French Lessons from a Trader Joe’s Pinot

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Let’s talk about what makes a good food wine…

Fast facts:

  • VINTJS Willamette Valley Oregon 2017 Pinot Noir ($8.99 @Trader Joe’s; California)

That photo up there is not a great shot of the label, but I do like how well it captured how the wine looks in the glass, and that light, clear and vibrant pale ruby color tells you a lot about what to expect with this wine.  But that is only part of its story.

Oregon is not California.   I say that without prejudice. It is neither good nor bad. But it IS different, especially when it comes to climate. Pinot Noir is a notoriously fickle grape, even when growing conditions are near ideal, as they so often are in California wine country, where (in the best appellations) the grapes bask in a near ideal blend of dry days, warm sun and morning coastal fog.

It is a different story in Oregon where the grapes struggle to achieve anywhere near the levels of ripeness (read: sugar levels) that they attain in the Golden State. The Oregon renditions of Pinot Noir have more in common with the great red wines of Burgundy, France (which are also made from the Pinot Noir grape) than they do with their California cousins.  That is driven by climate as the growing conditions in Oregon have more in common with Burgundy than, say, California’s Carneros region. You can taste it in this wine, and most Oregonian Pinot Noirs.

The aforementioned lower sugar levels, as a general rule, yield wines that are drier, more tannic, more acidic and with more restrained fruit flavors.  And since higher sugar levels equate to higher alcohol content, the wines typically have a slightly lower ABV (alchohol by volume) level. In this case, the wine has 14% compared to the slightly higher levels (14.5 – 15.5% ABV) one generally sees in wines from California and other warmer regions.

One of the benefits of these cooler region Pinot Noirs (and many wines that have less fruit and higher acidity) is that they actually pair better with food.  It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but the acidity refreshes the palate, especially when paired with fattier foods.  For example, this wine would pair really well with grilled salmon, a simple shrimp scampi or soft cheeses.

As we suggested in the photo caption, this wine is best enjoyed with food.  While that may sound like we are damning this wine with faint praise, that is not the intent. In fact, this wine is quite pleasant.  Its aromas of ripe cranberries, red berries and white pepper follow through to flavors of red berries and an earthiness that is also equated with cooler weather Pinots.

It’s a lot of Pinot for $8.99.  Just don’t expect this to be the fleshy, soft, voluptous style of Pinot (Meiomi, for example)  that is produced in California.  Parlez vous Francais?

Cheers!

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