Searching for identity

One of the major moans of wine writers – South African ones at least, though I’ve heard the same from UK colleagues – concerns the ubiquitous number of what are known as ‘international’ wines, those which could come from pretty well anywhere. Identifying them in a blind tasting can come down to a thumb suck. While many are well-made, they are formulaic rather than wines of personality, the latter revealing more about where they come from than the winemaker’s own handiwork in the cellar. Once one has experienced wines with real personality and a sense of origin, it’s difficult to get excited about the others.

That doesn’t mean wines with a sense of place are always easy to nail in a blind tasting; it takes experience to get a grip on their distinctive features. It’s one thing to be able to correctly say this pinot is from Burgundy, Côtes de Nuits, quite another to add it’s a Dujac Bonnes Mares (perhaps incidental to its sheer beauty!).

The pinots we tasted last Sunday, courtesy of Rosa Kruger, were somewhat more modest as compared with Bonnes Mares though well-regarded (and highly priced) in their home region of the Sonoma Coast. This Californian West Coast, cool-climate area is apparently now the ‘in’ area for pinot, having taken over that mantle from Oregon.

The vineyards, mostly tiny and planted in the middle of forests, lie at high altitude and in view of the sea, where cooling fog blows in from the Pacific. The soils, much younger than ours, are stony, volcanic, friable and vigorous. The pinot clones grown are the familiar 115, 667 and 777 as well as the less-known to us, 828. Apart from vines, Rosa says marijuana is another popular crop!

Although the wines were unknown to us, we tasted blind. It would be interesting to know whether any are familiar to readers. Having discussed each and unveiled them, Kruger asked each of us to describe in one sentence the region’s overall distinguishing features that we’d noted from this small sample; it proved an interesting exercise (not least for those who find a single sentence problematic!)

Ingrid Motteux offered: ripe, dense, ambitious. Adding, Aussie and New Zealand pinots are pretty but less ambitious. Gottfried Mocke: their style is the result of a cool climate area. ‘Well crafted’, was Francois Haasbroek’s succinct input . Chris Williams’s view slightly disagreed with Ingrid’s, describing the wines as ‘not glossy but happy in their own skins.’ David Clarke couldn’t resist comparison with Burgundy, suggesting these Sonoma Coast pinots are riper, more muscular Gevrey type; Côtes de Nuits rather than Côtes de Beaune. Adding they’re well thought through. Our MW, Cathy van Zyl felt they reflect too long a hang time, something she had experienced at a pinot tasting in Californian ten years ago. My own impressions are that the wines are ripe but soundly dry (unlike South African reds which might be technically dry, but still have a residual sweetness), dense but with a fine inherent and balanced freshness.

On paper (screen?) this might not sound as though we agreed much with each other but overall we did feel there’s a common thread linking the five wines, despite varying quality.
Would I next time recognise a Sonoma Coast pinot tasted blind? I’d like to think I have sufficient pointers to get as far as cool climate California (I’m covering my bets here), but more to the point as vines age and winemakers become more understanding of the fruit they’re dealing with, the wines will gain further distinction both in difference and excellence. Such attributes will surely lend value to the region and indicate a bright future.

There’s a lesson here for South African wine producers. If a variety or style has proved its aptitude in your region, it might be easier to make commercially popular wines, but in the longer term those with points of difference, points which become more marked over the years, will prove the more profitable route.

A not-very-sharp photo of our Sonoma Coast pinots
A not-very-sharp photo of our Sonoma Coast pinots

The Californian pinots tasted: Gros Ventre, Campbell Branch Vineyard 2012; Camp Meeting Ridge, Flowers Vineyard 2012; Rivers Marie, Gioa Vineyard 2013 (the overall favourite); Vivier, Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2012; Sojourn, Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2013


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