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Wine School! (Class #3 – Pinot Noir)

Pinot Noir, the elegant grape.

Jan. 25, 2010
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Let's now explore the differences between wines made from the same grape. While it's easy to tell a pinot noir from a syrah, learning how a single grape like pinot noir can differ gives you an opportunity to find a wine you really like and to find the perfect wine for a specific occasion, food, evening, gathering, person, etc.

We'll start with regional differences. The area in which a wine's grapes are grown is known as its terroir. (Pronounced tare-WAHR) Literally translated as "soil" in French, a wine's terroir affects a wine's taste dramatically. Even wines grown on adjacent plots of land can taste very different.

However, we're not splitting flavors that fine. Wines from a certain region tend to take on a certain character, and that character is often food-driven. I've found winemakers create wines to accompany their home's cuisine and lifestyle. If a regional diet includes a lot of earthy-tasting food, the wines will be earthy tasting. Lighter native cuisines will generally yield lighter wines.

The best way to learn about a varietal is to try several versions of a grape. With that in mind, here are three markedly different pinots to pour side by side by side:

Tortoise Creek 2007 Pinot Noir – Over the last couple of decades, international demand for French wine has declined. Some blame American animosity in the wake of 9/11, but there's a simpler explanation: French wines are difficult for a beginner to grasp and as more people began to drink wine, they went for simplicity.

On most bottles of French wine, the varietal is nowhere to be found. The French name their wines by region: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Sancerre, Chablis, etc. I had a hard time with French wine because I didn't realize, for example, that most red Burgundy is actually pinot noir.

While there is still an abundance of traditional French wine, some growers committed the heresy of putting the varietal on the label. Tortoise Creek (which sounds like it should be from Australia, no?) is an example of an "Americanized" pinot. This wine greets you with a nose of chocolate covered cherries. The flavor is extremely light with a little cherry fruit flavor and a somewhat chalky body. The finish is much drier than many pinot noirs that I've had. Interestingly, this wine reminded me more of Chianti than a French wine. It would be excellent with any roasted or baked fish, or pasta in lighter red sauces. $8-10.

Bogle 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir – The Russian River Valley in California is better known for bold wines like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, but there are some very decent pinots tucked away. Youl get a wonderful terroir contrast here. French pinot noirs tend to be extremely light and slightly acidic, while California's tend to reflect the boldness of those wines, tasting fuller and fruitier.

The Bogle's nose is much stronger. The flavor is rich with a round body of cherries and raspberries. The finish is dry and not as acidic as the French. This was the most drinkable of the wines. It would go well with chicken, lighter meats, and any kind of red sauce. $12-14.

Cono Sur 2008 Pinot Noir – California, Oregon, and France are best known for pinot, but Chile, one of the leaders in value wine, has started to produce it. You'll get the chance to be the "Cono Sur" at any gathering.

This is the lightest of the three pinots in color but not flavor. The nose is slightly fruity and has a scent of earth. The flavor is the most acidic and a bit smoky. The finish is dry and slightly tannic -- unexpected in a pinot. This wine is supposed to be "new world styled," but it tasted more "Old World"—meaning that the earthy character stood out. I'd pair it with light gamey foods like duck or lamb. $9-11.

A rose is a rose is a rose, but a pinot ain't a pinot ain't a pinot. The variance of varietal among regions, styles, and flavors should keep you fascinated. Next up is sauvignon blanc—class dismissed…


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