The greatest grape in the world? It’s pinot noir by a long shot. The proof is in the price tags: The most expensive wines in the world are pinot noirs, such as the rarified crown jewel of France, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which upon release sells for a cool $15,000 a bottle.
But for tremendous value, intense flavors and beautifully structured wines made using Burgundian winemaking techniques, turn to California pinot. For $20 to $65 a bottle, you’re in the sweet spot, and from Anderson Valley in the north down to Santa Barbara County in southern California, you’ll discover a range of styles, due to a surge in savvy pinot noir winemaking over the last decade.
“I think domestic pinot is going in a pretty exciting direction over the last few years,” says Eric Railsback, the California director of operations for upscale wine merchants Verve Wine. “I’ve seen a lot of producers picking for balance and freshness, which allows terroir to show up in the glass and better aging potential. It's great to finally be able to see the difference between Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Oregon pinot. The pinot noir of 10 years ago was so ripe and fruit-forward they all ended up smelling alike.”
James Sparks, the winemaker at Liquid Farm and Kings Carey Wines, agrees with Railsback, noting that over the last few years he has noticed a shift in producers trying to capture the more delicate and sophisticated style of pinot noir. “A lot has to do with the winemaking process and paying attention to the grapes,” says Sparks. “We’re in California, and we do have sun. And with climate change, it's easier to over-ripen fruit and thus harder to restrain the winemaking style,” but with careful farming, he believes the right balance is achievable.
Echoing Sparks, Vanessa Conlin, a Master of Wine and the head of wine at Wine Access, says that stylistically “there has been a return to balancing California ripeness without being over- or under-ripe. For a while, it seemed many producers wanted to emulate Burgundy, but California will never be Burgundy, just like Burgundy will never be California. Today, I see that the best producers are farming and picking to retain acidity but not at the expense of full phenolic ripeness.”
These are 10 pinot noirs from California to seek out—and buy—right this minute.
Daou 2018 Central Coast ($20)
From their perch on Daou Mountain in Paso Robles, winemakers Daniel and Georges Daou have a real knack for crafting deeply flavored wines for easy-on-the-wallet prices. Mouthwatering aromas of ripe black cherry, brown sugar, citrus peel, clove and nutmeg all come together in a pinot with featherweight texture but loads of dark berry flavors and a long finish marked by toasty cedar spices.
Donelan 2014 Two Brothers ($55)
Head straight to source and call the winery—brothers Cushing and Tripp or patriarch Joe—for this gorgeously layered winery-aged pinot noir that’s right in its aging sweet spot for drinking, delivering loads of charm with cherry liqueur, smoky earth notes, dark chocolate and beautiful high-toned brown spices. On the palate, it’s remarkably juicy, with silken layers of red cherry, chocolate-covered strawberries, orange peel, red currants, black tea and a zesty acid spine, with a long and lingering deep berry-flavored finish tinged with French oak spices.
FEL 2018 Anderson Valley ($38)
The Lede family, the owners of Cliff Lede Vineyards and FEL Wines, their second label focused on pinot noir and chardonnay, can do no wrong. Winemaker Ryan Hodgins gathers pinot grapes from some of Anderson Valley’s best sites, including Ferrington, Donnelly Creek and Savoy Vineyard, which Cliff Lede purchased in 2011. Positively stunning, this wine reveals deep forest aromas and pomegranate seed notes and offers a juicy texture with bright acidity and waves of dark berry flavors, fig and sandalwood spices on a long finish tinged with fresh mountainside herbs.
The Hilt Estate 2016 ($45)
This wine features deep ruby robes of color, with black cherry, cola nut, dark-roast espresso and new wood cedar. It’s expansive on the palate, with lush, ripe, sweet sun-kissed Santa Rita Hills fruit, deeply layered with red and blackberry fruit, sassafras, grilled meats, charred sagebrush and melancholy. Fine French oak spices mingle with intoxicating brown spices; a long fruit-spice finish is marked by pronounced chewy tannins underscored by cool-climate acidity.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
Liquid Farm 2017 Radian Vineyard ($64)
This stunning wine reveals a depth of red cherry, blackberry, brown spices, a touch of orange peel, and grapefruit zest, with rich layers of mouth-coating fleshy fruits and a hint of cocoa powder, lifted throughout with mouthwatering acidity. It marks a tremendous effort from James Sparks, a veteran of Dragonette Cellars and who also makes Kings Carey Wines, which offers a lineup of vivid, focused wines such as a relatively low-ABV sémillon and deeply flavored grenache, with labels designed by illustrator Hawk Krall.
Maggy Hawk 2017 Afleet Anderson Valley ($65)
Part of the Jackson Family portfolio of wines, this small-production stunner delivers marvelous richness with cola spices, dark red cherry fruit, clove and burnt orange peel aroma, and sour cherry on the palate with cinnamon, brown spices, burnt caramel and flinty minerality. There’s a forest-like earthiness that underscores the silken fruit texture and spices, bolstered by juicy acidity and fine cedar tannins.
Masút 2017 Eagle Peak Mendocino ($40)
Brothers Ben and Jake Fetzer, the sons of winegrower Bobby Fetzer, acquired the 1,200-acre Masút property in Mendocino in the mid-1990s. Its rugged terrain sits in the shadow of the nearly 2,000-foot-high Eagle Peak, and just 40 acres are planted to vine. The brothers spearheaded the effort to create the Eagle Peak AVA, which was established in 2014. This is one intensely flavored pinot noir, with mouth-filling silken black cherry, wild strawberry and muddled raspberry fruits and loads of baking spices, hinting at vanilla and tinged with savory spices.
Ponzi Vineyards 2016 Reserve ($65)
Yes, this is a roundup of California pinot, not Oregon, but I would be remiss not to include this one or encourage you to seek out the many other incredible pinot noirs from Oregon producers, such as those at the Carlton Winemakers Studio or Authentique Wine Cellars, Belle Pente, Bergström, Cristom, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Nicolas-Jay, Domaine Serene, Evening Land, Love & Squalor, Lange Estate, Penner-Ash, Résonance and so many more. But it might not get any more quintessentially Willamette Valley than Ponzi, which has been making remarkably complex wines for more than half a century from its certified sustainable vineyards. This Reserve bursts out of the glass with mixed dark berry, salted caramel and fantastic brown spices, all underscored by silky waves of rich black cherry fruit, purple and red florals, and firm, grippy tannins, and finishing long with flamed citrus peel and cocoa powder.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
Presqu'ile 2018 Santa Barbara County ($28)
From the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, this wine offers a mouthful of happiness, beginning with pronounced aromas of cherry, earth, cedar and orange peel, giving way to an easy-drinking creamy red-cherry-fruited pinot with satiny tannins, sandalwood notes, clove and a long, earthy finish.
Sangiacomo 2017 Sonoma Coast ($60)
You can’t go wrong with any of the wines from the Sangiacomo family, iconic growers—and as of 2016, producers—of world-class pinot noir in Sonoma. Winemaker James MacPhail leverages three sites in Carneros and the Petaluma Gap for this juicy pinot, packed with wild ripe and fleshy strawberry fruit, clove and orange peel notes, which dance beside satiny tannins building to a generous deep-berry finish. MacPhail also produces his own chardonnay and pinot noirs under Tongue Dancer Wines, and the current release 2018 Sonoma Coast pinot is a real standout.