It’s a bit cliché to roam around in search of good pinot noir à la Sideways, but it’s a rite of passage for wine lovers—and great fun. Last year, I was in Sonoma, CA, with a friend who is mildly obsessed with it. In the Russian River Valley AVA, on a road that winds by vineyards half-hidden on steep hillsides, we found Thomas George Estate. In its Baker Ridge and Starr Ridge vineyards, each block is planted in a different pinot noir clone. The 2012 Starr Ridge Amber Block ($75), for example, is clone 115 grown on an eastern- facing, rocky slope, which means good drainage and relatively cool conditions. It was fantastic, so like total tourists we signed up for their wine club and have been drinking it ever since.
Pinot noir inspires passion like few other wines, but it’s a complicated affair. It makes an elegant, nuanced red that ages well, yet it’s a notorious pain to grow and takes skilled winemaking to get right. The grape hails from Burgundy, France, where it’s elevated into Grand Cru wines like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, so named because the tapering clusters resemble pine cones (pinot).
“The real trick with pinot noir is that you have to give it a lot of attention,” said Russ McCall of McCall Wines in Cutchogue. “You have to wake up and think: What does my pinot need today?”
To find his pinot noir, we had to look for the white cows. The McCall family farm and vineyard is planted in pinot noir and merlot and is home to their famous herd of Charolais beef cattle. Growing good pinot noir means that vineyard manager Sam McCullough plucks leaves, drops fruit and keeps a sharp eye out for disease. Pinot noir has thin skin, so berries break easily; this also means less phenolics (red skin compounds), making it a challenge in the cellar.
“I’ve long had a fascination with pinot noir,” McCall said. During his career as a wine wholesaler he found inspiration in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. McCall’s 2013 Hillside ($39) is hand-harvested from its best block, vinted by winemaker Gilles Martin and aged 16 months in French oak.
“You taste it and know in a second that it’s a pinot. It’s so identifiable—that femininity and prettiness.” The wine is a garnet color, with bright strawberry and cherry notes, a lighter style McCall compares to Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune, but with Long Island’s unique terroir.
Castello di Borghese makes it well known that it is one of the few Long Island vineyards that grows this picky grape. An old farm truck is parked on the front lawn loaded with a stack of barrels painted with big letters spelling out “PINOT NOIR.” It definitely attracts the fans, said Allegra Borghese, who runs the family-owned winery with her brother, Giovanni Borghese. “They’ll come in here and say, ‘I can’t believe you have pinot!’”
Their Pinot Noir Select 2014 ($50) is a deep ruby color, which she speculates is because vineyard manager Bernard Ramis “dropped fruit,” or thinned out the young grape clusters, leading to more ripeness and concentration. On the palate, it’s silky soft, with notes of orange, cherry and spice.
“We were surprised. It was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know pinot could do this,’” Borghese said. The team, including winemaker Eric Bilka, tastes and discusses new releases together. “I like the interplay of intellect and the senses. And it gives us a deeper understanding of our wines.” It also sounds like fun; they decided that the flavors bring to mind an Old Fashioned cocktail.