Once upon a time, among the many criticisms leveled at California wine, there existed the notion that California wines did not age as well as their European counterparts. While such notions are less common these days, I still frequently run across the assumptions that most California wine needs to be consumed within 10 years.
“Is this stuff going to be any good?” someone will ask me, brandishing a 2001 wine they found in a corner of their wine rack.
Despite ranking in the top tier of world-class wines that California produces, Pinot Noir in particular falls prey to doubts about its age-worthiness. Even many serious wine lovers I know seem to drink their California Pinots within a five to eight year window. That timeframe definitely suits your average $15 bottle of wine, but for serious, well-made Pinot Noirs by excellent producers, that remains woefully young.
Thanks to my own delightful experiences drinking California Pinot Noir between 15 and 30 years of age, whenever given the opportunity, I attempt to evangelize the charms of particularly well-aged California Pinot Noir. Nonetheless many people still think I’m a little nuts.
Not everyone, however. After a (quite genial, I should note) disagreement about this very subject with one of my readers on Facebook, a winemaker friend of mine suggested we pop a few corks to reassure ourselves of the opinion that he and I so strongly shared.
And of course, that’s the only excuse anyone might really need to open up a few older wines, right?
We decided to have a little get together recently, the entrance ticket to which was simply a California Pinot Noir from 2002 or earlier. We gathered at a neighborhood restaurant owned by a former sommelier (after warning him of our nefarious plans), and settled down for a highly-unscientific exploration of our premise.
While I may undermine the strength of my supposition by admitting it, it must be said that the most spectacular wine of the evening was probably the treasured bottle of 1995 Chardonnay that was so generously offered by one of my dining companions as an aperitif.
Nonetheless, our Pinot exploration sufficiently supported our point of view. Many of the wines we tasted were still quite youthful, and clearly would last, and in many cases improve, with another 5 or 10 years of age. I longed to taste many of them with 20 years of age.
Here are my thoughts on the wines we enjoyed that evening.
1995 Littorai “Mays Canyon” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of honey, acacia flowers, and pineapple curd, if there ever could be such a thing. In the mouth silky textured flavors of lemon curd, baked apple, acacia honey, and toasted nuts swirl in a deeply mineral and savory concoction that seems to shimmer with flavor. Gorgeous filigreed acidity and great length. A stunning wine.13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
1999 Arcadian “Pisoni Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey
A medium cloudy ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and forest floor with notes of red fruit creeping around the mossy edges. In the mouth red apple skin and tangy berries have a narrow profile at first, but with some air and time, they broaden and mellow into a nice juicy base of red berry flavor and excellent acidity. Deeper forest notes rumble in the bass line of the wine. 13.6% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
1996 Chalone Pinot Noir, The Pinnacles, Monterey
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine smells of mushrooms, red apple skin and red fruit. In the mouth tangy raspberry, forest floor, and sour cherry flavors are dusted lightly with tannins that turn to redwood bark flavors in the finish. Fantastic acidity and a charming complexion at this age. Gorgeous. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5
2002 August West “Rosella’s Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey
Medium ruby in the glass, with the haze of fine sediment, this wine smells beautifully of cedar and cherry. In the mouth, brilliant sour cherry fruit and darker forest floor flavors are nestled into a velvety plush skein of tannins that just want to be stroked, even as the wine just wants to be swallowed. Wonderfully balanced and delicious. Excellent acidity. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9.5
2002 Harrington “Hirsch Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry fruit. In the mouth beautiful cherry and raspberry fruit is quite juicy thanks to excellent acidity. The aromatics of the wine have a floral sweetness that is quite compelling, and overall the wine seems much younger than it is. Balanced, long, and poised, this is a stunner of a wine.14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5
2002 Harrington Iund Vineyard Pinot Noir, Carneros, Sonoma
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and sweet cherry fruit. In the mouth, cedar flavors mix with sour cherry and a hint of peppery spice as velvety, fine grained tannins gently caress the palate. Juicy with acidity and quite mouthwatering, not to mention youthful in its comportment. Delicious. 14.4% alcohol.Score: around 9.5
2002 Rivers-Marie “Summa Vineyard Old Vines” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light ruby in the glass, this wine begins the evening quite closed and narrow, and its aromas never quite fully unlock, carrying a slightly funky quality and a whiff of volatile acidity for several hours. At first the wine in the mouth is also quite narrow and closed, with tart sour cherry and raspberry flavors that seem squeezed into a corner of the palate. With several hours the wine blossoms a bit and broadens to be more floral and with more generous fruit, but this particular bottle seems like it has not lived up to its potential. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
1999 Testarossa “Bien Nacido Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dried mushrooms and raspberries. In the mouth, raspberry fruit takes on a juicy, mineral-driven quality, mixed with cedar bark. Taut tannins muscle their way around the mouth playing a nice counterpart to the highlights of fruit. Excellent acidity and balance. Score: between 9 and 9.5
2000 Grapeleaf Cellars “Nicholson Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Valley
Medium ruby in color this wine smells of candied cherries and raisins. In the mouth the fruit is fairly dried out, with dried cherry flavors mixing with some brighter sour cherry notes. Faint tannins. Not holding together as a wine. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2001 Patz & Hall “Alder Springs Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Mendocino
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry fruit and forest floor. In the mouth the wine is quite ripe, to the point of being noticeably sweet on the palate, too much for my taste. Thicker tannins and deeper earthy notes accompany the sweet cherry fruit, but the wine doesn’t escape being confected. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2001 Williams Selyem “Hirsch Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine smells of sweet forest berries, cedar, and, somewhat surprisingly a lot of new oak. In the mouth sweeter raspberry fruit mixes with slightly overbearing oak flavors and notes of melted brown sugar. While this producer does use a decent amount of new oak, the verdict on this wine was that this bottle was slightly faulty. It did not resemble other similar bottles I have owned and consumed. As they say at this age, no good wines, only good bottles. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
1999 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, Mendocino
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of cedar and a touch of farmyard layered over bright berry fruit. In the mouth, flavors of cherry and cedar are bright and juicy thanks to fantastic acidity, and notes of dusty forest floor add complexity underneath the bright fruit. Boisterous and quite zingy, this wine was a wonderful surprise in the glass for being a simple regional bottling. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5