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updated: 11/19/2013 10:31 AM

Good wine: Story of a Cabernet, Pinot Noir pioneer

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  • Try Clos du Val's Pinot Noir with Thanksgiving dinner.

    Try Clos du Val's Pinot Noir with Thanksgiving dinner.


In the 1970s, American John Goelet dispatched French winegrower Bernard Portet to scour the globe for the last, great undiscovered wine region. Portet landed on a tiny region north of San Francisco called Napa, planted Cabernet to emulate the great Bordeaux châteaux and named the property Clos du Val -- "vineyard enclosed in a valley."

Back then, not many people had heard of Cabernet, much less Napa.

That all changed in 1976, when California Cabernet bested Bordeaux in a blind tasting, now dubbed "The Judgement in Paris;" in a 1986 rematch, Clos du Val's 1972 Cabernet won top honors.

Today, Clos du Val Cabernet receives 90-point ratings, along with "best value" plaudits for an under-$40 shelf price.

But Goelet, "a connoisseur of the best of all worlds" according to current winemaker Kristy Melton, also wanted to emulate France's Burgundy. In 1973, Portet selected windswept acreage above the San Pablo Bay and planted Pinot Noir in an area called Carneros.

Back then, not many people had heard of Carneros, much less Pinot Noir.

That all changed in 2004 when the movie "Sideways" introduced the world to

"brilliant and thrilling and subtle" Pinot Noir grown in California.

Today, retail shelves are packed with great, good and not-so-good Pinot.

But in contrast to Cabernet, Clos du Val's Pinot Noir receives C+ ratings for "savory, earth and dried berry, delicate flavors," leading this lover of delicacy in savory, earthy and dried berry flavors to ask, "Where's the beef?"

"Maybe people have different expectations when it comes to Pinot Noir," responds Melton, diplomatically.

The unique qualities of Clos du Val Pinot Noir start in the vineyard, "the most spectacular Pinot vineyards I've ever seen," recounts Melton.

While other Pinot pioneers planted on the Carneros floor, Portet planted in northeast facing hills, to catch gentle, morning sun. In the 1990s, vineyards were replanted with the most advantageous clones: 667, Triple-7 and Pommard.

Now more than 20 years old, Clos du Val's vineyards define classic Carneros Pinot flavors: pure cherry and cranberry fruit accented with kola nut and baking spices.

Melton follows-through with a classic approach in the winery. Grapes picked in the cool evening rest six days in "cold soak" to enhance aroma and rich texture without scratchy tannin. She tastes the juice often and adjusts vinification depending upon "whatever the wine says to me that day."

After gentle pressing and fermentation, new wine matures for 11 months in French barrels, with only 25 percent new oak. Despite the trend toward oaky flavor, Melton admits, "I can't overwhelm Pinot Noir with oak; that's a sin."

Clos du Val's 2010 Pinot Noir shows in the glass with pretty mulberry color. The nose is at first shy, and then opens to alluring aromas of berry and exotic spice. The palate is beautifully formed with rich flavors (relative to Pinot Noir) defined by firm acidity and finish.

When asked why she doesn't boost flavor, body and -- undoubtedly -- ratings with the current fashion of blending in heavier grapes such as Syrah, Melton sighs, "I guess I'm a purist. There are lots of palates and preferences, but I make 100 percent Pinot Noir."

Since its inception, Clos du Val's mission has been to produce elegant wines to complement cuisine. True to her property's roots, Melton admits to dreaming about Clos du Val Pinot Noir with food: seared duck breast with cherry and Pinot Noir reduction, Thai spicy pork with hoisin sauce, mushroom pizza ...

Interrupting her reverie, I chime in, "and turkey?"

"Yes!" she laughs. "Clos du Val Pinot Noir is great to marry all the savory, berry, brown spice flavors on a Thanksgiving table!"

And this wine- and food-loving journalist, who has enjoyed Clos du Val Pinot Noir with many decades of Thanksgiving feasts, sighs in relief that some things never change.

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at

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