Friday, March 4, 2005

Pinot noir hits the spotlight

Nothing sideways about pinot noir

Express Staff Writer

"Sideways," the low-budget film that tapped into America's affinity for wine to earn a Best Picture nomination at this year's Academy Awards, has reportedly transformed the palates of aspiring oenophiles across the nation.

Media from New York to Los Angeles have circulated stories about how one of the two main characters in the film, Miles, a struggling writer with a distinct passion for pinot noir, has brought thousands of people into his club.

On Feb. 21, USA Today ran an Associated Press story called, "'Hooray for Hollywood,' say pinot noir producers." The story states that "Sideways," characterized as a "movie about two guys, a road trip and a whole lot of wine," is "boosting sales of pinot noir."

Apparently, bottles of pinot noir that for years collected dust in restaurant wine cellars are suddenly finding their way onto the floor and into the glasses of pleasantly surprised patrons. And in wine stores, pinot has gone from being a tough sell to the red wine "de rigeur."

While the thought that Hollywood put pinot noir on the map might seem interesting, the fact is that pinot noir has for centuries been one of the most seductive and complex wines in the world.

At its best, pinot noir is at once elegant and profound. More delicate and silky than cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel or syrah, it can offer an exquisite balance of red-fruit flavors and mild tannins that pairs perfectly with salmon, game birds and lightly prepared meat dishes.

Pinot noir is a temperamental grape variety that demands cool growing conditions and significant amounts of finessing by patient, dedicated winemakers.

In decades and centuries past, it was best known as the sole grape of the highly prized red wines from Burgundy, in central France. However, in recent years, wineries in selected parts of California and Oregon have started to produce outstanding pinot noirs, albeit of a different style than those produced in the Old World.

Choosing pinot noirs from Burgundy can be intimidating for some wine buyers. The prices and the quality vary widely and are not always linked. Moreover, Burgundies are labeled according to a complex set of regulations that does more to stress the origin of the wine than the style or producer.

Yet, after buyers learn the basics, experimenting with red Burgundies can reap substantial rewards.

The most prominent feature on most bottles of red Burgundy is an identification of where the grapes were harvested. Wines from a highly prized "grand cru" or "premier cru" vineyard will carry the name of the vineyard. Wines from less-prized vineyards can carry the name of the village where the grapes were farmed—such as Pommard—or, if applicable, a broader region—such as Burgundy (Bourgogne).

In choosing Burgundy wines, one must strongly consider the vintage, origin and producer, all of which have profound effects on character and quality. Because many of the best vineyards are parceled up among numerous landowners, buying an expensive wine from a single vineyard is not always an assurance of top quality. On the other hand, a lower-priced regional wine made by a top producer can be outstanding.

In the United States, the picture is somewhat clearer. Pinot noirs are identified predominantly by the varietal name and the producer, although the origin is noted and often is a significant factor.

The unique characteristics of Burgundies from different vineyards and villages are not as apparent in American pinot noirs, but some regions nonetheless produce distinguished, fruit-forward wines. In California, the Carneros region and parts of the Central Coast region produce excellent pinots in a variety of price ranges. In Oregon, the Willamette Valley has proven to be a New World pinot noir Mecca.

Enjoy the rich, ruby color, smell the bouquet, but don't get too far sideways.

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