The Seduction of Pinot Noir
No wine can seduce like Pinot Noir or Burgundy. Sure you can be overwhelmed by a rich full-bodied Cabernet or teased by a coy fruity Chardonnay or even tickled silly by an unctuous, honeyed Sauternes. But none, at least in my experience, has Pinots sensuousness: the perfumed nose of red berries and violets, the ruby red colors, the silky body, the rich tastes of raspberry, strawberry, black cherry, and vanilla. And, if youre lucky, a finish that makes you long for more.
It may be for this reason that wine makers struggle with this most temperamental variety of grapes that needs cool temperatures, strict yield control, and gentle coaxing to produce a great wine.
In France, Pinot Noir is the only grape that can be used to produce red Burgundy and it is often regarded as the canvas for displaying the regions terroirsthe distinctive characteristics of the vineyards soils. In fact, it is the pride taken in terroir that accounts for Burgundy’s complex classifications that require considerable time, study, and tasting to understand. (If you want to know more about Burgundy, check out Robert Parkers massive tome, Burgundy, Clive CoatesCote d’Or A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy, or Matt Kramers Making Sense of Burgundy.)
In the United States, excellent Pinot Noir is produced both in California and Oregon. However, do not confuse California Pinot Noir with California Burgundy. The latter is often a jug wine made from a blend of grapes that might not contain any Pinot Noir whatsoever. I would also hesitate to compare American Pinot Noir with French Burgundy, since the unique characteristics of terroir that manifest themselves in the French will never be found in the American. Nonetheless our Pinots can be magnificent, especially those from some of the leading producers (such as Calera, Saintsbury, and Williams-Selyem in California and Adelsheim, Eyrie, and Ponzi in Oregon.)
Pinots and Burgundies can be expensive largely because the demand is considerably greater than the supply. That does not mean, however, that those of us on limited budgets cannot experience the delight of these wines. In fact, some fine generic and village Burgundies can be found for under $20 and some excellent Pinot Noirs can be had for as little as $10. These wines can be a great introduction to this varietal and that is why we have chosen to review a sampling of them here.
We decided to taste these wines first by themselves and afterwards with a roasted leg of lamb that was seasoned only with salt and pepper and basted with rice vinegar and mint leaves. Interestingly enough, we found that many of the wines which were at best adequate, when tasted alone, blossomed beautifully when accompanied by the roast. We also sampled some of the fuller bodied wines with a nutty Gruyere for dessert and found them to be most compatible.
I always enjoy Pinot with lamb, but have also found it to be an excellent match with turkey and duck. I hesitate to recommend it with fish or seafood.
We began our tasting with the least expensive and ended with the most.
1996 Cartlidge & Browne Pinot Noir ($9.99). We started off with this wine, which is ruby in color with long legs. Its bouquet, a melange of berries with hints of vanilla, is subtle and pleasant. One taster described the nose as “clean and fresh.” The wine is smooth on entry and delivers cherries on the palate with mild tannins. When tasted alone, we found the wine a little thin without much of a finish. However, when tasted later on with the lamb, this wine blossomed and was outstanding with the meat. For the price, this wine is a definite “must buy.” Give it a little breathing time before serving.
1995 Q.C. Fly Pinot Noir California ($9.99). Ruby color, good legs, and an earthy nose promise more than this wine delivers. Vapid on the palate, the wine is thin and tannic. What small flavor the wine has vanishes quickly. Even with the lamb, this wine did not show well. As one taster noted: “The best thing about this wine is the label.”
1997 Echelon Pinot Noir Central Coast ($12.99). This wine produced by Chalone Wine Estates was truly outstanding. Ruby to deep maroon in color, with very long legs, it has a nose rich with black cherries. Its silky entry is followed by mild tannins and good acidity. Full bodied, its flavors are clean and distinctive, with vanilla and currants predominating. It also has a good finish. A perfect match with the lamb as well as with the Gruyere. Try this wine.
1997 Estancia “Pinnacles” Pinot Noir Monterey ($12.99). Ruby colored with long legs, this wine has, what one taster called, a “very berry nose.” It’s smooth on entry, with cherry flavors and a good mid-palate but a little disappointing on the finish. When tasted alone, we all thought the wine promised more than it delivered, but when tasted later with the lamb, this entry was like the wall flower that becomes the belle of the ball. It was “explosive” with the food and its flavors stood up well. Once again, Estancia provides a real value.
1996 Alderbrook Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Sonoma County ($16.99). This wine is dark ruby with good legs and a big nose mostly of cherries and raspberries but also with some herbaceousness. Full bodied with good acidity, the wine delivers more earthy than fruit flavors wrapped in mild tannins. It has both a good mid-palate and a long minerally finish. It was especially good with the Gruyere.
1997 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast ($15.99). Deep garnet in color with good legs, this wine has a complex nose of berries (maybe even boysenberry), tobacco, and earth. The wine is very smooth on entry and full bodied with nice fruit and vanilla on the palate. It has an excellent finish. Calera also makes some excellent single vineyard wines, but they are a little too expensive to include on this page.
1996 Joseph Drouhin Cote de Nuits-Villages ($19.99). This is a lovely wine. Ruby in color with long legs and a berry nose with hints of violets, this wine has a smooth, silky entry. On the palate, it’s dry, a little tannic, with flavors that range from peach to bitter almond. It has adequate body but is a little short on the finish. With time, the flavor opens to reveal cherry nuances.
1996 Leroy Bourgogne ($19.99). This generic rouge from one of Burgundy’s most exclusive and priciest houses is deep ruby in color with good legs and a big nose of black cherry and earth. This is a substantial wine that bursts on the tongue with full flavors of black cherry and bitter chocolate and it ends with a good finish. The wine was even better with the lamb. Definitely one of the stars of this tasting. You might use this wine as an introduction to Burgundy. But watch out, since this maker’s grand crus fetch prices in the hundreds.
1996 Chehalem Pinot Noir “3 Vineyard” Willamette Valley Oregon ($19.99). Deep ruby colors and good legs characterize the appearance of this wine, whose name comes from a local Indian word for “valley of flowers.” It has a beautiful nose of peach, cinnamon, and vanilla . It begins with a smooth, silky entry followed by good acidity. Dry and full bodied, it’s packed with raspberry and earthy flavors and ends with a long finish. This was one of the best wines with the roasted lamb and perhaps the star of the tasting. You will not be disappointed. I might even try this one for Thanksgiving.
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