Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Alphabet Soup Project: P is for Pinot Noir

When I started filling this space with words, the cultural touchstone for wine was a 2004 indie-film-that-blew-up called Sideways. The events of the film surround a wine tasting bachelor trip through Santa Barbara County’s Pinot Noir country. Sideways hasn’t held up as a film terribly well, but the movie had a large economic impact.

According to a 2017 NPR report, since the release of the film, US production of Pinot Noir has increased by 170%, while total grape production has only increased by 7-8%. (Merlot’s sales also took a significant hit for awhile, due to a main character’s disdain for “fcking merlot.”)

I enjoy few red varietals more than Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir, by nature, yields a light-bodied wine with delicate yet full aromatics. The flavors most associated with pinot are cherries, berries, backed with smokiness. Pinot is not usually terribly tannic, and it’s fairly acidic, which makes it a perfect food wine, pairing with anything from salmon to duck to big stews like beef bourguignon. Pinot also takes on many characteristics of the soil, so terroir is a major factor in the wine’s flavor.

Pinot Noir is a tricky grape to grow, which can make it pricey. Pinot vines grow best in cool climates, have low yields, and a thin skin, which can make it susceptible to damage from quick temperature changes, mildew, fungus, and sunburn. All these factors pop up on the pricetag, sending many vino-newbies to the next aisle.

Many winemakers blend Pinot Noir with less expensive juice to stretch their supply at the expense of quality. For the sake of this column, I tried to stick to wines made from 100% Pinot Noir.
France’s Burgundy region is the world’s best known locale for Pinot Noir. If you see a red wine from Burgundy (“Bourgogne” to the locals…), it’s going to be 100% Pinot Noir. Burgundy’s Pinot Noirs are consistently considered some of the finest wines in the world and many are built for long aging and super complex flavors.

That’s not our consideration here. The wine I chose, Louis Jadot 2015 Bourgogne, will give you the general idea of what Pinot Noir from that part of the world tastes like, at the sacrifice of some complexity. One common difference between Pinots from France and elsewhere in the world is an earthy undertone – the “Old World Funk.” This wine has just a hint of that earthiness to go with its berry and smoke flavors. This would be best considered a “starter Burgundy,” and you can snag this for $15-17, so you might get your bearings on the region with this one.

If you flew due west from Burgundy, you’ll eventually land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home to some of my favorite wines. The richer, fruitier California Pinots traditionally lead the market for domestic Pinot Noir, but I think Oregon provides better value and flavor for my Pinot dollar. Oregon pinots tend towards a sultry fruitiness and smokiness.

I’ve written about Locations Wines previously. Winemaker Dave Phinney tries to create wines that he feels reflect the basic characteristics of a region. His Oregon Pinot Noir sources grapes from across the Willamette Valley. I certainly thought it was a decent reflection of the basic flavors of Oregon Pinot – but with the volume turned up. The cherry, smoke, and tannin involved here were all much more pronounced than I find in many Oregon wines, which tend to be somewhat subtler. Still, at $18, a decent value, and a decent regional intro.

Finally, New Zealand, known for many years as a Sauvignon Blanc hotspot, has been filling its barrels with Pinot since the mid 1990’s. You might sense a theme, but the EnZedd growing regions’ map coordinates are a mirror in south latitudes what you’ll find Oregon and France’s growing areas in the northern hemisphere. New Zealand pinots tend to be some of the lighter-styled versions, drawing accolades for fruity complexity.

The inexpensive one I tried was Oyster Bay 2015 Marlborough Pinot Noir ($13-15). I found it to be much lighter than the other two. The initial flavors are light and fruity, with the smokiness comes out after a little bit of time. Cherry, raspberry, and cola are the main flavors. The finish is lightly fruity. Quire delicate, and honestly, I didn’t think it was all that interesting. It’s better with a light type of food pairing, like trout with veggies.

Two final thoughts. First, as a rule, plan to spend $20+ on a bottle of Pinot Noir. There’s a big leap in quality right around that price point. Second, since Pinot has such complex flavors, decant the wine at least a half hour before drinking to let the complexity open up. Or, at the very least, dump the bottle into a pitcher and pour it back, which is my usual “speed decanting” method.


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