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Tasting with Friends: Unexpected Pinot Noirs

It had been way too long since we conducted one of our fairly regular wine tastings with friends. The rules are always the same: The host sets a topic (we did “European Reds“, “Strange Fruit“, “French and Argentinian Malbecs“, “Michigan vs. Mosel” and others in the past; you can find links to all of them here), and then guests bring a wine bottle each. The wines are usually accompanied by cheeses and meats, and as of late we try to taste them blindly.

Two of our friends had to move out of town for work, so we had been missing them dearly. When one of them came to town for a visit, we made sure to have a tasting. Since I was hosting, I had the honor of setting the rules. I called the tasting “Unexpected Pinot Noirs” and explained that I would like to try Pinot not from France or the U.S. usual suspects Oregon and California (but guests were free to ignore that rule). I am a huge fan of Pinot Noir and was looking for a chance to expand my palate.

We paired the wines with cheeses and meats from my local go to sausage maker Biercamp. These guys just know what they are doing: I got several bacons thinly sliced, including duck and lamb bacon, a wonderful garlic and herbs de Provence sausage with a nice kick, as well as smoke sticks from them. Delicious pairing options for sure.

Blind tasting has its own trappings, and I am always a bit weary of it because it is the most humbling experience you can imagine. You try to whittle down where the wine is from, and while doing that more often than not I convince myself that it is a particular style or region or vintage and then look for arguments to support that, thus closing off my mind. Nina tends to be way better than me at picking up nuances and determining characteristics about wine. She definitely owns me in blind tastings, and so it was with this one:

A Pinot from the Ruwer valley

A Pinot from the Ruwer valley

The first wine we tried was a German Pinot Noir (called Spätburgunder, literally “late Burgundy”), a 2010 Heinrich Mertes Waldracher Meisenberg Cuveé Lara. My friend Mansoo had sent me this bottle a while back (as well as the other bottle we entered into the race), and I was eager to try it. Heinrich Mertes winery is located in the Ruwer valley, a small tributary to the Mosel river. The wine showed a medium-light red color. The nose was perfumy with currants and some heat. It wasn’t exciting at all. The heat was actually quite disturbing. On the palate, though, this wine shone: raspberry, red currant and tobacco aromas, and an awesome kick of acidity. The puzzling and intriguing thing about this wine was that the fruit tasted very ripe, yet the acidity kept it wonderfully fresh. This was a strong beginning. The nose not so much, but the flavor profile was awesome. For me, the acidity gave it away: Because I knew there was a 2010 from Germany in the race, a year with quite high acidity in general, I took my chances and guessed right (so did Nina).

Quite the label, huh?

Quite the label, huh?

Next up, a 2007 Arno Kruft Veldenzer Grafschafter Sonnenberg from the Mosel (our second entry). The color was in stark contrast to the first wine: dark, purplish red. The nose showed wet dirt, some rotting branches and what others described as compost aromas. Not very pleasant. I think the compost descriptor came from hyper-ripe fruit aromas, but I couldn’t nail down which fruit. On the palate, the first noticeable thing was that it was way chewier than the first wine. It also was somewhat smoky, with cherries and cranberry aromas as well as a bit of vanilla. In my mind, this was totally a new world Pinot with a lot of the characteristics I have encountered in some California Pinot Noir: too potent, too strong, no restraint. But I want my Pinot Noir less potent, less strong and with more restraint. I did not like this wine. I guessed it was from somewhere pretty warm, and definitely new world. Boy was I wrong.

Michigan high end winery with South African winemaker

Michigan high end winery with South African winemaker

The third wine of the evening was a 2012 Brys Estate Old Mission Peninsula Pinot Noir from Michigan. Apparently, Michigan winemakers consider 2012 one of the best Pinot Noir vintages yet, so this should be exciting. The color on this one was gorgeous: a red currant red, darker than wine 1, much lighter than wine 2. The nose was flowery, with some strawberry, rather intense smoke, but seemed quite closed at this point. On the palate, the wine felt creamy and heavy, which gave it a wonderful mouthfeel. But it is a mouthfeel I don’t expect or particularly cherish in a Pinot Noir, which I want more light footed and delicate. Still a solid showing. Nina guessed Michigan correctly, I had no clue.

Another established Michigan winery

Another established Michigan winery

Up next, a 2011 Black Star Farms Arcturos  Pinot Noir, also from Michigan. Again, the color was spectacular, a bright and shiny red currant. The nose was full of roses, almonds and cedar wood, with hints of red berries. I thought the nose was gorgeous. The palate also started off nicely, with spice and pepper aromas, and a light footed feel to it. But then the palate turned out to be a bit harsh: There were bitter aromas kicking in that were rather striking. It also felt like the wine had a bit too much alcohol (which was not the case, we checked later and it clocked in at only 12% ABV, but felt more like 14), and that really turned me off. I couldn’t get over the harshness in the wine. My guess was, because of the perceived high alcohol, a warm climate wine, maybe Southern Italy.

A New Zealand surprise and an Oregon Pinot

A New Zealand surprise and an Oregon Pinot

Second to last came a 2011 Oya Pointe Pinot Noir from New Zealand’s Marlborough Valley. New Zealand has definitely gained some serious street cred for its Pinot production. The color was similar to the previous wine, and the nose was awesome: strawberry jam with rosemary and sage aromas. It was crazy, but good crazy! I loved it. The palate was very herbal as well, thyme, rosemary and sage aromas, with strong acidity with some iron aromas, great lightness to it and some red berries. This was very unique and therefore impressive wine. I hadn’t come across such an herbal Pinot before. This was an exciting wine. Because of the iron aroma that I had come across before in an Oregon Pinot Noir, I decided to guess Oregon…

The final wine was a 2012 Grochau Cellars Commuter Cuveé Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The color was more purplish, maybe black currant. The nose was chalky, intensely perfumy, with cocoa aromas. On the palate, the wine seemed rather bland: some cherries, some strawberries, plum, not very expressive though. Straight-out fruit forward style, but all a bit thin. I would not have recognized it as a Pinot Noir if I hadn’t know it had to be one, maybe more of a Grenache or so. I just didn’t find much that excited me about this wine. Not bad, but quite standard. My guess, because it was a bit heavy, was California.

So, recap: My guesses were mostly off. My ranking of the wines from best to least favorite, is 1 (2010 German), 5 (2011 New Zealand), 4 (2011 Michigan), 3 (2012 Michigan) and 2 (2007 Germany) and 6 (Oregon) – the last two share the spot, I couldn’t decide.

Combined with the others rankings (6 points for favorite down to 1 point for least favorite), this is the likability ranking:

First place: 2010 Heinrich Mertes Cuveé Lara – 23 points (ranked first by three people out of four)

Second place: 2011 Oya Pointe Pinot Noir (New Zealand) – 17 points (ranked second twice)

Third place: 2012 Brys Pinot Noir and 2011 Black Star Farms Arcturos Pinot Noir – 16 points each (with the Arcturos being ranked first once)

Fifth place: 2012 Grochau Cellars Commuter Cuveée Pinot Noir – 6 points

Sixth place: 2007 Arno Kruft Veldenzer Grafschafter Sonnenberg – 5 points (ranked last by three out of four)

The tasting was fun, and it was kind of interesting to have a German Pinot Noir ranked first and last. The Heinrich Mertes was just such a great expression of the grape, to me it was a rather easy winner. The New Zealand Pinot Noir was unique in a good way, expressing some aromas that were unfamiliar, yet seemed befitting to the grape.

The pretty clear winner

The pretty clear winner

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2011 Argyle Pinot Noir

2011 Argyle Pinot Noir

2011 Argyle Pinot Noir

I ordered the 2011 Argyle Pinot Noir, the Oregon winery’s entry-level Pinot, last spring, and finally got around to tasting it. It has gotten quite the bad rap on Cellartracker with an average rating of 85.3 points, and some pretty scathing reviews, calling it boring, tart, disjointed, unbalanced etc.

I don’t know. This was my first wine from Argyle, but I remembered when ordering the bottle that my Pinot-nut buddy Jeff The Drunken Cyclist has a thing for the winery, the price was right (around $15), and so I ordered the bottle. I bet I should have let it sit for much longer, but yesterday was the night I opened it.

When I poured the wine, I was delighted because it had the right color. Some of you may remember that I tend to open American Pinots with a tad trepidation because I often find it hit or miss. When I open a Pinot Noir, I am looking for a light, brickish red color, not a Cabernet Sauvignon dark. So this was had just the right color for me. Sniffing the first swirls, I couldn’t help but be struck by how much it smelled of freshly pureed raspberries. It was a combination of this berry and quite noticeable acidic aromas that made for a very fresh initial impression. Then, some metallic aromas (rust) crept in, which was a bit weird. I liked the first 2/3s of the wine when I tried it: it was light-bodied, nicely fruity but with a quite strong acidity, again aromas of raspberries. The metallic notes persisted, but not too prominent. The finish was a tad bitter, and disappointing. Not much length there. Over the next hour or so, aromas of dark chocolate started to come to life and there were some herbal aromas coming in.

What’s the take on it? Definitely not a complex or outstanding wine, but also not bad. We’re talking about an entry level wine after all! The $15 seemed a bit high, but then again we are moving in Pinot Noir territory from Oregon, so prices are higher in general.

It did seem somewhat unbalanced with its strong acidity, but then again I am not really averse to higher acidity if it does not turn into vinegar. And this one did not taste vinegary to me. The aromas were good (loved those pureed raspberries), except for the weird metallic note. I think this is a decent drinker, not sure what to pair it with. Definitely would give it some time in the bottle, and also let it air for a while before you drink it. It pulled itself together after a while.

Final verdict? Decent and I welcomed the old world style. Check out the video fellow blogger Jeff of Stay Rad posted when he tasted the wine (which he seemed to like quite a bit!).

@Jeff The Drunken Cyclist: I could have thrown in that it is a mystery to me why some reviews on Cellartracker were so harsh, but that would be trying to cheat my way into the MWWC. Sorry I didn’t make the cut this time around…

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2010 Caiu a Noite Vinho Verde and 2011 King Estate Acrobat Pinot Gris

2010 Caiu a Noite and 2011 Acrobat Oregon Pinot Gris

2010 Caiu a Noite and 2011 Acrobat Oregon Pinot Gris

We were invited for at dinner party on our last Saturday evening in Alaska before flying back to Ann Arbor. The hosts had told us to bring wine and sent us a menu for dinner: broccoli, roasted lemon-herb chicken, mashed lentils with caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar. In my opinion, this dinner was screaming out for white wines. I guess a Côtes du Rhône would have worked fine as well, but with the lemon chicken I just felt safer with whites.

We headed over to the liquor store and I was thinking something along the lines of a Burgundy chardonnay. We kept checking the pretty decent wine selection when Nina had the idea to bring a vinho verde to start with. We couldn’t see any, so we asked the lady in the store who promptly sent us to the Chile wine section because Portugal was somewhere in South America…ah, well. I finally spotted a vinho verde, the 2010 Caiu a Noite. I had never seen that wine before, but it was $6.99 and since a bottle of vinho verde has yet to disappoint me, we picked it up.

With some uneasiness and the very limited selection of Burgundy whites I was convinced by Nina that we might want to look into pinot gris. I complained that I am not the person who brings pinot gris to a dinner party (I am not the fondest supporter of that grape). I saw some Oregon pinot gris and I decided that that might be a route to take. I have never had Oregon pinot gris before, so it was an experiment. The 2011 King Estate Acrobat seemed about right, and cost around $10.

Both wines turned out to be very good (as did dinner!). The 2010 Caiu a Noite Vinho Verde still had some bubbling going on, which I did not expect given that it is a 2010 vintage and vinho verde is usually meant to be drunk young. It had a great nose of fresh apple and citrus and in the glass showed these same apple aromas, a very slight sweetness backed up by a nice acidity. It was a really good vinho verde, probably one of the best I have had (better than the Trader Joe’s Vinho Verde Espiral, I think, because it was more rounded and less wild). I highly recommend this wine if you get a chance to try it.

The 2011 King Estate Acrobat Oregon Pinot Gris poured in a very light yellow color. The nose was a bit perfumy, but somewhat subdued. Not very expressive at first. On the palate the wine was beautiful. It had a nice body to it, was dry and showed some interesting fruit aromas of pear and apple. It had a nice length to it and was just incredibly smooth and wonderful to drink. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I loved that there are always wines out to positively surprise me. It also paired well with dinner. I have to try more Oregon wines, from what I hear this is a wine region that is producing wines that I will like. I am very excited about that prospect.

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