A Guide to California Pinot Noir

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Hillside vineyards in California

Have you been a long-time Pinot Noir enthusiast? If so, you might be thinking of those red Burgundy delights you’ve collected from Cote de Nuits or Cote de Beaune. While there’s always something to love in these old-world beauties, there’s another region with lengthy history producing excellent Pinots too. 

California Pinot Noir is far from excessively fruity, nor is it considered an alcohol bomb. While it’s true that the further south you go, theoretically, the more lush the Pinot, each region imparts its own climactic distinctions, leading to natural variations and fresh flavor profiles across the state. 

Whether you’re collecting new wines or simply eager to sample incredible diversity from the Golden State, you’ll find much to love in this guide to California Pinot Noir. 

Pinot Noir in California

Pinot Noir has forever been known as fickle due to its difficulty growing in anything but the best conditions. Interestingly, the best conditions vary by region, and what works in Central California isn’t the same as what works in Northern California. There are, however, a few requirements that Pinot demands from its environment. It loves cool nights, sunny—but never hot—days, and plenty of fog. It also loves excellent drainage, with sandy deposits and not too many nutrients in the soil. Since California has such a diverse array of microclimates, it is incredibly well suited to offering pockets of perfection for Pinot Noir. 

History of California Pinot Noir

A grape with a history dating back to Roman time, Pinot Noir has spent most of its life in Burgundy environs. Nevertheless, it made its way to California along with other varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in the mid to later 1800s. Pinot had a slow start, likely because it wasn’t suited to the types of climates that other varietals love. We mentioned that Pinot isn’t the most forgiving varietal, and this shows up in its severely restricted acreage in previous decades. California Pinot increased in acreage during the 1930s and 1940s, with more in the 1960s and 1970s. Pinot nestled into Napa Valley for a while before expanding into areas even better suited—Sonoma, Mendocino, and Santa Barbara Counties. Today, you’ll even find this dark-skinned grape along coastal areas with unique marine influence. 

In the years since 2000, Pinot Noir has witnessed further expansion, with more and more wineries producing excellent vintages of this notoriously fickle grape.

The Terroir of California Pinot Noir

Where does Pinot Noir grow in California? You’ll find it anywhere from higher elevations to lower valleys, wherever the climate provides the perfect blend of fog, sun, and cooler temperatures. 

Where You’ll Find Pinot Noir:

  • Mendocino County
  • Sonoma County
  • Napa Valley
  • Central Coast
  • San Luis Obispo County
  • Santa Barbara County

A Look at the Regions Growing Pinot Noir

There’s a lot to California Pinot Noir, with nuances emerging with each microclimate. Here’s a look at the diversity of this wine, including what it offers in flavor profiles. 

Mendocino County

This county has a cool climate with plenty of rugged mountains and a lengthy coastline that draws a decidedly marine-like influence. Anderson Valley is most known for Pinot Noir due to its cool climate and foggy tendencies. This valley is only 15 miles long, yet its variability in alluvial soil gives plenty of Pinot vines the perfect substrate. You’ll find that Pinots here are earthy, floral, and full of bright red fruits. 

Sonoma County 

Sonoma County is large and diverse, with pockets of varying climate. This region is also where most of California’s Pinot comes from—about 30 percent of all Pinot in the state comes to life somewhere in Sonoma County. As for the region itself, about 20 percent of its acreage is set aside for Pinot Noir. 

Popular subregions for Pinot Noir include Russian River Valley with its overnight fog, Fort Ross-Seaview with its steep terrain and high elevations, Sonoma Coast with its cooler days and sunshine mixed with rain, and Carneros with its low-lying hills and proximity to the foggy Bay. Pinots grown throughout Sonoma County offer everything from spicy to rich to cherry-driven notes. You’ll find more spice notes closer to the Bay, more red fruits and minerals around Russian River Valley, and more earthiness along the Coast. 

Napa Valley

Nowhere near as popular as in neighboring Sonoma, Pinot Noir nevertheless has a firm hold on Napa Valley. Carneros, which extends into Napa Valley from Sonoma County and San Pablo Bay, is where most acreage grows. Foggy and decidedly windy, it leads to cooler temperatures that Pinot loves. The flavor profile is fruity, spicy, and perfectly acidic, with a touch of earthiness. 

Central Coast

This region comprises higher elevation subregions like the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey. There are plenty of cooling breezes, fog, and temperate conditions—after all, it’s these extremes at higher elevations that let Pinot settle in and take root. Here, you’ll find Pinots with intriguing variability. Grapes in the northern range are spicy and red-fruit-driven, while those a bit to the south have more savory and dark fruit notes. 

San Luis Obispo County

Heading down the coast you’ll find San Luis Obispo County, where the two major subregions are Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. Both of these regions are located to the west of the mountains, which means days are cooler and fog rolls in—just what Pinot needs. Since it’s further south, the region produces Pinots with more body and a silky mouthfeel, along with darker fruits. That characteristic acidity remains, as do those earthy notes. 

Santa Barbara County

This region is the most southerly for Pinot Noir, although it’s still fog-driven thanks to its proximity to the coast. Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, and Sta. Rita Hills produce Pinots that blend the best of Northern and Central California climates. In fact, Sta. Rita Hills has made a name for itself with lush yet refreshingly acidic vintages. You’ll find that Pinots here have deep complexity, spice, a mix of red and dark fruits, and excellent structure.

Are you curious about Pinot Noir from California? Visit our extensive online catalog of fine wines to see the array of options we offer. If you’d like more assistance, don’t hesitate to inquire about JJ Buckley Fine Wines consultancy services. We look forward to pairing you with the perfect wine!