Ask the Grape Doctor


Pinot Noir Challenges
California Wine Makers

By RICHARD NAGAOKA
Special to the Real Estate Reader

It's often been said that making a great Pinot Noir is the most elusive of all wine making challenges for California vintners. It's truly a case of Pinot Envy. In fact, even in Burgundy where Pinot is the reigning wine variety, a good vintage comes only once every three years. Once you taste one of these stunning wines, however, you'll wander the earth to find a site that can match the greatness of a fine Burgundy.

Why are California wine makers so challenged by Pinot Noir?

Pinot Noir is a variety that is subject to a lot of genetic mutation. In fact, there are forty-six clones of Pinot Noir recognized in Dijon, France only fifteen of which were discovered in Burgundy. Pinot is grown in Burgundy, in Champagne, in Alsace, in Italy and more recently in California and Oregon. Clonal selection is very important in the type of wine to be produced. The Burgundy clones are chosen for still wine quality and Champagne clones for productivity for sparkling wines. Probably no other variety has so much genetic material to choose from.

Small is beautiful

With Pinot, size does matter, in fact, the smaller the better. Grapes that have smaller clusters and smaller berries make the wines with the highest varietal intensity. A trial conducted at Knudsen-Erath Vineyards in the Willamette Valley in Oregon by Steve Price and Barney Watson found that the clones with the biggest berries produce the lightest wines.

Equally or more important is the climate. Burgundy is the northern most of the French growing districts and has the coolest weather. In California and Oregon, Pinot is most successful in vineyards planted in Climatic Region I or lower (Sub-Region I). The most famous growing districts on the West Coast are the Willamette Valley, the Russian River area of Sonoma County, Carneros in Napa and Sonoma and the South Coast area in Santa Barbara County. There are also some small, fascinating pockets where Pinot does exceptionally well such as at Calera Vineyards in San Benito County, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County and parts of the Alexander Valley in Sonoma.

One of the challenges of this variety for the grower is that low yields favor high quality and so it's hard to make money growing it. California yields for still wines are usually under four tons per acre and in Burgundy, between one and two and a half tons per acre. This is why Pinot produces some of the highest priced wines in the world and possibly some of the rarest. Recently, Pinot Noir prices have skyrocketed to between $3000 and $4000 per ton for still wine quality grapes.

At the other end of the Pinot market in California are Pinots used in sparkling wine. Pinot Noir has a long heritage for it's use in Champagne in France. The Pinots used in sparkling wine production can be grown at higher yields, 5 to 8 tons per acre however, the price it brings on the market is less, closer to $1400 to $2000 per ton. This is partly because sparkling wines have not increased in price and demand as still wines. It's not known why sparkling wines have not recovered from the high prices of the 1980s but for now sparkling wine sales are flat (nyuck, nyuck). Many sparkling wine producers are now cultivating and preparing to release still Pinot wines. Domaine Chandon in Yountville released their first still Pinot wine this year.

Pinot appears to be in high demand by many vintners partly because of the challenge involved. My classmate David Lett from Eyre Vineyards, Oregon said, "I'd get bored to death if I had to make Cabernet year after year. Only Pinot Noir offers a challenge that keeps me interested."

Growing conditions

Climate, climate, climate. The cooler the better. When grown where it's too warm you get poor color development, insufficient tannins, weak flavor, flatter than a pancake. You don't want to drink warm climate Pinot Noir. Production is really confined the coolest parts of Region I. this is one grape that does not forgive high temperatures. If it's foggy, windy, cold, with shady northern exposure, you can consider planting Pinot.

Petaluma may emerge as prime Pinot Noir region

Areas of Petaluma, Western Sonoma and Marin counties previously considered too cold for wine grape production are now being researched and planted for Pinot vineyards. Forestville had been considered the western limit of grape production until now but you'll soon see Pinot Vineyards going in between there and the coast. It won't take long for the local yokels to figure things out but right now, prices for vineyard suitable land are still moderate.

Suitable soil conditions vary widely from the Diablo clays to Haire loams of the Carneros. Pinot doesn't need the gravely, cobbly soils favored by Cabernet. Pinots are currently trellised on the VSP (Vertically Shoot Positioned) systems, although many older plantings are grown on California Sprawls. The key to producing fine still wines seems to be limiting the crop and choosing the right clone. Because it is so critical that the yields be low, some vintners are contracting Pinot Noir on a price per acre basis for example paying $9,000 or $10,000 per acre so that if the vintner wants, the grower will agree to thin the crop to increase quality. This is a creative way that growers and vintners manage the issue of quality vs. quantity.

Because it is grown in cooler districts where long hang time is preferred, Pinot Noir is vulnerable to late season rains and the accompanying Botrytis Bunch Rot. It's also vulnerable to Pierce's Disease.

The Burgundians report that the clones with rounder leaves get better yields while the clones with deeply lobed leaves produce smaller berries. Why that would make a difference is a mystery to me.

What are some of the hot Pinot Noirs produced today?

Some great Pinot Noir still wines include Romanee Conti from France, Etude from Carneros, Dehlinger, William Seylem and Rochoeli from the Russian River area, Ponzi, Domaine Druhin and Eyre from Oregon, Joseph Swan from Forestville, and Calera from the limestone hills of the Pinnacle Mountain Range near Hollister in San Bennito County. Expect to pay $30 to $50 per bottle for any of these. Pinots benefit from aging although not as tannic as Cabernet, there are highly esteemed Bergundian vintages from the 1930s. In California not only do we have a hard time making a drinkable Pinot Noir, the reputation of aging Pinots has not gotten the attention Cabernets have. This is possibly because some Cabs from the 1970s and 1980s have so much more tannin some are nearly undrinkable at first release so they need the time to age.

Richard Nagaoka is a viticultural consultant based in St. Helena, California. He has over thirty years experience in his field and is widely respected throughout the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Richard consults with industry professionals on acquisitions, evaluations, site development and vineyard redevelopment. You can call him at (707) 963-5955 for help with your next project.

 

(c) COPYRIGHT 1999 REAL ESTATE READER


Richard Nagaoka is a viticultural consultant based in St. Helena, California. He has over thirty years experience in his field and is widely respected throughout the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Richard consults with industry professionals on acquisitions, evaluations, site development and vineyard redevelopment. If you're thinking about buying, planting or redeveloping a vineyard, you can call him at (707) 963-5955 for help with your next project.


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© 1999 Real Estate Reader