The Belle of the Ball
By Liza B. Zimmerman
This delicate red grape has long been coveted for the elegant reds it has produced in Burgundy. While it can be found all around the world, from all over Italy to Chile, it has rarely gotten as much buzz anywhere but California in the last decade.
Thanks to the 2004 release of the movie Sideways, Pinot Noir became the grape of the moment for serious buyers and neophytes alike. It has since been worshipped with almost cult reverence and its prices by the bottle from Mendocino to Santa Barbara have shot up.
Whereas the style of reds produced from Pinot Noir in most of the Old World was almost universally complex and age worthy, many of the newer California iterations can be big, high alcohol and lush. They often resemble a French Syrah, particularly when they are from the California Coast, more than a traditional Pinot Noir.
History and Background
Pinot Noir is a particularly ancient grape variety and had hence shown a wide range of variety in terms of how it has performed in the vineyard over the centuries. It is incredibly prone to mutation and throughout the years has even spawned new varietals such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier. It is also represented by reportedly more than a hundred different clones, many more so than other classic grapes. It tends to be lightly colored, medium-bodied and packed with red fruit aromas and flavors.
The grape is planted throughout France, but is best known for its single-variety wines made in Burgundy and the role it plays as one of the key grapes in Champagne. It can also be found as far north as Austria and Germany, where is sometimes goes by the name Spatburgunder. It is also found all over Eastern Europe. It has also made a name for itself in the cooler-climate growing areas of New Zealand.
It has come to fame in the New World in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and in various regions of California. The Anderson Valley in Mendocino, the Russian River Valley in Sonoma and several central California appellations close to the Pacific Ocean such as Santa Barbara. It is also a main player in the production of sparkling wine, both in California and Oregon, as in the Old World outside of Champagne.
Pinot Noir has an amazing flexibility in terms of the foods it can complement. There are few grapes with as broad a pairing range. It can span the gamut from working well with heavier, fattier fish—such as salmon—to roast meats like pork and rabbit.
The heavier the Pinots, in terms of alcohol level, the more likely it is to shine with big meat dishes. Steak is one of the types of meat that may not be a good match. However lamb, roasted or stewed, as well as chicken in non-acidic wine-friendly sauces work well with it. Stews and roast game birds are also great with more tannic Pinot Noirs.
It is often an ideal bottle for a group to share as its flavors appeal to so many diverse palates and its fruit aromas complement so many types of dishes. Rose sparkling wines, with or without a little sweetness, are a great way to start a meal or celebrate a toast.
Older and more-structured Pinot Noirs will need a little time to breathe before you serve them. If you are lucky enough to serve a very old Burgundy research its vintage to see how it is fairing and if it might be damaged by too much oxygen before you pull out that beautiful decanter.