The Great Big Bacchanalia: a Singular Pinot Noir Happening

The Great Big Bacchanalia at the Farallon

How would you like an opportunity to taste, evaluate, and focus your attention on a single wine varietal at a tasting, also a classic, noble grape at that?  I recently returned from an annual event that delivered just that and more from a star-studded lineup of Pinot Noir producers.  Over 50 of the top Pinot Noir producers from California, Oregon, and New Zealand were present pouring their high quality, artisanal creations.  Nearly anywhere I turned was an icon, either a winery heralded for its history in Pinot Noir accomplishment, or the founding proprietor themselves ready to disburse a taste.  The occasion I’m talking about was The Great Big Bacchanalia at the Farallon Restaurant in San Francisco in mid-November.  This is an outstanding venue to increase your exposure to Pinot Noir styles, producers, terroirs, and regions.

The Great Big Bacchanalia is a unique opportunity to see in one place at one time an imposing array of producers and their Pinot Noir wines for appraisal.  Reacquaint with wines previously tasted while discovering new ones.  Taste and compare Pinot Noir from a variety of AOCs, AVAs, terroirs, regions, states, and countries located in both hemispheres.  Evaluate scarce single vineyard wines side by side.  Inquire of owners and winemakers about soils, climates, and cultural practices, while tasting and considering differences and styles.  The Great Big Bacchanalia is not to be missed for admirers of Pinot Noir, but also those having an interest in wines in general.

The wines at the tasting sourced from three of the highest quality Pinot Noir producing regions in the world, that also generate considerable volume.  Recent statistics have California with over 45,000 acres (18,000 Ha) of Pinot Noir under vine, Oregon north of 18,000 acres (7,500 Ha), and New Zealand beyond 13,500 acres (5,500 Ha), Pinot Noir being their most significant red variety.

California areas known best for high quality Pinot Noir produced in volume, and represented at Bacchanalia, are Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo County, Sonoma County, and Mendocino County.  We covered California’s climate last year, so we will touch on the clime of Oregon, and New Zealand here.

Domaine Drouhin winery, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Credit Drouhin 

Pinot Noir from California’s Oregon neighbors heralded from the Willamette Valley and the Yamhill-Carlton AVAs.  These neighboring areas, about an hour southwest of Portland near Newberg and McMinnville, source the majority of Oregon’s Pinot Noir.  The combined North and South sections of Willamette Valley are the home to nearly 1,300 wineries.

The climate of Oregon’s Willamette Valley AVA is mild.  Cool, wet winters with warm, dry summers are the norm.  Annual rainfall is 29 inches with snow is sparse at five to ten inches annually.  The mild clime along with the marine influence from the coast 50 miles distant couldn’t be much better for Pinot Noir.  That of Yamhill-Carlton, AVA status was granted in 2004, is similar with perhaps a little less rain due to Chehalem Mountain and Dundee Hills on the north and east respectively.  Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noirs are known for their black fruit character, lower acidity, and palate breadth.

The earth in Willamette Valley is of volcanic (Red Jory), and sedimentary origin, and is actually an ancient seabed covered with rock, silt, gravel, and boulders due to floods from Montana and Washington about 13 millennia in the past.  The Valley is sheltered on the west by the 3,500 foot Coast Range, on the east by the Cascades, and a sequence of hills on the north.  Most vineyards are elevated several hundred feet above sea level.  Vintners keep yields low at 2.0 to 2.8 tons per acre.

Our friends from New Zealand graciously brought quite a few Pinot Noir wines from both the North Island, Te Ika-a-Māui, and the South Island, Te Waipounamu, to Pinofest.  The north-south dimension of the two islands as they sit together is quite large, roughly that of the United States in the same direction.  Due to its latitude and climate, New Zealand is classified as a cool climate area for the purpose of wine grapes.  The bottom line is that the acids in the wines produced will generally be a little higher than in wines from a warm climate region.  For sure, it’s all good!

Kiwi wine regions are distributed over both of the major New Zealand islands.  The bulk of Kiwi Pinot Noir grows in the cooler, southerly districts, nearer the South Pole.  In total, these areas harbor nearly 50,000 hectares of vines in Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Canterbury, Central Otago, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, Martinborough, Nelson, Northland, and Waipara.

The latitude of New Zealand near its mid-point at Wellington is 41.2867 S.  By comparison, at Lompoc in Santa Barbara County, California, the geographic center of the California Central Coast’s Pinot Noir country, the latitude is not too different at 34.6392° N, similarly at California’s Healdsburg in the Russian River Valley, 38.6105° N.  This means New Zealand is roughly 175 miles closer to its pole (the South Pole) than Lompoc to its pole.  Interestingly, the Willamette Valley, Oregon at 44.9426° N and Burgundy, France at 47.0525° N are closer to their pole than the mid-point of New Zealand is to its pole.  As we have stated before, latitude isn’t the whole story.  New Zealand’s two major islands are surrounded by the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific Ocean, leaving no vineyard more than about 80 miles (129 km) from the water and source of maritime influence.

My Wine Reviews

Credit Freeman Winery

93, 2017 Gloria Estate Freeman Winery Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Situated 10 miles from the Pacific next to the winery near Sebastapol, Gloria is Freeman’s 8-acre estate vineyard planted in 2006. The vines lie on a well-drained steep hillside in Goldridge sandy loam soils where they thrive in a sunny but quite cool climate yielding 1 to 2 tons per acre. Élevage was 11 months in French oak: with 24% new, 48% one-year-old, 14% two-year-old, and 14% neutral.  The 2017 420 case production received a five-day cold soak in open-top fermenters with hand-punch downs one to three times daily. Free-run juice was sent directly to cask, while press wine was settled and barreled separately.  This deep ruby mid-weight has it all!  A gorgeous, complete wine without excesses!  Rich, well extracted black-cherry fruit presented in a reserved but thoroughly delicious manner.  Well balanced with plenty of length and notable complexity heightening the intrigue.  About $75.

Credit Kosta Browne

92, Kosta Browne 2016 Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley
The Cerise vineyard lies 65 miles north of Kosta Browne’s Sebastopol winery.  The site is situated at an elevation ranging from 700ft to 1,700 ft with many steep slopes and not a spot of level terrain on the Yorkville-Witherell soil.  The 9 to15 day fermentations of the 2016 Cerise took place in various type vessels as follows: 55% stainless steel tank, 27% concrete tank, and 18% wood tank, with 10% as whole cluster with cold soaks ranging from 3 to 5 days.  The smoothness and plush velvety texture are the first attention-getters as this wine glides across the palate.  Delivers fine purity of fruit in the form of rich dark cherries.  Kosta’s 2016 demonstrates a luscious quality to the striking flavor content, excellent balance of components, and good length.  A pleasing 13.5% alcohol content.  About $140.

91, Hitching Post 2016 Cork Dancer Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County
Gray Hartley’s and Frank Ostini’s 2016 Cork Dancer, sourced from Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills vineyards is radiant and complex in its offerings of tangy, focused brambleberry and cranberry fruit  This translucent purple-ruby, medium to light bodied Pinot Noir offers great purity of fruit, and its attributes literally resonate in showcasing an uncommon charisma.  Literally beaming multifaceted flavor content and magnetism, especially rear-palate with good length, this one is not to be missed!  About $27.

Credit Wayfarer Vineyard

93, 2016 Wayfarer Vineyard Estate Cuvee Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
The Wayfarer Estate Vineyard, within Fort Ross-Seaview, a 27,500-acre sub-appellation on the north-western end of the Sonoma Coast AVA.  At 1,100 feet in elevation and 6.75 miles from the Pacific the 30 vineyard blocks on well drained Goldridge soil, an ancient seabed, profits from extended sun exposure as well as maritime influence.  The grapes ripen slowly maintaining acidity.  This 1500 case effort received four to five-day pre-fermentation cold maceration, a native yeast primary fermentation, and in barrel a secondary fermentation.  Transparent and deep-ruby, this mid-weight demonstrates that great richness can also coexist with vibrancy and a well-integrated acid level.  Showcases a wealth of luxurious mulberry and cherry fruit.  Superb effort!  About $90.

92, 2017 Testarossa Doctor’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA
The grapes for Testarossa’s Doctor’s single vineyard, 75-barrel production, Pinot Noir consist of 10-clones from vine blocks planted at 350-540 ft. in elevation with a Southeastern exposure certified sustainable.  The soil nourishing the vines is Chualar series loam with Placentia and Arroyo Seco sandy loams. The wine, tipping the scales at 14.5% alcohol received élevage in 100% French Oak, 60% of which was new.  A rush of tangy sweet cranberries and mulberries, with notes of tobacco leaf in the fragrant aroma open this medium bodied Pinot Noir.  Animated and energetic, exact but welcoming, this mid-weight is really delicious while showing a stylish elegance.  About $70.

93, 2016 Calera Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir, Mt. Harlan
Planted in 1975, Calera’s 13.8-acre Jensen Vineyard at is composed of four hillside blocks each with differing exposure on limestone soils at 2,200 feet in the Mt. Harlan sub-appellation in the Gavilan Mountains 25 miles east of Monterey Bay reputed to be among the coolest and loftiest vineyard sites in California.  The fermentation of 14 days at 65°F, 87°F, and 68°F produced a lovely Pinot Noir with alcohol 1of 4.8 % which spent 17 months in 100% French oak, 30% of which was new, 20% second vintage, and 50% neutral.  Vibrant, tangy mulberries with just a whisper of Hibiscus and Darjeeling Tea rush out of the glass to introduce this wine.  The vibrancy, great purity of fruit, traces of mineral and cedar with superb definition provide counterpoint while setting boundaries.  Possesses excellent balance and all elements take part in a long finish.  About $95

Credit Drouhin

90, 2016 Domaine Drouhin Dundee Hills AVA Pinot Noir, Oregon
Maison Joseph Drouhin, founded in 1880 in Burgundy, France, built the picturesque Dundee Hills four-story gravity flow winery in 1989.  Daughter Véronique Drouhin is chief winemaker at both Domaine Drouhin in Oregon, and at Maison Joseph Drouhin in France.  Drouhin’s 2016 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir has achieved a high degree of approachability with plenty of dark sweet fruit accompanied by refreshing acidity.  This pale purple, smoothly textured effort displays good balance while offering black cherry, orange peel, vanilla, and clove leading into a long finish.  About $45.

Domaine Drouhin Dundee Hills AVA

Credit Drouhin

90, 2017 Pyramid Valley Central Otago Pinot Noir, New Zealand
The medium-light weight of this pale purple 982 case effort by Pyramid Valley belies the intensity of the mulberries, spices, and red stone fruit that follow.  Good balance, ripe fruit, and refreshing acidity continue into a lasting finish.  About $50.

91, 2017 Akitu A2 Central Otago Pinot Noir, New Zealand
The A2 was fermented 24% whole bunch, the balance whole berry, elevage in 12% new French oak, and scales notably at 14.0% alcohol in a region designated as cool climate.  Clones are 2/3 777, 17% Clone 5, 7% 115, 5% Abel, 5% 667.  The 2017 is alive with energy and acidity, delivers tangy mulberry and red cherry fruit with great purity which is highly focused with a sleight-Spartan character, but is quite delicious unveiling notably penetrating aromatics.  This burgundy-colored medium-light-weight showcases complexity, balance, and a lengthy finish.  About $45.

90, 2017 Alma Rosa La Encantada Pinot Noir , Sta. Rita Hills AVA
Loads of truly sweet fruit in this translucent-ruby La Encontana, punctuated with mulberry and mineral.  A definite touch of elegance in this mid to light-weight, leading to a finish textured with very fine tannins.  About $62.

90, 2017 Cristom Jessie Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
Jessie Vineyard is placed on an east-facing, precipitous hillside at 320 ft to 550 ft in elevation, and is reputed to be one of the steepest in Oregon.  This 2017 vinification delivers a nose of savory spices and tobacco leaf with herbal and spicy red and black fruit on the palate.  Delivers a presence beyond the expectation of its translucent light-purple appearance.  Bright acidity lends clear focus along with great balance of components and a pleasant mineral tinge.  About $70.

91, 2013 Bonaccorsi Sebastiano Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills AVA
Flavorful tangy mulberry with spices, herbs, and tobacco leaf greet the drinker in this stylish, pale ruby, mid-weight Pinot Noir.  Delivers striking complexity, energy, and fine balance of components while presenting quite an approachable front.  Kudos!  About $45.

91, 2017 Peay Ama Estate Pinot noir, Sonoma Coast
Explaining their 35-acre estate vineyard situated at the “chilly edge of the West Sonoma Coast” four miles from the Pacific, Peay says the cool clime there lengthens the growing season thus providing “fruit that is ripe without the encumbrance of too much sugar (and resulting alcohol)” thus retaining Pinot Noir’s invigorating acidity and aromatics.  Unveils animated fruit content, rich, but balanced and in harmony with the refreshing acid level and well-managed tannins.  This medium-bodied Pinot reveals outstanding complexity, impact, and a seamless construction.  About $61.

90, 2016 Au Bon Climat Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley
The grapes for the 2016 were sourced from, block-2 of Bien Nacido using clone 115.  Sixty percent whole clusters were employed in the fermentation.  ABC’s Bien Naciedo presents an array of savory spices, mineral, tobacco leaf, and vegetative overtones.  Nicely refreshing with good lift, this mid to light-weight in luminous purple brings good focus and nice grip.  About $40.

91, 2016 Keller Estate La Cruz Vineyard Pinot Noir, Petaluma Gap AVA
Vibrant acidity highlights the red fruit, raspberries, and in this translucent ruby, medium-bodied Pinot Noir.  Showing floral notes in the nose, this is a seamless, well-integrated effort demonstrating purity of fruit, very fine-grained structuring tannins, and good length.  About $36.

Credit Radio-Coteau

92, 2015 Radio-Coteau La Neblina Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast AVA
Neblina, “fog” in Spanish, that which cools some vineyards in western Sonoma County.  Radio-Coteau’s flagship Pinot Noir, sources from five organically grown West County coastal sites on Goldridge soil.  Radio-Coteau’s 2015 Neblina delivers copious rich dark fruit with spicy black cherries and dried green tea leaf notably to the rear palate.  This ruby-purple mid-weight possesses inordinate flavor content with remarkable complexity.  Delicious Pinot Noir!  About $50.

90, 2017 Talley Rosemary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, Arroyo Grande Valley AVA
Lovely radiant ruby in color.  The red and black fruit this Pinot Noir show fine purity with outstanding flavor content.  Structured with ripe, sweet tannins finishes quite long.  About $75.

90, 2017 Littorai The Pivot Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast AVA
Delivers spicy, tangy mulberries accompanied by energetic, lifting, food-friendly acidity.  On the short end of medium-light weight, this translucent red-purple Pinot Noir from Pivot Vineyard shows grip in the long finish with very fine tannins.  About $81.

89, 2014 Byron Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills AVA
Situated 7 miles from the Pacific Ocean in the Sta. Rita Hills AV, Fiddlestix is a north facing vineyard planted in 1998 at an elevation of 50 to 400 feet.  Pale purple in color, this 2014 brings notes of dark plum, spice, and cola.  Richness and intensity lead into a long finish.  About $50.

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