There is a discernible dip in temperature, leaves are falling from the trees like snowflakes, and pumpkins are popping up on porches throughout the neighborhood. Fall is definitely here.
There is just something about the onset of autumn that resets my palate, sliding the meter on my taste buds oh-so-gently from white wines to red wines.
However, I want to acclimate my tongue and ease into the red wine season with something that is charming yet sturdy, commanding yet elegant. Pinot noir is the perfect wine for the job.
Many winemakers will agree that the pinot noir grape is one of the most difficult varieties to grow and vinify, due, in part, to its thin skin and persnickety nature. While true, the trouble is worth the reward 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 that 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.
Wines from the Cote Côte d’Or region in Burgundy, France, take on a perfume-like quality. The best of these wines taste of bright strawberry, forest floor and smoked meat, all rolled into a delicate frame. The 2018 Domaine Francois Mikulski Bourgogne Cote d’Or is a fine example, offering up scents of violets and red cherries on the charming nose. Delightful flavors of wild strawberries and mineral-laden notes swirl around a core of red raspberry jam. $35
Over the last 50-plus years, the Willamette Valley in Oregon has become a major player in the domestic production of pinot noir. Winemaker Ken Wright has been dedicated to the pursuit of making great pinot noir since the day he landed in Oregon in the mid-1980s. Today, Ken produces over 15 different bottlings of pinot. The 2018 Ken Wright Pinot Noir Willamette Valley features aromas of red plum, black cherry and dark raspberry. The abundant acidity keeps the black and red fruits focused on the palate, while earthy notes play out on the medium finish. $30
Pinot noir wines produced in New Zealand have a tendency to run a little lighter and drier, in style with bright berry fruit flavors accenting red cherries. The 2017 Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir from the Marlborough region offers cherry jam characteristics that dominate the front of the palate, while softer flavors of red currants and cranberry find their way to the back of the tongue. Just a hint of vanilla sneaks in on the medium finish. $35
Bulgaria (Yes, that Bulgaria) has been slowly reemerging back onto the wine scene, first in Great Britain and now on this side of the pond, in a quiet but steady way. With new equipment and improved quality — along with the emergence of a new generation of young, dedicated winemakers — Bulgaria is quickly gaining a reputation for being able to deliver delicious wines at a remarkable value. The 2018 Bulgariana Pinot Noir displays vibrant aromas of black cherries, spices and vanilla. Intriguing flavors of red raspberry combine with ripe flavors of strawberries and cherries. The mouth feel is soft, round and warm, with a juicy impression of ripe fruit. The finish is long, with hints of mocha and baking spices balanced by lovely acidity. All of this goodness packed into one bottle for $15.
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