A crash course in inspired expressions of Pinot Noir: Evans Hammond

They're all priced well enough to leave money in your pocket for other things, such as salmon to grill alongside.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues Jun 20 2017 on Star Touch and Sat Jun 24 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

The best red Burgundy falls somewhere between hot sex and falling in love — momentarily at least. And it’s always more feather than whip, which is why it fetches stratospheric prices. Burgundy’s top wine, Romanée-Conti, actually sells for thousands of dollars per bottle — if you can get your paws on it. The minuscule production is on strict allocation. 

But that wine is, quite simply, Pinot Noir. All of Burgundy’s better reds are — and have been for centuries. Today, winemakers all over the world try their hand at this grape variety, inspired by Burgundy’s best. But it’s a difficult variety to work with — in the field and in the winery. 

“Pinot Noir is thin skinned, so it’s sensitive to extreme in temperatures; it’s very tightly clustered so it’s very prone to disease; and picking days are essential — too early and it’s pretty nasty, too late and it’s mushy and jammy,” says Norman Hardie, owner and winemaker at Norman Hardie Winery, one of Ontario’s better Pinot Noir producers.

“Then in the winery, it’s delicate too. Over-extraction creates hardness and bitterness while under-extraction gives you nothing at all but maybe a nice rosé. And it can dry out in the barrel very quickly too. So you’ve got to nail perfection every step of the way.”

But the prospect of nailing perfection keeps winemakers all over the planet toiling away with Pinot Noir — at least in chillier regions. Pinot Noir prefers cool climates. 

Other than Burgundy and Ontario, Germany and cooler parts of New Zealand, Argentina, Oregon, California, and even Italy can produce it well, with each region teasing its own expression. 

In Burgundy, Pinot Noir tends to taste of tinned strawberries and violet (especially when young) but always has an earthy, savoury underpinning that comes to the fore as it matures. Italian and German versions of this variety are similarly savoury. 

Ontario Pinot Noir reminds me of cranberry and beetroot more than anything. New Zealand and Argentinian styles are often searingly crisp and all about tart red berries. And California and Oregon produce riper styles, often with smoky or nutty notes from wood aging.

But don’t take my word for it. Taste for yourself with this ready-made crash course; it’s a selection of five Pinot Noirs. They’re not top-tier Burgundy, but they’re all inspired expressions of the variety from each of their respective regions. And importantly, they’re each priced well enough to leave money in your pocket for other things — such as great Canadian salmon to grill alongside. After all, summer starts this week.

Burgundy

2015 Bouchard Père & Fils Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France (LCBO 605667 $20.20 in stores and online) 

Bouchard Père & Fils is a large producer in Burgundy that both grows its own fruit and buys in grapes from other growers to bottle a broad range of wines — from top-tier bottlings to this very fine entry-level drop. Made from the excellent 2015 vintage, it offers a well-toned core of crisp red and black berries imbued with roast squab, forest floor flavours and a touch of graphite. Lovely wine to pour with a summer meal if you’re looking for easy elegance.

Score: 90+

Ontario

2015 Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Organic Pinot Noir, VQA Niagara Peninsula, (Winery only, $29.95 + $1 shipping anywhere in ON with code JUNE50. Call 1-888-581-1581 or go to wineclub.southbrook.com)

This wine was awarded gold medal as best Pinot Noir at the 2017 Ontario Wine Awards, so it is very much worth tasting. So I arranged the shipping offer above since it’s not available at the LCBO. This wine starts with a muted damson nose before sliding all suave and polished over the palate with a crush of cranberry and gentle minerality. Great tension between open-handed fruit and elegant restraint. Well done, Ontario.

Score: 92+

New Zealand

2015 Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand (LCBO 146548 $19.95 in stores only) 

Marlborough is well known for its full-throttle Sauvignon Blanc but also makes an electric style of Pinot Noir — and here’s a classic example. The lean, taut fruit calls to mind sour cherries and redcurrants with traces of salinity and tea leaves on the finish. This Pinot Noir offers the quenching, mouth-watering style that sets off protein-rich dishes, but isn’t quite as fun sipped solo. 

Score: 88

Oregon

2015 Erath Pinot Noir, Oregon (LCBO 394718 $24.95 in stores and online) 

Relatively rich and forward, this wine erupts with a blaze of black cherry and super-ripe plum aromas before saturating the palate with almost robust black cherry laced with red meat, coffee and pomegranate followed by a long, slow grilled meat finish. It’s got the pale colour and crisp acidity of Pinot Noir, but tasted blind it could almost pass as a Syrah with all that ripe fruit and meatiness. But that’s Oregon for you. 

Score: 90

California

2014 Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Sonoma County (Vintages Essential 954834 $26.35 in stores and online)

Rodney Strong makes very good value wines, and this Pinot Noir from the cooler Russian River Valley is no exception. It’s super ripe but not jammy with a robust crush of black and red raspberries, warm smoked plums and baking spices before tapering to a long dark chocolate finish. While it’s certainly a fuller-bodied expression of Pinot Noir, the fine structure and lively acidity retains Pinot Noir’s hallmark elegance. 

Score: 92

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com