Pinot Noir - The Reigning Diva of Grapes
Doubtlessly the diva of grapes, in true diva fashion, Pinot Noir is temperamental, difficult, very picky, and obstinate, but we put up with all of that because when it performs, we can forgive everything. The character Miles, in the movie Sideways, says of Pinot Noir, "It's a hard grape to grow ... it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early ... it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected. No, 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. Then, oh, its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet."
From Grape to Bottle - Pinot Noir in the Vineyard and Winery
In the vineyard, Pinot Noir is a horrorshow. It is thin skinned, with tightly bunched clusters, leading it to being highly susceptible to downy mildew, powdery mildew, and bunch rot. It is an early budder, so spring frosts can destroy a crop before it starts. It is a favorite target of virus diseases like leaf roll. It requires shallow, well drained soils, warm days (but not too warm), cool nights, and must be picked at just the right time. It also doesn't produce a lot of leaf cover, making the grapes open to sunburn, and easy pickings for birds. If you struggle through the year, you then get a smaller crop than most other grape varieties.
In the winery, its temperamental qualities come through as well. Being thin skinned, it is prone to bruising during harvest and handling, so it must be treated very gently. Most winemakers crush the grapes, although many leave some whole berry, uncrushed fruit in the fermenters. Because of its thin skins, it is difficult to extract color, so some producers employ a "cold soak", holding the juice and skins together for three to seven days before fermentation. Once fermentation starts, Pinot has to be watched carefully. It is prone to very violent, runaway fermentation which runs up the heat and burns off flavor compounds. It also is prone to "stuck" fermentation, where the yeast dies before all of the sugar is converted to alcohol. It develops a very thick cap of pulp and skins, which must be either punched down into the juice, or the juice must be pumped over the cap, in order to continue to extract, and fix the color. When fermentation is finished the wine is then pressed, and usually put into oak barrels, for an aging period of 12 to 18 months. Owing to its more delicate nature, fewer new barrels are used, and the barrels are usually less toasted than they would be for other reds.
In the Glass - The Flavors of Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir makes a wine of low to medium body, with low levels of tannin, and moderate acidity. Of course, the obvious color associated with Pinot Noir is burgundy, which derives from the color of Pinot Noir produced in Burgundy. Its color usually ranges from a light cherry red to a deeper garnet Some Pinot is a bit darker, but it rarely approaches the deep blue black of Cabernet. As it ages, the color will turn more to a brick red. Depending on the ripeness, the typical flavors will be of wild black cherry, strawberry, and raspberry. If allowed to ripen more, it can take on a plum like character, and if it gets overripe, that can turn into a less pleasant prune flavor. In Burgundy, it acquires an earthier character, sometimes called "barnyard", but meant in the most positive sense, of a rich, loamy soil and earth quality, with mushroom and truffle. Pinot Noir grown outside of France usually aims for a style that centers more on fresh cherry and raspberry fruit, although in some locales the Burgundian earthiness is echoed. Pinot Noir's low tanning levels and moderate acidity make it a wine that can be enjoyed in its youth, although it would be a mistake to say that it does not age well. Well made Pinot Noir can age for a decade or more, and as it ages it usually adds complexity of flavor, often showing its earthier side, as the fresh fruit quality diminishes.
On the Table - Pinot Noir and Food
Of all red wines, Pinot Noir can be paired with the widest range of food choices. It has been called a red wine in white wine clothing. The result is that Pinot Noir may be the ultimate food wine. Its classical pairings? Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq au Vin-one beef, one chicken! That's just a beginning of the range of Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir can accompany chicken, turkey, duck, game birds, veal, pork, lamb, or beef. Wild game probably goes better with other, heavier reds, but prepared simply, even they will pair well with Pinot. The best rule for matching Pinot Noir with meat is that unless the sauce is so strongly flavored that it becomes the focus rather than the meat itself, Pinot will go well. Pinot also has a natural affinity for earthy flavors, like truffles, mushrooms, or smoked meats. Its sense of sweet fruit also makes it go well with fruit sauced dishes, as well as with carmelized vegetables. One of Pinots great pairings is with "meaty" fish. While very delicate fish are truly best left to white wines, richer fish like swordfish, tuna, and salmon are great partners for Pinot. That same sense of sweet fruit also makes Pinot a delicious foil to Asian cuisines, as a counterpoint to the sweet/spicy, slightly bitter components like wasabi, teriyaki, hoisin, and sesame. In pairing with cheeses, Pinot can successfully pair with a variety of fresh cheeses, or soft cheeses with a bloomy rind, or cheeses that have an earthy quality of their own. Brie, Cheshire, Edam, Emmental, Gouda, Gruyere, Mozzarella, Monterey Jack, Wensleydale, Jarlsberg, Epoisses, and Munster can all marry with a nice Pinot Noir.
The Geography of Pinot Noir - Where It Grows, and Grows Well
When the wine boom in California began in the late 60s and 70s, wineries planted every important grape variety side by side. A contiguous vineyard might include Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. That flew in the face of hundreds of years of experience in Europe, but Californians were so convinced that California was the perfect climate, that every grape would be happy. However, they were wrong. The early boom centered on Napa, which was great for Cabernet but much too warm for Pinot Noir. They persisted, however, and mostly made overripe, jammy, pruny wines. As Tony Soter of Etude wines said, "For a long time, we made many horrible wines and deserved the criticism." This led people to say that California couldn't produce top quality Pinot Noir. They, too, were wrong. It has taken the last 30 years to sort out just where Pinot Noir grows well in California, and now that the right combinations of climate and soils have been found, California Pinot ranks with many of the worlds finest.
The key was finding regions with access to the cool air from the Pacific Ocean. The coastal mountain ranges of California insulate most of the state from the cooling ocean breezes, but where a break occurs in the coast range, cool air spills inland, and you have an ideal site for Pinot Noir. The most northerly such break is found in Mendocino's Anderson Valley. Here the Navarro River flows west to the Pacific, opening the valley to maritime influence. Here producers such as Breggo, Goldeneye, Greenwood Ridge, Handley, and Navarro produce top quality Pinot Noir. Anderson Valley fruit is also used in bottlings from Copain, Williams Selyem, Littorai, La Crema, Siduri, and many more Pinot Noir specialist wineries. As you move south there is another break, where the Russian River slices through the coast range, and many people believe the Russian River Valley is the home to California's finest Pinot Noir. It is certainly home to the greatest number of "cult" Pinot producers, including such luminaries as Dehlinger, Kistler, Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Hartford Court, Paul Hobbs, Walter Hansel, DeLoach, Siduri, and more. Many other wineries prize the black cherry and raspberry flavors and the silky texture of Pinot from the Russian River Valley, and you will find many bottlings from this prized appellation. The first area recognized for Pinot quality was the Carneros district which overlaps the southern end of Napa and Sonoma, where these two valleys empty into San Pablo bay at the northern end of San Francisco bay. Here, the fog off the bay provides the cooling, maritime influence. Among the first, Carneros based wineries to demonstrate the potential of Pinot Noir in California were Acacia, Bouchaine, Carneros Creek, Saintsbury, and Etude. They have been joined by Artesa, MacRostie, Truchard, Adastra, and by producers using Carneros fruit like Patz and Hall, Paul Hobbs, Robert Sinskey, Steele, and many more in demonstrating the characteristic structured, spicy berry style of Carneros Pinot Noir. In the hills on either side of the Monterey Valley, two regions, Chalone and the Santa Lucia Highlands, are praised for their Pinot Noir. Chalone is a one winery region, recognized for the pioneering Pinot Noir producer Chalone, which dates back to pre prohibition as a site of top quality Pinot Noir. Santa Lucia Highlands is one of the newest recognized districts for Pinot, but in the last ten years it has come on strong as a source for world class Pinot, from producers such as Patz and Hall, Siduri, Ojai, Morgan, Roar, Pisoni, and more. Further south you find the Pinot region of Santa Barbara County, the region made famous by the movie Sideways. Here there are two parallel valleys which run east-west and cut through the coast range. The Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley, especially its western end called the Santa Rita Hills, have been hotbeds of stunning Pinot Noir. Here, Pinot Noir displays more of the strawberry range of its flavor profile. Wineries like Au Bon Climat, Cambria, Foxen, Hitching Post, Babcock, Alma Rosa, Dierberg, Siduri, Byron, Belle Glos, and more, produce bottlings which demonstrate the quality that can be achieved in Santa Barbara. There are other California Pinot Noirs of high quality as well, but they are found in scattered outposts, like the Mount Harlan district where Calera winery is located, not in clearly defined regions where multiple wineries are found making Pinot Noir.
Oregon is the other source for world class Pinot Noir in America. David Lett disregarded conventional wisdom that said Oregon was to cool for top quality wine, and founded Eyrie Vineyards in the 60s, and harvested his, and Oregon's, first Pinot Noir in 1970. In short order, Erath, Ponzi, Amity, and Adelsheim were in operation as well. After the initial boom, Oregon Pinot Noir suffered from a flat spot, as newcomers experimented with new techniques and clones, and sought to find the right combinations to reach the highest quality. Oregon today produces some of the world's finest Pinot Noir, focusing on a style that centers on the beautiful pure fruit quality. There has been a tendency in recent years to a bigger, more intense style, but at its best, Oregon Pinot is marvelously moderate in weight and color. The Willamette Valley, south of Portland is the home to almost all of Oregon's top Pinot producers. Here the cool maritime influence, coupled with the more northerly latitude, make for a long gentle growing season. Harvest here is often six weeks later than most of California. Those original pioneering wineries have been joined by such luminaries as Bethel Heights, Elk Cove, Domaine Drouhin, Ken Wright, Sokol Blosser, Argyle, Beaux Freres, Archery Summit, Lemelson, Penner-Ash, Brick House, Domaine Serene, Soter and more, resulting in one of the most lively and vibrant Pinot producing regions.