Maybe I identify with grapes that are famously thin-skinned, notoriously finicky to grow, and at their most expressive when given a spotlight. Perhaps I simply find comfort in wines that can require decades’ worth of lying down in order to reach their full potential.
Pinot noir is my Tuesday night wine, my Thanksgiving go-to, and my usual restaurant choice when I’m asked to suggest a red. It can be light- or medium-bodied and made in a rainbow of styles, from almost-rosé to darkly brooding.
Some winemakers age it in new French oak for about a year to impart more body and aroma complexity, and some employ whole cluster fermentation to encourage a velvety texture and boost a wine’s aging potential. Pinot noir aromas and flavors run the gamut from ripe cherries and dried herbs to blackberries and dark chocolate, or even fresh earth and a little leather…like the Marlboro Man in a glass.
No matter how complex a pinot may be, though, it’ll still pair well with easy-to-prepare comfort foods like roasted turkey, broiled salmon, wild-rice pilaf, and sautéed mushrooms. And when you bring a good bottle of pinot noir to dinner, you’ll look cultured af.
To help you choose said good bottle, check out these regions and producers:
Pinot is grown and made in many places around the world, but it originally hails from the Burgundy region of northeastern France. Pinot noir from here is actually called “Burgundy,” because clearly, “pinot noir” isn’t French enough.
Burgundies labeled Grand Cru and Premier Cru (the two highest levels of Burgundy vineyard quality) are prized by wine collectors, tend to age gracefully for 20+ years, and range somewhere between $100 and $3,000 a bottle — but they’re not the only way to rock yourself some Burgundy. Opt for pinots named for Burgundy’s winemaking villages (e.g., Aloxe Corton, Puligny Montrachet, Gevrey Chambertin, etc.) rather than specific crus and vineyards, and you’ll spend more like $16-40 a bottle on still-elegant wines that can be drunk right now without obsessing over what might have been IF ONLY YOU’D WAITED.
Pinot noirs from California’s Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties as well as the Napa Valley offer both finesse and approachability — the former due to ideal pinot sites and carefully considered winemaking, the latter because of all the English on the labels.
Sonoma’s best pinots (aka “the ones I love the most”) are powerful, lush and balanced, made from grapes grown in the Russian River Valley and on the Sonoma Coast, where proximity to all sorts of water cools heat-sensitive pinot vines with breezes and fog. Napa’s finest pinots use grapes grown in the clay-dominant soils of the Carneros district, where steep vineyards are cooled by the San Pablo Bay.
The best Santa Barbara County pinots tend to originate in the Santa Rita Hills, and if a wine’s grapes are grown in the darn-well-drained soils of the Bien Nacido or Sanford & Benedict vineyards, you’ll see one of those names on the label. Great pinots from Sonoma and Napa tend to range from $50-90 a bottle, while their Santa Barbara-area counterparts tend to cost about $10-20 less. This may soon change, though, thanks to the power of good PR.
Three other California regions are also known for great pinot and good values: Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley (about an hour north of Sonoma), Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands (about an hour south of San Francisco), and San Luis Obispo County’s Edna Valley (just north of Santa Barbara). All three are cool-climate areas with pinot-friendly sandy loam soils, but each has its points of difference: in the Anderson Valley, steep, craggy hills and particularly acidic soils enable wines with refreshing acidity; Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards offer a healthy balance of clay and limestone, not unlike those in central Burgundy; and the Edna Valley has California’s longest growing season, enabling pinot noir time to ripen to its very best life.
My favorite California pinot noir producers:
- Sonoma: Merry Edwards – Moshin Vineyards – Sojourn Cellars – Dehlinger – Rochioli – Gary Farrell
- Napa: Robert Sinskey – Etude – Artesa – Clos Du Val
- Santa Barbara County: Foxen – Brewer-Clifton – Sandhi – Whitcraft Winery
- Anderson Valley: Navarro Vineyards – Handley Cellars – Black Kite Cellars
- Santa Lucia Highlands: Belle Glos – Pisoni Vineyards – Pessagno – Paraiso
- Edna Valley: Tolosa – Tangent – Sextant Wines – Kynsi – Wonderwall – Center of Effort
About an hour south of Portland, Oregon’s Willamette Valley (pronounced “wih-LAMM-ett”) is on the same longitude as Burgundy, with a similar climate and soil combos of clay and limestone. Pioneered largely by David “Papa Pinot” Lett in the 1960’s and ’70s, this wine region has bloomed into a pinot powerhouse, inspiring even Burgundy itself to take note. In 1987, Maison Joseph Drouhin patriarch Robert Drouhin set up Domaine Drouhin Oregon here, hiring his (absolutely delightful) daughter Veronique as winemaker and lending a fancy French gravitas to the region.
Home to roughly 500 wineries, the Willamette is divided into several sub-regions that each produce specific pinot profiles, with admirers willing to spend upwards of $45 a bottle. However, if you find wines for more like $20-30, it’s generally because they’re blends of pinot grapes from different vineyards — some great quality, some merely good — and offer an easy-drinking snapshot of what the larger valley has to offer.
NEW ZEALAND & CHILE
Some renowned pinots are also being made in the Southern Hemisphere: in New Zealand — Hawke’s Bay on the North Island, and Marlborough, Wairapa, and Central Otago on the South Island — and in Chile’s Casablanca and San Antonio valleys, just a few miles from the central-west coast.
I’ve visited both valleys in Chile and swooned over the ocean-adjacent breezes, hilly vineyards, eye-popping architecture, zingy sauvignon blancs and sultry syrahs, but the lighter-bodied pinots I tried didn’t flip my switch. I have been wowed by a few intensely perfumed, lushly textured Central Otago and Marlborough pinots over the last few years, but they were all about 60 bucks a bottle. As I sample more pinot noirs from both countries, I’ll share what I learn — because wine-tasting research is how I show my respect for your needs.
In the meantime, consider popping pinots from these producers:
- New Zealand: Burn Cottage – Cloudy Bay – Two Paddocks
- Chile: Kingston Family Wines – Matetic – Loma Larga – Viña Casa Marin
Or if you really want to make a splash at your next dinner party, bring along a bottle of Tituss Burgess (aka Titus Andromedon)’s PBTB Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. It’s sure to make you pop-u-lar.