Pinot Noir is a finicky grape that is difficult to grow (it does best in cooler climates) but when it is done right it produces some of the most prized wines in the world. And we are fortunate to be drinking excellent Pinot Noir here in the US as well as having access to the great Pinot Noir wines from Burgundy, France and elsewhere. It is an exciting time to be drinking Pinot, and here’s what you need to know to get started.
Pinot Noir is grown all over the world and there are different nuances to its flavor profile that vary from place to place. Generally speaking, Pinot Noir is much lighter in body than the other big reds like Cabernet or Brunello. While it’s light to medium in body, the grape packs a big flavor punch with lots of black and red berry fruit, and Pinot Noir can really be enjoyed with a variety of different meals. It’s a versatile wine that has enough power to hang with bold foods and enough finesse to bring out the best in lighter dishes. It is one of my favorite food wines, hands down.
The best place to start with Pinot Noir is its home in Burgundy France, where some of the most expensive and most sought after Pinot Noir originates. In France, wine is listed by region not grape, so you will want to look for language on the label that a bottle is from Burgundy or Vin de Bourgogne. Once you’ve determined that a bottle is from Burgundy, you will want to dive into the specific appellation inside of Burgundy and it will read something like “Appellation Cotes du Beaune Controlee.”
There are dozens of appellations and you don’t need to get into them all. To get started just know this. Cote D’Or is the number one area of Burgundy and it is divided into two main regions, the Cote de Nuits and the Cote de Beaune. I suggest trying a Pinot Noir from each of these areas and explore from there. In Cote de Nuits, you can find some great wines from Nuits-Saint- Georges. Burgundian bottles can get quite expensive, and while they are worth the money in most cases, I’d recommend starting in the $20 range and working your way up slowly from there. Louis Latour is a big Cote D’Or name that you can find under $20 and may serve as a good starting point. If this is an area you enjoy you will want to explore wines across all the different classifications – Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. As you can image the price will correlate to how high up the ladder you climb.
Pinot Noir thrives in the US as well, and in recent years has gotten more and more enjoyable. Areas like California’s central coast and Carneros are emerging as Pinot Noir superstars. And the Pinot Noir from Oregon and Washington State is finally being recognized on the global stage as being truly world class.
California’s central coast stretches from Santa Barbara up toward San Francisco, and while most red and many white grapes are grown here, Pinot Noir is a constant favorite. Notable areas on the coast to check out are Santa Lucia Highlands, Mt Harlan and Santa Cruz Mountains. Many wines from these areas will approach the $30-50 mark so you might want to start with some of the more inexpensive wines, typically labeled as “Central Coast” such as those from MacMurray Ranch, Chalone, Beaulieu or Lockwood which I bet you can find for $15 and under.
Carneros is a California appellation with a nice cool climate ideal for Pinot Noir. On a recent trip to Napa, I encountered many of the top Napa names offering a Pinot Noir from land they farm in Carneros. And the wines were amazing. Prices are going to start in the low teens with many higher end bottles approaching $100. A good starting point for Carneros Pinot Noir can be found in names such as Castle Rock (under $15), Saintsbury ($20), or even Costco’s Kirkland Signature Carneros Pinot Noir (under $10).
The Northwest is a newer Pinot Noir hot spot and I am consistently blown away by the wines I buy from both Oregon and Washington State. Oregon’s Willamette Valley offers the perfect cool, wet climate for Pinot Noir. My two favorite sub-regions are Dundee Hills and McMinnville. In Washington State, it’s a similar situation with a nice cool, wet mountain climate bordered by rain forests. You almost can’t go wrong with Pinot Noir from the Northwest, but the trick is finding a good value. A few names that come to mind are Willamette Valley Vineyards ($20), Erath ($18) and King Estate ($18).
Another country that seems to be producing better and better Pinot Noir is New Zealand. Its famed Marlborough region, known for its excellent Sauvignon Blanc which we will cover shortly, is also dishing up some nice value priced Pinot Noir. I’ve had several bottles in the $10-15 range lately that surprised me from such names as Oyster Bay and Clifford Bay.
Your Pinot Noir Check List:
– Pinot Noir from Nuits-Saint- Georges (or Cote de Nuits)
– Pinot Noir from Cote de Beaune
– California Central Coast Pinot Noir
– California Carneros Pinot Noir
– Oregon Pinot Noir
– Washington State Pinot Noir
– New Zealand Pinot Noir from Marlborough
Fast Fact: Pinot Noir is one of the most difficult wine grapes to grow, requiring constant care and a perfect climate of warm days and cool nights. These stringent conditions are the reason why fewer bottles are produced and also why they can be more expensive.