IDK Wine: Pinot Noir

I geek out.  About wine, about other interests… I confess that I love to really dig into the minutiae of a subject and then share my newfound treasured facts, telling people more than they ever needed to know about, really, anything.

And so it is that I begin a new Wine Scamp Series: I Don’t Know Wine, posts for those who read this site for pleasure, maybe a little knowledge, but really not to find out how the ’05 Cortons are drinking.

The concept here is to impart to you just enough wine knowledge to defend yourself in a wine shop or at a normal, public tasting. These skills won’t protect you against an all-out onslaught of wine geek-o-rama, but they should, given proper maintenance and some remaining short-term memory, allow you acquit yourself worthily if your group asks you to pick a wine for dinner.

I want to start with the grape varietal Pinot Noir because of its enshrinement by the movie Sideways and because it’s a flexible, reliable (if not inexpensive) wine choice.

PlumThings to remember about Pinot Noir: supple, food-friendly, and complex. It will not make a big tear-your-face-off wine; it makes a sensual, sophisticated wine that is a pleasure to drink whether you detect all the complexity in it or not.

Smells you might find in a Pinot Noir glass include: fruits like plum, cherries or strawberries, flowers like violets or roses, spices like nutmeg or caraway, and herbs like oregano or tea.

Flavors you might taste in a mouthful of Pinot Noir include: berries again, earthiness like mushrooms, herbs like tea and rosemary again, and some oakiness like vanilla or smoke or toast. Sometimes older Pinot Noirs will have a cedar-like woodsy flavor from bottle aging.

SilkTo break it down even more simply, Pinot Noir should bring you red fruit, spice and earth. There’s also a silky texture that’s quite prized in good PN: perceptable viscosity that will feel literally silky on the tongue. Very sexy, and not common in other wines. Ordering a Pinot Noir on a date will give you the legitimate chance to say, “I like how it feels in my mouth.” What other wine gives you that?

On the subject of dating and Pinot Noir: this is not cheap stuff. You can find inexpensive PN out there, but it’s rarely very good. Why, you ask? Whence the twisting of the proverbial arm?

The thing is that Pinot Noir is a real bitch to grow and vinify. It’s whinier than a sleepy 3-year-old, and just as unpredictable. It might not like the soil. It might not like the weather. It has a crappy immune system, and suffers from every stupid little fungus, vine disease, or pest that you can think of. It’s genetically unstable, so it might just produce grapes that aren’t actually Pinot Noir. If you don’t pick it right on time, the grapes are likely to turn into raisins within days. Sometimes its fermentation speeds crazily out of control, causing the wine to “boil” over and out of its barrel. Wine producers the world over call Pinot Noir “the heartbreak grape.”

Pinot Noir Grapes from ChehalemAnyhow, so it’s hard to make Pinot Noir wine, and thus it is expensive, because of all the extra work needed to produce relatively less saleable product. To my mind, this makes PN a great wine for dates, anniversaries, birthdays, any day when you can accept the excuse to treat yourself (and your loved one) to something fabulous.

Places they grow good Pinot Noir include: Burgundy, France, California (especially cooler areas like Carneros, Russian River, and Monterey County), Oregon (especially the Willamette Valley), and New Zealand. If you’re worried about region, think cold and rainy. Some of the few times that’s actually a desirable climate: Pinot Noir and mushrooms. So therefore cold regions of Germany, Italy, Australia, South America, etc., also have the potential to make drinkable PN.

An aside: that obnoxious wine freak in Sideways always dropped the “Noir” whenever he talked about Pinot Noir, which annoys me. I recognize that it’s done, frequently among very respectable wine people and vintners, for that matter. But if you’ll do me a favor, please call the grape by its full name. There are other Pinots: Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, to be precise, and I think it’s needlessly confusing (and somewhat pretentious) to just say “Pinot” when referring to Pinot Noir. Besides, there’s a cadre of Pinot Grigio drinkers out there who will think you mean their quaff instead.

SalmonEat poultry, lamb, pork and oily fish like salmon (my favorite pairing) or tuna with Pinot Noir.  It’s a really flexible food wine, with just enough tannin to play well with the fat and just enough acidity to get along with the spice.  Drinking Pinot Noir with a spicy meal may enhance the spiciness of the food, fair warning.

If you love the living hell out of Pinot Noir and wish to learn more about it by reading blogs, you are totally in luck. Wine Library TV has a great PN tasting episode here; he covers four different regions, and from some reasonably priced bottles. Watch the whole thing to see how sod, pig crap, and saurkraut can all be good things.

If you’ve reached the bottom of this post and suddenly, horrified, realized you remember nothing of what you just read, you can check out this other basic Pinot Noir information page at Appellation America. I love the little pictures they do of the grapes, I swear to gawd.

Pinotphile is an entire blog dedicated to finding the sweet spot: “where the quality and price of a wine intersect.” If you are into researching wines before you buy them, this is the site for you. Another encyclopedic blog, this one exclusively about Burgundy, is Burgundy Report.

For advanced reading, there’s a great blog written by winemaker Josh Hermsmeyer called Pinotblogger which can teach you loads about winemaking, Pinot Noir and the industry at large.

I could throw some brands at you, but I think I’d rather see if anyone made it to the end of this primer, and ask our studio audience to suggest a delicious Pinot Noir that they always enjoy. Anyone? Bueller?

0 comments

  1. This post spoke to me. While I have been glued to your blog, I don’t claim to know ANYTHING about wine… other than the fact that I really like to drink it when it tastes good to me. I hated Sideways more than words can say, but it did instill a curiosity about Pinot (sorry, I couldn’t resist.) in me. Now I have a reason to explore that curiosity since you’ve taught me why I should care.

    Thanks Wine Scamp, you rock!

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