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Lyle Norton

Amid difficult times, Wine Spectator magazine has recently released its Top 100 Most Exciting Wines of 2020. No list is perfect, but Wine Spectator’s criteria is complex and values cost and accessibility as well as taste.

As expected, releases from the Big Three — France, Italy and California — were dominant and comprised 57 percent of the 2020 list. This year, the pinot noir grape, with origins in the Burgundy region of France, revealed its global appeal by placing 13 releases on the list from four countries. Among them were seven pinots from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and three from California including a repeat from 2019, the No. 2 Aubert Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast UV Vineyard 2018 (95-pt/$85).

Among multiple Oregon selections was the acclaimed No. 9 Beaux Frères Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge Beaux Frères Vineyard 2018(95-pt/$95), from north Willamette Valley, that landed in the top 10 for the second time in four years. More affordable Oregon wines like the No. 33 Ken Wright Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2017 (91-pt/$22) and the No. 79 Stoller Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2018 (90-pt/$20) were joined by a personal favorite, the No. 37 Bergström Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Cumberland Reserve 2018 (94-pt/$42). Representing the best from all their estate vineyards, the Cumberland Reserve, vintage to vintage, is among the finest expressions of Oregon pinot noir.

In addition to the lauded Aubert release, wines from maritime influenced vineyards near the North Coast rounded out the California pinot noir on the list. From a Sonoma County producer that has contributed several wines over the years is the No. 51 Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Goldrock Estate 2018 (95-pt/$75). The Goldrock Vineyard, near the town of Annapolis, is only seven miles from the Pacific Ocean.

In a Mendocino County redwood forest at the most northern part of the Anderson Valley lies the 58-acre Maggy Hawk Vineyard, 15 miles inland from the ocean. Fruit from those vines created the highly rated No. 48 Maggy Hawk Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Jolie 2017 (95-pt/$65), aged in 45 percent new French oak and, according to Wine Spectator, “Characterized by lively acidity and structured tannins.”

Central Otago, located in the southern part of New Zealand’s South Island, has become a tourist region, partially driven by emerging pinot noir vineyards and wine production. Inland and at higher elevations, Central Otago is one of the few growing areas void of maritime influences. The region is also known for dramatic daily temperature changes that benefit pinot noir grapes.

This year’s representative is the No. 14 Felton Road Pinot Noir Central Otago Bannockburn 2018 (95-pt/$52) blended from four organic, biodynamically-farmed vineyards. Other releases from Central Otago are available online and at wine outlets.

Another indication that the grape is flourishing, Germany, known for fine riesling, placed its first ever pinot noir release on the list. The No. 85 Koehler-Ruprecht Pinot Noir Kabinett Trocken Pfalz 2017 (90-pt/$24) is produced with very little oak and begs taste and price comparisons with other global releases. If the 2020 Wine Spectator list is an indicator, there will be more pinot noir to choose from in 2021 and beyond.

The views expressed in this column are those of Lyle W. Norton.