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From the Vine: Pinot Noir is Right for Fall

by on November 02, 2017 3:02 PM

Pinot Noir could just be the ideal wine for fall: it can be light- to-medium-bodied, and has great earthy tones that pair well with fall foods like roast chicken and duck, mushrooms, and dried fruits. It typically has enough structure and acid to hold up well with other bold flavors found in heartier cool-weather dishes, so now seems like the right time to investigate.

Regardless of the fact that Pinot Noir is a finicky grape that can be difficult to grow, it can be found growing in most of the world’s wine regions. One of the more interesting things about Pinot Noir is that it is a grape that makes wine that is truly reflective of the place it is grown, or its terroir. While Pinot prefers cooler climes like Burgundy, the Finger Lakes region of New York, and New Zealand, it can still grow in warmer climates with longer growing seasons where the grapes can get riper — in places like Santa Rita and Santa Inez in the Central Coast region of California, or in Sonoma, Calif., that still enjoy cool evenings brought about by maritime breezes or fog.

The wines produced in each region are distinct from one another, and knowing what style you prefer can help you find the right wine.

Pinot Noir styles range from light and delicate with good acidity that are meant to be consumed with food, to fuller-bodied versions with riper fruit flavors upfront and slightly less astringency. Regardless of the style, the wine’s basic flavor profile consists of berry — strawberry or raspberry, and sometimes cherry — that blends with savory mushroom, subtle herb, and/or earthy notes. It is not uncommon for the wine to have floral notes — rose in particular — showing in both the nose and on the palate. These delicate and complex flavors are what make Pinot Noir so interesting to wine drinkers worldwide: the balance between fruit and savory, the subtleties of herb and earth, the all-important acidity.

If you don’t have the time, inclination, or budget to taste Pinot Noir from all over the world to determine your preferences, the following guidelines can be used to help steer you in the right direction.

Pinot Noir’s most distinguished wine region in the world is Burgundy, France. It is believed to be the original home of Pinot Noir, where it is the only red grape grown in the region (with the exception of the sub-region of Beaujolais, where the Gamay grape is grown). This is important to know, because if you pick up a bottle of red wine with a label that says “Bourgogne,” you will know that it is Pinot Noir. There are five main sub-regions in Burgundy; Cotes de Beaune and Cotes de Nuits are the two of five that produce mostly red wines — and these are good words to recognize if looking for a red wine from Burgundy.

What can be expected from Burgundian Pinot Noir? You will find wines that are lighter-bodied, with almost all the flavors more nuanced than counterparts from regions with warmer growing seasons and longer days of sunlight. When they are well-made, these Pinot Noirs are elegant and retain just the right amount of acidity and tannin, with gentle flavors of berry complemented by rose, herb, and earthiness; these are usually understated wines that are not appreciated by all. When poorly-made, they are thin and lean, often tasting of unripe fruit or green beans with too many tannins and/or acid levels, often lacking in flavor. An additional difficulty is that better-made Burgundian wines are going to cost you — likely upward of $35.

We tasted the Domaine Michel Gros 2013 ($60) from the Vosne-Romanee region of Cotes de Nuits that delivered a little petrol on the nose with flavors of cranberry and cherry cola on the palate. This wine was a bit tannic, and we wondered if it needed more time in the bottle. Not knowing when we tasted it how much it cost, I couldn’t help but think it should have been better than it was when I heard the price. We also tasted Domaine Fichet 2013, a simple Burgundy that also showed a lot of cola but was tight and a little dead inside. Price tag? $16, and it showed.

Similarly light-styled wines at a slightly more approachable cost can be found in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where the climate is also cool and the number of warm, sunny days is limited. The Pinot Noirs our panel tasted from the Finger Lakes were from well-respected producers Ravines (2013, $30) and Dr. Konstantin Frank (2015, $25). While initially they hit all the marks for Pinot Noir, and did prove to be elegant, there was a muskiness about them that evolved after time spent in the glass. When I tried them the following day, I found them both to be undrinkable.

New Zealand’s Central Otago region is another place to look for lighter-styled Pinot Noir.

On the other end of the style spectrum are wines from the West Coast of the United States, where growing conditions vary significantly from the Central Coast of California up to Sonoma and north to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Central Coast Pinot Noir is grown best in Santa Maria, Santa Rita Hills, and Santa Inez, where warm, sunny days have the advantage of cool evenings, which allows the grapes to ripen more fully but still retain their acidity, preventing the wines from being too jammy. Wines from this region can range in price from $12 to $60 or $70, depending on the winemaker and whether the grapes come from a single vineyard or are a blend from many vineyards.

Central Coast would be a good place to start your research if you think you want something more fruit-forward and you don’t have a huge budget. Many producers will have multiple offerings at different price points; you can start at the low end and work your way up to single-vineyard offerings that will likely offer more complexity if you find the producer is making a style you enjoy. Sonoma’s Russian River Valley winemakers also offer a range of wines at varying price points.

Moshin is a boutique-type winery whose Pinot Noir we have tasted several times in varying vintages and are rarely disappointed, but it comes at a price — usually about $50. A bigger company like Rodney Strong or La Crema will have multiple entries that will allow you to find an affordable wine to begin your research, and you can decide whether you want to move on to their higher-end bottlings. Don’t forget to consider Sonoma Coast and the Carneros regions of Northern California as well.

Lastly we come to Oregon, whose Pinot Noirs also tend to be richer than the Burgundian style. We tasted two wines from Arterbury Maresh Winery, located in the Dundee Hills sub-region of the Willamette Valley. Both wines were of the same vintage, but one was a single-vineyard wine and cost $40 more than the other. The first wine had cherry lollipop, baking spices, and pomegranate flavors and was well-balanced with just a touch of rose; it was thoroughly enjoyable. The second wine showed more specifically cinnamon flavor, with cherry and cocoa mid-palate. While nice tasting, it was hardly worth the $70 price. While I am confident there are great Oregon Pinot Noirs out there offering a nice balance of medium-body and bright fruit flavor with plenty of complexity, I have not found they offer a great value.

Really tasting and considering the wines thoughtfully will go a long way to helping you develop your palate, and keeping track of what you tasted and what you liked about it is a key element of learning, even if you write down just a few observations. Eventually when you look back at your notes, you will begin to see a pattern emerging that will allow you to more easily identify your “go-to” wines. Good luck!


Lucy Rogers teaches wine classes and offers private wine tastings through Wines by the Class. She also is the event coordinator for Zola Catering.
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