Food Friendly Wines Part Six: Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is the great noble red grape of Burgundy. While Burgundian Pinot Noirs have been revered for centuries, all Pinot Noir wines have been gaining popularity in the US since 2004, when the movie Sideways demonized Merlot and glorified Pinot Noir. Over the past few years, sales have increased more than 20% annually, making it the fastest-growing red varietal.
Pinot Noir grapes, which prefer cool climates, are famed for being difficult to grow. The delicate, thin-skinned grapes are often described as temperamental, finicky, troublesome, demanding, fickle, fussy, capricious and/or headache-inducing because they’re particularly particular about growing conditions. “Just whisper ‘rain’ to Pinot Noir, and it rots,” says George Bursick, winemaker at J Vineyards in Sonoma County, who clearly relishes the challenge of the grape.
You absolutely have to love this wine to make it. And many do. Michael Hill Smith, co-owner of Australia’s Shaw & Smith winery, says, “You don’t have to be clinically insane to make Pinot, but it’s a distinct advantage.” Shaw & Smith has “accepted this challenge albeit in a ‘small batch’ way.”
While it may be unusually hard to craft good Pinot Noir, the wine is exceedingly easy to drink. Pinot Noirs are loved for their velvety, voluptuous, sensual nature; silky, satiny texture; aromatic complexity and depth. They can be seductive, beguiling, entrancing, elegant, smooth and/or subtle. Most Pinot Noirs are lower in tannins and lighter in body than many other reds, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel, which makes them more flexible than most reds. A good dose of acidity adds to their compatibility with food. Strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, black cherry, plum, blueberry, cranberry and black currant are the fruity aromas and flavors Pinot drinkers will most frequently encounter. Hints of mushrooms, earth, smoke, spice, minerals and flowers are not uncommon. (Pinot Noir is the go-to wine for almost any dish with mushrooms.)
In addition to Burgundy, other areas that excel with Pinot Noir are California, Oregon and New Zealand. Burgundy Pinot Noirs range from wines that are light, fruity and meant to be drunk young to powerful, rich, more tannic, fuller-bodied wines meant to be aged for a decade or more. California Pinots have riper flavors and more exuberant fruit. The best Oregon Pinots feature the fruit of California and the mineral, earthy character of Burgundy. Some New Zealand Pinots are Burgundian in style, others more New World.
From whatever region, Pinot Noirs are unusually food friendly. A Givry from Burgundy’s Côte Chalonnaise is one of two reds that excelled in the oyster-and-red-wine match orchestrated by New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov (see A Rule Just Waiting to Be Broken). If a red wine can complement oysters, it can handle almost anything! No wonder Pinot Noir is leading the pack.
RED BURGUNDY 101
Burgundy is distinguished by 1) its frequently changeable terroir, which can vary from the top of a slope to the bottom — and occasionally mid-slope, 2) its shared vineyards: one vineyard may be owned by many people; some may own only a few rows of vines! 3) its small production — Bordeaux makes about ten times as much wine and 4) its high prices for the very best wines.