Wine of the Week: Pinot Noir Isn't the New Merlot

Three years ago, when I attended a talk by Wine & Spirits Magazine editor-in-chief Josh Greene at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, California, he discussed the rising popularity of Pinot Noir and its eclipse of Merlot as the by-the-glass go-to grape among young wine professionals. The "I'm not drinking Merlot" punchline of the immensely popular 2004 buddy movie Sideways, he said, did give Pinot Noir a bump in on-premise (read restaurant) sales. The running joke was "a gift to the California wine industry," but it was only part of a much greater, overarching and growing trend. (You can read his notes from the now historic talk here.)

As we Americans have become more hip to the art of pairing food and wine (a trend that has paralleled our interest in farm-to-table foods, healthier and tastier eating, and a greater awareness of authentic European food products), we have also begun to reach more readily for lighter-bodied wines that do not overpower the dishes we serve at dinnertime -- wines with lower alcohol content, greater acidity, and less concentrated fruit. "Pinot Noir makes up the most significant portion of [the growth in sales of] light reds" in restaurant data gathered between 1994 and 2006, reported Josh in his presentation.

Merlot was the grape that helped to "introduce red wine to American consumers in the 1990s," according to Josh. But the growth in Pinot Noir's popularity "comes at a time when there has been a significant development in the confidence and curiosity of wine drinkers."

Josh's talk came to mind on Saturday when I popped a bottle of one of my favorite under-$20 bottles of Pinot Noir, always a go-to when I need a crowd-pleaser, the 2008 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Pinot Noir by larger-than-life rockstar winemaker Jim Clendenen. (You can find Jim's wines at a number of Houston retailers. I got mine at Richard's on Kirby.)

Tracie P and I had been invited to a pool party and grill at cousins Deb and Ben's house, and I needed a wine that would go with everything from the salad that Tracie P had made, to the fried rice that cousin Loren had prepared, to cousin Ben's now legendary big-green-egg-smoker chicken (see below).

When sharing wine with people I love, I always try to stay under 14.5 percent alcohol content for red wines and at 13.5 percent, the 2008 Au Bon Climat was ideal (that 1 to 2 percentage point may seem insignificant, but it actually makes a huge difference in how the wine will pair with food; although there are notable and delicious exceptions, 14.5 percent is where wine starts to enter into the sphere of cocktail outer space and begins to lose its compatibility with food). The wine was light, bright, and fresh on the nose and in the mouth, and the fruit was present without overpowering the flavors of the food.

In my years as a wine professional, it has often occurred to me that one of the elements that led to Merlot's popularity in our country is the fact that it's so easy to pronounce. For most Americans on a first date with a potential mate, it's probably easier to ask for "a Merlot" than it is to order a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or a Bourgueil. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against Merlot. In fact, some of my best friends are Merlot (like the jaw-droppingly gorgeous 1990 Château Pavie I drank the other night, a wine made predominantly from Merlot like the 1961 Château Cheval Blanc that Miles drinks out of a styrofoam cup at a fast food restaurant in Sideways).

Nonetheless, I am happy to report that Pinot Noir is not the new Merlot.

What's your favorite Pinot Noir? Please share your top picks in the comment section.

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