Drink Before You Think 

When it comes to Pinots, taste is relative — so drink the cheap stuff first.

Thanks to a recent zillion-word New Yorker article and a high-profile forthcoming book on the topic, the counterfeiting of fine wine is once again a concern for billionaires seeking rare quaffables. Burgundies — the French version of Pinot Noir, although Burgundians would shudder to hear that description — are among the most counterfeited wines because they are so sought after and fetch such high prices. Indeed, one noted Burgundy critic has estimated that 10 percent of the pre-1960-era wines he tastes are fakes.

Humble authenticity is one of the many benefits of drinking honest-to-goodness, 21st-century cheap stuff — which is why we weren't too worried as we settled down with a group of editors and one token winemaker for our annual Pinot Noir tasting. This year we chose Pinots from California, Italy, and Australia.

The editor from Arkansas and our Token Winemaker agreed that of the three wines we tasted, the 2006 Silverwing Pinot Noir ($9.99) from Australia's Yarra Valley was the most Pinot-y of the bunch. Australia does red wine well, that's for sure — and although it's not a nation known for its Pinot (much of which is used as a blending ingredient in sparkling wine), the Yarra Valley region around Melbourne has been recognized as a producer of distinctive examples of the varietal. "Very nice — fruit-forward with restraint," was Arkie Editor's rave. I couldn't taste the restraint here, finding it super berry with a tart aftertaste — but I agreed with its fans that it had some appeal if bold red fruit is what you're craving.

Upon tasting it blind, our Token Winemaker and I pegged the 2005 Mezzacorona Pinot ($8.99) as the Italian in our mix; we recognized both the oxidation (overexposure to oxygen, resulting in an aroma like nail-polish remover) and watery quality that we've noticed in other cheap wines from Italy. No one loved this one: "Nothing special," commented Indy Editor, while Arkie editor also noticed the oxidized aroma and found the taste thin and plummy.

My favorite was the 2006 Mirassou California Pinot Noir ($7.99), which had a flavor that was at once rich and light, and strongly reminiscent of the berry-filled center of a chocolate. (And no, I don't like fruit-filled chocolates either, but those same flavors worked for me here.) At first Indy Editor concurred, enjoying the Mirassou's smooth, sweet taste and an aftertaste he called full-bodied but not oppressive. He even labeled it a "good hard-day-at-the-office" wine.

Cut to an hour later, when he felt the wine had morphed into something far less appealing — a treacly fruit bomb, especially when compared to a drier Brunello we'd just opened. Lesson learned: serve the Mirassou alone, or make it the first bottle of the night.


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