Posts Tagged ‘Pinot Noir’

I have a horrible habit of thinking it’s hilarious to pronounce Champagne like “Champ-Ag-Nee.” Regardless of how you want to say it, Champagne is weird stuff. At its most interesting, Champagne is a product of sheer ingenuity – of centuries of curious tinkering, trial, and error. At its most expensive, Champagne is one of the most successful tales of marketing in the history of food and beverage. And at its most refined, Champagne is the stuff of delirious gustatory delight and celebration.

So, what exactly is Champagne?

Champagne is a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir grapes that are grown exclusively in the Champagne region of France.

Queue the sound effect of tires coming to a screeching haltPinot Noir? But that’s a red grape! And Champagne is white!

Not exactly – the skins of the Pinot Noir grape (and the Pinot Meunier grape for that matter) are most definitely red but(!) the juice of the grape is actually white. If you separate the juice from the skin early in the wine making process, you’re left with the makings of a white wine.

Champagnes made from only Pinot Noir grapes or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are called Blanc de Noirs (literally translates to “white from red”). Similarly, Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes is called a Blanc de Blanc (white from white). In a similarly confusing fashion, most Champagne is made from a mixture of grapes harvested in different years (usually marked N.V.). However, if a particular year (aka vintage) proves to be exceptional, under the laws of the powers that be, a Champagne Vintage may be produced that contains grapes exclusively from that one year.

Pretty Champagne vines in Fall

In Europe, where they are much stricter about these things, not only must a wine called Champagne be made from grapes grown within this small region, but that wine must also be produced by a specific and traditional method (here in America, we’re not so particular – you can slap “Champagne” on a $5 bottle of Andre. God bless America!). This method requires that the effervescence, or bubbles, in Champagne be produced by a second fermentation in the bottle.

This means that, to start, Champagne is made just like any other wine – the grapes are harvested and thrown into a fermentation tank along with some yeast. The yeast converts the natural sugar present in the grapes into alcohol and voila! A wine is born. To make that wine into Champagne, it is poured directly into the bottle along with some extra sugar (called dosage), some more yeast and set aside to age for a minimum of 1.5 years or 15 months. During those years when a vintage is declared (a year when the harvest is exceptional), bottles must be allowed to age for twice as long – for a minimum of three years.

Merci, Madame Clicquot!

For a long time, because yeast and sugar were introduced directly into the bottle, Champagne was a cloudy wine – it had all kinds of fun particulates floating around! It was the infamous Widow Clicquot (of Veuve Clicquot) who introduced the use of something called a riddling table (a table that holds Champagne bottles upside down so that the sediment from secondary fermentation settled into the neck of the bottle and made it easier to draw off) that was used to produce the sparkling clear Champagne we know and love today.

Notice: A guy all decked out in formal top hat and tails and an elegant evening-gown clad lady.

So, if Champagne is such a specific wine why do we have a habit of calling any old sparkling wine Champagne? This is where we get into a case study of brilliant marketing. Even before it came to resemble the stuff we drink today, Champagne had long been treasured by European royalty and French aristocracy and imbibed at official ceremonies and celebrations. The method champenoise wasn’t introduced until around 1700 (and, coincidentally, not in Champagne but probably somewhere in the Languedoc region). Before the method was introduced to the winemakers of the region, Champagne was imbibed as a still wine, and often only during celebratory occasions – it was, even back then, the good stuff you busted out for company. Champagne, then, was always a wine associated with luxury, prestige, and celebration.

During the 1800’s Champagne houses and producers took advantage of their product’s rarified past and began marketing it to the burgeoning middle class at home and abroad. Take a look at any old Champagne ad (if you don’t already have a poster up on your wall) and you’ll see the instant appeal.. Needless to say, the Champagne industry did gangbusters.

However that success was not built entirely on marketing a lifestyle – Champagne is amazing stuff. The range of styles; from delicate, floral and dreamy to biscuity and savory younger varieties to the rich and complex mature examples make Champagne exactly the kind of indulgence that pairs perfectly with just about any occasion.

So, to review:

A true Champagne may only be made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes grown within the Champagne appellation and subjected to the traditional and specific method of secondary in-bottle fermentation

Methode Champoinese is the traditional method by which Champagne is produced. Sparkling wines that are made in other regions may indicate that they were produced in this same fashion. If you see a sparkling wine that has Methode Champoinese or Methode traditionelle on the label, it just means that the wine was made using the same technique as Champagne – with the secondary in-bottle fermentation and aging.

Blanc de Blancs is Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. You may see other sparkling wines that are called Blanc de Blancs – and they may be made from white grapes other than Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs is Champagne made from either 100% Pinot Noir or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. You may see other sparkling wines that identify themselves as Blanc de Noirs – this just mean’s they’re made from red grapes, not that they’re Champagne.

Vintage : A Vintage Champagne means that all of the grapes used to make the wine (regardless of varietal) were harvested in the same year and that that year produced an exceptional harvest. A Vintage Champagne also means that the wine was aged for at least 3 years in the bottle. If you see N.V. on a Champagne label, it means that the wine was not produced as a Vintage and could have been made from grapes from different years.

Brut, Extra Brut, Sec, and Demi Sec are all terms that are commonly found on Champagne labels as well as on the labels of other sparkling wines. Brut indicates a dry wine; Extra Brut means, incidentally, extra dry; Sec means sweeter than Brut but still on the dry side; Demi Sec is used to indicate a sweet sparkling wine.

Next week, I’ll be looking at sparkling wines other than Champagne – Prosecco, Cava, Cremant, and New World sparklers. Stay tuned!

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Drinking Cooking with Wine

            For those of you who don’t know me too well, one of my all-consuming passions besides wine is cooking. In fact, once upon a time I had a little blog called The Unlikely Gourmand, where I chronicled my mishaps and triumphs in the kitchen over about the course of a year.

gratuitious staged shot of Farmers Market goodies

I’ve always loved cooking with wine and, in fact, had one of several fake ID’s confiscated for trying to purchase a bottle of Marsala wine (to make, what else, Chicken Marsala). My attempt to explain that I was merely buying the obscure and practically undrinkable fortified wine for purely innocent and culinary purposes fell on deaf ears and I was left sans ID and sans dinner. America is a tough place for the aspiring home cook under the age of 21.

When it comes to cooking with wine there really are a lot of opinions out there, circling around the one consensus that it makes a lot of dishes infinitely better. If you watch anyone on the Food Network, you’ve surely heard that you should never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. Walk into any restaurant kitchen, however, and you’ll find Carlo Rossi-esque jugs of wine that are used expressly for cooking. So who’s right?

It depends. I realize this is not the answer you were hoping for, so lets get to it, shall we?

A couple of bottles from a few weeks back

Certainly for wine-centric dishes like Coq au Vin or Beouf Bourgignon or even a simple braised chicken dish, the wine you’re using matters a little bit more. If it’s a dish that calls for wine as a significant ingredient, it should be a wine that you would drink. That’s not to say you should go ahead and pour that expensive1987 Bordeaux you have lying around into your Coq au Vin because that would just be a waste. A very expensive and sad waste. But, if you have a decent everyday-quality wine (in the $10-$20 range) that you wouldn’t mind drinking while you cook or, later, with dinner, by all means, go ahead and use it.

Same goes for a bottle of wine that you just never got around to finishing. I, for one, hate to waste so I try to finish a bottle over two nights. However, if I just can’t get around to emptying a bottle and I’ve got a glass or more left on the third day, I’ll keep the bottle corked in the fridge and use it to cook later. It’s also never a bad idea to have a cheap ($7ish) bottle of Pinot Grigio in the fridge to use in everything from Risotto to Soup.

Another reason I would like to believe those Food Network ladies are always hawking drinkable wine is that most of the time you’re only using a cup (more or less) of wine in any given dish and so why not have that wine around to serve with dinner or drink later? However, keep in mind that the wine is going to be cooked so it’s really not necessary to splurge.

Alright, so now that we’ve cleared that up – lets get to the best kinds  of wine to cook with. As I mentioned earlier I think a light Pinot Grigio is a good thing to have around – its bright and acidic (the main reason you use wine is usually to deglaze, or in normal terms, to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of a pan). You don’t want to use an oaky chardonnay because its just got too much character and will impart its own funky flavor. However, an unoaked chardonnay could do quite nicely. I’m also a big fan of cooking with dry reisling – again its got lots of acid and bright flavors that won’t get in the way of your dish. Sauvignon Blanc can be tricky because sometimes the NZ or California examples are just too herbaceous, too grassy, and too fruity. But if you get a flinty French example you should be ok.

You could make this if you had some wine around!

For red wines, the same rules apply. Pinot Noir is a great cooking wine because its got great acid and lighter flavors. For a “dry red wine” Chianti can be pretty fabulous – its tannic yet light and still acidic and I don’t mind using a Cab-Merlot blend that’s not too oaky for richer dishes like beef stew.
Very recently, I tried a wonderful recipe from the ladies at Food 52 – one of the best food websites around if you ask me. It was a dish made with Rose and as soon as I saw it, I just had to make it. It was delicious and a great way to use up some leftover Rose I had lying around. When cooking with Rose, I’d urge you to go for the good stuff from Provence – crisp and herby and just delightful.

The only thing you really want to stay away from is wine that’s really expensive or wine that’s really bold. Anything else is most likely going to better your dish more often than bring it down. Yet another gift of the grape.

Want to try cooking with wine? Head on over to the recipes linked below:

Merrill’s Rosy Chicken

Coq Au Vin

Chicken in Reisling (go for the cream instead of the creme fraiche)

Alice Waters’ (and my favorite) Beef Stew

Risotto with Mushrooms and Peas (can easily swap out white wine for red and change up the ingredients but a great basis for liquid-to-rice ratio)

Strawberry Rhubarb Breakfast Cake - am I bad at photography or what?

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Growing up there were really only ever two kinds of wine to be found in our kitchen – Beaujolais Nouveau during the holidays and Kendall Jackson Chardonnay (which my mother, whose penchant for abbreviation was far ahead of her time, affectionately referred to as KJ). My childhood memories are peppered with the image of the wine’s label – a singular grape leaf perpetually in the midst of its autumnal color change.

Even as a teenager, I learned early on to avoid pinching the KJ and opted instead for the Kettle One in the freezer, surreptitiously replacing it with water that, whoops, froze after too may refills.

The one night a friend and I snuck off with a bottle of KJ, we only got about halfway through before we both started to feel sick – something I would much later attribute to the wine’s shockingly high sugar content. I couldn’t understand how my mom and her friends could knock the stuff back like juice – we were better off with vodka that we could dilute enough to be tolerable.

Fast forward a few years – my mom and her friends have, thankfully, graduated from KJ (though, I still see a bottle in the fridge every now and then) and have started to drink more and more pinot noir. My mom, who never thought she liked red wine had finally found one that was light enough for her palate and wasn’t of the same family as the monster reds my dad always drank that triggered her killer migraines.

They’ve found some good stand-by pinots that are good to grab for a pot luck or dinner party, but leaving these lovely ladies to their own devices, they’ve still brought plenty of bottles that evoke memories of retching after gulps of KJ. They’ve moved on from the big Chardonnays that came of age with them in the 80’s but with little direction.

My mother aches for a good every-day bottle of Pinot that’s on par with her beloved and not-quite-abandoned KJ, and has asked me to offer some helpful advice on finding the bottle whose image may grace the next chapter of my life’s memories.

Where to Start: Region

As I’ve said before, Pinot is a tricky grape to grow – she’s a diva who is inclined to give a less-than-thrilling performance if not pampered and indulged. Pinot had a sudden surge in popularity (thanks to, I wish I were kidding, the movie Sideways) that left a lot of winemakers, who had no previous experience with the grape, scrambling to cash in on the new market and bottle their own. Needless to say, for a long time, the result of all this inexperience was a lot of cheap Pinot Noir that really didn’t reflect the finesse and poetry for which the wine had been so celebrated in the movie that made it so popular.

This wasn’t, of course, the rule and luckily, in the past couple years, both veteran Pinot producers and some newbie game changers have stepped up their game to bring consumers some really stellar Pinot Noirs that are delicious and placed squarely within the everyday price range.

In particular, producers in California, Oregon, and Chile have some exciting wines that run the gamut of styles and flavors. Generally, finding a region that matches your particular preference for a certain kind of wine (assuming its one that grows in a wide array of places) is a good idea – knowing the basic qualities that come out of specific regions can help you to, time after time, pick the wine that’s right for you.


Sonoma, Sonoma Coast: Sonoma provides the perfect micro-climate for growing Pinot Noir. Pinot noir likes cooler regions and benefits from growing in a region where it is exposed to fog. Growing it in a coastal region known for its thick coastal fog makes perfect sense for Pinot.

What to expect: delicate, light, bright red fruit, floral aromas

What to try: Sebastiani Sonoma Pinot Noir 2008 ($13/bottle), Blackstone Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007 ($10/bottle), Heron Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2009 ($12/bottle), Purisma Canyon Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2008 ($14/bottle)

Looking for a splurge? Try Russian River Valley – the most highly regarded appellation within Sonoma County. It’s hard to find anything under $25 a bottle from this region but if you do stumble across anything from this region that’s on sale or otherwise affordable, give it a try!

Try: Willowbrook Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2008 ($20/bottle), Joseph Swan Cuvee de Trois Pinot Noir 2006 ($25/bottle – this is one of my favorites with a tawny color in the glass, really nice nose of strawberries, and a slight earthiness that makes it stand out)

Carneros: Nestled in a valley between Sonoma and Napa, this region acts as a tunnel through which cool air and fog funnel into Napa Valley from the coast, which makes it a good area for Pinot.

What to expect: Because this is a traditionally Chardonnay-growing region, wine producers are keen on oak in this area and love to imbue their Pinots with its smoky and full-bodied characteristics. Look for bigger pinots with medium bodies, creamy red fruit, and a touch of oak, smoke, or spice.

What to try: Castle Rock Winery Pinot Noir Carneros 2008 ($13/bottle), Annabella Pinot Noir Special Selection Carneros 2008 ($13/bottle), La Crema Pinot Noir 2007

Looking for a splurge? Fleur De California Pinot Noir Fleur de Carneros 2007 ($16/bottle), Etude Pinot Noir Carneros 2007 ($18/bottle), Acacia Pinot Noir Carneros 2007 ($20/bottle)

Monterey: Coastal, with cool afternoon sea breezes that keep Pinot nice and chilly.

What to expect: The watch-word for Monterey Pinot Noir is balance. More fruit-forward than upstate Pinots and with a tighter structure to support all that bursting fruit.

What to try: Irony Pinot Noir 2007 ($11/bottle),  Poppy Pinot Noir Monterey County 2009 ($12/bottle – and one of my favorites for easy drinking), Estancia Pinot Noir Pinnacles Ranches Monterey 2009 ($12/bottle)

Looking for a splurge? Kali Hart by Talbott Pinot Noir Monterey 2008 ($16/bottle), Chalone Pinot Noir Monterey 2008 ($20/bottle), Summerland Monterey Pinot Noir 2008 ($22/bottle and another personal favorite)

Santa Barbara: Similar to Napa and its various micro-climates, Santa Barbara has a distinct topography that allows for cool ocean breezes and fog to flow through the area’s coastal ranges and makes it one of the coolest places to grow wine vines in California.

What to expect: Elegant Pinot Noir that defy any previous notion of lightness without substance in Pinot Noir – these are beautiful Pinots that have complex structure that includes a medium body, bright fruit, and a smooth long finish where others just give out at the end.

What to try: Parker Station Santa Barbara Pinot Noir 2007 ($12/bottle), Martin Ray Santa Barbara Pinot Noir 2006 ($12/bottle)

Looking for a splurge?Anything with a Sta. Rita Hills appellation will most likely be dynamite and give you an example of California Pinot at its very best.  Melville Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2009 ($17/bottle) Sanford Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2007 (half bottle @ $18)


Willamette Valley: Cool and moist thanks to its position between the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west (think of LA smog effect but replace dirty lung-clogging air with fresh cool and wet sea fog).

What to expect: Oregon Pinot Noirs tend towards the more Burgundian style in that they can get a little funky and earthy in an amazingly delicious way. They’ll be delicate and lighter in body but still carry flavors of fresh fruits like dried strawberries and blueberries rather than the raspberries and dark cherry flavors of California.

What to try: Spruce Goose Pinot Noir 2006 ($11/bottle), Rascal Pinot Noir 2007 ($12/bottle), Primarius Pinot Noir 2007 ($14/bottle)

Looking for a splurge? Look for “Dundee Hills” – a sub appellation of Willamette Valley that produces stellar Pinots. Try: O’Reilly’s Pinot Noir 2009 ($17/bottle),  Belle Pente Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2008 ($23/bottle), Benton Lane Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2008 ($22/bottle)


($10/bottle), Chilensis Pinot Noir 2008 ($10/bottle), Montes Pinot Noir 2008 ($13/bottle)

Looking for a splurge? Ritual Pinot Noir 2008 ($18/bottle), Montes Alpha Pinot Noir Leyda Valley 2007 ($19/bottle)

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Pinot Noir is a tricky little grape – and to write about the wine, I’d need to have an entire blog solely devoted to it. Pinot Noir is one of those wines that attracts uneasy wine drinkers and connoiseurs alike. For the former it’s a “lighter” red wine that is infinitely more drinkable than a challenging glass of Cabernet or Syrah and for the latter, a good glass of Pinot can be a revelation. However, this blog is for the former, and after so many glasses of Pinot Noir, enough is enough.

Its true that Pinot falls on the lighter end of the spectrum. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have complexity and character – it wouldn’t be one of the most sought-after wines in the world if it didn’t have both of those qualities. Pinot Noirs come in as many styles as there are places it is grown – from California to South Africa and lots of unexpected places in between. Pinot Noir can be a fruit bomb in a glass – an explosion of ripe red fruit that will knock you off your bar stool. It can be delicately floral or funky with hints of mushrooms and earth on the nose. A bad glass of Pinot is either syrupy sweet or so light it goes down like water with just as much of a finish.

All that having been aired out, if you find yourself confronting the fact that maybe just maybe you don’t actually love Pinot Noir as much as you think you’re supposed to the good news is that you have options. There are plenty of wines out there that are still “lighter wines” and easy to drink without all the politics behind Pinot Noir.

Mencia: Spanish

Grown mostly in the northern region of Spain known as “green Spain”, this is a semi-obscure grape that makes a truly delightful little red wine. It’s similar to some Pinot Noir’s in its flavor profile of rich red fruits and nice acidity. These wines, like the best Pinots also have a nice long finish that’s easy-going and smooth.

Try: Benaza Mencia  2009 at $9 a bottle at The Wine Buyer

Plavac: Croatia

Plavac is an ancient grape that is grown widely in Croatia and is rumored to be a distant cousin of the Zinfandel grape. Plavac is a grape that can pack some nice spice and tight structure that holds up a bouquet of strawberries and raspberries. It’s got more grip than your average Pinot but its still firmly in the lighter column. Not to mention its from Croatia which gives it a little bit of that Eastern European romance and intrigue…

Try: Dingac Plavac 2007 at $13 a bottle at Plonk

Dolcetto : Italian

Ah, Dolcetto. This was one of the first wines that I ever drank and thought was simply delicious. It’s the table wine of Piedmont, one of Italy’s most revered wine making regions that also produces Barolo and Barbera. Although the name implies sweetness, Dolcetto is a light and spicy little grape with ripe fruit, silky tannins, Moand a juicy quality that makes it especially amenable to accompanying a meal.

Try: Cascina Degli Ulivi Monferrato Dolcetto “Nibio” 2006 at Astor Wines

* Also, see my post on Beaujolais!

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