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What To Drink Now: Pinot Palooza

Pinot Noir is unquestionably the most difficult, challenging, temperamental, frustrating, beautiful, luscious and overall delicious grape there is, making it a favorite of many.  For vintners and winemakers, the rush of beating the grape at its own game to create intense, balanced, often earthy or fruit forward wine drives them to plant this feisty variety, and lucky for us, create these wonderful wines.  I have been sipping a few new releases lately from across the globe that prove how fascinating the Pinot Noir variety is, as flavor profiles change dramatically from region to region, state to state, country to country.  Here are a few  that show just how diverse this little grape is.  Some selections were sent for editorial consideration.

Santa Lucia Highlands in California’s Central Coast has made a name for itself for having some of the best land to grow stunning Pinot Noir and Syrah. Winemakers throughout California seek to source the beautiful fruit grown in the area, producing award winning wines year after year. I recently tried a new wine from the area produced by Pali Wine Company. Pali has recently started producing a series of appellation specific, yet highly affordable wines to make some of the best growing regions in California accessible for anyone. Their Summit Pinot Noir captures the elegant, lush and refined flavors of the region perfectly, with a price tag around $30, not bad for this finicky yet wonderful grape. Filled with red cherry and ripe berry, this decidedly California Pinot also brings in elements of smoke, minerality and layers of dark chocolate.

I was visiting Napa Valley and Sonoma a few weeks ago and had a chance to try several different Pinot Noir wines from throughout the region. Though I am often partial to the Pinot of Oregon, California Pinot Noir is often quite expressive in its fruit forward nature, with each different regions of the state showing how diverse the terroir truly is.  Of all we tried two favorites stood out on top, Gary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir from Miner Family Vineyards and Mi Sueno Los Carneros Pinot Noir from the Carneros area of Napa.  Both were just tasting incredible, smooth and supple with silky texture and great flavor.

Gary’s Vineyard also in Santa Lucia Highlands is known for producing some of the best Pinot Noir fruit in California, with prized wineries like Miner, Vision Cellars, Siduri, Morgan, Kosta Browne, Lucia and more making stunning Pinot Noir from fruit grown with a maritime influence by Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni.  Miner Family Vineyards winemaker Gary Brookman then takes these stellar grapes and turns them into heavenly wine filled with layers of dark cherry and berry, cola, spiced oak and a touch of vanilla on the nicely balanced finish.  With that many guys named Gary involved, it has to be good.

Within Napa proper there are few areas that Pinot Noir can grow successfully, as the difficult grape will not survive the heat in many parts of the valley.  Carneros is one area that Pinot Noir shines.  At the base of the valley, positioned to benefit from cool morning fog, constant coastal breezes and chilly evenings allowing Pinot Noir to maintain a cool temperature relative to the rest of the valley, resist any kind of mold or mildew as the breezes act as a natural wind system keeping the grapes dry and chilly nights to ensure acid levels are maintained even as mid-afternoon temperatures create juicy, ripe fruit.  Many wineries make stellar Pinot from this area, including Etude, Ancien, Saintsbury, Schug, Patz & Hall and more, but Mi Sueno Los Carneros Pinot Noir really stood out in our tasting last weekend.  Though the winery may be better known for their elegant and robust Cabernet Sauvignon and blends, this Pinot shows the delicate touch winemaker and Mi Sueno owner Rolando Herrera has and who continues to fulfill his dream of making his wine every day.  Filled with layers of ripe fruit, slight floral notes and spice with toasted oak, cranberry and cherry on the palate with a velvety smooth finish.

Though physically made in Livermore, Steven Kent’s La Rochelle Pinot Noir from grapes sourced from Donum Estate Vineyard in Carneros, once a part of the Buena Vista Estate, highlight elegance and boldness of Pinot Noir.  Made entirely of the Donum clone of Pinot Noir, used primarily in Champagne by Roederer, the wine perfectly balances ripe fruit with dried herbs and sweet baking spice notes, good acidity and lengthy tannin, giving it an ability to age nicely or be enjoyed now.

Moving up into Sonoma County Pinot Noir thrives, as the coastal breezes from the Bay help maintain temperamental grape temperatures, yet warm days also ensure grapes will ripen by harvest time.  I had a bottle of Knez Winery Anderson Valley Pinot Noir the other night, given to me by the new owners of Domaine Wine Company in Dallas as their “wine to watch” in 2013.  I can completely understand why this is their wine to watch….luscious, ripe and fresh with bold yet balanced fruit, spice and a touch of black tea and cola notes.  Domaine Wine Company was started late last year by James Moll (Level 1 Sommelier  from the Court of Master Sommeliers) and Lance Storer, (Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers, as well as a slew of other recognitions) to create a wine and spirits store with concierge style that make you feel at home the minute you walk in, with a helpful staff that goes the extra mile for you to introduce customers to something new and unusual, as well as bringing you the usual suspects.

One other Pinot favorite they have comes from Tony and Michelle Soter (of Soter Vineyards) in Willamette Valley, Planet Oregon Pinot Noir is created from 100% sustainably and organically farmed vineyards throughout Willamette to create a youthful, vibrant and easy drinking everyday Pinot from one of the best regions in the world for the grape with a fruit forward flavor profile married with the earthy notes prominent in Oregon Pinot.

Folie a Deux sources fruit from throughout the Sonoma Coast for their Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir aged 10 months in French oak to give the wine nice complexity with juicy black fruit and dried berry flavors, and finishing with dark chocolate and dried tobacco.  This is a good food wine, with slightly more body than some Pinot Noir options, making it a beautiful wine to pair with anything from roasted duck to grilled pork chops to fried chicken.

If you like a bit more fruit in your Pinot Noir, Lost Canyon just released their 2010 Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. Aged 10 months in oak the very small production Pinot (about 333 cases) if filled with bright fruit that often defines wines from the area, ripe dark cherry, blackberry and licorice with just a touch of earthiness and vibrant yet balanced acidity making this a beautiful food wine to pair with anything from roasted salmon and pork tenderloin to simply grilled chicken and mushroom risotto.

MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir also comes straight from Russian River fruit, celebrating the cool foggy mornings and warm days to create balanced, expressive and lovely Pinot that can be identified as Russian River with simply a sniff.  Floral and spice aromas leap from the glass, followed by red cherry, raspberry and pomegranate with a long, velvety smooth finish.  A great Pinot Noir from this distinct area for around $25 a bottle.

Southern Hemisphere Pinot Noir has blossomed in recent years, with parts of New Zealand proving to be ideal for Pinot Noir growing.  Kim Crawford has made a name for themselves with their citrus and mineral filled Sauvignon Blanc, but their Marlborough Pinot Noir, filled with strawberry jam and ripe red cherry with soft tannins, balanced acidity and just a touch of smoke, making it a great food wine to be enjoyed specially with one of the favorite meats of New Zealand, goat.  Or, try it with various game meats like wild boar or venison as there is enough body and texture to pair well with earthy meats.

Similarly, parts of Chile and Argentina are producing quality Pinot at reasonable prices.  In general I have found Pinot from South America to have a definite earthy, spicy characteristic which blends with the ripe strawberry and quince notes of the wine to create interesting wines.  Cono Sur is one of the larger producers in the Chile, making wine from over 4000 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards throughout the country growing everything from Gewürztraminer and Viognier to Syrah and Merlot.  Cono Sur Ocio is considered one of the first ultra premium Pinot Noir wines from the country.  Produced from the oldest Pinot vines in the country using Burgundian technique with New World flavor the wine is filled with balanced layers of berry and earth with spice and touches of toasted oak from the 14 months aging in new French oak.