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Pinot Noir Is Fruity, Velvety, and Versatile

Fine Cooking Issue 53
Photo: Scott Phillips
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For some, myself included, Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail of wine. The mere mention conjures some of the most delicious and profound wines I’ve ever drunk—and can just as quickly recall some of the most disappointing ones I’ve ever tasted. There are many reasons for this striking split. It’s mainly because Pinot Noir is a finicky grape that’s really difficult to grow.  

Pinot Noir is terrifically versatile with a wide range of foods. And at its best, it offers a wonderfully perfumed nose of fresh red fruits, sweet spices from oak aging, and earthy notes from the soil where the grapes were grown. Pinot Noir is luscious, velvety, and seductive with a rounded texture and soft tannins. And it has marvelous contradictions: concentrated fruit without heaviness, and complexity without force. Finally, a fine Pinot Noir can develop incredible complexity in the bottle with age, taking on flavors and properties that no other wine possesses.

Burgundy produces great Pinot Noir

The search for great Pinot Noir has to begin in France. Burgundy’s Côte d’Or boasts some of the best possible growing conditions for Pinot, and the grape evolved there after many centuries of experimentation by the French. From Gevrey-Chambertin in the north to Volnay in the south, the ten major communes that grow Pinot Noir in the Côte d’Or offer kaleidoscopic variations of the fruity-earthy combination. Most red wines from the Côte d’Or are 100-percent Pinot Noir. Blending across varieties isn’t possible, as is done in Bordeaux and the Rhône, because the appellation rules are strict.  

The greatest challenge with Burgundy is finding a good one that’s affordable. Try to develop a relationship with a reliable wine merchant, especially one who specializes in Burgundy. More so than any other region, in Burgundy, the producer is the bottom line.

American Pinot Noir has made big leaps

After Burgundy, look no farther than this country for fine Pinot Noir.  

California winemakers have finally come into their own with Pinot Noir. During the 1970s, hundreds of acres of Pinot were mistakenly planted in hot regions, and the wines were made with the same techniques used for thicker-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of the results were forgettable. But in the last 15 years, California winemakers have begun to solve the puzzle, using fruit from cooler climate vineyards and traditional Burgundian winemaking techniques.  

The Carneros region that straddles the southern part of Napa and Sonoma counties is home to delicious Pinot Noir. Ebullient berry fruit and sweet spices are front and center in Carneros Pinot, and it’s difficult to imagine a more appealing glass of wine.  

The Russian River Valley has also emerged as one of the centers of the California Pinot Noir renaissance. Russian River Pinots are known for their irresistible red berry flavors and hints of tea, baking spices, and earth.  

The Anderson Valley, farther north, boasts wines with similar fruit to those from the Russian River, but with more green herb notes and firmer tannins.  

The Santa Cruz Mountains are where some of the oldest Pinot Noir vineyards in California are located. The wines can have Burgundy-like depth, earthiness, and complexity.  

Monterey County has two diverse microclimates. One produces deliciously robust and earthy Pinots; the other, more forwardly fruity Pinots.  

Santa Barbara County Pinots, especially from the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys, have lush, red berry fruit with more pronounced herbal qualities.  

Oregon holds tremendous promise for world-class New World Pinot Noir. The Willamette, Rogue, and Umpqua valleys are situated on the same latitude as the great vineyards of Burgundy, and the growing conditions are similar, too. Several major Burgundy houses have come over to invest in Oregon vineyards and winery operations. But despite the industry’s expansion to almost 200 wineries, the results haven’t always been impressive. Variable growing conditions and the difficult learning curve with Pinot has led to uneven quality. But at their best, Oregon Pinots combine the delightful fruit qualities of California wines with Burgundian structure and complexity. The best is yet to come.

There’s good Pinot “Down Under”

Though noted for crisp Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand also produces outstanding Pinot Noir. Wines from Central Otago and the Marlborough region on the South Island offer sassy red berry fruit with herbal notes and exotic spice flavors. And Pinot Noir from Australia’s cooler regions—the Clare, Eden, and Yarra valleys—combine complexity with an easy-drinking style; they’re excellent food partners.

Great with all meats—and yes, fish

Pinot Noir goes well with red meat, all poultry, and veal. But don’t stop there. I’m a big fan of pairing Pinot with fish. Pan-seared or grilled salmon, tuna, and swordfish are delicious with light- to medium-bodied Pinots. And though Pinot is a versatile crowd pleaser, I’ve found that the better the Pinot Noir, the simpler the food needs to be.  

Pinot Noir is all about finesse and elegance; warmer temperatures will only emphasize the alcohol in the wine and any delicacy will be overshadowed. Serve Pinot at 65°F, which is a bit cooler than most red wines. If your bottle is too warm, just refrigerate it for 15 to 20 minutes. Young Pinot Noir does best simply opened and poured into the glass, but older wines might need decanting. Once ten years or older, Pinot throws off a very fine, delicate sediment that can easily be disturbed and blended back into the wine, making the texture unpleasantly gritty.  

The right glass for Pinot makes a huge difference—much more so than with other wines. A glass with a bowl-type shape is best for highlighting all those delicate aromas and flavors; go for plain crystal if you can. Riedel’s Vinum Pinot Noir/Burgundy glass is perfectly designed for the task and reasonably priced. Spiegelau makes a good glass, too.

Sources for Pinot Noir and wineglasses

You can order Pinot Noir and other good wines from Geerlings & Wade or The Wine Messenger. For Siegelau and Riedel Pinot Noir or Burgundy glasses, try Marjorie Lumm’s Wine Glasses or California Wines.

Pinot Noirs for your Thanksgiving table

Thanksgiving dinner is a great occasion for good Pinot Noir, whose bright fruit and soft tannins play well with the turkey, trimmings, and side dishes. Here are some delicious bottles—bargains, splurges, and in between.

Less expensive
• Rosemount Estate Pinot Noir, Australia
• Henry Estate Pinot Noir, Oregon,
• Jekel Pinot Noir, Monterey, California
• Joseph Drouhin La Forêt, France
• Beringer Pinot Noir, North Coast, California
• Van Duzer Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Oregon
• David Bruce Central Coast Pinot Noir, California
• Tria Pinot Noir, Carneros, California
• Huia Vineyards Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
• Isabel Estate Pinot-Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand

More costly
• Michel Colin Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge Vielles Vignes, France
• Marimar Torres Pinot Noir, Don Miguel Vineyard, Russian River Valley, California
• Willakenzie Estate Pinot Noir, Pierre Leon, Willamette Valley, Oregon
• Shea Wine Cellars Estate Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
• Robert Chevillon Nuits-St.-Georges 1er Cru Les-Roncières, France


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