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Wine experts on what makes the perfect pinot

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Clones, rootstock fermentation, Stelvin — it was all Greek to me, but everyone in the room nodded familiarly as the words were bandied about. It's likely the wine helped. Gosling's Limited hosted a rare tasting for Bermuda this week. Winemakers “from some of the most renowned costal AVAs from Oregon and down the California coast” presented a selection of pinot noirs produced under the Jackson Family Wines umbrella. The Cool Pacific Coast Pinot Noir Symposium was described as a first for the Island and featured wines from prominent producers La Crema, Champ de Rêves, Byron and Cambria.

• Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, winemaker, La Crema

I understand you got interested in winemaking while growing up in Niagara Falls, Canada. What was the appeal?

My father was a home winemaker. Really it was just a few grapes in the backyard but he had such a love for it, it was contagious. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I started the [Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture] programme at the school my father taught at.

What were you doing before then?

I was finishing my economics degree but, honestly, didn't know what I was going to do with it. My father was a geology professor at Brock University. He said they were starting a wine programme in Canada where we had a thriving wine industry but not a lot of home-grown makers back in the day. They were trying to encourage people to come to Canada [but said maybe we should] educate our own winemakers so they would have special skills to make their own in our tough climate; people who understood the [climate] challenges, our culture and would be there long-term. My father brought home a brochure and said, ‘You need to know about this' and pushed the brochure across the coffee table. I was so excited I immediately signed up for another four years of university.

Even with your father's interest it wasn't something you'd ever considered?

No. It wasn't like I was ever told I could be a doctor, a lawyer — or a winemaker. It was something I figured I'd probably do as a hobby. Today I feel I have a dream career because when I was growing up it wasn't a possibility.

How did you find the course?

The first year was hardcore; a biotech course tailored to the wine business. It was really tough but so worth it. Four years later you have a piece paper that will get you into some of the most wonderful places in the world; [there are vineyards] in some of the most exquisite spots. After graduation, my husband and I [decided to do a tour]. We started in Eastern Washington and because we'd travelled across North America we travelled to California to check it out. We never went home.

Your favourite wine?

Pinot noir is one of my favourites. Not only drinking it but also making it. Of all the red grapes I feel it expresses most where it's from. We make more than a dozen pinot noirs, the way we make them isn't dramatically different but they're all individual wines. I love the honesty of pinot noir.

What's likely to be on your table at Christmas?

Definitely a Russian River pinot noir although we have some chardonnay lovers in our family and we won't disappoint them. Pinot noir goes with so much that's festive; the traditional meals that we have at that time of year.

What's on offer and why the experts say you should drink it:

• 2013 La Crema, Willamette Valley, Oregon. This wine is an ideal expression of all that is the Willamette Valley — graceful, balanced, deliberate and sincere. It's one of the world's best cool-climate appellations and the climate allows a deeper, more dramatic spectrum of flavours and aromas to develop, creating decidedly rich and layered wines.

• 2013 La Crema Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast. In 2013, conditions in this special sub-appellation were near ideal. The late season was mild, slowing things down, allowing the grapes maturity, concentration and texture. The final blend captures the region's full complexity and each bottle contains a blend of 14 different properties, including La Crema's own Piner, Bones Road, Olivet, Barbieri, Shiloh, and Saralee's vineyards.

• 2013 La Crema Monterey County. It was a superb year for grape growing in Monterey. The cooling winds came in slightly later in the day, allowing even more ripeness. Each sip says Monterey: smooth and elegant, bright and exotic, fresh, spicy, and just a little wild.

• Jonathan Nagy, director of winemaking, Byron

What makes a great pinot noir, in your opinion?

With pinot noir I'm looking for finesse, for balance. I enjoy having a fruit component but it should also have earth, spice and texture. We're always trying to get a fresh entry onto the palate.

Did you do your undergraduate degree in chemistry thinking you'd one day apply it to winemaking?

I originally got into chemistry because I was going to be pre-med but I realised I probably wasn't smart enough. My intent was to get into teaching. I had taken a harvest position at Mondavi in 1986. Most wineries will hire extra people [at that time] because there's so much work. I worked in the lab from August to October 1996. From there I was thinking about getting into teaching but I kept taking part-time jobs at wineries and then someone offered me a full-time job — that was 18 years ago.

Were your parents into wine? Did they influence you at all?

My family, not so much but I lived with friends of the family for a little bit. They were Danish and always had wine at the table. It opened up eyes as wine as apart of a meal experience.

What's likely to be on your table at Christmas?

Usually with colder weather I'm more looking for a cabernet sauvignon from Northern California; maybe a Stonestreet cabernet from Sonoma to go with our Christmas tradition of tamales.

Pinot noir wasn't so prominent 20 years ago. Why do you think there's such a fuss now?

A: People are starting to appreciate how versatile the pinot noir can be. [Especially on festive occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas], it's perfect to go along with classic dishes people put together.

What's on offer and why the experts say you should drink it:

• 2013 Nielson (by Byron), Santa Maria. The winemaker uses several vineyards within the Santa Maria appellation to produce this wine. It is a touch cooler in Santa Maria Valley compared to some other regions of Santa Barbara County and this wine has red and dark fruit expressions with rose petal, brown spice, and a smoky finish.

• 2013 Nielson (by Byron), Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria. The 2013 vintage was an overall dry year with a moderate winter and spring. These conditions led to an abundance of extremely high quality fruit with flavours of dark berry, cherry, hints of floral and mineral.

• Denise Shurtleff, winemaker, Cambria

What makes a great pinot noir?

A great pinot noir is made in the vineyard. The vineyard site must be located in a cool climate area to allow slow, steady growth and maturation. Also, the grape vines require a lot of care and attention from the vineyard staff in order to produce great quality grapes. After the grapes are harvested and delivered to the winery, we make sure the grapes are treated gently so that we can better preserve the grape flavours that were produced on the vine.

What led you to winemaking? Think the fact that you're from California had any influence?

I got into winemaking accidentally. After graduating from college with a nutrition/dietetics degree, I was interested in getting a job in the food industry. I got hired by a local winery as a lab technician. I worked with people who had been in the industry for a long time and they were willing to teach me whatever I wanted to learn to do. The more I learnt, the more I loved working on the winemaking staff and eventually worked my way up to a winemaking position.

What's likely to be on your table at Christmas as far as wine goes?

We will definitely have some Cambria pinot noir — Barbara's Clone 667 and Julia's Vineyard. We will also have some Cambria Katherine's Vineyard chardonnay and Cambria viognier. Of course, there will be some champagne to serve as well!

Pinot noir wasn't so prominent 20 years ago. Why do think there's so much fuss now?

I think there are many more higher quality pinot noirs available now and the consumers have learnt the versatility of the wine. It is a great wine to consume with food, but can also be drunk on its own. I think they have also learnt to appreciate the beautiful flavours and aromas of pinot noir.

For someone interested in becoming a winemaker, what's the best route to go?

A good solid background in chemistry, biology and microbiology is needed. Knowledge of good business practices is needed as well. Most importantly, the hands-on experience in the winery and vineyard is essential. Someone who is interested in being a winemaker should get an entry-level job or internship working in the winery cellar.

What's on offer and why the experts say you should drink it:

• 2013 Cambria Bench Break, Santa Barbara County. The 2013 vintage was a fruitful year, featuring a more consistently temperate growing season than had been seen in several years. The ideal weather conditions provided for flavourful, clean fruit with well-integrated and elegant flavour profiles.

•2013 Cambria Barbara's, Santa Maria Valley. The 2013 vintage began with a warm, dry spring and continued with ideal weather throughout the growing season. These exceptional and uniform conditions resulted in expressive, high-quality fruit that displays elegant and well-integrated flavours and aromas. One hundred per cent estate-grown, it highlights the special quality and distinct character that's possible for pinot noir in this region.

• Eric Johansen, winemaker, Champ de Rêves

What makes a good pinot noir?

Broadly speaking, in terms of new world pinot noir, I think what really differentiates it on a larger scope is being in the proper climate. It's probably the key thing that differentiates cool climate from warmer climate pinot noir. The regions where they're best in California are typically near the Pacific Ocean, a cool body of water that moderates temperatures from Anderson Valley all the way down to Santa Barbara. It has the marine influence that cools it down, especially the night-time temperatures. Days it can get up to the 80s, to 90s, and then it will drop down as an influx of cool air comes through the valleys and growing regions. It allows the vines to ripen the fruit, and cooler temperatures preserve the acidity in the wines and the freshness. We're located in a long, narrow valley that gets lots of influence from the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes there's a difference of 40 degrees from daytime to night-time. We have a pretty high elevation along with this marine influence. We get the marine fog infiltrating into valleys and burning off in the middle of the day but we sit above the fog line so we get a full day of sunshine and the benefit of cooling air — the best of both worlds. Really, it revolves around us being at a high elevation. The vineyard is between 1400ft and 2000ft in elevation; we're essentially a mountaintop vineyard. In addition to those climatic conditions, we also benefit from mountaintop soils. It tends to limit the vigour of those vines so more energy is focused into smaller clusters, berries and it translates into a lot of intensity and structure.

You have an undergraduate degree in chemistry. Did you do that with wine in mind?

I kind of grew up in a family that had an appreciation for food and wine so there were a little rumblings early on. But as an undergrad I was focused on a pre-med path. I had an interest in chemistry but it wasn't until towards the end of my degree when I was figuring out if there was anything else I'd like to do better than medicine that it came to mind. I thought, I could work for a chemical company or I guess I could go study winemaking. Understanding that was a possible career path was eye-opening and an interesting option.

Do you think you were influenced because you grew up in northern California, a winemaking region?

I grew up in the Bay area, in the Santa Cruz mountains, a lesser-known growing region in California. So I definitely had an awareness of the wine industry. I grew up down the street from a winery. I remember trips there with my parents. I would go and hang out while they did a wine tasting so I was definitely predisposed to it.

What's likely to be on your table at Christmas?

Probably pinot noir will figure pretty prominently although there's a variety of different things that we'll have. This year will be a little bit different because we'll be in Argentina for Christmas; my wife is from Argentina. So there will probably be more Malbec to go with the asado, a mixed grill which is kind of traditional for Christmas there.

Pinot noir wasn't so prominent 20 years ago. Why do you think there's such a fuss now?

One of the cool things about pinot noir, and what's really appealing about making it, is it's a wine with a lot of nuance. It's not as big and tannic as a lot of red wines are. It has a lot of delicacy and nuance to it and it can go with a real variety of different foods. A lot of other red wines would be kind of clumsy and overpower food — who wants to drink a big cabernet sauvignon when it's hot and muggy out? Pinot noirs are a little more refreshing and they have an affinity — anything from fish to lighter meats; it goes great with earthy things, with savoury flavours. It's really a versatile wine. That's one of the reasons I'm drawn to it. There's a lot of subtlety to it which makes it appealing from a winemaking perspective. It really expresses where it comes from.

What's on offer and why the experts say you should drink it:

• 2013 Champ de Rêves. A wide array of aspects in the vineyard creates multiple microclimates, each displaying unique characteristics as these relatively young vines continue to age. The result is vibrant flavours of blueberry-strawberry fruit intertwined with aromas of dark-red rose, maple, liquorice, and toasted hazelnut.

Visiting experts: from left, Jonathan Nagy, Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, Denise Shurtleff and Eric Johannsen (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Taste test: Gosling's Limited brought in winemakers from along the US Pacific Coast to showcase a selection of pinot noirs (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Jonathan Nagy, the director of winemaking at Byron (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Denise Shurtleff, winemaker at Cambria Estate Vineyard and Winery (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, La Crema winemaker (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Eric Johannsen, winemaker at Champ de Rêves (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published December 04, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 03, 2015 at 11:19 pm)

Wine experts on what makes the perfect pinot

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