by Rimple Nayyar | photos by Two Eagles Marcus
“It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. Right? It’s, uh, it’s thin- skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And, in fact, it can only grow in these really specific, little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.” -Miles, from the movie Sideways
That statement says it all. Pinot Noir is plagued with challenges at every step, from growing the grape to fermentation and even to bottle aging. There are only a few winemaking regions known for making good wine from this grape. These regions include France (Burgundy and Champagne), parts of the US (California and Oregon primarily), a few parts of Germany and New Zealand.
It is one of the oldest grape varieties to be cultivated for the purpose of making wine. Great Pinot Noir can create a lasting impression in the memory. The most appealing quality of Pinot Noir is its soft, velvety texture, with substantial flavor despite the delicacy of the grape. When made right, it extremely smooth and silky, gently caressing the palate.
It all started in Burgundy (Bourgogne) region of France where a two mile wide and thirty mile long stretch of hills called the Côte d’Or (Slope of Gold), gave Pinot Noir the reputation that it deserves. In fact, for a long time, this was the only region to achieve consistent success with Pinot Noir. There are many factors for this success in Bourgogne – the east facing slope of the vineyards that provide long, early sun exposure, the soil type that offers great drainage and the overall climate (warm days and cool nights). Pinot Noir from Bourgogne can be expensive due to relatively small production and even then the quality can be uneven. Vintage plays an important role in wines from Bourgogne.
Pinot Noir has shown a lot of promise in various regions of California and Oregon. The best appellations for California Pinot Noir are much the same as for Chardonnay: Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County; Russian River Valley, Carneros and Sonoma Coast areas in Sonoma County; Anderson Valley in Mendocino County; and the Pinnacles and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. The best region for Pinot Noir in Oregon is the Willamette Valley and the Rogue Valley.
With fall around the corner, Pinot Noir is the perfect wine to transition from the crisp whites in the summer to softer reds in the fall. With this in mind, and since Pinot Noirs have been one of the most popular wines over that last ten years, we convened a panel of tasters at Bar Divani to taste various Pinot Noirs that are available on retail shelves in West Michigan, so as to select some of the best values available for your enjoyment. The tasting was done in a blind fashion. All the bottles were opened and placed in brown bag without regard to the prices and the areas so as not to bias our opinions. The tasting panel comprised of our friend John Margold, a wine lover and regular patron here at Bar Divani; Sarah Andro, owner of Saburba, the recently opened take-out restaurant/catering services located at 7277 Thornapple River Drive in Ada (www.saburba.com, phone: 616.498.3944); Ken Kelly from Woodberry Wine Distributors; Jim Paauwe from Kent Beverages; Jordon Sipperley from Bar Divani; Jennifer Wilson, editor of Women’s Lifestyle Magazine; and myself from Bar Divani.
We tasted a total of 18 different Pinot Noirs ranging in prices from $8/bottle to $40/bottle. After the tasting was conducted and the results were in, the wines were divided into two categories – almost every day drinking wines (under $20); and those special occasion wines (over $20). So without much further ado, here are the results of our tasting.
***** Must have
**** Get me a case
*** Six bottles is a good start
** Only if someone else is buying it
* Where’s the Grappa?
Best Pinot Noirs under $20
Matthew Fritz ***½
Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, CA, 2010 – Retail Price – $14/bottle
The Pinot Noir fruit was sourced 100% from the Sonoma Coast from several single vineyard sites. A well balanced Pinot with lush ripe red fruits and silky tannins. This wine got great remarks from tasting panel. Ken called it well balanced and easy to like. Jordon liked it for its ripe cherries and called it beautiful. I liked it for the lushness of the fruit balanced with firm acidity that keeps the wine interesting through the finish. Overall, this was a wonderful wine with the red fruit characteristics of Pinot Noir showing through and well worth the money. You could not do better with some Pinots that cost about 4 times this one. - Available at Art of the Table and Crushed Grape.
Poppy *** ½
Monterey CA, 2010 – Retail Price – $16/bottle
From Monterey, one of the coolest micro climates in California. Another one of the real enjoyable Pinot Noirs. This one has more of red cherries and raspberry flavors. Well balanced. John said it was very nice and enjoyable. Sarah remarked it was pretty with nice floral notes. She wants to drink it. Jordon said that he really enjoyed this wine. A wine that got the most consistent rating from all the tasters. Don’t hesitate to buy this for the fall or around Thanksgiving. - Available at Smitty’s, Crushed Grape, Zellars and selected D&W stores
Castle Rock ***
CA, 2010 – Retail Price – $9/bottle – BEST VALUE
Castle Rock is a consortium that seeks out the best areas for their grapes and makes and markets very affordable wines that are also very good in quality. This is probably the most atypical Pinot Noir in our tasting, but is really enjoyable. There is more black fruit in this wine than you would expect from a Pinot Noir, which we speculated, may be due to addition of Syrah or Zinfandel. Jim liked it for it raciness. Jennifer said it had big flavors. Sarah said it had candied fruits and people would love it. I said that it had big flavors of black cherries and was very enjoyable. - Widely available at Forest Hills Foods, Cherry Hill Market, Cascade Meijer’s, East Village Wine Shop, Pauly’s, ABC Fine Wines
Special Occasion Pinot Noirs
Gary Farrell ****
Russian River Valley, Sonoma, CA, 2009 – Retail Price – $40/bottle
This was the overall favorite wine of the group. Displaying all the hallmarks of a wonderful Pinot Noir – ripe red fruit, balanced acidity and soft tannins, all in harmony. This Pinot Noir was sourced from some of the best known vineyards of the Russian River Valley, including Rochioli, Allen and Hallberg. Jordon said it was a well balanced wine and a good example of new world Pinot Noir. Jim liked it for the lushness. John thought it was lacking in the aromas but had a nice body. Sarah remarked that it was very delicate with pretty fruits and well balanced. This is great example of a cool climate new world Pinot, especially from Russian River. Will age nicely for at least 5 to 8 years, but is so good
right now. - Available at Martha’s Vineyard and International Beverage
Anne Amie *** ½
Cuvee A, Willamette Valley, OR, 2009 – Retail Price – $25/bottle
Our only wine from Oregon in the top rated wines (there were others that did not make it to the top). Loads of strawberries jam flavors in this one with some of the earthiness of Oregon. Finishes very clean and long. Sarah remarked that it was a pretty wine with lovely well balanced finish. John said it reminded him of cherry cola with a long finish. I thought this was well balanced with nice acidity on the finish. A typical Willamette Valley wine. - Available at D Schuler’s. Also available by the glass at 616 in JW Marriott
McMurray Ranch ***
Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, CA, 2009 – Retail Price – $28/bottle
From the large area of Sonoma Coast in Sonoma. This is another wine that is crowd pleaser with tons of sweet fruit like ripe cherries. It’s a bit light but has terrific flavors. John liked it for its smoky nose and said he wants to drink this one. Jordon said that the wine kept on evolving in the glass with a nice smoke, fruit and acid balance. I liked it for its balance. - Available Smitty’s, Crushed Grape, Forest Hills Foods, Cascade Meijer’s
Russian River Valley, Sonoma, CA, 2010 – $30/bottle
Willamette Valley, OR, 2009 – $20/bottle
Our overall experience with the Pinot Noirs was one of a pleasant surprise. The quality of all the Pinot Noirs we tasted was much better than we expected. Gone was the leafiness that you get in some Pinot Noirs, when they are under ripe. Instead, all the wines were generally enjoyable with lush fruits, nice acidity and soft silky finishes. Most of the wines were from California and Oregon, with only one being from Italy and one from Bourgogne. They were all either 2009 or 2010 vintages. In general, we would not hesitate to recommend Pinots from areas such as Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Monterey in California and Willamette Valley in Oregon for these vintages.
Enjoy these wines with fall fare, such as roasted pork tenderloin, any type of salmon preparation and chicken with cream sauces. Pinot Noirs are also perfect with various flavors of Thanksgiving dinner.
The tasting was conducted at Bar Divani and moderated by Rimple from Bar Divani. Rimple offers wine tastings every Wednesday at Bar Divani. As the old adage goes, experience has no substitute. The more you taste, the more you learn. So, bring your friends and join Rimple every Wednesday starting at 6:30 pm for wine socials. There are always at least 6 wines for you to taste, experience, and discuss. This is a great venue to meet other people that enjoy the love of wine. Learning about wines also lets you learn about the food, history, geography, and the culture of the different wine regions in the world. www.bardivani.com; Phone – 616.774.WINE(9463)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
An engineer by education, Rimple is very passionate about wine and food. This passion led him to open Bar Divani, Grand Rapids’ first wine bar in 2002. Join Rimple, every Wednesday at Bar Divani, for wine tastings where he loves to share and educate people about his passion. www.bardivani.com