While big, brooding Cabernets and richly concentrated Syrahs work well in winter, I crave something a little more subtle as the weather starts to warm. Spring is here, so give me a lithe and lively Pinot Noir (in fact, give me a good Pinot Noir any time of year, especially if there is food on the table). Not that long ago, that would have meant Burgundy, but in the past decade or two, the New World has made significant strides with this difficult grape. Pinot Noir expresses its terroir like no other grape, and so it's interesting that three different wines form three different regions scored as the panel's favorites. Here are the top picks from the new world of Pinot Noir:
2006 Cristom Pinot Noir, Jefferson Cuvee, $27
This Oregon cuvee comes from vineyards that are densely planted (2,300 vines per acre) and cropped back for low yields to intensify the flavors. The result is a big but balanced wine with a slight touch of heat on the nose. There's nothing unpleasant—it simply works to accentuate the ripe raspberry aromas that mingle nicely with an array of fresh greens and herbs (arugula, tarragon, oregano). Bold strawberry fruit coats the palate along with soft tannins and smooth oak. This is a muscular and yet seductively styled Pinot.
2005 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir, Central Otago, $35
There's a European connection to this New Zealand offering. Co-winemaker Clotilde Chavet is from a French family that's been making Champagne since the 16th century, and fellow winemaker Rudi Bauer is Austrian-born, having studied his craft in both his native land and Germany. That European influence comes through on the nose, marked by earthy, dark berry aromas that blend nicely with more subtle notes of mushroom and spicy pomegranate. The flavors are dark and dense providing complex layers of flavor—cherry, plum, dark chocolate, licorice, spice and crushed stone. This is a wine to be savored.
2006 Rusack Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, $28
This blend of grapes from vineyards in California's Santa Marie Valley and the Santa Rita Hills offers soft red berry fruit aromas along with dusty notes of herb, mineral and mocha. Elegantly structured with excellent acid balance, the dark cherry flavors play against creamy mocha with touches of vanilla, anise and lightly toasted oak. Fine ripe tannins lace the long and lively finish. This one cries out to be paired with food and would go great with anything from souffle to salmon.
This week's panel: David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op Wine Shop; Cindy Limber, Bardenay; Karen McMillin, Young's Market; Michael Molinengo, Idaho Wine Merchant; Leslie Young.