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Pinot Noir: The Ultimate Food Wine?

by Randal Caparoso

Pinot Noir's soft tannins give it the versatility to complement foods you might not suspect.

Food there's an expression inviting debate. The wine snobs don't like it because they believe that the quality of wines should go beyond that of matching food; something moving, mystical, or "awesome" as one famous wine writer is wont to say. The vast majority of wine consumers, on the other hand, primarily think of wine either as something to go with a meal — a medium-done cheeseburger with an easy-drinking Cabernet Sauvignon, open-fire gr illed fish and Chinese cabbages with a light, snappy, fragrant Spanish Albarino or lemony-zested French Sauvignon Blanc — or as a cocktail. It's up to you to decide to which camp you belong.

One can make the argument that the ultimate food wines are those made from the French grape Pinot Noir. Why? It's a red wine, with moderate degrees of tannin (the stuff derived from the skins and seeds of fermenting grapes), so it goes perfectly well with meats with some degree of fattiness — especially with a twist of pepper or slightly bitter vegetables on the side. But the tannin of Pinot Noir is also very soft, very tender, making this usually a very sleek, smooth, easy-drinking red wine which goes just as well with white meats like fish, veal, pork and chicken. In fact, a slightly chilled bottle of typical Pinot Noir is just as soft and easy to drink as most California Chardonnays.

A well-known wine personality named Joshua Wesson once described Pinot Noir as a "cross dresser." It's a red wine that thinks it's a white because it's crisp and soft enough to go with more "white-wine dishes" than most red wines. This is why Pinot Noir may be the ultimate food wine. Here are its classic food matches:

  • Leaner meats (veal, chicken, turkey, rabbit, any game bird, filets of beef or pork, and a well-drained duck)
  • Smoked, wood-roasted, braised or sausage meats (with the use of beef, lamb and pork)
  • Earthy flavors (truffles, wild mushrooms, mustards, peppercorns, coriander and horseradish)
  • Resin-like or scented green herbs (rosemary, thyme, tarragon, oregano, summer and winter savory, chervil, mints and basils)
  • Aromatic sweet spices (clove, cinnamon, mace, allspice and nutmeg)
  • Sweet vegetables (tomatoes, beets, carrots, caramelized onions and bell peppers)
  • Autumnal fruits (figs, plums, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, currants, and black and dried cherries)
  • Natural stocks and sauces rounded with butter
  • Slow-cooking processes (braises and pot-at-feu)
  • Mild or creamy cheeses (Brie, Camembert, herbed crèmes, cheddars, Havarti and jacks)

Put any balanced combination of the above into a dish, and there's a good chance you'll have a match for the soft, velvety, earthy, smoky, sweet-berry, spice and earth-toned qualities of Pinot Noir. In fact, with the right ingredients, Pinot Noir can be the perfect complement to even seafood. When you sear scallops with powerfully aromatic truffles or truffle oil, for instance, all of a sudden it's a dish for Pinot Noir rather than anything white. In Oregon, winemakers like to serve their Pinot Noir with Northwest Native-American – style plank-smoked salmon. In Hawaii, it's all about the finest tuna in the world in brothy, earthy ponzus.

Pinot Noir is also licensed to drink red wine with sweet/spicy, earth-toned or mildly bitter Asian flavors such as star anise, wasabi, hoisin, Japanese radishes, seaweeds, lotus root, fennel, toasted sesame seeds, sesame oil, mizuna, shiso, shiitakes, and even mild teriyaki marinades and glazes. All of these can actually bring out the mildly sweet, zippy, toasty, earthy, and wonderfully beefy qualities of Pinot Noir, just as the wine can bring out the same qualities in the food.

Good brands that retail between $12 and $24 are Witness Tree and King Estate and from Oregon; and Bear Boat, Handley, and Fetzer from California.

If you're willing to spend more (between $25 and $50), then you'll be blown away by Etude, Williams Selyem, Flowers, Talley, Fiddlehead, Au Bon Climat or Ici/La-Bas from California. From Oregon, the "big guns" (although the style of Pinot Noir made in Oregon is very delicate, fine and silky) are Archery Summit, Ponzi "Reserve," Cristom, Beaux Freres, and WillaKenzie. Eyes wide open or shut, it's hard to go wrong with Pinot Noir at any table!

Learn more about Pinot Noir

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