Poor Pinot Noir, Good Pinot Noir

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By Celia Strong
Hello, again. Another new wine coming at us, again. And, actually, from a grape variety that we don’t look at all that often — Pinot Noir. This is a red variety whose name refers to the dark pinecone shape of its grape clusters on the vine (“pinot” is from the French for “pine” and “noir” is “black” in French). Poor Pinot Noir, though. Over the last several years we have tried and tried to drink Pinot Noir wines, but it’s been hard to get there. The grape itself is one of the more difficult to grow which tends to cause a wide range in the quality of its wines.  And, then, along came a movie that made it sooooo popular that the retail prices on Pinot Noir wines became difficult too. Poor Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir’s home is the Burgundy region of France. It is a very old variety, only one or two generations removed from wild grapes. Interesting how even grape varieties have a line of historical development coming out of the Ice Ages. Today, there is a lot of different DNA research going on with this grape and some of the results are, to say the least, interesting. Just to give you an idea of what, listen to this. In the 1st century AD, Columella in a treatise titled “De re rustica,” discussed a grape similar to Pinot Noir that grew wild and possibly represented a direct domestication (hermaprodite-flowered) of the “vitis sylvestri” wild grapes. Much later, for a short while, it was thought that Pinot Noir was a cross of Pinot Meunier and another variety.  But then they found out that Pinot Meunier is a chimerical mutation in its epidermal cells. Its gapes’ skins have two layers that each come from a different genetic parent. With these mutations, Pinot Meunier can’t be a parent of Pinot Noir. Later, again, research looked at Pinot Gris and its relation to Pinot Noir. This time the theory was that a somatic mutation in the genes that control the grape skin color may have led to Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Not right again, but at least now they know these three Pinot grapes are related somehow. To this day, there are more clones and variations of Pinot Noir (50 as opposed to maybe 25 for most other varieties).  Bottom line is this grape is easily changed or crossed with another variety or misidentified.  No wonder it’s a difficult grape to grow. Pick the wrong version for your soil and climate and you get yuck. Get it right, though, and Pinot Noir can make some of the very best wines in the world!
Which gets us one step closer to this week’s wine. Having learned that it’s such a hard variety to grow well, we can look to California for some of the best soil and climate combinations available for Pinot Noir.  There are several Pinot Noir friendly areas that most of us have heard about, but our wine this week comes from only one of them — the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. The Russian River AVA runs roughly from Sebastopol and Santa Rosa in the south to Forestville and Healdsburg in the north. The area of Russian River vineyard plantings is about one sixth of the vineyards in Sonoma. Some of the AVA’s best Pinot Noir wines are planted in”Goldridge soil,” sandstone of loam. Near Sebastopol a different soil that is more clay based, “Sebastopol soil,” also works well for Pinot Noir because it retains less water than Goldridge soil. And, a third soil from along the river banks is predominantly alluvial and good for Pinots as well. The climate in this AVA is characterized  by cool morning fog and cool evenings.. (It’s really only 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean at some points.) This coolness is partly responsible for letting the grapes ripen slowly. Slow ripening intensifies the flavors that end up in our wine and help to avoid overripe grapes where the flavors turn to baked fruits that are not as good in wine. Grapes in the Russian River AVA are usually harvested a bit later than those in neighboring AVAs, again the slow ripening.  Most of the wines from the Russian River are Pinot Noir, 29% and Chardonnay, 42%. (Another grape that originated in the Burgundy region of France so it makes sense it likes the same types of soils and climate.) Looking at all of California’s Pinot Noir production, the Russian River AVA is just shy of being 20% of the total. In the late 20th century, older clones of Pinot Noir were planted here, including Martini, Swan, Pommard and 115 others. The abundance of flavors and textures from all these clones came together and made what is now considered the Russian River Pinot Noir style — vibrant but pale color, lively acidity, cherry and berry fruit flavors, delicate aroma that includes earthy mushroom notes. Because pale wines did not score well in “official” tastings, wine makers started using longer maceration times to extract more color from the skins of the grapes, and new trellising systems in the vineyards that got more sun onto the grapes.  In addition, the new trellising caused the grapes to ripen more, so more sugar means more alcohol that helps to support the fuller flavors.  Success!!!  A difficult grape found a home where it can grow well and make wonderful wines.
So who makes our Russian River Pinot Noir?  Pellegrini Family Vineyards. The Pellegrini family, two brothers (Nello and Gino) to be precise, who got involved in wine making in the early 1900s. They came to New York City from their home in Tuscany and soon made their way to California. In 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition, the brothers established the Pellegrini Wine Company. Nello’s son Vincent took over in the 1950s, and in 1973 bought a 70-acre ranch on Olivet Road in Santa Rosa, in the Russian River Valley.   They converted the ranch from apple and plum orchards to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards. Choosing these two varieties may have been partly luck, but they produced their first wines in the late 70s and labeled them Olivet Lane. The winery is still owned and operated by family members and still located on Olivet Road in Santa Rosa.
The Pellegrini Olivet Lane Pinot Noir 2010 is our lovely wine this week. According to winemaker Daniel Fitzgerald, the vintage was an exceptional growing season. It had long even ripening of the grapes with low yields so the flavors were concentrated in fewer grapes. The wine is a dark garnet  color, loaded with black cherry fruit flavors, some woodsy notes from the loamy soil, and licorice. The aromas include strawberries, dried flowers and spices. As good as it is now, this wine will age really well.  There are fewer than 1,200 cases of this wine and it is 100% Pinot Noir. This wine is priced at $35 at the winery, but here, for us, it’s $19.99. Not cheap, but for a Russian River Pinot Noir, it is a deal. They don’t come cheap. But we have one that is a true value!  Try it when you can, then remember it for special dinners and holiday meals. Enjoy.