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Pinot On Point
Winemakers are pursuing Pinot Noir’s personality deep into the vineyards

By Thom Elkjer
wine editor

Looking through my notes from Pinot Noir tastings in 2004, I noticed a surprising pattern: the more site-specific the wine, the more I liked it.
While I would never suggest that you should like what I like (or what any critic likes), there does seem to be a message here for those of us who love the “heartbreak grape”: Pinot Noir speaks most eloquently when it’s made from a particular place.

Just check out what’s on offer at your local wine shop. For one thing, the number of Pinot Noirs with a vineyard name on the label keeps going up. Even so-called “monopole” estates — those that grow, vinify and bottle their wine in the same single location — have launched even more highly specific new bottlings from just a few acres of the estate or certain barrels in the cellar. Meanwhile, garagiste winemakers, who once shunned Pinot Noir because of its delicate, high-risk personality, are now making small, site-specific lots of the wine right alongside their less finicky Syrahs and Cabernets.

This is not to suggest that all Pinot Noir has to be made in vanishingly small lots. There’s a lot of good, mid-priced Pinot on the market, and we should all be grateful for it. But when we want a full measure of what only Pinot Noir can deliver, we’re going to get it best in a wine that is teased from a special spot of sun and soil.

Winemaker Merry Edwards made her reputation at sizable California wineries in the 1970s and 1980s. When she struck out on her own in the 1990s, she chose to make small-lot Pinot Noir grown in or near the Russian River Valley. “I am all in favor of more vineyard-specific bottlings,” she says, “as long as we’re really capturing something distinctive about Pinot Noir. Just putting the name of a vineyard on a wine doesn’t make it different from the next one. It has to mean something essential.”

Going for the essence of the grape is not for the faint of heart when it comes to Pinot Noir, a tricky fruit in the vineyard and sometimes neurotic wine in the cellar. Marimar Torres, founder and owner of Marimar Estate in Sonoma’s Green Valley area, had this in mind when she created “Cristina.” Throughout the 1990s, Torres made just one Chardonnay and one Pinot Noir bottling each year. Next spring, however, she will release “Cristina,” a barrel selection of the Marimar 2002 Pinot Noir that she says “really represents the personality of the vineyard. When you taste this wine, you taste exactly why we chose this place and this grape.”

It doesn’t get more specific than that.

The wine recommendations following are all from Russian River Valley, which many connoisseurs consider the premiere growing area for Pinot Noir in California (if not the U.S.) All come from specific locales within single vineyards. While these wines are delicious now, they will just begin to approach their peak at five years of age — if you can wait that long.

JAN/FEB 2005

Braised Shoulder of Lamb
Duck Confit
Pinot On Point
Viognier, An Exotic Alternative
Winemaker: Merry Edwards
Winemaker: John Alban
Wine Picks - PINOT NOIR
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