3. Smith Haut Lafite, Pessac Leognan
I’m often asked what my favorite kind of wine is. My answer, like most wine enthusiasts I know, is “I don’t have a favorite.” I think of wines like parents think of children– you love them all equally, just in different ways. One might be pretty, one might be the funniest, one is usually the smartest, one is artistic and so on. Obviously my family is not a good example since I am all of the above. But typically, good parents give equal affection to all. And so, I love all my grapes. One is soft and elegant, one is loud and flashy; one is best with certain foods, one is perfect for sipping by the fireplace. They’re all wonderful; I don’t play favorites.
But if I were stranded on a deserted island with one bottle of wine, it would have to be an elegant, refined, exceptional Pinot Noir.
Pinot is the great king of Burgundy, where it has thrived for hundreds of years. From the heralded vineyards in the southern part of the Côte de Nuits come the most elegant, complex and wonderful wines of this type, and arguably the best wines in all of France and perhaps the whole winemaking world. But alas, these wines are not cheap; in superior vintages the top Burgundies sell at auction for thousands of dollars a bottle.
So, as usual, we turn to the good old US of A to provide us with some reasonably priced but quality wines. California cornered the market on pinot for quite some time in this country. From Mendocino all the way to Santa Barbara, this grape has earned a stellar reputation for fruit forward, wonderfully approachable wines. Some of these may not be wines of amazing structure, especially around Monterey and along the coast; but they are affordable and universally appealing. Many California pinots, however have earned extremely high praise from enthusiasts all over the world, including the folks at Wine Spectator who named Kosta Brown Pinot 2009 the best wine of 2011. So Cali gets most of the attention, as usual. But recently the success of pinot noir from Oregon has oenophiles’ heads spinning. In Willammette Valley especially we’re finding intriguing wines of amazing depth and complexity that, some argue, rival even the great Bourgogne. Critics have heralded 2008 Oregon’s best vintage thus far and it appears it’s only getting better.
In Germany, pinot is called spatburgunder. In my experience, these aren’t typically wines of great distinction, but are interesting and quite approachable. Pinot is one of the parents of South Africa’s hybrid pinotage, which is gaining some momentum here due to a rise in quality imports. We’ve also recently discovered some pinot from New Zealand that is worthy of praise. At quick glance, then, it seems pinot noir can grow almost anywhere. But the best environment for pinot involves warm days, cool evenings, lots of fog and a great deal of talent and patience in the vineyards.
Now, with this finicky grape, you really get what you pay for. If you spend ten bucks on pinot, expect a light, fruity wine reminiscent of Kool-Aid at best, cough medicine at worst. If you spend a bit more, you earn a little depth and complexity. One you cross the twenty-five dollar threshold, there is a dramatic improvement. It’s an unfortunate but very real part of life with this spectacular but variable grape.
It’s also important to note: this grape is probably the truest expression of terroir. That is, these wines are completely different depending on from where they came. In northern California, look for mostly fruit forward, elegant wines with soft, silky tannins. In central and southern Cali pinot is heftier, more robust, spicy and even sometimes a bit sweet. In Oregon, pinot is more delicate and subtle, driven by earth tones and hints of tea leaf and truffle. New Zealand’s versions are known for their minerality and high acidity. In France, all the best components come together to create wines of amazing depth and distinction.
Pinot is probably a sommelier’s favorite grape as it is the most versatile wine for pairing with food. Its low tannins, high acidity, and elegant balance make it the perfect match for many cuisines. Its best counterparts include meatier seafoods like swordfish or salmon, pasta, duck, and of course, anything with mushrooms.
- $10-15: Angeline, Cartledge & Brown, Gunther Schlink, Oyster Bay
- $15-30: Saint Gregory, Byron, Melville, Maysara, Coopers Creek, Sineann, Luca, Capiaux Cellars, Cashburn
- $30-60: Merry Edwards, Louis Jadot Beaune Clos du Ursules, Ata Rangi, Domaine Serene Evenstad, Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard, Loring Clos Pepe
- $60-100: Domaine Louis Latour Corton Grancey, Domaine Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin, Kosta Browne, Martinelli
- Before you die: Domaine Romanée-Conti