Delicate princess

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am

Chefs and sommeliers are challenging the old credo 'white wine with white meat; red wine with red meat' and pinot noir is just the wine to flirt with the rule. A delicate red, pinot is slinking onto the table with this autumn's turkey, chicken and duck, as well as with meatier fish, such as tuna, shark and swordfish. Vegetarians take note: this is your red wine - pinot noir is a seductive match for earthy mushrooms, truffles and grains.

Pinot noir is almost always a light ruby colour. If you can see your date through the wine glass, it is surely a pinot. In wine, light colour is synonymous with light weight and it is lightness that makes pinot noir such a versatile food match. Delicately perfumed with aromas of strawberries, red cherries and raspberries, pinot noir is matured in oak barrels, but with an elusive touch so as not to overwhelm the fruit. The selection of oak barrels and the period of maturation provide just a hint of spice and warmth, not the rich vanilla or smoky notes found in heavier red wines.

The temperamental princess of red grapes, pinot noir's colour, aroma and texture are greatly affected by vineyard climates and soils, so it varies considerably from place to place. More confoundingly, pinot is notorious for mutating. Pinot noir's popular illegitimate children include pinot grigio and pinot blanc, both of which transformed from red to white grapes on chilly European slopes. Members of the pinot family are easy to identify as their grapes are tightly clustered into a pine-cone shape, which is the origin of the name 'pinot'.

The ancient wine growing district of Burgundy (France) has long been the royal seat of pinot noir, where the wine is simply referred to as red Burgundy. The region's cool springs and warm summers provide just the right conditions for fussy pinot noir. It is also the backbone of France's Champagne district, where the red grapes are carefully harvested and crushed with the juice immediately withdrawn from the skins to ensure the wine remains the clear colour that we commonly enjoy in a bottle of bubbly.

Oregon has drawn international acclaim for its pinot noir, which is often described as being Burgundian in style, with high acidity and moderate alcohol. In California, the Carneros district (a light wine of delicate red cherries) and the Russian River Valley (look for concentrated spicy fruit) are highly regarded for their pinot noirs. Further south, near Santa Barbara, the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys are gaining attention, especially after the popular film Sideways. New Zealand successfully courts the pinot princess as well, producing dense ripe wines from Central Otago and vibrant vintages from Marlborough and Martinborough.

As pinot noir is not a tannic grape, it is tastiest within about five years after harvest and with a few exceptions is not suited for long ageing. The pinot noirs of Burgundy have been known to last several decades but are usually at their best between 10 and 15 years of age.

Debra Meiburg is a Master of Wine.