During my first years learning about wine, one grape gave me more angst than any other: pinot noir. It has become a gigantic cliché to describe pinot noir as the “heartbreak grape” but there are good reasons for doing so. Pinot noir is difficult to grow, and while its wines can be sublime, when they are not they often strike a dismal (and expensive) note of mediocre.
None of these explanations was the cause of my pinot stress. The problem was worse than that: I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be looking for. At a tasting, I would approach a run of expensive burgundies in a funk of fear.
Eventually a friend took pity on me. “It’s good when it tastes easy,” he said. Oh. Accustomed to picking apart every wine and considering whether the complexity justified the cost, I had liked these wines but failed to understand that their easeful grace, the seamless way they swished through your mouth – that was the thing to pay more for.
There was another issue. Many of the wine pundits whose words I heeded as I tried to grope my way towards an understanding of burgundy seemed dismissive of cheaper pinot noir, sometimes evidently despising it as a mere “drink” rather than a soulful exploration of terroir. If it wasn’t generating goosebumps then, for them, it would be better if it didn’t exist.
Often, however, I liked the cheaper pinots, albeit in a different way to the “transfiguring” ones. We learn to find our own way, in wine as in all other things, and I am now an unabashed as well as a very enthusiastic consumer of sub-£20, sub-£12 and, when I can find them, sub-£10 pinot noirs. Here’s some cheering news. The quality of these wines has vastly improved in the last few years; I’ve been surprised by the number of good ones I have found while tasting at home this year. And, while I love a good Bourgogne Rouge as much as anyone, there’s a whole universe to explore beyond Burgundy.
New Zealand is an obvious starting point; the country has justifiably built an excellent reputation for its pinot noir. Tesco finest* Central Otago Pinot Noir 2018 (New Zealand, 13.5%, Tesco, £13) is a brilliant example of the slightly more roasted, thicker, intensely-fruited style of pinot noir made in this region on New Zealand’s South Island. It has a fleshy feel, a sensation of juicy dark cherries with a touch of soy and star anise. I would love this with crispy duck pancakes and hoisin sauce and because it’s smooth it’s also good without food.
There’s one thing I need to mention. Two of the recent reviews for this on the Tesco website give horrified one-star reviews claiming that the wine was “thin”. As it is actually quite a plush style of pinot I have to wonder whether those bottles were faulty, or if perhaps the reviewers don’t like pinot noir or mixed it up with another Tesco pinot.
Chile can be an excellent source of sub-£10 pinot noir but you have to look carefully because some of the wines are marred by a kind of tarry taste (which seems to come from the oak they use) or a flavour of wine gums. One I do love and recommended in my Top 50 last month is Cono Sur Organic Pinot Noir 2018 (13.5%, Sainsbury’s, £9). Another Top 50 choice, this time from Romania, was the breezy, cherry blossom and rosewood Cramele Recas Lautarul Pinot Noir 2019 (12.5%, Haynes, Hanson & Clark, £7.35/8.35 by the case/single bottle price; House of Townend, £7.99). I’m raising both of these again because they press the sub-£10 button, and there aren’t many of those around.
“The south of France is offering very good value on pinot noir at the moment,” notes Wine Society buyer Jo Locke. Agreed. I loved the crunchy brightness, the floral notes and the refreshing sapidity of Bruno Lafon & François Chamboissier Racine Pinot Noir 2019 IGP Pays d’Oc (France, 13.5%; Haynes, Hanson & Clark, £10.85/12.45 by the case/single bottle price). Also the blowsy and slightly lavender-scented smell of Louis Latour Domaine de Valmoissine Pinot Noir 2016 (France, 13.5%; Tanners, £12.50; Majestic has the 2017, also recommended, £11.99/13.99 mix six/single bottle price). Louis Latour is, famously, a burgundy negociant and producer, but the grapes for this pinot noir are grown in the Var in Provence.
But the wine that surprised me the most was one I pulled out of a sample box and tasted without having any clue where it had come from. The label looked as if it had been designed by Mondrian, if Mondrian had worked in red and pale and dark blue (no yellow or black here) and it bore just three words – “Walt” and “pinot noir”.
The wine was easy and relaxed – a crowd-pleaser of a pinot. Its sweet scent rose in a plume out of the glass, like a warm summer breeze that carried with it the smell of wild strawberries, blueberries and a reassuring tinge of tree bark and spices smoking in a frying pan. The wine is German, from the Pfalz – Walt Pinot Noir 2017 (Pfalz, Germany, 13%, Booths, £10.50 and also, if you happen not to be in the North but want to buy some, from a range of independents – google it). Germany has been the big story in pinot noir over the last few years and it’s great to see an increase in the availability of the wines over here – see wines of the week for two more.
There’s barely space left to mention the States, but in a more chewy, thicker, raspberries and vanilla-tinged style, I like Ryder Estate Pinot Noir 2017 (Central Coast, California, USA, 13.5%, Booths, £14). And a quick shout out for the superb Berry Bros & Rudd Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir by Au Bon Climat 2018 (USA, 13.5%, Berry Bros & Rudd, £25.95).
Wines of the week
Sorcova Pinot Noir 2019
(Romania, 12.5%, Waitrose, £7.79)
This is a new Waitrose listing that comes from the Cramele Recas winery that makes the Haynes, Hanson & Clark-sold pinot noir I’ve written about on the left. It isn’t quite as nice but I know how useful supermarket recommendations can be and it is still good – all raspberries and bright cherries with a real tang. One for duck spring rolls maybe.
Martin Wassmer Markgräflerland Spätburgunder 2017
(Germany, 13%, The Wine Society, £14.50)
From south-west Germany between the Rhine and the Black Forest. This wine offers a tangy, top layer of rose hip and other red fruit, then a dried bracken element, slightly vegetal, underscored with redcurrant, and best of all a beautiful silky sense of sliding through your mouth.
Braunewell Pinot Noir 2017
(Rheinhessen, Germany, 13%, Lea & Sandeman, £13.95/15.95 mixed case/single bottle price)
In a different style to the expansive and casual Walt, Braunewell has a much more Burgundian tension, a scent of forest floor and a tingle in the mouth and it would work really well as a sharpener at the end of the day, then on the dinner table with a thyme-roasted chicken.