Pinot noir ahead of cabernet sauvignon as Sonoma County’s top red grape
In the world of wine, there are two kinds of red wine drinkers: Those who believe there is no red wine other than cabernet sauvignon; and those more sensible wine drinkers who admit that cabernet is fine, but if you want a good glass of red wine, try pinot noir.
The latter group has pushed pinot noir into second place in Sonoma County, behind chardonnay but ahead of cabernet sauvignon. With 13,500 acres, pinot noir is the county’s most planted red wine grape; cabernet sauvignon trails by less than 1,000 acres. Perhaps that’s because pinot noir compliments the movement toward lighter, more farm-to-table meals showing up in county restaurants and on home menus.
Pinot noir is a relative newcomer to California. In the 1970s, just as California wine was gaining international attention, there were only a handful of pinot noirs, including Sonoma’s Hanzell and some in the Russian River that took 20 years to make their mark. In the 1980s, Carneros growers began to focus on grapes like pinot noir that thrive in the region spanning the southern edges of Sonoma and Napa counties, kicking off a program called the Carneros Quality Alliance.
Stylistically, pinot noir is all over the board, depending on where it comes from. Carneros pinots are noted for sweet spice and ripe berry flavors, often described as strawberry or raspberry. Russian River pinots are darker in color, with more body, while Santa Barbara pinots tend to be bigger, with ripe plum and blackberry flavors. Further north, Oregon pinot noir offers more bright cherry notes with an earthy back note.
Of course, if you haven’t yet arrived at pinot noir, syrah is a red with the structure of cabernet sauvignon and the soft-fruit sensuousness of pinot noir.
In earlier days, it was common to hear that cabernet sauvignon was a more masculine wine, with harder more angular edges, while the soft round texture and flavors of pinot noir leaned more to the feminine side. Wine bottle shapes support this position: Cabernet sauvignon bottles have high shoulders and straight-sides, while pinot noir bottles are more rounded with soft sloping shoulders.
Even with the claim by pinot noir lovers that pinot speaks directly to the senses, while cabernet sauvignon appeals to the intellect, it would be hard to overstate the passion that pinotphiles have for their favorite red wine. Some even maintain that cabernet drinkers secretly have pinot envy.
So what drives this loyalty of preference and the many winemakers who make pinot noir?
Burgundy. The benchmark for pinot noir is red Burgundy and, in fact, making a pure pinot in the Burgundy-style is considered the Holy Grail of New World red winemaking. Yet attaining the Burgundy style is as elusive as is pinot noir itself, since the styles of red Burgundy range from a lighter Cote de Beaune red such as Santenay, to a darker richer Gevrey-Chambertin from the Cote de Nuits.
Some winemakers, especially those in New World wine regions like California, bridle at the suggestion they make their pinot noir in the image of Burgundy. It’s physically impossible, they say, because while the grape is the same (some people argue that the name is the same but the grape is different), pinot noir grown in Sonoma County is different in terms of vineyard culture and wine characteristics than pinot grown in the Cote de Nuits.
No matter. Winemakers from Sonoma to Santa Barbara keep working to perfect a grape that is finicky in the vineyard and a wine that demands close attention in the cellar. Although some winemakers in marginal areas are hopeful that their little microclimate vineyard pockets will mature pinot noir, the grape grows best in cool climates such as Los Carneros, Russian River Valley, Santa Barbara, coastal mountains of Monterey County and, of course, Burgundy, which is cooler than Bordeaux because of the latter’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.
Besides the pinot vine’s sensitivity to climate, it also is most comfortable with its feet planted in low-fertility, well-drained shallow soil, preferably limestone mixed with a little clay. The Gavilan Mountain ridge that divides northern Monterey County from San Benito County is threaded with limestone, responsible for storied pinot noirs from Chalone and Calera.
Pinot noir has also found a home in the well-drained soils of Napa and Sonoma Carneros, coastal Santa Barbara County and a small enclave in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, as well as the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
There is a strong sense in the wine community that pinot noir reflects a sense of place or what the French call terroir, not a grape characteristic but more the total influence of vineyard environment. Cote de Nuits Burgundy is often described as rose petals, violets, black cherry and even a dash of dark chocolate, while pinot noir from the Cote de Beaune is earthier. Varietal character is also not the object in Champagne, where pinot noir partners with chardonnay, contributing body, structure and a measure of fruit sweetness to the best Champagnes.
Matching pinot noir with food presents a range of choices. Traditional dishes paired with pinot noir or red Burgundy include boeuf bourguignon, which in its original form called for a Burgundy such as Nuits Saint-George that would be an expensive choice today for cooking. Coq au vin, a rich recipe that traditionally called for rooster parts, is today just fine with chicken.
Contemporary cooking is more oriented toward grilled meats and roast chicken, however, and pinot noir pairs well with grilled salmon or other firm-fleshed fish such as tuna. The varietal is versatile, so experiment to discover your favorite match.
There are a few things to keep in mind when buying pinot noir. First, red Burgundy can be expensive, so the astute wine shopper will rely on a local wine merchant for advice. Second, with few exceptions, there are few “bargain” California pinot noirs for under $15 to $20. So if you want pinot character and oak complexity, be prepared to pay for it. Pinot noirs with a good price/quality relationship are available, but finding them requires a little searching and experimenting.
Gerald D. Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer.