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WINE SAVVY: Learn the varietal of pinot noir

David Devere

I like to drink wines seasonally. This means I’m often more keen to drink lighter white wines during warm months, and in the cooler months my preferences turn toward deep reds. A perfect wine for fall is pinot noir.

Many years ago, when I was traveling in New Zealand, which makes some very good pinot noirs, I couldn’t pronounce the name of this wine. It took a German chef who I was traveling with to teach me how to say this French word in English. Over a dinner that included a fine bottle of pinot noir, she repeated the grape’s name many times until it finally stuck.

Truly, this is an international variety. For those in need of the same assistance, here’s how to pronounce it: Pea-no nwahr. Sometimes, people call it just pinot, but that’s asking for trouble as there are many grape varietals that start with pinot such as: pinot gris, pinot blanco, pinot grigio, pinot meunier — just to name a few. I figure if you’re going to ask for it, go the full distance and say the whole name: pinot noir.

The reason many grapes start with “pinot” is because pinot noir is an old grape variety and has been propagated for more than 2,000 years. But the story is a bit deeper than that. The ancient plant we know as pinot noir has the ability to spontaneously cross and is the grandparent of many of the world’s best wine grapes including: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernets, syrah and merlot and many more. You can imagine the delight of Julius Caesar’s legions when they marched into central France and found the countryside full of a vine with small, dark, grape clusters resembling pine cones and whose juice made excellent wine. They called it pinea (latin for pine); we call it pinot noir.

Despite this plant’s promiscuous ability to produce multiple offspring, it isn’t a grape particularly easy for farmers to grow. It is a moderately vigorous growing vine, but its yields are rather low. It buds early and is susceptible to late frosts but when planted in warm climates, it ripens too quickly and the thin-skinned berries shrivel and can easily sunburn. It tends to produce small bunches, making it difficult to mechanically harvest, necessitating more expensive hand-harvesting. Finally, it is very susceptible to downy and powdery mildew, bunch rot and the viruses of fan leaf and leaf roll, as well as playing host to multiple insects.

With all these problems, why would anyone go through the trouble? Because it is low in tannin, relatively soft, fruity and easy to like. It also translates the small differences of where it’s grown extremely well, making the terroir enticingly easy to notice. This allows the drinker to easily preference a producer or region. Often, it’s described as charming, ethereal and elegant. If cabernet sauvignon is a structured, conservative, buttoned-down wine, then pinot noir is lavish, artistic and sensual. It often exhibits notes of ripe cherry and raspberry with layers of vanilla, cedar or chocolate. Sounds like dessert. Who wouldn’t want that?

But, it can also be disappointing.

Since it’s difficult to produce, it’s difficult to make inexpensively. I guarantee an $8 bottle of pinot noir will disappoint. At that price, it doesn’t contain the quality juice I’ve described.

To find a good bottle, you really need to shop around the $20 level for a wine from California, Oregon or New Zealand. A good French burgundy will set you back about $50. These wines can be the most expensive in the world, and I don’t recommend spending $100 or more unless you plan on cellaring it.

Pinot noir is very easy to like with a meal and pairs well with chicken, duck, pheasant, roasted pork, salmon, lake trout, roasted vegetables, potatoes and anything with mushrooms.

David Devere is a licensed wine educator in Minnesota. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com or visit SavvyNomad.com.

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