THE CASE FOR SONOMA COUNTY PINOT NOIR
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
—James Suckling, Editor and Evan Mah, Managing Editor
It might be hard to understand what Sonoma County pinot noir is or really means. In fact, that’s the question we asked ourselves and winemakers over and over again as we tasted nearly 400 pinots (plus a few chardonnays and cabs) from the region in February. To our surprise, nobody had a good answer at first. One winemaker even said, “Does there have to be a style? If the wine is pleasurable, isn’t that enough?”
I guess. But from a consumer standpoint, there’s great value in knowing what you’re going to get when you buy a bottle of Sonoma pinot, either in a store or at a restaurant. Added Nico Cueva, the winemaker at Kosta Browne, “Sonoma? The appellation is a joke. It’s so huge. The sub AVA’s are helping, but it’s getting confusing for consumers. It’s very challenging to put an exact fingerprint on it.”
You can even find great cabernet in Sonoma County. Just look at Knights Valley. Peter Michael, among others, is doing a stellar job, especially with the 2014s. “A lot of people understand this,” said Nicolas Morlet, the winemaker of Peter Micheal. “2014 is like the great 2001 vintage.”
Some winemakers, like Mark Aubert of his eponymous winery that also makes Napa Valley chardonnay, had a clearer idea at least for pinot. “We like a riper style of winemaking. In Sonoma, you can dial in the ripeness anyway you want. I’ve always liked a riper style of pinot. There are a lot of people making low alcohol pinots. Others are pushing the envelope.”
Littorai’s winemaker and owner Ted Lemon went a step further. “There is no ‘Sonoma Pinot Noir.’ The region stretches from Russian River Valley, which is very warm, to Sonoma Coast, which is cooler and less than 20 miles away. The contrast is very dramatic,” he says. “Sonoma is much more schizophrenic than almost any other pinot noir region in the world.”
Lemon seemed the most convincing. In fact, we found just about everything in our tasting — from aromatic, firm and energetic pinots like his to bold, fruit-forward types that have been synonymous with Sonoma for some time. We liked both, so long as they were balanced and fresh. Achieving that harmony seemed easier in the 2013 and 2014 reds and whites we tasted. The 2015s will be more challenging due to the reduced crop levels and intermittent high temperatures during the grape growing season. A few reds were right on the cusp of jam juice.
Ultimately, the decision was up to the winemaker. Some pinots, like those from Paul Hobbs and Aubert, were powerhouses with meaty tannins and a dark core of blueberry fruits. At times they were more intense than some Napa Valley cabernets. Others, like those from Littorai and Kosta Browne had a wonderful vibrancy with a seductive intensity of fruit and tannins that were much more tucked in. “I think the clientele has no problem appreciating the two different styles of pinot,” says Lemon.
One region that caught our attention were the wines from the proposed AVA Freestone-Occidental in Sonoma Coast, a site just a few miles from the sea as the crow flies. The wines, like those of Carlo Mondavi’s RAEN and Occidental, had appealing lift and energy with citrus, salt, and oyster shell undertones. We see this spells only good things ahead for the developing region. Keep an eye on this one.
The big question moving forward is what direction winemakers in Sonoma County want to take with their pinot. With such varying styles, will the region as a whole make a push towards fresher, more elegant pinots or will there always be a divide and some dedication to muscular, more intense pinots? Either way, Sonoma is cranking out some great wines right now. It’s just a matter of taking a minute to find what you’re looking for.
SPELL PINOT NOIR SONOMA COAST TERRA DE PROMISSIO VINEYARD 2014
Very pretty fruit with dried strawberry, cherry and light spice character. Medium body, firm and silky and a clean finish. Drink now.
SPELL PINOT NOIR SONOMA COUNTY RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY UMINO VINEYARD 2014
More fruit-forward style with dried cherry and watermelon character. Full body, round and silky tannins. Fruity finish. Drink now.