Ah, pretty pinot noir — the fickle temptress of red wine varietals that is forgiven all sins when it feels the urge to seduce the tongue and shrink the wallet.
I know that my prose may seem a bit dramatic for a wine column, but this article is dedicated to pinot noir, the most maddening, wonderful, seductive, frustrating grape known to Bacchus. And, quite possibly, the perfect red wine to break out as we segue from winter to spring.
Many winemakers agree that the pinot noir grape is one of the most difficult varietals to grow and vinify, due in part to its thin skin and persnickety nature. But they will also confess that it is worth all of the headache and heartache because when pinot noir is good, it’s great. And when it’s great — well, it just doesn’t get any better.
Pinot noir originally gained popularity in the Burgundy region of France sometime around the first century. It is widely believed that Roman conquerors brought the noble grape with them during their invasion of Gaul. However, recent evidence suggests the indigenous inhabitants might have already been growing the grape when the Romans arrived.
Either way, the true hero of pinot noir was the Catholic Church, whose dedicated monks spent the next several centuries experimenting with fermentation techniques and storage methods, eventually elevating the wine to legendary status throughout Europe. By the late 18th century, the French Revolution changed the face of pinot noir when most of the vineyards were confiscated from the church and divided into tiny, family-run parcels.
Today, pinot noir is still revered in the famed French region as well as wine growing countries all over the world, including Chile, New Zealand, Australia and the western United States. And more than any other grape I know, pinot noir can take on a distinctive personality from each locale.
Here are a few of my favorites from around the globe.
California is known for producing bigger and more expansive flavors in their pinot noir wines. The 2016 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley region has rich flavors of black cherry, blackberry and plum are framed by soft tannins and perfect acidity. Warm flavors of cherry cola and black tea melt all the way through the elegant finish. A great match for tuna steak and Asian cuisine. $18
The wines produced in New Zealand tend to run a little lighter and drier in style, like the 2017 Kim Crawford Pinot Noir from the Marlborough region. Fresh, ripe red cherries and strawberries play over the entire tongue. Notes of dried spices and truffles join in on the back end on the way to a wonderfully light and bright finish. I think this wine will pair brilliantly with grilled salmon. $18
Wines from many of the appellations in the Burgundy region of France have a tendency to produce wines with a perfume-like quality. The best of these wines taste of strawberry jam and smoked meat, all rolled into a delicate frame like the 2016 Louis Latour Santenay from Burgundy, France, which is worth every seductive sip of ripe red cherries, violets and raspberries. The dried herb notes on the finish add depth on the delicately smooth, lengthy finish. $28
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