Polarizing Yet Popular, Pinot Noir is Undeniably at its Best as a Food-Pairing Wine
This article originally appeared, in part, in the June, 2019 issue of Bellingham Alive Magazine
Like it or not, Pinot Noir, especially when served with food, is irrefutably one of the best red wines to have on the menu.
But Pinot’s practically mandatory link to food is often viewed as both its own best friend and worst enemy: Pair it up properly and the wine is unbeatable; try drinking the wine on its own and the enjoyment level is diminished.
It’s Pinot Noir’s perception as a wine with stand-alone limitations that often rubs some wine enthusiasts the wrong way. Frequently relegating the Burgundy-based French varietal to the bottom of their wine list, they favor bolder, fruit-forward reds such as Zinfandel or Malbec. They’re also perfectly content to overlook Pinot’s food-friendly flavor profile that includes high acidity, earthy/savory characteristics, and understated fruit flavors.
Pinot lovers, on the other hand, embrace these qualities. For them it’s Pinot Noir at mealtime and little else, leading to a schism of wine drinkers hopelessly devoted to the grape…many with the same level of dedication they might afford to the family pet.
And in those terms, make no mistake; where Cabernets and Merlots might be considered big, bouncing Golden Labs and Collies, Pinot Noir is clearly the Siamese Cat. You may love it, you may hate it, but either way it demands your respect.
WHY IT WORKS
Pinot Noir is generally lighter in body, lower in alcohol, lower in tannins, and capped with a finish of brisk acidity. These features combine to make the wine an ideal choice to serve with a wide variety of foods.
In addition, Pinot Noir’s flavor profile is often composed of more subtle, nuanced aromas and tastes that won’t overwhelm the flavors of the food. Brighter, leaner fruits of cranberry, red currant, and cherry tomato, gentle herbs and spices of cinnamon, pepper, and rosemary, floral notes of violets and rose petals, and oak-aging influences of smoke, truffle, and vanilla are just a few of the descriptors you’re likely to encounter while considering this complex wine.
It’s this broad range of characteristics that give Pinot such a huge advantage in deciding which foods to serve with it. The wine’s high acid content makes it ideal to contrast with the richness of salmon, duck, lobster or cream-based sauces. At the same time, its earthy and savory qualities make it a natural to complement foods with similar features such as mushrooms, herbed beef or pork tenderloin, and even gamier meats including lamb, quail or pheasant.
One sticking point that might act as a deterrent to some is Pinot Noir’s price. Both foreign and domestic choices can frequently run in the $30 to $50 to even $75-a-bottle price range.
Even so, there are plenty of solid, easier-on-the-budget selections that are readily available and worthy of considering. Here are a handful of recommendations to get you started:
Domaine du Prieuré 2017 Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune (about $17) – This beautiful wine is a prime example of solid, yet affordable Pinot Noirs that are relatively easy to find from France’s Burgundy region. Lovely pale ruby color, aromas and flavors of bright cherry, raspberry, and strawberry, and a finish of red plum highlight this lighter-bodied Pinot. Try it with a Gruyere cheese and Shitake mushroom quiche.
Bellingar Estates 2015 Pinot Noir (about $20) – Oregon winemaker Evan Bellingar has done a fine job with this easy-to-drink, flat-out delicious Pinot sourced primarily from Willamette Valley vineyards. It features red currant, cranberry, and red cherry fruits, along with hints of black tea and a splash of acidity on the finish. The wine earned silver medal honors at the 2018 Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival.
Portteus Vineyards 2017 Pinot Noir (about $20) – Pinot prefers cooler-climate growing regions, but winemaker Paul Portteus has found a home for the grape at his Zillah vineyards in sunny Eastern Washington. Lavender and fresh herbs on the nose lead to a core of dried cherry fruit, while an intriguing hint of orange zest and Pinot’s signature underlying earthiness come through on a lengthy finish.
Rodney Strong 2015 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (about $21) – From one of California’s premier growing regions in the Sonoma Valley comes this nicely complex Pinot at an unbelievable price. Fragrant red fruit and violet aromatics, layers of dark cherry and plum, and a slightly smoky finish with touches of cinnamon, clove, and toasted oak. Duck, grilled pork chops, and mushroom risotto come to mind as excellent food-pairing choices.