This summer my notebooks are filled with blood and cherries, meat and steel, iron and roses and acid. Also: warming spice, wintery herbs, ruby citrus, licorice, glittery strands of minerals, tannins from grating to lithe.
I’ve been tasting Pinot Noir. My travels have taken me to vineyards in California, Burgundy, and Oregon, where my tour was capped by attendance at the International Pinot Noir Celebration. I have formal notes on hundreds of Pinots from both Old World and New, in prices ranging from about $25 to well over $100.
By nature these tasting excursions focus on young wines, those newly released. Regardless of provenance, young Pinot can be gritty and strident, a bit gangling. But those that are well-made will show strength of character and a glimmer of what will, years ahead, reward the patient.
Generalizations about wine are always dangerous, and generalizations about Pinot Noir are dangerous to the point of incendiary. But most would agree that like many great grapes—Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc—Pinot Noir is a tuning fork for terroir. So my summer-long, broad-spectrum tasting was a chance to turn a finely ground lens on the way Pinot reflects both soil and cellar handling, how it embodies both regional and stylistic gestalt.
On the whole the young Burgundian Pinot Noirs were earthy and savory, ripe but only just. They were less about fruit, more about structure, their armature of acid and tannin plaited with lean red berries, minerals, herbs, wild game, and the scent of the forest. These fine details add a filigree of deliciousness, but these are serious wines, cool and serene, sometimes almost feral. To me, tasting Burgundy is like licking blood off a cold nickel.
The best of the New World Pinots were wines with a sunnier disposition—not un-serious, but lacking the gravity of their Burgundian contemporaries. Their bright berry fruit winds around a taut acid core garlanded with flowers and herbs, spice and minerals. Even in youth they can be pliant and engaging. They’re less elemental than their European cousins, too, more composed—more steel than iron, more meat than blood. Tasting New World Pinot is like tasting a juicy kernel of earth: the way a tart cherry would taste if you made it out of stone, the way a pomegranate seed would taste if it had a heart of pearl.
Acid is the common filament, and it is acid that makes all of these wines enduring and amaranthine; they reward long-cellaring, and they make you want to take another sip.
Let’s look first at the Americans, saving the Burgundies for another day. Below are several standouts from California and Oregon, and while this is by no means a comprehensive list, it is at least representative. All are wines whose fine details and tart, ruby-citrus acidity make them engaging companions for a summer evening, anywhere.
Flowers Vineyard and Winery
2012 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
13.9% abv | $45
Clear, ruby-garnet red and resplendent with the scent of earth, iron, raspberry, and anise seed. There’s another balancing note, too, a kind of breezy-freshness that’s reminiscent of a warm meadow fragrant with herbs and straw and greenery. The fruit is carried upon a matrix of delicate, almost crystalline acidity, and as the wine finishes the herbs return: lavender, rosemary, almost-pine. It would be a stunning companion to grilled lamb rubbed with herbes de Provence.
Tin Barn Vineyards
2011 Pinot Noir Ricci Vineyard, Carneros
13.9% abv | $34
Pale garnet color with a perfume of beach roses, sweet tomato, and green olive, all interlaced with cinnamon and allspice. On the palate I find rhubarb, sweet cherry, and peppery tangerine. This wine reads like a pomander, all clove and orange citrus, brilliant and shimmering with a sweet, spicy polish on top. Its piquancy and green olive saltiness married beautifully with Chicken Marbella, a dish whose sweet and tangy elements can otherwise conspire against a wine.
Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery
2011 Pinot Noir Russian River Selection, Russian River Valley
14.2% abv | $45
Wildflower aromatics mingle with ripe tomato, black plums, and sweet tobacco, giving the wine an opulent luxuriousness. The sweet flowery notes give way to flavors of plush red fruits, spicy raspberries, and orange peel. Fleshy, ripe, and full-bodied, this is a Pinot with ample stage presence, more Bette Midler than Audrey Hepburn. It needs richness, smoke, and meat as its dance partner.
2012 Pinot Noir Radian Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills
14.1% abv | $54
Limpid red and redolent of wild roses and tangerine, raspberry, red currant, cranberry. A whiff of lavender flowers and brickish minerals bring it down to earth, but still it feels less about structure and more about fruit and bewitching aromatics. I also tasted the winery’s 2011 Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard, another Santa Rita Hills location. Winemaker John Dragonette notes that these vineyards are washed by cool marine breezes that move inland along east-west valleys, yielding berries with thicker skins and wines dominated by cherry, raspberry, and strawberry notes. Like the 2012 Radian, the Fiddlestix had vibrant lavender aromatics—both flower and leaf—plus currant, pomegranate, and pink grapefruit. Perhaps it was the extra bottle age, but this wine felt beautifully stitched together, its fruit, tannin, and acidity in harmonious balance.
Trombetta Family Wines
2011 Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
14.2% abv | $58
This is a spritely and beautifully cut Pinot Noir from the cool Petaluma Gap, where Gap’s Crown Vineyard rests on a west-facing hillside of Sonoma Mountain. The 2011 vintage was cool, leading to long, slow ripening and extended hang time. The wine is a clear, deep rubescent red with the scent of ruby grapefruit, flowery cranberry, and a whisper of wintergreen. There’s zesty red currant and red raspberries on the palate, plus velvety tannins and a gleaming acid core. Nimble and elegant.
Verse by Ryme Cellars
2012 Pinot Noir Las Brisas Vineyard, Carneros
12.8% abv | $28
This wine is a very pale raspberry color with a delicate floral fragrance of ripe berry fruits and tangerine peel. These aromatics have an almost piercing clarity, but there’s a tawny note underneath, too. Lively acidity makes the wine feel lissome, delicately textured, and spicy; it’s like biting into a Clementine. The finish has lingering citrus peel and pith, but for all this spice and acid, there’s also a curious weightiness that slips away slowly. On Day 2 the wine was still fresh and ringing, a beautiful explosion of pink grapefruit with a delicious, serious finish.
Inman Family Wines
2010 Pinot Noir Olivet Grange Vineyard, Russian River Valley
12.5% abv | $68
Pale red-garnet with a clear rim, and deeply perfumed with the scent of roses, orange peel, cardamom, and ginger root. This wine has great acidity—tart raspberry, ripe tomato—plus a trace of clove, and the finish flares into orange and spice. Lively, elegant, and supremely drinkable. Inman’s 2011 Pinot Noir Thorn Ridge Ranch, also from the Russian River Valley, is the yang to this wine’s yin. Here, earthy sous-bois notes complement aromas of ripe plums and hibiscus, plus a mélange of beets, iron, and black fruit. It’s a bigger wine (13.8% vs. 12.5%), more brooding and earthy; both are wonderful.
2012 Pinot Noir Casteel, Eola-Amity Hills
13.5% | $60
A beautifully nuanced and multi-dimensional wine from Oregon’s cool Eola-Amity Hills. Aromas of bay laurel and minty herbs mingle with tart cherry, currant, wild roses, and raspberry petals. The wine’s body is silky and elegant, and its long juicy finish flames out like a glittery zing drawn by a fairy’s wand. Certified sustainable by Oregon LIVE.
Elizabeth Chambers Cellar
2011 Pinot Noir Winemaker’s Cuvée, Willamette Valley
13.3% abv | $32
Another Oregon Pinot, with thyme and spring herbs lilting above the scent of warm red currant, cranberry, and licorice. If you’ve ever been at alpine heights on a warm day when the mountain cranberries are ripe, you’ll have some sense of this aroma. Sleek acidity is laced with alluring notes of nutmeg and cinnamon, which add poignancy to the wine’s fine-boned tannins and gorgeous red fruits. It feels exceptionally elegant yet somehow also relaxed, poised yet easygoing. It makes a good segue into future reporting on Oregon’s wines, and especially Oregon’s Pinot Noir.
 All wines were reviewed as media samples.