Napa’s ‘less is more’ Pinot Noirs

Saintsbury

Saintsbury Pinot NoirNo 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.

Saintsbury barrelsFollowing 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.

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