, with a 4.7 out of 5.
Domaine Drouhin 2008
The 2008 Domaine Drouhin is gorgeous, complex, intense, and very vibrant. Aromatically expressive, there are notes of red cherry and cedar, along with other strawberry, raspberry, and licorice. It’s a shame we had to drink this bottle – it was elegant and lovely, balanced with firm acidity and a very long finish – but clearly would last another 10 years. It is a very appealing bright ruby, with flavors of red berries, particularly cherry, spices (think star anise), and slightly herbal. Comes across as very lively owing to an impression of high acidity. Our tasters rated this wine 4.8 out of 5.
Beaux Freres 2007
Another great example of the high-end Oregon pinot noirs, Beaux Freres is a favorite of high end restaurants because of style and consistency – a very impressive food-friendly wine. It’s also a favorite of Wine Spectator, with this bottle rated at 93 points. This version is bright red, with lots of flowery aromas along with the typical Oregon red berries – a seductive bouquet of black raspberry and cherry. The flavors start and end with lively red fruit and roses underscored by intense spice and mineral qualities. We love the long, expressive finish, that remains light on the pallet. Impressive for its style and refinement. It is our restaurant go-to wine, and we rank this wine at 4.7 out of 5.
New Zealand Pinot Noir
We’ve done a number of pinot noir tastings in New Zealand, and we continue to be surprised. Our first tasting in 2007 blew us away – we didn’t realize how serious New Zealand wineries had become regarding the quality of pinot noir. Now the rest of the world is catching up to the New Zealand pinot noir phenomena. One wine we feature here was from an area new to us, and most of the folks in the US – Neudorf, outside of Nelson, which is northwest of Marlborough. More on Nelson later – but look out for great wines from this region.
Felton Road 2008
Don’t let the screw cap fool you – this is a serious Pinot Noir from the land of the Southern Lights. Most of the producers in NZ have gone to screw caps, as they believe it is more consistent (corks can get funky), and they have data that shows that screw caps are as good as corks. This wine is light on its feet, but still has quite a bit of structure – light to medium bodied wine with a lot of character. This bottle was one of the most exotic wines we tasted– think lingonberry, açaí berry, and wild blackberry flavors in a spotlight. The finish sails on, letting the fruit linger.
Our tasters rated this wine 4.6 out of 5 – which was not a surprise from this stalwart of NZ pinot noir.
Gibbston Valley 2009
Gibbston Valley is one of Central Otago’s oldest wine producers, but it is very difficult to find in the US. Their wines are more like Californian versions of Pinot Noir, with deep rich flavors from ripe fruit, and alcohol levels of 14% or more. Even with its concentrated flavors, it a very sophisticated wine with a nice balance of acid and tannins, worthy of cellar aging. This vintage is richly aromatic with black cherry, red raspberry, plum, violet, thyme, a bit of anise, and mixed spice flavors. The taste lingers for a long time, giving way to a bit of licorice and more anise. This complex and powerful wine is built for the long haul and probably could use a few more years to reach its peak.
We rank this wine near the top of our New Zealand favorites, with a 4.7 out of 5.
Ata Rangi 2012
Many class Ata Rangi as the quintessential ‘New World’ pinot noir, and maybe the best example of the variety outside of Burgundy. We recently tasted a 2003 bottle, which one of our associate tasters said was “…the best pinot noir I’ve ever tasted – even compared to a vintage DRC.” This 2012 bottle strikes a terrific balance between vibrant cherry and berry flavors and more savory elements of forest, white pepper, eucalyptus and tobacco. The muscular tannins impart solid grip on the finish, with the right acid balance. It is a striking sip on its own, but matches well with food such as duck, pork, and oily fish.
Our tasters rated this wine 4.9 out of 5.
Amisfield, just like Felton Road, has been around for a while, and has been “discovered” by the US market, albeit in limited quantities. You will find Amisfield pinot noir ranked near the top of the New Zealand wines in most all publications. This particular wine has a lasting silkiness in what can be best described as a feminine texture. Red berries and a touch of Asian plum is accompanied by spice and dried herb flavors, all supported by rich tannins and superb acidity. Definitely a worthy of sitting in your cellar – it will reward you richly after at least five years.
We rank this wine with a 4.7 out of 5.
Neudorf is one of the oldest wineries in Nelson and it has forged a deserved reputation for quality wines. Owners Tim and Judy Finn came into the industry in 1978 with no knowledge of wine growing – but they didn’t let that stop them. The couple have helped create Nelson’s new-found reputation as a world-class producer. While they are known more for their superb chardonnay, we found their pinot noir unique and quite special. This is a youthful wine, full of “drink it now” pleasure. With summer fruits (red berries and stone fruit) peeping through the textured palate, there is enough fine tannins and acidity to keep your interest. Mocha and a whisper of leather at the end makes this a delicious wine which demands to be taken seriously.
Our tasters rated this wine 4.1 out of 5.
The Carrick 2010 Unravelled Pinot Noir is a medium bodied, deep colored wine (ruby-purple) that won some New Zealand high ratings. It appears from time to time on high-end restaurant wine lists, for good reason. It has an impressive display of ripe cherry, red plum and wild blueberry notes with a hint of earthiness. With its moderate level of fruit concentration, lively acidity, and low to medium level of tannins, it is easy to drink young. We have kept a few bottles in our cellar, and it does bloom after 5 years. It finishes medium to long in length, mostly keeping to its red berry character.
We rank this wine at a 4.3 out of 5.