Falling for Pinot Noir

A subtle change in the weather outside and a transition from the bright and intense flavors of summer to the nutty and mellow aromas and tastes of autumn is something I always look forward to. If for no other reason, it calls for a change in the wines I drink. Pumpkins and sweet potatoes, wild game (especially duck), nuts, mushrooms, apples and late summer berries cooked with a hint of spice, all send me toward pinot noir.

One of the oldest cultivated grapes (over 2000 years), pinot noir hails from France—specifically Burgundy—where some of the most expensive and delicious expressions of this grape are produced. Unfortunately for everyone, it is a very finicky grape—the weather has to be just right—and it is said to be “genetically unstable” in that the vine tends to mutate very easily, resulting in huge qualitative differences in wines. The grapes grow in tight clusters shaped a bit like a pinecone (“pinot” and “noir”), the descriptive source for the French name. It has characteristic flavors of ripe red berries, sweet black cherries, mushrooms and an earthiness. When younger it tends to be much more fruit forward, and when older it displays more savory characteristics, such as hints of chocolate, prunes and smoke. But when the weather, terroir and winemaker find the perfect harmony, pinot noir is a true thing of beauty.

The Domaine Joseph Voillot Bourgogne Vielles Vignes 2013 is a classic example. Although many an expensive pinot noir comes from this area (the Côte de Beaune), the Domaine Voillot is easier on the wallet. With beautiful tones of dark cherry, raspberry and thyme, a medium body with soft tannins and a subtle lingering finish, this wine would be as delicious served with a nice piece of salmon as it would with grilled quail or seared lamb chops. Just be sure to allow it a few minutes to open up before you begin sipping, because it does benefit with a little breathing time.

The Ayres Perspective Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir 2014 has a Kansas City connection. Winemaker Brad McLeroy is a Kansas City native who moved to Oregon in 2003 with his wife to start a vineyard. They eventually landed on Ribbon Ridge, where Oregon’s long, cool growing season is conducive to good production, especially in this little corner of the Willamette Valley. The Ayres Perspective is truly delicious, with dark fruit, especially boysenberries and blackberries, spice, chocolate and a hint of cedar. The tannins and more forward fruit in this wine would make it an excellent companion to lamb-stuffed eggplant or a rich boar ravioli in rosemary butter. But it would also be perfect sipped by itself.

New Zealand is the source for the boldest of our selections, the Auntsfield Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013. This region produces a robust, yet balanced pinot noir, naturally assertive with berries, but a bit of tobacco, wild herbs, menthol and more powerful tannins make this wine perfect for braised beef, a lightly charred steak, roast duck, or even a rack of venison.

Whether you prefer the more subtle nuances of Old-World pinot noir, or the bolder expressions of the New, there is one for every palate. Just keep in mind that the younger wines tend to have more obvious fruit, and older wines have more savory tones. Put some short ribs on to braise—or maybe roast a duck!—and go out and begin raking the first of the leaves to fall. The raking won’t seem so bad, especially when you reward yourself with a lovely glass of pinot noir.

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