Liquids: Pinot Noir

Ever since cell phones shrank from the size of Michael Jordan’s sneaker down to something a little smaller than a Twinkie, I’ve been on call 24 hours a day to friends and friends of friends in need of instant wine advice. Typically, they’re at a wine shop or, to the chagrin of fellow diners, calling from a restaurant while their dates du jour are in the powder room. The worst offenders are my financial investment buddies, who like to call me in front of their dates and waiters, as if I’m their personal sommelier.

At this point, you’re probably asking one of two questions: “Can I have your phone number, too?” and “Why don’t you charge people for this service?” The answers, respectively, are “Absolutely not” and “Because I’ve never been good with numbers, which is why I’m not a financial investment type with my own personal wine steward.”

My bad head for business aside, I do have a pretty good palate, which is why I’m able to tell my friends which wines to pick in a pinch. However, since I’m not willing to give you my phone number, I will let you in on a little secret I don’t tell my callers: I almost always steer people who are not sure what they want toward one grape, and one grape only: pinot noir. That’s because it yields simply the most versatile, food-friendly, refreshing wines available. You’re having John Dory and he wants the lamb? Pinot noir. The couple joining you is ordering pork loin and quail? Pinot noir. You’re sharing Châteaubriand but don’t want to get clobbered by a cabernet? Or you’re having plain old roasted chicken but are sick to death of chardonnay? You know what to do: pinot noir.

Getting the picture? Pinot noir is the Kofi Annan of wines, the Great Conciliator. It is, I like to say, a “bridge wine,” one that draws lovers of only white wine toward reds, and lovers of robust, full-bodied reds toward lighter, silkier elegance. Don’t get me wrong: Pinot noir is no lightweight, fancy-pants wine. It just happens to come in myriad styles, from very light and fruity, to quite full-bodied and rich. What it has—or should have—over its other red competitors is the ability to express the characteristics of the area where it’s grown. And that’s where our history lesson begins today.

Like many grapes we love in America, pinot noir comes from France, where it’s believed to have been grown for some 2,000 years. While the Romans can take pride in having planted many of the grapes we know and love today, pinot noir’s origins are mysterious, probably because it’s a highly unstable grape that mutates all the time. Yes, mutates. There are more than 1,000 clones or types belonging to the pinot family, some of which are white (pinot blanc and pinot gris, for example), and also pinot meunier, the unknown red grape of Champagne. That leaves about 997 pinot noir clones out there, many of which simply aren’t as good as the real deal. On top of that, it’s quite possibly the most persnickety grape on the planet to grow, requiring a long, cool growing season and near-perfect conditions. In other words, it’s one giant pain in the butt. But when grown in the hands of an expert, pinot noir makes one hell of a great wine.

Wayne Donaldson, the winemaker at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, describes pinot noir—or simply pinot, as it’s known among the cognoscenti—the way many winemakers do: as the heartbreak grape. “It’s very much like that first lost love: You cry for months and months when it goes wrong,” he says. Donaldson would know. He’s been growing pinot noir for 18 years, first in Australia, and now in California. If you’re mumbling to yourself, “Isn’t Chandon a sparkling wine house?”—you’re right. It is. But pinot is one of the main grapes in Champagnes from France, as well as in Chandon’s sparkling wines made in Australia, California, and Argentina. Donaldson also makes a beautiful pinot noir still (as in “no bubbles”) wine for Chandon that’s worth seeking out. Drinking it is like biting into luscious cherries. In fact, that’s what you’ll find in most good pinots: the flavors and aromas of cherries, plums, and strawberries. And if you have the patience to wait for the wines to mature—I certainly don’t—they develop even deeper nuances of chocolate, figs, dried plums, truffles, and even violets.

Where do the best pinots come from? This is always a topic of great debate, because the grape is cultivated all over the world. France is the largest grower, mostly in Burgundy, where pinot is the red grape of note (though Pascal Jolivet makes a fabulous pinot under the Loire Valley’s Sancerre label, called, naturally, “Exception”). Of course, in France they don’t call it pinot noir on the label, but you may be familiar with the famous districts in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or region whose names appear on the best bottles: Beaune, Chambertin, Corton, Musigny, Pommard, Richebourg, Romanée-Conti, and Volnay.

You’ll find these appellations at Pigalle, where Beth Cleary’s wine list is mostly French. The challenge with Burgundy, says Cleary, is the price, which is always an issue with Burgundies of pedigree. “Unfortunately, when it comes to Burgundy, it often comes down to price. They are very expensive,” Cleary says. “I have to intentionally seek out value.” Such as? “I found a very old-school producer named Jean-Marc Millot who hand-bottles everything. His Côte de Nuits-Villages [priced around $60] is a really great wine because it doesn’t have enough tannin to overpower fish, but has enough backbone to handle meats, too.” Burgundy fanatic Erik Johnson, beverage manager at L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre (whose colleagues call him “B-ho,” which may sound like J.Lo, but actually means he can’t get enough of Burgundy), has a similar strategy with his very French list. “You have to know Burgundy’s real estate, look at what’s highly regarded, and see what’s next door,” Johnson says. “That’s what I do.”

Pinot noir is also grown in Germany (it’s known there as spätburgunder) and in Austria and northern Italy, where it’s called either blauburgunder or pinot nero. But most of the pinots you’ll find in stores and restaurants hail from the New World. In California pinot noir is grown all over the place, but the best examples come from the cooler regions of Carneros, the Russian River Valley, and parts of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties.

Chip Coen, Massachusetts director of sales at wholesaler M. S. Walker, sells plenty of pinot to your favorite restaurateurs. Having spent much time out west tasting pinots, he thinks the most promising region in North America is the new “Sonoma Coast” appellation. “It’s the new frontier along the coast—there’s no protection, so there are very cool nights to give great acid balance to all that heat during the day,” Coen says. “This counters that California sweetness that spoils many a pinot noir.” The next big thing? “New Zealand pinot noirs,” he says. And let’s not forget Oregon, which has a perfectly long, cool growing season in which pinots thrive—which is why esteemed Burgundy winemaker Joseph Drouhin set up Domaine Drouhin there instead of in California.

Alas, like Erik “B-ho” Johnson, I could go on and on about our favorite grape until the economy rebounds, but my phone keeps ringing, which means that somebody out there needs to be told which wine to buy. And you already know what I’m going to say.