Many will say that the movie “Sideways” did much more good for Pinot than it did badly for Merlot, and I’m willing to accept that. I recall a merchant confessing to me that the number one red wine that people were requesting at the time was Pinot, but they didn’t want to pay for it. The problem with Pinot Noir is that it’s a finicky grape that’s sensitive to wind, frost, soil types and pruning techniques. It likes cool climates and yields must be low to produce serious wines. When you put this all together, you have a costly wine to produce.
However, there are a lot of reasons to love Pinot Noir and to justify the cost of a good bottle. I’ve had many friends express that if they could start their cellars over from scratch, they would buy nothing but Burgundy. Pinot can be ripe, suave and sexy, or it can be earthy, wild and lean. From Burgundy, it can create wines that last decades, and in New Zealand, it can make rich, plummy examples that are hard to resist upon release. It’s a grape that is sensitive to terroir, much more than most, and can express the region it’s grown in better than any I know. With Pinot, there’s something for everyone, which is why we must talk about food.
You see, Pinot Noir is not your average red grape, and if you think that a medium-rare Porterhouse steak is the way to go, think again. Each region gives us a unique expression and a new challenge. So, let’s take a look at pairing Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir and Food image via Shutterstock
In the United States, Pinot Noir has gained a massive amount of popularity. From the Central Coast to the Santa Cruz Mountains, Pinot Noir has excelled and continues to provide enthusiasts with a vast array of different expressions. The mineral-driven, wild berry examples from Santa Cruz are an Old World Pinot lover’s dream come true, while the riper, fleshier Pinots from the Central Coast provide us with all the plush Pinot fruit one could hope for.
The wine I chose is a pleaser in every way. Its price point, at $24, is highly attractive, and the wine delivers in a big way. It’s not too ripe, nor does it need years to come around. This is a food-friendly Pinot that can also be sipped and admired on its own, and it paired perfectly with a Fennel-Crusted Roast Pork Loin. It’s a simple recipe and a great pairing. The soft, succulent loin of pork yields to Pinot’s fruit and moderate acidity, and the aromatic fennel complements its bouquet. Throw in pan-roasted vegetables and you have an entire meal.
2009 Calera Pinot Noir - The nose was highly expressive with a bouquet that showed sweet cherries, pine nettles and dark soil notes. On the palate, it was silky smooth yet juicy, with pure dark cherry fruit, hints of herbs, and a crack of pepper. The finish followed suit, as its red fruit and earthy profile slowly melted away from the palate. (91 points)
It all started with Burgundy. I admit to having a love-hate relationship with red Burgundy in that I have loved it deeply on many occasions, yet I have also spent more money trying to find good bottles at a decent price (and more often failing) than with any other wine. In the end, the best bottles are worth the search and all the more reason to seek wines from the advice of experienced tasters.
Red Burgundy is an excellent food wine. It is floral and delicate with fruit that is pure and focused and with just the right amount of acidity to refresh the palate between bites. Mushrooms are almost always a sure bet, and you can never go wrong with Beef Bourguignon. This classic French preparation pairs well with red Burgundy because of its earthy, meaty and herbal aromatics with a suave, warming presence on the palate. Pinot Noir is not just for white meat and this pairing proves that in spades.
2006 Domaine Sebastien Magnien Pommard Les Perrieres - This showed a very expressive nose of lush red fruits, some dried cherry, potpourri, undergrowth and hints of mushroom. On the palate, it was elegant and feminine with soft, floral red fruits and a juicy structure that gave way to tannin into the finish. Yet, this wine lingered on the palate with dried holiday spices and minerals. (92 points)
Oregon, Willamette Valley
With California and Burgundy out of the way, I find myself thinking about Oregon. For me, Oregon is one of the most exciting regions for Pinot Noir. It’s a fact that these wineries struggle to make good wine from vintage to vintage, but in the end, the best examples are some of my favorite Pinots year in and year out. Many would say that these wines are closer to Burgundy than the riper styles of California, but that’s a broad generalization. Yet speaking in broad generalizations, my opinion is that Oregon finds a perfect middle ground between both regions.
With a menagerie of floral fruit and spice on the nose, clean and pure, focused fruits on the palate, and a delicate yet seductive feminine frame, the Bethel Heights Casteel Reserve was the perfect wine to pair with Broiled Salmon. I know some people will gawk at red wine with fish, but Pinot Noir doesn’t always behave like red wine (and salmon is a hearty fish). This pairing will prove it to any doubters. The salmon contrasts and complements the Pinot on the palate, just as the Pinot’s bouquet is a perfect counter-point to the tarragon in this recipe.
2008 Bethel Heights Pinot Noir Casteel Reserve - At first pour, the nose was stunning with ripe strawberry, cinnamon spice, a dusting of brown sugar and a basket of floral notes. With time, earth tones and floral undergrowth emerged. On the palate, it was soft, light-bodied and feminine, showing red berries, a hint of spice and herbal tea. On the finish, drying tannin lingered along with ripe strawberry and cedar. (91 points)
Pinot Noir has become the red wine of New Zealand, and having tasted a number of them this year, I’m not surprised. Typically, the style is more fruit-driven and forward with heavier textures and plumy fruit. However, many producers have taken to creating more serious wines, especially in Martinborough, where Pinot can achieve greater complexity with more savory and earthy tones. My favorite New Zealand Pinot to date is easily Ata Rangi.
As for food pairings, let me first say that this bottle will absolutely be finding its way onto my holiday table. You simply can’t go wrong with Roasted Chicken, Duck or Game. In this case, Roast Duck was my choice. In addition, the sides of stuffing, vegetables, potatoes, gravies and sauces will all find this Pinot Noir to be a great companion for its fruity nature and food-friendly structure. The one thing I’d avoid is anything with hot spices.
2010 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir - The nose was highly expressive with an excellent balance of fruit and earth, showing black cherry and clove with moist fall leaves and a hint of mountain herbs. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with silky textures and a balanced dose of zesty acidity. Juicy cherry, strawberry, spice and notes of extra dark chocolate lingered with hints of tannin revealing a finely balanced structure. (93 points)
Italy, Alto Adige
In Northern Italy, Pinot Noir finds another unique expression, as well as a different name: Pinot Nero. Like most wines from this region, Pinot Nero takes on more alpine characteristics, combined with that textbook Italian acidity that I have grown to love. Their fruit is often darker and plumier than most Pinot Noir and, of course, they pair very well with the regional cuisine.
One of the classic complements to Pinot Noir is mushrooms and one of my favorite meats to eat with Pinot is veal. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when a sauté of Veal Escalope with Mushrooms was the perfect pairing for this Pinot Nero. This is an easy recipe with a quick pan sauce that will surprise you with its intense flavors. The white meat of the veal will scream for the caressing touch and dark red fruits of the Pinot. Meanwhile, the aromas of the mushrooms will combine with the bouquet of the wine to create an earthy, seductive mix for your olfactory senses.
2005 J. Hofstatter Pinot Nero Alto Adige – Sudtirol Meczan - The nose showed ripe plum with cranberry sauce, autumnal spices and sweet tobacco. On the palate, it was soft and full with ripe cherry and cinnamon that stayed into the long, fresh finish with lingering, sweet cherry fruit. (90 points)