Originally created 12/05/01

West Coast still struggling with its pinot noirs



I love the pinot noir grape.

It's shy-bearing; it's susceptible to rot; if it gets clunked on the noggin by a piece of hail, it goes all to pieces; it's very sensitive to manipulation in the winemaking process.

And, handled correctly, it can make the most glorious red wine in the world.

Yes, of course I'm a fan of cabernet sauvignon and merlot and syrah, sangiovese and nebbiolo, but the combination in a great pinot noir wine of what used to be called masculine and feminine qualities - muscular power and voluptuous elegance - combined with otherworldly earthiness can't be found in any other wine.

The heartland of pinot noir is Burgundy, where a union of soil, slope, exposure and climate - the elements that in France add up to what's called terroir - can lead to splendid wines, if the grapes are intelligently handled in the vineyard and during the elevage, the "elevation" of grapes to wine.

Producers in California and Oregon, the areas where pinot noir is best made outside of Burgundy, have long regarded the attainment of great pinot wines as a sacred quest, a Holy Grail of winemaking, and many a winemaker has floundered through the process of desecrating the impressionable grape. The grape is particularly responsive to oak and is easily overwhelmed. Successes have been achieved, however, and a number of wineries in the coastal states have made their names on pinot noir.

Today, we'll look at a dozen California and Oregon pinot noirs, not all of which come highly recommended. Price, believe me, is not the determining factor.

Very Good:

A vivid bouquet of cranberries, plums and smoke doesn't keep the Gundlach-Bundschu Pinot Noir 1999, Sonoma County, from being reticent enough to seem more modest than is good for it; nice touches of dusty potpourri, rose petals and orange zest can't make up for a short finish. About $26.

The slightly disappointing Rodney Strong Reserve Pinot Noir 1998, Northern Sonoma, lacks the satiny texture of a true pinot noir and seems to have been exposed to too much wood, 11 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels. Though it offers a seductive bouquet in the funky-earthy, cranberry-cola-black-cherry style, the flavors feel diminished. About $30.

Success with pinot noir continues to elude Chateau St. Jean. Though the Chateau St. Jean Durrell Vineyard Pinot Noir 1999, Carneros, opens with an attractive bouquet of cranberries and cola and ripe plums, with an intense wild berry undertone and touches of earth and ash, and even though it's fairly plush, it displays a surprising and misplaced edge in the mouth, and the earthy elements overwhelm the fruit on the short finish. About $38.

I was mightily disappointed in these pinot noirs from Calera Wine Co., one of California's most meticulous producers of pinot noir wines. (The '95s were fabulous.) The Calera Melange 1997, Mt. Harlan, a blend of the grapes from three of the winery's famous small vineyards, boasts an unbeatable bouquet that's deeply floral and fruity, but 15 months in French oak, even though only 30 percent of the barrels were new, just killed the fruit in the mouth. You taste nothing but wood. About $40.

Very Good (plus):

One is almost thankful for the sensible elements of the Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 1999, Northern Sonoma. Winemaker Rick Sayer made a lively, spicy pinot that offers cranberry-cherry-cola scents and flavors wrapped around a core of intensely sweet ripeness in a pleasingly plush texture. It's quite tasty. About $18.

There's nothing wrong with serious pinot noirs, but the Morgan Reserve Pinot Noir 1999, Santa Lucia Highlands, while bright and spicy, vibrant with black cherry, cranberry and cola scents and pleasing for its satiny texture and full body, is seriously structured to a fault. Perhaps it was that 16 months in French barrels, 60 percent new. About $38.

Quite sizable and very dry, the Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir 1997, Mt. Harlan, is more solid than sensuous and more serious than satisfying, because a lovely smoky, spicy, floral bouquet gives way to a woody and austere wine in the mouth. Where's the fruit? About $55.

Excellent:

Here's the wine today to grasp to your bosom with grateful cries of joy. The Erath Pinot Noir 2000, Oregon, sees 10 months in barrel, of which only 10 percent are new. The result is an enchanting pinot noir of savory spiciness and agreeable weight and a satiny texture. The fruit is pure cherry and plum with a wild berry note and moderate earthiness, and an intense and seductive floral element comes up in the glass. About $14 and definitely Worth a Search.

Here's a California pinot that could benefit from two or three years' aging. The Martin Ray La Montana Pinot Noir 1999, North Coast, despite its weight and structure, however, offers remarkable intensity, clarity, purity and ripeness in its balance between size and sensuous appeal. About $22, and a Bargain for the Quality.

The Kenwood Reserve Olivet Pinot Noir 1999, Russian River Valley, possesses the fruit, texture and structure to stand up to Burgundian models. A beautiful bouquet of red currants, Bing cherries and rose petals infused with smoke and baking spice leads to cherry and plum flavors, a lively, vibrant satiny feeling and a framework of spicy, slightly briary oak. Sensitively made and a joy to consume. About $30.

Profoundly spicy, velvety and full-bodied, the King Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 1998, Oregon, displays loads of cherry, blueberry and cranberry scents and flavors wrapped in studied earthiness and steady tannins for an unusually large framework that doesn't obtrude. About $35.

Ripe, meaty and substantial, the De Loach O.F.S. Pinot Noir 1998, Russian River Valley, is as lovely as a blockbuster of a pinot can be; its cranberry-cola-black-cherry flavors are typical of the grape, but its great depth of smoke and spicy richness, its deftly handled, slightly creamy oak and its freshness and intensity are unusual. About $35.

KOEPPEL'S PICK OF THE WEEK:

I recently tasted a range of wines from Firestone Vineyard in Santa Barbara County. The winery was founded by Brooks Firestone and his father Leonard in 1972; Brooks Firestone is now chairman of the firm, while his son Adam is president. Winemaker is Kevin Willenborg.

I found the cabernet sauvignon and merlot, both from 1998, to be well-made but not compelling; the riesling and gewurztraminer, both from 2000, were also more middle-of-the-road than exciting.

Don't miss, however, this trio of excellent whites. The nonvintage Prosperity Chardonnay may be simple, but its ripe, spicy and moderately rich manner makes it well worth the price, about $8. The fresh, clean Firestone Chardonnay 1999 carries its 14.5 percent alcohol lightly; classic pineapple-grapefruit flavors meld seamlessly with gently articulated oak in a wine enlivened with touches of honeysuckle, lime and limestone. It's delicious. About $16. The most exhilarating of these wines is the Firestone Sauvignon Blanc 2000, a remarkably refreshing wine bursting with notes of hay and flint, peaches and melon, honeysuckle and jasmine. It offers beguiling intensity and personality. About $13.