“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
English poet John Yeats was musing on romantic love, but, in my mind, it could have been an ode to the red grape and wine called pinot noir.
Pinot noir, in its youth, is brash and crisp and lush and silky, with exuberant flavors of black cherries, pomegranates, even blueberries, often with a background of mocha.
It goes well all by itself; with its lightness and approachability, it’s the perfect aperitif. It avoids the astringent tannins that relegate cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and such to drinking with food.
With age, pinot noir can develop that elusive Japanese characteristic called “umami” – the fifth flavor element that recently joined sweet, sour, bitter and salty among hedonists.
Defined by some as “savory,” by others, preciously, as “yummy,” umami is found in roast meats, sautéed mushrooms, truffle oil, parmesan cheese.
Umami is the reason America’s prime steak restaurants advertise “dry-aged” meat and European restaurants boast of “well-hung game.”
Pinot noir has umami in the same way, over time taking on the bouquet of mushrooms, truffles, fallen leaves, damp earth, sometimes called “forest floor.”
In other words, funky.
Pinot noirs lack the tannin to strip the palate of the fat from a bite of extra-well-marbled steak. So it’s the wine for lean, expensive filet mignon – leaving fattier rib eye steaks to cabernet or barolo.
Pinot noir is the wine for complex wine-based beef stews, lean cuts of roast pork, for chicken or veal in madeira sauce, for flavorful fish like salmon or swordfish. For anything with a mushroom sauce. For macaroni and cheese fancied up with drops of truffle oil – and if you haven’t tried this, you should.
Because of its crisp acids, it is not the wine for raw citrus salads or vinegar-based salad dressings. Because of its sweetness it cloys with sweet desserts.
So pinot noir is not all things to all people. Like everything beautiful – it must be in its context.
Pardon me for waxing poetic, but couldn’t Yeats have been referring to pinot noir as well when he wrote this description of love?
“An endless fountain of immortal drink, pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.”
• 2011 Rodney Strong Vineyards Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley Estate Vineyards: hint of oak, black plum and blueberry flavors, smooth, long finish; $25.
• 2008 Gloria Ferrer JSF Pinot Noir, Carneros: oak and red berry aromas, concentrated flavors of black raspberries and cloves, silky body, long finish; $40.
• 2011 La Crema Pinot Noir, Monterey: intense floral aromas, concentrated flavors of black cherry, anise and mocha, silky and smooth; $23.
•2011 Morgan Winery “Twelve Clones” Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands: toasty oak and floral aromas, black cherry and black plum flavors, silky, lively and crisp; $32.
• 2011 Veramonte “Ritual” Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile: hint of oak and floral aromas, full-bodied and rich, with black cherry and spice flavors; $19.
• 2011 Garnet Vineyards Pinot Noir, Monterey County: hint of oak, flavors of black raspberries and spice, soft tannins, long finish; $15.
• 2011 Byron Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County: floral aromas, black plum and mocha flavors, big, ripe tannins; $19.
• 2009 Waterstone Pinot Noir, Carneros: aromas of vanilla and oak, intense flavors of black plums and coffee, rich and smooth; $22.
• 2010 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir, Carneros: hint of oak, black cherry and mocha flavors, soft tannins, crisp acids; $27.
• 2011 Frank Family Vineyards Pinot Noir, Carneros: subtle oak and flower aromas, flavors of black plums, spice and earth, soft tannins, full body; $35.
• 2010 MacMurray Ranch Reserve Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: floral and toasty aromas, intense flavors of black raspberries, silky and lush and ripe; $37.
• 2010 Lost Canyon “Morelli Lane” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: aromas and flavors of black cherries and bittersweet chocolate, crisp and smooth; $45.
Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but is still writing about wine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.