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Pinot Noir: to blend or vineyard designate?

October 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Wine

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Can a Pinot Noir that’s blended from different vineyards be as good as or better than one from a single vineyard?

I asked that question years ago in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and I never did get around to answering it, for a good reason: there is no right answer. Several famous Pinot Noir winemakers told me the same thing. We all know that the most expensive Pinot Noirs do bear vineyard designations, but there’s no reason, in theory, why you couldn’t blend barrel samples from Anderson Valley, the Russian River Valley and the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills and come up with something amazing.

Thought experiment: carefully make such a blend and then serve it, under blind tasting circumstances, to the proponents of terroir who insist they can tell a Sta. Rita Hills from a Russian River Valley with both hands tied behind their backs. Wouldn’t it be something if some great palate sniffed it and declaimed, “Aha! A blend of the North and Central Coasts!” But that’s the stuff of fiction.

At any rate, as I said, you could make such a blend, but then it would have to have the lowly “California” appellation on the label, and you know what that means: nobody would want it. Oh, there’s be a few sommeliers and critics here and there who raved about it, but most consumers would shy away, believing that a despised “California” origin on a wine means it probably comes from the Central Valley and isn’t any good.

This is why folks with access to grapes from up and down the coast, like Siduri, Loring and Patz & Hall, generally don’t make California-appellated Pinot Noirs, preferring the single-vineyard approach. (There are exceptions: Testarossa has a Cuvée Niclaire that’s a blend of their best vineyards and it’s also their most expensive Pinot. But Testarossa is decidedly the outlier here.) This is, of course, the Burgundian approach: your most expensive and theoretically “best” wines are your vineyard designates or blocks within vineyards. The communal wine is your next, less expensive tier, while your regional bottling (“Burgundy”) is your least expensive.

It’s not strange that the Californians borrowed from the Burgundian model, which itself is the product of that region’s particular history, culture and law. But it is worth considering that 12 different single vineyard Pinot Noirs, good as they may be, might not be quite as good as a wine made from blending them all together, which could even out some of the divots.

But these are angels-dancing-on-pinhead musings, and we can put them aside for the moment and consider just how interesting it can be when a talented winemaker gets his hands on fabulous grapes from different vineyards and, with hardly any care about how much money it takes, crafts Pinot Noirs from each of them of the highest quality. Who do you think of when reading these words? I think of Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, whose Fall releases I tasted yesterday.

My full reviews will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast, so I won’t talk about them here today, except to say that there were 13 of them, and they were all 2010s. Most of the vineyards are ones that Bob has bought fruit from for a very long time (Allen, Rochioli Riverblock, Weir, etc.). Now, the 2010 vintage for Pinot Noir was heralded at the time (much as the 2012s are now being touted) because it was cool, and pundits predicted the grapes would get mature without the high alcohol that plagued earlier, warmer years. I’ve now tasted through many 2010 Pinot Noirs and can say that, while the cool weather did indeed result in relatively modestly alcoholic Pinot Noirs, some of them were marred by mold. I assume this was a case in which the winery didn’t do adequate sorting (which is very costly), so that moldy grapes passed into the fermenting tanks. The smell of a moldy wine (not TCA from corks, but more likely botrytis from dampness) is awful.

However, the best wineries have rigorous sorting regimes (which simply means they hire a lot of people to hand-sort through the grapes on a slow assembly line, picking out individual berries that look bad). And Williams Selyem certainly is one of the best wineries. In all thirteen wines there wasn’t a hint of mold. To the contrary, these are splendid Pinot Noirs. Some are more tannic than others, and will require aging. Some are so delicious, you can hardly keep your hands off them, but even the most delicious will age. (Bob and I went through 20-plus years of Allen last year and, while some vintages were weaker than others, it was clear that Allen is a wine for the cellar. But most of Bob’s vineyard designates are.)

Could Bob blend all 13 wines together and come out with something wonderful? Of course he could. He already does something like this with his “Westside Road” and “Eastside Road” Neighbors blends. These both are wines that can stand proudly beside their single vineyard (and more expensive) brethren (or sistren, as the case may be). Tasted blind, it would not surprise me if a seasoned critic preferred one of the Neighbors wines to one of the vineyard designates. I sat with Bob years ago when he was in his little office at the old Williams Selyem winery conducting trials to put together the first Westside Road Neighbors. It was a very informal process, taking little glass vials of the different barrel samples and blending them into a glass beaker. Had he tinkered with the blend on the day before or the next day, it undoubtedly would have been different. There’s an element of serendipity (or random chance) in such things.

But Bob Cabral has many compelling reasons for producing single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. They appeal to the intellect, especially of those with long association with the winery. The growers from whom he buys like seeing their vineyards’ names on a bottle of Williams Selyem wine. There also is, we must not forget, the commercial aspect, referred to above, whereby a winery can change more for a vineyard designate than for a wine with a regional or statewide appellation.

Of Bob’s 2010s, my nod goes to his Far Sonoma Coast Pinots: Hirsch and Precious Mountain. What exciting wines they are. I’ll be up in that neck of the woods next month, on an extended visit, my first in a few years. Can’t wait.

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