Pinots from Oregon tend to have some of the delicacy and minerality that red Burgundy is known for as well as some of the ripe red fruit most typically found in California Pinot. Their alcohol levels are generally much closer to those of France (13% or so) rather than California (typically 14-15%). Many of them also exhibit a savory aroma reminiscent of forest floor or underbrush, what the French call “sous bois.”
The problem with a great many of the Tempranillos produced in the U.S. thus far is that they are too low in acidity and often lacking many of the varietal characteristics that make Tempranillo grown at higher altitudes, in cooler climates, and at controlled yields so very appealing.
What’s the result of all this biodynamic farming, experimentation with high density plantings and varied winemaking techniques? Pretty impressive wines as a whole, with some vintages, like 2006, being even more amazing.
It’s an exciting time to be following the wine industry in California. Things are changing. The dominance of big, fruit-forward, super-ripe wines is starting to fade. The diversity of wine styles available to the consumer is growing. This includes lower alcohol, higher acid, more minerally wines that winemakers are striving for by picking earlier, growing in cooler locations, and using less new oak, among other things.
So far, 2009s are showing expressive fruit and balance, with many producers having dialed back on the ripeness levels of two and three years ago. The regrettable trend that I wrote about last year, and that I’m continuing to see too many examples of, is high stem or whole cluster inclusion levels.
I believe the most successful Spanish import to the U.S. so far has been Albariño, with its refreshing high acidity and ability to pair with lots of foods. It does well when aged in stainless steel as well as oak, and its high acidity gives it some good aging potential. There were several fine examples at this event. Another white variety doing well in the U.S. is Verdelho, the high acid grape from my beloved island of Madeira, not to be confused with Verdejo, the flavorful but often herbaceous white grape that dominates in Spain’s Rueda region. I also believe that Portuguese varietals Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and the like do well in the heat of California growing regions, and there are some respectable single varietal and blended versions being made. I am more reserved about the success of Tempranillo, Spain’s most widely planted grape, in the U.S. as I have yet to taste any that really wow me, unlike a great old Gran Reserva from Rioja.
2008 was a rough year for Pinot in California, due to the weather and fire related challenges. Due to the early and late frosts, drought conditions and severe storms in many parts of the state, some growers’ yields were greatly reduced. and it was a challenge to pick at a time not impacted by heavy rain or frost in a few places. Add to that the fires that ravaged thousands of acres in Southern California, the Central Coast, Napa and Anderson Valley, and you have the smoke effects on a lot of grapes too. Some chose to still produce wines from those areas, and to reduce the smoke effects (but also, inevitably, some of the other flavors) through reverse osmosis, while a couple of producers chose to unabashedly put out smoke tainted Pinot. And 2008 continued a trend since 2006 of picking earlier, aiming for lower alcohols and greater acidity, which is a wonderful trend in my opinion, but which also contributed to many ’08s (and ’07s too) being lighter bodied and higher in acid than Cali Pinots of the recent past. A trend I’m much less thrilled about is the increasing inclusion of whole clusters in California Pinot.