10 Californian Pinot Noirs that will blow your mind

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It’s official. California is exciting place for Pinot Noir, and there is now now shortage of elegant, detailed, supple, world class Pinot Noir here, if you look in the right places. The In Pursuit of Balance tasting held in San Francisco in March 2014 showcased the top Pinot Noirs from California, and from the many wines I tried, I’ve selected 10 that I think will surprise many who haven’t yet discovered the ‘new’ California. I must add a caveat: this is a personal selection, and to a degree it is a little arbitrary, because there were just so many good wines it is hard to separate them. And I didn’t manage to try all the wines on show.

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Cobb Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 Sonoma Coast, California
Made by Ross Cobb, who is also winemaker at Hirsch (since 2010). Pale cherry red colour. Fresh, floral, bright red cherry fruit nose with some fine, slightly edgy herby/spicy notes. The palate has freshness and finesse, with some fine herbal notes under the pure, silky, sweet cherry fruit. Profound wine. 96/100

Littorai Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Sonoma Coast, California
Pale in colour. Fresh aromatic sweet red cherry fruit leads to a silky, fresh, sappy palate that just about defines the term ‘elegant’ as it relates to Pinot. So beautiful, pure and refined. Stunning. 96/100
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LaRue Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 Sonoma Coast, California
This is the first time I’ve tried the wines of Katy Wilson, and I was impressed. This is supple and sweet with some spicy notes under the fresh, silky, ripe cherry fruit. There’s real detail and complexity here: a generous wine but one that’s still really elegant. 95/100

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Tyler Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir 2011 Santa Rita Hills, California
From the original 1971 plantings, Justin Willett has produced a beautifully poised Pinot. Fresh, fine, floral, sappy nose. The palate is precise and pure with expressive red fruits and a lovely mineral dimension. Sophisticated and fine. 95/100
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Domaine de la Côte ‘La Côte’ Pinot Noir 2011 Santa Rita Hills, Calfornia
The packaging here is making a nod at DRC. It’s a bit like playing football wearing a Brazil shirt. This has a fine, expressive nose with spice and herbs complementing the floral fruit. The palate is tight and structured with some edginess, and a grippy finish. But this complements rather than takes away from the fine, pure fruit, and haunting minerality. Just beautiful. 95/100

Hirsch Reserve Estate Pinot Noir 2011 Sonoma Coast, California
Fine, fresh and pure, this is an elegant expression of Pinot, showing red cherry fruit and minerals. It shows purity and detail, with an expressive personality, and lovely freshness. 95/100

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Kutch Falstaff Pinot Noir 2012 Sonoma Coast, California
Jamie Kutch’s Pinots are quite structured and intense, yet they don’t lack elegance: wines for the long haul. This is from a very cool site, it’s 100% whole cluster and 25% new oak. Sweet, lively, aromatic cherry and plum nose. The palate is fresh, pure and concentrated, with lovely bright fruit, boldness, and good structure. 94/100

Ceritas Hellenthal Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Central Coast, California
From a vineyard planted in 1980, just east of Hirsch, dry farmed with Calera clone on own roots. This is pure and taut, with nice raspberry and cherry fruit. It’s fresh, precise and detailed, and has the structure to age nicely. 94/100

Chanin La Rinconada Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Santa Rita Hills, California
Gavin Chanin’s wines have the prettiest labels in the state, but fortunately what’s inside the bottle is pretty, too. This is from a vineyard with similar soils to the famous Sanford & Benedict vineyard, and was first planted in 1997. With 40% whole cluster, this Pinot has some edges. It shows supple, fine, pure cherry and red fruits with some grippiness and nice detail. Fine. 94/100

Copain Wentzel Pinot Noir 2011 Anderson Valley, California
Wells Guthrie makes some of the leanest, freshest, bravest Pinots you can find, and I really like them. This has a fresh, floral, aromatic nose. The palate shows precise, vivid, focused cherry fruit. It’s youthful and primary, with nice grippy structure, and I reckon it’s one for the long haul. 94/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

11 comments to 10 Californian Pinot Noirs that will blow your mind

  • j

    A few good additions:

    Knez/Anthill
    Red Car
    Peay
    Rhys (not news)

    There are many more

  • Dustin

    Drew wines
    Vaughn Duffy
    Donkey & Goat

    These guys are doing a great job as well, worth a try!

  • AS

    Also worthy of mention:
    Trombetta 2011 Gaps Crown Pinot Noir
    Brooks 2009 Rastaban Pinot Noir

  • lars

    Overscoring..
    As always, JG’s notes are descriptive, concise and not too elaborate (as many other reviewer’s are)- but they are just too high- fairly consistently 2 whole Points (or so) over other reviewer’s scores (i’m a nerd, I’ve checked) I have only tried the Taylor Sandford and Kutch, and they are both lovely wines, but 95 and 94- really? Why not shave off a point or two, so we don’t have to?
    best wishes lars

  • Dan

    Great post! Very envious… if you ever need an assistant I shall always be available!

  • Thanks for the comments. With regards to the scores, I think they are fair. These are really good wines. I think some critics have a points ceiling for certain wine styles, and the best California Pinots have a limit they can’t get past. I’d be reluctant to downgrade the scores at all.

  • Great picks. I notice Rhys getting a lot of love on the wineberserkers forum, and saw one of the commenters above mention them. Have you tried theirs?

    My two (three) cents – Belle Glos, Sojourn, and Nicholson Ranch.

  • Not sure why you would have to downgrade your scores. You taste the wines , you score them as you see fit – not sure how anyone else can tell you how you should score them!
    ps Nice sounding group of wines!

  • Seems like strong list, and I had a A.P. Vin 2009 Turner Vineyard that was beautiful recently. But these wines are all $75 or more right? What affordable CA Pinots would you recommend? Yes Meiomi is a solid value, what else?

  • Greg Wright

    I found your tasting and choices very interesting and I agree California is making some outstanding pinot noir. You captured two of my favorite winemakers, Littorai and Hirsch. I find Littorai’s pinots to be some of the best in the world. Ted Lemon is a great visionary and has crafted some excellent, elegant, and complex pinot noirs. As time goes on and the vines he picks from age, these will be wines the world will come to know. I also admire David Hirsch his wines and his vineyards. There are quite a few wineries that use his grapes (Williams Selyem, Littorai and Failla to name a few)and all of those make very good wines from Hirsch. I haven’t heard of Larue so i will definitely check out that wine. Thanks for your insightful discussion on tasting California pinot.

  • David B

    Some of the wines in this list top $75 but certainly not all. I have had the Littorai and Kutch recently, and both are world class Pinot Noirs. Given that they are price competitive with top village Burgundy I know where my money will go. Rhys is also pricy (at least the top single vineyard wines) but well worth it.

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