Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Domaine Carneros makes a great white Pinot Noir

You could theoretically make a white wine from most red grapes by removing the skins from the juice immediately. Generally you wouldn't want to, because it's not a red grape's best use.

Domaine Carneros "Pinot Clair" White Pinot Noir 2010 ($48) is an exception, and one of the most interesting and pleasurable wines I've had this year. I asked winemaker TJ Evans (hired to make still wines under head winemaker Eileen Crane) about it.

Me: How did you make it? Specifically, how is it white?

Evans: The grapes are night-picked. When they are harvested and pressed cool, there is less likely to be color leached from the skins. The grapes must be pressed very patiently, slowly and gently. The yields are 2/3 of normal. The juice is fermented in a variety of containers, including neutral oak, stainless steel barrels, and of course the concrete egg.

Me: Why did you make it?

Evans: I wanted to explore the taste and texture of Pinot Noir without the influence of the skins. I was curious if there would be a more pure translation of the notion of identity, and if one could taste it. This concept has been popularized by the term terroir.

Me: How did you choose the grapes for it? Are there different characteristics you seek in a Pinot Noir that will be white?

TJ Evans
Evans: I am looking for sites and clones that ripen on the early side of harvest rather than the later side. Getting the most out of the grapes in terms of flavors and ripeness, while preserving the acidity and not risking getting too much color has proved to be a little tricky. While I have not figured it out yet, the Pommard clone seems to be a consistent performer.

Me: How many wines like this have you made before?

Evans: I started playing around with this in 2008. It has been a lot of fun. People enjoy the tasting experience, and rarely guess the grape variety. However, if you know Domaine Carneros, then you know we only grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which means a 50% chance of a correct guess.

What do you think is its aging potential? How about the peak time to drink it?

Evans: These wines will last conservatively for 10-12 years, and while they are enjoyable now, I think their peak will really come after a decade. I am looking forward to sitting down to a vertical tasting of these initial efforts to evaluate how they are evolving.

Me: I want to be there for that.

Domaine Carneros "Pinot Clair" White Pinot Noir 2010 ($48) is a physical wine, a wine in which the texture keeps you engaged, as if it were fingers stroking your palate and holding the grip just a moment. It doesn't have the complexity of flavor of a great Pinot Noir or a great Chardonnay, at least not yet. But it feels fresh and alive, as if being tasted is not a passive act. On the MW exam I probably would guess Chardonnay because of its mild golden color and nose of waxed golden apples, dry Meyer lemon and pepper. It has some of that fruit on the palate, but this is not a fruit-driven wine, nor an overly heavy one (14.1% alcohol.) It gets your attention on every sip, yet has the freshness and restraint to go with dinner. 94 points.

You can order it here. Thank me later.

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Katherine Cole said...

White pinot has been big in the Willamette Valley for quite a few years. One could argue that Jim Prosser (JK Carriere) made the first with his "Glass" rose. Then there was the whole Tony Rynders/Domaine Serene brouhaha over white pinot. Now Anne Amie, Erath and Ghost Hill Cellars have planted the flag. All delicious wines but the issue is pricing. Once the novelty wears off, will customers continue to pay as much as (or more than) they would for red pinot noir? We've had a couple of very cold vintages in Oregon recently, so what I've seen in response is the OTHER white pinot: lots of new bottlings of sparkling wine. Which Domaine Carneros knows a little something about...

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks, Katherine. I've never had a white Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, but given the quality of fruit from there, I'd sure like to try one. We should arrange a tasting.

Re pricing: Yes, at $48 this wine is not cheap. It is funny that we consider that run of the mill for a red wine, but expensive for white.

Mike said...

As I mentioned in a reply on Twitter, Novy (Siduri) also makes an enjoyable white from Pinot that they sell for under $20. It's bright and refreshing but has so much more texture than most Sauvignon Blancs or dry Rieslings at a similar price point. Theirs is made from Willamette fruit. I think they source grapes from the same vineyard in Willamette from which they buy for a Siduri Pinot.

Christine Collier said...

Does 14.1% alcohol seem a bit steep for a white wine, and a Pinot at that? I'm curious to try it.

W. Blake Gray said...

Christine: I don't have a benchmark for what a high level of alcohol would be for a white Pinot Noir. I do know that 14.1% isn't high for a red Pinot Noir from Carneros.