Sonoma, aka Pinot Country
How Pinot Noir is coming into its own in a diverse appellation
As I mentioned in my introduction to this article, Walter Schug is one of the pioneers of California Pinot Noir, and that should come as no surprise since Pinot noir is in his blood. Walter was born at the Staatsweingut Assmannshausen estate in germany's Rheingau region, and many might be surprised to learn that this corner of the Rheingau has long been famous for Pinot Noir. Formally trained as a winemaker in germany, Walter came to California in 1959 with his late wife Gertrud, who was also from a winemaking family, and together they set out to help develop the burgeoning California wine industry.
With Pinot in his heart, it wasn't long after Walter became the winemaker at Napa Valley's Joseph Phelps winery that he turned his attention toward Pinot Noir, and fine Pinot Noir at that. With limited vineyards suitable for the production of top quality Pinot Noir in the Napa Valley (it's just too hot, according to Walter), he set his sights on the cooler corners of the appellation and experimented with Pinot Noir at Joseph Phelps. Unconvinced by the wine, the winery produced their last Pinot in 1980, freeing up a source of grapes for Walter, and the rest is history.
By 1983, Walter was producing Pinot Noir in California under his family's name and the wine has remained in much the same style ever since. If you need a vivid illustration of how the U.S. wine market has changed, consider that many of the earliest vintages of Schug Pinot Noir were actually exported to Germany. The wines were more familiar to the German palate than the American palate, being relatively light in color and body, a result of unabashed Old World winemaking. Even today, one finds neutral oak ovals in the cellar, used to age the Pinots. Intervention is kept to a minimum and the wines show it: these are wines that really speak of fruit and terroir, not that they are fruity, but the flavors do not show significant oak or winemaking influences. The prices here are very attractive, ranging from roughly $20 to $40 a bottle.
Watch my interview with Walter Schug and winemaker Michael Cox to learn more about the history of Pinot Noir in California, Schug family Cellars, and the terroir of Carneros.
Sweet wild berry and wild strawberry aromas are joined by hints of smoke and herb stem. This is a light-bodied, picnic style wine with small tannins and a hint of iron on the palate, which shows a fine peppery edge to the core of cherry and strawberry fruit. Easy going, with a nice finish that shows some earthy, forest floor complexity and a little minerality on the finale. 87 points
The spicy nose shows a little sweetness with red berry, cranberry and cherry notes over a nicely integrated toasty oak base note, all topped with hints of watermelon and rose petal. This shows off big tart wild cherry fruit on entry, followed by a lovely core of cran/raspberry fruit, flecked with gentle hints of earth, herb and mineral. There’s some very clean fruit here, with a clear mouthfeel that’s surprisingly fresh (from the nose I might have expected more sweetness). Just lovely, fresh and pure Pinot. 89 points
Deeply aromatic, with light cola and sassafras spice notes topping bright cranberry/cherry fruit. On entry this shows a lovely initial note of a earth and old wood followed by nice spice accents. While this is a touch soft and broad in the mouth, a touch flannelly even, the barely perceptible supple tannins offer nice gentle support. With a nice hint of truffle funk on the mid-palate accenting the core of fresh red fruit, and just a hint of red plum skin astringency, this shows delicate textural and flavor complexity, though it’s the core of fruit that really shows great follow through on the finish. This possess a fine suggestion of the sweetness and ripeness to its core of barely ripe raspberry flavors. 91 points
Ripe with an almost peachy aspect to the cherry fruit on the nose that gains sweetness with notes of cherry pie and a hint of blackberry. There’s some oak here as well, with a little black spice, some toast and a hint of allspice. Medium-plus full in the mouth, this is a touch chewy, with solid depth of dark red fruit and just a tiny bit of green herb spice and forest floor adding some nuance. The oak shows up as a little sweet nuttiness and contributes to the nice edge of tannin on the finish. This is very smooth and elegant, with solid spice tones on the lightly tannic finish. 91 points