A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Pinot Noir Column

Here's the latest wine column. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out, and I don't even mind the melodramatic overstatement about pinot's potential to inspire poetic reverie. Maybe somebody will read it and discover pinot noir and Keats:

Of all the grapes we’ve written about, pinot noir probably has the most cachet in the U.S. market—a fact attributable to Miles, the struggling writer, wine snob, and fictional main character of the 2004 film Sideways. Miles’ wistful rumination on the delicate beauty of pinot noir elevates it from mere grape to object of literary inspiration every bit the equal of the Elgin marbles or a Grecian urn.

And for good reason. As Miles says, pinot noir is very hard to grow and vinify. It is subject to rot, it ripens unevenly, and one wrong step in the winemaking and you’ve got vintage vinegar. But, when it is treated just right, under perfect conditions, it can produce a wine so graceful and delicate—so full of utterly supple fruit and seductive, earthy flavors and aromas—that, as Miles put it, it is “haunting.”

The bad news is that its mercurial temperament makes pinot noir very expensive, which means we wine lovers of average means will probably only ever get to taste a handful of truly haunting pinots. Fortunately, less-than-literary pinot noirs can, and often do, still taste great. Pinots from France’s Burgundy region can be affordable and still show off the grape’s lively acidity and sensuous, mushroom-like earthiness. Many Oregon pinot noirs (which are often compared to Burgundies) boast invigorating, virtually electric acidity and flavors of black and red cherry, cola, and damp leaves. California also produces many wonderful pinots, ranging in style from full-bodied to every bit as sleek as those from Oregon and Burgundy. And let’s not forget New Zealand, many of whose pinots almost vibrate with mouthwatering grapefruit and other citrus notes.

When you do choose a bottle and get it home, then, you should look for these qualities:

1. The fruit tastes ripe without being overly concentrated or “jammy.” Pinots are about subtlety. Warmer climate pinots may push this rule a bit, but they should never drink like “fruit bombs.” Conversely, Burgundies often have notable tartness, which can be turned into an asset by pairing them with a creamy, earthy cheese like Brie.

2. It has a light- to medium-bodied mouthfeel. Rich, syrupy syrahs may taste delicious, but that kind of heaviness in a pinot will kill any nuance the wine might have had.

3. There is plenty of acidity. Just as a delicate sauce like hollandaise needs fresh lemon juice to wake it up, pinot noir needs acidity to give lift to its subtle flavors. Pinots without enough acidity taste “flabby” and lifeless.

Use these criteria, and with a little practice you’ll be an able and confident judge of your own pinot noir experiences. And should you, in your wisdom, find one that haunts you, you’ll finally be able to wax poetic on something besides that old vase on your mantle.

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