Winners, Losers, Surprises and Upsets: Tasting 2009 Pinot Noir Blind

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I had mixed emotions as I was driving to a blind tasting of 2009 Pinot Noir this past weekend. When Wine Zag blogger Adam Japko announced the tasting I was thrilled because I've been enjoying so many 2009 California Pinot Noirs lately. But as the night was upon us I looked at it differently than other tastings I'd been to.

Would I be able to pick my favorites out of the line-up? Would I be able to differentiate California from Oregon and elsewhere? Would my favorite be a cheap wine - and make me feel like a fool for spending so much energy chasing after and exploring increasingly obscure producers the past few years?

The line-up included producers I'm familiar with and enjoy like Sojourn, Belle Glos, and Loring. Familiar names like Patricia Green, Melville, and Calera. Some I was looking forward to trying for the first time - especially Kutch. Some old world Pinot Noirs, including a few Burgundies, were thrown into the mix as well. And a low-priced ringer: Castle Rock.

All of the wines in the tasting were 2009s, and the focus was primarily on California. Wine Spectator has called 2009 California Pinot Noir the best vintage ever. 2009 red Burgundy is said to be an amazingly fruit forward vintage. A perfect time for folks like me to explore the region. 2009 Oregon Pinot Noir hasn't received the accolades 2008 did, but 2009 is a warmer vintage and the wines are more generous on release as a result. More like 2006 Oregon Pinot Noir - which I liked.

The wines were tasted blind in 3 flights with the wines assorted randomly. We knew the wines being tasted and their price points but we didn't know which of the 17 wines was which.

Flight 1

Patricia Green Estate Pinot Noir (Oregon)  $35
Kutch Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley, CA)  $68
Montinore Estate Pinot Noir (Oregon)  $28
Friedrich Becker Estate Spatburgunder (Pfalz, Germany)  $25
Sojourn Sangiacomo Vineyard Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, CA)  $50
Brewer-Clifton Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills, CA)  $60

Thoughts on the flight: Tons of stylistic diversity here. Guessing a lot of these aren't from California. Probably a couple are from Burgundy or Oregon.
   
Flight 2

Calera Pinot Noir (Central Coast, CA)  $26
Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley, CA)  $43
A Tribute to Grace Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyards Grenache (CA)  $42
Domaine Eden Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains, CA)  $32
Loring Graham Family Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley, CA)  $48

Not as much diversity here. Thinking all of these are from California. Good wines but no huge standouts.

Flight 3

Lignier-Michelot Cuvee Bertin Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy)  $70
Castle Rock California Cuvee Pinot Noir (CA)  $11
Sojourn Wohler Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, CA)  $50
2010 Calatroni Pinot Nero (Italy)  $18
Melville Terraces Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills, CA)  $56
Bouvier Bourgogne Le Chapitre Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy)  $23

Best flight of the night. Diverse and a couple of standout what I'm guessing are California Pinot Noirs.

Winners

The wines from Sojourn, Brewer-Clifton, and Melville showed well for me personally. And Sojourn and Brewer-Clifton showed well according to the group at large.

Losers

Belle Glos caught my eye on the list going in. I though it would be a benchmark wine of sorts that I might even be able to pick out having tried several bottles of their single vineyard wines and detecting a consistent stylistic pattern. But, speaking in March Madness terms, it was upset in the first round. The wines from Oregon (Patricia Green and Montinore Estate) didn't do particularly well either.

Surprises

A late entry - an $18 Italian Pinot Nero - tied the Brewer-Clifton for wine of the night. Quite an accomplishment for such an affordable wine. And who says bigger wines always show better in this kind of tasting?

Upsets

I'd never tried Kutch but finishing near the back of the pack - and weighing in at $68 - has me spooked. Also, the most expensive wine in the tasting - a $70 Burgundy - didn't do much to impress either.

Tasting Notes (sorted from my favorite to least favorite)

2009 Sojourn Wohler Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, CA) $50 94 WWP: Oustanding

Tasting Note:

Powerful with ripe strawberry and fresh produce aromas. Caramel notes remain in the glass after a couple sips, but it's balanced with fresh fruit and layers of more serious structure. Complex. Love it.

Observations:

Tied for 2nd amongst the group, this was my favorite wine of the night, and just a bit better than the Melville Terraces in the same flight. The Sojourn showed a purity of fruit and balance that others were lacking. Pleased to see this producer come out on top.


2009 Melville Terraces Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills, CA) $56 93 WWP: Outstanding

Tasting Note:

Ooo - pretty. Pure California. Round. A little heat. Is this Melville or Belle Glos perhaps?

Observations:

I've enjoyed Melville's entry level bottling (~$30) even though they occasionally have some rough edges and a little heat. This one was very nice. Edged out by the Sojourn because I thought the Melville's fruit was obscured just a touch behind what seemed like a fairly substantial oak regiment.


2009 Brewer-Clifton Clos Pepe Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills, CA) $60 92 WWP: Outstanding

Tasting Note:

Powerful flavors but balanced nicely with a good amount of acidity. Really nice. With a touch of heat it clings to the glass. But it's vibrant. This could be Sojourn. Or Belle Glos?

Observations:

I had no experience with Brewer-Clifton prior to this tasting. I hear the winemaker is the same as Melville so maybe it's not surprising to see them near each other in my rank order. A little on the spendy side but I'd buy more of this if I could find it in the $40s retail.


2009 Domaine Eden Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains, CA) $32 91 WWP: Outstanding

Tasting Note:

Limited aromatically but radiant and flavorful. Elegant. Pretty. If this is California, it's doing it in a restrained style. Kutch?

Observations:

A nice surprise here from an affordable producer I'd never heard of. And from the Santa Cruz Mountains too. If this is what I think Kutch would taste like after reading about Kutch, and this wine is quite a bit more affordable, I'll definitely be seeking this one out.


2009 Sojourn Sangiacomo Vineyard Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, CA) $50 90 WWP: Outstanding

Tasting Note:

Happy magenta color but the flavors are melancholy. Beautiful nose of black cherry, raspberries, and mushrooms. Secondary flavors of cola and coconut. Long finish. Like it.

Observations:

Another winner for Sojourn and looking back on the notes it sounds like one of the most compelling wines of the night. Would definitely buy again and recommend others check out Sojourn. They've got one of the most consumer-friendly mailing lists I've come across.


2009 Loring Graham Family Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley, CA) $48 90 WWP: Outstanding

Tasting Note:

Dark in color. Caramel, then strawberries and cranberries. Some rough edges. Is this Sojourn? Might be a little much, but it tastes really good. Could this be Belle Glos?

Observations:

A solid showing here for Loring and the tasting notes are not too surprising having tried a number of their wines from this and recent vintages. Along with Siduri I consider Loring to be a bell weather value-priced high quality California Pinot Noir producer. The single vineyard bottlings climb up a bit in price. As with many single vineyard wines I'm not sure they're always worth it. Another consumer-friendly mailing list to check out.


2010 Calatroni Pinot Nero (Italy) $18 89 WWP: Very Good

Tasting Note:

Oregon? Bubble gum. Don't think it's got that California Pinot Noir flavor profile. Nice, but not my favorite.

Observations:

Tied for 1st among the group. That's saying something for an Italian wine in a line-up of stacked California wines costing many times more. At $18 I'd try this one again if I could find it. Very interesting. Try to find it on Wine-Searcher

2009 Calera Pinot Noir (Central Coast, CA) $26 88 WWP: Very Good

Tasting Note:

Lively fresh fruit. Highish viscosity. Probably California. Straightforward. Tasty.

Observations:

Tied for 3rd in the group. Pretty much in line with what I wrote when I tasted this non-blind for the first time a couple weeks ago. I like this around $20 and my enthusiasm would increase more closer to $15. Can't see my way to the 92 point rating and accolades Robert Parker bestowed on this one but it is very good in my opinion.


2009 Friedrich Becker Estate Spatburgunder (Pfalz, Germany) $25 88 WWP: Very Good

Tasting Note:

Think this one is from Oregon. A little green and twangy. Low viscosity. Pretty, but not my favorite.

Observations:

Affordable and interesting to try a Pinot Noir from Germany.


2009 Castle Rock California Cuvee Pinot Noir (CA) $11 88 WWP: Very Good

Tasting Note:

Very enjoyable and surely from California. Liked it a lot but it lacks some markings I look for in California Pinot Noir flavor-wise. A little dusty and quirky.

Observations:

Pretty strong showing here for a widely available wine that can be found significantly south of $10 if you look around.


Bouvier Bourgogne Le Chapitre Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy) $23 88 WWP: Very Good

Tasting Note:

Leuden's cherry cough drops which I tend to like, along with some vegetal components that knocked it down a bit. Is this Grenache?

Observations:

Tied for 2nd in the group. An affordable Burgundy with some things I liked and others I didn't.


A Tribute to Grace Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyards Grenache (CA) $42 87 WWP: Very Good

Tasting Note:

Tied for 3rd in the group. Light in color. Muted nose. Some quirky notes. Germany? Not California.

Observations:

Well this one confused me. I was surprised to see a California Grenache so light in color compared to Pinot Noirs. Interesting.


Lignier-Michelot Cuvee Bertin Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy) $70 86 WWP: Very Good

Tasting Note:

Flinty with quirky bubble gum notes. Not bad but quite a few off notes.

Observations:

I think I said at the time, "typical Burgundy: An expensive wine nobody really cares much for". Nobody at the tasting had anything nice to say about this one and it was the most expensive wine tasted. I know it's a far reaching generalization to bag on Burgundy and some day I'll come back and laugh at myself for being resistant to Burgundy's charms, but this one did little to compel me to go deeper into Burgundy. The Wine Advocate rated this wine 90-92 points.


Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley, CA) $43 85 WWP: Very Good

Tasting Notes:

Smoky. Some slight nail polish notes distract. A really nice wine but too many off notes. Definitely California.

Observations:

Wow. What a huge surprise to see a single vineyard Belle Glos show so poorly blind when I've found their wines to be so utterly (and reliably) delicious. I will say that the Clark & Telephone is my least favorite of the 3 single vineyard Pinot Noirs they produce (Las Alturas being the favorite, and Taylor Lane being the second favorite).

I was disturbed by this result so I opened another bottle of it the next night at home. While I can see why I wrote the things I did, when tasting on its own there's no way I would have rated it this low. This wine has a unique style. It's bold and yes some of the notes are a little less than pure fruit. I'd probably rate the bottle I tasted from at home 90 points. Blind tasting is humbling once again.


Kutch Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley, CA) $68 85 WWP: Very Good

Tasting Note:

For a moment I thought this wine might be corked but it wasn't. Pungent with fruit that's muted and dominated by menthol (spearmint?) aromas. Low viscosity. Don't think this is from California. Quirky.

Observations:

Perhaps more of a disappointment than the Belle Glos. I'd never tried Kutch before and I just finished a month-long search to acquire some. Now I'm wishing I'd shown more restraint. I've read that their wines used to be bigger but were showing more restraint in a Rhys-like manner lately. Come to think of it I wasn't too thrilled with a bottle of Rhys I opened recently either. Definitely interested in trying more but will try my best not to fall under the spell of the pretty label.


Patricia Green Estate Pinot Noir (Oregon) $35 84 WWP: Good

Tasting Note:

Perfume nose. Falls a little flat on the palate. Kind of fake-tasting. Tastes like California but not high quality?

Observations:

Totally missed the mark here. I had a bottle of this ('08 vintage) and thought it was good but typical Oregon Pinot Noir. My tasting note makes it sound like I thought maybe this was the Castle Rock.



Montinore Estate Pinot Noir (Oregon) $28 78 WWP: Average

Tasting Note:

Not from California and possibly flawed. Smells of damp cellar floor or Home Depot near the fertilizer.

Observations:

Well, it wasn't from California. I didn't hear anyone else say TCA so I don't think it was flawed. But it was funky.

Conclusions and Recommendations

What a tasting - full of winners and losers, surprises and shockers. Once again blind tasting proves to be a valuable tool for removing bias and analyzing wines without preconceived notions.

It was reassuring to see the Sojourn wines show well in this blind format. But not just for their brawn (some call them a Cab-drinker's Pinot Noir) but for the diversity they showed. They're definitely allowing the personality of each site to be reflected in their wines, but showing them in their best possible light. Like a portrait photographer.

The wines from Brewer-Clifton and Melville, along with some other recent favorable experiences from the region renew my enthusiasm for exploring Pinot Noir from Southern California. They're often plush and forward but when done well like these they can be quite enjoyable.

Both the Sojourn Wohler and the Brewer-Clifton Clos Pepe showed well with the group.

The $18 Italian Pinot Noir tying for 1st in the group was quite an accomplishment. I liked it (but didn't love it) and would be open to trying more Italian wine made from this grape.

The Domaine Eden (91 Wine Advocate, 91 WWP) is an intriguing play. I'd like to learn more about them.

If you like California Pinot Noir I'll be writing up a trip report from a recent trip to Sonoma. I'd love it if you subscribed to the Wellesley Wine Press to hear about those visits.

Question of the Day: What do you think about these results? Or blind tasting in general?

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