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Why noir?
Our critic makes the case for his favorite wine

What is my favorite wine? The truth is that wine lovers rarely have a definitive “favorite” because wine is so contextual. I may have one favorite wine to take on a picnic with turkey sandwiches, a second to accompany lobster, and a third to go with dripping red meat hot off the grill. My favorite wine at 9 p.m. may differ from my favorite at 5 a.m. (usually gewürztraminer, which often reminds me of apple juice). I have a favorite artist, a favorite film, and a favorite band (well, bands: live, studio, etc.). But context counts for so much with wine that it’s hard to isolate a single “favorite.”

That said, if cornered I will readily confess that I most enjoy pinot noir. It is a most versatile red, and it comes in many flavors. When young, many pinots have an appealing bright cherry flavor (cherries are my favorite fruit, and if you like wine, chances are you dig fruit, too). As they mature, after a few “dumb” years (perhaps like puberty) when the wine tends to go into hibernation, a more fragrant, earthy, velvety set of flavors comes to the fore, masking the receding fruit. I find young pinot noirs, with their tight, tart fruit, to be best at around three to five years old. Then I like to hold off for another three to five years, during which the fruit fades and the wine evolves and harmonizes, taking on softer elements and gaining complexity to become an elegant lady. Not all pinots improve with age, of course, but the best do, and this is part of their charm: they have two distinct “eras,” both rather appealing.

Pinot noir is one of the hardest wines to make well, and winemakers generally are enticed by the challenge. It shows terroir exceptionally well, meaning you taste the earth and the soil, and you get a sense of where the wine was grown. Burgundy, where pinot noir is the only red grape grown, has wonderful chalky soil and limestone subsoil, which impart their unique characteristics to the most revered (and expensive) pinots in the world. Nothing can touch the refined, delicate, “iron fist in a velvet glove” qualities of a great Côte d’Or (France’s “Golden Slope,” where the finest Burgundies are made) from, say, 1996 or 1990 (the ’89s and ’85s now are also showing all kinds of outrageous flavors and notes). But you have to be either rich or lucky to enjoy such luxuries.

For those of us on a budget, pinots from Oregon and certain parts of Sonoma do the trick quite nicely. Oregon has more clay in the soil and, like Burgundy, it has more average-to-below-average vintages than great years. But when these wines rock, they’re deep and gnarly, with vibrant red fruits, all the cherry you could want, and a forest feel that is nearly indescribable. Exceptional pinots also come from Sonoma, especially the Sonoma coast, the Russian River Valley, and Carneros (which straddles Sonoma and Napa). My American favorites come from Flowers, where the Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard rises just above the fog line and the limestone subsoil brings a depth and complexity to the wines that make them linger on your tongue. And of course there are many other fine California pinot noirs, including a handful from Monterey, some from Napa and Mendocino (particularly the Anderson Valley), and the renowned vintages from Josh Jensen’s Calera vineyard on Mount Harlan.

Williams Selyem, one of the country’s most illustrious pinot makers, produces about a dozen pinots from all over Sonoma and Mendocino. The winery recently changed hands, but the excellence of the wines remains consistent: the wood balances the fruit, the winemaking is unintrusive, and the resulting wines are resplendent, bold, concentrated, and alive. This year I will celebrate my birthday with a Williams Selyem pinot, possibly a 1997. These wines are hard to find, except on better wine lists; if you see one, jump at the chance to try it.

Pinots pair wonderfully with grilled tuna, swordfish, raw fish, and wasabi. Denser pinots match with red meat; pinots also go with plenty of pork dishes, or even a slice of pizza. Some writers call this grape capricious, perhaps because it’s so difficult to grow and ripen. But when everything comes together, the cherry, cola, and funk waft from the glass, and each sip is a revelation. The great ones will cost you a pretty penny, but California and Oregon produce many pinots for around $10 that are well worth your while (I like Beringer, Beaulieu Vineyard, Barefoot Cellars, Buena Vista, Pepperwood Grove, and Echelon). Both California and Oregon had good years in 1998 and 1999, and their 2000s are rumored to be even better.

So while no single wine captures every context, good pinot shows why folks like me drink wine. Try some. You’ll see.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: June 7-14, 2001

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