Asking a wine enthusiast to tell you which grape makes the finest wines is a bit like asking an aficionado of classical music to name his or her favorite composer. Some may opt for the broad and throaty cabernet, others for the deep and brooding syrah, others still for the charming and elegant pinot noir.
Those who fall into the latter camp will doubtless extol pinot noir’s grace, its so-called feminine qualities (especially pronounced in wines from Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune district), its velvety texture and its uncanny ability to flesh out and improve with age.
Pinot noir is the red grape of Burgundy, a region at the north end of France’s Rhône valley, bracketed by the two gastronomic capitals Lyons and Dijon. Burgundy is quite a cool region climatically, and grapes are frequently harvested in temperatures barely into the 60s.
Because pinot noir is a thin-skinned grape variety, and because the ripening season is relatively cool, wines from this region have traditionally been quite pale in color, high in acidity and light in body. This doesn’t mean for a moment that they are light in flavor, however: Good quality red burgundy can be surprisingly intense, yet its fleshy, velvety texture and light tannins generally fail to find favor with drinkers looking for a gutsy, full-throttle glass of red.
Indeed, until these more politically correct times, red burgundy had always been considered something of a lady’s drink, while tough, tannic Bordeaux (cabernet-based) was the drink of men.
Today, pinot noir, like most other noble grape varieties, is no longer to be found growing exclusively in the Old World. Almost every wine-producing country with an appropriate climate has a few acres of this notoriously difficult and demanding grape. Although a minor player in warmer climes such as Australia, Chile and South Africa, pinot noir has become a strong presence in the cool coastal regions of California, Oregon and New Zealand. Of course, the word “cool” is purely relative in this context. With warmer climates than Burgundy, these regions are producing pinot noir at levels of ripeness (and consequently alcohol) unheard of in France, where in all but the best years the fruit struggles to achieve a respectable 12 percent alcohol.
In certain ways, pinot noir has shown itself to be less adaptable to New World environments than its proponents might suggest. In stylistic terms, the wines it produces in California and New Zealand could scarcely be further away from their Burgundian forebears. Extravagantly oaked, and with alcohol levels frequently pushing 15 percent, many modern-day pinots more resemble the heavy, thick wines of Spain or southern France than they do Burgundy.
And yet, for many, these are becoming the benchmark for this formerly light and delicate grape. Where this trend will lead, no one is sure, but already it seems that the tail might be wagging the dog a bit. Despite the fact that I frequently hear Burgundy’s winemakers decrying the modern blockbuster, alcoholic style, it seems to be a style that’s catching on in the Old Country. Technology can achieve a lot these days, even to the extent of making Old World wine taste like New World.
For the time being, however, the two schools have yet to merge, and if you’re a fan of the traditional styles, they’re still out there, if you can afford them. For the purpose of this review, I chose a few pinots from around the world. You will notice that most are well outside the Cork Dork’s usual price range: Pinot noir is nothing if not expensive.
These wines can all be ordered through Kahn’s Fine Wines or Deano’s Vinos. Prices are approximate. The last three wines will be available in the market from mid-August.
Bouchard Ainé et Fils Bourgogne Rouge 1999, Burgundy, France ($15-$17) 2 stars
This was a fine vintage for Burgundy, and even this straightforward, modest red shows much of that year’s quality. Light in color and body, this has attractive aromas of leaves, truffles and tree bark, with very little overt fruit. Somewhat lean and taut on the palate, this is a good food wine, which should match well with light game or stronger fish dishes. It should improve over the next two to three years.
Castle Rock Winery Pinot Noir Sonoma 2001 3 stars; Pinot Noir Russian River 2002 ($12-$14) 3 1/2 stars
If you are looking for bargains, then you should look no further. Since the mid-1990s, winery owner Greg Popovich and winemaker August “Joe” Briggs have been hunting down top quality fruit from growers who, for whatever reason, have a surplus on their hands. By taking advantage of the considerable glut of quality fruit on the California market, and by operating on an absurdly low budget, Castle Rock has been able to bottle some exceptional wines at jaw-dropping prices. Both of these pinots are from top vineyards, and are fabulous examples of the modern California style. Ripe, forward and bursting with fruit, they are packed with kirsch, raspberry and licorice flavors that persist on the long and fleshy finish. With plenty of extract and generous alcohol, these wines hold up well to lamb and grilled meat dishes. The Russian River bottling is marginally superior.
Shooting Star Pinot Noir California 2000 ($16-$18) 2 1/2 stars
Former Kendall-Jackson winemaker Jed Steele produces this second label from quality vineyards around California. This is an oaky, full-bodied style which boasts very ripe fruit, low acidity and a soft, fleshy texture. Although it would be hard to identify this with classic pinot, it’s a decent enough drink, one which should go nicely with fuller-bodied dishes.
Quartz Reef Pinot Noir 2001, Bendigo, Central Otago ($23-$26) 3 1/2 stars Established in 1996 by Austrian-born and trained winemaker Rudi Bauer, Quartz Reef is one of the pioneering wineries in the Central Otago region in the foothills of New Zealand’s southern alps. Being the most southerly of the world’s winemaking regions, the only red wine grape that will achieve consistent ripeness here is pinot noir. After something of a shaky start, this grape is now well-established, and is producing some delicious wines in the hands of the region’s increasing number of talented winemakers. This wine displays fragrant aromas of ripe raspberries and a touch of mint, underpinned by lovely earth and truffle notes. The palate is ripe and fleshy, but is supported by a very firm backbone of natural acidity and considerable extract. This is a winery and a region on the rise.
Jackson Estate Pinot Noir 2000, Marlborough, New Zealand ($23-$26) 4 stars
This is the most traditional and “Burgundian” of the wines mentioned here. From the north end of the south island of New Zealand, this wine ripened over a long and cool season, resulting in a pale red of only 12.8 percent alcohol. Classically proportioned, with lovely aromas and flavors of smoky oak, black cherries and plums, this wine has a fine, fleshy mid-palate, a firm backbone of tannins and refreshing acidity. Although a bit closed up at the moment, it should flesh out nicely over the next five years or so.
Hear Neil Charles each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.