Sometimes called "the wine of kings", learn more about my favorite varietal that doesn't often get the attention it deserves
If you haven't watched the dark-ish comedy "Sideways", with Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, you really should add it to your watch list. Jack (Church) is about to get married, and Miles (Giamatti), his college roommate, takes him on a bachelor trip to Napa Valley and the surrounding area the week before the wedding. In one scene, Miles is asked why he's so into Pinot Noir and his answer encapsulates everything that is so amazing about this wine. The movie came out in 2004 and sparked a lot more interest in the varietal from consumers and producers alike.
"I don't know. It's a hard grape to grow. As you know. It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and in fact can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot's most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into it's fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet."
ALL ABOUT PINOT
Pinot Noir originated in Burgundy and is considered to be their most noble grape. Known and loved as “Red Burgundy”, it’s the most elegant wine to come out of France. Because of the conical shape of the grape bunch on the vine and the dark color, Pinot Noir is named after the old French word for "pine cone". While it is a very fickle grape that requires a lot of attention and perfect climate, you can find it all over the world in places like Oregon, California, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Depending on where its grown and the style of the producer, it's a wine that can express itself in so many different ways and it's one of the few red grapes that’s commonly made into red, rosé, white, and sparkling wine.
POPULAR GROWING REGIONS
Located in the eastern part of France, this region is most famous for producing dry red wines from Pinot Noir grapes and white wines from Chardonnay grapes.The history of Pinot Noir here can be traced back as early as the second century AD, but because it's an inland region it remained relatively obscure until the 1300s. Then wealthy figures in the monarchy and the church nicknamed it "the wine of kings" because of its amazing elegance. Those kings instituted rules making sure they kept the most quality wines for themselves and their descendants, some of which are still in place today. Which might explain why Burgundy's classification system is often considered one of the most complicated in the world.
Burgundy classifications can include:
Grand Cru (best vineyard sites)
Premier Cru (high quality vineyard sites)
Village Appellations (blend of wines from supposedly lesser vineyard sites)
Regional Appellations (wines which are allowed to be produced over the entire region)
And there are others
The most expensive Burgundy that I've found is a 2016 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache, which is available through Bounty Hunter Wine and retails for $51,000 for a 6-pack. That's on my Christmas list in case anyone is curious...
CENTRAL AND NORTHERN COASTS, CALIFORNIA
There are so many different growing regions in California, but Pinot Noir tends to do better on the central and northern coastal areas because of the cool climate. The close proximity to the Pacific Ocean yields a fog during the morning to early afternoon hours that is critical to the success of growing Pinot Noir because it limits the amount of sun the grapes see during the day. In addition, some areas can see a 50° temperature drop from day to night. To protect the vines and the grapes, rocks will be placed at the base of the vines. Once the fog breaks and the sun comes through it heats the rocks. Overnight the rocks slowly release that heat so the vines and grapes don't get too cold. Here are two specific areas you might want to check out, either in person or just through trying the wine, but there are many more to explore.
Anderson Valley, Mendocino County: Located 110 miles north of San Francisco, this valley lies at the very northern end of what is considered to be California's prime wine growing region. With one of the cooler climates in the region and significant temperature shift from day to night, which helps keep the the acid and sugar in balance, this region produces some amazing Pinot's. Among them include two pictured above, from Long Meadow Ranch and Goldeneye (part of the Duckhorn family).
Russian River Valley, Sonoma County: Named for the east-west river that flows into the Pacific (which actually flows from Mendocino County), this appellation lies at the heart of Sonoma County, geographically speaking. Perfect for growing cool-climate grapes, this is where some of the top wineries even in Napa get their grapes from. The Pinot Noir here showcases aromas of red and sometimes dark fruits, spices, and forest floor. Some notable wineries include J Vineyards, Merry Edwards, Garry Farrell, Maritana among ~ 75 others.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY, OREGON
The leading wine region in Oregon, Willamette Valley is home to almost 600 wineries and is recognized as a premiere Pinot Noir producing region throughout the world. At 150 miles long and up to 60 miles wide at one point, this is the largest AVA in Oregon. Wine making here can be traced back by at least 50 years to when David Lett, Charles Coury, and Dick Erath were the first to plant Pinot Noir here, despite being told that it was impossible to grow wine grapes in Oregon. Within 10 years others followed suit, including David and Ginny Adelsheim and Richard and Nancy Ponzi (wines pictured to the left), which are two of my favorite producers. Once again, a cool, temperate climate paired with coastal influences make this a perfect area to grow Pinot Noir. The wines here tend to be fruit forward (red cherry, cranberry, strawberry, raspberry), some earthy notes like mushroom and truffle, have a crisp but well balanced acidity, and ripe tannins. The success of Pinot Noir here should come as no surprise since both Willamette Valley and Burgundy exist at a Latitude of 47 degrees, which creates similar growing conditions.
The fact that Pinot Noir is such a versatile wine means that it can pair with many different types of food. But pairings depend heavily on the characteristics of a specific Pinot. Lighter bodied, fruity versions tend to pair better with charcuterie, salmon or other fatty fish, seafood like lobster, paté, roasted chicken, pasta, rabbit, and vegetables like peas or asparagus. Pinots that are more full-bodies and heavy on the tannins can hold up to mushrooms or truffles, duck or other game birds, pork, lamb and lean beef.
THE GLASS ACTUALLY MATTERS
Until a few years ago, I knew there were differences between white and red wine glasses. But I didn't realize that there were designated glasses for specific varietals. A proper Pinot Noir glass consists of a long stem that supports a wide bowl at the base, which captures the complex aromas of the wine and quickly tapers to a narrow mouth at the top, that helps guide the wine to the front of your palate. The glasses pictured at the beginning of the article are Veritas glasses from Riedel, and they do have a few other Pinot Noir options, which you can find at many different retailers including Amazon, Williams Sonoma, Bed Bath and Beyond, and more.
OTHER FUN FACTS
Mark your calendar! August 18th is Pinot Noir Day
Pinot Noir enjoys the same climate as Chardonnay, you’ll often find these two grapes planted close by
Blanc de Noirs Champagne uses Pinot Noir (and Pinot Meunier) as its base grape
DNA analysis has revealed that Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc are simply mutations of the same grape