Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir and the Varietal Revelation
Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs are really very pretty wines. They tend toward the elegant rather than bold, mineral over leafy, cherry over berry. These wines, based on my tasting of a selection primarily from the 2008 and 2009 vintage, possess a forward acid structure, evident but not overwhelming tannins and are capable of carrying a broad and complex set of flavors from the front to back of the palate.
But most of all, they are Pinot Noir.
This last point, which I didn't expect to stick with me when I sat down to the Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir seminar prior to last Sunday's Pinot on the River events on the Healdsburg Plaza, speaks to something important about the notion of terroir:
The differences between Pinots produced from grapes grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Russian River Valley, Carneros, West Sonoma, St. Rita Hills, Santa Lucia Highlands, Anderson Valley, Burgundy's Cote d'Or, Austria, New Zealand and just about every other place are minimal…or at least subtle.
Another way of putting it is that Pinot Noir produced from the Santa Cruz Mountains and from the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy will have far more in common from a characteristics, flavor and aroma perspective than Pinot Noir and Merlot produce from the same vineyard in either the Santa Cruz Mountains or Burgundy.
Nothing is more important in giving a wine its most basic and often its most interesting characteristics than the variety of grape used to produce it….including the soil in which it is grown. Terroir is a secondary factor in nearly every wine you drink.
Here's another way of understanding this basic principle too often overlooked: A $4 Cabernet with a "California" appellation will taste much more like a $200 Napa Valley Cabernet, than a $200 Napa Syrah will taste like a $200 Napa Cabernet.
Or how about this: Red Burgundy tastes much more like Pinot Noir than it tastes like Burgundy.
Right about now you are probably thinking, "Well, duh, Tom….What's the big revelation here?"
The big revelation is this: Using Burgundy as an example, we really don't know what Burgundy taste like other than to say that it tastes like Pinot Noir. If we really want to know what Burgundy tastes like, then we'll need to plant more than two or three grapes in the region. We'll need to plant lots of different varieties of red grapes in Burgundy before we can even begin to suggest that "Burgundy" means anything more than Pinot Noir.
This is why it strikes me as FAR more likely that any real understanding of a piece of ground and what it might impart to wine is going to be discovered in the New World where for the most part, economic and regulatory factors don't dictate mono-varietal planting across regions and where we can look for local characteristics distributed across varieties planted in the same area—or vineyard.
Consider the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's a large appellation with relatively few acres planted to grapes. Nonetheless, you'll likely find numerous different varieties in the appellation from Pinot to Merlot to Chardonnay to Cabernet to Syrah. This so totally unlike Burgundy or any other mono-varietal wine region that has given its name to the wines produced there, rather than the varieties that are used to produce the wines.
Terroir is an extraordinarily difficult idea to nail down. It is even more difficult to taste a wine and say, "oh, these characteristics result from this soil composition, while those characteristics derive from the the regular fog events and this particular characteristic is a result from the specific aspect of the land and hillside. It's nearly a fools errend."
And yet…it's this foolish quest that consumes the winemaker, the farmer, the media and the wine junkie consumer. Wines of a variety are so similar in character that to justify the great number of different ones we speak of the differences that terroir makes in every wine. But who among you can absolutely guarantee that you could identify the wine when faced wilth a glass holding a very nice Red Burgundy and glass holding a very nice Sonoma Pinot Noir?? Sure, you'll easily say they are both Pinot. But will you be able to instantly spot the region?
The Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs I tasted Sunday were very nice wines. I'll seek them out in the future and buy them. But despite the fact that I'd never tasted them before, I have tasted them many times before…in wines from Sonoma Coast, from Anderson Valley, from New Zealand, from Burgundy and elsewhere.