Of all the wines in all the towns in all the world, pinot noir had to find its way into ours. We are the luckier for it. In fall, it serves as the perfect segue into heartier dishes for our gradually colder, darker nights.
Tasting typically of cherries, raspberries, mushrooms and earth, with a lightness of being and a silkiness in texture that other varieties like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel simply don't have, pinot noir is ideal with duck, lamb and pork dishes, the slower roasted or braised the better. Smothered in wild mushrooms? Even better.
Anne Moller-Racke planted pinot noir in Carneros in the early 1980s. She's since built up her own label, Donum Estate (thedonumestate.com), into a highly sought-after producer of pinot noir and chardonnay, making wines from Carneros, the Russian River Valley and more recently, the Anderson Valley.
Donum's lineup of 2011 vintage pinots are newly out, beginning with a 2011 Ten Oaks Pinot Noir from the Russian River that's made in a natural winemaking style by Dan Fishman. Originally planted in 1997 to Dijon clones, in 2008 Moller-Racke and grower Joe Nugent planted another five acres to Pommard and dubbed Ten Oaks after the trees bordering it on either side.
It's a bright wine, fresh in flavor and texture, rich in red fruit and rose petals, layered in savory overtones of dried herb and earth.
The 2011 Donum Russian River Valley is equally bright, with tight acidity and plenty of cherry and cranberry, too, while the age-worthy 2011 Anderson Valley Angel Camp is a study in ripe blueberry and dried herb, a joining together of Dijon, Martini, David Bruce, Swan and Wadenswil clones. Donum's 2011 estate Carneros pinot, on the other hand, offers high-toned fruit and acidity amidst a core of root beer-spice.
While Donum's pinots can be pricey at $72 each, Moller-Racke and her team also make the Robert Stemmler (robertstemmlerwinery.com) wines, pinot noirs and chardonnays from many of the same regions and vineyards that retail for $25 to $44.
The 2011 Stemmler Nugent Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir blends one lot each of two Dijon clones, adding yet another lot of the two clones co-fermented together. It's a meaty, seductive wine, lush in black cherry and savory earth.
The 2011 Merry Edwards (merryedwards.com) wines are also out, in smaller quantities than many previous years, a result of the cool, challenging vintage. The Sonoma Coast pinot, at only $39, is a great place to start; it's light, earthy and very floral. Her 2011 Georganne and Coopersmith pinots are richer and more fruit forward, with darker fruit personas — the Coopersmith in particular, exhibiting savory licorice, black tea and shocks of dark chocolate.
Edwards's 2011 Russian River Valley Olivet Lane pinot is a classic portrait of the variety's quixotic tension between restraint and full-fledged seduction, complex in Bing cherry and kitchen cinnamon. The winemaker's sister, Marcia, who lives near the Olivet Lane vineyard, makes Red & White Lasagna to go with the pinot noir; the recipe resides on the Merry Edwards website.