WineInk: Popular Pinot Noir
The Perfect Pour
According to the statistics, the most favored red wine grape in the U.S. is Cabernet Sauvignon. And while I often adhere to the old refrain “lies, damn lies and statistics” as uttered first by Mark Twain, I have no reason to quarrel with the numbers. Having said that, my anecdotal evidence, in roughly 1,001 conversations with wine drinkers, says that the most popular red variety is surely Pinot Noir.
Seriously, when you ask someone what their favorite wine is it is the rare bird who doesn’t answer “Pinot.” And virtually every wine list, especially in this town, has a Pinot offering or two that top their sales. Over the past decade, due precisely to that anecdotal evidence, plantings of the Pinot Noir grape has exploded and many more American wine regions are fast becoming Pinot hot spots — Oregon and the Central Coast of California in particular.
I bring this up because now we are on the cusp of the Thanksgiving wine-buying season. And, given that the foods of the season (yes, turkey and duck) goes so well with the many different styles of Pinot Noir, it is the perfect time to explore the wonders of Pinot.
No other grape is as versatile, as difficult, as transitory and as loved as Pinot Noir by wine connoisseurs and winemakers. Long deemed to be fussy, Pinot Noir is, nonetheless, grown around the world in some of the most unlikely places. Originally prized by Cistercian Monks in 1330 who cultivated the grape in the Burgundy region of France, it now thrives in regions as diverse as California, Oregon, Argentina, Italy, South Africa and Australia.
From Central Otago, on the southernmost flanks of New Zealand’s South Island, which lies 45 degrees below the equator, to Ahr in Germany, which at 50 degrees north is the northernmost red wine growing region on the planet, more than 300,000 acres of vineyards are planted to the grape globally. France and the U.S. lead the way in production, as you might expect, but countries like Austria, Moldavia and yes, even Great Britain, host Pinot vines. (By the way, in Germany Pinot Noir goes, naturally, by the moniker of Spätburgunder.)
One could say that Pinot Noir is the global grape.
So what’s the attraction? Well, for starters, elegance and flavor. Pinot Noir can be produced in a number of different styles and each can be, and should be, reflective of its place of origin. But it is the flavor profiles of the wine that makes Pinot Noir so popular. Typically light- to medium-bodied, it is a dry wine with soft tannins, acidity that zings and features medium to moderate alcohol levels that range between 12–15%. Cherries and berries, raspberries in particular, converge with other flavors ranging from hints of a forest floor to salt from the sea.
Burgundy wines from the source are a revelation and the wines of the region, particularly from the 24 Grand Cru regions of the Côte de Nuits, command some of the highest prices of any wines in the world. A trip to Burgundy to see the patchwork, postage stamp-sized vineyards, many of which, to this day, are farmed by horse and hand, is like a trip to Mecca for those who are passionate about Pinot.
Wines from Burgundy tend to be light in style, translucent and elegant. The takeaway taste from the best of these wines exudes the flavor of the terroir — the aroma of the earth and flowers and mushrooms and soils and, well, everything, including the manure that is found in the fields where the grapes are grown. Once you taste it you never forget it.
California is home to perhaps the greatest number of diverse regions where Pinot thrives and there are a plethora of different styles of the wine that are being produced. While traditionally, many of California’s Pinot Noir producers favored bigger, more intense expressions of the varietal, there is today an established movement of winemakers who are inclined to pick their grapes a little earlier and to keep the alcohol levels lower, producing wines which are more Burgundian in style.
In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) was a movement that gained popularity among winemakers and consumers a decade ago that influenced this change. Founded in 2011 by Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards and Raj Parr of Sandhi Wines, it was dedicated to creating a conversation around the concept that pinot noir and chardonnay should reflect the personalities of the variety rather than the personalities of producers. The organization generated not just conversation but a sea change in how some Pinot producers chose to make their wines and had a profound impact on how these wines are being made today. There is perhaps more diversity in Pinot Noir wine styles in California and Oregon now than ever before.
In Oregon, the Willamette Valley is the “Burgundy of the Northwest.” Here producers and consumers celebrate the beauty of the Pinot Noir grape with near religious fervor. They also tout the ability of the region, with its varied soils and cooling climate, to be the perfect place to grow the grape. The region is, in wine terms, still in its infancy with the first grapes having been planted in just the late 1960s, but there are now close to 600 bonded wineries in the region
New Zealand, particularly the South Island regions of Central Otago and Marlborough, has been lauded for the past few years as emerging Pinot hot spots. The biodynamic wines of Rippon from Wanaka and the much-lauded Seresin Estate Wines, produced by a Hollywood film producer on the northern reaches of the island, are stunning. And the North Canterbury region on the east coast of the South island is worth keeping an eye on. The Mt. Beautiful Pinot Noir is elegant with a hint of racy spices and a herbaceous quality that takes you to the land of the Kiwis.
In Southern Argentina’s Patagonia region, there is a place called Rio Negro that is fast becoming known as a Pinot sweet spot. The Incisa Della Rocchetta family, owners of Tenuta San Guido in Italy, paired with Aspen’s Tony Mazza to produce Bodega Chacra “Barda” Pinot Noir. These wines, sourced from old vines in a virtual desert, are both delicious and exciting, unique and decisive, showcasing the adaptability of the grape.
But for me, the vast coastal regions of California and the variety of places where Pinot Noir thrives marks the future of the grape. In this column space in the past, we have explored the Carneros AVA of Sonoma and the Napa Valley, the Sta. Rita Hills not far from Santa Barbara and the Anderson Valley to the North, just inland from the Mendocino Coast.
The state’s winemakers are fully committed to producing distinct wines that reflect the diversity of the soils and topography.
Try some with your bird this Thanksgiving!
CARL’S WINE CELLAR 55th Annual Wine Sale
For over 50 years it has been an Aspen tradition and the deals are always great. Until Thanksgiving Day, pending availability, you can take advantage of their sale pricing a number of great California Pinot Noir wines from different regions.
The 2018 Hirsch Vineyards San Andreas Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir has been discounted by more than $18. A Carneros AVA gem from ZD will pair perfectly with your turkey for $45 a bottle and the Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from Mendocino County is a buck and a half less.
All and any of these wines will provide an opportunity to taste great Pinot Noir from California at a bargain.
From the summit of Resolution Mountain, we could see the Fowler-Hilliard Hut below. We took photos as we watched the sun slowly set, and conversations ensued about the surrounding mountains, future running plans and the adventure we were wrapping up