From an auspicious start in the 1970s, Californian winemakers learned from the Burgundy masters and fine-tuned their style. Price and availability outside of the US is an issue, but many are well worth seeking out.
In the 1970s, when Pinot Noir was an alien presence in California, winemakers treated it like Cabernet and extracted the hell out of it. Not surprisingly, the wines were usually undrinkable.
But Californians learn fast, and by the 1990s there were some beautiful wines emerging, especially from the coastal regions.
Progress happened on two fronts. Several winemakers took themselves to Burgundy to study from the masters, and discovered how to grow the variety properly, as well as how to vinify it. And they also realised the crucial importance of suitable site selection.
A cool site is essential to preserve the delicate aromas and flavours of Pinot Noir, but at the same time the grapes need to attain full ripeness. Carneros in Napa Valley was probably the first region to be identified as having fine potential for Pinot Noir, although many of the grapes grown
there were destined for sparkling wines.
Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, with its foggy mornings, was also establishing a reputation, from estates such as Rochioli and Williams Selyem.
Today there is equal emphasis on Mendocino, well to the north of Sonoma, and in Santa Barbara County, where both the Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills sub-regions have demonstrated their potential for fine Pinot Noirs.
At the same time Sonoma’s high coastal ridges along the Pacific shore have also produced some spectacular wines.
Others, such as Cobb and Hartford, have, in Californian jargon, pushed the envelope to explore ever cooler spots near the ocean. Many of Ross Cobb’s wines are significantly under 13% in a quest to achieve ripeness at Burgundian levels of alcohol. They are wines that live dangerously, sometimes flirting with greenness. The same is true of Wes Hagen’s Pinots from the very cool Clos Pepe vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills.
Oregon has long been perceived as America’s most convincing expression of Pinot typicity, but I am not sure that is still true. Yes, Oregon’s top Pinots are superb wines and more Burgundian in style than examples from California, but there is no shortage of excellent Californian Pinots from winemakers who have fine-tuned their craft over decades.
In particular there has been much discussion about clonal material, and a realisation that the much-vaunted Dijon clones planted during the past 20 years may not always be suited to the warmer Californian climate.
For British consumers the drawback is price. The top wines do not come cheap, and many wine lovers might prefer to choose a Beaune premier cru for the same price. But a handful of producers have sought to make wines at realistic prices, even if they lack the complexity of the very best.
Best California Pinot Noir wines: