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The Journey to Fine Pinot Noir
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
May 28, 2013
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En Route, Russian River Valley (Sonoma) Pinot Noir “Les Pommiers,” 2011 ($65):  By now you might have heard the story:  How the owners of two iconic Napa Valley wineries critically acclaimed for Cabernet and Chardonnay abandoned their comfort zone to establish another winery producing only Pinot Noir -- and not in Napa Valley but in Sonoma County.  When I heard that news four years ago, I was more than a bit surprised.  Far Niente, one of the two wineries, is an elite Napa Valley wine estate; the other, Nickel & Nickel -- a sister winery dedicated to making vineyard-designated Cabernets (thirteen of them, along with Chardonnay, Merlot and some Zinfandel and Syrah) from the grapes of respected growers -- hit the ground running with its first vintage in 1997.  Many winery owners with that much success would stop there.

The newest operation, called En Route, is dedicated to producing only Pinot Noir, from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley district.  The grapes come from three vineyards, two of which are owned by the winery.  One of the estate vineyards is Graton Vineyard in the cool Green Valley district within the western limits of Russian River Valley; it is 21.5 acres planted to seven clones of Pinot Noir.  In the same area is Manzana Vineyard, 8 acres featuring three clones of Pinot.  The other estate vineyard, Amber Ridge, is in the northern Russian River Valley, a somewhat warmer area with a somewhat richer soil.  The wine’s name, “Les Pommiers,” is not a vineyard designation but a reference to the history of the Graton vineyard, a former apple orchard.

The 2011 En Route is the winery’s fifth vintage, and to my taste it is the finest so far -- “fine” in the dual sense of high quality and also finesse.  Initially, En Route was a rich and hefty Pinot Noir that, vintage variation aside, seemed to be aiming for impact.  In the 2011, the dark fruits of the previous years remain, along with the layered notes of spices, herbs and minerals, but the total package seems lighter and more refined.

The color of the 2011 is medium ruby -- a positive trait for Pinot Noir in my eyes.  The wine’s aroma is intense and suggests black berries, red cherries, floral notes, a hint of fennel, and a gentle perfume of oak.  In your mouth the wine is medium-bodied rather than huge, with silky but not dense texture, and very fine tannins that in no way distract from the impression of delicious ripe red fruits, minerals and spice.  The wine’s fresh acidity lifts the flavors and keeps them light on their feet.  This wine has admirable balance that renders it richly flavorful to a satisfying degree without being heavy.

The 2011 growing season was long and cool.  According to En Route winemaker Andrew Delos, this weather resulted in delicacy of perfume in the wines, especially “very pretty floral aromatics and a touch of minerality,” as well as fruit that is a little more red in nature, and elegant tannins.  Another factor influencing the style of the 2011 En Route is that the winery’s Graton Vineyard “is maturing and becoming a stellar fruit source,” Delos explains.  “The fruit is at once elegant and concentrated.  It brings a plush mouthfeel that adds layers and complexity to the wine.”  He also notes that a few years of managing their vineyards has enabled them to achieve much more even ripening of fruit, creating a purer expression of Pinot noir from each vineyard, block and clone.

I found that this wine evolved noticeably with air and I recommend giving it 10 to 20 minutes in your glass before you begin drinking.  I have no doubt that it can handle a few years of cellaring -- nor would I hesitate to drink it now.

91 Points