Wines Of The Week: American Pinot Noir Edition
May 31, 2018
By Brian Freedman
Pinot Noir, for all of its popularity, remains fairly misunderstood. It’s no wonder: With such a huge range of expressions, and its ability to transmit the land in which it’s grown with often stunning clarity and idiosyncrasy in the glass, Pinot Noir is uniquely likely to be mischaracterized. Still, for all the difficulty in pinning it down to a single style, the best of them, no matter where they’re grown and vinified, often share a sense of elegance underlying whatever power they might possess. Last week, for example, I enjoyed a bottle of Domaine Georges Roumier Chambolle-Musigny 2010, and nearly wept from its ethereal perfume pulsed through with enough muscle to allow it to continue evolving for another decade or more. On the other end of the spectrum recently was the Landmark Vineyards Hop Kiln Estate Pinot Noir 2016, an assertive bottle that showed all the strength of its Russian River Valley roots, plenty of sweet spice, cola, and chocolate ganache notes, without losing its identity as a Pinot.
This is the case all over the world, and from Burgundy, Sonoma, and New Zealand’s Central Otago to the Willamette Valley, Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, and beyond, the landscape of Pinot Noir is remarkably diverse.
These Wines of the Week, then, aim to highlight that exuberant range of expression within the umbrella of Pinot Noir.
Instead of a white Wine of the Week to close out May, I’ve chosen a rosé—in this case, the Inman Family “Endless Crush” Rosé of Pinot Noir 2017 from their Olivet Grange Vineyard (OGV Estate) in the Russian River Valley. The fruit was harvested in August of 2017 with the specific intention of being used for this rosé; the Pinot for Kathleen Inman’s other bottlings were picked separately, and with different end result in mind. As a result, this is a rich, expressive style of rosé that, for all of its remarkable complexity—it’s a pink wine that actually rewards being parsed and analyzed—retains the sense of vitality and brightness that fans of rosé look for. Endless Crush shows that Pinot Noir, even in places like Russian River Valley that have grown so familiar to wine lovers in recent years, still has the ability to confound expectations, in the best possible sense, with charm and outright deliciousness.
My red Wine of the Week is a case study in how vintage can affect the expression of a grape variety from one year to the next, even when it’s from the same place. The Willamette Valley has made a name for itself as a source of serious Pinot Noir whose range of micro-climates and unique terroirs are still being explored and exploited in greater detail all the time. McMinnville, the Dundee Hills, the Eola-Amity Hills, and beyond are all gaining traction among fans of the wines, and each for their own ability to grow Pinot Noir in a unique and often identifiable manner.
Still, vintage matters. As an example, though my red Wine of the Week is the Four Graces Pinot Noir 2016, I was fascinated to taste it alongside the same bottling from 2015. And while they certainly share a sense of vinous DNA, the character of the vintage is clearly marked on each of them: The 2016, from perhaps one of the best years that the Willamette Valley has ever seen overall, showed more detail, richness, and long-term potential to evolve than the 2015, which, while certainly very good, just didn’t benefit from the same auspicious vintage conditions as its younger sibling. The wine market, it seems, is recognizing that as well: At the third annual Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Auction in April, excitement was high enough for the 2016 vintage that a new record in total sales was set: $737,000 over the course of 81 lots of auction-only bottlings sold, mainly to the trade. If that’s an indication of how the general public will respond to the vintage, it marks an important moment for Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.
This particular Pinot Noir also shows that well-crafted, accurate and honest bottlings don’t have to cost a proverbial fortune; at an SRP of $32, it’s the kind of wine that you can—and should!— pair with grilled meats and salmon (or nothing at all except a book and a lounge chair) throughout the summer, without worrying about the price tag.
Both of these wines, I think, show that we are finally moving beyond the overly simplistic notion of what this grape is capable of in the United States, from one region or appellation to another, and how noticeable the differences can be from one vintage to the next. Wine, after all, is not a monolith, unchanging from year to year and expressing only what the winemaker wants it to show. It’s an ever-changing thing, especially with a grape variety as transparent and expressive of the conditions in which it was grown, or the timing and the way in which is was harvested, or the goals and assumptions underpinning it all, as Pinot Noir.
Inman Family “Endless Crush” OGV Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir 2017 Russian River Valley
Loads of wild strawberries and a hint of rose petals immediately lift from the glass: This is summertime incarnate. On the palate, a concentrated and ripe red cherry note is joined by minerals, more strawberries, and perfectly ripe watermelon, with a touch of honey on the long finish. This is a serious rosé that is true to its Russian River Valley roots. It's delicious on its own, and wonderful with food. (SRP: $38)
The Four Graces Pinot Noir 2016 Willamette Valley
Rich and ripe, yet for all of the deep, dark cherry and cacao aromas, there is an undercurrent of savoriness here, a hint of forest floor and freshly dug mushrooms, all of which turn to a palate both ripe and powerful, with melted licorice, root beer spice, leather, dark figs, and spice cake. This is a steal. (SRP: $32)