Pinot Noir. Fetish grape of many. Breaker of hearts and quite often breaker of the bank. One of the three sanctioned varietals in true Champagne, and also a strong presence in many other sparkling wines, but as a still red, it can really be pretty sublime. It tends to be costly because it’s really freaking labor-intensive to manage. It’s thin skinned, and prone to lots of pests.
Its best friends are marine climates and chalky soils, but there are pinot noirs grown all over the place. I’ve included a few real splurges as well as a lot of affordable bottles here, so there should be something for everyone. These are alphabetized, not ranked, again because the regions are so diverse it’s practically not the same wine when it comes from South Africa versus Italy versus Sonoma County.
Pinot Noir is a food wine, with almost no exceptions. But that doesn’t mean it can’t handle itself flying solo. It can. Don’t know where to start? Try anything on this list, from grown-up and refined to quirky but awesome. Something for everyone!
Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara ($20)
Pinot Noir is the classic red grape of Burgundy, and has become a staple of California’s coastal-influence AVAs. Santa Barbara’s Au Bon Climat makes a lot of wines that tend to go for a lot more than $25, but don’t think the more affordable price means the quality isn’t great. This is an incredibly versatile food wine and a major crowd-pleaser, light-hearted and casually elegant, with dominant notes of alpine strawberry and plum. Fruity and well-balanced. Seriously, pair it with whatever you happen to be eating.
Baileyana Firepeak Pinot Noir, Edna Valley, CA ($19)
One of the winemakers I almost never stop nattering about is Domestic Terroirist Christian Roguenant, who is the genius behind the Niven Family wines including Baileyana. The central coast of CA is Pinot paradise and this guy is a confirmed Grape Whisperer and makes some of the best awesomeness-to-dollar-ratio wines in the state. Spicy, sleek, silken. Dominant notes are all classic Pinot: Cherries and red plums, dense florals, forest floor and loam, coffee, cocoa, and traces of baking spice (nutmeg pops up in this one and I think allspice). I think this is a marvelous companion to a summer evening on which you have chosen to go outside and apply various foods to an open flame. If you took it camping, which it would do obligingly because it is LeScrewcapped, you would deeply dignify whatever you put on the grill and I include the s’mores because Pinot Noir actually has a secret love of chocolate and graham crackers. Then again, don’t we all?
Banshee Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($23)
It is getting hard to find great Pinot Noir at this price point, to be honest. Banshee is great (try their rosé too!). The overwhelming impression I get from it is those red-fleshed Japanese plums, but also, cherry and blueberry and a forest floor character, something woodsy and mossy. A little wild strawberry too. There is a bit of a marine funk to this wine, and it is highly intriguing. It is a red that will happily hang out with seafood dishes, but I wouldn’t rule out turkey. Or duck breast.
Cultivate Pinot Noir, California ($27)
Though not the most inexpensive wine on the list, Cultivate ranks high on unpretentious, thoughtful, damn-good Pinot. Sourced from three cool-climate AVAs, this is a pinot with a very classic, elegant profile, clear ruby hue, vibrant and youthful aromatics (the “jump out of the glass” kind; this is not a wine you have to tap your toes over while it “opens up”). Red fruit city: pomegranates and and raspberries dominate, with a little ripe strawberry and a tiny trace of blood orange. Give it a minute, however, and it will evolve into darker, juicier blackberry and rose notes, and a little bit of bergamot. Earth, raspberries and black tea follow. This wine’s ideal match is earnest debate. Philosophy, not politics-politics have been shown by recent studies to significantly disrupt digestion.
De Grendel Pinot Noir, South Africa
Bright, vivid cherry color with strong rose petal aromatics. Strong but pleasant acidity, low but well-structured tannins-tannin structure evokes pomegranate seeds more than oak. Red fruit tones; mulberry, raspberry, strawberry-if it’s a berry, it’s in here. Black plum and clove on the finish. Tart but lush. This is a wine that would enjoy a night out with game, if that is a thing with you. If not, games! And takeout pizza. You won’t disappoint it. And it won’t disappoint you.
Domaine Drouhin Roserock Pinot Noir, Amity Hills, OR ($38)
A very elegant and beautifully textured wine from Oregon with a deep red and black cherry core. Super focused and pure. Firm structure, moderate acidity, lovely long finish. This wine’s BFF is grilled salmon. I admit I drank it on its own and that was just fine as well.
Domaine Schlumberger Les Princes Abbes Pinot Noir, Alsace, France ($25)
Alsace is a magical land, at least as far as wine goes. One of its best tricks is floral, velvety Pinot Noirs. This oneis a best friend to white meat, though those of us who prefer the vegetarian side of things will find it gets along well with things like potatoes and mushrooms and leeks. Ruby to slightly purple. Candied cherry and balsamic notes along with raspberry and a strawberry jam quality. Florals are present but muted; roses and peonies, not a lot of violet. Compact, firm tannins let you know this wine probably didn’t come from Sonoma. It’s tight and astringent, but not too much. Actually finely balanced and very, very tasty. Very good complexity and a vivacious but refined nature. The right occasion for this wine is “I feel like it.”
Gary Farrell, 2014 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, CA ($75)
If you want to celebrate Pinot Noir Day in high, high style, this might be my reigning favorite splurge PN. Theresa Heredia is a wizard and these high-touch, carefully crafted small-lot wines are knockouts. It will cellar for a long time, but don’t put yourself through all that. Open it now, if you can get your paws on it, and enjoy one of the most lush and complex expressions of this grape. The aromatics are explosive and varied, laters of dried rose petal, violets, cola, cedar, plum jam, cloves, vanilla, cherries and oranges. Great for a special occasion or a “the wine is the occasion” occasion. If you cannot find this exact bottle I’d like to suggest heading to the Gary Farrell website and ordering up any of their Pinot Noirs that you can get. They are incapable of making a bad one. What do you pair with such a hothouse blossom? Whatever you want! But I once made a duck breast and morel mushroom risotto that would have been killer with this wine. Pinot is a ployamorous kind of wine and has been known to take up with poultry, goat cheese, pork, salmon, figs, walnuts, various spices, members of the onion family (especially caramelized), and all kinds of mushrooms. You don’t have to be traditional.
Illahe “1899” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, OR ($65)
Old School. By which I mean if there is a super-steampunk old-timey kook in your life who loves pulleys and has a collection of vintage typewriters, consider this as a gift. Made without any modern tech whatsoever, this wine was hand-harvested and transported from field to winery by… yes, horse. Wooden fermenters, spontaneous wild fermentation, hand-pumped, non-inoculated malolactic fermentation, hand corked, letterpress-labeled. No dry ice, steel, forklifts, packaged yeast, or electric machinery. Yes, but how does it taste? Excellent question. Like oakmoss and wet wood and red fruits. It has a translucent, brick-red color, slightly unusual for the varietal, with cinnamon and cocoa aromatics and a lot of woodsy, forest floor notes, dry leaves, sour cherries. Thready acidity, a clean finish. After all that by-hand pioneer grit madness I do hope you aren’t planning to pair this one with a McDonald’s run. Fire up the grill and consider game, if you are into that, or something rich and a bit fatty.
Jean-Baptiste Adam Pinot Noir Les Natures 2014, Alsace, France ($25)
Tart. This wine’s for folks who like their pinot light, dry and racy. Redcurrant dominates, with light yet layered florals and subtle earth notes. Delicately aromatic, with cherry cola, tea and mushroom ghost-notes on the finish. Like many of the wine son this list, a slam dunk with salmon, pork, mushrooms and goat cheeses.
La Follette Pinot Noir, North Coast, CA ($20)
Fred and Ginger. Bogie and Bacall. The CA North Coast and Pinot Noir. ‘Nuff said? This beauty has an almost candied or sugary nose but do not be fooled, it’s bone dry on the palate. Luscious, with a lot of cherry and black plum with spicy accents. Coastal-influence classic hints of forest floor, cedar, and flowers (violets?) as well as a tiny hint of stone. Vivid intensity, good bones, a lean but not austere wine with enormous versatility and a high likelihood of making everyone happy. You like salmon? So does this guy. I bet it would have a positive working relationship with goat cheese as well.
Nasty Woman Pantsuit Pinot, Willamette Valley, OR
Pinot for Progress! Meg Murray came up with this wine in response to… well, yeah, that. Show your feminist creds by supporting Nasty Women! Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is great and only getting better, and in the Murrays’ crafty hands, you will get a really great taste of the region many people are calling the Burgundy of the New World, but which we west-coasters prefer to simply call “Oregon.” West Coast pinots are generally cherry-forward; with this one I also get a little blackberry upfront. The approach is a teensy bit hotheaded but when you consider the… current climate, what else would you expect, really? I expect that might have dissipated with a little more time to open up in the glass-frankly, it had been a long day and I was rather eager to put the stuff in my mouth! Pretty classic notes of black fruit, forest floor and a hint of cola follow. It’s a very solid wine, especially when you consider the frenetic pace of its release. You can confidently stock your… oh say it: cabinet with this.
Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, CA ($20)
Anderson Valley Pinot = yes, please. Ruby color, damson plum on the nose, smooth and somewhat restrained both in aromatics and on the palate. This is a medium-bodied, lithe, slightly ethereal pinot, expressing primarily black plum and dark cherry flavors, a hint of cola and some stony notes. A soft, evanescent finish. If well-structured but not overly intense is your thing, this is your bottle. A friend to fish and poultry, and a good foil for a spring vegetable ragout or roasted young potatoes. Easy, easy, easy.
Sokol-Blosser Evolution Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, OR ($20)
Oregonians are often maverick dreamer types who disdain pretention. This wine is a good example of that spirit. “Dangerously” juicy and fruity, it’s also got a particularly attractive silkiness. Don’t age this stuff; drink it young and pair it with absolutely anything. A few scattered suggestions: salmon. Mushroom risotto. Winter squash (Pumpkin ravioli with sage butter?) or white meat. Pork. Duck. Trout. Almost any cheese you can think of. Hazelnuts. Cherries. Milk chocolate. Can handle strong herb and spice flavors from cardamom and cloves to chipotle and paprika to fennel and dill.
Stellar Organics “The River’s End” Pinot Noir, South Africa ($10)
A medium-intensity pinot and a stellar (…) choice for the eco-conscious, this Vegan-proof, super-sustainable wine is red cherry dominant with a juicy raspberry undertone and a lot of earth notes. It’s a bit “hot” (at least the one I opened seemed to be) but not to a troublesome degree-if “warming” is a pleasurable quality in a red wine for you, then you will like this one. It is eminently affordable and a great friend to Persian food, or anything involving lamb, saffron, cumin, or peppercorns. Has a long finish.
Trinity Hill Pinot Noir, Hawkes’ Bay, New Zealand ($20)
I will admit it openly. There are certain regions where wine just works for my palate and others where you have to work really hard to get my attention, and New Zealand wines are largely in the latter category. I mean, look, it’s personal. For you, the Italy-Austria border might be a land of lackluster where for me it can do no wrong. Taste buds are a mystery. What is certain is that Trinity Hill is rocking a very, very good Pinot Noir here. Where the grape can tend toward a heavily cherry-based affair, here there’s more bramble and spice and the intriguing set of flavor and aroma notes we call “forest floor,” meaning a kind of mélange of earth and wet stone and cedar and oakmoss and maybe violet petals and dry leaves and woodsy and musty and mushroomy tones. This has a lot of that. Pinot noir is not typically a go-to for red meat. This one is an exception. Can’t think of anything it would enjoy more than a grilled steak and a pile of sautéed wild mushrooms. You can cellar it for a while… but not forever.