Of all the seven “noble” grapes, pinot noir is, I believe, the one that produces the most evocative, beautiful and, some would say, sexy wine.
This finicky, thin-skinned grape is unique in its ability to make a balanced quaff that is more acidic than tannic. Garnet in color, the wine has great drinkability when it is young and amazing complexity when aged. The flavors on the palate are cherries and berries, while the nose is violets and barnyard. It has become a universal grape with plantings in most temperate zones around the world.
Boosted in reputation by the film “Sideways,” pinot noir is almost never blended, as other grapes overpower its subtle flavors and nuances. But there is an important exception. To produce Champagne, it is commonly combined with Chardonnay and pinot meunier, making the world’s best and most expensive sparkling wine.
Pinot noir is French for “black pine” as the tight clusters of fruit with small berries are said to resemble pinecones. The dark grape reaches its pinnacle of expression in the northern region of Burgundy, where it has been grown at least since medieval times.
Fine Burgundies are much sought after and have the reputation for being the world’s most expensive wines. Because it’s an “Old World” wine, the bottles will have the name of the village and the name of the grower. There are no dominant wineries, so choose carefully, but definitely try some.
In the United States, the West Coast is pinot noir country. Oregon has huge areas dedicated to this grape, mostly in the Willamette and Umpqua valleys. The wines there benefit from the cool climate, so they are closer to true Burgundies than any other region where pinot is grown. As with any good wine, each producer bottles a variation on a theme, so the differences are worth exploring.
California makes wonderful pinot noir in its cooler growing areas, most notably in the Russian River Valley, Carneros region and, my favorite, the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County. These wines are very fruit-forward, and some have the characteristic “cherry cola” flavor. They’re great, easy-drinking quaffs.
New Zealand has become a haven for the hard-to-grow grape and serves as a foil to the amount of Sauvignon Blanc that comes from the island nation. Much of the wine is young. Great, older wines are also available but can be expensive.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the amount of good pinot coming from Germany. The southern part of the country has embraced the French grape with results that seem at odds within the riesling country. The wines are light in color with good fruit and nice texture considering their pale, ruby color. It’s a wonderful quaff from a region where white wines dominate.