Apr 26, 201206:00 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
What's It Supposed to Taste Like?
Image Courtesy of PV, stock.xchng, 2005
Growing up Catholic, our family abstained from eating meat on Fridays. Now seems quaint, doesn’t it? And a couple of Fridays a month, my mother would fix some sort of salmon casserole dish, made with canned salmon. Fresh salmon back then was not something good Catholic families could obtain - at least, ours could not. I guess most of it went to delicatessens. Being not only Catholic, but southern U.S. Catholics, delis were pretty rare, and they were expensive.
Point is, I really did not like salmon. On Fridays, when the salmon casserole was trotted out, I was at the waffle iron.
Later in life, I attended a writers conference in Portland, Ore. One evening during a banquet they served salmon. Fresh and beautifully prepared, but salmon nevertheless. I was focused on the salad, the rolls and the dessert, going so far as to offer my salmon to the lady sitting next to me, who was to become my wife. She asked me why I was being such a generous soul, and I confessed, something us (former) Catholics do at the drop of a holy day, I did not like salmon. She said I should at least try the salmon and then if I still didn’t like it, we would work out the plate swap later.
When I tried it, I sat back in my chair. “What’s this?” I queried. “Well, silly, it’s salmon,” came her patient reply. “No, it’s not. I’ve been eating salmon my whole life. I know what salmon tastes like, all metallic and goopy. This whatever is really good,” I gushed between massive bites of the delightful dish.
I knew salmon, or so I thought. Then when I really tasted salmon not out of a can for the first time, I could not align what I knew with what I was enjoying.
Pinot noir wine is a lot like that to me. No, I don’t mean that it tastes like canned salmon or that I don’t care for pinot noir. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s my favorite wine grape. No matter what part of the world the wine is from, I enjoy it. Some more than others. And when pinot noir is in the blend of sparkling wines and champagnes, then I’m first to the pouring table.
Yet the breadth of flavor and aromatic experiences on pinot noir is quite wide. In fact, if you had no experience with the grape and were given side-by-side pinot noir wines from northern California, central California, New Zealand, Chile and Burgundy, France, you would wonder about all the different grapes in the wine. They are all quite different stylistically. And they are all pinot noir.
Now it may be that you like certain ones more than others, and it may be (these are all likely scenarios, I’m just trying not to paint you into a mental corner) that you are more fond of heavier wines than lighter ones. It may even be that you are not happy with many pinots, but can tolerate a couple in the interest of being a good sport and playing along with your geeky friends.
Here’s the rub: if you don’t know what pinot noir is supposed to taste like in its purest, proper expression, then you have no basis of knowing about other presentations of the wines when they don’t reach that level. I was ignorant of what salmon was supposed to taste like, and when I really had a good salmon, I was astounded as to the delicacy and full flavor. And I want to clarify here that this is not a knock on my mom’s cooking abilities. But I do have other stories, and please don’t tell her I told you.
Pinot noir wine is best sourced from the northern areas of Burgundy, France, mainly in the land designated Côte de Nuits. Here the beautiful cherry/strawberry/garnet color announces an elegance of style, a lightness on the palate, and a full fruit expression in the bouquet that is seductive yet powerful.
If you think you like pinot noir, you should, if you haven’t already, try the wines from this part of Burgundy. They are not cheap, but you will never forget those luscious flavors.
Early in its wine-growing history, which is relatively recent, the Willamette (rhymes with “dammit”) Valley in Oregon brazenly compared its wines with Burgundy. The area indicated it was on the same latitude as Burgundy, with similar limestone soils, and a short growing season which made ripeness more difficult to achieve.
They don’t talk like that anymore. They don’t have to. The wines from Willamette can stand on their own and, while the Burgundy comparison is flattering, it was always a bit of a stretch. Oregon can produce brighter, more fully developed fruit than can be done in northern Europe. That does not make it better, only different.
Moving a little south into the Sonoma Coast, Russian River and Carneros areas of Sonoma and Napa in California, the pinot noir wines are more muscular, more concentrated fruit, the juice having spent more time on the skins during the vinification process. These wines actually produce noticeable tannins and, depending on the vintage, maybe more of an obvious acidity. Here are created heavier pinot noir wines that are begging for food pairings.
Now, when you head much further down the coast, to the area around Paso Robles and Templeton in the central California coast, weight plays a role in the wine, with deeper, blacker fruit characters. They have been accused of adding the heavy, inky syrah grape to the mix which gives these pinots noirs more of a brambly taste.
Moving even further south, into the Santa Barbara area, the wines are lighter in texture and color but feel weightier on the palate. Go figure.
Let’s really move south now to Chile where they are trying to find their way with pinot noir. Suffice it to say many of the wines are good. They are not easily available. And there is much work yet to be done. Still some of what I’ve enjoyed have been excellent expressions, with soft cherry/strawberry bouquets and elegant, round fruit on the palate. Some.
Then we head over to the south island of New Zealand, in the inland valley called Central Otago. These wines are delightful and are more approachable early in their lives. I hesitate to call the wines frivolous because most of them are so delicious, but they are lighter in texture and meant to be enjoyed young, as near after harvest as you can unscrew the cap.
Bottom line is these wonderful places make wine from the same grape and yet they are all so different. Let me encourage you to try the red wines of Burgundy. Make that your base of understanding about this beautiful grape. Then if you like something else, great. Your decision will be rooted in knowledge, not just because your mother made it for you.