Wine & spirits: Oh pinot!
Long before the movie Sideways brought Pinot Noir to the attention of North American casual wine drinkers, there were genuine Pinot geeks everywhere. They studied maps of France's Burgundy region and of ancient vineyards planted by monks during the early Middle Ages. Many of these fans also travelled great distances just to see and touch the hallowed grounds where, to this day, grapes are still turned into ambrosia.
Yes, ambrosia! You think that's hyperbole? Far from it. The great burgundies that I've had the rare pleasure to taste in my time have taken my palate to places I never imagined could exist. From the fragrance of the sweetest, ripest strawberry jam to the texture of silk and velvet, and the taste of sheer bliss -- all I could do was ooh and aah.
The challenge for winemakers today is to create a wonderful burgundy in sufficient quantities to satisfy the ever-growing market of Pinot enthusiasts. Burgundy is a tiny region, where it's possible to produce only so many bottles. Since every Pinot geek wants to taste a bottle of the best, the wine ends up being pretty expensive. Add to that the unevenness of the region's weather, and you wind up with every bottle of red burgundy being like a blind date: you never know exactly what to expect. Deep down you hope it will be totally amazing, but all too often you end up disappointed.
Pinot Noir is the holy grape, er, grail for every winemaker who's ever tasted a great burgundy.
Hence, the global quest to find new sites with just the right soil and weather to please the prissy grape that is Pinot. Winemakers must ensure Pinot Noir gets good exposure to the sun, though not too much heat, and certainly no sudden chills. Rain is OK in moderate amounts, provided the soil drains easily; Pinot detests mucky roots. It also dislikes too much wind, excessive humidity, winter -- I could go on. And should one manage to harvest ripe and healthy grapes, one must then prepare to face as many challenges in the winery. Get it right, though, and the reward will be all those oohs and aahs.
Good gulps: Burgundy's best
Labels won't say "Pinot Noir"; you're expected to know that. Instead, Burgundy's wines are categorized by a complex set of rules that focus on terroir (site). Grand Cru are the best sites (labels indicate only the name of the vineyard; for example,
Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Musigny). Premier Cru wines are the next best (name of the nearest village precedes name of the vineyard; for instance, Beaune-Bressandes, Pommard-Les Épénots). Finally, those in the lowest ranks get a simple village designation (Morey-St.Denis, Nuits-St.Georges) or show a subregional name (Bourgogne-Hauts Côtes de Beaune ). Bottlings from the most famous historic sites may set you back $150 or more. Exceptional values priced from $50 may be found from time to time. It's most important to buy from a reliable grower and merchant. Look for trusted names like Boisset, Bouchard, Drouhin, Jadot, Jaffelin, Louis Latour and Olivier Leflaive.
These cheapies offer a sense of what Pinot Noir can achieve, and they go well with a range of foods. They're usually available in most parts of the country.
Cono Sur (Chile) $10
Pinossimo (France) $14/1 L Tetra Pak
Twin Fin (California) $12
Kim Crawford (New Zealand) $20
Konzelmann Vineyards (Ontario) $12
Gray Monk Estate (British Columbia) $16
(Prices will vary in local markets.)