We recently overheard an argument between a sommelier and a couple at a high-end restaurant. The couple was trying to order a California Pinot Noir, and the sommelier was working hard to have the couple try an Oregon Pinot. The sommelier was adamant that the Oregon Pinot matched with the food, while the two customers argued that the California Pinot had much more flavor. Where they both right?
The Pinot Passion fight between the California advocates versus the Oregon folks does sometimes turn into more of an WWF event. Before we put our hat into the ring, here are a few points to keep in mind that might help in your choice:
California Pinot Noir
- The dominant style of California pinot noir has been, and for the majority of wine, is round, ripe and extravagant taste, with sweet flavors of dark fruit and high alcohol levels approaching and sometimes surpassing 15 percent. Wines from Kosta Browne, Sea Smoke, and Merry Edwards make wonderfully sophisticated wines that can be sipped on their own, or matched with oily, rich meals of fowl or fish. Duck and boar match perfectly with these wines.
- Warm weather provides intensely flavored fruit, especially in Sonoma – but some argue that the fruit is over ripe. Grapes coming from the vineyards closer to the coast will lend to a lighter style. However, most CA Pinot Noirs are medium to heavy body wines.
- There are a growing number of wine makers in CA who are making a fresher, lighter, more acidic pinot noir at a much lower alcohol content which might be more food friendly. Copain Wine Cellars, Littorai, and Failla are great examples of California pinot noirs made in a lighter style, emphasizing finesse over power. These wines match with light meats such as chicken and pork chops, as well as fish with firm dense texture such as halibut.
- One of our favorite CA pinot noirs is W.H. Smith. We have kept a few bottles for more than 8 years in our cellar, and has matured better than some of the high end pinot noirs from CA.
Oregon Pinot Noir
- Oregon has a climate that comes closer to the classic Burgundy style. The grapes need more time to ripen, lending to wines with more subtle flavor and body. The Oregon Pinot Noirs generally have, in general, moderate alcohol content in the 12.5 to 14 percent range, lower than those of today’s typical Pinot Noirs from California.
- The Oregon Pinot Noir wines typically feature very prominent cherry-berry aromas and flavors. Many of the wines we’ve tasted have a pronounced raspberry flavor. There are varying degrees of oak, but we’ve never had an over-oaked Oregon pinot noir.
- The Oregon Pinot Noir wines are typically medium body and reasonable tannin levels. We have kept some of the high end Oregon Pinot Noirs in our cellar for 10 years.
- We have often described the Oregon Pinot Noirs as feminine – light, delicate, subtle. Similar to lighter style CA wines, the Oregon Pinot Noirs match with light meats such as chicken and pork chops, as well as many fish dishes. Oregon Pinot Noir wines are our go-to choice with scallops. When drinking these wines on their own, think Spring time.
- There are many fine wines under $25 from Oregon. But we would suggest you splurge on your first try, with wines such as Domaine Serene, Domaine Drouhin, Bergstrom, or Beaux Freres. The 2010 Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir received a 95 from Wine Spectator, and was the #3 wine of the year – so don’t expect to find it. If you do, it is amazing.
But what is our favorite? We lean, in general, to the Oregon Pinot Noirs. For our readers, you know we favor food-friendly wines, and ofter the more subtle styles. However, when we have tasted over a number of years, the consistent high quality of Sea Smoke places this US pinot noir on top of our list. We opened a 2003 Southing on Thanksgiving, and it was the best, all time US pinot noir we have tasted.
After writing this blog, we found a few very interesting articles you might like to read on this same subject:
- Kosta Browne and Littorai on Philly.com (The Philadelphia Inquirer website)
- A great discussion on the new, lighter pinot noir style from California on the New York Times website.
- The Pinot noir smackdown: Oregon vs. California on the Chicago Tribune website
- Why Oregon Will Fondly Remember 2011 on the New York Times website
Let us know about your favorite US Pinot Noir – and please chime in on the Oregon vs. California battle.