Perhaps the most fascinating part of our own and many consumers’ wine journey is exploring the wines and growing regions of the “Old World.” Whether you are traveling the appellations of Europe or just tasting through the wines that come from different European areas that you buy here at home, it becomes clear that different varietals grow in different areas for the simplest of reasons. It is because each varietal is more suited to the growing area it comes from.
The same is true of domestic appellations, Napa Cabernet tastes like it tastes and commands the price it commands simply because it does great there. You can go down the list of varietals domestic and those from other countries and when you taste them you say “well that explains it, it is delicious” at least in part because it is suited to that region. This doesn’t stop growers from experimenting, with mixed results at times, planting varietals where they should not be planted. Similarly you will find the winemaker who insists on trying to make a varietal wine from grapes planted where they should not be.
Examples are most illuminating in the extreme, and there is no more extreme grape varietal as far as its preferences for climate and other growing conditions than Pinot Noir. When the grape is planted and grown in the right conditions it is capable of producing subtle complex and flat out delicious wines. Put it in the wrong spot and it is virtually impossible to make good wine from it. The best examples of the wrong growing conditions are right here in the appellations of the inland Northwest. The growing regions of Idaho and Central and Eastern Washington are exactly the wrong spots to grow Pinot Noir. It is too hot and too dry and the wine produced from Pinot grapes grown here are just simply dreadful.
Pinot Noir is indeed the most challenging varietal to grow. This is complicated by its preferences for cool damp conditions. If you look at the areas known for great Pinot, like the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, Carneros in southern Napa and Sonoma Counties, the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and Burgundy in France among others the conditions are similar. Warm but not hot days damp fog cooled nights make for the best Pinot.
Winemakers and growers we know well and those we have worked with are at times confounded by this! Pinot Noir grows in small tightly bunched bundles of grapes. The berries themselves are small and thin skinned. All of this contributes to the thing that can easily destroy any grape crop, mold and rot, which is more prevalent in cool and damp conditions with thin skinned grapes that have little air circulation between the berries.
Yet this is what Pinot Noir demands. This is part of the equation too of why Pinot Noir tends to be more “spendy” than some other varietals. With its petulance for developing disease and difficult growing conditions it costs more to grow and even more to grow it well resulting in higher raw material cost that translates to the bottle price.
For wine consumers that are enthusiastic consumers of Pinot and for those just developing an interest in the grape how should you go about finding good Pinot that also fits in your budget? Most importantly stick to the regions known for making great Pinot Noir. There is a reason these areas are known for the varietal and you will find better wine when sticking to them and avoiding appellations where it should not be grown.
Vintage is also very important. Tough growing conditions can affect this picky varietal more than it does more sturdy grapes. With the diverse and widely spread out appellations where Pinot Noir thrives the vintage part of the equation is even more vital as the weather in any year can vary so widely. With a challenging varietal like this the guidance of a good wine professional is important, one who knows vintages and tries enough wines from the varied areas to be familiar with the bottles to buy and those to avoid.
As you get to know Pinot Noir stop by the shop to learn more of this challenging varietal and see how it fits into your own wine journey.
If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.
George Balling is co-owner with his wife Mary Lancaster of the dinner party a wine and table top décor shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. George has also worked as a judge in many wine competitions; his articles are published around the country and is the wine editor for Coeur d’Alene magazine (www.cdamagazine.com). You can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. You can get all of these articles as well as other great wine tips by friending us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.