California is known for its robust wine culture and for good reason: California wine regions alone produce over 80 percent of American wine, and just so happens to be one of the best places to find excellent Pinot Noir. And if you’ve never experienced it, California Pinot Noir is a unique experience, both in taste and the culture it inspires.
Even in the midst of a pandemic and worries about the impact on the wine industry, Taylor Lane, a California Pinot Noir vineyard released a single vineyard wine after nearly a decade of aging.
Situated amongst mature redwood trees and elevated at 1,000 feet, the vineyard captured Californians for both its beauty and the symbol of resilience: that even in the hardest times, wine and the passion surrounding it, can connect us all.
But part of the challenge to find not only great Pinot Noir, but the best California Pinot Noir is the sheer volume–and that many consumers don’t know what to look for. So today I’ll review and give my recommendations for how to find the very best California Pinot Noir. Read on for everything you need to know about this California classic, no matter where you are.
What is Pinot Noir?
First, let’s go over a general primer on Pinot Noir, its reputation, and what it’s known for.
Pinot Noir is a red wine grape variety and is named for its pine cone shape and nearly black appearance, and may be dated as far back as the 1st century CE.
Now grown worldwide and prize on its own and for blends, Pinot Noir is the 10th most popular wine in the world; as of 2011, there was an estimated nearly 245,000 acres devoted to producing Pinot Noir globally.
Main Growing Regions
Pinot Noir is known mostly as a cool climate wine and thrives most in climates with predictably cool but mild weather. While France is considered to be the most prominent growing region, and where Pinot Noir gained its popularity, it’s now available in other regions with suitable climates.
Burgundy and Champagne
Burgundy accounts for over 11,000 acres of Pinot Noir, coming in second to Champagne. Limestone and topsoil combine clay and flint, with moderately warm summers and cool winters. France in of itself accounts for over 75,000 acres.
Chile is new to the scene for Pinot Noir, with three major regions, mostly along the coast, dedicated to Pinot Noir. While relatively warm days and moderately cool nights are helpful, wind and heavy rain have made Chile a difficult region for Pinot Noir to thrive in.
Germany devotes just under 30,000 acres to Pinot Noir. While not the country’s signature wine, with structure, aging but still marked acidity making it a signature wine.
New Zealand started marketing Pinot Noir in the mid-1970s, and now mostly grown on the Southern island with a moderate climate and soil made of limestone, silt, and sandstone. It has just under 11,000 acres.
The main locations for the United States are in California, and, on a limited basis, Oregon. Oregon, despite its colder climate, has been able to cultivate Pinot Noir, with volcanic soil for a unique signature touch. With over 73,000 acres, the United States produces the second-highest amount of Pinot Noir in the world. Read more about Oregon Pinot Noir here.
Italy devotes over 10,000 acres to Pinot Noir, mostly grown in altitudes, with a more mineral touch due to its unique climate and soil.
Other regions include Australia, Argentina, and South Africa.
In this section, I’ll be discussing the characteristics Pinot Noir is known for–but keep in mind that many of these are variable based on the growing region–hence why it’s important to have unique criteria for California Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is usually a light-bodied dry red wine, with fruity and earthy tasting notes, moderate to low tannins, and medium to medium-high levels of acidity. A medium to long finish is also common.
Pinot Noir is enjoyed on its own but is commonly used to make not only red but also white wine blends. That’s especially true for the Pinot Noir that’s the lightest in hue and flavor notes. However, when compared with Merlot vs Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir is more commonly enjoyed alone. You can find it also in sparkling wine.
Food and wine pairings depend a bit on the specific characteristics of your Pinot Noir, but whether you’re enjoying a Pinot Noir from New Zealand or from California, I generally recommend serving this dry red wine with dinner, with flavors that complement its fruity and earthy tones.
My favorite food pairings include lamb, grilled vegetables, soft creamy cheeses (such as brie, goat cheese, or gruyere), and roasted chicken. For the lightest Pinot Noir, who can get by with fatty fish, like salmon.
Finding the Best California Pinot Noir
You might wonder what makes California Pinot Noir special–and it all has to do with climate, growing region, and cultivation methods. Here’s what you need to know about California based Pinot Noir.
You can find Pinot Noir across California, but your best bet is to look where the climate is temperate. Napa Valley (especially Southern), Sonoma, and Sant Barbara all provide the proper growing conditions, with not weather mild and moderated by the ocean breeze, cooler mornings, and with a tendency to not get too much or too little rainfall. If you go too far south, the climate becomes too warm for the delicate Pinot Noir, and may well mar the crisp acidity.
Sonoma’s most famous region for Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, which tends to get a good deal of fog and hugs the river, making it your best place to find more acidic and spicy renditions of Pinot Noir.
While Napa is often praised for Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s now also become a great place to find the best California Pinot Noir. The slightly warmer climate and more sunlight make for a wine that’s a bit less acidic and excels in honey and sweeter notes for a unique take.
Santa Barbara Pinot Noir really stands out to me, both for its deeper almost ruby hue and deeper red fruit notes, like plum, to accent the oak aging and raspberry notes. It should also be a bit heavier on tannins.
Speaking of wine regions for the best California Pinot Noir, terroir is also important. Terroir refers to the specific growing region and climate/ weather conditions for producing wine.
You want to look at wine that draws deeply from this, preferably small batch and from well-established wineries; even better if they are from vineyards that specialize in Pinot Noir and understand how to bring out the signature and unique characteristics.
Aging is an interesting question for any wine. In general, wine aging enhances flavors and makes it more valuable. In California, I admire the practice of aging in French oak barrels. This results in rich, even vanilla and oak undertones that naturally complement the fruity and earthy undertones of Pinot Noir.
However, Pinot Noir is not meant to be aged long–if you do want a more matured, lower acidic take on California Pinot Noir, I recommend one that’s been aged for 5 years or less.
As you can imagine, even Pinot Noir in California has a variety of key characteristics. That said, this is what I recommend for finding the very best.
Compared with other Pinot Noir, California Pinot Noir is at its best when highlighting an inviting, fruit-forward palate. Richer black fruit, including raspberries and cherries, are especially desirable when paired with barrel aging. Spices that complement include clove and cinnamon, even notes of sassafras, caramel, or cocoa.
Because of the more fruit-forward profile, the best California Pinot Noir tends to focus on these flavors and shies away from earthy undertones.
Tannins and Acidity
To make the best out of California Pinot Noir, opt for medium-level tannins. Tannins provide that puckering sensation and provide texture and structure.
While new Pinot Noir has lower levels of tannins, with an aged California Pinot Noir, medium levels of tannins will add some dimension to the aged oak notes, while not becoming too powerful so as to overpower the fruit-forward profile.
Medium acidity is my most recommended. While some places with cooler climate Pinot Noir excel with higher levels of acidity, moderate levels support the richer but a balanced profile of a good California based Pinot Noir.
Compared with many Pinot Noir around the world, some of the best Pinot Noir excels in a medium-full body. This, once again, helps balance the fruit-forward playfulness with the richer notes from aging and the region.
Best California Pinot Noir: My Picks
Now that you know how to find the best California Pinot Noir, I’ll give you recommendations for the best bottles you can buy right now, each of which highlight some of the many features that make Pinot Noir in California unique to Pinot Noir around the world.
Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2018
From the Sonoma Coast comes an inviting and lively California Pinot Noir. Raspberry and cherry present as bright, with just the right amount of acidity, tempered by spices of clove and just a touch of sweetness to bring out a fruit-forward dry wine.
Tannins provide structure to the oak aging, with a pleasing finish best paired with meat or cheese. Buy Here.
Migration Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2017
Migration Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir embraces the cooler climate with bits of floral notes with rose hips. The prominent blackberry and raspberry notes are laced with cranberry and rich oak flavors with a supple texture.
Though tart, a silky finish makes it an approachable Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, tannins provide a few bitter notes, coupled with just a hint of cardamom. Buy Here.
Foxen Bien Nacido Block Eight Pinot Noir 2016
From Santa Maria Valley comes this barrel-aged wine, with a striking ruby-purple hue. While in some ways classic, with blackberry notes, wild strawberries, blueberries, and even mild herbaceous notes add an unexpected twist. Overall, with fruit flavors and a bit of minerality, this is a balanced and pleasing wine. Buy Here.
Hahn Monterey Pinot Noir 2018
Hahn Monterey Pinot Noir is an excellent option if you’re on a budget. For a wine that’s under $15 a bottle, I still recommend it as the best Pinot Noir from California, especially at its price point.
Lively, bright, and certainly approachable, this Pinot Noir features ripe cherries, subtle plum, and medium tannins. Just a hint of toasted notes rounds out the wine with a silky, pleasant finish. Buy Here.
MacRostie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2018
This Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir stands out with its signature cocoa notes, coupled with the undertones of herbs for a wine that still manages to be fruit-forward but does not slip into merely being about the bright red and dark fruit notes.
Black currant and plum are the stars, given distinction with baking spices, present acidity, and refined tannins. With a prominent but not overbearing finish, it’s a great dinner wine. Buy Here.
Siduri Russian River Pinot Noir 2018
From the Russian River region is this charming 2018 Pinot Noir. Black cherry and blackberry mingle with smoky notes and well-balanced acidity, showcasing the unique climate of the region.
Tannins are perfectly balanced for a structure but not too astringent profile while hints of strawberry and orange add bright spices. Spice, juicy fruit, and an elegant finish add to the appeal of this California Pinot Noir. Buy Here.
Williams Selyem Central Coast Pinot Noir 2014
This Pinot Noir is a splurge, at around $130 a bottle. Still, the highly-rated wine is notable in a number of ways and truly makes a lasting impression.
Meant to be truly savored and enjoyed, the first notes are surprising: plum and black cherry are complemented with a touch of pomegranate, and present minerality. Cocoa and toasted vanilla add a richer lasting impression, with a bit of coffee for a layered and immersive finish. Buy Here.
Answer: A good California wine, for Pinot Noir, showcases the unique conditions and signature flavors, with prominent growing regions in Sonoma, Russian River, Monterey, and others. Barrel aging for a few years provides a rounded more mature flavor, and fruit-forward notes of raspberries and blackberries should be present. Overall, California Pinot Noir is fairly balanced and versatile.
Answer: Depending on your personal taste preferences, you may find yourself drawn to one region over another for Pinot Noir. France, especially Burgundy, is well known for Pinot Noir. Germany, Italy, and the United States are the next prominent countries. In the United States, cooler parts of California have become popular for balanced Pinot Noir.
Answer: While I’d argue that the jury is out on the very healthiest wine, some consider Pinot Noir to be among the healthiest options due to its exceptionally notable concentration of resveratrol.
This is a type of antioxidant that has been shown to protect against cardiovascular disease by lowering unhealthy cholesterol levels and even protecting against blood clots. Of course, that doesn’t mean someone with heart disease should drink heavily, and some research is still unclear.
Pinot Noir in of itself is not expensive: a lot depends on what Pinot Noir you get and from where. Aged Pinot from France, especially the Burgundy region, is expensive. You can find affordable Pinot Noir, but one reason it tends to be more expensive is that it’s a very temperamental grape variety that is difficult to grow and requires very specific climates and careful cultivation.
Pinot Noir is a pleasant wine, but is meant to be enjoyed by the region–and California offers surprisingly some of the best options, especially if you enjoy toasted oak notes in a balanced wine. Great paired with dinner, the best Pinot Noir can provide a new experience if you like Merlot but want something with new immersive flavors.