Burgundy Slowly Relinquishes its Dominance of Pinot Noir…

February 28, 2019


Let me be crystal clear from the start; I really love Burgundy. I’ve been there four times, and have tasted and sold the wines for 4 decades. Burgundy will always remain the king of Pinot Noir and this quaint, historic homeland will always be the Holy Grail for those who adore fine Pinot Noir. But as much as I love Burgundy, let assure you that Burgundy’s dominance in the world marketplace has drastically slipped due to worldwide competition.


It’s all about quality and great taste for the price! Burgundy has long held Pinot Noir hostage with its worldwide demand, small production and whatever it wants to charge policy. Burgundy occasionally rocks the world with a great vintage; but unless you are a consistent buyer of every vintage regardless of quality, good luck acquiring any of the best wines. Great vintages are far from the norm here and the prices never drop.


Since my first to Burgundy in 1990 a lot has changed, the best change by far is that the overall quality of the lowest level wines called Bourgogne has risen dramatically and offer very fine value, and the same has happened in the appelations of Mercurey, Santenay, Savigny-Les-Beaune and Fixin.


The downside is that regular Village wines from towns the likes of Pommard, Vosne Romanee, Nuits St. George and Chambolle-Musigny now cost $60-100, Premier Cru wines can be hundreds of dollars and Grand Cru wines can triple those prices.


 Now, if the wines came from a good to great vintage and you could actually procure them, I would have no problem. But the reality is that Red Burgundy has become exceedingly difficult, cost is just one issue, the irregular weather and quality is a huge issue along with the fact that the wines in good vintages have to be cellared; and in off vintages people won’t buy the wines. Even after tasting a so-called good vintage like 2016, the current vintage on the market one must worry and question if the wines have enough ripe-attractive fruit to eventually break thru the structure of tannin and acid and become really good tasting wines.


This is not Burgundy bashing my friends as my beloved Bordeaux is in the exact same situation as Burgundy, prices for the great wines have tripled in the last decade, and sales of those top wines has dropped 50%. For years now I hear the same disappointing comments from customers all over America on our two 800 numbers coast to coast; you must wait for the wines to be ready to drink and there is no longer any value.


This steep fade in interest and decline in sales is aided by the fact that neither region has never done any serious marketing of their wines, and here in America they have already lost a couple of generations of young consumers. That is a dam shame but as my great 8th grade teacher Ms. Cody said, “if the shoe fits, wear it!”


The explosion of Pinot Noir plantings around the world in the last 50 years may very well be the most significant development in wine today as it has changed the landscape and the future of Pinot Noir forever. Three dynamic regions lead this movement.


California is indeed the unquestioned leader, with its cool climate Pinot’s being grown from the top to the bottom of this great state; but it now it certainly has some steep competition in the marketplace.


 The state of Oregon has embraced Pinot Noir as its own with its 800 wineries almost all making Pinot Noir. You could almost call the Willamette Valley, Burgundy West!  Maison Joseph Drouhin invested here first in 1987, Maison Louis Jadot now has a presence there with its Resonance project and estates like Lingua Franca, NW Wine Company and De Ponte Cellars are all owned and run by Burgundians.


 The style of Oregon Pinot strikes a fine balance as it usually features a bit riper fruit than Burgundy but not as dry, not as ripe as California, with bright acidity and freshness. Regular Willamette Valley wines average prices are between $25-50 and single vineyard wines start at 50$, sales continue to rise.


New Zealand’s 650 wineries may be best known for zesty Sauvignon Blanc today, but the future belongs to Pinot Noir! Most of the vines are less than 50 years old but the quality is undeniable and bursting on the scene. In the regions of Hawkes Bay, Marlborough, Wairarapa, Martinborough and Central Otago delicious wines can be found in all price ranges at estates like Te Whare Ra, Mount Edward, Rippon and Ata Rangi to name just a few. The style of most NZ Pinot to me are the expressive floral aromas, dam near perfect ripeness without over-ripeness, silky smooth textures with lots of freshness and fine balance.  As New Zealand continues to develop, and those vines get older, all I can say is look out world, these wines have already made a huge impact sale wise and if you have not tasted them, you are missing one of the most exciting areas in all of wine.


The statistics don’t lie, California has historically been considered Cabernet Sauvignon country, but consumers thirst for Pinot Noir is quickly catching up to Cabernet. From north to south the counties of Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Napa, Los Carneros, Livermore Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey, Lodi, Central Coast, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara all produce good to great Pinot within the 139 AVA’s.


Incredible versatile food wise, and deliciously forward for early drinking, the opulent ripeness, lush sweet fruit and soft round tannins are the calling card for most California Pinot’s. The consistency of quality winegrowing weather here in California is the key and is unmatched anywhere in the world. In today’s world of immediate gratification people are turning away from hard tannins and cellaring wine; and sales of Pinot Noir from New Zealand, Oregon and California continue to reflect that trend.


But not all Pinot Noir in California is soft and easy, great examples of world class, seriously styled Pinot Noir have been made here for many decades. Wines like Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, William Selyem in the Russian River Valley and Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma.




Recently I had the great privilege of visiting Hanzell Vineyards for the second time in my life. Located in the Mayacamas Mountains 860 feet above the town of Sonoma the west facing vineyards have the advantage of cooling ocean breezes created by the Petaluma wind gap. Hanzell was purchased in 1943 by James Zellerbach and his Wife Hanna (hence the name). Their vison was to create an estate the size of a Burgundy Domaine and try to make great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in California. They planted vines in 1953 and in 1957 harvested their first vintage. This was a very ambitious venture as 30 of the 46 acres were planted to Chardonnay when there were less than 200 acres planted in the entire state at the time.


My first visit in 1984 was one of those days in the wine business that hooks you into wine forever. I was only 29 and spent 2 hours with the now legendary winemaker Bob Sessions. Bob made the wine here from 1973-2001; it was great to once again stand in the exact spot where Bob pridefully showed me his #1 steel fermenting tank that held exactly 1 ton of grapes. Small lot fermentation was not the norm then, but quickly became the future. Bob’s legend will live on thru his wines and the 4 acer, 100% Pinot Noir “Sessions Vineyard” that was planted in 1999 in his honor.




When I was tasting the 2016 Hanzell Estate Pinot I could not help but think of Bob and Mr. Zellerbach and how happy they must be to see the de Brye Family continue this great legacy. The wine was full of strong, crisp, elegant fruit without a hint of over ripeness. A wine with beautifully fresh, black Pinot fruit, full of spice and precision.


I heavily recommend to every Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lover and connoisseur to plan and schedule a visit to experience this beautiful and historic estate for yourself.


With over 27,000 acres now planted to Pinot Noir here in California the selection is awesome, and price is a good gauge of quality. There are hundreds of nice drinking wines under $20 to drink everyday like our 2012 Mobius Pinot made by Mantra Vineyards and our 2015 Dream Pinot.  




When you move over $30 the quality really jumps and a good example of that quality is our 2013 JAQK Cellars High Roller with its delicious, ripe and silky fruit. When you get to small production high quality Pinots like 2012 Kokomo from Dry Creek and Coup de Foudre the price jumps again from $50-100 and it is here you will find top quality wines with great aromatics, sweet fruit with complexity and depth of flavors that can develop with some cellar time. This top of the line quality here in California will get you average Village wine in Burgundy, so if you like me are disenchanted but love Pinot, no worry, you now have a world of options.


Just a few days ago Roederer Champagne - French luxury goods company LVMH acquired Merry Edwards Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma known for its outstanding Pinot Noir. In 2012 they started Domaine Anderson to focus on Pinot Noir production. It certainly feels like this is just the beginning of French fascination in California Pinot Noir.




Cheers to good friends and a good glass of Pinot Noir!


Ralph Sands

PrimeCellar Consultant






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