Ever since Miles waxed poetically to Maya in Alexander Payne’s film “Sideways,” Pinot Noir has been one of America’s most popular red wines.
“Pinot needs constant care and attention. And, in fact, it can only grow in these really specific, little tucked-away corners of the world,” Miles says in the film.
He explains the difficulty of the wine: Pinot is “a hard grape to grow. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early... not a survivor like Cabernet.”
Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir (because of its tendency to ripen early) only excels in a few, cool corners of the world. A cool climate helps extend Pinot Noir’s “hang time,” allowing the grape to develop its wonderful array of fruit and floral aromas and flavors.
A cool climate also preserves the Pinot Noir’s naturally high acidity and moderates the level of alcohol in the finished wine.
In other words, a cool climate make a balanced Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir’s home is France’s Burgundy region, responsible for some of the world’s most sought-after and expensive red wines. The monks of Burgundy have spent centuries deciding where to plant their Pinot vines.
Pinot Noir is also a specialty of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, New Zealand’s Central Otago and Italy’s northernmost Alto Adige region. All of these areas share a long, cool growing season and produce Pinot Noir with tantalizing freshness and fully developed flavors.
California, too, has a long history with the Pinot Noir grape.
The first Pinot Noir vine arrived in California in the 1850s, most likely thanks to Col. Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian aristocrat and founder of Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, Calif.
But unlike Burgundy, where Pinot Noir has been cultivated since 100 A.D., California wine growers have had to learn where to plant the finicky Pinot vines over just the last 150 years. What wine growers have learned is that producing a balanced Pinot Noir in California means to go closer to the sea.
California now has several interesting regions for Pinot Noir, all featuring the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean.
Carneros, sitting at the southern end of the Napa Valley and next to San Pablo Bay, is now almost entirely planted with Pinot Noir and its white grape Burgundian counterpart, Chardonnay. Coastal areas such as the Russian River Valley, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara have also established themselves as friendly Pinot Noir zones.
Wine growers in pursuit of even greater balance in their Pinot Noirs have turned toward California’s coastal ridge, where vineyards sit precipitously in view of the Pacific Ocean. The Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area, also known as the AVA, and even more specifically the unofficial West Sonoma Coast area, have prevailed as two of California’s premier growing zones for Pinot Noirs of finesse, elegance and balance.
Here are a few Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs to look for:
2009 Benovia Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
A member winery of the West Sonoma Coast Vintners association (WSCV), a group that advocates for specific recognition for the coastal vineyards of the larger Sonoma Coast AVA. Aromas and flavors of cherry, raspberry, strawberry pomegranate, spice and oak, with a silky texture and bright acidity. Available at Corkscrew Wine & Cheese, $34.
2009 Fourth Estate Winery Pinot Noir La Cruz Vineyard Sonoma Coast
Tina Duff Taylor, an Omaha native, and her husband, Jeff, met in the news business and have been producing elegant Pinot Noirs under the Fourth Estate label since 2008. Winemaker Eric Buffington produced this intensely aromatic Pinot Noir with medium weight, full of sweet red fruit and lingering vanilla and cedar wood. Available at Corkscrew Wine & Cheese, $36.
2009 Failla (Failla Jordan) Pinot Noir Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast
If West Sonoma Coast had a Cru system — the system of ranking vineyards in Burgundy — then Hirsch would be one of the Grand Crus. Bright red fruit smartly framed in the vanilla and spice of oak. A complex earth and forest floor and earth note accompanied by brilliant acidity and fantastic length on the palate. Available at Omaha Wine Co., $70.