By Chuck Hill
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One of the most enjoyable aspects of tasting Pinot Noir wines is that almost every bottle is interesting and stimulates curiosity. This is not to echo a quote from 1845 by former British P.M. Benjamin Disraeli, “I rather like bad wine, one gets so bored with good wine.” As it turns out, we’ve had almost no “bad wines” in our Pinot Noir tastings this year, but there are differences that stand out and bear commentary.
Young Pinot Noir is generally fresh and lively, and older Pinot Noir is earthy and complex. Baked salmon (and less rich fish than Copper River) are better served with younger wines. Richer, more toasty/oaky wines demand richer fish and fish that have seen some smoke from the grill.
Pinot Noir is not Cabernet Sauvignon. At an early International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, a banner was displayed that said, “Just Say No to Cabernet.” Cabernet lovers often eschew Pinot Noir as wimpy and light because they expect all red wines to be powerful and rich. Pinot Noirs that are crafted to be powerful and rich often end up as overripe and one-dimensional. To best show its complex character, Pinot needs to be crafted with ample acidity and borderline ripeness. Western Oregon’s cool climate and certain California valleys where ocean breezes moderate warm inland temperatures are the best growing areas for Pinot Noir.
Dobbes Family Estate
My tasters have developed both affection and respect for Joe Dobbes and his marvelous Pinot Noirs during this year’s tastings. With each pull of a cork, one is reminded of Forest Gump and his mother’s wise advice, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.” What you get with this Momtazi Vineyard bottling is earthy, herby, cherry aromas leading to a lip-smacking palate of raspberry and spice, perfectly structured, and a superb complement to salmon.
Cristom’s Jessie Vineyard is the steepest vineyard on the estate with the most diverse soils. It was planted beginning in 1994 with Pommard and Dijon clones 115, 114 and 777. By 2000, it was entirely planted with phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Wines from this unique site consistently offer complex aromas and flavors that are part and parcel of the Oregon Pinot Noir experience. Aromas of cranberry and cherry struggle to be noticed against the clamor of earthy and meaty notes, while the palate awaits a sip to trumpet pungent dark fruits, floral character and a tangy, cherry finish.
Here is another wine that proclaims Oregon Pinot Noir in both forte and pianissimo, but it is nothing without the entire orchestra of scents and tastes from the strawberry and cherry to the baking spice and lavender to hints of cocoa and bacon. With grilled salmon the wine transforms to meet the fish on its own terms with ample acidity and racy palate fruit creating a perfect match.
Stoller Family Estate
Sometimes less is more – referring to money, of course. This young, entry-level Pinot Noir from Stoller winemaker Melissa Burr offers the whole package the minute you pull the cork: ripe strawberry and red cherry fruit, a grind of black pepper and more. What is the “more?” Take a sip and discover vibrant red fruits with zesty acidity leading to a finish of light toasty caramel. While the wine is a grand accompaniment to salmon, it would serve equally well with picnic fare or paté.
Dobbes Family Estate
This Pinot Noir creation from Joe Dobbes invited our tasters into the candy store with the flower shop next door. Pretty floral notes of lavender and roses mingle with cherry candy, spicy licorice and hints of vanilla. Just when you get comfortable with the “girl” in the flowered dress, she smacks you with notes of smoky, meaty goodness and a long, complex finish – Pinot Noir changeability at its best.
Youngberg Hill Vineyards
Wayne and Nicolette Bailey are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their purchase of Youngberg Hill Vineyards and Inn near McMinnville, Oregon. This destination for wine country weddings and other elegant affairs has been theirs to renovate and improve since 2003, and the vineyards and winemaking have kept pace with the posh country inn. The Jordan block of Pinot Noir is situated on a steep slope planted in 1989 to 60% Pommard and 40% Wadenswil clone on its own roots. The 2009 vintage shows aromas of cherry, mineral and smoky meat with flavors of dark cherry and plum and bracing acidity promising long age-ability.
Shea Vineyard is known to produce grapes that make rich and flavorful wines due to the warm location of the vineyard along Highway 240 between the Willamette Valley towns of Newberg and Yamhill. Josh Bergström crafted this wine in the cool 2011 vintage, which gave the Shea fruit a slightly leaner profile. The wine has impeccable structure with fruit and acid balance to age gracefully for a decade or more. Aromas and flavors of strawberry, rhubarb pie, floral perfume and barrel spice pair well with salmon.
Dobbes Family Estate
This cuvee is named for Joe Dobbes’ wife, Patricia, and is a blend of wines from five vineyard sites in the Willamette Valley. It was a favorite with our tasting panel and showed that unique Oregon Pinot Noir ability to be both elusively elegant and rich and flavorful at the same time. The tasters enjoyed aromas of plum, toasty cherry and mineral leading to a palate of black cherry and spicy French oak – a very nice pairing with grilled salmon.
There is a mini-van-sized rock at Yamhill Valley Vineyards just below their vineyard that was deposited there 15,000 years ago when the ice dams holding back Glacial Lake Missoula burst. This glacial erratic (the rock) is out of place now, but serves as a reminder of how the vine-friendly soils of the Willamette Valley were deposited. There is nothing erratic about the wine. Look for aromas and flavors of strawberry, cranberry, toast and vanilla – a medium light sip to accompany your salmon or other light fare.
Cristom’s Mt. Jefferson Cuvee combines fruit from each of the estate vineyards with selected lots from other Willamette Valley sites. The wine is very popular on restaurant wine lists across the country, showing the best of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir character. Mt. Jefferson Cuvee offers forward aromas and flavors of cherry, strawberry, baking spice and toasty French oak.
Stoller Family Estate
When it comes to reserve Pinot Noirs from Oregon, the novice wine taster should be aware that many of these wines are sometimes difficult to appreciate. Speaking with winemakers from Burgundy, there are comments made that the best wines don’t show well at early ages and often seem to gain power and color with five years age and more. Go figure, but it’s true. This wine has excellent structure and seductive (though delicate) aromas and flavors of cranberry, cherry and lavender. Decant for aeration to give a hint of the future.
Many Cabernet aficionados believe that a reserve wine should have big ripe fruit, more oak, blockbuster alcohol and even more oak. If you have made it this far down the column, you know by now that Pinot Noir is not like that. Put aside your macho, carve yourself a bit of salmon from the filet and sip this wine to appreciate its structure and character. Breathing time will help open it up to reveal aromas and flavors of spicy cranberry, cherry, mineral, black pepper, plum, vanilla and baking spice. Save some to try the next day. It’s kind of like a reverse “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” thing.
King Estate continues to produce some of Oregon’s best wines at good prices. The 2011 Pinot Noir is perhaps a little young (give aeration as you decant) for appreciation by the average wine lover. Nice aromas of red and black cherry mingle with notes of dried herbs and vanilla and lead to a palate of spicy cherry flavors finishing with a bit of tannic grip. If you serve your Copper River salmon from the grill, the smoky flavor will offset some of the tannins and smooth out the wine – still needs a bit of age.
Named after the Roman god of beginnings, transitions and doorways, the two-faced god is often associated with balance. This reserve-style wine (see notes above on decanting for aeration) benefits greatly from breathing and demonstrates many of the Pinot Noir principles discussed today. Once the wine has opened up, you discover aromas and flavors of black currant, ripe black cherry and plum with notes of mineral and earth and a finish of cedar, vanilla and barrel spice.
Wines from other areas:
The Gallo Signature Series honors the journey the Gallo family began in 1933, and it celebrates how far the family has come. Third generation winemaker Gina Gallo has some of California’s best grapes available for her winemaking efforts, including those from the Olson Ranch Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The eastern slope of the Santa Lucia Range in Monterey County offers a warm climate with cooling breezes from the ocean to the northwest. The wine offers ripe cherry and cranberry fruit with notes of tobacco and dark chocolate, finishing with vanilla, caramel and toasty oak – good with grilled salmon.
The Parmalee-Hill Vineyard is in the Sonoma Valley AVA bordering the Sonoma Coast and Los Carneros AVAs. Steve Hill supplies grapes to Jed Steele for a number of different wines, including this vineyard designated Pinot Noir. Look for aromas and flavors of tangy rhubarb, red cherry, vanilla and toast with hints of mineral and cherry candy.
Rusack Vineyards was established in 1995 by the husband and wife team of Geoff Rusack and Alison Wrigley Rusack in the Ballard Canyon area of Santa Barbara County. After all the above commentary about Pinot Noir, The Varietal, this wine is a Pinot that may well appeal to Cabernet lovers. It is rich with dark berry and cassis fruit, vanilla, caramel and toast (from 35% new oak in the barrel-aging regimen) with a long finish of jammy fruits and mellow tannins. Grill your finest salmon to accompany this standout wine.
La Crema Winery
La Crema Winery has dedicated more than 30 years to exploring the depth and breadth of the varietal expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in many of California’s cool-climate vineyards. The 2011 Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast offers aromas of red cherries, raspberry and vanilla with notes of black tea and mineral. The palate expands to show cherry, cola and spice with hints of earth and chocolate.
Sir George Fistonich has spent five decades at the forefront of New Zealand’s wine industry, producing his first Villa Maria wine in 1962. New Zealand has become an important player in international Pinot Noir, offering bright, food-friendly wines at reasonable prices. This wine is from the Awatere and Wairau valleys of Marlborough, offering complex character of cherry and dark berry with additional aromas and flavors of wild herb and savory mineral notes. Excellent acid balance and minimal oak character help it pair perfectly with grilled salmon.
For those wine lovers who are looking for a bargain Pinot Noir to serve proudly with their Copper River salmon, look no further. This wine offers many of the characters I’ve been yapping about today – all for less than the price of a take-out meal from your favorite food truck. Aromas of strawberry and candied cranberry mingle with light herb and toast notes leading to a palate that has nice berry fruit and spice, bumped up with a touch of residual sugar and retaining acceptable acidity. Invite your friends over for a sip. You can afford it!
© 2013 Chuck Hill
© 2013 Chuck Hill