It may be a finicky grape, often called the “heartbreak grape”, but Pinot Noir lovers know its beauty. A light to medium-bodied red wine, Pinot Noir is low in tannins but high in acidity and known for its long, smooth finish. Pinot Noir can have aromas that range from cherry, raspberry, and hibiscus to mushrooms, cloves, earth, and spice. But the aromas and flavors of Pinot Noir are ultimately the results of where the grapes are grown, otherwise known as the terroir.
Can you tell the difference between a Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast from a Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills or from the Willamette Valley in Oregon? Having recently participated in a blind tasting of ten Pinot Noirs, I can tell you that it is not always as easy as you would think. Blind tasting can be a humbling experience as it really requires the taster to focus on the moment and dial into every aspect while tasting. We look at the color of the wine, the intensity and hue of the color, and the brilliance. We smell the wine, looking for notes of fruit, non-fruit, earth, and wood. We focus on the structure and flavors on the palate, including the acidity, alcohol, texture, length, body, tannins, and dryness. These are the items that give the most clues to the wine.
While blind-tasting Pinot Noir may not be simple, there are characteristics found from one Pinot Noir producing region to the next.
Willamette Valley AVA
In the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the Van Duzer corridor brings in cool weather from the Pacific Ocean, as well as strong winds. The Willamette Valley gets more hours of sunshine than California and has one of the widest diurnal shifts in Oregon. The soils are primarily volcanic. The cool climate with the air current toughens the grape skins and the grapes can develop flavor while keeping sugar levels low. The wines tend to be darker in color and more linear in style.
2018 Raptor Ridge Temperance Hill Vineyard, Willamette Valley – With 11% whole cluster, the grapes spend 19 days on skin contact and are then aged for 9 months in 15.7% new French oak. The wine is a deep color with cranberry, pomegranate, dark cherry, mint, and green tea notes. The wine has a laser focus on the palate with crunchy tannins, acidity, and a savory, iodine note on the finish.
Anderson Valley AVA
Located in Mendocino County, north of Sonoma, Anderson Valley is a 20-mile-long break in the mountains, following the Navarro River. While Mendocino is typically too hot for Pinot Noir, the Anderson Valley gets just enough fog to make super fresh and structured examples of Pinot Noir that reflect that balance of the heat and ocean influence.
2019 Maggy Hawk Estate “Jolie” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley – Made from a specific selection of blocks and clones, this Pinot Noir spends 16 months in 10% new French oak. It is a bright translucent red with notes of tart cherry, strawberry, pepper, and fennel. The balanced wine has youthful, fresh acidity, sandpaper-like tannins, and a very appealing juicy finish.
Sonoma Coast AVA
Starting at Bodega Bay and ending at the Mendocino County line, the Sonoma Coast AVA encompasses more than 500,000 acres. The two most important factors in this AVA are its proximity to the ocean and its elevation. It is considered on the extreme end of the viticultural spectrum of where you can ripen grapes. Vineyards must sit above the fog line in order to get grapes to ripen. Sonoma Coast wines are often described as having the lusciousness of the Russian River Valley with the structure of the Anderson Valley.
2019 Chalk Hill Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast – The grapes for this wine are selected from different sites on the Sonoma Coast. The wine was aged for 10 months in French and American oak (25% new) with regular battonage. The wine is ruby in color with fruit aromas of cherry, wild strawberry, and a touch of plums. There are touches of floral and oak notes. Flavors of crunchy apple skins and tart red fruit hit the palate of this moderately bodied wine with a fresh, juicy, mineral finish.
Russian River AVA
Fog plays a huge role in moderating the temperature in the Russian River Valley. The fog arrives in the evening and causes temperature shifts of 40+ degrees. The soils in the Russian River Valley are very diverse, ranging from volcanic ash to sandy loam, alluvial, sandstone, and shale. Russian River Pinot Noirs typically have aromas of sappy, rich, lush fruit that can border on being candied, especially when combined with oak
Patz and Hall 2018 Pinot Noir, Little Boot Vineyard, Russian River Valley - Sourced from the western edge of the Russian River Valley AVA, the Pinot Noir grapes are 100% destemmed and the wine is aged for 14 months in oak, with 40% new oak. A deep ruby color, the wine has big, bright cherry, raspberry, and strawberry aromas, as well as notes of baking spice and cola. On the palate, the wine is lush with sharp acidity, fine-grained tannins, and a long, elegant finish.
Santa Lucia Highlands AVA
The fog and winds from the Pacific Ocean play an important role in the Santa Lucia Highlands, which has a long and dry growing season. This allows the grapes to get very ripe while still maintaining high acidity levels. The wines show lushness with juicy round fruit, elevated alcohol, and strong acidity that holds everything together.
Landmark Vineyards 2018 Pinot Noir, Escolle Road Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands – Sourced from the northern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, the wine is aged in French oak for 10 months sur lie with 35% new oak. It is a dark ruby red color with a perfumed nose of roses, raspberry, cherry cola, fresh herbs, and a touch of pepper. The elegant wine is broad on the palate with seamlessly integrated tannins that are in harmony with the acidity.
SLO Coast AVA
The SLO Coast AVA is the newest AVA in California, as well as the closest to the Pacific Ocean with an average distance of 5.7 miles. The southern boundary of the AVA is Nipomo Muesa, the Santa Lucia Mountains are to the east, and the northern boundary is a ragged point. The wines of SLO Coast AVA show good depth of color and bright juicy acidity.
2019 EL Lugar Pinot Noir, Spanish Springs Vineyard, SLO Coast – Located two miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, Spanish Springs Vineyard, planted in 2007, is one of the closest vineyards to the pacific. The grapes are 100% destemmed, fermented with native yeasts, and spend 10½ months in equal parts new, old, used French oak. The wine is a medium ruby color with a purple rim. It has flinty, smoky elements, as well as black cherry, tart black fruit, toasted oak, and earthy aromas. The wine is very angular with taut acidity and a fresh, crunchy juiciness.
Edna Valley AVA
A smaller AVA, that now sits within the SLO Coast AVA, Edna Valley has a very cool climate due to the maritime effects from Morro Bay. In addition, limestone soils are found in the valley which makes for energetic lively Pinot Noirs with a minerality and a little crunchiness to the red fruit aromas.
Tolosa 2019 1772 Stone Lion Pinot Noir, Edna Valley – Sourced from two sections of their Edna Ranch vineyard, the grapes are fermented in open-top fermenters with pump overs twice daily. The wine is then aged for 9 months in 30% new French oak. A pale ruby color, the wine has aromas of high-toned red fruit, spice, flint, and earth. Medium-bodied, the wine has sweet ripe fruit and oak notes on the palate followed by soft wood tannins and persistent acidity.
Arroyo Grande AVA
The Arroyo Grande Valley AVA, which also sits within the new SLO Coast AVA, is a winding 16-mile-long valley that is oriented from Northeast to Southwest which allows the fog and cold marine air to flow in. The influence of the Pacific Ocean results in a long, cool growing season. The soils are volcanic, marine sediment, and clay over Franciscan complex bedrock.
Talley 2019 Pinot Noir, Rosemary’s Vineyard, Arroyo Grande – Originally planted in 1987, Rosemary’s Vineyard is a cooler site at Talley. The grapes are destemmed, barrel fermented and aged for 16 months in 37% new French oak. The wine has savory, enticing notes that pull you in. Dark fruit and toasty notes give way to a powerful, structured wine that starts big and then finishes with a silky, plush texture.
Santa Maria Valley AVA
Located on the Central Coast, the Santa Maria AVA is defined by the transverse mountain range that runs east to west, unlike the typical direction of north to south. Santa Maria is home to one of the longest growing seasons in California. The vineyards tend to be hidden in the hills on mostly sandy loam soils. The wines from Santa Maria Valley are known for vibrant acidity, softer tannins, and subtle earthy tones
2019 Lumen Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley – The grapes are fermented in open-top fermenters with no stem inclusion, and punch downs are done by hand. The wine is aged in 33% new French and Hungarian oak. It is a translucent ruby red color with a very expressive savory nose with notes of dark cherry, allspice, and white pepper. The linear wine hits the palate with vibrant acidity and finishes with red fruit notes.
Sta Rita Hills AVA
Like Santa Maria Valley, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA is also defined by the transverse mountain range that runs east to west. With a maritime influence, Sta. Rita Hills is fairly cold but has sunny days and lots of wind. Winemakers call it “refrigerated sunshine.” The vines are typically only 15-25 years old. Due to the microclimate, the wines have a unique intensity while still having very high acidity.
Melville 2020 Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills – Sourced from 100% estate fruit from 25-year-old vines, 40% of the grapes are whole cluster fermented in open-top fermenters for a total of 30 days on the skins and stems. The final wine is aged for 18 months in neutral French oak. The wine displays an intense ruby color with ripe, bright, dark red fruit aromas, as well as notes of black tea and mint. On the palate, the wine is fresh with refined tannins and juiciness.
About the author:
Allison Levine is the owner of Please The Palate, a boutique marketing, and event-planning agency. Allison is Level 3 WSET Certified from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and is certified as an Italian Wine Specialist from the North American Sommelier Association. She also has a Master's Degree in International Communications with a focus on cross-cultural training from the American University School of International Service. As a freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications, including California Winery Advisor and the Napa Valley Register, while eating and drinking her way around the world. She is also the host of the Wine Soundtrack podcast. You can find additional content on her blog at Please The Palate; Twitter and Instagram @plsthepalate; Facebook: Please The Palate