The greatest grape in the world? It’s pinot noir by a long shot. The proof is in the price tags: The most expensive wines in the world are pinot noirs, such as the rarified crown jewel of France, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which upon release sells for a cool $15,000 a bottle.
But for tremendous value, intense flavors and beautifully structured wines made using Burgundian winemaking techniques, turn to California pinot. For $20 to $65 a bottle, you’re in the sweet spot, and from Anderson Valley in the north down to Santa Barbara County in southern California, you’ll discover a range of styles, due to a surge in savvy pinot noir winemaking over the last decade.
“I think domestic pinot is going in a pretty exciting direction over the last few years,” says Eric Railsback, the California director of operations for upscale wine merchants Verve Wine. “I’ve seen a lot of producers picking for balance and freshness, which allows terroir to show up in the glass and better aging potential. It's great to finally be able to see the difference between Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Oregon pinot. The pinot noir of 10 years ago was so ripe and fruit-forward they all ended up smelling alike.”
James Sparks, the winemaker at Liquid Farm and Kings Carey Wines, agrees with Railsback, noting that over the last few years he has noticed a shift in producers trying to capture the more delicate and sophisticated style of pinot noir. “A lot has to do with the winemaking process and paying attention to the grapes,” says Sparks. “We’re in California, and we do have sun. And with climate change, it's easier to over-ripen fruit and thus harder to restrain the winemaking style,” but with careful farming, he believes the right balance is achievable.
Echoing Sparks, Vanessa Conlin, a Master of Wine and the head of wine at Wine Access, says that stylistically “there has been a return to balancing California ripeness without being over- or under-ripe. For a while, it seemed many producers wanted to emulate Burgundy, but California will never be Burgundy, just like Burgundy will never be California. Today, I see that the best producers are farming and picking to retain acidity but not at the expense of full phenolic ripeness.”
These are 10 pinot noirs from California to seek out—and buy—right this minute.