This summer, I was enjoying a casual dinner at my favorite wine bar with a good friend. He adores fine wine, which is why I was surprised to hear him say, “I don’t like Pinot Noir.” Our sommelier was shocked too. How could an experienced collector who regularly buys Screaming Eagle Cabernet and Angelus Bordeaux say that he dislikes one of the most iconic wine varietals in history? My friend says it’s difficult to find a truly great bottle of Pinot Noir unless you already know what to buy. He has a point; Pinot Noir isn’t the easiest wine to invest in because it’s finicky and delicate–and there’s a lot of mediocre Pinot out there. Here are some tips on finding and buying great Pinot Noir, and on how to give this wine another chance when you’ve had a bad experience.
Why Some Collectors Don’t Like Pinot Noir
On the Wine Berserkers forum, one collector complained that Pinot Noir is “overpriced and rarely delivers unless you’re willing to pony up tons of money.” Although he said he rarely drinks this varietal, he actually found a bottle of Loring Pinot Noir that he thought was absolutely delicious, and well worth the investment. He was surprised because most of the New World producers he had tried in the past failed to impress him. In my experience, the collectors who don’t like Pinot Noir primarily have a problem with finding quality New World producers. It comes down to taste–Old World Burgundy has an elegant flavor that collectors have come to associate with fine Pinot Noir. By contrast, New World producers in Oregon and California tend to make bolder Pinot Noir, which doesn’t appeal to some collectors. Choosing the right style of Pinot Noir is essential.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Buying the Best Pinot Noir
To give Pinot Noir a second chance, follow these guidelines:
Step One: Identify the Style
It’s important to remember that a New World wine will have a different personality than an Old World, blue chip producer. If you come into an Oregon Pinot Noir tasting expecting to find a doppelganger for DRC, you’re going to be disappointed. Your first step for appreciating Pinot Noir is to recognize the different styles of each of the main Pinot Noir regions, and choose wines that embrace those styles fully. To do this, look for wines that are well-matched to their climate. Here are a few examples of great regional wines:
Burgundy Pinot Noir: Low in tannin, tends to be more floral and delicate (try a bottle of Leroy from the Pommard Les Vignots vineyard).
Oregon Pinot Noir: More fruit-forward than Burgundy, but still delicate (try a bottle of aged Beaux Freres).
California Pinot Noir: The most fruit-forward Pinot Noir, often (but not always) sacrificing delicate notes in the process (try an intense, fruit-forward vintage like Kosta Browne).
Step Two: Acclimate Your Palate
If you’re not already familiar with it, start with Burgundy Grand Cru first to appreciate the subtle, more savory notes that can be found in Pinot Noir. Unlike a rich Cabernet, which can be easy to understand within the first few sips, Pinot Noir is more of an acquired taste for many people. Try drinking only Old World Pinot Noir for a few weeks until you can start to pick out the complex flavors of these wines. The fastest way to get your palate used to a light red wine is to avoid drinking any bold wines in the meantime. Try at least three different vintages of Burgundy, preferably more.
If you already appreciate a fine Pinot Noir from France, but you can’t find decent New World bottles, or you want to think outside of the blue chip box, consider tasting a few Oregon selections next. I find that Oregon wines are the perfect bridge between Old World, elegant styles and bolder New World techniques. Willamette Valley wines in particular are fruity and vibrant in their youth, but as they age, they become more like their Burgundy peers. For this reason, start with aged Oregon Pinot Noir, then work your way up to recent vintages, which will taste more fruit-forward. Try at least two bottles of aged Oregon Pinot Noir (at least 10 years old) and two bottles of the state’s younger wines.
By the time you finish your Oregon wines, your palate should appreciate both the floral and the light fruits found in Burgundy and Oregon, respectively. Now is the time to move on to bolder California Pinot Noir. However, as with the Oregon wines, I recommend starting with an aged California Pinot that already has an excellent track record. You can research tasting notes on the wine in advance to find at least one bottle that tastes fruit-forward and concentrated, yet balanced.
Step Three: Research Old, Buy Young
It’s a good rule of thumb that if you’re looking for excellent producers, buy older vintages of the wine first. Aged wines showcase the varietal at its best, and they help you understand which producers make the best product. Before I buy wine from an unfamiliar, I try to taste older versions of their wines first. This is especially important for New World Pinot Noir producers. Collectors already trust DRC to last for 50 years in a cellar, but an Oregon Pinot Noir doesn’t yet have this decades-long track record. Buying Pinot Noir that’s at least a few years old will help you separate the poor producers from the incredible ones, making your Pinot Noir drinking experience all the more enjoyable.
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Image by Pancrat (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons