Pinot noir earns its place on American tables

VINTAGE POINT

July 18, 1993|By MICHAEL DRESSER

In 1395, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, decreed that no red grape other than the noble pinot noir would be allowed in the greatest vineyards of that famous winemaking region.

Acre upon acre of the less esteemed gamay grape was grubbed up and banished to Beaujolais to make way for the aristocratic pinot. The reputation of Burgundy soared as the kings of France made its red wines their tipple of choice.

A dozen years ago, however, Philip's edict was beginning to look like Phil's Folly. The reputation of red Burgundy was in tatters after decades of indifferent winemaking and outright adulteration. Beaujolais was producing wines of more consequence and consistency for less than half the cost.

Pinot noir's record in the New World was no less disastrous. California was producing a handful of good examples, but the state's typical pinot noir was an international joke. All too often the wines tasted heavy, jammy and bizarre. Australian pinot noir was, if anything, even worse. Oregon was showing some promise, but many early efforts were thin, charmless and overly tannic.

But what a difference 12 years makes. More fine pinot noir is being produced in more places now than ever before.

Burgundian winemaking is back on track. California winemakers are finally getting a handle on this tricky grape. Oregon now has a proven track record of competence, rising occasionally to excellence. Even Australia chips in with some highly drinkable pinot noirs.

For now, however, the United States is still cabernet country. Cabernet sauvignon accounts for more than half the varietal red wine sold in the country, and for good reason. The Bordeaux varietal was a California success story at the height of the 1960s-1980s wine boom, at a time when many of today's wine drinkers were just learning about wine.

Time to unlearn

At the same time, many wine drinkers were learning to avoid pinot noir. It was a good lesson then, but it's time to unlearn it. Today's pinot noirs are earning their place on the American table.

In fact, pinot noir has some distinct advantages over cabernet and other big-boned reds in many circumstances.

When it is well made, it's far less heavy and oaky than cabernet, merlot or beefy examples of zinfandel. Fruit dominates the flavor, and the acidity is slightly higher than other red varietals. In most cases, the tannin and alcohol are less obvious than in other red varietals. Pinot noir is more likely to be drinkable young.

These qualities make a medium-bodied pinot noir an especially good choice for summertime drinking. It is a sort of happy medium between the furnace-stoking robustness of Bordeaux or California cabernet and the light, chillable frivolity of Beaujolais. course there are some weighty, classic Burgundies that should be saved for a serious occasion, but those are a small and costly minority.

Pinot noir also excels as a companion with some foods that usually end up being washed down with a white wine. There is certainly nothing wrong about serving a chardonnay with grilled tuna, salmon or swordfish, but if you're one of those people who likes to drink red wine whenever possible, a medium-to-light pinot noir makes an excellent match. Chicken, roasted or grilled, is a congenial pinot partner.

These affinities would matter little if there hadn't been an international turnaround in the quality of pinot noir-based wines. The reasons for the revival vary from region to region.

Sting of criticism

In Burgundy, the key has been a new generation of winemakers who have not been content to rest on the region's historic glory. Stung by criticism from such writers as Anthony Hanson, they have cleaned up their act and started to take quality seriously again -- holding down yields, filtering less and planting superior clones. A profusion of fine vintages in the late 1980s and early 1990s has also helped.

Growers and shippers also seem to have realized that the astronomical cost of their top growths was convincing consumers to write off Burgundy entirely. As a result, consumers are seeing an increasing emphasis on producing high-quality regional Bourgogne (Burgundy) at reasonable prices.

California's improvements have largely come about through a collective realization that pinot noir isn't cabernet sauvignon. For decades, California vintners planted pinot noir adjacent to great Napa Valley cabernet vineyards and wondered why pinot was such a lousy grape. Now they realize that pinot noir needs a cool climate, akin to its native Burgundy. They've found such climates in areas such as Carneros, western Sonoma County and -- most impressive of all -- Santa Barbara County.

In the bad old days, many vintners also subjected pinot noir to the same level of filtration they used for their cabernets, ignoring the fact that pinot noir is a much more delicate variety. That is starting to change.

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