Pinot Noir 101 with Ellie and Friends

In the course of one evening, these wine enthusiasts tasted Pinot Noirs bottom to top, around the world, learned what they liked, and found affordable versions from their new preferred place!

Wine 101 Intro to Pinot Noir with Ellie and Friends
My niece, Ellie, and a group of her friends are a couple of years out of college and are interested in learning about wine, with a normal recent graduate budget. I jumped at the chance to lead them through an exploration of Pinot Noir, keeping in mind their budget preference of under $20 per bottle. Perfect for wine 101!

Tasting line-up, all Pinot Noir. From left to right: Blanc de Noir sparkling wine, classic example, bottom shelf example, multiple (3) bottles from around the world in affordable price range (<$20), and 1-2 examples of refined versions from famous regions.

Learn Any Wine With This Basic Approach
There is a sound method to learn about a particular type of wine (no matter which one it is). Gather up a group of friends and turn it into a party, or do it on your own, working your way consecutively through a series of bottles. Purchase a specific series of bottles, picking key examples in a variety of prices and geographies. Take a look at the list below to understand the concept.

  1. Sparkling version if available, otherwise, always start with sparkling wine!
  2. Mid-price classic example to understand what “Typical” tastes like
  3. Basic bottom shelf version ($10)
  4. Example bottles from multiple geographies around the world – in your desired price range (<$20)
  5. Nice examples of 1-2 top shelf, classic bottles. Not crazy expensive, but spend $40+ to understand how the top versions taste.

If you’re with a group, taste through the wines in the listed order. Sample them with a variety of snacks. Note carefully the differences. Pay attention to the smells, flavors, and tastes. Take some notes and discuss!  If you’re on your own, enjoy the wines over a period of a few weeks.  Simply re-cork and put a 1/2 finished bottle in the refrigerator and finish it up in the next day or two. After spending time with the wines, you’ll gain an understanding of the variations with price and geography, and you’ll find an area to explore further which matches your taste and preference, and not some critics’.

Note that Pinot Noir loves a cool climate. In fact, it’s the coldest ripening red grape. Beware of Pinot Noir grown in areas where Malbec or Zinfandel are grown!

Pinot Noir – Just the Facts
Some key things to know about Pinot Noir

  • Pinot Noir is a pale colored, lighter bodied red wine with lively acidity and low tannins (astringency).
  • One of the most food-friendly red wines, it pairs well with poultry, red meat and large fish such as salmon.
  • Ancestral home is the Burgundy (Bourgogne) region of France.
  • Likes a cool climate, it will grow in regions farther north or closer to the coast than other red grapes.
  • Finicky to grow. It has thin skins and tight clusters which makes it sensitive to various diseases.
  • Cool climate risks include late spring frosts and summer hail.

If you’re organizing a tasting group / party, put together a set of aroma-aids from easily found items. Here we have L to R, top to bottom: cherry preserves, gummi bears, fresh raspberries and blueberries, mushrooms, pine needles, fresh herbs, tobacco, vanilla bean, cedar shavings, earth (dirt), leather, balsamic vinegar.

Aroma Aids
Aroma aids are a fun way to associate smells from the wine with their natural counterparts. Take a whiff of the wine, then see which of the samples matches up with what’s in the wine glass. The next time you smell it in the wine, you’ll know what it is!

Our Tasting Line-Up
Take a look at the wines we tasted. Use these wines as examples of the types you might search out in a local wine shop where you live.

(click on any wine photo to view full size slide show, hit escape to return to the post)

Action Learning
When we taste, we like to get everyone more comfortable with all aspects of wine. Tonight, we got some of our wine enthusiasts acquainted with the double-hinge waiters corkscrew. As you can see, we had some fun with it!

Affordable Pinot Noir Buying Advice
Here are a couple of hints to keep in mind when you’re shopping for affordable (under $20 in the US) Pinot Noir:

  • It’s easy to find good Pinot Noir in the $20-30 price range. Under $20, you may have to endure some less than stellar examples. As we say, you might have to “kiss a few frogs” (in order to find the prince).
  • There are a variety of styles, plus variation which comes from the place of origin. Sample a few and choose your favorite.
  • Oregon wines will usually be fresh and filled with barely ripe fruit flavors with lively mouthwatering acidity. Keep your eyes open for “Willamette Valley” on the label, a bit nicer than “Oregon”.
  • California wines will usually be a bit riper, and many will show a bit more of the oaky flavors, as we saw in our Montoya Pinot Noir.
  • French wines from Burgundy can be found for right around $20. Look for Bourgogne Rouge on the label, this is the basic regional wine. Bourgogne wines will often show an earthy component more prominently than wines from other regions in the New World.
  • New Zealand and Chile are both producing nice Pinot Noir wines and are well worth trying.

Download Pinot Noir 101 Notes

Homework Assignment
I almost forgot! Your homework assignment is to go find an under $20 Pinot Noir, either a new producer or new area; something new. Give it a try and report back in the comments section. What was it like? Did you like it? Would you recommend it? Go!

9 Responses to “Pinot Noir 101 with Ellie and Friends”
  1. Side Hustle Wino says:

    Love this! What fun to get the younger generation’s feedback and perspective and impart a little knowledge along the way.

    • They were so into learning. Immediately, they were smelling the wine, the aroma guides. After a little bit they were commenting on acidity and wanted to understand tannins. So much fun to guide eager learners!

  2. Don Sandberg says:

    Nicely done Jeff! Thanks for including iOTA in your tasting. Cheers!

  3. Lynn says:

    Bravo, especially your aroma aides. You have absolutely inspired me. A Bordeaux women’s group I belong to has been asking for a tasting class 😉

  4. Very cool Jeff! Where were you when I was in my 20s?!;-)

  5. Bob Hermes says:

    There are a lot of modestly priced Pinots from the California Central Coast. Santa Barbara up to Monterey is doing very tasty wines. I like the Santa Lucia Highlands area and for a $20 bottle you can’t beat Hahn SLH Pinot. Other producers go up a little more in price but the wine is consistently good at any price.

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