Pinot Noir has really been on a tear over the past decade in this country. While no where near overtaking Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon in market share, the increase in consumption and availability has been dramatic.
Many point to the popular movie 2004 Sideways as contributing to this growth. In the movie, the lead character Miles (played by Paul Giamatti) memorably praises Pinot Noir and excoriates Merlot. If you’ve never seen it, it’s very funny even if you’re not into wine. The movie really did have an effect on wine consumption in this country – here’s a study published by Sonoma State University documenting the changes.
While becoming much more prominent, many think American Pinot Noir has changed. Pinot Noir is the main varietal in the Burgundy region of France, and the wines from there are often light, earthy and low in alcohol. American Pinot Noirs in general have usually featured more forward fruit, more alcohol and less acidity, making them more enjoyable when young. But in the past few years there have been some American Pinot Noirs that are so big they almost verge on a distinct varietal.
So what’s going on? I had a chance to talk recently with Jeff Stewart, winemaker at Hartford Court, a winery in the Russian River area of Sonoma County. He agreed there is a trend going on, but added a lot of context:
“There’s no doubt there is much more good Pinot Noir available than say, in the 1990s. And there has been an evolution to a bigger, riper style. Part of that might be an effort to secure high scores from critics, and part of it is probably simply an expression of Californian terroir, which is naturally very different from Burgundy. At Hartford Court, we produce wine that showcases the vineyard, not wine that hews to a particular style. We produce 12 different Pinot Noirs, and they are all different based on the plot. I also think the market is getting beyond the truly big Pinot style.”
To my palate Hartford Court Pinot is distinctly American in style but not overly big. Another viewpoint comes from Merry Edwards, a well known and respected maker of Californian Pinot Noir. I’m on her club list, and in a recent letter to subscribers she addressed this issue as a natural development of better American Pinot Noir clones and winemaking practices:
“What is Pinot Noir truly supposed to be? Literature speaks of the dark, rick Burgundies of old that sound more like current Cabernets by description… As [ed. Californian] the wines improved, aroma increased, color deepened and the mouthful was enhanced. Then a strange thing happened: French vignerons and even some insecure American winemakers began to question whether these “new” wines were really Pinot. After all, French Burgundies were not dark in color as the cool climate there kept alcohol levels low, body light and acidity high, making them unapproachable when young.”
Should this debate matter to you? The one thing I’d suggest is to avoid making an automatic assumption that an American Pinot Noir will always be a good match for fish or other relatively subtle foods. Some of them are big to the point where it makes them harder to combine with food.
Beyond that, let your palate decide. I think you’ll enjoy the process deciding what American style of Pinot Noir is right for you.
Christopher Parente is managing director and partner of Strategic Communications Group, a social media and public relations consultancy based in Silver Spring, Maryland and Tysons Corner, Virginia. He also publishes Work, Wine and Wheels, a top 100K web site in the United States as measured by Alexa, an online measurement company. You can follow Chris on LinkedIn or Twitter.