Thursday, July 17, 2014

Get to Know your Grapes Series - Pinot Noir

“Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet. ”
- Miles from the movie Sideways when asked why he is so into Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir Grapes
In my personal experience,  Pinot Noir is a grape that can be used to make some very outstanding wine,  as well as some very disappointing wine, with not too many wines in between.  Although you may see some cheap - sub $10 bottles of Pinot Noir on the market, this is one wine where I highly recommend spending a bit more to get something truly special.  Pinot Noir is a high maintenance grape - highly susceptible to frost, rot, and Pierce’s disease (spread by a nasty little bug called the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter). It needs a fairly cool climate to grow, but also needs enough time on the vine to fully ripen in order to develop the complex flavors needed for a great wine.  Land where good Pinot grows is not cheap - it takes a lot of labor to tend to the grapes, and much care is needed during the winemaking process. All of these factors cost money... big money.  These costs to make Pinot Noir get reflected directly in the price you end up paying for a bottle.  Not to beat a dead horse, but some of the worst and the best wines I’ve ever tasted are Pinot Noirs.

The history of Pinot Noir begins mostly over in France. The original home of Pinot Noir is in Burgundy, and in the Burgundy wine region Pinot Noir is used to make some to of the most expensive wines in the world. A wine from Domaine Romanée Conti can easily go for from $1,000 to $4,000 (just one 750ml bottle, not even a year’s supply!!).  Known as "DRC" to hip wine guys and gals - here is one person’s tasting notes that I find indescribably intriguing: “The primary flavor is raspberry, but it's so tangy, and the smoked meat note is so strong, that it reminded me of raspberries left in a smokehouse surrounded by pork ribs.”  

DRC is an extreme example of the price of good Burgundy wine, but the high cost of many Burgundies go back to laws put in place by Napoleon (“The Napoleonic Code”) where lands were divided evenly among all heirs.  Ownership is very fragmented, and after years and years of buying and selling parcels of land, a grape grower may own pieces in a dozen vineyards - not the most cost effective way to operate.

Pinot Noir (along with Chardonnay) is a major grape used in the production of Champagne  - in fact there is more Pinot Noir planted in the Champagne region than in Burgundy. In fact much of the Champagne you have had, unless the bottle specified “Blanc de Blancs” was made with some or even a lot of Pinot Noir.  The juice of many grapes are white, it is the contact with the skins during fermentation that makes our red wines red. 

In the U.S. - Oregon (Willamette Valley) and California (Carneros, Russian River Valley, Central Coast) are locations with the right climate, soil, to provide the particular conditions that allow Pinot Noir to thrive.  

Typical Aromas of Pinot Noir.  Lots of red fruits such as cherry, strawberry, and raspberry along with earth,  mushrooms, floral aromas, and leather.  In some cases, Pinot Noir wines will even take on what is called a “barnyard” aroma - which may include a bit of a manure aroma. You’ve got to love something where the smell of cow shit can be considered a good thing!!!  Please do note that the barnyard smell should not be overpowering, if it is then the wine is likely flawed.

Lots of Salmon
Typical Styles of Pinot Noir Wine. Pinot Noir wines are typically fairly low in tannins with high levels of acid, and a light intensity of color (i.e. more transparent in the glass than Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah).

Let's Eat! What Food Pairs with Pinot Noir Wines?.Pinot Noir’s great acidity and typically lighter body makes it a great wine to serve with a meal.

  • Salmon. A class combination for a good reason. Salmon is a bit too oily to shine with white wines, so go Pinot!
  • Cheese. Especially more acidic goat cheeses. Acid should be paired with acids, so Pinot Noir is a great choice.
  • Roasted Meats. Pork, chicken, and beef... give them all a try.
  • Beef Stew. The classic Beef Bourguignon originate in Burgundy France, so no surprise a Pinot is a great pairing. A great time to experiment with some affordable Burgundy for a true classic pairing.
Who Makes Pinot Noir Wines? Here are just a few examples: 
  • France.  Pinot Noir grapes are featured in both the Burgundy and Champagne regions.  Burgundy wines can be some of the most expensive wines you’ll ever see
  • Oregon. Willamette Valley is becoming more and more known in the wine world, but manages to keep its individuality, still home to many boutique/small production wineries.  Keeping things small allows the level of care needed to make great Pinot Noir.  Oregon’s wine county, and proximity to Portland make it a great wine vacation destination that is a bit different than California’s wine country.
  • California. Lots of good Pinot Noir in Carneros, Sonoma, and the Central Coast of California.
  • New Zealand. Relatively new to the wine scene and still working on creating memorable Pinot Noir - many examples are nice and drinkable, but maybe not with the complexity of Pinot from France, California, or Oregon.
  • Germany. In the land of much white wine, Pinot Noir (locally called Spätburgunder) is the most widely planted red wine grape.  Not very common to find on the shelves in the U.S., I have not tried any but have read reviews of some very good examples.
Words of Advice. Some things to keep in mind to make sure you get the most out of your Pinot Noir Purchase:
  • Save your Pennies.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, Pinot Noir is a wine to spend a bit more on to get a good example. A more expensive wine is not always a better wine, but the care and feeding needed to make a good Pinot Noir will lead to a higher retail price. 
  • Don't Fear the French.  Burgundy wine can be ridiculously expensive, but there are great wines that don't cost a fortune. Try some as they will be so different that the new world wines from Oregon and California.
Looking for some good brands to try? 
  • Wild Hog - Sonoma. Look for it... it's worth it!
  • Kosta Browne - Sonoma. The winery has a waiting list, but with patience you will be rewarded.  A splurge wine, but absolutely fantastic.
  • Kanzler - Sonoma. Also typically a waiting list to get their wine, but also fantastic.
  • Adelsheim - Willamette Valley, Oregon. 
  • Estancia - Central Coast, California.
  • France...??? I admit I don’t have much experience with real Burgundy, as my Pinot Noir dollars are mostly spent in Central and Sonoma, California as well as Oregon.  This is a weakness I will look to address in the coming year. Always looking for (incredibly easy) ways to better myself!  Do what I do - see you local wine merchant to help you find a good Burgundy to try.
Have a favorite Pinot Noir? Know some good, not too expensive Burgundies to try? Let us know in the comments section below.

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