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Outstanding Pinot Noir
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Mar 6, 2012
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La Follette, Russian River Valley (California) Pinot Noir, Dunah Vineyard 2009
($50):  Tasting Pinot Noirs from California is a continual journey of discovery.  It seems that the Pinot Noir excitement that inspired Sideways, and then increased in intensity because of Sideways, has spawned a whole new universe of wines.  Over the past decade new Pinot Noir regions have emerged, new producers have become key players, growers have turned winemakers, and we wine lovers have more good Pinot Noir to choose from than ever before.

Against this backdrop of discovery, I recently blind-tasted six current releases of Pinot Noir.  All of them were from Sonoma County and most were from the Sonoma Coast AVA, but they varied dramatically in style, and I liked them all, except maybe a 15 percent-plus behemoth that could be a fine Merlot.

The one wine that intrigued me the most was this 2009 Pinot Noir from Greg La Follette.  It was stolid at first, but every time I went back to it, I caught new complexities of aroma and more expressiveness of fruit flavors.  Finally I poured it from my generic tasting glass into a proper, large Pinot Noir glass and the wine opened to reveal its true colors.  Truly impressive.

La Follette is a new winery, established in 2010, but Greg La Follette is a winemaking veteran, having worked in California since 1984 as well as abroad as a consultant. During his entire career, he has been passionate about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and now at La Follette Wines he makes only that.  His wines are mainly single-vineyard wines from growers he knows and respects.

This 2009 is from the Dunah vineyard, which lies in the very southern part of Russian River Valley, in the Sebastopol hills, overlooking the Petaluma Gap.  Situated just above the fog, the vineyard experiences very cool temperatures but lots of sun, so that the grape berries are small, yields are low and the wines are intense in color and structure.  In 2009, the grapes ripened early and with unprecedented high acid.

Greg’s Pinot winemaking involves using a significant proportion of whole berries (it is about 60 percent in this wine) and putting the wine into barrels when its fermentation is not yet complete.  The whole berry technique is probably responsible for some of the concentration and richness of this wine, while the barrel fermentation most likely contributes to the wine’s complexity.

Here’s what you can expect from this wine:  Its aroma suggests fresh, perfectly ripe blackberries and black cherry with nuances of clove, fresh herbs, pine and rich earth.  In your mouth it’s full-bodied and dry with velvety texture from ripe fruit tannins, and yet an impressive depth of flavor on the mid-palate.  You can feel the oak, but in a large glass, that tannin recedes to the edges of the wine, while the acidity holds steady as a backbone.  Concentrated flavors suggest red fruits, cherry, and high-toned herbal notes as well as a streak of minerality -- a brighter profile than that of the nose, at the moment.  There is lovely precision to these flavors, and I sense they will become all the more pure and precise with age.  Ripe, concentrated fruit on the finish confirms the wine’s ability to develop over approximately ten years, in my opinion.  The alcohol, by the way, is 13.6 percent.

This is a Pinot Noir that’s packed tight and needs the expansion that a large glass can give.  It also deserves time to open in your glass.

94 Points