"When you realize you don't know what you just read…"

by Katie Pizzuto on April 6, 2009

in pinot noir,Reviews

If I hand you a bottle of Rioja that’s label reads “Gran Reserva” (don’t hold your breath, OK?) you can bet the farm that it has received a minimum of five years aging prior to release, of which at least two years must have been in oak. If I then reach into my bag of goodies and hand you a bottle of Barolo with a label stating “Riserva Speciale” (again, this is REALLY hypothetical) you can sleep soundly knowing it’s been aged for at least 6 years. It gets much grayer and hairier, though, when you step foot outside of southern Europe. A bottle of carmenere from Chile, for instance, that declares “reserva” on its label, means absolutely nothing legally. Sometimes, reserve wines come from the best vineyards, the best plots, or the best barrels, making it a little extra special. Sometimes, reserve wines might be made in a style suited to longer aging periods. More often, though, it’s a bullshit marketing ploy. Hell, look at Kendall-Jackson chardonnay— every single bottle produced is a “Vintner’s Reserve!” When they finally went ahead and made a genuine reserve wine, KJ actually had to resort to calling it a “Grand Reserve,” which caused a lot of head scratching in the supermarket wine aisles.

shop-tiny_for_web_december_2008_033_aj-400As if that weren’t gray and hairy enough, let’s throw in the lovely cluster fuck known as California winemaking AVAs. Sometimes, you’ll get a bottle of wine labeled “Carneros” which is a legally designated viticultural area. Others are simply labeled “Sonoma County” which is a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more vague, but not necessarily better or worse. Then sometimes you’ll get a vineyard that’s in more than one AVA, like the Santa Clara Valley AVA which is located within the territory of the San Francisco Bay AVA, which is itself located within the Central Coast AVA. Any of the previous could appear on a single bottle of wine and be accurate, as long as at least 85% of the grapes used to make that wine were grown in that region. And now that we’re all happily knee deep in it, let’s look at my reason for this post: “Estate” bottling.

I recently tasted 2 different pinot noirs made by the same winery, Bouchaine Vineyards. One was labeled as their “Estate” pinot noir ($45) and the other was simply (or complicatedly, depending on how you look at it) their “Carneros” pinot noir ($30). According to their notes, the Estate pinot is made from grapes from their most distinctive lots and the other is made from whatever’s left, I guess, with the addition of grapes from vineyards besides their own. Thus, Estate = Our Grapes Only. In this case, the difference is worth mentioning, and worth a different price tag. I’m not so sure that price tag should be 45 bones, but then, good California pinot—an oxymoron of sorts—is never cheap. It seemed obvious to me that the Estate bottling was their more prized effort because it had more finesse, more subtlety, more grace. It was clear that Bouchaine was attempting to make a wine that was a little more country and a little less rock ‘n’ roll. I know a lot of CA pinot makers will hate me for saying it, but it was more Burgundian than a lot of the overripe pinots coming out of the eureka state right now. But I couldn’t say the same for their “Carneros” pinot noir. It was rougher around the edges, a bit too overblown for me, and I think I lost a nostril hair or two when I sniffed it thanks to the evident alcohol. The Estate bottling, though, was an absolute pleasure to drink. When you repeatedly raise a wine to your mouth and the mere scent of it makes you smile, that’s the mark of good juice. Sometimes its caliber gets lost in a quagmire of gilded bullshit, but in Bouchaine’s case, the distinction in both style and price are deserved. As for that bottle of “Ancient Vines” zinfandel you’ve got sitting in your wine rack, well, the world may never know if it tastes better because the vines are older or you just think older vines automatically make a better wine.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Yvette April 7, 2009

even though I have no idea what you are talking about when you do the wine thing, any post ith a subtle reference to Donny & Marie is ok by me!
cheers! 🙂


2 Katie Pizzuto April 7, 2009

Thanks for catching the reference…10 points!


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