A global array of winemakers, owners, merchants, distributors and educators convene each March for the annual World of Pinot Noir (WOPN) event at the Ritz Carlton Bacara in Santa Barbara, to be joined by gaggles of wine geeks looking to learn more about the grape.

Education includes tasting under expert guidance during content-rich seminars, lunches and dinners with winemakers and panel discussions, plus figuring out a strategy to navigate among more than 100 wineries at the two evening grand tastings.

In the opening educational session on “Exploring the New World of Pinot Noir,” Elaine Chukan Brown, the American Specialist for JancisRobinson.com, and a contributing writer to Wine & Spirits Magazine, led a winemaker panel discussion and tasting exploring wines being produced in New Zealand, Oregon, Chile and California.

The panelists: Erica Crawford, Loveblock Wines, Marlborough and Central Otago, New Zealand; Brianne Day, Day Wines, Oregon; ; Rodrigo Soto, Ritual Wines, Chile; and James Ontiveros, Ranchos de Ontiveros, Native 9 Wines, California.

WOPN New World Pinot Noir

Elaine said the challenge for those making Pinot Noir in the new world is to create a sense of place in their wines and leave a legacy. This is done throughout Burgundy. Winemakers from all over the world are now trying to produce fine, distinctive Pinot Noir in regions with vastly different soils, weather, vineyard practices and cumulative days of sunshine available to ripen the grapes.

The panelists bantered back and forth about bringing out the character of Pinot Noir with their own senses of place. This contrasts with some varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, where winemakers create high-alcohol fruit bombs that get good scores from some critics but don’t go well with food, lack varietal character, could be from anywhere and don’t age well.

Rodrigo, from Chile, said quality starts with farming. He said winemakers make a lot of mistakes. They get too academic. If you deconstruct the equations, producing fine wine doesn’t work that way. Practices must be sustainable and reveal the essence of the land.

Rodrigo said his organic vineyards are in the coastal range, near the Andes mountains, on older decomposing granite soils, with granite gravels and cobbles. They were the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Casablanca Valley in 1998 — a mix of Dijon clones and California heritage clones.

“You have to master the technology of farming and be specific to the place,” he said.

He’s looking to have wines that age well. He farms organically and keeps his vines 10 years longer than typical for growers in the area. The grapes are hand-harvested in small batches and carefully double-sorted. Ritual uses native yeasts and ferments wines in different types of containers in search of unique characteristics from different areas of the vineyard.

James, of Native 9, grows wines in the Santa Maria Valley. He studied in Burgundy and tastes Pinot Noir from all over the world as a benchmark. He said his area has one of the longest, slowest, coolest seasons for growing grapes. The land includes eroded sandstone. There are some ocean sediments on the south west facing slopes. The north is alluvial. Some areas have poor soil with no organic matter.

He went organic and goes for natural touches. He got rid of herbicides and fungicides. They only harvest two tons per acre and make whole cluster wine. He ages the wine for 28 to 33 months in oak barrels; the time varies so he can show the quality of each vintage.

James said he has been consistent in 2012, 2013 and 2014. He personally doesn’t like 2015, because it is too big. He wants balance in his wine, not big over-oaked or extracted wines. As noted on their website: “the conditions of the vintage will always be represented in the wine (even if they aren’t favorable).”

Erica, of Loveblock Vintners, New Zealand, and family are based in the Awatere Valley, near Marlborough (Erica was co-founder of Kim Crawford Wines with husband Kim; which they sold and entered the new venture at Loveblock). They have a separate vineyard for Pinot Noir in Central Otago.

She explained their philosophy of being careful in progressively examining the nature of the immediate environment. Central Otago is surrounded by mountains and her vineyards are isolated, miles from the ocean. The region is dry and semi-arid, so they have to irrigate. The soil type is free-draining sandy loam over schist alluvium gravels known as Molyneux soils. They chose five different clones to arrive at a style (B777, B667, B115, Clone 5 (Pommard) and Abel). They use machine harvesting, which solves the difficulty of getting labor in the central Otago area. The wine goes into stainless steel tanks. She wants a fresh verve of acidity. She then does eight months of oak aging.

Brianne Day, Day Wines, Willamette Valley, traveled to 80 different wine regions over the years to learn more about growing Pinot Noir and using bio dynamic and organic and techniques. She worked during harvests in the Willamette Valley, Burgundy, New Zealand and Argentina. She has grown from 125 cases annually to more than 6,000. She buys fruit from farmers who have biodynamic and organic vineyards.

She uses minimalist techniques, native yeast and includes some whole clusters in the fermentation, depending on the vineyard. She ages the wine in 15% new oak.

The winemakers then joined the students in tasting through a dozen wines. The wines were all high quality, with a tight clustering of scores from 16 to 17 on the UC Davis 20-point scale. The details:

Day Wines, Willamette Valley, Oregon

  • Momtazi Vineyard, 2016. McMinnville AVA. 33% whole cluster, 20% barrel aging. 15% new oak. Biodynamic. Sedimentary and basaltic soils. 500 foot elevation. 14.0% alc. (Mid-ruby; bright red fruit nose; tight acids; long restrained finish; needs time.)
  • Johan Vineyard, 2015. Van Duzer Corridor AVA. Biodynamic. 25% whole cluster, 19 months barrel, 15% new. Gravel and sedimentary soils. 13.5% alc. (Light-mid brick; earthy, woody, sweet fruit nose; mid-body; balanced; nice style; round, deep finish.)
  • Cancilla Vineyard, 2015, organic. 14.25 Yamhill-Carlton. Destemmed. 18 months barrel aging. 15% new. Mix of sedimentary soils. (Mid-brick; light red cherry nose; hints of wood; balanced; good tannins, softer acids; long tasty fruity finish.)

Loveblock, Central Otago, New Zealand

  • 2014, warm vintage, slightly early harvest. 13.5% alc. (Mid-brick; red cherry, floral, underbrush nose; mid-big body; good Pinot extract; long fruity finish.)
  • 2015, classic moderate Central Otago vintage, 14.0% alc. (Mid-brick; strawberry jam, cinnamon, floral nose; more elegant style; long, balanced, refined finish. My top wine of the 12.)
  • 2017, Coldest, latest vintage on record for Central Otago, 13.5% alc. (Mid-garnet; nutmeg, pomegranate, bright red fruit nose; tight tannins and acids; long balanced fruity finish.)

Native 9 Wines, Santa Maria Valley, California

Planted in 1997 and 2000, 700-foot elevation, sandy soils over sandstone; Dijon and heritage clones, 100% whole cluster on all wines.

  • 2012, 21 months barrel aging, 20% new. 13.5% alc. (Light-mid brick; woody, red fruit and cherry nose; balanced acids, tannins; long red fruit finish.)
  • 2013, 33 months barrel aging, 30% new, 13.9% alc. (Light mid-brick; smoky, nutty, light floral nose; balanced; mid-big body; long semi-chewy hot finish.)
  • 2014, 28 months oak barrel aging, 30% new, 13.7% alc. (Light-mid brick; spice, wood, cherries, floral nose; balanced; nice style; good tannins; can use some age; long fruity finish.)

Ritual Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile.

  • 2013, destemmed. 12 months barrel aging, 30% new. 14.0% alc. (Mid-dark garnet; big berry, black cherry nose; round, ripe, bigger style Pinot Noir; hot finish.)
  • 2016, 11 months barrel aging, 20% new. Small portion of whole cluster inclusion, 13.5% alc.
  • 2015, Monster Block, specific wine block, planted in 1994. Heritage clones from California. 14 months barrel aging. 30% new. 30% whole cluster inclusion, 14.5% alc. (Mid-dark garnet, darkest of the 12 wines; black cherry, cocoa, wood nose; bigger style; round ripe slightly hot finish.)