How I fell in love with pinot noir

I first fell in love, or at least was infatuated, with pinot noir as a young restaurantgoer many years ago.

I did a fair amount of appreciating back then, before I started asking questions, and believe me when I say that the appreciating was easy — even effortless at times. Servers at multicourse dinners would set down beautiful pieces of stemware in front of me and then fill them with exquisite wine that would go with the upcoming course.

Sometimes the wine would give away the food before it arrived. A small tulip glass of Sauternes? Here comes the seared foie gras. Even if the wine didn’t completely spill the beans on the food (as sommeliers like to surprise and delight), the progression was usually consistent: start small and end big. Light to heavy, delicate to bold — choose the opposing words you like best.

I got excited when a bowl glass arrived, not because of what food was on its way (maybe it’s mushroom risotto, maybe salmon, maybe duck), but because of what wine was on its way. When I saw that classic Burgundy glass before me, it told me that we were moving into reds.

Nothing against bubbles or whites. Obviously some of the world’s most sublime wines are white or shimmering with fizz. And I want some of each of those every time I lock in to a multicourse meal. But I also want to move from those lighter wines to bigger ones, and from the delicate fare that kicked off the evening to the bolder flavors that will end it.

Those later dishes and later wines were not always better than the earlier ones. There are no guarantees in life or in dining. But there is also no one among us who has been hooked by a story and didn’t care to know how it ended. In those days, I thought of the arrival of pinot noir as the “rising action” of the story that was my dinner. It told me that we were past the exposition and moving toward the climax, falling action and resolution (the denouement, if you must). It was the spot where the story got really good.

But that is a backhanded compliment. It implies that pinot noir was not much more than a Pavlovian trigger, when actually another huge reason I fell in love with pinot noir was that it was, more often than not, ridiculously awesome.

It is a wine style with many moods. If ever there were times when declaring a wine “fruit-forward” was appropriate, surely they have included pinot noirs. On the other hand, when a pinot noir is not jamming with strawberries, cherries and raspberries, it might be brooding with leather, smoke, forest floor and funk (the smell of animals, human or otherwise). In between, the possibilities could include violets, roses, figs, plums, incense and truffles. Some pinots can cop to several of these descriptors in a single glass.

The undisputed Eden of pinot noir is the Burgundy region of France, specifically the Cote d’Or, where single bottles can demand absurd prices in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Pinot noir also does well in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, in several regions of California (including Sonoma and the Central Coast), and in Chile, Australia and New Zealand (most notably in Marlborough, Martinborough and Central Otago).

Vineyard managers will tell you that pinot noir is a difficult grape variety to grow because it wants to ripen early and too much heat can allow it to do that and burn out its potential, and winemakers will tell you that it takes more effort to turn pinot noir into great wine than it does with a lot of other grape varieties. Perhaps these are a couple of the reasons that pinot noir — particularly Burgundy — is the stuff of legend.

But again, to stop there would be to not give full credit to a grape that is one of the world’s greatest. Put another way, if it were easy to grow, and it basically made itself in the winery, it would still be legendary based on what it does for just about everyone who lifts it to his nose and mouth. If pinot noir were an art period, it would be post-impressionism — often easy to like at first glance, but also full of surprising depth when you return to it.

Besides its ever-evolving aromas and flavors, and generally reasonable levels of alcohol, pinot noir’s lower tannins and lighter body make it a silky, sensual indulgence as well. While the variety is most known for the delicate, pale red wine it gets turned into, pinot noir is also a major grape in Champagne (along with chardonnay and pinot meunier) and other sparkling wines around the world.

It is believed that pinot noir gets its name from the way its clusters look on the vine, like little dark pine cones. In Italy it is called pinot nero, and in Germany it is called Spatburgunder. And of course in France, Burgundy is Bourgogne. Call it what you like. Just make sure that it is part of your regular wine consumption. You would be slighting yourself if you didn’t.