Schug’s winemaker on greatness in Pinot

Mike Cox, winemaker at Schug Winery in Carneros, shares his views on attempting to achieve perfection with Pinot in California, and names a handful of producers he really rates for their handling of the grape.

Mike Cox

Mike Cox is winemaker at Schug Winery in Carneros

What factors in your view make a Pinot Noir great?
For me, Pinot Noir is first and foremost about elegance and mouthfeel. It is very much a textural wine. Supple on entry, rich throughout and a long silky finish. All hung on a solid framework of acidity to carry it. From there we can talk about the nuances of the wine as it ages, but it all starts with the mouthfeel.

What regions of the world have the potential to produce high quality Pinot Noir? 

Anywhere the growing seasons are long enough for flavors to develop without an oppressive amount of alcohol. In addition to the obvious Burgundy, I have had great wines from Germany (primarily the Rheingau), Austria (Neusiedlersee), New Zealand, Oregon, and right here in Carneros.

How has your own approach to getting the best from Pinot Noir changed over the years?

One of the great things about working with Walter [Schug] is that his vision really has not changed. We don’t have to chase styles as they continuously evolve. We make wines that Walter likes to drink. My approach though has matured and I am more willing to hold back and wait for things to develop rather than be too fiddly up front. Not that I am afraid to course correct, I just am a little more patient and shoot for more of a middle ground.

What sort of evolution in the style and popularity of Pinot Noir are you currently seeing in California?

I think the pendulum is swinging back from a heavy-handed approach to one in which subtlety and grace are appreciated. If people are looking for big Napa Cabs or a big Dry Creek Zin, they are sticking to that, not trying to force those riper styles on the drinking public.

What is it about Pinot Noir that means it has such global appeal?

It’s subtlety. It’s every changing nature. Pinot Noir will never bore you, it may on occasion disappoint you, but it will soar higher than any other wine.

Is there a winemaker or wine whose expression of Pinot Noir inspires you?

Bob Sesssions for decades, and now Michael McNeill at Hanzell have made wines that are the gold standard for Sonoma Pinot Noir. I think Scott Rich, formerly of Carneros Creek Etude and now of his own Talisman brand has shown a deft hand in crafting a wide range of styles and bottlings. When it comes to Burgundy, my personal winemaking hero is François Millet of Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé: the absolute master of Pinot Noir.

This interview as conducted by the drinks business shortly after it concluded the Global Pinot Noir Masters 2013, in which Schug Winery was awarded the top accolade of Master for its Carneros Pinot Noir from the 2011 vintage. Presided over by a panel of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, each Pinot Noir was assessed by style and price rather than being judged by country. The full results from the competition will be featured in the March edition of db. For more information on the Pinot Masters, click here.

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