Pinot chic

Despite cranky reputation, pinot noir finds welcome home in California

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Williams Selyem pinot noir from Sonoma, Calif. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / June 27, 2010)

Pinot noir is not the most popular red wine in the United States — even merlot outsells it almost 2-to-1, according to The Nielsen Co. But pinot noir is arguably the most chic grape in the vineyard, which may explain why the variety has proved so troublesome.

Pinot noir vines are slow-growing, generally produce low grape yields, can be rather fussy about soils and demand cool weather conditions. Pinot is also prone to mutation — not something one necessarily wants in a vineyard — and pinot has more clones than any other variety, according to the Wine Institute, a California trade group. All of this may explain why so many winemakers, from Michigan to Mendocino, Mendoza to Marlborough, want to grow pinot noir. It's a challenge, but when done right, the resulting wine can be extraordinary.

This French-born grape is indeed grown around the world, but "The New Wine Lover's Companion" is right in declaring "few areas outside Burgundy make really great pinot noir wines."

Is California one of these areas? Golden State vintners certainly hope so. Pinot noir is the No.1 red wine grape in Sonoma County, according to the Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission. Sonoma's Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast regions particularly meet pinot's stiff climatic demands. Pinot has also pumped up the wine business along California's Central Coast, from Monterey in the north to the various wine regions of Santa Barbara in the south.

Frankly, pinot noir can be challenging to the consumer too. Folks are drinking more of it — 11.9 percent more in the past year, Nielsen reports. That's the biggest volume increase for any grape variety over that time.

Yet, as "The New Wine Lover's Companion" notes, there's a big, bad gap between high and low quality pinots. That means you're probably going to have to pay, and pay a lot, to ensure you get the best pinot for your money.

What to do? Take advantage of free tastings at your local wine shop or liquor store, for one. There's likely to be a bottle of pinot out on the tasting table most weekends. Ask your store owner or clerk for recommendations; don't necessarily follow scores or rankings unless you find you tend to be in sync with those reviewers and publications doling out the numbers.

For me, a key factor in choosing a pinot noir is location. I want cool climate areas. In California, that's going to be near the Pacific Coast, San Francisco Bay and valleys that funnel cold fogs and wind in from the ocean such as the Sonoma County Green Valley region or Santa Barbara County's Sta. Rita Hills.

wdaley@tribune.com

Distinctive 2008 Golden State pinots

Pinot noir vines are being grown in most if not all of the cool regions of California in the hope that the microclimates created by nearness to cold ocean or bay waters will make this fussy grape happy. What's always interesting about pinot noir from California is how distinctive the wine is compared with its Burgundian cousins: fuller bodied, darker colored, fruitier, totally Golden State. Serve with grilled beef, pork or salmon.

Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast: Colored a clear cherry red with an almost rubbery, smoky nose, this toothsome wine offers notes of lapsang souchong tea, eucalyptus, cherry and cedar. $46

Robert Mondavi Carneros Napa Valley: Layers of cherry, black pepper and cedar are found in this red from Carneros, a wine region that straddles Napa and Sonoma counties. Plummy nose, deep magenta color. $23

Freeman Keefer Ranch Russian River Valley: Although there are touches of cherry and berry flavor, this is not a fruity wine. Look instead for an elegant pour redolent of earth, tobacco, wood and mushrooms. Classically balanced; nose of cedar and spice. $45

Gnarly Head Pinot Noir California: A steal at $7, this wine is spicy, peppery and surprisingly robust with tart plums and black cherries. $7

Fess Parker Ashley's Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills: This Central Coast red offers simple flavors of sweet cherry, black cherry and cranberry. The nose is bright with mint and berry aromas. $50

Cambria Julia's Vineyard Santa Maria Valley: An inky wine full of warm spices, cedar, earth and some fruit. A lovely nose; incense, berry and earth. $25

Greg Norman Santa Barbara County: Candied cherries balanced by tart cranberries are the dominant flavors. The Central Coast wine smells of cherries, cedar and black pepper. $16

Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve California: Simple, sweet cherry notes underscored by an aromatic earthiness. The nose is of incense and smoke with a touch of green tea. $18

Valley of the Moon Carneros Sonoma: Look for soft but full cherry flavor with a touch of plum and strawberry. The nose is of cherry, berry, tea and earth. $18

Sequana Sacramento Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands: This Monterey County red has a salty, tomato flavor with an earthy tart cherry note. Short, bright finish; earthy nose. $32

Jargon Just Good Wine California: Just good indeed, especially at this price. Strawberry and raspberry flavors are backed up by rich earth and a touch of hay. Slightly jammy berry nose. $11

You want that wine. But your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price. Remember, too, prices vary.

Wine ratings: Excellent, four stars; very good, three stars; good, two stars; fair, one star; none: poor.
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