Pinot Noir ’12 & ’13


The following weather forecast appeared in my local newspaper last week:

Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard

Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard

“Russian River/Coast:  Areas of low clouds and fog, then sunshine today.  Mainly clear tonight, high 80/low 48”

Noting the 32 degree temperature swing made me smile because this forecast describes the ideal climate for pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay and is consistent with the major regions in CA and Oregon where the best of the varietal, outside of the Burgundy region of France, originates.

Ideally, pinot noir awakens to fog, dripping moisture on its leaves, then basks in the mid-day sun, enjoying late afternoon cooling breezes and dropping evening

Rosella's Vineyard

Rosella’s Vineyard

temperatures.  This repetitive climate is one mandatory element of the terroir in all of our California and Oregon pinot noir growing regions, using the marine influence, extending from the northern Willamette Valley in Oregon to Santa Barbara County.

In California, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, the

Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, the Carneros region of the Napa Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County and Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County produce much of the best New World pinot noir on the planet.  As consistently good as they are, experts are deliberating between vintages 2012 and 2013 as the best in a decade, most saying that 2012 wines are perfectly structured while the vintage 2013 delivers more vibrant colors and concentrated fruit

Of special note is the Santa Lucia Highlands (91-94 pts.) and Russian River Valley (90-93pts)appellations who have produced, according to Wine Spectator and others, the finest California pinot noir among the 2012-13 vintages.  This is not a huge surprise

Garys' Vineyard

Garys’ Vineyard

, both have been among the leaders for decades.  The Russian River Valley is arguably the best U.S. appellation and pinot producers throughout the state have sourced grapes for years from the “Highlands,” namely Garys’, Rosella and Pisoni Vineyards that all began with two friends Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni elevating the region to worldwide recognition.

I am fortunate to have access to fine single-vineyard pinot noir from Sonoma’s Wiliams Selyem and Kosta Browne wineries who both built their reputations while sourcing grapes from top vineyards in the Russian River Valley and, eventually beyond.  Ironically, my vintage 2013 selections from each, for the most part, have been sourced from these Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards. One wine is the Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Pisoni Vineyard 2013 (94-pt/$90) that Wine Spectator ranked among the top pinot noir wines using descriptive words like “depth, density and grace,” all music to my ears.

ROAR Pinot Noir

ROAR Pinot Noir

A second Franscioni-Pisoni partnership created ROAR Wines designed to introduce the distinct flavors of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation.  Deserving of recognition among Wine Spectator’s top 2014 wines, I found the ROAR Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard 2012 (93 pt/$52) to have a uniquely wonderful floral bouquet that foreshadowed a rich, luscious mouthfeel that enhanced the flavors.

From Santa Barbara County, the Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills 2012 (94pt/$40), recognized by Wine Spectator as a Top Ten 2014 release, is the

culmination of a long standing, respected partnership.  Winemaker Greg Brewer uses whole cluster fermentation methods and his signature absence of any new oak to create very fruit forward, balanced flavors.  Also serving as winemaker for another Santa Rita

Brewer-Clifton Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2012

Brewer-Clifton Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2012

Hills producer, Melville Winery, Brewer’s low-yield Melville Pinot Noir Block M Santa Rita Hills 2012(97pt/$50), with complex flavors, was one of the memorable wines that I enjoyed this year.

Although the Meiomi Pinot Noir Monterey-Sonoma-Santa Barbara Counties 2013 (92pt/$22) has been reviewed as a top value-priced pinot noir, past vintages also

Meiomi Pinot Noir

Meiomi Pinot Noir

express very complex and structured flavors for the price, representing grapes from three of the major growing regions.

Amid the early stages of California’s drought, vintage 2013, especially in the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Russian River Valley,  experienced uniform, moderate temperatures with early rains no spring frost or summer heat waves. The lack of water may have slightly stressed the vines which often results more concentrated flavors.  We will be following with interest the 2016 vintage in California that may or may not have to adjust to the rains and weather patterns caused by “El Nino.”

The word “opulent” is what has Pinot Noir aficionados everywhere excited about the vintage 2102 of Oregon releases, the best since 2008, standing well above recent inconsistent vintages.  In 2012, the Willamette Valley and surrounding regions experience nearly ideal climate, requiring no extraordinary maintenance, seamlessly

Willamette Valley vineyard

Willamette Valley vineyard

aligned to the terroir.  Wine Spectator magazine, who rated the entire 2012 Oregon pinot noir vintage with 97-points, reported that nearly 60% of the wines tasted received ratings of 90-points or higher, opposed to 32% in 2011.

To me, good vintage Oregon pinot noir has sumptuously rich flavors that are restrained by the solid structure of the wine.

I can remember tasting the Bergstrom Pinot Noir de Lancellotti Vineyard 2008 (94pt/$60.00) during a 2010 visit and feeling that I had truly experienced the best

Bergstrom Pinot Noir

Bergstrom Pinot Noir

Oregon can offer.  Bergstrom remains among Oregon’s many extraordinary pinot noir producers and recently shared the spotlight with releases from the Seven Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills appellation of the northern Willamette Valley.

The pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay from Evening Land Vineyards has received several accolades over the past few years and, once again, their 2012 vintage, namely the Evening Land Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La 143793lSource 2012 remains atop pinots from Oregon or any other region.

Focusing on Oregon vintage 2012 seems to be the key and great values can be found among veteran winemakers from Ken Wright, Ponzi, Chehalem and, of course, A to Z Wineworks who have, for some time, produced very nice pinot noir for under $20.  I have tasted previous vintages of this wine and was not surprised to see the A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon 2012 (89pt/$19)

A to Z Wineworks Oregon Pinot Noir 2013

A to Z Wineworks Oregon Pinot Noir 2013

among Wine Spectator’s top values of the vintage.

Long known for their pleasantly “grassy” sauvignon blanc and other whites, New Zealand has spent the last few decades expanding and perfecting the production of pinot noir.  Average vintage ratings have been in the low to mid-90s since the beginning of this decade, with the South Island’s Marlborough and Central Otago regions leading the way.  In a recent Wine Spectator review of all New Zealand wines, seven of the top 10 were pinot noir.  Many experts agree that the structure, thought to be lacking in the past, is where the best wines have improved and, in many instances, become more expensive.  However, as  with sauvignon blanc, New Zealand still produces some very good, accessible pinot noir at competitive prices.  While the Amisfield Pinot Noir Central Otago RKV Reserve 2010 (94pt/$100) is one of the highest rated of the varietal, they also produce the reasonably priced  Amisfield Pinot Noir Central Otago ($32), reviewed as complex, focused with good structure.

Quality, accessibility and cost are appealing features to many New Zealand pinots such as Kim Crawford Pinot Noir South Island 2013 (89pt/$19) and several others

Kim Crawford New Zealand Pinot Noir

Kim Crawford New Zealand Pinot Noir

that are often available at local outlets.

To fans of the “heartbreak grape,” be assured that the immediate future is bright.  Targeting California’s vintage 2012 & 2013, Oregon vintage 2012 and anything from New Zealand since 2010 seems to be the key in searching for your perfect pinot to pair with fresh salmon, Thanksgiving turkey or Monte Enebro, a slightly pungent, creamy-style goat’s milk cheese from Spain.

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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