Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Pinot Noir Report

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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

This week on the Amateur Wine Taste-Along, we're drinking Pinot Noir: a grape that can take any number of forms, in many corners of the world. Head over to our introductory post to learn all about the pinot, why we love it, and why we're drinking it this week.

What did we like? What did you like? Come chat Pinot.

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Wine 1: Burgundy

As we've talked about before, French wines are labeled according to the region they are produced in; a red wine from Burgundy tends to be mostly pinot noir. Our wine, the 2007 Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron, is from Chambolle-Musigny, one of the smallest appellations of the Côte de Nuits.

While it's a $60 wine—by far the most expensive of our tasting—it was also the crowd favorite, by a long shot.

Why? It's got a delicate nose (or smell) that reminded us of the forest; think about wet wood and mushrooms. Instead of being all about juicy fruit, this wine was deeply earthy. It's a little bit acidic up front, but in a way that makes it taste bright and lively; it's a light-to-medium bodied wine that you want to think about and savor slowly as more flavors unfold. Whether it's worth $60 is a personal decision, but there's no denying it was the best wine of the bunch.

Wine 2: Oregon Pinot Noir

The Willamette Valley has a cool climate that's not too dissimilar from Pinot-growing regions of France, but we found our 2008 La Paulée ($30 to $35) a bit surprising. It's a bottle that illustrates how much some wines "open up"—that is, change as they're exposed to air. Even after 20 minutes in a decanter (a glass vessel with a wide, wide base, designed to expose as much wine to the air as possible), this wine seemed powerful and even a bit harsh; we wouldn't have necessarily pegged it as a Pinot. When we re-tasted an hour later, though, we had a very different impression. The alcohol, acidity, and tannins had all softened and mellowed, and we started appreciating the wine's subtleties: the lingering acidity, the blackberry-bramble flavors.

Wine 3, 4, and 5: California Pinot

Our next few bottles seemed as if they were picked to demonstrate just how very, very different wines can be, even when they're made from the same grape. (And of course, just how different the many winegrowing regions of California are.) The 2008 Nalle Hopkins Ranch Pinot from the Russian River Valley ($30) was about as light as a red wine could be, which some tasters liked, especially for a hot summer night. Though there were some delicate hints of earth and floral flavors, they were hidden under an oaky, fruity sweetness that recalled something strawberry-vanilla flavored. We enjoyed this wine more with food, but we weren't drawn to it.

The 2009 Blackstone Sonoma Reserve ($18) was as aggressive as the previous bottle was light. On first sip, we almost wouldn't have known it was a Pinot Noir; it's boozy (14.5% alcohol, quite high for a Pinot, and tastes it) and jammy and bold, something that hits you the second you sip it, rather than evolving slowly. That said, it's another wine that mellows out considerably with time, when notes of leather and licorice emerge. It's certainly not a bad wine, but as one taster said, "When I spend $20 on a Pinot Noir, I don't think this is what I'm looking for."

Last up was the Mission Point 2007 Central Coast Pinot Noir ($11, found at Trader Joe's). What we want from our cheaper wines is pretty simple: for nothing to be wrong with them, no off flavors, nothing offensive. And the Mission Point achieved that for the most part. It's another wine on the very light, fruit-forward end, blueberries and plums, but it's dry enough that those flavors don't become cloying. Some tasters felt that there was a bit of a rubber-tire note that came out as the wine warmed.

Wine 6: A New Zealand Pinot

We're fans of Kim Crawford's Sauvignon Blanc, a mid-priced and very reliable bottle of wine, but the Kim Crawford 2009 Marlborough Pinot Noir ($17) was a letdown. On first sip, I couldn't help but think of Ocean Spray Cran-Grape; flavors I like, to be sure, but not when I'm drinking wine. (Other tasters mentioned "grape soda.") It's acidic initially; the oak emerges in the finish. But what really hits you is the fruit and the alcohol, which is anything but subtle. People finished their glasses, but no one planned to buy this wine.

The Verdict

What we learned more than anything is just how different Pinot Noirs can be, from the sophisticated, nuanced Burgundy to the punch-in-the-palate Blackstone. All tasters agreed that Burgundy was the best wine, by a long shot. The others took awhile longer to consider.

Considering price and enjoyment, several tasters said they might buy the Oregon wine we tried, and several would consider buying the cheapest of the lot, the $11 Mission Point. But all in all, the mid-priced wines we tried didn't, from our amateur tasters' point of view, justify the price they'd spend.

(Of course, you can't judge these regions by one bottle—and we plan to dig deeper. Our drinks maven (who happens to be an Oregonian) recommends pinot from Erath, Panther Creek, Patricia Green, and Bergström to start. And while their prices may approach those of fine Burgundies, the Russian River Valley area's Kistler, Rochioli, Dumol produce beautiful Pinot Noir, as well.)

Now, it's your turn. Did you drink any pinot recently? What vineyards do you love? And what do you look for in the style? Get the party started in the comments below!

Disclosure: All wines were provided as samples for review.

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