Pinot Noir, the ancient red grape responsible for the great wines of Burgundy, has been around for more than 2,000 years. Yet, not until Oregon winemaker David Lett brought home a second-place award during a 1980 French wine competition did American wine drinkers even take notice of the grape — and Oregon wines.
More recently, Pinot Noir was elevated to celebrity status after the Hollywood release of “Sideways.” Three years later, Pinot Noir continues to ride high atop the residual wave created by the film (sorry, Merlot). Through July 2006, sales of Oregon Pinot Noir, for example, were up 30 percent compared to the 52-week period the year before, according to consumer research firm ACNielsen.
Yet discovering the wine’s elusive character and expressiveness takes a bit of patience. For starters, try not to judge the wine by color alone. Although a deep ruby wine is attractive in the glass, Pinot Noir is naturally light due to its thin skins, which produce a wine’s color.
Next, give the glass a swirl to release the aroma, and gently sniff the wine. The smells may be unfamiliar to you, but discovering the subtle bouquet of Pinot Noir can be a life-changing experience. Close your eyes as you put the wine to your nose. Now imagine walking through a damp forest during fall, each step kicking up forest floor aromas of mushrooms, wet leaves and perhaps an earthy truffle or two. Got it?
Combine the forest aroma with bright wild strawberries, Bing cherries and perfumed violets. That’s it, the classic aroma profile of Pinot Noir.
At first sip, the wine may make your mouth pucker or perhaps come off as tart. Add a little food with the next sip and the acidity will melt in your mouth.
Pinot Noir’s refreshing aromas and moderate tannins make it a universal wine for the table. Try earthy mushroom dishes, lean red meats, tuna or salmon. Pinot Noir goes with most main-course offerings, so don’t be afraid to mix and match.
For most wine lovers, exploring Pinot Noir is an interesting hobby and searching for the best Pinot Noir a downright challenge. Once you begin, you’ll easily see why grape growers are excited by it, winemakers are obsessed with it, and consumers are romanced by Pinot Noir’s “it factor.”
2005 Véro Pinot Noir, Joseph Drouhin, Burgundy, France ($22): Ruby red with strawberry, sour cherry and cranberry aromas. Crisp acidity, medium alcohol and earthy notes. Cool climate, Old World wine for everyday quaffing.
2004 Jermann Red Angel Pinot Noir, Friuli, Italy ($33): Dark ruby with earthy, strawberry, cherry and violet perfumed aromas. Firm tannins and long finish. Hints of terra cotta clay tell you it’s Italian-made all the way.
2005 Willamette Valley Vineyards, Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, Oregon ($28): Think forest floor with lots of strawberry fruit and a hint of mint. Fruit-forward yet earthy with medium-plus acidity and firm, ripe tannins, this wine is classic Oregon Pinot Noir.
2005 Morgan Pinot Noir “12 Clones,” Santa Lucia Highlands, California ($30): Cinnamon spice, earthy forest floor aromas, ripe strawberry and cranberry. Crisp acidity, ripe tannins and mouth-warming alcohol add body to this perfect main-course wine.
2005 Palliser Pinot Noir, Martinborough, New Zealand ($28): Dark ruby red with hints of cedar, plum, licorice, sour cherry and earth. High acidity and a good dose of alcohol add weight and power to the wine — New Zealand style.
2004 Barnett Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma ($40): Warmer climate means riper grapes, higher alcohol and fuller body. Pronounced aromas of spice, pepper and strawberry give the wine a classic New World fruit-forward aroma.