July 31, 2006
Catch That Sniff of Pinot Noir in the Air?

What a glorious weekend. The air conditioner was off, the windows open, the soothing Delta breeze and the billowing curtains frolicking like contestants on "So You Think You Can Dance." The cats, for the first time in weeks, moved out of the shadows on the damp bricks into a pool of sunlight on the carpet. The siege of Thermopylae was over, the gates of fire closed...but not locked. The summer of '06 is in the history books, but it isn't over.

Nonetheless, that hint of fall in the air this weekend was enough to get us thinking of the segue from the white wines of summer to the red wines of autumn. No need to rush things, however. Let's start off gently, with the gentlest of red wines, pinot noir, customarily so light it's the one red that easily can be enjoyed as much in summer as winter.

Granted, pinot noir can be big, even tannic and warm, but the most alluring of the breed tends to be light in color, silken in feel, and elusive yet haunting in its complexity, drawing you in and then playing with you, sassy one moment, shy the next.

It's also the most versatile red at the table, the wine to pour when salmon is on the menu, yet with a powerful enough grip to hang on even if the main course is rib-eye steak hot off the grill.

We rounded up a few pinot noirs from the 2003 vintage for a blind tasting and again were reminded not only that the variety can be charming but temperamental. All but one were from California. The lone outrider was from New Zealand. Vintners in New Zealand have been making impressive strides with pinot noir, and this one, the Whitehaven 2003 Marlborough Pinot Noir ($28), stood out for its brooding masculinity. It had a dark truffled fruitiness, with a tangy finish, but it wasn't our favorite wine in the flight.

There were two of those, and they weren't at all alike. The Merry Edwards 2003 Russian River Valley Olivet Lane Pinot Noir ($50) had the brightest, most youthful color, with a touch of purple on its rim. It was the lightest wine in the flight, and the most elegant, with a lean build and pointed cherry flavor with an herbal accent.

In contrast, the Morgan 2003 Santa Lucia Highlands Gary's Vineyard Pinot Noir ($45) was the heftiest wine of the bunch, with leather and rhubarb notes bringing delightful complexity to the richness of its cherry/berry fruit. It also had the most obvious oak, adding creaminess to the texture, and the longest finish.

Despite their differences in weight, both had the structure and acidity to go with the foods that followed the tasting, the Chinese dishes five-spice beef and dry-braised green beans. Both dishes were rich and spicy, and pinot noir wouldn't ordinarily be my first choice as the beverage to have with them. But for a test of pinot noir's versatility, they pushed the varietal to the limit, and it still shined.

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