Cool, Cooler, Coolest Pinot Noir

rrvLots of wine drinkers know Benziger Winery. This family-owned operation that sits on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain has been known as a leader in organic and bio-dynamic winemaking. Their Chard and big reds are the wines we see out there in the market, so I was surprised to receive a set of four Pinot Noirs.

From Sonoma Mountain? Of course not. Pinot needs a cool climate in order to thrive, like the climate in — hey, the appellations on these single-vineyard Pinots are Russian River and Sonoma Coast! That’s two of California’s best AVA’s for great Pinot Noir.

We tasted them recently, while listening (through Twitter TasteLive) to winemaker Rodrigo Soto. He took us through the tasting in a way that really showcased their unique character — their terroir.  We tasted from furthest inland, almost at the eastern edge of the Russian River AVA,  to just five miles from the Pacific coast.

Our first wine was Signaterra San Remo Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2009. Not only was this my favorite of the tasting, but it had a unique quality that made this Pinot irresistible. The nose showed tart fruit aromas — rhubarb, cranberry — with a little floral note. The palate started off with red berries, but I was immediately distracted by the quality of the mouthfeel. This wine just glided over my palate. As the berry flavors turned more complex, with some smoke and “meat” coming through, the whole thing was gently seducing me.

Now I know Pinot is supposed to be “velvety,” but this one set a new standard. Winemaker Rodrigo Soto credited 25% whole-cluster fermentation with creating “a different tannic structure.” With this method, an entire bunch of grapes goes into the fermenter instead of (crushed) skins and juice. He said it affects the flavors and the finish, creating the elegant mouthfeel I enjoyed so much.

Moving further west in the Russian River, we tasted Signaterra Bella Luna Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009. Yields are kept low in this bio-dynamic vineyard and whole cluster fermentation is used again. But the nature of this wine was very different. A cooler climate produces a more austere, earthy Pinot, and one that took longer to open. In fact, when I revisited it the second day I tasted the deep berry and smoke that I’d missed first time around.

The Sonoma Coast Pinots, grown just a few miles from the cold Pacific, were bigger, brawnier, and needed time to show their stuff. De Coelo Quintus Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2009 leads with a nose of black cherries and licorice, and a good deal of natural acid keeps the fruit clean and bright. Rodrigo explained that he tries to maintain the distinctive nature of each vineyard’s fruit by using native yeasts in his fermentation. That means the winemaker can’t alter the flavors through the use of selective yeast strains, and it’s a practice he applies to all his wines.

De Coelo Terra Neuma Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot 2009 is leaner, more peppery and meaty. I got the chalky minerality that Soto looks for in order to “lift up the wines and give them personality.” Acid levels promise good cellarability for both these wines, and Rodrigo guess-timates that coastal Pinots with the acid and tannin structure of these two can easily go seven to nine years.

It was a rare opportunity (and a real blast) to see how vineyard locations just a few miles apart can produce such different wines. Of course, having the winemaker handy to explain his approach sure adds to the experience. Maybe you can stop on down to Benziger and get a first-hand taste yourself. Cheers!


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