A sommelier explains pinot noir
"Drinking Pinot Noir is the top echelon of the wine world," said Christian Okhuinghtonns, sommelier d'hotel for the Atlantis. "If you could actually say there is a wine for wine-makers, or a wine that defines a wine maker ... it is Pinot Noir."
With over 150 top rated Pinot Noirs present, even experienced wine drinkers can be overwhelmed by this mysterious and often misunderstood style—but knowing the background of Pinot Noir can help drinkers understand its full potential.
The complexity of Pinot Noir begins in field. As temperamental as they come, Pinot noir grapes are extremely sensitive to environmental conditions—their weak skins making them susceptible to rot, over-ripening, and a host of other complications. "It is by far the most difficult grape to grow in the world; it literally mutates in the field without telling you," said Okhuinghtonns.
"There are stories of Pinot Noir winemakers that actually sleep—literally sleep right beside the tanks, just to make sure that they are able to produce the wine at the right temperature." Despite being one of the oldest grape species in the world, there are only a handful of sites worldwide that provide the right microclimates for Pinot Noir to grow.
The Cold is Key
Some of those sights are relatively close to Reno, including the Willamette Valley, the Russian River Valley, and the area of Carneros. These areas provide a crucial component in developing the necessary acidity of Pinot Noir—extended periods of cold and a slow ripening season.
"Within the climate of Carneros, blessed by the San Pablo Bay cold maritime weather in the morning, they find this little pocket that can keep a longer period of time of cool weather, and be exposed to a tremendous amount of luminosity," said Okhuinghtonns. Unlike grapes of a similar variety, Pinot Noir that is exposed to high heat will have the acidity "baked" out of the grapes—leading to a bland, unexpressive vintage.
A Friend to Food
"The Pinot Noir is the perfect balance between acidity and fruitfulness," said Okhuinghtonns. The blend of flavors in a Pinot Noir means that it pairs extremely well with more cuisine than similar wines—bold enough to support a filet, but delicate enough to compliment white fish. Even spicy dishes, such as Thai cuisine, have a friend in the subtle peppery flavors of Pinot.
"We [the U.S.] are the mecca of fusion cuisine, and our Pinot Noirs reflect that. [They] are fruity, spicy, aromatic, flowery. if you're thinking about pairing any sauce that actually has a little bridge to some of the components of the flavor profile of a Pinot Noir, you'll be safe," said Okhuinghtonns.
The Right Frame of Mind
Decoding the mysteries in a glass of Pinot Noir starts with the cask it's aged in—traditional Burgundian Pinots use Old French oak, while many New World Pinots will use New Oak or a blend of old and new.
"The moment you walk through your house and you look up on a wall and you see a picture. There is a frame that allows you to focus on the image; the oak that we use here in America serves that purpose," Said Okhuinghtonns. "The thicker the frame the smaller the picture, the thinner the frame the bigger the picture. That's the relationship we want to achieve between oak and fruit and acidity and weight and palette recognition: a seamless approach."
Identifying characteristics of the aging vessel will give the drinker a frame of reference for the rest of the glass.
A Cryptic Teacher
"Pinot Noir is a palette evolution," said Okhuinghtonns. "Pinot Noir is more subtle, it demands that you put yourself out there and go ahead and listen to it. Because the moment you listen to it, suddenly the conversation between you and your glass becomes way interesting."
Pinot Noir's true value comes from its ability to express the subtle flavors of its region—learning to ignore the bolder fruit flavors inherent to most reds is the intellectual challenge Pinot provides. While difficult at first, discerning the notes in a glass of Pinot will inevitably enhance the palette of the drinker. "If you're up for it, the compensation for that is just awesome. Its not immediate, but as soon as you get it, suddenly everything else makes sense," said Okhuinghtonns. "Send me all kinds of red blends and wines from all over the world, ill be able to understand them all because I was able to understand Pinot Noir, it's that great."
Light-bodied yet deeply flavorful, aged or not, chameleon of most cuisines; Pinot Noir is a fascinating mystery. "It is the epiphany of complexity. A good Pinot Noir is nonexistent. It's either: you make a great Pinot Noir, or you make a bad Pinot Noir," said Okhuinghtonns. Attendees of the Summit will have the chance to speak with wine makers and Christian directly, while sampling some of the best offerings available to expand their own knowledge and palette. Christian has provided a list of his own favorite Pinot Noirs, however, for anyone to research and enjoy on their own.
- Merry Edwards Winery, Russian River Valley (2012)
- Paul Hobbs Winery, Russian River Valley (2008-2010)
- Laird Family Estate, Carneros (2010)
- Pisoni Family Vineyards, Santa Lucia Highlands (any vintage)
- Archery Summit Winery, Willamette Valley (2007-current)
- Domaine Serene, Willamette Valley (2008-current)
- Tamber Bey Vineyards, Napa Valley (2010-current)