Pinot noir is difficult to grow. Well, difficult to grow well, in any case. It is a notoriously fickle, thin-skinned grape that prefers cooler climates than varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. The thin skins make the clusters more susceptible to vineyard maladies and also provide less intense coloration than many of the other great red wines of the world. Marq de Villiers has written a fascinating study of the Calera winery in California titled The Heartbreak Grape, a nod to a popular description of Pinot Noir. Andre Tchelistcheff, the great Russian-born winemaking pioneer of Napa Valley's Beaulieu Vineyards, has said "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir."
There are very few places in the world where Pinot Noir can truly flourish and come completely into its own. There's Burgundy, of course, Oregon, very specific places in California, and lately some parts of New Zealand. But Rhode Island?
Diamond Hill Vineyard is located just a few miles off of I-295 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. The tasting room is in a 200+ year old farm house at the end of a very long driveway that makes it easy to forget just how close you are to the scramble of interstate traffic. They've been growing vinfera vines in the state since 1976, longer than any other winery in Rhode Island, including Sakonnet, the state's flagship winery. Diamond Hill has a small acreage devoted to grapes: 5.5 acres total, with 4.5 of that devoted to Pinot Noir and 1 to Chardonnay. They produce only about 300 cases of pinot noir each year. The bulk of the wines they offer are fruit wines.
Their Pinot Noir is called Berntson and currently retails for about $25. The bottle I picked up from the winery was a 2005 (all sales are on-site). It is classic cold-weather Pinot Noir. A very pale burgundy color with some brown tint that is totally transparent. The nose is full of small red berry fruit: raspberry, wild strawberry and some delicate red cherry aromas surrounded by earthy aromas of wet leaves and damp earth. The wine is light bodied and delicate on the palate with medium acidity. The fruits are light and soft with the same raspberry and cooked strawberry. There is definitely an earthiness here that I get in a lot of Burgundies. It always reminds me of walking through the woods when I was little kid after a huge rainstorm. I label it as "wet leaves," but it's really a full wet forest vibe that I absolutely love and miss in my new urban lifestyle. There are virtually no tannins and the result is a silky texture across the tongue. If I were inclined to these kinds of descriptors, this would be the platonic ideal of a "feminine" wine. It doesn't really have very much aging potential not only because of its structure, but also because Diamond Hill uses very little sulfur in their vinification process.
Is Rhode Island the next great terroir for Pinot Noir? Probably not. Newport Vineyards also makes a Pinot in much the same style while Westport Rivers, just over the state line in Massachusetts, primarily uses their Pinot Noir grapes in the production of sparkling wines and rosés. The very light colors and flavors of this wine suggest to me that it is a real struggle for the grape to fully ripen this far north. But the Berntson Pinot from Diamond Hill is a very interesting wine from an interesting location. This is my first tasting of their Pinot, and I will definitely be back to sample other vintages.