The Enthusiast’s Corner: The Perfect Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir presents problems—delightful problems in some cases—for everyone: for the winemaker, for the writer trying to express its wonders, for the wine devotee looking for that magic in a bottle.
For the winemaker, the problems are far from delightful. It is a difficult grape to cultivate, very thin-skinned, requiring extra care in the vineyard and a great deal of finesse in the winery. And the nature of the fruit varies so widely from vintage to vintage, that even within one region, one vineyard source, the techniques the winemaker applies must vary from year to year in order to coax quality from the harvest. It’s always a challenge.
For wine devotees, especially those who are new to wine, it is difficult to know which producers to look to for consistent quality—or even what represents true Pinot. Warm-climate Pinots can have the depth of flavor but without the structure of acidity and tannin; lesser cool-climate Pinots can be refreshing, but without nuance. Both of these are styles that newbies, especially those on a budget, can enjoy.
Pinots can range from the very light and simple, strawberry-inflected wines to ones with more complexity, the flavors deepening to shades of cherry with hints of spice, and undercurrents of silky acidity beginning to manifest. And the very finest (arguably) add on earthy tones of mushroom, smoke, chocolate, figs and even a floral accent. Some Pinot Noirs go even further: they’re rich and relatively high in alcohol to the point of being Port-like.
More experienced wine lovers will be tempted to compare every Pinot they taste to the best of Burgundy, and that’s a road that leads two ways: to frustration or to nowhere. Even within Burgundy, Pinot changes—a wine sourced from one vineyard will be remarkably different from one sourced from a vineyard only a few blocks distant. There are consistent, outstanding producers and historic vineyards, but don’t expect the exact same experience every time you pull the cork. Some Burgundies give off an initial nose of barnyard, yet their fruit and alcohol will be in perfect balance
As to the wine writer: we are often tempted to take flights of fancy, to anthropomorphize: Pinot is difficult, changeable, yet inspires passion; we want to compare it to the girl or boyfriend that got away, to the ex whose exasperating nature made him or her unforgettable.
I’ll avoid that temptation, and refer you to Steve Heimoff’s article (page 40 of the March 2010 issue), in which he zeroes in on the California winemakers and regions that are consistently producing world-class Pinot Noirs. I love Pinots from all over but I think it’s fair to say that the cooler climate wines have the delicacy and ineffable qualities most Pinotphiles crave. This is why it’s so exciting to anticipate the fine wines coming out of Russian River, Anderson Valley and other Pinot pockets.
Clearing up confusion seems to be the loose theme of this issue. For example, on page 52, Roger Voss tries to unscramble the conflicting messages being sent out regarding Late Bottle Vintage Port (LBV), a category between vintage Ports and reserve Ports. Due to changes in rules by Port’s governing body, LBVs can be young and fruity or mature, with the distinct character of wood aging. They can be ready to drink or prime candidates for cellar aging. When all’s said and done, there are many fine well-priced wines in this category to choose from, and Roger Voss cuts through the confusion to identify the styles and top producers.
A bit of confusion reigns, too, on the subject of Australian Shiraz. What, you’re not confused? You know it’s Syrah (duh) and that the Aussie wines are fruit-forward, chocolate-inflected wines of great depth and richness, the best of which are ageable. In fact, though, as Joe Czerwinski points out in his article on page 46, Shiraz can vary significantly from region to region in Australia, from the Barossa to the Hunter Valley to Clare Valley and so on. Fine-tuning your radar in regards to these variable styles can result in an exploration of different styles, true tasting pleasure.
Confusion isn’t the problem in the Limarí and Elqui Valleys in Northern Chile. It’s that these emerging regions are relatively unknown to American wine lovers. But as Michael Schachner reports in his story on page 56, the number of wineries is growing, production is ramping up, and the north’s lean minerally white wines along with floral, medium-bodied reds may appeal to American palates and, over time, round out Chile’s wine portfolio substantially.
As always our mission is to make wine appreciation easier and more fun without entirely draining it of its distinctive, sometimes maddening, complexity. If we solve all mysteries, what’s left?

Published on February 8, 2010
Topics: Pinot Noir