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Up From Merlot: Pinot Noir


Please understand: I mean no disrespect to Merlot, which is a perfectly good variety in and of itself. But when people talk in glowing terms about how much they enjoy the supple, fruity, user-friendly charms of Merlot, I often wonder to myself whether they have ever enjoyed a good bottle of Pinot Noir.

Here is a varietal that makes some of the most beautiful (and expensive) wines in the world in its native Burgundy, but that somehow gets short shrift in this country.

It can be argued that the best California Pinot Noir is no match for the finest red Burgundies, but that begs the question. Let's concede that very few of our Pinots challenge the finest offerings from Romanee-Conti and La Ta^che, Bonnes Mares and Chambertin.

Those beauties, whose prices start at about $100 a bottle and go up to almost $2,000 for the Romanee-Conti, are easily ignored by most of us all the time and by all of us most of the time.

Rather than focusing on those fancy, very expensive wines of France, why not consider a local Pinot Noir as an alternative to Merlot? You might find that the Pinot shows itself rather favorably. Good Pinot Noirs are fruity, supple, rich and inviting. True, they are a bit less brash than Merlot. But the good ones compensate by being a little more complex and a little more willing to go with rich, somewhat savory foods like duck, pork roasts and even certain fish dishes such as salmon or tuna, especially when the food is prepared with a red wine sauce.

Admittedly, many California wineries have concluded that good Pinot is harder to make than good Merlot or good Cabernet. And that means, dear readers, that you may not be able to buy the Pinot Noir of your choice at the neighborhood grocery store.

But with so many interesting Pinots to be had, and with the successes being enjoyed by vineyardists in Santa Barbara County, in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, in Oregon and in a handful of other locales, it could well be time to turn your attention to this regal variety.

I often wonder what it is that keeps the local wine-drinking populace from chasing the supple, rich, well-fruited, deep, inviting, sensual wines made from Pinot Noir the way it chases Merlot. Maybe we should just keep the secret to ourselves.

* 1997 Artesa Winery, Santa Barbara County, $21. The aromas of this full-bodied wine are filled with scents of ripe cherries, quiet hints of herbs and a jammy suggestion of concentrated fruit. Not surprisingly, ripeness is the first order of business in the mouth, and it comes with a fair degree of fruity depth to keep the wine from being heavy or overdone. Pinot Noirs of this size and ripeness make good mates to rich and flavorful foods but would overwhelm salmon or tuna.

$ * 1997 Beringer Vineyards, North Coast, $16. Bright fruit cast in a friendly, outgoing style is tied to suitably ripe cherry-like tones and to sweet oak that lends an added bit of richness. The supple, almost velvety feel in mid-palate is classically Pinot, and the firm, ever so slightly crisp note in the finish gives a light and lively impression to the wine. The Olken household very much enjoys Pinot Noir with the meatier fishes, and this wine would be a fine choice for such a partnership.

$ * * 1996 Bouchaine Vineyards, Carneros, Napa Valley, $19. Nicely concentrated and beautifully defined in its youthful, cherry-like fruit, this attractive wine hits the mark from its deep and inviting aromas to its mildly oaked, slightly spicy varietal flavors to its long, bright finish. It is supple in structure at entry and mid-palate, and its slight firmness at the end keeps it lively and confirms the notion that this is Pinot Noir worthy of some time in the wine cellar.

* * 1996 Buena Vista "Grand Reserve," Carneros, $26. Buena Vista is one of California's oldest wineries, and the original winery carved into a hillside is well worth a visit if you venture into Northern California. Its wines, unfortunately, have been hit-or-miss affairs over the years. Now we are seeing signs of improving quality at Buena Vista, and this deeply scented yet graceful effort is part of the evidence. Supple in texture, as good Pinot ought to be and surprisingly full in body for a wine of such polish and overall balance, it shows its ample fruit from front to back without the slightest hesitation.

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