Pinot Noir is a finicky grape that is difficult to grow (it does best in cooler climates) but when it is done right it produces some of the most prized wines in the world. And we are fortunate to be drinking excellent Pinot Noir here in the US as well as having access to the great Pinot Noir wines from Burgundy, France and elsewhere. It is an exciting time to be drinking Pinot, and here’s what you need to know to get started.
Pinot Noir is grown all over the world and there are different nuances to its flavor profile that vary from place to place. Generally speaking, Pinot Noir is much lighter in body than the other big reds we have discussed so far. While it’s light to medium in body, the grape packs a big flavor punch with lots of black and red berry fruit, and Pinot Noir can really be enjoyed with a variety of different meals. It’s a versatile wine that has enough power to hang with bold foods and enough finesse to bring out the best in lighter dishes. It is one of my favorite food wines, hands down.
The best place to start with Pinot Noir is its home in Burgundy France, where some of the most expensive and most sought after Pinot Noir originates. In France, wine is listed by region not grape, so you will want to look for language on the label that a bottle is from Burgundy or Vin de Bourgogne. Once you’ve determined that a bottle is from Burgundy, you will want to dive into the specific appellation inside of Burgundy and it will read something like “Appellation Cotes du Beane Controlee.”
There are dozens of appellations and you don’t need to get into them all. To get started just know this. Cote D’Or is the number one area of Burgundy and it is divided into two main regions, the Cote de Nuits and the Cote de Beaune. I suggest trying a Pinot Noir from each of these areas and explore from there. In Cote de Nuits my favorite wines are from Nuits-Saint- Georges, which you should be able to find. Burgundian bottles can get quite expensive, and while they are worth the money in most cases, I’d recommend starting in the $20 range and working your way up slowly from there. Louis Latour is a big Cote D’Or name that you can find under $20 and may serve as a good starting point. If this is an area you enjoy you will want to explore wines across all the different classifications – Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. As you can image the price will correlate to how high up the ladder you climb.
Pinot Noir thrives in the US as well, and in recent years has gotten more and more enjoyable. Areas like California’s central coast and Carneros are emerging as Pinot Noir superstars. And the Pinot Noir from Oregon and Washington State is finally being recognized on the global stage as being truly world class.
California’s central coast stretches from Santa Barbara up toward San Francisco, and while most red and many white grapes are grown here, Pinot Noir is a constant favorite. Notable areas on the coast to check out are Santa Lucia Highlands, Mt Harlan and Santa Cruz Mountains. Many wines from these areas will approach the $30-50 mark so you might want to start with some of the more inexpensive wines, typically labeled as “Central Coast” such as those from MacMurray Ranch, Chalone, Beaulieu or Lockwood which I bet you can find for $15 and under.
Carneros is a California appellation with a nice cool climate ideal for Pinot Noir. On a recent trip to Napa, I encountered many of the top Napa names offering a Pinot Noir from land they farm in Carneros. And the wines were amazing. Prices are going to start in the low teens with many higher end bottles approaching $100. A good starting point for Carneros Pinot Noir can be found in names such as Castle Rock (under $15), Saintsbury ($20), or even Costco’s Kirkland Signature Carneros Pinot Noir (under $10).
The Northwest is a newer Pinot Noir hot spot and I am consistently blown away by the wines I buy from both Oregon and Washington State. Oregon’s Willamette Valley offers the perfect cool, wet climate for Pinot Noir. My two favorite sub-regions are Dundee Hills and McMinnville. In Washington State, it’s a similar situation with a nice cool, wet mountain climate bordered by rain forests. You almost can’t go wrong with Pinot Noir from the Northwest, but the trick is finding a good value. A few names that come to mind are Willamette Valley Vineyards ($20), Erath ($18) and King Estate ($18).
Another country that seems to be producing better and better Pinot Noir is New Zealand. Its famed Marlborough region, known for its excellent Sauvignon Blanc which we will cover shortly, is also dishing up some nice value priced Pinot Noir. I’ve had several bottles in the $10-15 range lately that surprised me from such names as Oyster Bay and Clifford Bay.
Your Pinot Noir Check List:
– Burgundian Pinot Noir from Nuits-Saint- Georges (or Cote de Nuits)
– Burgundian Pinot Noir from Cote de Beaune
– California Central Coast Pinot Noir
– California Carneros Pinot Noir
– Oregon Pinot Noir
– Washington State Pinot Noir
– New Zealand Pinot Noir from Marlborough
Fast Fact: Pinot Noir is one of the most difficult wine grapes to grow, requiring constant care and a perfect climate of warm days and cool nights. These stringent conditions are the reason why fewer bottles are produced and also why they can be more expensive.
Malbec is one of my go-to bottles when I need a big, round red wine at a great price. Malbec’s taste is going to vary between regions (and elevations) but it is generally a little earthy on the nose, full bodied and big in the mouth with dark berry and plum flavors; and then a little peppery and spicy on the finish. Malbec goes perfect with everything from red meat or red sauce dishes to hamburgers and pizza. Malbec is popular around grilling season at our house.
The first place to go for Malbec is Mendoza, Argentina where the price-to-quality ratio is almost hard to believe. Starting around $8 and going over $60, you can almost be assured you will get a good wine for the dollar when you go the Mendoza route. The good news for Malbec fans is that you are not alone, and most wine shops now have a whole section dedicated to Malbec wines.
Some names to seek out from Mendoza are Ben Marco ($15), Catena (starting at $15 but going up toward $100), Alamos (a favorite for $8), and Bodega Norton ($18+). The higher elevation Malbecs from Mendoza are where things really start to get interesting, and they taste different than those grown at lower elevations (kind of like your Atlas Peak and Howell Mountain Cabs in Napa). Next time you plan to splurge on a $50-60 wine, try a high elevation Mendoza Malbec, and it will taste like you spent twice as much.
Malbec is also popular in the Bordeaux region of France and it is frequently blended into wines along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The Cahors region is particularly well known for more Malbec dominated blends and they are quite good.
On the subject of Bordeaux blending, I have seen a larger number of California winemakers dedicate more of their land to Malbec for their Bordeaux style blends. While Malbec has been planted around Napa for some time, many of the big names are producing higher percentage Malbec components in their premium blends. Combined with other varietals that thrive in Napa, these red blends are a lot of fun to explore. And they vary year to year in their composition depending on that year’s growth conditions so the experience never gets old.
This is a quick overview to begin exploring Malbecs from all over the world. We are seeing more pop up from Washington State, Chile, other areas of California and Australia, which all should be fun to try.
Your Malbec Check List:
– Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina (I would try 3-4 different ones; this is the center of good Malbec, and at great prices)
– Malbec from Cahors (France)
– A red blend from Napa containing Malbec
Fast Fact: Argentinean Malbec is able to thrive on pure French roots (since Argentinean soil is resistant to the nasty vine killing pest phylloxera), making it some of the truest Malbec in the world.
Zinfandel is a misunderstood grape, largely because of its many incarnations including the “wine-snob” frowned upon (but super high volume) White Zinfandel. Many beginning wine drinkers may pass it up simply because they don’t know how good it can be (I was one of those a long time ago). But Zinfandel in its best form creates rich, heavy, distinctive red wines that are fun to throw in the mix for a change of pace now and then.
Zinfandel typically has notes of super ripe fruit, lots of red fruit and berries; full bodied and big in the mouth with a distinctive finish that you will begin to instantly recognize as you dive in. You see a lot of wine critics refer to Zinfandel as “jammy.” Zinfandel goes great with everything from hamburgers to Thanksgiving dinner.
California has emerged as the leading producer of Zinfandel and it grows in many different areas of the state, and it grows well. You will see references to “old vine” Zinfandel and Gnarly vines, because they grow so radically.
Amador County is located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and is widely regarded for its Zinfandel. The climate is hot during the day and cool at night, which helps the grapes to ripen up nicely. A couple names to note from Amador: Four Vines “The Maverick” ($20 and I love this wine), Sobon Estate ($14) and Montevina ($7-20).
Another big area in northern Sonoma is Dry Creek Valley, which I also mentioned for its Merlot and Cabernet. Dry Creek Valley is recognized for having some of the most popular Zinfandel in the state, and benefits from its cool, foggy climate not far from the Coast. Ridge ($25-50) is one of my favorite Zinfandels from Dry Creek Valley. Coppola Wines offers a nice Dry Creek Zin for around $20. And keep an eye out for Seghesio Zins, another worthwhile taste, starting at around $20 and going up from there.
Lodi is a little further inland, but produces excellent Zins and this is where you see a lot of the “old vine Zinfandel.” Lodi is a great place to go for value since you can score nice Zins from here under $20. Look for 7 Deadly Zins ($12) and Ravenswood Old Vine ($12). And as you go further up market, you can find fantastic Lodi Zins in the $25 range that taste like they cost $50.
Zinfandel is also grown in Italy where it is known as Primitivo. Next time you run across one of these bottles in the store you’ll know what grape it is, and you may see Italian blends that include Primitivo. Most Primitivo is grown in the Puglia area of Italy.
Your Zinfandel Check List:
– Amador County Zinfandel
– Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
– Lodi Zinfandel
– Italian Primitivo
Fast Fact: Zinfandel is genetically the same as the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski (pronounced sirl-yen-ack kastelanski). Order one of those at a restaurant if you really want to sound fancy.
The French wine section at my local wine shops is always a favorite. So much so that I wrote a short book on the subject (Decoding French Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying the Fruits of the French Terroir). What follows is a quick summary of many of the French wine regions that I covered in my previous book in more depth.
French wine is categorized by its region and each region (or appellation) is allowed to produce wines containing certain grapes specific to the French wine growing standards. For this reason you typically won’t find French wines labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot but instead by where the grapes were produced. In addition, French wines are often blends of these different varietals. This is why many wine shops will have a whole section simply called France.
If you had to boil it down, the big areas to try are Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Rhone. Let’s look at what you can expect from each one.
Bordeaux, perhaps more than any other wine region on the planet, is known for its world class wines that fetch into the thousands of dollars per bottle depending on the vintage. The reason for this is the perfect climate, the gravel and limestone soil and generations of wine experience. The good news is that you can find excellent Bordeaux wines at fair prices and the last decade has seen a string of excellent vintages that you should be snatching up.
When you visit your local wine shop or look at French Bordeaux on a menu, you will want to note three things: the year, the Chateau and the appellation within Bordeaux. Bordeaux is divided into two main regions: left bank, meaning west of the Garonne River, and right bank, which is east of the river. You will get more Cabernet Sauvignon heavy wines on the left bank side and more Merlot based wines on the right bank side.
Bordeaux wines are reds and whites. While the red wines usually consist of a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, the white wines will consist of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Here are some of the top areas of the left bank to familiarize yourself with:
– St Julien
– St Estephe
– Graves (Pessac‐Leognan and Sauternes)
And from the right bank:
Also, as I briefly mentioned above, we’ve had some great years recently for Bordeaux wines. Try to find some from 2005 (if you can), 2009 and 2010. Good Bordeaux also ages well, so don’t be afraid to dip into an oldie if you have the chance. I still have a couple from 2000 that are drinking really nice right now.
We covered Burgundy briefly in the Pinot Noir section, but Burgundy also produces some excellent Chardonnay, which leads to the designations Red Burgundy and White Burgundy. Easy enough, except that Burgundy also includes wines from Beaujolais made from the Gamay grape. Let’s break down each of these briefly.
Red Burgundy: as mentioned previously, start by looking for wines from Cote D’Or. The best way to explore this area is to always try something new. If you do, you will start to develop a taste for what you like and an understanding of how the areas within Cote D’Or differ from one another.
Beaujolais: an area of Burgundy that you might be familiar with given the incredible retail marketing effort for the release of these wines around Thanksgiving every year. Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape, and in most incarnations is meant to be consumed young (often times in the year it’s released). But if you venture out a bit and try some of the Cru Beaujolais, they get quite good.
Chablis: a very important region of Burgundy and a great white wine with a variety of meals. Chablis is made from Chardonnay, and has a little more of a new world taste to it compared to the other white burgundies. Chablis remains an excellent white wine choice for almost any occasion and like many of the other great French wines, we are starting to see more and more bottles carried in the stores here in the US.
People often associate champagne with any sparkling wine, but Champagne is an area of France and the only “true Champagne” originates from here. Wines from Champagne are typically made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and they carry with them designations such as Prestige Cuvee (the best from the winemaker), Blanc de noirs (made from black or red grapes, but still white, no skins), Blanc de blanc (made from Chardonnay), and Rose (some Pinot Noir used). You’ll see these designations on the label and they provide a guide for what to expect on the inside. Champagne is really gaining in popularity in the US in the last few years since it complements just about any meal (not just a special occasion).
The Rhone Valley in Southern France produces stellar wines using many different grapes than are found in other parts of France. In fact, in the popular and renowned Chateauneuf‐du‐Pape region, blends can utilize 13 different grapes. Rhone wines stand out to me because they exude the beauty of the French land, with old vine heritage, and they are consistently exceptional values from the low end ($10) all the way to the high end ($300+). They are incredibly food friendly too.
Northern Rhone is noted for its Syrah which is the primary red grape that is grown in the area. Interestingly enough to many US wine consumers, the winemakers in Northern Rhone will occasionally blend their Syrah with small parts of white grapes, including Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Some of the appellations of Northern Rhone to keep an eye out for are Hermitage, Crozes‐Hermitage, Cote Rotie and Saint Joseph.
Southern Rhone has a bit warmer climate and in addition to Syrah, you will also see blends with Grenache (dominantly), Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan. One of the key appellations in Southern Rhone that you will want to commit to memory is Cotes du Rhone, a staple of the area, lots of Grenache dominated blends and typically a safe bet at almost any price point. Other notable areas include Cotes du Rhone Villages, Gigondas (great values), Cotes du Ventoux, Vacqueyras, Chateauneuf‐du‐Pape (a personal favorite), Rasteau and Costieres de Nimes.
Rhone offers some great white wines too blended from grapes such as Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc with some lesser known grapes such as Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, and Clairette.
Note: For wines from the European countries, I am going to focus on covering the appellations that you should explore and not specific bottles as I did for some of the other sections. Distribution is just such a moving target, I would hate to send you searching for certain winemakers when your store might carry an even better bottle from the same region. Focus on the areas, explore the differences between them, and then get into the specific winemakers from the areas you like best.
Your French Wine Check List:
– Left bank red Bordeaux from Margaux, St Julien, St Estephe, Pauillac, Medoc and Pessac-Leognan (try each one)
– Right bank red Bordeaux from Pomerol, Saint-Emilion and Fronsac
– White Bordeaux (Bordeaux Blanc blend of Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc)
– Dessert wine (sweet) from Sauternes
– Red Burgundy from Cote D’Or
– White Burgundy from Chablis
– Beaujolais (various options here, but try to find a Cru Beaujolais too)
– French champagne
– Red wine from Cotes du Rhone
– Red wine from Chateauneuf-du-Pape
– White Rhone wine
Fast Fact: The French wine-making tradition traces its roots back to the sixth century B.C., when the area that is today southern France was settled by Greek colonists.
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