Pinot noir: It's a matter of style — or not

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2013 - 2:08 PM
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Pinot noir grapes ripen one grape at a time, hence the various hues in these grape clusters found at Chehalem Corral Creek vineyard in Newberg, Oregon. (Bill Daley/Chicago Tribune/MCT) ORG XMIT: 1065716

Photo: Chicago Tribune file,

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Ah, pinot noir. It represents so much of what is great about today’s wine world. And, alas, one of the few not-so-great things.

First, the bad news: It’s quite difficult for those who prefer not to spend more than $10 or $12 on any bottle of wine to find good entry-level pinots. The decent stuff tends to start at around $15, no matter its place of origin. And even there, buying pinot can be a bit of a minefield. Castle Rock makes some good under-$20 juice, but that brand’s offerings are wildly inconsistent from region to region and vintage to vintage.

Indeed, this capricious grape has enthralled, infuriated and mystified cork dorks for, well, as long as there have been cork dorks — i.e., at least back to the epoch when Homer wrote, “The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken.”

The quality of red Burgundy (always 100 percent pinot) remains annoyingly erratic, but that’s several steps up from the 20th-century norm of infuriatingly unreliable. The region’s good vintners are much better equipped to deal with vintage vicissitudes wrought by balky weather, but there are still some not-so-good winemakers who churn out plonk even in the best of seasons.

More than with any other winemaking region, it’s best to get your local wine-monger or Burg-hound acquaintances to steer you to the better producers (usually found in smallish type well below the appellation name on a label).

But all the other news is good to outstanding. With exponential improvement over the past two decades in Oregon, northern and central California and New Zealand, pinot noirs are way better than ever. I recently had the great good fortune of sampling nearly 100 of them at a California wine-country charity event called Pigs & Pinot. The quality was insane, more than equaling (and pairing beautifully with) a variety of pork masterpieces prepared by stellar chefs Charlie Palmer, Dean Fearing, Elizabeth Falkner and others.

This pinot portfolio included virtually no clunkers, dozens of simply outstanding offerings and many more that were “merely” superb. It confirmed what my sample tasting and pinot-centric gatherings with friends in recent years had indicated:

Today’s New World (non-European) pinot noirs at $25-plus are much more reliable buys than ever before, and perhaps more than any other wine category.

But — and you knew there had to be a “but” coming, although this one could be an “and” — they come in a wide variety of flavor and texture styles. Some are inky and rich and taste as though they have some syrah mixed in (which they sometimes do). Others are slightly less hedonistic but still big boys, with dark berry, cola and chocolate elements.

Still others fit the more classic pinot noir profile: bright cherry, earthy/mushroomy/forest floor, spice and green tea. Oregon’s pinots, and a few from New Zealand, are more likely to possess some of these “Burgundian” traits. (Caveat: Don’t ever call a New World pinot “Burgundian” — unless you’re a mischievous sort hoping to get a rise out of a Burgundy-or-bust Luddite — because the wines really are different.)

For me, that’s a blessing. The wine world is much more interesting, and consumer-friendly, when the more popular varietals offer up stylistic choices galore. For example, Burgundy’s other hallmark grape suffered an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) backlash around the turn of the century when most California renditions were monolithic oak/butter bombs; as a result, today’s chards come in a seemingly endless range of styles.

Now pinots also run an almost endless gamut in terms of flavors, weight, acidity, etc. Which gives wine lovers the opportunity to explore Santa Barbara vs. Russian River vs. Central Otago vs. Willamette vs. whatever, and pick a favorite region. Or just to enjoy them all.

I choose Option 2.

 

Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4

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