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Master Pinot Noir Like a Pro

By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

At the Inn at Little Washington, the renowned Virginia country inn celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, wine has always played an important role. But in its early days, chef-owner Patrick O'Connell wasn't in a position to afford a full-time sommelier. So O'Connell got creative: He commanded each member of his dining room staff to become "the world's greatest expert" on a particular wine. After overcoming their initial intimidation, staffers would write or call the winery to consult with the winemaker about how "their" wine was made, and would taste "their" wine with different foods to determine its unique affinities.

Then, whenever a guest asked about "their" wine, that staff member would fly to the table to discuss it with pride. "And of course, each sounded like a genius," O'Connell recalled, "because they could talk about the grapes, the climate, the pebbles . . . whatever you wanted to know."

Now the inn boasts a 14,000-bottle cellar, and wine director Tyler Packwood estimates that fully half of the red wine served to guests is pinot noir. So we want to encourage readers to rise to O'Connell's challenge, starting with the most revered and food-friendly red grape around.

Your journey to become the world's greatest expert on pinot noir might resemble this path:

- Taste a bunch of pinots. Get familiar with that stereotypical pinot noir style: beguiling fragrance, elegant silkiness, lush fruit (especially cherries, raspberries, strawberries and plums), balancing acidity and soft (sometimes chocolate-like) tannins, even in pinots made in different parts of the world.

Note the different sense of place you taste in Old World pinots (those from fickle-climated Burgundy can taste of earthy cherries with mushroomy notes) vs. those from the New World (such as California's Carneros region, where you're more likely to find spicy, cooked red-fruit flavors). In addition to Burgundy and California, seek out examples from Oregon, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and Germany (where it's known as spatburgunder).

Where to start? Andrew's pick this week, the 2006 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($20), provides a pleasing, classic example of New World pinot noir, with cooked cherry and plum fruitiness and soft tannins. From California's Russian River Valley, the flavors of the 2005 Lynmar Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($36) were reminiscent of cherry cobbler, with bright, tart cherries and distinctive cinnamon spice. This cool-climate region also produced the delightful 2006 Freeman Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($44), lush with the slightly tannic flavor of plums. For an Old World taste of Burgundy, open the 2005 Maison Chanson Bourgogne Pinot Noir ($25), a lighter-bodied wine with tart cherry and strawberry fruitiness balanced by an earthiness that makes it an ideal match for mushroom risotto.

- Pair them with food. As the single most food-friendly red wine, pinot noir has many compatible matches, but be sure to experience its amazing affinity for salmon, tuna, duck, lamb and mushrooms. "I love morels, and I hike the coastal hills searching for chanterelles, which are not as earthy as shiitakes or portobellos," says winemaker Jon Priest of Etude Wines, which is renowned for its pinot noir. "They have a fruitiness that helps bring out the body of pinot noir."

- Pick a winery. Ideally, choose one that produces several different pinots, so you can taste the differences in wines made from fruit that has been grown in close proximity. We chose California's Etude for this exercise; see this week's Tips box for other notable producers of pinot noirs.

- Start modestly. Sample the winemaker's style with its entry-level (often its most gently priced) offering. The first wine we tasted was Karen's pick, the 2006 Etude Carneros Estate Pinot Noir ($42), to appreciate the balanced smoothness of a wine that results from a blend of grapes from different vineyards. It had bright red and black cherries on both the nose and the palate, with captivating minerality.

- Compare vineyards. How does a pinot noir made from the grapes of one vineyard compare with one made from grapes of another vineyard just a few yards away? In the case of the 2005 Etude Temblor Pinot Noir ($60) and the 2005 Etude Deer Camp Pinot Noir ($60), both exceptional wines are from the same vintage and from vines that grow just 20 feet apart, yet each is a clearly different expression of the grape. The former exhibits hints of herbaceousness that led us to crave it with herbed lamb or pork, while the latter's tart tannic cherries and plums inclined us toward game birds such as quail or duck.

- Think long-term. Enlist your wine-loving friends to join you in this: Invest in four bottles of the same vintage of a cellar-worthy pinot noir. Drink one now and the others exactly one, two and three years from now. Take notes of your impressions at each tasting. How has age affected the wine?

Having tasted the already extraordinary, richly full-bodied 2005 Etude Heirloom Carneros Pinot Noir ($90) -- various vintages of Heirloom have appeared on the Inn at Little Washington's wine list -- we're eager to re-taste it in a year or two to see how time brings out its aromatics and mellows its boldness. A wine like that would be ideal for celebrating your own next big anniversary.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, award-winning authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat," can be reached through their Web site, http://www.becomingachef.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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