Tannic Times for California Pinot Noir

A big crop in 2012 yields uneven results

Excerpted from the Sept. 30, 2014, issue

Yet despite the climatic gifts of 2012, the wines are not head and shoulders above the 2011s. In the earlier vintage, many grapes harvested before the rains were underripe, with a number of wineries leaving some grapes unpicked or declassifying their lesser lots. The best, however, were adequately ripe and complex, leading to a more successful year than vintners expected.

The mixed message of 2012—perfect weather, uneven quality—has much to do with high yields, which took vintners by surprise, with large clusters and berries that made ripening a challenge. The surge in production was dramatic: 248,000 tons of Pinot Noir were crushed in California in 2012, representing a 46 percent increase over 2011’s 170,000 tons crushed (itself the largest ever).

As a result, most 2012 wines are not only more tannic and less concentrated than usual, but also less flavorful. In contrast with the most successful recent vintages, such as 2009 and 2010, the 2012s are tamer in ripeness and more austere, with many of them flexing their youthful, edgy tannic muscles. Yet some great wines were made, and the best are graceful, in line with the level of quality achieved in the top vintages of the past decade, a time in which Pinot catapulted to popularity and the ranks of new producers grew by the score.

“I think most winemakers went into the 2012 vintage a bit worried about the potential size of the harvest and the effect that might have on quality,” says winemaker Merry Edwards, who is based in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. “The resulting wines were well above my early season expectation. That being said, the vintage was not ‘the best’ of the past decade, with 2009 and 2010 producing bigger wines in general. Personally, I sighed with relief that the vintage was very good and there’s a lot of it.”

“Yields were the story in 2012,” agrees Adam Lee of Siduri, also in Sonoma. “They were big. Certainly they were big coming off the tiny 2010 and 2011 vintages, but they were just big, period. 2012 was especially big in the North Coast, while not as huge in the Central Coast.”

Since my last report on the category (“California Pinot Noir Cools Off in 2011,” Oct. 15, 2013), I have tasted nearly 750 Pinots—the most ever in a single year—in our Napa office. More than 400 are from 2012, the current release, with nearly a quarter of them receiving outstanding scores of 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. Of the five appellations tracked on our vintage chart, only Santa Lucia Highlands, in Monterey County, rated outstanding in 2012, pointing to the challenges the vintage posed. (The remaining wines come from the other two years most widely available today: 2011, with nearly 275 wines in this report, 49 of them rated outstanding, and 2010, with more than 50 wines, 21 of them outstanding.)

The strong showing from Santa Lucia Highlands in 2012 is especially notable. Though it’s one of the state’s smaller Pinot appellations, Santa Lucia Highlands has been steadily on the rise in recent years, consistently yielding rich, charming wines from a wide array of producers. Three bottlings from Rosella’s Vineyard put the high quality of the region on display: the A.P. Vin (93 points, $52), Roar (93, $52) and Siduri (93, $49) are smooth, deep and polished reds that display a range of expressive flavors.

Jeff Pisoni of Pisoni Vineyards, another standout site in the appellation, says the key to achieving exceptional quality in 2012 was controlling yields. “We thinned more fruit than normal throughout several strategic passes,” he explains, adding that if vintners were not careful, they could have been caught off guard by higher yields and diluted wines.

Sonoma County, the largest producer of Pinot Noir in California, is running a distant second in overall quality because of the size of the crop. Nearly everyone agrees Sonoma’s tonnage was a big surprise. The region, which includes Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Green Valley and the new Fort Ross-Seaview appellation, typically offers the most wines and the most outstanding bottlings. This holds true in 2012, even if the total number of wines in the 90-plus range is lower than in years past.

Three 93-point bottlings make up the top wines from Sonoma—a pair from Kosta Browne, the Russian River Valley Cohn Vineyard ($84) and Sonoma Coast Kanzler Vineyard ($84), and one from Peter Michael, the Fort Ross-Seaview Le Caprice ($110)—followed by 11 more wines hitting 92 points. One of the top-rated 2012 Pinot Noirs also comes from Kosta Browne: the 4-Barrel (94, $84), a blend of the winery’s best four barrels that carries a California appellation.

The size of the crop in 2012 snuck up on most winemakers in the state, not just in Sonoma. The berry size, more so than the crop load, accounted for the greater juice-to-skin ratio. Since that often means less concentrated wines, some winemakers were prompted to “bleed” off juice before fermenting.

The larger crop also took longer to ripen, and even then the young Pinots are more tannic than in recent years, notable for their scaled-down richness and lavishness. The range of flavors is narrower, and overall the wines are crisper and trimmer midpalate, with their edgy tannins making for a chewier aftertaste.

How these characterstics will play out over the next few years is hard to determine at this point. Tannin levels are difficult to assess, and predicting how the wines will age is just as tricky. That said, the 2012s are firm and tough-edged compared with riper years, and based on stated alcohol levels, it appears that more vintners harvested grapes at lower sugar levels. More wines fell into the 13 percent to 14 percent range than usual; whether this was by design or accident isn’t clear, though some winemakers are certainly aiming for less-ripe, lower-alcohol wines.

By many accounts, Santa Lucia Highlands was the region that handled the crop load best, consequently producing some of the vintage’s highest-rated wines. That said, outstanding Pinots were made throughout the state. Winemaker Brian Loring, whose best efforts span multiple appellations, made three 92-point Pinots, all for $50, from Sta. Rita Hills and Paso Robles as well as Santa Lucia Highlands—the Clos Pepe Vineyard, Russell Family Vineyard and Garys’ Vineyard, respectively—along with a 93-pointer, also $50, from Aubaine Vineyard in San Luis Obispo.

“Sta. Rita Hills was a bit of an anomaly in that yields were slightly under average there,” says Loring. “But really good fruit quality made up for that shortcoming. The finished wines tended to be mid-weight in structure and bigness, maybe more pretty than overly powerful, but with good depth and richness.”

The resulting success of the season in that region is evident from the 94-point scores of Brewer-Clifton’s appellation Pinot ($40) and single-vineyard Machado bottling ($74).

Those who consider the vintage ideal cite evenhanded weather. “If we could have sketched out our ideal weather on a calendar, it wouldn’t have been much different than what we saw,” says Patz & Hall winemaker James Hall. “In many ways, 2012 reminds us of 2007 and 1997—two near-legendary vintages that delivered robust crops of exceptional quality.”

Hall adds that 2012 was also a vintage that came into the winery at an almost leisurely pace. “This allowed us to do more fermentations than ever before, dialing in on single clones and special blocks,” he says. “Overall, the 2012 Pinot Noirs are powerful and dramatic, with serious tannins and phenomenal color. It’s also a vintage that will reward aging. While our 2011s are quite supple and fruit-forward right now, our 2012s will need some time to unfurl and reveal their many pleasures.”