Don't Be a Sucker 

Tips for tasting truly great Pinot Noir.

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I too am susceptible to peer pressure. I, too, love Pinot Noir. It’s a potentially fatal confluence of factors that makes me susceptible to all sorts of vinocentric marketing chicanery. In short, I am a sucker.

So, there I was at the wine store when a new shipment of Pinot Noir wines from a very highly regarded, small-production California producer arrived. The package was a model of all that makes wine packaging effective: heavy bottle, clever artsy labels, waxy tops and a lengthy natural cork. The wine-store employees were atwitter with this very exclusive, very trendy, very highly rated wine. Not only would I be part of the “In” crowd were I to buy a bottle, but all my hopes and desires would be satisfied by the heavenly elixir contained therein. Wine Spectator magazine said so. How could I go wrong?

These wines were, at best, competently made—with obvious flaws. At $100 for both bottles, I expected far more than just adequate Pinot Noir. I spent several hours that evening, waiting for these two coveted releases to show me something— anything—other than an overt oak spice and an empty mid-palate. To be fair, these wines may develop into something. I doubt it, but wines do change over time, so I need to at least admit the possibility.

These wines were designed to piss me off, and don’t talk to me of that damned movie! You know the one—it sold an ocean of Pinot Noir for me as a wine broker. But now, years later, it has resulted in an ocean of mediocre, expensive Pinot Noir.

Shortly after this exercise in viticultural flaccidity, I reached for other bottles, hoping to scour my palate of this sad exercise. A bottle of Soter’s Mineral Springs Pinot Noir restored my faith not only in the varietal (a life without Pinot Noir is no life at all), but also in good fruit (and a competent winemaker) trumping all.

What makes great Pinot Noir? I am not one to believe that “it’s all good; you like what you like.” I think that such thoughts weaken the soul, and Pinot Noir is far too important to leave by the milquetoast wayside of people who would drink anything. There are a multitude of factors that go into making great Pinot, many more than 600 words will allow, so shortcuts help. Pinot Noir speaks of its place like no other grape. It’s easy to misunderstand. Pinot’s a finicky fruit; it’s a Blanche Dubois that doesn’t take kindly to oak—and shame on Pinot Noir makers who abuse their efforts with these drying, distracting tannins that sucker the mouth away from the fruit on the tongue.

Cool-climate Pinot Noir tends to show darker, less opulent flavors. It also shows lower alcohol (read the label and don’t be afraid of the French). The acids are higher and it’s food-friendlier. Warm-climate, higher-alcohol efforts are more opulent and fleshier, and they show riper fruit and sunnier dispositions. These might be less food-friendly, but are more entertaining to drink alone.

The best tip? Pay close attention to mouthfeel. That is, the way the wine coats your tongue and gums. Roll the wine around your mouth; don’t just slug it down. Doing so cheats your mouth of the joys of texture; its like avoiding foreplay. With any great wine, the very last sensation in your mouth should always be a concentrated intensity of fruit down the center of the tongue. Most people don’t pay attention to this telling detail, but it can happen at any price.

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About The Author

Francis Fecteau

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