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Pinot Noir 101

April 21, 2012

One of the joys of being a student of wine is, of course, the homework. Recently, we had a chance to “study” Pinot Noir at a Wisconsin Union Mini-course at the new Union South on the UW-Madison campus. The building is beautiful and the Prairie Fire Lounge appeared to be the perfect place for Pinot Noir 101.

Led by “self-proclaimed cork dork” Greg Huber, certified specialist with the Society of Wine Educators, our two-hour class took us into both the past and present of one of the world’s oldest – and most finicky – wine grapes. Pinot Noir – literally “black pine” and referring to the dense, conical shaped blackish grape clusters that hang from the vine – originated in France’s Burgundy region and serves as the basis of some of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines.

We wouldn’t be having any of those expensive French chateau wines, but Prof. Huber took on a global tour featuring Pinot Noir from five different countries. The grape is able to grow in most wine regions and favors warm days, cool nights and foggy conditions. Its popularity in the U.S. after release of the 2004 movie Sideways about two friends drinking their way through Central California’s wine country. It’s now one of the most popular wines in the market, he said.

California was our first stop, and we started with a flute of Korbel Sweet Rose ($13), a light, refreshing aperitif that did a good job igniting our palate for the wines to come. Next came Bridlewood Pinot Noir ($17), sourced from Monterey County vineyards by one of the sub-wineries of giant E&J Gallo. The dark fruit flavors joined with moderate acidity and tannins, making the Bridlewood well balanced and a good starting point for Pinot Noir novices.

Two more Californians took us along the next leg of journey. The Kenwood Pinot Noir ($16) sourced from vineyards along the Russian River, starts with what oenophiles lovingly refer to as a “barnyard” nose, which gives way to a palate drier and less fruit-forward than that of the Bridlewood. A deliberate acidity belies a velvety mouthfeel making the Kenwood, owned along with Korbel by vintner Gary Heck, a more interesting wine.

The final Californian, Fess Parker Pinot Noir ($24), from the Santa Barbara vineyard owned by the family of the late film and television star, proved to be one of our favorites. The winemakers cold-soak the grapes after picking, a process that extracts color and flavor from the wine. The Fess Parke exhibited some of the same dryness of the Kenwood, but a fuller, richer wine in all other respects. Delicious.

From there our instructor took us to Oregon for a King Estate Pinot Noir ($26). Dry, earthy and somewhat vinous, the wine exhibits overtones of cherry, eucalyptus and spice. The wine aerated nicely in the glass and proved to be another of the evening’s winners.

We didn’t know Italy grew Pinot Noir, largely because it’s often called Pinot Nero there. The wine from Sartori ($13), located in Italy’s Provincia de Pavia, was well balanced and surprisingly bright and light. It’s an excellent value for the price, or so both my notes and palate said at the time.

We did pay our respects to France with the Domaine Faiveley Mercury Rouge ($25) from a winery owned by the Faiveley family since 1825. The 2009 vintage, part of a particularly large yield, was well-balanced and nicely flavored, with hints of mocha adding to the fruit.

Pinot Noir also grows in Chile, and the Ritual Pinot Noir ($17) brought back memories of an earlier wine with its barnyard nose overlaying red fruits. This wine also had been cold-soaked, which led to richer, mature fruit on the palate and a velvety mouthfeel.

Our final stop tuned out to be the newest winery on the tour. New Zealand’s Kim Crawford Vineyard was established in 1996, but it is already making its mark. The Marlborough Pinot Noir ($19) was cultivated and grown under perfect conditions, and the resulting wine was one of the evening’s most refined. Full flavored, suitably dry and well balanced, the Kim Crawford was the perfect way to end our Pinot Noir lesson.

Prof. Huber dons his secret identity as The Dragon for his next outing, a May 16  exploration of sake. For information and registration, go to www.wisc.edu/minicourses.

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