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Wine Club Newsletter - May 2024

People often ask me what type of wine is my favorite, or what would I drink if I had no other selections. I tell them I love all types of wines that are made well. However, Pinot Noir is up there for me. And in the last few decades, California has been getting it very right, with ageable and complex Pinot Noirs that are world class. Anyway, here is some background information on Pinot Noir. GP


Great Pinot Noir creates a lasting impression on the palate and in the memory. Its aroma can be intense with a ripe-grape, vaguely peppermint or black cherry aroma. Ripe tomato, mushroom, and barnyard are also common descriptors for identifying Pinot Noir. It is full-bodied and rich but not heavy, high in alcohol, yet neither acidic nor tannic, with substantial flavor despite its delicacy. The most appealing quality of Pinot Noir may be its soft, velvety texture. When right, it is like liquid silk, gently caressing the palate.


Pinot Noir is one of the oldest grape varieties to be cultivated for the purpose of making wine. Ancient Romans knew this grape as Helvenacia Minor and vinified it as early as the first century AD. Recognized worldwide as a great wine grape, pinot noir has many alias and is grown in Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria (called Blauburgunder or Spätburgunder), Brazil, Canada, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany (Spätburgunder), Greece, Hungary, Italy (Pinot Nero), Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland (Clevner, labeled "Dole" when blended with Gamay Noir), the United States, and Yugoslavia (Burgundac).


The reputation that gets pinot noir so much attention, however, is owed to the wines of Burgundy (Bourgogne), France. For most of wine history, this two-mile-wide, thirty-mile-long stretch of hills, called the Côte d'Or ("Slope of Gold"), is the only region to achieve consistent success from the pinot noir vine.


The quality of Bourgogne is due to several factors. Its vineyards slope gently down toward the East, providing the vines with long sun exposure yet avoiding afternoon heat. The soil there is very calcareous (chalky, containing calcium carbonate), offering good drainage. Well-drained soils have a higher average temperature, which assists ripening. Pinot noir seems to reflect more pronounced Gout de Terroir, or flavor of the soil, than other black grape types, making vineyard site selection a critical factor.


Difficulties plague pinot noir at every step, from propagation to even its bottle-aging characteristics. Genetically unstable, the parent vine may produce offspring that bear fruit that is nothing like the parents in the size and shape of the berry or cluster and will frequently even have different aromas, flavors, and levels of productivity. There are 46 recognized clones (genetic mutations) of Pinot Noir in Dijon, France. Ampelographers estimate there are as many as 200 to possibly 11,000 clones of pinot noir worldwide. By comparison, cabernet sauvignon has only twelve identifiable clones.


Nearly every affliction known to affect vines is common among pinot noir vineyards. Although quite tolerant of cold climates, it is particularly susceptible to Spring frosts, because it is one of the earliest-leafing varieties. The sharpshooter leafhopper finds pinot noir a perfect host. This bug carries Pierce's Disease, which can destroy an entire vineyard in as little as three years. Leaf-roll virus is prevalent in almost all pinot noir plantings over ten years old. The pinot vines are not very vigorous and often lack adequate

leaf cover to protect the fruit from birds, which do much damage. Even if the grapes survive the birds, if not picked promptly at maturity, the thin-skinned and tender berries shrivel and dry out rapidly resulting in a raisin-like aroma and neutral flavor.


Pinot Noir is also one of the more difficult wines to ferment. Partly due to the presence of 18 amino acids, which are naturally balanced in this variety, Pinot Noir ferments violently, often "boiling" up and out of its container, speeding the process out of control. Color retention is a major problem for the thin-skinned berries. Pinot is very prone to acetification and often loses the sometimes-promising aromas and flavors it seems to display through fermentation and aging, as soon as it is bottled.


The popular image persists that California Pinot Noir is a light, fruity wine of no consequence, but California vintners over the past twenty years have been improving viticultural methods, site selection, and vinification techniques to increase their record of success. The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in California Pinot Noir are much the same as for Chardonnay: Santa Maria Valley (Santa Barbara County); Russian River Valley (Sonoma County); Carneros (in both Sonoma and Napa Counties); Anderson Valley (Mendocino County); as well as the Pinnacles (Monterey County) and, recently, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County).


Typical Pinot Noir Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Fruit: cherry, strawberry, raspberry, ripe tomato

Terroir: mushroom, earth, barnyard, truffle, leather, meat

Floral: violet, rose petal, green or black tea

Oak (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood

Spice: peppermint, rosemary, cinnamon, caraway

Oak (heavy): vanilla, smoke, toast, roasted nuts

Bottle Age: cedar, cigar box


The best food to show off the delicacy and texture of Pinot Noir is a good cut of plain roast beef. Classic French cooking has creations based on Pinot Noir, such as Coq au Vin (chicken cooked in red wine) Boeuf Bourguignon, and Cassoulet. Other main dishes that match well with Pinot Noir include roasted and braised preparations of lamb, pheasant, and duck, as well as grilled meaty fish, such as salmon, shark, and swordfish. Best are foods that are simple and rich. Wild mushrooms and herbs work very well. Go easy on the spices, some of which may mask the delicate flavors of Pinot Noir.



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