Pinot Noir is back in a big way. Prime evidence is the influx of bargain supermarket brands adding the variety to their lineups. While these cheap choices are meant for glugging, savor premium Pinot Noirs, rife with delicate aromatics, rich textures and elegance year-round. Here are 10 secrets to how Pinot Noir maintains its world-class reputation as the iron fist in the velvet glove.
The greatest, and often most expensive, Pinot Noirs come from Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. These are tannic, terroir-driven wines (see No. 3) that can be aged for decades. But more affordable, fruit-forward options are available from Oregon, California, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.
Many wine drinkers associate deep color with big flavor, but with Pinot Noir, the opposite is often true. Because the grape has a low concentration of color-producing anthocyanin, Pinot Noir-based wines, especially those exceptional Burgundian offerings, tend to be light in color, yet deeply flavorful. It’s the cheap versions—those potentially blended with other grapes like Syrah or Petite Sirah to boost color—that offer less on the palate.
Terroir—the French term that ties the flavors of a wine directly to the place in which the grapes are grown—is essential to understanding Pinot Noir. The best offerings reflect the soil, climate and vintage conditions in which the Pinot Noir grapes were grown, unlike some blends sourced from a variety of grapes and sites. This is one reason that so many of the best New World examples follow the Burgundian model and name individual vineyards on the label.
A wine’s vintage can relay its style, ripeness and potential for aging, but vintage variation relates more to style than overall quality. In both cool and warm years, Pinot Noir can express itself well if it’s been able to ripen its tannins sufficiently, hasn’t been diluted by too much rain or overcropping, nor been exposed to too much heat. Rather than focusing on vintage, look for producers who deliver consistent quality.
To borrow the famous words of Sideways’ main character, Miles, “It’s not a survivor like Cabernet…Pinot needs constant care and attention…it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression…”
What should Pinot Noir taste like? That depends on the growing region, the producer and the vintage. Any pure varietal Pinot from Burgundy, Oregon’s Willamette Valley or cool sites in California, like the Sonoma Coast, will have similar characteristics. They should offer delicate aromatics; clean flavors of cranberry, raspberry and cherry; gentle suggestions of herb, forest and dried leaves; and almost always provide new barrel accents of toast and spice, topped with a silky, seductive mouthfeel.
Top-quality Pinot Noir wines are pricey to make and often expensive. Some Burgundies even sell for thousands of dollars per bottle. A record was set at a recent Hong Kong auction, where 114 bottles from the 1992–2010 vintages of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti sold for $1.6 million, which works out to $2,800 per five-ounce pour. That’s why some fans don’t flinch at spending a few hundred dollars on a Grand Cru bottle.
Pinot Noir is one of the most versatile of all red wines. It’s light enough to pair with salmon, sensuous when matched with poultry like turkey and duck, softens the flavors of a tart cranberry dish and makes a marvelous accompaniment to classics like beef Bourguignon.
Despite its light color and delicate flavors, a well-structured Pinot Noir with firm acidity, compelling aromatics and substantial tannins can age well for decades. Many of the finest Oregon Pinots from a cool 2011 vintage have the vivid acid and balanced structure to improve for at least 10 years. (Hint: Generally, if the abv on the label is higher than 14%, it’s likely ready to drink earlier.)
Reliably food-friendly, pour some tonight or lay down in your cellar.