If Cabernet is the powerful king of wine grapes, then Pinot Noir is the elegant queen. For many collectors there is no greater joy than a truly top-notch bottle of Pinot Noir; the greatest can provide an ethereal experience bordering on transcendent.
The spiritual home of Pinot Noir is the Burgundy region of France, where Benedictine monks cultivated and fermented this noble variety as far back as the tenth century (though there is evidence that the grape grew there as long ago as the second century AD). In the eighteenth century Napoleon privatized the area, taking the vineyards from the abbeys that had held them for centuries and selling them. Today you find here great producers making some of the most legendary wines on the globe, such as Domaine Dugat-Py, Domaine Leroy, and the fabled Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Not only are these some of the finest wines in the world, but they are highly sought-after and collectible. The best examples are extremely ageworthy; some can evolve and become more textured and complicated for decades. For instance, the 1978 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache is one of the most renowned Pinot Noirs ever produced.
Pocketed microclimates exist outside of Burgundy where Pinot Noir thrives. Though it is a notoriously fickle grape, cooler areas such as Oregon’s Willamette Valley provide an ideal place for it to grow. There, craft winemakers such as Beaux Freres and Patricia Green produce wines with both elegance and lushness. These can be bold and juicy, while still having a fine medium body to them that doesn’t overwhelm the palate. Some call the wines of the Willamette among the most balanced in the world. Great Pinot Noirs can also be found in California, where Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley provides superlative examples by producers such as Peay and Paul Hobbs. These are generally wines of rich flavor and deep color; they very often have a cult following and can be extremely collectible. Further down the California coast, Santa Barbara has become recently renowned for its own small-production Pinot Noirs; great producers such as Au Bon Climat make wines of great intensity but supple delicacy; these food-friendly wines can be a welcome addition to many meals.
When it comes to food pairing, Pinot Noir is often a sommelier’s best friend. Unlike many of the more tannic red wines, such as Merlot or Cabernet, the medium-level body of Pinot Noir can complement a wide array of dishes. For instance, a fine Red Burgundy such as a Joseph Drouhin Chorey-les-Beaune or a Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin can raise a chicken with mushrooms in a cream sauce to an ethereal height, while a riper Pinot from Ken Wright in Oregon or Chateau St. Jean in California would mesh beautifully with a beef tenderloin dish. And as any Northwesterner will tell you, nothing tastes better with grilled salmon than a Pinot from the Willamette Valley.
The elegance and beauty of Pinot Noir is well known around the globe, and for good reason. No other grape produces wines with the depth, layered complexity, and celestial sumptousness as the finest examples of this queen of varieties. Oenophiles who develop a palate for Pinot often find themselves desiring nothing else, and very few of them regret it.
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