Pinot Noir - The "heartbreak grape"

Over the years, I written about a number of different grape varieties, but it just occurred to me, that I have only discussed one of the most complex and mysterious wines in passing. Sure, I've mentioned some that I have tasted. I've made some recommendations, and I briefly described it in my article about "noble grapes". So, let's take a look at Pinot Noir.

I don't think there is any other grape that has reached the level of mystery, awe, or mythology than the Pinot Noir grape. The grape can make red wine that is silky, sexy, fruity, bold and complex. Or, it can be a main component of sparkling wine. And don't forget rose. Volumes of books have been written about Pinot Noir. I'll keep this to the basics, to hopefully give you a better understanding of the grape.

Clos Vougeot
The undisputed "home" of Pinot Noir is France, in particular, the regions of Burgundy and Champagne. Of those two, the grandest expression of the grape comes from some of the small villages in the Cote d'Or. So why is the Cote d'Or such a great place for Pinot Noir? Pinot Noir is a grape that produces poor wines in warm regions, but thrives on the edge. For those that believe in terrior, Pinot Noir is the perfect grape, that reflects the climate, soil, topography, and cultural nuances. Pinot Noir has a tendency to mutate easily, and is considered a difficult  ("heartbreak") grape to grow (probably a semi-myth perpetrated by the local growers in Burgundy). Realistically, it took hundreds of years for the Catholic Monks to determine the best growing areas (mid-slope and limestone soil), and cultivate the best clones. Pinot Noir is an old variety, and it mutates easily. If it doesn't get enough sun to ripen, the grape may produce white grapes (think Pinot Blanc, or the gray version: Pinot Gris).

Pinot Noir is grown throughout the world. Some of the more notable regions are California (Santa Rita Hills, Santa Lucia Highlands, Sonoma, Russian River). Oregon (Williamette Valley), Chile, New Zealand (Central Otago), Australia (Tasmania), France (Alsace, Loire), Germany (where it is known as Spatburgunder). Experimentation is going on in South Africa, Canada and southern regions of South America.

For me, Pinot Noir has a certain "funkiness", or earthiness to it. Aromas can be described as cherry, strawberry, plum, raspberry, violets, gameiness, leather, mushrooms. On the palate there is usually high acid (typical of cooler region grapes), moderate tannins, bright red fruit character, and a silky texture. However, I have had some unfiltered, un-fined Pinot Noirs that surprised me with their weight (check out Whitcraft). The best Pinot Noirs can age for years, and develop wonderful and complex bouquet.

There are so many styles of Pinot Noir. I am partial to Burgundy, but I just can't handle the prices they demand. There are certain California Pinot Noirs that I enjoy, but I find the majority too fruity. For something in between, Oregon is the place to look for Pinot Noir.

My recommendation is to experiment. Do a Pinot Party. Taste some California (mine are: Dragonette Cellars, Ampelos, Windward, Calera - I'm obviously partial to Central Coast), Oregon (mine are: Drouhin, Erath, Lange), and Burgundy (Louis Jadot, and Drouhin have good examples in all price ranges).

Since Pinot Noir is a lighter red, it pairs with many types of food. It is one of the few reds that works with fish (Salmon and Pinot Noir work really well together). A classic pairing would be with mushroom or truffle dishes (that earthiness just works!), or boeuf bourguignonne, coq au vin and duck. For cheese, stick with Brie or Camembert.

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