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Food & Wine

My favorite varietal is pinot noir

I am often asked what my favorite type of wine is. I used to say red Burgundy. I now add there are many California and Oregon pinot noirs close to being in the same league as Burgundy. If you are confused, Burgundy is a generic term used in the United States; any red wine blend can be in a bottle of Burgundy.

Gallo's hearty Burgundy was always a good buy; we just didn't know what was in the bottle. French red Burgundy is made only from the pinot noir grape from the Burgundy region of France. The same pinot noir grape is used in the United States. Out of respect for the Burgundian winemakers and to avoid confusion, we call the wine, pinot noir, as the grapes are not grown in Burgundy.

Thirty years ago there was little production of pinot noir in California. The only consistently good producer was the tiny School House Winery. The famous Andre Tchelistcheff advised replanting a pinot vineyard with cabernet. The replaced vines, originally from Burgundy's most famous vineyard, Domaine Romanee Conti, were replanted in the School House vineyard. They are still producing minute amounts of fine chardonnay and pinot.

These wines were made by several winemakers over the years but the original and predominant vinifier was John O. Gantner. Twenty years ago, I was fortunate to buy an assorted case from the 1960s and 1970s of these rare wines. I called Gantner and asked which wine would show best in a tasting. He said he was particularly proud of his 1968 vintage. In his waning years at the time, he then told me he preferred I did not take any of his wine to the tasting as these bottles were his children and if we drank them they would be gone.

Pinot noir is difficult to grow and hard to make. The vines often do not have sufficient leaf cover and are easy prey for birds. They leaf early in the spring and can fall victim to frost. The vine is unstable as there are possibly 1,000 clones compared with 12 for cabernet.

Even when you get good fruit, it is a challenge to vinify. Color retention is difficult, flavors are often lost in the bottle and high alcohol content can be a problem. If this weren't enough to discourage winemakers, this varietal is probably the most sensitive to its soil and climate (terroir) of any. The effort is worth it because when all goes well, the sensuous results are memorable.

When a good pinot was made in California, it received lots of press which led to eager anticipation of the next vintage -- usually a disappointment. There was a breakthrough in the early 1980s when Calera, Chalone, Sanford & Benedict and Acacia started to make a decent product on a fairly consistent basis. The big leap came in the late 1980s when Williams Selyem produced winner after winner. Surprisingly, these grapes were not grown in Napa, they were from Russian River. Viticulturists began planting vines in areas that resembled the terroir of Burgundy with remarkable results.

The explosion of good and great pinots began in the 1990s. Oregon now must have at least 25 wineries producing excellent pinots and California has more.

My favorite Oregon wines come from Archery Summit, Ponzi, Ken Wright, WillaKenzie, Argyle, Shea, Domaine Drouhin and Panther Creek. My favorite vineyard is Shea.

A proliferation of California fine pinots are coming from Russian River, the Sonoma Coast, Caneros, Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills and The Santa Lucia Highlands. My favorites, in addition to the early producers, are: Littorai, Flowers, Arcadian, Foxen, Mueller, Au Bon Climat, Tantara, Hitching Post, Siduri, Testarossa and Talley. My favorite vineyard is Pisoni.

Steve Hicks is currently a wine advisor and consultant. He is active in local, national and international food and wine societies. You can reach him at: ââ€"Å 

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