A fickle, thin-skinned grape, it can bruise easily, over-ripen if there is a heat spike and get moldy if it rains near harvest time.
Twenty-plus years ago, a lot of winemakers dreamed of making pinot noir, but realized that for whatever reason they would have more success with other grapes. Some jumped on the bandwagon later on, making very solid wines, while others had less luck.
Since the millennium, there has been an explosion of pinot noir producers, not just in California, and at first I welcomed the new variety.
Now I constantly find myself taking shots at pinot noir as there seem to be so many that are not much better than “meh.” And they are often expensive at more than $30 a bottle.
There is the potential in numerous places to make balanced wines without cloying fruit flavors and 14 percent alcohol. Pinot noir should have a lot of fruit, but back in the old days the grape was revered for being sultry and subtle.
Many that are made today are the antithesis of this. And to add insult to injury, they come in the larger, heavy glass bottles that signify anything but elegance.
Yet when I come across pinot noir that seems like it was made by someone who would have taken the same gamble 20 years ago, I’m reminded of what made me and so many others fall in love with this grape.
If you can shell out $25 or more for a bottle, there are a few that are actually worth it. However, if you’re trying to stay within a reasonable budget, let’s say no more than $20, the pickings get slim. These three wines, though, are truly delightful.
Domaine Berthenet Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise, 2010 (Burgundy, France): Berthenet is a family-run estate in Montagny and it produces several premier crus from this appellation d’origine controlee (AOC). This wine is from fruit just outside of the town. As such, it can only wear the modest label of Bourgogne. Light with lingering cranberry and pomegranate fruit, it has poise and charm. Suggested retail: $18
Hobo Wine Co. Pinot Noir, Folk Machine, 2012 (Central Coast): Kenny Likitprakong started Hobo Wine Co. in 2002. He launched the Folk Machine label in 2005, at first just for pinot noir, but eventually for other grape varieties as well. Mostly Monterey County grapes, this here Folk Machine delivers with berries and a tinge of Red Zinger tea punch. Suggested retail: $19
Brooks Runaway Red, 2011 (Willamette Valley, Ore.): Jimi Brooks realized his dream in 1998, but sadly only lived another six years to enjoy it. He left the winery to his son, who was 8 at the time. But because he still had grade school to complete, Jimi’s sister, Janie, winemaker Chris Williams and other Willamette Valley wine industry professionals shepherded it through the hard times. Runaway Red was one of Jimi’s early wines, named after a barrel that rolled away into a creek, only to be discovered later with the wine intact. Spicy with pomegranate and bing cherries, it is the best deal to date in Oregon pinot noir. Suggested retail: $18
These wines can be found through Arlequin, Bi-Rite, Blackwells, Blanc et Rouge, Northbrae Bottle Shop, Solano Cellars, Village Market, Vinfolio and Vintage Berkeley.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.