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2008 Pinot Noir All-Americans

As 2008 wraps up, “Best of 2008” lists are traditional and what better analogy for great American Pinot Noir than to name the best performers “All-Americans.” As I have done the past few years, I am proud to present the Pinot Noir All-Americans of 2008, the best wines I drank out of the over 1,000 American Pinot Noirs I formally sampled over the past year. Pinot Noir in California and Oregon is now of such consistently high quality that it is difficult to single out wines that stand out from the pack. It is a testimony to the cadre of passionate winegrowers who have scoffed at the suggestion that Pinot Noir is a “heartbreak grape” and have successfully corralled the grape’s temperamental nature. The 2008 All-Americans were chosen in the spirit of celebration of the copious bounty of Pinot Noir that we are blessed with in this country. The All-Americans were selected as much for their fruity, flirty, New World hedonism as for their description-defying sensuality. These wines were technically complete, but more significantly, they displayed a powerful charisma. It is a truth that it is not what is written but what is emoted that truly defines a wine’s greatness. Veronique Drouhin, winemaker at Oregon’s Domaine Drouhin, echoes my sentiments perfectly when she said, “There are plenty of good wines in the world that give you pleasure. A great wine gives you emotion.”

The stylistic split of power versus finesse or “New World” against “Old World,” is still ever present, but the superiority of either style is a tired argument. Most New World winemakers admit that they are trying to craft the best wine they can from their vineyards and not trying to imitate Old World Burgundy. The growing conditions in the New World provide more upfront fruitiness, extraction and higher alcohol. The 2008 vintage was a perfect example, with searing heat at harvest pushing sugars in some vineyards in California close to 30° Brix. The French rarely concern themselves with heat at harvest and French Burgundy is often lighter, less fruity, higher in acid and lower in alcohol, more see-through red lingerie than Jimi Hendrix purple. Most New World Pinot Noirs strike a balance between the two extremes. True pinotphiles can appreciate both styles and relish in the diversity of Pinot Noir.

I wish to clarify the steps I take to arrive at the wines I recommend in the PinotFile during the year and that make the All-American list at year’s end. I taste Pinot Noir daily in a consistently calm setting in my home in the morning. The wines are sampled at cellar temperature (55° F - 65°F) and are tasted over a couple of hours in a relaxed atmosphere. I give the wines time to open up and make several passes to taste each wine. Occasionally I decant the wines if this will benefit the evaluation. I use either Riedel Vinum Burgundy glasses or Riedel Oregon Pinot Noir glasses. Often I will taste the wines later the same day or the next day from an opened and re-corked bottle. Frequently the wines are re-tasted with food at lunch or dinner to replicate the consumer’s drinking experience. I do not taste blind, but strive for integrity, consistency and objectivity. “The aim of judgment,” respected French wine critic Michael Bettane said , “is truth and impartiality.” There are two main reasons for not tasting blind. First, I prefer to evaluate the wines in the same manner that the consumer experiences them. Second, an essential part of evaluating wine is to know what you are drinking. I tend to focus on the drinkability of a wine in the short term since most consumers drink their wines young. I most appreciate wines that are at or close to their best the day I taste them. If a wine is balanced when I taste it young, it is almost a given that it will hold up for several years. I have no monetary arrangement with any winery, retailer or wholesaler and accept no advertising. I do accept wines for review, but over 75% of the wines I sample are bought directly from the winery or through the usual retail channels. There are a number of Pinot Noirs that I sample casually at social dinners, Pinot Noir festivals, and tastings but I do not include these in the All-American selection process, preferring only to incorporate wines that are formally tasted in controlled circumstances.

I do not award scores to wines, preferring to give an unpretentious and concise description of the style and quality of the wine that the reader can appreciate and use. I attempt to convey that special sensuality in Pinot Noir that is so easy to covet, yet so difficult to describe. Wineries prefer scores for marketing purposes, but I am convinced that an apropos description is the fairest way to evaluate a wine. Beginning with Volume 7, Issue 3, I began using the Pinot Geek icon (right) to designate wines of exceptional merit of All American quality.

I do not take my reviews or myself too seriously. I preach to the reader to use my tasting notes as a guide, but above all, trust his or her own palate. I do want to acknowledge my spouse’s occasional tasting contributions. I think this is valuable, as she does not give a hoot about the label or the producer, only how the Pinot Noir tastes. Let’s face the truth, women have incredibly good palates.

Beyond the emotions that a wine can incite and weigh heavily on its enjoyment, there are certain technical aspects of a wine that must be addressed to arrive at the judgment of quality. A quality wine is spoken reverently as a “complete wine.” In a complete wine, all the components join together harmoniously. A complete wine is an accolade that is awarded to wines with all the following attributes.

    Color: The color of a wine is evaluated according to hue, intensity and clarity. Pinot Noir is found in practically all shades of red and its color is due to anthocyanin in the wine. The color that anthocyanin imparts to Pinot Noir is secondary to the acidity of the wine. Higher acidity (lower pH) gives a lively red color to a new wine while lower acidity (higher pH) produces a less brilliant and more purple hue. As wines age in the bottle, tannins become an important determinant of color, combining with anthocyanin to bestow a brick or brown color to the red. The intensity of color of Pinot Noir is not related to quality in the sense that darker-colored wines do not necessarily provide more drinking enjoyment. Most small production Pinot Noir is unfined and unfiltered to retain all aromatic and flavor components. Some sediment may result but this is not a flaw in the wine.

    Smell:A complete wine will have more than one family of aromas (fruity, floral, spices, etc.). The olfactory system enables the brain to perceive not only odors inhaled through the nostrils, but also the aromatic qualities of a wine conveyed to it from the palate by way of the nasal passage at the back of the mouth. Primary aromas are odors intrinsic to the grape. Secondary aromas are derived from the alcohol fermentation and maturing in wood. Tertiary aromas are known as “bottle bouquet,” and develop from aging through recombination of esters and alcohols after alcoholic and malolactic fermentation are complete.

    Taste: A complete wine will have more than one family of flavors and all the flavors will be in harmony. Tastes are sensed on the tongue and each flavor remains evident for a time that determines persistence.

    Texture: Often referred to as mouth feel, unctuousness or roundness (moelleux), texture is the tactile sense of wine in the mouth, on the tongue and in the throat. It is the fabric of a wine. Quality wines are often described as smooth, silky, velvety, well-knit, glossy or polished while lesser ones as flabby, loose-knit, granular or coarse. Silky textures are unique to Pinot Noir and give the wine its sexiness.

    Finish: Finish refers to the final aromatic and taste sensations of wine on the palate. A complete wine will have both a long aromatic finish lasting several seconds and an appealing taste (fruit, acidity, alcohol, astringency) at the end.

    Balance: A term used synonymously with harmony and referring to the relative levels of acidity, alcohol, tannins and roundness that are felt in the mouth. A well-balanced wine has all of these elements in equal amounts with no element predominating. Aromas have nothing to do with balance. A complete wine will have impeccable balance. If a wine is unbalanced early in its life, it will never become balanced, no matter how long it is aged.

    Aftertaste: This term is often used synonymously with finish. For clarity’s sake, aftertaste refers to the flavor and olfactory impressions that remain after the wine is swallowed or spit out. A quality wine is described as having “length” when the clean, balanced and full flavors of the finish linger in the aftertaste. Flaws in wine may be perceived in the aftertaste that otherwise might have been overlooked. The most common complaint is a bitter or astringent aftertaste, heightened by the fact that bitterness, sensed mainly at the back of the tongue, also has the longest flavor persistence. Aftertaste is the final indicator of a wine’s overall quality, confirming not only if it is balanced and complete, but whether it rates such adjectives as elegance, breeding and finesse.

I consider the All-American wines, particularly the First Team, to be complete wines.

The All-American awards are unique in that the winners include trophy and cult Pinot Noirs that are infrequently submitted for review to tasting panels of major wine publications. The PinotFile All-Americans encompass every Pinot Noir produced in California and Oregon. In 2008, All-Americans turned up in all major Pinot Noir producing regions of California and Oregon.

The 137 All-American wines chosen were ones enjoyed in 2008, regardless of year of release. In many cases, the wines represent the most recent release. They are judged on merit, independent of price, style and region of origin. I have also included a listing of outstanding Pinot Noirs from New Zealand as I sampled many this year. I drink a fair amount of red Burgundy, but leave the critical evaluation of these wines to others who are more dedicated to that region (for example, Allen Meadows of the Burghound newsletter). Man cannot live on red wine alone so I also indulge in Chardonnay. My favorite producers are Aubert, Benovia, Freestone Vineyards, Hirsch, Kistler, l’Angevin, Littorai, Shea Vineyard, Varner and Windy Oaks.

The awarded wines are listed in alphabetical order. After each wine, the issue in which a review appeared is listed (descriptors often do not do these wines justice!). Some wines are sold out at the winery long ago, but likely to still be available from retail sources or auctions. A search using the following websites will often turn up sources for the wines: www.wine-searcher.com, www.vinquire.com, www.winezap.com and www.wineaccess.com. Keep in mind that there will always be another vintage and stellar producers make quality wine consistently with each vintage. It will not be the same song, but it will be the same composer. Winery mailing lists are a good method of insuring that you obtain a steady supply of desirable Pinot Noir from a talented producer.

Current prices for North American Pinot Noir run the gamut from $7 to over $100, but generally life begins at $40. The average price for all the California and Oregon First and Second Team All-Americans of 2008 was $55 and $59 respectively. Collecting and drinking Pinot Noir can be a rich man’s game if only trophy or “deep pocket Pinots” are sought after. Fortunately, there are many perfectly fine Pinot Noirs on the market that retail for less than $30 and the increasing number of these so-called value Pinot Noirs makes good Pinot Noir more available now than ever. The 2008 Value Pinot Noir All-Americans represent the best under $30 North American Pinot Noirs I sampled this past year. Recently I began using the Value icon (right) to indicate a Pinot Noir having good quality at a bargain price. Value Pinot Noirs do not match up in quality of fruit, aroma and flavor nuances and complexity compared to the prestige bottlings. They do, however, offer a perfectly fine everyday drinking experience that reflects the charm of the Pinot Noir variety. Think of them as Pinot Noir unplugged.

For those wines that were left out this year, the words of Mark Twain ring true, “It is better to deserve honors and not have them, than to have them and not deserve them.”

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