Although it is officially November today, let’s be honest: We still have two more nights of Halloween. But, if you’re looking for a slightly more low-key way to rally, then I would suggest Pinot Noir, our grape variety of the week. If there were one word I could use do describe Pinot Noir, it would be elegant. Light to medium-bodied, this is a super-smooth red you can drink through the summer, but it carries enough weight to warm you up in the chillier months as well.
Today I’m sipping two Pinot Noirs — one from France, and one from the United States.
People are often intimidated by French wine. First off, the labels are in French, often featuring a drawing of some castle-type building, seemingly indistinguishable from one brand to the next. But, if you learn the basics, French wine labels are actually incredibly easy to dissect. I typically look for four things when picking out a bottle of wine: vintage, region, varietal and producer. The French map those out clearly on every bottle.
The easiest to find is the vintage — the year the grapes were picked — as it should be the only date on the bottle. The next step is where new wine enthusiasts usually get confused. The French wine industry is so organized that the region alone will tell you the grape variety or varieties used to make the wine. All quality wineries in France operate under the AOC system, or Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée. For a wine to be deemed AOC, it must conform to certain regulations, most notably that only certain grape varieties can be grown in certain regions. For this reason, an experienced oenophile will know that Vouvray is always the grape Chenin Blanc, or that Pomerol is a Merlot-driven Right Bank Bordeaux blend. The more French wine you drink, the more familiar you’ll become with the different regions and their grapes. But for starters, if you’re feeling lost in the France section of your local wine store, a simple Wikipedia search on your smart phone will tell you what you’re looking at. Finally, the producer is the other set of the words you’ll find on a French label, often beginning with “Domaine” or “Château.”
The French wine industry boasts centuries of rich history, so they are pretty stuck in their ways about what grapes can be grown where. The American wine industry, on the other hand, is still relatively new, constantly experimenting by growing new grape varieties in different areas. For that reason, American wine laws are decidedly less strict. The American counterpoint to the AOC guidelines is the AVA system, or American Viticultural Area. An AVA has clearly defined boundaries, and must feature distinctive terroir (climate, elevation, soil, etc.).
For an American winery to write an AVA on their wine label, 85 percent of the grapes used must come from within those borders. But, unlike in France, the AVA will not tell you exactly what you’re drinking — there’s no guarantee that a red Sonoma wine is Cabernet Sauvignon. So, with American wines, you’ll typically see both the AVA and the grape variety on the label.
Back to Pinot Noir: I’m sipping a 2010 Burgundy by Chartron et Trébuchet and a 2010 from Emerson Vineyards, from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Burgundy is the gold standard for Pinot Noir, producing some of the most expensive and complex wines in the world. Understanding the region is really quite simple: all white
Burgundy is made from Chardonnay, and all red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir (with the exception of Beaujolais, the southern tip where they do their own thing).
But, alas, Chartron et Trébuchet decided to play nice, naming their wine “Bourgogne Pinot Noir.” This Burgundy definitely falls on the weightier side of the spectrum for Pinot Noir, a perfect fit for the time of year. With notes of cola and spice on the nose, the wine holds a distinct earthiness, leading to a bold, lingering finish.
The Willamette Valley AVA is one of America’s latest Pinot Noir hotspots, but other great American Pinots come from California AVAs such as Carneros, the Sonoma Coast and Mendocino County. This Emerson Pinot tastes a bit jammier than the Burgundy. Aromas of vanilla and Bing cherry carry to the palate, meeting flavors of fresh raspberry and cola. This wine has a vibrant, refreshing acidity, paving the way for a gentle and delicious exit.
Ultimately, whether it’s French or American, you can’t go wrong with Pinot Noir this time of year. And one last note: It is a complete pain to grow. This particularly finicky variety loves warm days and cool nights, causing stress for winemakers worldwide. So as you unpack your winter coats and accessories, take a moment to sit back with a glass of Pinot Noir and really appreciate the passion and perseverance behind the bottle.
Both the Chartron et Trébuchet “Bourgogne Pinot Noir” 2010 (Burgundy, France) $17 and the Emerson Vineyards “Pinot Noir” 2011 (Willamette Valley, Ore.) $20 are available for purchase at The Wine Thief (181 Crown St., New Haven).