Pinot Noir is arguably one of the world's greatest wine grapes, so much so that "Burgundy" - the historic French region that may have been the first place in the world to require its wine producers to use a specific grape - has earned a dictionary listing as a synonym for "red wine" in general.
But I've found that Pinot Noir is one of those wines that sharply divides the world of wine lovers into two parts: Those who love it, and those who simply can't understand its appeal.
What's the Pinot problem? Here's what I think: In an era when robust, inky, full-bodied wines tend to win high critical ratings, Pinot stands out as simply different: It's relatively light in color (if not in body), and it celebrates transparency, complexity and subtle texture in contrast with bigger, heartier reds.
For many wine enthusiasts, encountering a Pinot is something like unexpectedly finding a pencil drawing in an exhibition of vast landscapes painted in oils ... or hearing a piano sonata during a concert of romantic symphonies ... or a folk song at a rock concert. It's not BAD, but it's DIFFERENT. (Pinot Noir is much like Riesling in this regard, although that's a topic for another day.)
These thoughts came to mind the other day when I enjoyed a visit and tasting with an old friend, wine maker Josh Jensen of Calera Wine Co., a respected California producer of Pinot Noir (and Burgundian-style Chardonnays). As we tasted his 1999 Selleck Vineyard Pinot, I asked whether making Pinot Noirs in a region better known for massive Cabernets doesn't amount to marching to the beat of a different drummer.
"These are not 'smash-mouth footballs,' but wines of subtlety," he responded. "In the rush toward 'monster' Cabernets, if you put this wine between Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate, it would probably get crushed. But this is a wine of subtlety and elegance."
Josh has been talking like that, as I recall it, since I first met him in the early 1980s, when I was starting out as a newspaper wine writer and he was a voice crying in the wilderness about California as a reasonable place to grow quality Pinot Noir. At that point, the conventional wisdom was that no one outside Burgundy had ever solved this grape's mysteries, nor was anyone particularly likely to do so. Most of the state's major producers made Pinot at the time, but by and large it was a modest wine with little or no resemblance to the great wines of Burgundy.
But Jensen, who spent years in Burgundy working at vineyards while studying the region and its wines, came back to California in the early 1970s and began searching for potential vineyard sites that would mirror Burgundy ... where growing conditions would be cool and dry, and most critically, where limestone soils would match the Burgundian geology.
In 1974, he settled on the site where Calera remains today, near Mount Harlan in San Benito County, about 90 miles south of San Francisco. It is one of the highest and coolest vineyard locations in California ... and it has served him well. Today, with excellent Pinot Noirs coming from many parts of California, Oregon, and other points from Northeastern Italy to New Zealand and Australia, you may still get an argument about whether anyone can top Burgundy at its best. But you'll no longer hear anyone credibly assert that great Pinot Noir can't be grown anywhere else. And Josh Jensen is one Pinot advocate who can take a good share of the credit for that.Calera tasting notes
We tasted through several of Calera's wines in current release, including one of the pricey single-vineyard bottlings, along with one 10-year-old beauty that has recently been placed back on the market from the winery's "library" stocks. Prices are the winery's suggested retail.
Calera 2000 El Niño Chardonnay ($12.50) - El Niño, the winery's budget line of wines made from purchased grapes, was introduced during the 1998 vintage influenced by the climate pattern of the same name, and now continues annually regardless of the weather. Bright greenish-gold in color, this one shows pleasant apple and tropical-fruit aromas; ripe and bright in flavor, it shows the influence of oak but remains focused on fruit. A crowd-pleaser.
Calera 1999 Central Coast Chardonnay ($18) - Bright gold with a greenish hue, it shows a good balance of fresh fruit and appropriate oak. Pleasant and appealing, apples and dates and creme brulee; honey-apple flavors are ripe, clean and long.
Calera 2001 Mt. Harlan Viognier ($36) - Clear straw color. Delicious floral scents and hints of pear, classic Viognier in the aroma, gains a bit of extra body from the restrained influence of older French oak barrels.
Calera 2000 El Niño Pinot Noir ($12.50) - Attractive berry-red color, rather light (as is typical of Pinot). Marked cherry cola and brown spice aromas, bright and fresh. Juicy fruit flavors are consistent with the nose, backed up by snappy acidity and a slight, pleasant bitterness in the finish.
Calera 1999 Central Coast Pinot Noir ($20) - Clear, light-ruby color, with appetizing scents of wild-cherry, mint and subtle dried herbs. Ripe sour-cherry fruit on the palate over structural acidity and hints of earth.
Calera 1999 Selleck Vineyard Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir ($55) - Clear ruby, darker than most of the Calera Pinots, a quality that Jensen attributes to concentration from very low vineyard yields of less than 1 ton per acre. Perfumed, floral and delicate, balanced and complex, it shows ripe but elegant black-cherry fruit and spice on the nose and palate. Sleek and inviting, it's an impressive wine, delicious now but well worth cellaring.
Calera 1992 Selleck Vineyard Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir ($76) - Recently re-released at a surprisingly fair price for a wine of this age and quality, it's bright ruby in color with amber glints. Full and complex, it's as elusive as only a fine, mature Pinot can be, classic but hard-to-pin-down flavors of fresh red fruits, herbs, "tomato skin" and spice. Full and round but not muscle-bound, it demonstrates the reality that first-rate Pinot is as much about texture as taste.
WEB LINK: As a quirky traditionalist, Jensen was late coming to the Web, but Calera's new Website makes up for the wait with rich content, including lots of information about the winery and its wines, online wine sales and a signup form for the Calera E-mail list. You'll find it all at
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Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.