Grape of the Week: Pinot Noir

Pinot_noir_ucd

Pinot Noir, UC Davis

Every wine lover should see the movie Sideways. For anyone who’s traveled through wine country, it’s all the more hilarious – a must see! One of the most memorable moments is an eloquent speech about why Pinot Noir is so special. For Pinot Noir lovers, the wine is much more than a sensory experience – it’s an emotional experience.  

who knew that popular culture could have such a strong influence on sales? Pinot Noir sales soared after the movie was released, creating shortages, in spite of the simultaneous market trend toward strong sales of huge, concentrated “fruit bombs.”

What to Expect From Pinot Noir I say “in spite of” because Pinot Noir has never been meant to be a black, massive monster of a wine. While Cabernet comes in and takes command, Pinot Noir prefers to gain favor by whispering. Subtle, sleek, silky, sweetish red fruit with earthy undertones (and sometimes overtones!). It’s not unusual to notice slightly smoky, bacon-like character.

This is the ultimate food-friendly red. Light to medium bodied, by red standards, moderate alcohol levels (usually), and low tannins make it an easy-going partner for a wide variety of foods.TRIVIA! If “cat pee” is an off the wall descriptor for Sauvignon Blanc, “barnyard” or “gamey” are descriptors often used to describe Pinot Noir, especially those from Burgundy. And in most cases, the taster is smiling as she says it – when it’s delivered in the right context, it adds to your pleasure – gives the wine added dimension. 

The new-world versions tend to be cleaner and fruit driven, where red Burgundy gives you the “goût de terroir” – the “taste of the earth.”

Pinot Noir’s roots: Burgundy. And, as with white Burgundy (Chardonnay), the best comes from the Côte d’Or, a French region that’s just slightly smaller than Napa Valley. Within the Cote d’Or, most of the Pinot Noir is concentrated in the Côte de Nuits although you can find delicious examples in the Côte de Beaune, too.

TRIVIA! According to UC Davis, Pinot Noir may be the oldest cultivated variety we know. Researchers believe that it was cultivated from wild vines as long as 2000 years ago by the Romans. And, this makes it rather genetically unstable – it mutates readily. Because of this, Clonal selection is very important when planting Pinot Noir.

Many regard Pinot Noir as the ultimate grape for the expression of terroir – the place it comes from. The Cote d’Or is chopped up into tiny little slices of vineyards, each under different ownership and/or management. The theory is that the more specific the appellation of origin on the label, the more distinctive the wine.

Very few will argue against the belief that the world’s best, most complex Pinot Noir comes from Burgundy. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t turn out some dogs! Pinot Noir is one of the most unpredictable wines around, no matter where it comes from, and paying a lot doesn’t necessarily shield you from disappointment.

The Problem Child of the Wine Industry This is a decidedly cool-climate grape, which is why you see so many good examples from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and, increasingly, from New Zealand. Pinot Noir is also known as “The problem child of the wine industry” reliably difficult in the vineyard and the cellar. One miss-step and, Lord, help you!

I can’t improve upon Robert Sinskey’s observations. As he wrote, Pinot Noir “…had no qualms, however, about telling us when we made mistakes. At times, she gave us the silent treatment, closing in on herself, tight lipped and determined to reveal little; or she might throw a fit, hurling an aromatic assault of tomatoes, medicine chest and rubber tennis shoes. The worst was when you missed the mark by showing up late (to harvest) and discovered your delicate Pinot shriveled up like a beauty queen who had spent her better years tanning at the beach, now prematurely aged, brown at the edges with a tired essence of prune.”

Some winemakers, like Sinskey, take it as a personal challenge. They can’t rest until they tame the beast. Others choose to avoid it altogether – who needs the headache?

Good Eats! Pinot Noir loves to partner with earthy flavors, so get out your recipe for mushroom risotto or grill those Portobellos!

Grilled or smoked salmon is a delicious match, especially if the wine has new-oak smoky, bacon-like character – works well with Chardonnay too.

Just about any kind of bird is a good match. It’s particularly wonderful with the richness of duck. Pinot Noir is the first wine I think of for Thanksgiving dinner. No one wine will harmonize with the crazy mélange of flavors on the Thanksgiving table but, as you know, Pinot Noir is great at going along and getting along, without being the least bit ordinary. Cheers!

Send me your wine question   I’ll get back to you in a jiffy!

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