Pinot noir earns its place on American tables


In 1395, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, decreed that no red grape other than the noble pinot noir would be allowed in the greatest vineyards of that famous winemaking region.

Acre upon acre of the less esteemed gamay grape was grubbed up and banished to Beaujolais to make way for the aristocratic pinot. The reputation of Burgundy soared as the kings of France made its red wines their tipple of choice.

A dozen years ago, however, Philip's edict was beginning to look like Phil's Folly. The reputation of red Burgundy was in tatters after decades of indifferent winemaking and outright adulteration. Beaujolais was producing wines of more consequence and consistency for less than half the cost.

Pinot noir's record in the New World was no less disastrous. California was producing a handful of good examples, but the state's typical pinot noir was an international joke. All too often the wines tasted heavy, jammy and bizarre. Australian pinot noir was, if anything, even worse. Oregon was showing some promise, but many early efforts were thin, charmless and overly tannic.

But what a difference 12 years makes. More fine pinot noir is being produced in more places now than ever before.

Burgundian winemaking is back on track. California winemakers are finally getting a handle on this tricky grape. Oregon now has a proven track record of competence, rising occasionally to excellence. Even Australia chips in with some highly drinkable pinot noirs.

For now, however, the United States is still cabernet country. Cabernet sauvignon accounts for more than half the varietal red wine sold in the country, and for good reason. The Bordeaux varietal was a California success story at the height of the 1960s-1980s wine boom, at a time when many of today's wine drinkers were just learning about wine.

Time to unlearn

At the same time, many wine drinkers were learning to avoid pinot noir. It was a good lesson then, but it's time to unlearn it. Today's pinot noirs are earning their place on the American table.

In fact, pinot noir has some distinct advantages over cabernet and other big-boned reds in many circumstances.

When it is well made, it's far less heavy and oaky than cabernet, merlot or beefy examples of zinfandel. Fruit dominates the flavor, and the acidity is slightly higher than other red varietals. In most cases, the tannin and alcohol are less obvious than in other red varietals. Pinot noir is more likely to be drinkable young.

These qualities make a medium-bodied pinot noir an especially good choice for summertime drinking. It is a sort of happy medium between the furnace-stoking robustness of Bordeaux or California cabernet and the light, chillable frivolity of Beaujolais. course there are some weighty, classic Burgundies that should be saved for a serious occasion, but those are a small and costly minority.

Pinot noir also excels as a companion with some foods that usually end up being washed down with a white wine. There is certainly nothing wrong about serving a chardonnay with grilled tuna, salmon or swordfish, but if you're one of those people who likes to drink red wine whenever possible, a medium-to-light pinot noir makes an excellent match. Chicken, roasted or grilled, is a congenial pinot partner.

These affinities would matter little if there hadn't been an international turnaround in the quality of pinot noir-based wines. The reasons for the revival vary from region to region.

Sting of criticism

In Burgundy, the key has been a new generation of winemakers who have not been content to rest on the region's historic glory. Stung by criticism from such writers as Anthony Hanson, they have cleaned up their act and started to take quality seriously again -- holding down yields, filtering less and planting superior clones. A profusion of fine vintages in the late 1980s and early 1990s has also helped.

Growers and shippers also seem to have realized that the astronomical cost of their top growths was convincing consumers to write off Burgundy entirely. As a result, consumers are seeing an increasing emphasis on producing high-quality regional Bourgogne (Burgundy) at reasonable prices.

California's improvements have largely come about through a collective realization that pinot noir isn't cabernet sauvignon. For decades, California vintners planted pinot noir adjacent to great Napa Valley cabernet vineyards and wondered why pinot was such a lousy grape. Now they realize that pinot noir needs a cool climate, akin to its native Burgundy. They've found such climates in areas such as Carneros, western Sonoma County and -- most impressive of all -- Santa Barbara County.

In the bad old days, many vintners also subjected pinot noir to the same level of filtration they used for their cabernets, ignoring the fact that pinot noir is a much more delicate variety. That is starting to change.

The misconception that pinot noir could be treated just like cabernet was followed by another harmful fad: the aping of Burgundian methods and styles whether they make sense or not. The result was often skinny wines with meager fruit and fearsome tannins.

Forgetting copies

Happily, the consensus seems to be taking hold that American or Australian pinot noir does not have to replicate Romanee-Conti. Increasingly, vintners are making their winemaking decision based on the character of their own vineyards, not what works for Madame Lalou Bize de Leroy in Vosne-Romanee.

In some cases, that means winemakers are realizing their vineyards will never replicate classic Burgundy but can produce delightful, fruity red wines for early consumption. The result is a good number of inexpensive, charming, ready-to-drink wines for $12 or less, as well as some exceptional medium-bodied wines in the $12-$20 bracket.

Beyond that level, a handful of California and Oregon pinot noir specialists are challenging the very best of Burgundy with wines in the $20-$40 range. They've got a way to go, but already they're making Philip the Bold look like one smart duke after all.

Have a question about wine? From time to time, the Vintage Point column will provide answers to questions of general interest. Address questions to Vintage Post, Food & Home, The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Not all questions can be answered in the column, so please include home and office telephone number. We regret that we are unable to provide estimates of the value of specific wines.

Critic's choice

1992 Melange Cabernet Sauvignon, Bennett Lane Cellars, Napa Valley ($6).

This light, racy, imaginative blend has the bare minimum of cabernet (75 percent) to carry that designation. Adding fruit and liveliness are gamay, merlot and pinot noir. It's a simple, easygoing summertime red with good acidity and pleasant cherry-raspberry flavors.

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