Uncorked: Evolution of pinot noir still ascending

National Pinot Noir Day called for a celebration.

When the day arrived Wednesday, the party had been in full swing for at least a week, and several outstanding pinots already had been tasted.

From Oregon to California, pinot noir has continued its impressive ascent with wines that have a diverse collection of flavors, textures and mouthfeels. Some aromas, fruit and spice traits are impossible to capture. They evade description and are a thrill to savor and attempt to identify.

But what is obvious is the quality and fun a bottle of pinot provides. The adventure in pinot started in my favorite AVA, California’s Sta. Rita Hills.

Greg Brewer, Rick Longoria, Richard Sanford and Wes Hagen were instrumental winemakers who outlined the proposal for the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, officially recognized in 2001. The 30,720-acre AVA has a unique, east-west transverse mountain range that allows Pacific air a direct route to the vineyards. It’s a perfectly drawn AVA. The “refrigerated sunshine” slowly ripens fruit in the vineyards, planted in poor, marine-based soils.

“At its core, we simply wanted to better articulate this very cold western stretch of the Santa Ynez Valley from the greater portion of the valley further to the east, which had previously caused climatic confusion in the media and trade,” Brewer said.

The Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2019 ($40) is sublime. There’s sweet cranberry, cherry, raspberry, tobacco and clove flavors. There’s red and black fruit in a duel for attention on the nose. Fine tannins frame the fruit, yet there’s an alluringly silky mouthfeel. A loamy earth scent is the aromatic lift that transports your senses right to the green hills, cold, windy days and ocean smell that permeate the AVA.

Featured in the bottle are 3D, Hapgood and Machado vineyards: a snapshot of the entire appellation in one bottle. The Sta. Rita Hills climate allows for production of a predictably tasty wine every year.

“Every site, block, clone and pick contribute an equitable impact to the final blend,” Brewer said. “There is no judgment or prioritization within our model, so every element is raised with neither bias nor prejudice. As newer parcels and blocks have been layered into the ultimate wine, there has been a natural evolution. The blend evolves as a result, in relation to our timeline as a winery. With that said, as we always raise things in a static fashion, and our climate is so predictable, there is typically not a huge noticeable shift year over year.”

A fierce independent streak in Sta. Rita Hills is how Brewer said the appellation has continued to grow. The Pacific Ocean’s direct influence on the AVA has allowed vintners an extended growing season.

Some choose to harvest early, some late and some right down the middle, according to Brewer. Winemakers have choices that take them in every direction.

“Everyone is pushing a limit in his or her respective way, which is vibrant and healthy for the community,” Brewer said. “Much like the octopus tattoo on my arm, every individual has their own ‘arm’ that is exploring in its own way while still attached to the greater body of the Sta. Rita Hills.”

Also using the coastal influence of the Pacific Ocean are pinot noir from California’s Sonoma Coast.

A blend of two vineyards four miles from the ocean and planted at 1,000 feet above sea level, the Hartford Court “Land’s Edge Vineyards” Pinot Noir 2018 ($50) captured the many facets of the AVA in one bottle.

Far Coast Vineyard near Annapolis is at the north end of the coast, on a second coastal ridge that softens the impact of the frigid Pacific air and thus ripens three to four weeks before its counterpart Seascape. Located on the first coastal ridge, Seascape is at the southern edge of the coast and stares down at Bodega Bay. It is shrouded in fog and high humidity throughout the growing season. Harvest in Seascape can happen as late as mid-October.

Red fruit, eucalyptus, bacon fat, mushroom, ground cloves and baking spice-rack aromas rose from the glass. Flavors of cranberry, cherry and spice built layers of character into silky tannins and a great mouthfeel.

For years, I’d flock to the spicy, earthy and fruit flavors of the Sta. Rita Hills as my preferred pinot destination. But surfing the Sonoma Coast pinots on a wine shop stroll often yields wines as enjoyable and dynamic. Year after year, they seem to deliver spectacular wines.

“I think the sense of reliability from the Sonoma Coast wines is driven by the fact that you have wines with a great combination of fruit intensity, complexity from climate and soil types, and acidity that maintains a freshness in the wines from this AVA,” Hartford Family Winery Director of Winemaking and General Manager Jeff Stewart said. “We take advantage of this by producing Land’s Edge; a blend of the two vineyards, capturing the essence of both sites and the quality potential of the Sonoma Coast.”

With one of the coolest tasting rooms in all of Sonoma, Three Sticks Wines at The Adobe is a site that must be visited. Its Three Sticks Price Family Estates Sonoma Coast 2019 ($55) had a juicy acidity, ripe strawberry-rhubarb pie flavors and a gunmetal-like minerality on the finish.

At Siduri, winemaker Matt Revelette gets a taste of what the entire state has to offer when it comes to pinot noir. He makes wines from sites up and down the coast, and jets up into Oregon’s Willamette Valley for a bottling.

The Siduri Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2019 ($40) had Christmas spice, nutmeg and black cherry aromas. Black cherry flavors mingled with a fruitcake spice on the finish that has a supple mouthfeel. Revelette joked that his favorite site is always, the “last one he got his hands on,” which shows in how good and unique each Siduri wine is every year.

“Producing a balanced pinot noir that’s not too lean but not too ripe, not too acidic but not too flabby – is, above all, about site selection, then dialing in all the details with precise farming,” Revelette said. “Pinot noir is most certainly a winegrower’s grape. What I mean by that is that it doesn’t like forceful handling in the cellar like some other varieties can tolerate, and it is a very transparent reflection of place.”

Also from the Russian River Valley, Croix “Narrow Gauge” Pinot Noir 2017 ($65) had flavors of raspberry, clove, anise and an earthy mushroom note. There’s a big, rich feeling to the wine that has an amazingly pure, juicy raspberry focus. There’s a mysterious hint of something on the finish, olive tapenade or potpourri, that furthers the experience.

Unearthed at my local wine store, the Siduri Pisoni Vineyard 2014 ($49), made by Siduri founder Adam Lee, had aged gracefully with black cherry, blood orange and some forest floor sweeping in at the finish. The John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($59) delved into blackberry and blueberry fruits – rich with some compelling tobacco pipe spice.

“We’ve taken great care to only source from our very favorite pinot noir vineyards,” Revelette said. “The most fun thing about my job is being able to bring all of these sites from up and down the coast to wine drinkers via bottle; I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Oregon pinot noir has commanded a voice at the varietals table, as well. WillaKenzie Estate Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir 2018 ($55) had bright cherry flavors that yielded to a spicy olive tapenade and wet earth note on the finish. It was medium-bodied, and had a snappy acidity.

When pinot noir burst into the consciousness of consumers almost 20 years ago, its staying power was always questioned. Cabernet had its seat atop the throne as most recognized varietal. Chardonnay and merlot followed in the pecking order at the time. But, pinot has endured. It’s more than a fad that came with the success of a movie or marketing campaign.

It’s continued on an upward trend, as determined winemakers hunt for new sites, and the maturation of existing vineyards offers a further improved product.

“Look no further than the history of Burgundy, if you doubt the staying power of pinot noir,” Stewart said.

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.