Tasting Notes: Pinot Noir (Burgundy vs. Sonoma)

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written.  Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right?  But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

-Robin Williams to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting

I read a lot about wine – I mean, a lot. But learning about wine only by reading books reminds me of Robin Williams’s beautiful lakeside soliloquy in which he implores (a young) Matt Damon to go out and actually experience the world. And so it goes with wine – one of the best (and definitely most fun) ways to learn about wine is to taste it. However, this is a little different from drinking wine . . .

Tasting Notebook
Old Reliable: Tasting Notebook

To me, tasting wine means that I’m taking the time to actually evaluate it and assess all of its unique characteristics.  On the other hand, drinking wine means I’m just kicking back and enjoying it.  The differences between the two  are actually quite stark.  And while I do a good degree of both, when I’m really trying to expand my wine knowledge I sit down with my trusty tasting notebook and put pen to paper to capture my thoughts.

WSET Grid 1
WSET Level 3 Tasting Notes

Since I’ve been on the WSET path for the past year or so, my tasting notes generally follow their prescribed format – which I freely admit falls on the clinical side of evaluation. And while I completely agree with their premise that consistent and objective tasting notes are ideal for learning about wine, I’m never going to truly remember a wine based on notes like “medium+ acidity” or “clear, pale lemon.” For that reason I also like to add my own thoughts on the wine . . . where was I, what did it remind me of, what was I eating with it, etc.

When doing tastings at home, I often enlist Hubs to be my personal wine steward and set me up with a blind tasting. This way, I don’t have any preconceived notions about what I’m tasting and can just do some “mindful drinking” of what’s in the glass in front of me.  Ideally, I taste a couple of wines side by side because it’s much easier for me to pick up differences (or similarities) when comparing wines as opposed to just tasting one wine in a vacuum.  As an added bonus, I then have the benefit of having TWO bottles to choose from after I’m done with my tasting.  🙂  I should also add that while my tasting “goal” is not necessarily to accurately identify each of the wines tasted blindly, the truth is I always smile when I do get them right (I imagine that’s the same for everyone!).

Recently I did such a tasting with two distinct Pinot Noirs (Old World vs. New World) when deciding which would pair best with my mom-in-law’s delicious Coq a Vin that she was preparing for a family dinner.  Sitting in my in-laws sunny, lush Southern California backyard I was joined by my father-in-law, “T-Bone”, for the tasting.  Yes, my 75 year-old father-in-law’s nickname is “T-Bone”…and yes, he’s as awesome and quirky as you might imagine (he once informed me that he stopped drinking Merlot because it is “too purple”).

Domaine Gille 2012 Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru ‘Les Cailles’, Bourgogne. (13% abv)

  • Color: Pale ruby, tending towards garnet
  • Aromas: Roses that are just starting to wilt, cranberries, earthy cherries, fall leaves
  • Palate: Medium- body, medium+ acidity, medium- tannins.  Additional flavors of tea, spice and an almost cedar-like note.
  • My Thoughts: Very delicate wine – honestly, borderline too thin right now. I’m sure I opened this too early and it would’ve benefited from at least a few more years of age.  I guessed this was the Burgundy due to the color and dominate flavors of earth & spice with the fruit taking a backseat.  I liked this wine, but probably would’ve loved it in a few years.  And interestingly, out of the two Pinots, this was T-Bone’s favorite!  (Sidenote: One of my 2018 goals is to introduce my in-laws to new wines since they gravitate almost exclusively towards California Cabernets and Chardonnays).
  • Technical Bits: Domaine Gille has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1500s.  Their vines currently range from 45-80 years of age.  Soil is stony limestone.  All grapes are hand harvested.  Natural fermentation.  Aged for 18 months in oak (1/3 new).

Hanzell 2014 ‘Sebella’ Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California. (13.7% abv)

  • Color: Pale ruby, bright
  • Aromas: Fresh flowers, slightly sweet fruits – raspberries, red plum, hints of Dr. Pepper
  • Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium (close to medium+) tannins.  I’m picking up sweet cherries and some black pepper here too.
  • My Thoughts: This wine was brighter and more ruby colored, possibly indicating a younger wine. A definite sweetness here that the other wine didn’t have. With all the fresh, ripe fruit oozing out of the glass, I was confident this was the California Pinot.  And while I don’t usually go for wines with this degree of sweet fruit, this wine just smelled yummy . . . tasted it too.
  • Technical Bits: Hanzell Vineyards was founded in 1957 by James D. Zellerbach after he’d spent extensive time in Burgundy.  Focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Aged for 10 months in French oak (25% new).

The end result was that we drank both bottles with dinner so the pairing turned out to not be of much consequence – both were delicious!  And, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of the Sonoma Pinot and T-Bone’s of the Burgundy. 🙂

Test 2

Five Vines Wine Bar

SELRES_21091176-a06d-4f96-b587-c5341b1953bdSELRES_03e5df0e-6667-46ab-8697-e6b2e959a150SELRES_2c3de0e7-0457-49a4-a347-56cdf2b85e3cAfter a busy day of driving around SoCal, we needed a rest (plus it was almost cocktail hour).  Luckily, Five Vines Wine Bar came up on a search for wine bars located nearby.  We had the place practically to ourselves when we arrived shortly after 4pm, but it was hopping with locals when we left a few hours later.SELRES_2c3de0e7-0457-49a4-a347-56cdf2b85e3cSELRES_03e5df0e-6667-46ab-8697-e6b2e959a150SELRES_21091176-a06d-4f96-b587-c5341b1953bd

Located in heart of San Juan Capistrano, Five Vines is named for the family of five who own the bar.  We met Suzy (aka “Vine #2”) who was a terrific hostess. She and another gal handled the front of house expertly, we never had an empty glass on our table.

Five Vines offers over 5o different options by the glass (6oz), taste (2oz) or bottle – with most bottle prices under $50.  California heavy list, but I was happy to see a few wines from my beloved home state of Washington (Seven Hills, Nine Hats and Stone Cap), along with a smattering of Italian and French wines.  A few sparklers and dessert wines round out the list.

For flights, you can choose from one of their house designed flights (with cutesy names like “Mischievous Malbecs” or “Chillaxed Chardonnays”), or you can put together your own from any of the wines on their list.  They also have a “Flying Blind” flight where they’ll pour you three red wines, and if you guess the varietals correctly you get the tasting for free and your picture posted on their Facebook page – something I’d definitely consider trying down the line sometime.

In continuing my personal “California Adventure” of acquiring a greater appreciation and knowledge of the state’s wines, I ordered a flight of three Golden State whites:

  • Barlow 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. Nice citrus and grapefruit, lower acidity than usual for this varietal.
  • Victor Hugo 2015 Viognier, Paso Robles.  The best of the three with lush peach aromas, but also distinctly smelled of Pillsbury crescent rolls.
  • Saracina 2016 Unoaked Chardonnay, Mendocino County. This didn’t taste completely unoaked to me, definitely had some baking spice notes.

Hubs tried a Riesling from Marin County that was positively teeming with petrol aromas, followed by a Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills.  He liked the Pinot but I thought it came across as thin and tight – and while I would love to be similarly described, not exactly what I’m looking for in my wine. 😉

Also have to give serious props to their playlist – our good friend The White Buffalo’s song came up on the rotation!

Overall – a comfy, unpretentious wine bar with solid, but not over-the-top, service.  I’d definitely go back for the personalized flights so I can practice my blind tasting and to have another crack at the Mormor cheese ball – a secret family recipe


Stags Leap District

As one of the many perks of my industry, I toured Napa Valley last month on a whirlwind business trip. Admittedly (and somewhat embarrassingly – since it’s less than a 2 hour flight away), I hadn’t visited this area in several years . . . back when I could barely afford to drink these wines or Napa’s hefty tasting fees.

SL new vines
New vines being planted at Stags’ Leap

To be honest, with most Napa Valley wines, I tend to write them off as too big and boldly fruity, too alcoholic and tannic, overpriced and overhyped. (Should I tell you how I really feel?) And although this trip didn’t dispel all these generalizations, I did find myself enjoying the wines more than I thought I would – particularly those from Stags Leap District. One of the 16 (and counting!) different sub-AVAs of the Napa Valley.

Wines from this area tend to be softer and more elegant than other Napa wines, plus it has a pretty colorful history – here’s the outline on the Stags Leap District AVA.