Marin County Pinot Noir–DISTINCTIVE!!

I can recall the era when the emergence of a new wine growing region, while somewhat exciting, was also met with a bit of skepticism by the wine trade and the hard core consumer. The issue was 1) can the new area producing anything of merit and is there any talent making wine in the region.

It was also the case that getting out the word on wines from an emerging region was also a difficult task. The wine media was taken up full time already just covering the traditional wine regions in the Old World and focusing on the best of the new world. To get any substantial coverage for a region that was only beginning to pump out wines was a difficult task, which led to the slow going of gaining recognition for their wines.

This has has all changed.

With a renewed emphasis on rationality and terroir, and with technology and know-how having advanced to the point that a region’s potential is well known before the first grapevine is planted, the issue of whether or not a region can produce fine wine is pretty much assumed. Also, the ways by which news of an emerging region is spread is helped tremendously by the expanded wine media and the expansion of the ways by which people can get their hands on info about a region.

This is all significant in relationship to the winegrowers of Marin County in California.

A small group tasting was held in Marin County on Friday and Saturday in which the Pinot Noirs of this region were showcased. These wines clearly demonstrate that Marin County can, if there were enough vineyards planted, become a source for really stunning wines.

The tasting was held in the beautiful remains of the old Escalle Winery in Larkspur in Marin County. About 8 wineries showed up pouring a number of different Pinots from the region. What’s clear to begin with is that, generally, Marin County Pinot Noirs tend to be lower in alcohol, immensely complex and the result of generally far smaller crop levels than in other regions of California.

The climate where Pinot is planted her tends to be very cold, influenced tremendously by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the winds that come off that body of water and to the San Francisco. Bay. The Proximity to these bodies of water means Marin tends to have more moderate winters and springs.  This is good because it leads to an earlier bud break, which is needed given how cool the summers can be. The Marin Pinot growers need an extended hang time to get the grapes ripe. Most of the winemakers I spoke with explained that they end up picking Pinot in Late September, October and sometimes in November. And Pinot is an EARLY ripening grape.

The upshot too is that 14% alcohol or there abouts, and often south of that, is the norm for these Pinots. Yet, they are PACKED with flavors and aromas that make them fascinating wines to linger with and drink.

I liked the Marin Pinots quite a lot. The bottom line is that they are exciting, well made, distinctive and there are not enough of them to go around.

Scott Dougherty was pouring a 2002 Blanc de Noir style Sparkler that was delightful. It’s yeasty, citrus, peach-laden nose and crisp demeanor made it a refreshing and interesting wine to drink. The grapes for this wine were picked on NOV 11 !!! The cost is $24 and that’s a bargain!

The vineyards for this winery sit just on the Marin side of the Sonoma/Marin County border near Petaluma. I tasted the 2001 Marin County Pinot Noir and found it infused with aromas of rose pedal, black tea, ripe cherry, bacon and vanilla. The tannins are rich and silky and the flavors are headlined by brilliant and sharply defined dried cherry. It delivered excellent balance and is drinking wonderfully right now. Cost is unknown.

Thackery’s 2003 Devil’s Gulch Andromeda was the odd man out at this tasting. This wine is huge!! It easily came in with the highest alcohol content of all the wines at the tasting at 15.1%. The Devil’s Gulch Vineyards is clearly the best know of the Marin County vineyards. The vineyard has also produced beautiful wines for Dutton Goldfield. Thackery explained that the yield on this vineyard is absolutely minuscule due in large part to the fact that the berries are perhaps twice the size of a BB. Of course, this also accounts for the Devil’s Gulch Pinots expressiveness. This wine was bold, very Syrah like with bright, dark cherry flavors, very meaty, very long and very fat. It’s a style of Pinot that will appeal to some. To those who appreciate the feminine side of Pinot, this might not be the wine for them. Cost is around $60.

Dutton-Goldfield was pouring its 2003 and 2001 Devil Gulch Pinot Noir. Both were exceptional with the 2001 clearly more ready to drink, more evolved and more interesting. The alcohols for both these wines fell in the 13.5 range. Perfect. The 2003 shows more berry than cherry aromas and flavors. But its the spice in these wines that keeps you coming back. An Asian spice quality lifts up from both wines in a very attractive fashion. These are beautiful Pinot Noirs with a medium body and a good acid backbone that will allow them to age, I  think, quite nicely for another 8 years or so. Each vintages costs about $48.

Jonathon Pey is one of the driving forces behind the resurgence of Marin winemaking  and the promotion of the wines. He’s not only a good, enthusiastic spokesperson for the group but his wines are also terrific. We tasted the 2004 Trois Fille Pinot Noir. It is a beautiful Pinot Noir that comes in at 14% alcohol and is wonderfully expressive offering up a collection of varietal Pinot aromas, lovely acidity a subtle richness on the palate and demonstrable spiciness that creates the kind of complexity in Pinot Noirs that we look for. Cost is about $36. Pey also poured a 2005 Riesling from their Mount Tamalpias brand that was  beautiful. Nearly dry, more German than Californian in style, bright, textured, lovely.

Vision was showcasing their 2004 Chileno Valley Vineyards, which are owned by Corda. It is a wine that is more straightforward than other Pinots. Varietally correct, very bright aromas and flavors with nearly a carbonic maceration quality to it that will likely evolve away with a year or two in the bottle. These folk know single vineyard Pinots and it’s a boost to the region to have them making a Marin County Pinot. At $24 the 2004 Vision Pinot is a bargain.

Stubbs is a winery that has retained the services of Dan Goldfield of Dutton Goldfield. Few people know Marin winemaking and even cold climate Sonoma County winemaking as well as Dan. The Stubbs 2004 Marin Pinot is a beautiful wine made from their estate vineyards. It’s young right now and needs to settle down. It’s in that phase where the oak is even with the fruit character rather than supporting the wine, but I thinks this wine is set to be a balanced beauty in about six months to a year. It has a fleshy texture supported by good acid and silky tannins. The wine is driven by deep seated cherry flavored base this is ripe, not dry. About $38.

What holds Marin County winemaking back at this point is clearly not the quality of the wines or the dedication of those making the wines. All this is in place. It’s access to vineyards that will hold back these wines’ accessibility. Vineyard land is expensive in this neck of the woods and currently there simply are not a lot of acres under vine, though it appears that there are perhaps another 20-30 acres that are yet to be producing.

Marin, with it unique and distinctive climate, is one of those regions that can develop into a source of wines for which wine lovers can have an expectation of character and style. This is important. It’s what sets them apart.

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