A textbook Pinot noir will have a medium body (think skim or 1% milk), medium-low tannins, medium-high acidity, and medium alcohol (usually around 13% ABV). Pay close attention to any mouthwatering sensations in order to gauge the acidity levels in each wine. Also note what the textures of the wines feel like—especially compared to what you thought of Cabernet in one of our previous Deconstructions.
Wine #1: Domaine du Prieure “Moutier Amet” Savigny-les-Beaune 2013—Burgundy, France
SIGHT: We’re starting off with a classic! This wine was grown in the heart of Burgundy—the motherland of Pinot. Note how clear and bright the color of this wine is: brilliant ruby with a soft pink rim. A swirl of your glass will show little to no staining—a great sign that this wine was made from grapes with rather thin skins (a telltale sign for most Pinots), and clocks in at a pretty moderate alcohol level.
SMELL: Give this wine about 10 minutes to air out, and it will reward you with delectable candied cherry, red licorice, and strawberry aromas. Give it 5 minutes more, and you may start to notice some non-fruit aromas: there’s a gentle mineral element here, along with a soft hint of rosemary or sage, a fresh red floral smell, and delicate suggestions of sautéed mushrooms, new leather, and forest floor.
TASTE: Let’s talk structure first: This wine isn’t thick or heavy, but it’s not watery either; we’ll say it has a medium body. Now swallow a sip, and note how quickly your mouth starts to water immediately after. When a wine has that sort of impact on the finish, we can be sure it has dominant acidity. But what about those tannins? They’re barely there—maybe just dancing along your cheeks before disappearing. The wine also doesn’t burn on the way down, and is more refreshing than it is weighty. This is further confirmation that the wine has moderate alcohol, and therefore comes from a moderately cool climate. The flavors seem to match what we got on the nose, with perhaps some additions of rhubarb and a hint of fresh parsley or tomato leaf on the very end.
This is a perfect example of a young, vibrant red Burgundy. The fruit is pure, the acidity is fresh, and the mineral element in the wine isn’t shy. Be sure to pick up a second bottle of this wine or one similar to it so you can squirrel it away for a few years, because soon it will start to develop a whole new set of aromas and flavors: the fruit will fade gently into the background, while tertiary aromas of earth, mushroom, leather, and herbs will start to peek out. It takes patience (we’re awful at that), but it’s worth it!
Wine #2: Arterberry Maresh Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2013—Oregon
SIGHT: This wine is from the same vintage as the Savigny-les-Beaune, but it’s seemed to age a little quicker. Note the more delicate color in this one as compared to the Burgundy, and take a look at the rim: it fades to a gentle garnet color with a little hint of orange. That’s evidence of a slightly aged wine. You’re in for an olfactory trip!
SMELL: You know what? You have a few bottles of wine open… you may as well open up that sour cherry lambic beer that’s in your fridge, too. Take a whiff of that, and then go back to this funky little Oregon Pinot. Same? Same. Hibiscus tea, ground sage, perhaps some dried cilantro and basil, freshly dug mushrooms with the mud still caked on, rose petals… this wine is rife with crazy smells. Oregon Pinots are known for having a deeper, darker, earthier smell than a lot of Californians, and this one is no exception. There’s definitely some red fruit in there, but it’s hiding behind that note of fresh blueberry skin.
TASTE: The acid is screaming in this wine! Do you feel it in your cheeks? The tannins are barely there, and the alcohol seems to be just above a whisper. Flavors of tart cherry, under-ripe blueberry, and tea leaves come through on the palate. This small-production Dundee Hills wine is lithe and ethereal with a “wispiness” on the finish.
It’s hard to characterize Oregon Pinot in one sentence, but they will generally be lighter in body and higher in acidity than most California Pinots. A lot of wine drinkers will peg Oregon Pinot as a good “middle ground” style, taking notes from both France and California. Arterberry Maresh is a pretty small producer, and they don’t fine or filter their wines. This leaves you with a pretty unique, characterful expression of Pinot, yet still falls firmly within the Oregonian style.
Wine #3: Cultivate Pinot Noir 2014—California
SIGHT: Hold this wine next to the first two—there should be a markedly deeper hue to the Cultivate. You might see a touch of staining and some noticeable tears falling down the side of your glass, too. This tells us, of course, that this wine will probably have a higher alcohol content, and most likely saw a little more extraction during the winemaking process than the first two. This also tells us that the climate this wine is from is quite a bit warmer than Oregon or France!
SMELL: Whereas you turned to your savory herbs and spices with the Oregon Pinot, here you should be opening your sweet baking spices. Beyond the fresh, juicy red fruit notes of cherry and strawberry, see if you can pick out clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and even garam masala if you have that available. Finally, a very common aroma in California Pinots is that of cola. Crack open a Cherry Coke—any similarities?
TASTE: The intensity of flavors in this wine make the other two seem flighty and delicate. The body is fuller (think 2% milk here), but still with decent acidity and tannins. Does the back of your throat feel nice and warm as you swallow? The alcohol level here beats out the first wines by a long shot! Ripe black cherry, raspberry, cherry cola and a hint of strawberry jam do cartwheels around each other, and the wine finishes with a hint of fruity sweetness.
This Pinot is a spot-on representation of what to expect out of a good California Pinot. Rich and ripe with red fruit notes, it has that nuance of cola and a whole spread of baking spices. The alcohol level is over 14%, which accounts for that hint of sweetness on the finish, as well as the fuller body.
We’ve explored some fairly youthful, fruit-driven expressions of Pinot noir in this Deconstruction. They represent the style so many people are familiar with, and it explains why the grape is so dang popular. It’s important to understand this young stage of Pinot, because you have to know how a wine starts off in order to understand where it’s going. The Arterberry Maresh from Oregon led us to see how Pinot can progress with age—sometimes it takes up to 10 years, sometimes it only takes 3-4. To many Pinot lovers, this is the “real Pinot”—when it starts to morph into layers of humus, flowers, fungi, and savory dried herbs. When I get these things in an aged Pinot, there’s a sort of sweet melancholy that seems to surround the wine. It’s at the same time both comfortably familiar and wondrously complex.
If you ever fall in love with a particular Pinot, be it from Oregon, California, Burgundy, or elsewhere, be prepared to embark on a lifelong journey of pain, regret, and heartache. But you won’t care, because you know there’s always a slim chance that you’ll come across another bottle that will bring you back into that ethereal, otherworldly state that only Pinot can do. It’s unlikely, but somehow it’s always worth another shot.
Cheers to Pinot, the most maddening grape in the world!