Napa’s ‘less is more’ Pinot Noirs
Following a recent St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel review of 21 Pinot Noirs from the 2009 to 2012 vintages, numerous panelists noted a desire to see more Pinot Noirs with less: less extraction, less alcohol, less oak-influenced flavours.
In fact, in annual vintage tastings over the past six years, one thing has remained constant with Napa Valley Pinot Noir: producers continue to favour a deeper coloured, intensely extracted and oaked styles.
You can find Napa Valley Pinot Noir wines with less, yet this does not mean you are getting a lesser wine. Wines with great depth of aromas and flavours, fruit concentration, and balance between the fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannins exist. You just need to know where to look.
So who is making this rarer style of “less is more” Pinot Noir? Three producer names, and their wines, easily roll off the tongue: Ceja, Sinskey and Saintsbury.
Each of these wineries is making Pinot Noir from Napa’s Carneros region, where the grapes do well in a climate mitigated by ocean breezes and fog. This is where most of Napa Valley’s 3,000 acres of Pinot Noir is planted (2012 figures, US Agricultural Dept).
We take a look here at their wines and speak with each of them about their history, winemaking or philosophy on making Pinot Noir:
The story is inspirational: a Mexican family that evolved from migrant farming to owning one of the most respected brands in Napa Valley.
Returning to Mexico after working Napa Valley vineyards, Pablo Ceja would tell his children about his love for the little Napa Valley town of St. Helena. Pablo and his wife, Juanita eventually moved their family to the US in 1967. Their son Pedro grew up in St Helena, where he met and married Amelia Moran Fuentes. It would take years, but Pedro, Amelia and family members pooled their resources and purchased their first plot of 20 acres in Carneros. Their continued drive translated into Ceja Vineyards with 113 vineyard acres and a portfolio of highly-respected wines (10,000 cases which will expand over the next few years).
Amelia Ceja is a tour-de-force: never tiring of sharing her wines with as many people as she can gather to her Carneros property or visit in the marketplace. Her daughter, Dalia, has the same vivacious personality and works alongside her mother and father, Pedro, and uncle Armando who makes the wine.
Amelia Ceja explains that when purchasing land for winegrowing, they bought property only and planted all of the vines themselves. Visit the Ceja property and there is one thing you should not expect: all pomp and superficial show. The Cejas throw inspiring events in their beautiful Carneros setting, inviting guests and club members to experience Mexican cultural festivities. The family and the wines are all heart.
What you can expect is good wine. The Ceja 2009 Los Carneros Pinot Noir ($40) is a silky palate of red fruit flavours balanced by acidity and integrated oak flavours. Amelia explains that this Pinot Noir is made from Dijon and Pommard clones. The wine was put into neutral barrels except for 10% in new oak, and aged for 23 months. They seek balance and food friendly wines above all else.
No discussion of Napa Valley’s best Pinot Noirs can happen without mentioning Saintsbury. It stands out amongst premium Pinot Noir producers. Winemaker Chris Kajani was just finishing up the 2013 Pinot Noir harvest when The Drinks Business caught up with her.
Chris attended the St Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel session on Pinot Noir, and we discussed the panel’s reactions to the wines.
“Pinot Noir is maddening yet wonderfully fickle”, Chris started. “It’s greatly influenced by its growing conditions, so there was some natural vintage variation in the tasting. When winemakers and industry professionals get together for tastings like this, sometimes they feel comfortable and passionate about expressing what they really feel, which is what they did that day.”
The panel was made up of longtime Carneros producers as well as ones new to the region and new plantings, clonal materials and extraction were discussed. When talking about extraction in Pinot Noir, Chris explained, winemakers are really talking about tannins. “In the fermenter”, she explains, “you are balancing many things in order to get what you do want without getting the things you do not want. It is all ‘site dependent’. Some vineyards turn out higher tannin wines. You get used to the site and fruit with time. Vintage matters much less than the vineyard site itself.”
In some vintages, a less tannic style is desired. What can be done in the cellar to produce a ‘less tannic’ style of Pinot Noir? Chris fired off a number of choices: fermenting at lower temperatures to retain fruit without getting all of the tannins; punching down/pumping-over fewer times; taking the wine out of the fermenter (or pressing) sooner – these are all things that can mitigate tannin in robust Pinot Noir wine. In the end, Chris explains, it comes down to the balance of fruit, acid, oak, alcohol and tannins.
Following is her insight into the last three vintages in Carneros:
2010 was a cool year, a later year. For example, Saintsbury’s Lee Vineyard harvest started on the date that it had finished in 2013. There was naturally high acidity that year, increasing the perception of tannin by mouth. While tannin was certainly present in the 2010 wines, there was also nice density and concentration of fruit.
2011 was a cool compressed vintage with some harvest decisions based upcoming rains. Floral, more feminine wines were the hallmark of the vintage. In general, the Tasting Panel felt that some of the very light-bodied wines did not hold the oak profiles well. Saintsbury’s 2011 Carneros Pinot Noir was rated a top wine of the tasting, showing that great wine can be made in cooler, seemingly more challenging vintages.
2012 was very, very late, later than the 2010, but not as cool. It was also relatively dry with no heat spikes, so there was long, even ripening for the grapes. Only a couple of 2012 were shown in the Tasting Panel tasting but they were tasting well.
Saintsbury makes numerous Pinot Noirs and specialises in single vineyard sources. This one has deep, mesmerising aromas:
Saintsbury 2010 Lee Vineyard Pinot Noir ($54) is rich in flavours. Deep red cherry and cranberry fruit with complex and integrated spice flavours and a long, lingering finish, but it is not a Pinot Noir trying to flex big muscles derived from over-extraction and way too much oak. It has plenty of oak-influenced flavours but they are balanced in the overall wine.
Robert Sinskey farms 200 acres of premium vineyards in the Carneros and Stags Leap districts of Napa and Sonoma Valleys and each vineyard is certified organic. These are some of the most ethereal Pinot Noir wines tasted. These two wines are from Sinskey’s Carneros fruit:
Robert Sinskey 2010 Pinot Noir, Los Carneros ($38)
This medium ruby wine, 100% Pinot Noir, has deep aromas of red and black cherries with beautifully integrated spice notes and an earthy quality that finishes with a touch of black pepper. The wine is rich without being overly saturated. It is fresh and lively. The wine was aged for 10 months in French oak, 30% of this being new oak.
Robert Sinskey 2010 Four Vineyards Pinot Noir, Los Carneros ($60)
A 100% Pinot Noir made from fruit grown in the Vandal, Capa, Three Amigos and Scintilla vineyards with deep, plum and dark cherry flavours. This is a tangy wine with medium plus acidity; a young wine, best to open in a few years. The wine was barrel aged for roughly 14 months in 100% French oak, 40% of which is new.
The Drinks Business spoke with winemaker, Jeff Virnig, who had just concluded his 26th vintage at Sinskey this autumn. He and his team have worked with the same vineyards since 1988.
Jeff explained that back in the 1980’s, in order to achieve quintessential ripeness in Pinot Noir (and all the other varieties they produce) out of the Carneros region, you had to invigorate the soil through organic means. The idea was that if you could create balance in the field, and allow vines to grow without using artificial or synthetic products, you could achieve balance of flavour, and structure at lower potential alcohol.
“It was my belief at the time”, Jeff states, “that we as an industry were continually trying to achieve physiological ripeness through hang time, because we were negating nature’s balance in the farming process.” The Sinskeys, Jeff says, allowed him leeway, agreeing that continued over-use of toxic rescue chemistry in farming was negating nature’s sense of order.
Asked how the winery achieves such depth of aromas and flavour, Jeff gives the vineyard sites the credit. “There were 28 individually fermented lots from 13 clones/massal selections from six of our organically and bio-dynamically farmed vineyards in the 2010 Los Carneros Pinot Noir. We believe that the essence of Pinot Noir is closer to the red fruit spectrum. This is where we see the subtle nuances of Pinot Noir.”
“Such nuances”, Jeff lists, “of cherry, strawberry, fresh plumb, floral (violets, and rose), cinnamon, clove, fresh tobacco are lost in riper, warmer vintages, and/or if one is pushing the ripeness curve to achieve plush round wines.”
The Robert Sinskey Pinot Noirs are picked between 22.7 and 24.2 brix, Jeff explains, “as we believe there is balance of flavour and structure at these numbers specifically in our vineyards. Wine making and barrel selection is not heavy handed, and we can achieve balanced extraction of colour and flavour using small open top fermenters and employing cap irrigations. We pay close attention to the nuances of terroir in each block and vineyard as well.”
Jeff concluded by adding, “The ripe plush style has been promoted as the California style and garners high scores, but is generally not our preference for the dinner table, and what we think of as classic Pinot Noir.”
To taste what Napa Valley can do with its Pinot Noir, you need only taste the wines from these three producers. Great Pinot Noir can be produced here.
The top Pinot Noir picks from the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintner Tasting Panel as reported in the St. Helena Star by Tiffany van Gorder:
2009 Ceja Vineyards Carneros Pinot Noir ($40)
2010 Domaine Chandon Carneros Pinot Noir ($35)
2011 Laird Family Estate Carneros Pinot Noir ($55)
2012 Napa Cellars Pinot Noir ($22)
2011 Paul Hobbs Winery Carneros Pinot Noir ($75)
2011 Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir ($36)