You know what's fun? Drinking good wine. You know what sucks? Standing around helplessly in the liquor store, or staring numbly at a restaurant wine list--and then getting stuck with bad wine. With that in mind, we break a figurative bottle of Champagne over the bow of the inaugural edition of Juice, a series of occasional columns about wine.
Pinot noir seemed an apt choice for this first installment, just in time for Thanksgiving. Boy, is that a confounding meal to pick wine for: gamy turkey, buttery potatoes and gravy, sweet yams and cranberries--what wine goes with all that? Well, pinot noir has enough acid to make the turkey and buttery things sweeter, enough fruit that it's not going to go all wonky after a mouthful of cranberry sauce, and enough depth and nuance that you can sink into a reverie over your glass when the tales of your aunt's neighbor's dog's veterinarian start to fly.
In a way, it makes perfect sense: For a confounding meal, pick an exasperating grape. If pinot noir were a girl, she'd be a film noir heroine, prettily applying lipstick while she ruined your life. Pinot noir is a fickle grape, given to spontaneously mutating in the fields, or budding too early, or producing too much fruit on the vine--and fruit that's full of rot, at that. Made competently, wine from pinot noir is docile and fruity. Made very well, it's fragrant, supple, and fleshy--cherry allure dressing up a gamy core.
And it's expensive. It's a wine cliché that if you fall in love with Burgundy (whose predominant grape is pinot noir), heaven help your 401(k). Why is this so? The grape is capable of expressing every little plot of ground it grows on--the wine phenomenon known as terroir (literally, "the soil")--so vividly, and in
such a seductive range of ways, that pursuing the variations can become an obsession. Doubt me? Visit www.burghound.com. (Pinot noir has other wiles: It hides and beguiles as the weight and floral element of Champagne, and adds the blush to rosé Champagnes.) Charming? Oh yeah. But cheap? Dream on. Capricious plus alluring invariably equals expensive (case in point: Anna Nicole Smith). The quest for the good under-$20 pinot noir is a great challenge. But what would Thanksgiving be without challenges?
Beaulieu Vineyard 2000 Coastal Pinot Noir ($11) Cheap and sweet and irresistible, this wine is all raspberry candy and cherry lollipop and maybe a bit of anise and cedar. Trying to drag your white-zin-loving mom into red wine? Put this in front of her and she won't look back. Plus, it's a charmer with cranberry sauce and even--gasp!--cake.
Antonin Rodet 1999 Bourgogne Pinot Noir ($12) A decent basic red Burgundy with aromatic but light dried cherry and berry fruit. Drier and more floral than what you'd expect from a domestic pinot noir in this price range.
Louis Latour 1999 Pinot Noir ($12) A well-balanced version with a fruity cherry-berry front that rests on a decent amount of acid and ends in a tidy sort of balance, the Latour is a great middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. It should be noted that the Rodet (above) and the Latour are on some levels interchangeable--reliable offerings from reliable négociants (i.e., producers who buy grapes and blend wine to sell under the company's own label). As Dockers are to pants, Latour and Rodet are to pinot noir: dependable, easy to find, popular, maybe a little bland. But sometimes life gets a little too hectic for fashion. And Thanksgiving always does.
Frei Brothers 1999 Reserve Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($17) A cheap and great pinot noir is something of a holy grail, which makes the Frei Brothers, with its tight core of nicely woven flavors, a triumph indeed. It's got a classic light and bright presence in the mouth, lots of bright blueberry and cherry aromas and flavors, nice floral and chocolate notes, and a little back-of-the-nose tobacco, to boot. But it's the balance that really makes this wine: It's so pretty and has such nice body that if the Thanksgiving stuffing burns, you won't care.
Edna Valley Vineyard 2000 Pinot Noir ($21) A California zinfandel lover's pinot noir, this strong, dark, and very alcoholic (14.5 percent!) wine comes from one of the coolest regions of California's hot central coast. While the hot weather has made it somewhat
un-pinot-noir-like (lots of ripe intensity, high tannins, and a leathery aspect), it boasts plenty of red-fruit character and acid--which will help it get along with all those intense Thanksgiving flavors, like cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
Jean Garaudet 1999 Monthelie ($24) Well-balanced, big and strong, with a tannic structure that nicely shows off cherry and blackberry aromas and flavors, the Monthelie is a bit over our $20 limit. It's included here because it's still a bargain at the price, and it's a fine benchmark for what you're looking for in a good Burgundy.
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