There comes a time every year—about now, with temperatures rising—when it seems like red wine should be more about finesse and nuance than power, more about brightness than towering structure. I’m advocating for Pinot Noir, of course, described as “elegant” more often than any other red in the world.
In recent tastings, I’ve lined up bottles from California and Oregon side by side—most from the 2019 vintage—and the impression I’m left with is that winemakers, more than ever, are realizing the inherent capacity of the variety (beyond near-universal elegance) to reflect distinctive character from the specific place where it was grown. Broad strokes aren’t enough anymore—California Pinot pegged as richly fruited, while Willamette Valley versions lean a little more earthy and austere—Burgundian, if you want to go that far. The best Pinot Noirs transcend that broad brush and drill down on the character the specific soils, aspects and microclimates their sites best express, in either state.
The newest releases here are either vividly focused single-vineyard Pinot Noirs or selected blends from more than one of a producer’s top fruit sources, for a slightly broader expression. To revel in their nuances, don’t open one bottle for dinner—open two. Pour a California Pinot and an Oregon Pinot side by side, to test out the broad stroke theories. Or even better, pour two from the same state, to see how dialed-in on nuance and complexity these wines really are.
Artesa 2018 Selection 91 Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir Los Carneros, Napa Valley
Portugal-born Ana Diogo-Draper, director of winemaking for Artesa, has managed a distinctive Carneros Pinot that pulls off power with finesse. Spiced red berry notes on the nose open against loam, forest and a little bay leaf. Concentrated and juicy cherry follows on a focused but generous palate, leaning into a cordial quality, with impressive structure on the midpalate and a sprinkling of dried herbs for a savory finish.
Benovia Winery 2019 Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma County
The concentration of low-yielding, 50+-year-old vines is on display in this flagship Pinot from Benovia. The aromatics on the nose have the intensity of a fruit cordial—florals surrounding black cherry layered with hints of pine forest, bay laurel and fresh-turned loam. Velvety textures wrap around black raspberry and a hint of blueberry, with a hint of clove and more than a hint of savory minerality building on a long, graceful finish.
Blue Farm 2019 Anne Katherina Vineyard Riverbed Pinot Noir Carneros
With this structured but generous Blue Farm Pinot, vintner (and viticulturist) Anne Moller-Racke explores the characteristics of a single clone: The wine is the second vintage off the Riverbed block of her home vineyard after she grafted Calera onto 777. High-toned aromatics mingle purple flowers with crushed rock, strawberry and black raspberry compote with forest underbrush. Velvety cherry builds on the palate, with plenty of structure elegantly balanced with the generous, concentrated fruit, savory herbs and toasted spice.
Cristom 2019 Louise Vineyard Pinot Noir Eola–Amity Hills, Willamette Valley
An earthy, complex nose opens on this Cristom Pinot, conjuring savory mushrooms growing in damp loam, with woodsy herbs weaving through dark berry aromas. The palate is finely balanced between mouth-watering acidity and round, silky tannins. Bright red fruit—strawberry, raspberry, a little pomegranate—is focused with a little citrus, while lovely minerality finishes the wine on a savory note.
Domaine de Broglie 2019 Reserve Pinot Noir Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley
With Domaine de Broglie, director Francis Ford Coppola has thrown his hat into the Oregon ring (working with winemaker Dave Petterson), and this 2019 Reserve is a juicy, exuberant beauty. The nose opens with a lovely split between floral perfume and forest floor notes, its dark berry and cherry aromas spiced with sweet clove and hints of saffron and pungent herbs. Mixed berry and ripe cherry flavors are delivered with compelling textures, while layers of licorice, more spice and minerals unfold.
Emeritus Vineyards 2018 Don’s Block Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley
From Emeritus Vineyards’ dry-farmed Hallberg Ranch comes a deeply expressive yet delicate Pinot. High-toned jasmine aromas swirl with bay leaf, cedar, graphite, loam and briary berry notes, while the palate veritably dances with ethereal but intense and flavorful cherry against a silky structure of refined tannins.
Kosta Browne 2019 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley
From cool, dry-farmed Keefer Ranch, Kosta Browne has crafted an expressive, generous Pinot. Cinnamon- and cardamom-spiced aromas swirl with sweet fruit—black cherry and raspberry—while delicate flowers give way to a touch of anise. The palate is lush and velvety but immensely bright at the same time, with the dark cherry and berry fruit of the nose reprising over elegant textures.
Lavinea 2019 Tualatin Estate Pinot Noir Tualatin Hills, Willamette Valley
Since its founding in 2014 by winemaker Isabelle Meunier and Greg Ralston, Lavinea has become a benchmark maker of single-vineyard Pinots in the Willamette Valley. The expressive 2019 Tualatin Estate opens with alluring forest depth and complexity—sweet black cherry, high-toned violets and spice over wild fennel–laced minerals. Juicy cherry and black raspberry are lushly textured across the palate yet bright, focused and structured at the same time, spiked with a little orange peel to keep the finish going.
Lingua Franca 2019 Mimi’s Mind Pinot Noir Eola–Amity Hills
The Mimi in question here is Mimi Casteel, whose regeneratively farmed Willamette Valley vineyard the team at Lingua Franca—Master Sommelier Larry Stone, fellow co-founder David Honig, winemaker Thomas Savre and acclaimed consulting winemaker Dominique Lafon—sources for one of its most fascinating Pinots. Perfumed notes of hyacinth open over fresh red fruit layered with earthy loam and forest notes along with warm spices like clove and coriander. Beautiful raspberry and cherry fruit is the immediate focus of the palate, but multi-dimensions unfold—the sweet spice is joined by savory minerality and crushed herbs and serious structure reveals itself through a long and vibrant finish.
Paul Hobbs 2019 Goldrock Estate Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
This focused and structured Pinot comes from the chilly far-west Sonoma Coast, not far from the ocean itself, where Paul Hobbs has its Goldrock Vineyard. A whole range of savory botanicals swirls in the glass, from bay leaf to forest notes, with fresh-turned loam leading in dark berry aromas. Intense dark berry and cherry flavors continue, with energetic tension and texture across a bright palate, with a kick of orange peel lengthening the finish.
Sea Smoke 2019 Southing Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills
Consistently one of Santa Barbara’s top Pinot producers, Sea Smoke has a juicy, perfumed beauty in its 2019 Southing. The scent of warm earth opens in the glass, punctuated with spice notes, red fruit and delicate floral aromas. The palate that follows layers bright strawberry and raspberry, gentle minerality and a floral quality against intriguing textures (the wine is unfined and unfiltered) into a long finish.
Vice Versa 2019 Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma County
Philippe Melka and Maayan Koschitzky are the winemaking hands behind this densely textured, generous Platt Vineyard Pinot from Vice Versa (one of the few Pinots that Napa Valley–based Atelier Melka makes). The nose offers up a fascinating blend of cedar, savory herbs, hints of forest floor and mushroom under cherry perfumed with rose petals, while the palate continues the complexity—cherry with touches of violet, bergamot, spice and a bit of minerally salinity carried on a broad palate, with tannin structure that builds into the finish.
Walter Scott 2019 Bacocho Pinot Noir Eola–Amity Hills, Willamette Valley
This dense Pinot from Walter Scott is worthy of its name—Bacocho being a beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, known for turbulence and powerful currants. Even its aromas are powerful: distinct earth, florals and warm spices under perfumed cherry with hints of mushroom. The palate is a study in depth and intensity, its black cherry and blueberry flavors wrapped in resinous herbs and impressive structure spooling out on the finish.
Williams Selyem 2020 Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir Russian River Valley
This 2020 Williams Selyem Pinot delivers a classic—and delicious—Russian River profile. Lovely violets open, with toasted spice, resinous botanicals, pine and loam layered on the nose. Silky red fruit, from raspberry and cranberry to rich cherry, evolve into notes of blue fruit brightened with orange zest, as intensity builds on a palate supported by beautifully textured tannins.
Winderlea Vineyard & Winery 2018 Winderlea Legacy Pinot Noir Dundee Hills, Oregon
Concentration and purity reflect the 45+-year-old, own-rooted vines this special bottle from Winderlea comes from. A pairing of rose petals with a hint of mushrooms opens over briary berry aromas layered with forest botanicals, a hint of bay leaf and a note that conjures a briny ocean breeze. A core of bright cherry fruit—leaning toward pomegranate—anchors a generous palate, where the savory notes introduced on the nose are reprised and intensity gives up nothing on the finish.