Digging Deeper Into Pinot Noir: Mendocino County, California

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[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

Last week, the members of our Amateur Wine Taste-Along team dipped their toes into pinot noir, sipping a few pinots from around the planet to get a basic introduction to the various flavors of these wines. But this is a grape that one could spend a lifetime getting to know, and so we'll continue to dig deeper. Tasting pinot noir helps you to get a sense of a place—a region's weather and soil and the local trends in winemaking are apparent in each glass.

Over the past few months, I've tasted an assortment of pinots from Mendocino County, an area a few hours north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento in California. Many of the wines we tried were from Anderson Valley along the western edge of the county.

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[Photograph: Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association]

Cool, moist weather along the coast and cool evenings in the valley allow some of these wines to retain bright, tart acids. But it can get over 100 degrees in the summer, and that means these wines aren't exactly the "cool-climate" wines you might expect if you've only experienced Willamette Valley pinot. The wines we tried were impressively smooth, silky and luscious, often luxuriously textured, but with much more fruit than earth, robustly savory but almost never rustic. When I hear pinot, I often think of delicate black fruit that lets lavender and eucalyptus peek through. I expect subtle mushroomy flavors, herbs, black soil. Though some were complex and detailed, many of these wines were dominated by bold red fruit, leaning toward ketchup and sundried tomato flavor, with bombastic oak treatment and alcohol levels soaring into the 14.5% ABV range. For California, this may be cool-climate. But for me, these wines were sometimes hot.

Top Value in Mendocino Pinot

We were seduced by the bright cherry fruit and nice acidity in the Bonterra 2009 Mendocino County Pinot. The freshness of fruit is nicely preserved, and the wine is light enough on its feet to pair well with pork chops. There's a bit of mushroomy earth and cocoa here, mint, lavender, and graham crackers. We've seen it for sale for under $20, and that's a great deal.

Tart blackberries and a real fresh acidity immediately drew us to the Patianna 2007 Pinot Noir, which is a steal at $20. We loved this wine for its balance and freshness—it's not as rich as many of the others, and is quite food, friendly, with an earthiness that pairs with with mushrooms, sausage, and duck. There's a hint of clove here, but the oak treatment is moderate.

Highly Recommended Wines

One of our favorites in the region is the Foursight 2007 All-In Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir ($46), named for all the clones in the estate that are included in the wine. This wine brings together beautiful Pinot character, hints of cherry and seedy raspberry, violets and earth, and the herbal notes we love to find, plus a hint of root-beer spice. This wine really works, and this young winery is getting well-deserved acclaim.

Tart cherry and brambly blackberry flavors keep the full-bodied Couloir 2009 Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot dynamic; there's a push and pull between this wine's richness and it's bright acids. Hints of hibiscus tea, leather, orange peel, dark earth, blackberry jam, and black pepper come together in this mouthfilling wine. Smooth and luscious. (Around $38)

As it opens up, the Esterlina 2008 Cole Ranch Reserva Pinot Noir comes ringing into focus: tart blackberry juice, baked blueberries, rosemary, lavender, licorice, mint, and cracked black pepper. This is a wine with tension and complexity—a rich, deep wine with enough tannin and acid to balance. There's a little char on the finish. (Around $37)

Though we were made a bit nervous by the sundried tomato scent on this wine, the 2007 Navarro Vineyards Methode L'Ancienne Anderson Valley Pinot Noir wasn't quite a dense as the others, and this pretty wine had floral and herbal notes that were hidden in the more burly examples. It's leathery and a little smoky, with five spice and cinnamon flavors, nutmeg and hints of fig, blueberry, and tart fruit. The lingering acids keep your mouth watering, and this well-structured wine would do well with grilled eggplant and lamb. (Around $29.)

The dusty tannins and good structure of the 2007 Lazy Creek Vineyards Anderson Valley Pinot impressed us; we tasted brambly raspberry and cherry pie, a little clove and baked sweet fruit. There's a vanilla oak presence, but it doesn't cover up the minty herbal notes, hints of bricks and meaty chew. (Around $42)

Recommended with Some Reservations

Jim Ball Vineyards Boonville Anderson Valley Pinot (2007, around $50) is supple and rich, with a slightly savory edge; this stuff is an awesome pairing for a well-charred Margherita pizza—the fresh tomato notes are echoed in the wine. This wine is wildly silky, elegant in texture, with a hint of old leather; but for the most part, the tannins are softer than the fruit, acid, and alcohol here. Tart cherry flavors keep you from tasting the booze, but this wine is strong enough to knock you out at 14.5% ABV. You have to be in the mood for something big, but lots of folks will enjoy this showstopper.

The oak in the Baxter Toulouse Vineyard Anderson Valley 2007 Pinot (around $38) may be a bit much for some, but this is a gutsy wine that will stand up to charcoal-grilled steak. This is a dense wine without any holes, silky-smooth and faintly peppery, with hints of mushroom, clove, and mesquite. What rescues this wine: a bright squeezed-cherry acidity.

There were massive forest fires in the area in 2008, and some wineries dumped their wines rather than bottle those tainted by smoke. The La Follette 2008 Manchester Ridge Vineyard Pinot (around $40) has a dusty, baked-hearth scent and the flavor is nearly peaty. There's very nice acid here, and lovely cherry fruit—pour it with merguez and grilled eggplant. I'd love to taste one from a different year.

Other Wines We Tried

Supple and fruity, the Breggo 2009 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir is full of concentrated baked plum and blueberry flavors. It's a big purple wine, with hints of tobacco and raisin, sweet oak and cognac. At 14.8% ABV, it was just a bit too hot for our taste.

The texture of the Claudia Springs 2007 Anderson Valley Kindt Vineyard Pinot Noir is lovely—silky and full of baked cherry fruit and just enough acidity. But the oak treatment is a bit overpowering; you're left with a lingering flavor of charred planks, and there's a bit too much alcohol in the finish. Around $30.

The Lula Cellars 2007 Mendocino Pinot (around $39) wasn't quite as polished as some, and lacked the seductive earthy notes. This is a nice, concentrated spicy-cherry-pie wine, with hints of cinnamon and clove, lavender, and sundried tomatoes, but it's a little hot.

Tomatoes again! The Straight Line 2009 Mendocino County Pinot is a bit mulchy, with floral notes and some meaty sundried tomatoes. A bit sweeter than we'd like. (Around $25)


Have you tried these wines? Do you have any favorite vineyards in Mendocino County?

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