We’ve mapped out human DNA, cloned mice and sheep and biologically altered bacteria to
produce pharmaceuticals. However, we’ve yet to produce Romanee Conti, La Tache and
Richebourg from Pinot Noir here in the good old US of A. This, despite having one of the
Central Valley’s more colorful figures supposedly smuggle Pinot Noir clippings from the
vineyards of La Tache in his underwear.
Is it that the origins of Pinot Noir are little hazy? We know that Chardonnay, Gamay and
several other varietals are the offspring of Pinot Noir but we’re unsure who its parents are. It
might be that Pinot Noir supposedly is genetically unstable itself and can morph into Pinot
Meunier, Blanc or Gris depending on the growing conditions. Therefore, it’s not surprising that
Pinot Noir is probably the hardest varietal to propagate.
Old World Pinot
We may have matched French Cabernet and Chardonnay but we’re still several leagues behind
French Pinot Noir or real Burgundy – not that “hearty Burgundy” you can find in the states
packaged in Mylar bags within cardboard boxes or gallon-sized bottles. While Burgundy may
not have that initial blast of massive fruit on the palate like certain California or Oregon
bottlings, it does possess that perfect balance of fruit and earth, silkiness and acidity, flowers and
herbs to balance mushrooms and leather. And you usually can detect all of these flavors in a
single bottle. Unlike the concentrated fruit in domestic Pinot Noir that fades over 5 to 10 years,
French counterparts can go 10, 20 or even 50 years – gracefully. I attended a Riedel wine
tasting where a 1996 Domaine Leroy Premier Cru (2nd level wine) was sampled from a Riedel
Burgundy glass. At almost 10 years old, it still had the perfume and fruit of a newly bottled
Pinot Noir. After the formal tasting concluded, I had the fortune to share an appetizer table
with a fellow taster who brought his own Pinot Noir to sample. He hid the bottle and asked
fellow tasters to guess the wine and vintage. Since he asked us to use our Burgundy glasses, the
wine was obvious – some type of Pinot Noir. Since the wine seemed only a little older that the
96’ we sampled, I guessed that our generous wine tasting companion had brought a 1992 Grand
Echezeaux to sample. My guess reinforced why I actually need to keep my day job – the wine
was a 1964 Domaine Leroy Grand Cru (top level wine). At over 40 years old, it still had the
perfume of violets and earth, mushrooms and new leather. Needless to say, French Grand Cru
Pinot Noirs do not come cheap or even affordable. Madame Bize-Leroy’s Pinot Noirs leave the
winery at $300 to $500 per bottle. And it gets even pricier, Romanee Conti commands four-
figure prices (obviously I have never tried a Romanee Conti). But as the late Alan Kam of
Vintage Wine Cellars in Hawaii said, wine lovers start with Cabernet or Chardonnay or Merlot
but the real wine connoisseur eventually turns to French Pinot Noir.
While domestic Pinot may not have reached the same level as French Pinot, there still are very
good examples available domestically. And California does have its price equivalent in Helen
Turley’s Marcassin label which commands $300 on the open market. Once again I have never
tried Marcassin Pinot Noir (nor have I seen it in wine stores). However I have tried several
offerings from Napa and the Central Valley. When young, most California Pinots have loads of
ripe red, fleshy fruit on the nose and palate with undertones of cola, spice and orange peel. The
typical rendition usually doesn’t have that minerally, gravelly quality of the Old World nor do
they exhibit those woody, mushroomy, funky flavors and aromas. The reason I mention this is
that those non-fruit qualities help a Pinot age gracefully. If a wine is simply fruit based, once
that fleshy fruit subsides – and it will with time – you’re often left simply with a wine that’s a
very light version of it’s younger self that has no balance whereas a wine that started with
subdued fruit but balanced with earthy tones and an underlying acidity matures into a complex
wine with balance. Am I suggesting that you shouldn’t purchase California Pinot Noirs?
Absolutely NOT! I enjoy California Pinots as much as winemakers enjoy producing them. I’m
just suggesting that they may not be the best Pinots to purchase and save for your 25th
anniversary. If you consume them within 10 years, you’ll find that they pair well with fish,
game, poultry and beef!
The Willamette Valley makes some of my favorite Pinots here in the United States. I find that
Oregon Pinots tend to have more floral fruit in contrast to the fleshier fruit from the Golden
State. They also used to be more affordable than California’s better labels. However, as their
quality and popularity rises, so does the price. The top level bottles from Domaine Drouhin, Ken
Wright, Archery Summit and Beaux Freres all exceed $50 per bottle. While they all are excellent
wines, that price range is in the same neighborhood as Premier Cru Burgundies. The price has
risen to the point that I find myself going back to California’s Central Coast for domestic Pinot.
All is not lost as there still are several good Oregon Pinots for less than $25, namely Chehalem,
Rex Hill, Erath and Adelsheim.
What to Eat With Pinot Noir?
My favorite food with Pinot Noir is salmon, either grilled or broiled. The fruit seems to pair
perfectly with salmon and the acidity helps cut the richness of salmon. Throw in a little wild
mushrooms or bacon in the sauce or serve atop a warm lentil salad and I’m in gustatory nirvana.
I actually find that domestic Pinot seems better than Old World. Rich poultry dishes also pair
nicely with Pinot. Once again the acidity helps to cut the rich sauce and the earthiness
compliments that inherent poultry quality – Old World Pinots have been described as having
barnyard aromas and since poultry often live in barns, they do pair in a weird, Gary Larson sort
I actually find that Pinot Noir pairs with almost any food short of fatty cuts of red meat or non-
fish seafood. Maybe that’s why it’s so good when blended with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier
in sparkling wine and Champagne… but that’s another column.
The Gochiso’s Short List of Pinot Noir
Less than $25 Less than $40 Sky’s the limit
Laetitia Drew Beaux Freres
Chehalem Tandem Gevrey Chambertin
Adelsheim Au Bon Climat Flowers
Saintsbury Londer Talley
The Pinot Noir Code