Ethereal. Transcendent. Glorious. Spiritual. These are the types of words that emerge from the minds of Pinot Noir lovers when they find one that is truly great.
Pinot Noir is a quest, and those who have adopted it will remain on it for the rest of their lives. It’s kind of like golf that way: One good drive that lands on the putting green will carry you through years of slices and trudging through the underbrush in search of that little white ball to achieve scores 30 or 40 over par.
No big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon for the Pinot Noir lover; rather the lighter, but no less rich, balance and body of a good Pinot Noir.
Of course, they had to try it in the New World. When the California winemaking industry got off the ground in the 1960s after taking several decades to recover from Prohibition, the goal for winemakers was to rival, or even equal the great wines of France. With this in mind they planted the major French varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, with the aim of making great Bordeaux blends, Chablis, Champagne and Pinot Noir to rival the great wines of Burgundy.
Then along comes Stephen Spurrier, a British wine merchant, who organized the Paris Tasting in 1976, which proved that it could be done. Stag’s Leap (the red) and Château Montelena (the white) scored higher than some of the leading French wines. In less than two decades they had done it. But this was not the end.
Looking back in history, all those great wines of France charted their own course, with no model to follow, no perfect wine to emulate. France was not trying to be Germany. Germany was not trying to be Italy. Italy was not trying to be France. But growers in each wine region, through centuries of painstaking trial and error, were trying to make the best wine they could with the grapes, climate and soil available to them. In doing so, they achieved extraordinary heights.
But we New Worlders first had to prove ourselves. Eventually, grape growers and winemakers turned their sights from across the sea in Europe to the soil beneath their feet. They began to think about how they could make their wines distinctive, even great, in their own right, rather than mimicking their French counterparts.
Perhaps the Kiwis were the first to pull this off, making Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand a world-class wine in its own right, and a goal that others then began to pursue. Such is the case now in many of the world’s New World wineries. What prompted this reflection was a trip to the store this past week and a trip home with two Pinot Noirs from California. Let’s take a look at them both, with three cheers to the New World!
-- Pantassy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Sonoma, Calif. $27.99, Harvest Market. Medium intensity purple with a good dose of ruby suggesting its age, clean on the nose with a medium intensity sense of earth and dark red fruit. The palate is dry with medium-plus acidity, and medium-plus tannin, a bit more than typical for a Pinot Noir. The alcohol is also medium plus, at 14.3% alcohol by volume. Medium body and flavor intensity of raspberry, plum and tertiary flavors of earth with some vegetal notes in the background. For those of you who like to divide the world in two, there are two types of Pinot Noir, the fruit-forward, drink-by-itself kind and the more earthy kind meant for pairing with food. This one is a food wine to go with lighter meats (and, of course, beef Burgundy); salmon would fit the bill too. 85 points.
-- Peter Paul Wines 2011 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, “Live Free or Die.” Sonoma County, Calif. $22.99, New Hampshire State Liquor Stores. The motto in the name is a tribute to the Granite State by Peter Paul, University of New Hampshire alumnus, philanthropist, winemaker and chief benefactor of UNH’s new business school. As for the wine, the color is medium intensity purple, suggesting youth in contrast to the one above. Fruit-forward profile with classic raspberry and strawberry on the nose. Dry on the tongue, with medium-plus acidity, balanced tannin, medium alcohol and medium flavor intensity of raspberry and strawberry, making it good for drinking on its own or with food. Good quality, ready to drink now, but can be laid down for a year or two as it begins to develop some tertiary aromas. Good balance, concentration and length. 87 points.
Contact local beer and wine writer Jim Beauregard at email@example.com.