Classic Pinot Noir 101

The Sonoma region of California produces excellent pinot noir.
The Sonoma region of California produces excellent pinot noir.

When the Paul Giamatti character Miles uttered the words, “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving, I’m NOT drinking any [expletive] merlot!” in the 2004 movie Sideways, it changed the wine world forever. Merlot was ushered out as the fashionable wine of the time and a new interest in pinot noir was born. No one could have predicted the profound and lasting effect this movie would have. Once primarily the object of connoisseurs, collectors and serious wine enthusiasts, the public has taken notice of pinot noir with an enthusiasm that has not slowed in the last 10 years.

What to expect from pinot noir? In taste, pinot noir is light to medium-bodied, and looking through the wine, you should almost always be able to see your fingers on the other side of the glass. Fruit flavors can be reminiscent of cranberry, pomegranate, raspberry, cherry or darker berries and red fruits. Pinot noir is beautifully aromatic. Spices, black tea and “forest floor” (akin to an autumn walk in the woods) are common descriptors. The grape conveys an inherent prettiness, which holds true for even the bolder and more complex bottles, where you’ll find opulence, elegance and a supple, silky texture on the palate.

The challenge with pinot noir is that it’s a fickle grape to grow and vinify, and there just aren’t that many places in the world where it produces quality wine. As a result, the wines are more expensive than those from other varietals. Expect to pay between $15 to $20 for good entry-level selections and $25 to $30 to get into some excellent bottles. Be skeptical of $12 pinot noir. A varietally labeled wine from California means that only 75 percent of the wine is made from the designated grape, and pinot noir can easily lose its identity as a result of blending. I’ve had some bottles at $10 to $12 that tasted just fine; they just didn’t have a pinot noir character.

One thing to remember is that pinot noir is a cool-climate grape, so paying attention to region is important. Burgundy in eastern France is the ancestral home of the grape and represents the classic style. There are excellent domestic wines available as well. The style here tends to be juicier and more fruit forward, with the leading regions being the Sonoma Coast, Carneros and the Santa Rita Hills/Santa Barbara area in California, along with the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Good and surprising wines also come from New Zealand, the Finger Lakes and from the Trentino in northern Italy, one of my favorite places to find great pinot noir values.

Pinot noir excels at the table as one of the most food-flexible grapes. It works equally well with red and white meat dishes, it is superb with duck and roast chicken, fantastic with salmon and it is one of the only reds that can match sushi. Give it a try.

Michael Amendola is wine director at The Village Wine Merchant in Sea Cliff. Learn more about wines at

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