Sneaky Good Pinot Noir

Cline Cellars has staked its good reputation on hearty zinfandel and Rhone-style varietals, but wine director Charlie Tseletegos has another ace up his sleeve — Pinot Noir.

I have enjoyed Cline wines for years but didn’t realize they made Pinot Noir until I got invited to the winery recently for a food-and-wine pairing event.

The task was to check out dishes paired with Cline wines, including a four-vintage lineup of Cline’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.

The Pinot Noir was a revelation. Great quality, great taste and great price — all for less than $20/bottle.

Grower Turned Producer

Cline has been growing Pinot Noir grapes for more than a decade, but didn’t make any commercial bottles of this varietal until the 2007 vintage. Most of Cline’s grapes had been sold under contract to La Crema, another Sonoma County winery which has a very successful Pinot program.

Sonoma Coast Appellation

Cline has a total of 200 acres of Pinot Noir vineyards in the Sonoma Coast appellation — a swatch of land that stretches from southern edge of Sonoma County along San Pablo Bay to the Pacific Ocean and up to the Mendocino County border.

Part of the appellation is miles inland, including the Petaluma Gap, where coastal winds keep temperature cooler and create a climate where Pinot Noir excels.

Nice String of Vintages

The very first vintage, 2007, was my favorite from the tasting. There wasn’t much of this  Burgundian-style wine produced and most of it has been drunk, but if you ever see it, try it.

Juicy red currants dominate the flavor of this wine, which feels rich and earthy in the mouth. There’s a good balance of fruit and acid, plus a silkiness that also runs through the next three vintages.

The 2008 shifted a bit of flavor to the tart cherry end of the spectrum. The feel was brighter in the mouth and a bit lighter than the 2007.

Risotto Match-Up

The 2009 turned the flavor wheel toward cranberry with some cherry highlights. It was definitely a bit sharper and leaner, which made it a good match for my favorite dish served in the Cool Chefs food pairing — Magic Mushroom Risotto, a dark, rich serving of Arborio rice flavored with Pinot Noir, cocoa and dark miso.

Jerry James Stone, whose day job is being a writer for Discovery Channel, devised the first dishes served in the Cool Chefs series at Cline. Stone also produces and develops recipes for TreeHugger’s Green Wine Guide.

2010 Vintage Shines

Cline’s Pinot Noir production levels have risen slowly to 8,000 cases in 2010 — the current release.

The 2010 Sonoma Coast featured bright raspberry and cranberry flavors that balanced the acids and made it another great match with the food.

This wine was a bit darker in the glass than its predecessors but it still offered a wonderfully silky mouthfeel.

The wine spent seven months in French oak, 25 percent of it new, medium toast barrels, which helped add a bit of vanilla to the finish.

Visiting Cline

Cline is open every day for tastings at the estate winery in the Carneros district of Sonoma.

Next weekend (April 20-21), a total of 20 Carneros wineries will participate in the annual April in Carneros, a series of winery open houses featuring special events at each location.Tickets are $39. Cline will be pouring its current releases with grilled sausages and will also give visitors a chance to try some new wines right out of the barrel.

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