We are unabashed fans of pinot noir. Give us a cabernet sauvignon when it comes to a juicy steak, but otherwise we find ourselves reaching for pinot noir to sip or to match with delicate foods that range from salmon to duck.
No matter how much we like the grape, we are often torn between France and the United States. Early in our wine careers, we collected burgundy when it was reasonably priced. In the last decade, prices for the great burgundies have risen dramatically. But guess what? So have prices for Oregon and California pinot noir. While the price gap has closed, the differences in flavor profiles have remained wide apart.
This point was brought home recently when we had an opportunity to taste a couple of Maison Joseph Drouhin’s burgundies alongside the producer’s pinot noirs made in Oregon. Winemaker Veronique Drouhin oversees the winemaking at both facilities and exercises the same standard for Drouhin’s elegantly styled wines. This style often contrasts with the heavy, extracted and alcoholic pinot noirs from California and Oregon.
The Domaine Drouhin “Laurene” pinot noir sells for $78; the Maison Drouhin Cotes de Beaune Rouge sells for $54. Yes, the Laurene is more complex, but we put our money on the delightful Cotes de Beaune. The wines under this label – especially the elite Clos des Mouches – are consistent year after year.
West Coast producers are experimenting with more clonal selections than their French counterparts – we talked to one Willamette winemaker who used a dozen different clones in his pinot noir. We also suspect that some of the West Coast pinot noirs have been dosed with significant Mega Purple, a grape concentrate added to boost color and sugar.
In general, West Coast pinot noir has become more full-bodied and bigger in style. This is thanks in part to high scores given to wines that are more extracted and with higher alcohol. But it also is a result of warmer climates that are leading to higher sugar content in pinot noir grapes. We’ve had California pinot noirs whose tasting notes includes “elegant,” but whose profile is anything but. If you are looking for subtly and elegance, you’d be wise to look to Burgundy.
Here are some terrific pinot noirs we have recently tasted:
- Maison Joseph Drouhin Cotes de Nuits-Villages 2017 ($38). A simple, elegant pinot noir with soft tannins, forest floor and black berry flavors. Long finish.
- Maison Joseph Drouhin Cotes de Beaune Rouge 2016 ($54). Declassified grapes from the prized Clos de Mouches vineyard go into this moderately complex pinot with balanced but obvious acidity, subtle rose petal aromas and black cherry flavors. Perfumy nose.
- Domaine Drouhin Roserock Pinot Noir 2016 ($39). Reasonably priced, this pinot noir from Eola-Amity Hills has vibrant, forward fruit flavors of black cherries and raspberries with a dash of spice.
- Argyle Nuthouse Pinot Noir 2017 ($55). Winemaker Nate Klostermann is making consistently great pinots from Argyle’s vineyards in the Willamette Valley. This version draws grapes from the Lone Star Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills. It is fruit-driven with robust cherry flavors and aromas of dried herbs and lavender. Balanced acidity and a dash of spice.
- Argyle Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2018 ($20). Made entirely from Argyle’s estate vineyards spread through the valley, this value wine has elegance and bright dark cherry flavor. Its clean flavors come from 70 percent of it being aged in stainless steel.
- J Vineyards Annapolis Ridge Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2016 ($110). This small-batch pinot noir shows off the unique soils of this emerging Sonoma Coast area. Effusive aromas of figs and cherries, the pinot noir has good texture and balance. Black cherry and blackberry flavors with earthy nuances.
- Olema Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2018 ($20). It’s hard to find a decently priced pinot noir nowadays, but this offers simple, medium-body quality. Classic cherry and red currant notes with a hint of mushrooms and vanilla.
- Goldeneye Split Rail Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2017 ($86). Duckhorn is making some incredibly intense and fruit-driven pinot noirs under its Goldeneye label. This wonderfully textured, single-vineyard pinot noir is just one of three from the Anderson Valley, an appellation known for its luxurious pinot noirs. Silky tannins, lush mouthfeel and copious boysenberry and raspberry flavors and hints of licorice and spice on the nose. We also enjoyed the Goldeneye Confluence Vineyard pinot for the same price.
- Emeritus Vineyards Pinot Hill West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2017 ($75). The producers of this delicious wine discovered there was a difference between the fruit that comes from east-facing vineyards and west-facing vineyards. The west-facing vineyards get more late-day sun to mitigate the cool coastal winds that blanket the vineyards most afternoons. This wine has lush, concentrated cassis, blackberry and elderberry flavors with hints of vanilla and olive.
- Emeritus Hallberg Ranch Elite Pinot Noir 2017 ($110). Brice Cutrer Jones, a veteran pinot noir specialist, knocks the variety out of the park with the debut of this special wine made exclusively from the Elite Clone, a cutting from a grand cru vineyard in Burgundy. Dry-farmed, the vines go 20 feet deep in search of water. Along the way the grapes produce complex red berry aromas and bright cherry, strawberry and nectar flavors.
- Ram’s Gate Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2017 ($46). Raspberry and cherry flavors dominate this delicious pinot noir from cool regions of Sonoma Coast. Bright fruit character makes it a great match to summer fare.
- Khareba Saperavi Reserve Georgia 2013 ($15). The East European country of Georgia is producing outstanding red wines yet they remain a tough sell for stores that carry them. This dense and rich wine has inky color, a floral bouquet with oodles of black cherry and cranberry flavors. Hints of spice and vanilla. Lots of tannins but they’re not offensive. Great quality-to-price ratio here.
- Black Stallion Napa Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($22). Reasonably priced, this delicious chardonnay draws grapes from several appellations. Creamy mouthfeel with apple(?) and tropical fruit flavors and just a kiss of oak.
- Domaine Anderson Chardonnay 2017 ($29). We liked this wine for being lightly oaked, a rarity nowadays. Herbal aromas with pear and peach flavors. Balanced acidity.
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Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.