Pinot Noir is without a doubt my favorite grape. If were forced to pick only one wine I could drink for the rest of my life, I would choose Pinot Noir without a moment’s hesitation. Our buying habits bear this out: Pinot actually makes up a little more than 25% percent of the bottles in our cellar.
For me, Pinot has the best balance of fruit flavor, weight, and mouth-feel of any red grape. It’s low in tannin but often high in acid when young, with bright red fruit flavors. Over time, the acid level comes down, the color turns more brick than bright red, and earthy — even mushroom-y — flavors come out. And as it ages it can develop a velvety texture that is simply… transcendent.
Now, I was spoiled on good Pinot in 2002, when Gwen and I went to the World of Pinot Noir, a wine industry event we happened to stumble upon, where we ended up having some world-class, aged Pinot Noirs. It’s been hard to live up to that. But I keep trying.
Pinot Noir’s home is the Burgundy region of France. When we visited there in 2006, we were told that “the wines here are nothing like the wines from California.” By and large, that’s true. Burgundian Pinots are much less fruit-forward, much more lean and austere than California Pinots. They’re also much better suited to aging. Reading the label on a bottle of Burgundy can tell you more about the wine inside the bottle than a label from almost any other region in world, but learning how to read them is a lesson in itself. Perhaps that’s a blog post for another time.
Outside Burgundy, the prime Pinot Noir spots are California (particularly Carneros, the Russian River Valley, and Santa Barbara County), Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and — increasingly — New Zealand. Unsurprisingly, most of our selection is made up of Santa Barbara County Pinots. I find it hard to go wrong with any Pinot Noir made with fruit from the Bien Nacido or Sanford & Benedict vineyards. (Sea Smoke is also highly regarded, but I’m not sure I see the value for the price.) Our favorite producers are Foxen, Alma Rosa, Fiddlehead, and Lane Tanner. We’re members of the first three’s wine clubs; Lane has sadly retired from winemaking, so we’ll have to make due with what we’ve got squirreled away. Outside of out local area, I look to Burgundy, which is, as I said, complex. I’ve learned just enough about it to know that I tend to like Pinots from the Côte de Nuits, particularly from the villages of Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny.
It’s hard to me to write about Pinot, actually, because so much of what I like about it is hard to verbalize. I guess I’ll just have to keep drinking it and working on that.