Wine Consumer


Perfecting Pinot

Wine Consumer Magazine, Mark Capalongan

With a name like Big Dog Vineyards one might expect Big Wines.  Like our Cabernet Sauvignon:  dark and aromatic; abundant with complexity, structure, and body.  For the past 12 years that is exactly what our wines have delivered.  Loved by all who try, these heavy weight wines garner top medals and awards at recognized competitions like Sunset Magazine and the SF Chronicle.  That stands on its own.

On the other side of the ring, weighing in at just 110 pounds, raised in the cold and fog stands Pinot Noir:  slight, understated, and subtle.  Possessing flavors of fresh fruit expressed in layers that will never overpower a delicate meal.  It hardly belongs in the same ring!

Patrons have been after me for years to produce a top quality Pinot Noir.  My mentor who has been making Pinot his entire life waved me off:

“It’s a different level of commitment, and the cost of doing it right is staggering.  The grapes are three times as expensive, and the wine has to be treated like a newborn baby.  Don’t go there.”

From the film “Sideways”, the character Miles describes Pinot Noir as difficult to grow being thin-skinned, temperamental, and needing lots of care and attention. It grows only in certain pockets of the world and requires the most patient of people to care for it and to make the wine.  He opins in the moonlight:

“Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet."

Challenge accepted.  Hillside grapes raised in the fog of the cool Pacific were gently harvested by hand and placed on dry ice for careful removal from the stems. They were placed in open top fermentation bins as whole berries.  30% were left as whole clusters. Sparing no expense, the process had begun.

Through the eons there have emerged two schools of thoughts regarding how to make Pinot.  Some believe that it should be fermented cold and slow to bring out the subtle fruit flavors. Others contend that it is necessary to raise the temperature to extract the full flavor potential of these reluctant grapes.  Both schools have produced 100 point wines, so who is right?

It is also said the unlike any other grape, Pinot Noir records in its finished flavor everything that has happened to it on its journey from grape to finished wine. That it should unfold and reveal itself in layers as it lingers on the palate.

Put it all together and it makes perfect sense to me what to do.  Aside from gently flooding the cap day and night completely by hand, this vintage would be started cold on wild yeast to unlock the layer upon layer of fruit contained in the berry.  Then it would be converted over to cultured yeast for finishing at a higher temperature to extract the fullest expression of the grapes. Both schools would be recorded in the final result.

Robert Parker confirms that the best Pinots in the world come from new French Oak barrels. That’s a pretty convincing endorsement. Weeks later as the wine fell still, this exhausted winemaker placed the wine into new French Oak barrels cooped and custom toasted for a slow infusion of flavors into the wine.

It’s been 5 weeks and the wine, now finished with malolactic fermentation is being moved into the cool winery for oak aging. We’ve spared no expense and couldn’t possibly have spent more time on this vintage. The color is crimson, the aroma inviting, and the flavors which are not yet integrated together express themselves across the fruit spectrum one after the other.  It may well turn out to be haunting, brilliant, subtle and thrilling.  Time will tell.  Let’s check back in 18 months.