When I set out to track down American pinot noirs that offer amazing value at every price, I had a very good reason: Pinot Noir has become extraordinarily popular. California Pinot Noir sales rose nearly 60 percent between 2004 and 2005, sales of Oregon Pinot rose more than 40 percent and, although 2006 statistics weren’t in when this issue went to press, anecdotal evidence suggests that demand still has not peaked.
After tasting 168 California and Oregon Pinot Noirs for this column, I can say that there’s a lot of sketchy Pinot out there—fat, hyper-alcoholic Pinot; bitter, superextracted Pinot; watery, lightweight Pinot; and just plain weird, bad Pinot. (For what it’s worth, bad Pinot seems to lead me to stranger descriptors than any other variety. My tasting notes are full of alarming phrases like "old fish!" "bicycle tire!" and "chlorinated pool water!")
And yet. There’s also more good Pinot Noir available than ever before. The best wines I tasted offered that elusive Pinot character: profound aromatic complexity, silky texture, delicate but saturated flavor, and firm but never overbearing structure. Fruit characteristics ranged from ripe blackberry to sour cherry; nuanced notes of herbs, licorice, flowers and earth marked some of the top wines. Alcohol levels ranged from a lithe 12.5 percent to a hulking 15.4 percent—indicating a wine that’s about as graceful as a rhino on ice skates.