If you’ve been to Burgundy, you know the euphoria you feel standing outside an iconic grand cru vineyard like La Tache or Romanee-Conti. You wonder how one row of vines can produce some of the most expensive and extraordinary wine in the world while a row right next to it is just a premier cru. Such is the mysterious aura of Burgundy, the indisputable epicenter for pinot noir — a grape that like no other expresses the soil from which it grows.
Jen Walsh stood beside those same vineyards and remembers the goosebumps.
“It was like going to church or on a pilgrimage,” she recalled.
Walsh made her first pinot noir for Elk Run Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Md., and then headed to Volnay to see how the Burgundians made wine. Bitten by the pinot noir bug, she got her master’s degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis before landing her current job at La Crema in 2017. No surprise: She’s still making pinot noir.
Our connection with La Crema pinot noir has been the popular blend of Sonoma Coast vineyards — always a good value but a generic wine with little distinction. Walsh gave us another look at La Crema. She was brought aboard to focus on cool-climate pinot noirs and chardonnays with a single-vineyard intention. While that sounds a lot like Burgundy where village names grace the bottles, Walsh is quick to say she is not trying to duplicate the French — but like the French she wants to express a vineyard’s unique terroir.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop,” the Pikesville native said of her introduction to La Crema’s vineyards.
Owned by Jackson Family Wines since 1993, La Crema has been around since 1979 but it never achieved the recognition it is getting now. Refocusing the brand may be the owner’s intention. Not only is Walsh new, but so is winemaker Craig McAllister who came aboard just four years ago.
More producers have been transitioning from blended pinot noirs to single-vineyard pinot noirs in the last several years. Like La Crema, they have decided that pinot noir has a propensity to interpret the unique characteristics of the soil, an attribute lost in the blending process.
“It’s hard to describe,” Walsh said. “Pinot noir is very transparent. It takes on a sense of place. When I close my eyes and take a sip of our Shell Ridge pinot noir, I’m transported there. Pinot noir just reflects where it is grown more than any other varietal.”
Tasting La Crema’s pinot noirs side-by-side offered ample evidence of the unique characteristics of each location.
Pinot noir has the ability to produce delicate, light-colored and sensual wines like those found in Burgundy or heavy, fruit-ladened wines like those found in California. Not only does soil influence those profiles, but so does the winemaker’s philosophy. Some winemakers want an extracted, high-alcohol pinot noir, for instance. Many use whole-cluster fermentation and pump overs to achieve a certain style. Almost all producers plant a range of clones to provide additional layers of aromas and flavors.
Even so, Walsh said, “Site trumps clone every time.”
Single-vineyard pinot noirs are pricey but you get a lot more intensity and complexity in them. Here are several to try:
- La Crema Shell Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($60). The soil here is sandy loam mixed with the ancient sea shells that give the vineyard its name. Just over the ridge from the Pacific Ocean, the Sonoma Coast vineyard is on a steep slope. The result is fresh fruit character of blackberries and spices.
- La Crema Saralee’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($55). The longer ripening period in this Russian River Valley vineyard allows for a more elegant pinot noir with plum and cherry flavors, earthy and raspberry aromas, and good complexity.
- La Crema Fog Veil Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($65). The somewhat warmer microclimate around this Russian River Valley vineyard is tempered by daytime fog. Lots of red berry fruit and hints of spice.
- Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Meredith Estate Pinot Noir 2017 ($68). Merry Edwards says this estate was her first adventure into viticulture. Twenty years later is the proof she has learned a lot about pinot noir. This expressive pinot noir reflects a soft soul with effusive raspberry, cherry and plum notes with ripe tannins and depth. Loved it!
- Kenwood Vineyards Six Ridges Pinot Noir 2017 ($30). We always associated this Sonoma County producer with cabernet sauvignon, but this delicious pinot noir takes a different course. Winemaker Zeke Neeley says pinot noir is his favorite varietal to grow but challenging to make. Sourcing grapes from the cool Russian River Valley, he has created an intense, black-cherry and strawberry-driven wine with hints of spice, vanilla and chocolate.
- Inman Family OGV Estate Pinot Noir 2016 ($73). The flagship pride of this Sonoma County producer, the Olivet Grange Vineyard pinot noir is rich and complex with a finish that goes on and on. Cherry and raspberry flavors abound with a touch of clove and mineral. One of our favorite pinot noirs year after year.
- Emeritus Don’s Block Pinot Noir 2016 ($110). One of the most elegant and Burgundy-like pinot noirs we’ve tasted in a long time, this is a special for the late founding winemaker Don Blackburn. A prized block of the producer’s Hallberg Ranch vineyard, it is a layered wine with black cherry notes, dried herbs and a hint of cinnamon.
- Emeritus Wesley’s Reserve Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir 2017 ($75). This estate-grown wine from the Russian River Valley exemplifies the ideal climate for pinot noir. Unfined and unfiltered, it provides a pure expression of pinot noir: generous aromas of blackberries and espresso with a velvet texture and dark fruit flavors with hints of forest floor and cedar.
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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.