Monday, March 26, 2007

Wine School! (Class #3 -- Pinot Noir)

Pinot Noir, the elegant grape.

The pleasure of learning about wine expands when you start to explore the differences that exist between wines made from the same grape. It's easy to tell a Pinot Noir from a Syrah, but learning how pinots themselves differ gives you the opportunity to find something you really like and to find the perfect wine for the right occasion, food, evening, gathering, person, etc.

We'll start with regional differences. The area in which a wine's grapes are grown is known as its terroir. (Pronounced tare-WAHR) Literally translated as "soil" in French, a wine's terroir changes the taste of a wine dramatically. Wines made in similar styles with identical grapes can taste radically different, even if those grapes are grown on adjacent plots of land. I find wine tastings of wines from a single growing region fascinating because of those differences.

However, we're not splitting flavors that fine here. Wines from a certain region tend to take on a certain character, and that character can often be food-driven. I've found that winemakers create wines to accompany their home's cuisine and lifestyle. If a regional diet includes a lot of earthy-tasting food, the wines will be earthy tasting. Lighter traditional menus will almost always yield lighter wines, and so on.

I think the best way to learn about a wine is to try several versions of the same grape. With that in mind, here are three markedly different pinots to pour side by side by side:

Tortoise Creek 2005 Pinot Noir -- The French may be slow to change, but they do know which way the wind blows. Over the last couple of decades, international demand for French wine has declined. While some blame American animosity towards France in the wake of 9/11, I believe that there's a simpler economic explanation: French wines are more expensive, difficult to unravel, and almost impossible for a beginner to grasp.

If you look at most bottles of French wine, the name of the grape is nowhere to be found. The French name their wines by region: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Sancerre, Chablis, etc. You'll typically see the name of the chateau where the wine is made, the region, the year -- and that's about it. I had a hard time initially with French wine because I didn't realize, for example, that most red Burgundy is actually pinot noir. (This is not to be confused with jug "Burgundy" of Gallo fame.) There's also white Burgundy, which bears no resemblance to white Zinfandel.

Anyway, the French wised up. While there is still an abundance of traditional French wines, some growers committed the heresy of putting the name of the grape on the label and marketing wines to…well…regular barbaric wine lovers like us. Tortoise Creek (which sounds like it should be from Australia, no?) is an example of one of these "Americanized" pinots.

This wine greets you with a nose of chocolate covered cherries. The flavor is extremely light with a little cherry fruit flavor and a somewhat chalky body. The finish is much drier than many pinot noirs that I've had. Interestingly, this wine reminded me more of Chianti (another wine named after a region) than a French wine. This wine would definitely be better with food. It would be excellent with any roasted or baked fish, or pasta in lighter red sauces. At $8-10, this is an excellent value.

Bogle 2004 Russian River Pinot Noir -- The Russian River valley in Sonoma is better known for bolder wines like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, but there are some very decent pinots tucked away among the bolder grapes. You'll get a wonderful terroir contrast here. French pinot noirs tend to be extremely light and slightly acidic, while wines from California tend to reflect the boldness of those wines. They're generally fuller and fruitier.

The Bogle is no exception. The nose is much stronger, with berry flavors jumping right out at you. The flavor is rich with a very round body. You might taste cherries and raspberries. The finish is dry, but much less acidic than the French version. I found this to be the most drinkable of the three wines. Since it's slightly heavier, it would go well with chicken, lighter meats, and pretty much any kind of red sauce short of one with sausage. $12-14 for a very nice wine.

Cono Sur 2005 Pinot Noir -- California, Oregon, and France may be best known for pinot, but some other places are trying with mixed success to break into the market. Chile, one of the current leaders in value wine, has started to produce pinot, including this entry from Cono Sur. These are surprisingly decent wines for the price, and you get the chance to be the "Cono Sur" at any gathering.

Cono Sur is the lightest of the three pinots in color but not flavor. The nose is slightly fruity and has a scent of earth. The flavor is certainly the most acidic of the three and a bit smoky. The finish is dry and slightly tannic -- unexpected in a pinot. This wine is the least "pinot" tasting to me. It's really neither fish nor fowl (although it would pair with both). It's supposed to be "new world styled," but it tasted more "Old World" -- meaning that the more earthy character stood out. I'd probably pair it with light gamey foods -- duck, for instance. Lamb or something along those lines would also work. It's worth trying for the difference, if nothing else. $9-11.

I think you get the idea -- while a rose is a rose is a rose, a pinot ain't a pinot ain't a pinot. The variance of a single grape among regions, styles, and flavors will keep you fascinated for years. Just don't blame me if it becomes an expensive habit. Just remember, home equity loans are not meant for stocking a wine cellar.

Next up is Sauvignon Blanc -- class dismissed…

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