by Debra Meiburg MW
Chefs and sommeliers are challenging the old credo “white wine with white meat; red wine with red meat” and pinot noir (pee-noh nwarh) is just the wine to flirt with the rules. A delicate red, pinot perfectly slinks onto the table with turkey, chicken and duck, as well as with meatier fish, such as tuna, shark and swordfish. Vegetarians take note: this is your red wine. Pinot noir is a seductive match for earthy mushrooms, truffles and grains.
Pinot Noir is almost always a light ruby colour. If you can see your date through the wine glass, it is surely a pinot. In wine, light colour is synonymous with light weight and it is lightness that makes pinot noir such a versatile food match. Delicately perfumed with aromas of strawberries, red cherries and raspberries, pinot noir is matured in oak barrels, but always with an elusive touch so as not to overwhelm the fruit. The selection of oak barrels and the period of maturation are designed to provide just a hint of spice and warmth to the wine, not to laden it with the rich vanilla or smoky notes often seen in heavier red wines.
The temperamental princess of red grapes, pinot noir’s colour, aroma and texture are greatly affected by vineyard climates and soils, so pinot varies considerably from place to place. More confounding, pinot is notorious for mutating. Pinot noir’s popular illegitimate children include pinot grigio and pinot blanc, both of which transformed from red to white grapes on chilly European slopes. Members of the pinot family are easy to identify as their grapes are very tightly clustered into a pine cone shape, which is the origin of the name ‘’pinot’’.
The ancient wine growing district of Burgundy (France) has long been the royal seat of pinot noir, where the wine is simply referred to as red Burgundy. The region’s cool springs and warm summers provide just the right conditions for fussy pinot noir. While pinot noir has reigned supreme in Burgundy for centuries, it is also the backbone of France’s famed Champagne district. In Champagne, pinot noir’s red grapes are carefully harvested and crushed with the juice immediately withdrawn from the skins to ensure the wine remains the clear colour that we commonly enjoy in a bottle of bubbly.
Oregon has drawn international acclaim for its pinot noir and often receives the reverential compliment as being Burgundian in style, with high acidity and moderate alcohol. In California, both the Carneros district and the Russian River Valley are highly regarded for their pinot noirs. Look for concentrated spicy fruit from the Russian River Valley and a lighter wine of delicate red cherries from the cooler Carneros area. Further south near Santa Barbara, the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys are also gaining attention, especially after the advent of the popular movie, Sideways. New Zealand successfully courts the pinot Princess as well, producing dense ripe wines from Central Otago and bright vibrant wines from Marlborough and Martinborough.
As pinot noir is not a particularly tannic grape, it is tastiest within about five years after harvest and, with a few exceptions, is not suited for long aging. The pinot noirs of Burgundy have been known to last several decades, though are usually best between 10-15 years of age. With age, pinot noir assumes an earthy, woodsy tone alongside its soft red fruit flavours.