Christopher S. Miller
OVER THE LAST DECADE, eating lighter and healthier has become very popular. Ironically, so too has red wine, especially big, heavy, red wines though they do not match lighter food dishes—like fish—very well. To this end, one solution I’ve found when it comes to any fish that is grilled or has darker meat is Pinot Noir. We’ll have to look off the Island for this one, but Pinot Noir is definitely one of the more versatile red wine grapes for food matching. Pinot Noir is also quite possibly the noblest grape grown; plus it fits with the media hype of Sideways that seems to still be going on.
Pinot Noir is noble because it is the parent of so many world-class varietals; a few of the offspring are: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (better known as Pinot Grigio), Pinot Blanc, Aligoté and Gamay. Those of you well versed in wine knowledge might notice that all these grapes have important links to the Burgundy region, and indeed all of these grapes are still planted in and around Burgundy today. In fact, although Burgundy has become synonymous with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, some feel that great Pinot Noir from Burgundy is the Holy Grail of wine, and maybe even of all beverages.
In the last twenty years, growers throughout the world have begun to learn how to coax the delicate and elegant nuances of the grape and soils into a finished wine and I, for one, have fallen in love with many a stunning wine made from Pinot Noir. However there have been many disappointments along the way, fewer as I’ve learned what climates and soils are best to nurture the delicate fruit of Pinot Noir and what type of winemaker understands its delicacy. Still, I unfortunately find many Pinot Noirs that lack elegance, delicacy and nuance. For me, some Pinot’s actually begin to taste like more robust wines such as Syrah or Grenache. And if I want a Syrah-like wine, I’ll buy a Syrah!!
Besides Burgundy, there are several wine regions that have the climate and soils that suit Pinot Noir and there is a group of winemakers and producers dedicated to making pure Pinot Noir (see above). A few of these regions are: Willamette Valley in Oregon, Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara (CA), Central Otago in southern New Zealand, and it is possible to find fine Pinots in both Tasmania and South Africa. Some of these regions are just being discovered for their great Pinot Noirs, while others are more established. For instance, Santa Maria Valley has been one of my favorite areas for Pinot Noir for more than 15 years, while Central Otago is a region I have only discovered in the last couple of years. All these regions are able to produce excellent wines from all the Pinot family grapes (Pinot Gris/Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay etc.) and many do while others focus on the grand papa.
Central Otago is becoming a ‘hot’ region for Pinot Noir (well deserved from what I have tasted), but also produces Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc with success. I recently tried a 2004 Amisfield Pinot Gris ($20) from Central Otago and found it to have a lovely aromatic character typical of the Pinot Gris grape, with notes of pear, flower blossoms and a hint of spice; the palate is creamy and rich with a long full finish that is crisp in a subtle way. This is a really great version of an “Alsace” style of Pinot Gris and would make a lovely match for those fish dishes that are lighter or sautéed. Rating: Excellent Pinot Gris, valued at (-1). But when compared to Santa Margarita (at $20), the Amisfield is an excellent value. Another Pinot Gris (~$18) to seek out is from Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton (L.I.), though it sells out very quickly at the winery (feel free to drop me a line for hints on how to secure some).
After several decades of fits and starts, Oregon has really begun to hit its stride with Pinot Noir (plus the usual suspects). The region was only discovered as a potential wine region in the 1960’s (by Californian Hippies), but took until the late 1990’s to start consistently performing. One of my favorite producers is Hamacher of northern Willamette. His Pinot Noirs are excellent but wouldn’t be considered cheap. Much more reasonable and almost as delicious is his “second label,” H.
However at an educational seminar I tasted an excellent Pinot Noir from Foley Estates in Santa Rita Hills (Santa Barbara, California at $26). This wine is just what I expect from a fine Californian Pinot Noir; all bright black cherry and strawberry aromas with lovely richness in the palate and a lovely balanced and elegant finish, a serious Pinot with the balance to work beautifully with a grilled seafood dish. A wine of nuance, elegance and subtlety. Though I don’t know the winemaker, I can guess I’d like him—a wine not only reflects the place it is grown but also the person who makes it.