Pinot Noir
Sideways and Otherwise
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 6/5/14

Pinot noir, whose French name refers to its pinecone-shaped clusters as well as its distinctive dark color, is a notoriously troublesome grape, flourishing only in relatively cool climates such as those of Burgundy, Champagne and a scattering of other pockets around the world. Wine snobs have long exalted burgundies and champagnes, and now they’re learning not to turn up their cultivated noses at certain pinot noir–based wines made elsewhere.

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Sideways  (Alexander Payne (dir.) | film | 2004)
to  Boeuf Bourguignon

Given how deeply pleasurable wining and dining are, it’s surprising how few films attempt to convey those pleasures in any sort of sophisticated way. Most movies in which booze figures prominently are either cautionary tales of alcoholism’s ravages (e.g., Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend, 1945; Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, 1995) or gross-out comedies narrating the shenanigans of drunk young men. Alexander Payne’s Sideways is in a class by itself: a bromance for the over-30 demographic that sings wine’s delights—especially those offered by pinot noir, the beloved varietal of Sideways’s sad-sack hero, Miles—even while it laments the pitfalls of drinking too much. That complicated yet unquestionably celebratory attitude is likewise found in a few films about food, including Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987), Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996) and Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia (2009), which partly chronicles the daunting yearlong effort by real-life blogger Julie Powell to make all 524 dishes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961)—a project inspired by the wine-dark boeuf bourguignon that Powell’s mother, following Child’s recipe, made when Powell was a little girl.

Boeuf Bourguignon
to  Burgundy

If you’re dining out with several friends who order very different entrées (red meat, poultry, seafood) and are asked to choose just one bottle of wine for the table, which wine should you pick? The safest response to that redoubtable riddle is a wine made from pinot noir—a good red burgundy if you can afford it, a varietal from elsewhere if your pockets aren’t too deep. Pairing-wise, pinot noir has the rare virtue of being robust enough to hold its own against rack of lamb yet restrained enough to complement all but the most delicate fish dishes.

Of course, pinot noirs aren’t just pairing wines. If you’re making one of the classic stews that hail from the Burgundy region of France—coq au vin (chicken in red wine) or boeuf bourguignon (beef in the Burgundy style)—you’ll do well to hew to Burgundian tradition and use a pinot noir–based wine for the braising. Both dishes were favorites of America’s first foodie TV star, Julia Child, who demonstrated preparing each during the decade-long run of her public-television cooking show The French Chef. In fact, the premiere episode, broadcast in 1963, featured boeuf bourguignon.

to  California Pinot Noirs

Many oenophiles believe the French region of Burgundy produces the world’s finest wines. Burgundy’s reputation is built on two grapes—chardonnay for white wines and pinot noir for reds—and on how well the wines made from these grapes express the region’s unique terroirs. (To “express a terroir” is wine talk for communicating, through aroma and taste, a vineyard’s characteristic soil and climate.) The choicest—and priciest—burgundies are the grands crus (“great growths”) and premiers crus (“first growths”) produced in the area called the Côte d’Or (“Slope of Gold”), just southwest of Dijon. Oenophiles’ taste buds perk up at the mere mention of one of the Côte d’Or’s top wine-producing communes: Gevrey-Chambertin, for example, or Vosne-Romanée.

Some American pinot noirs, mostly from a few spots in California as well as from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, are scaling those Burgundian heights. Made in the French manner to emphasize elegance rather than replicating the “fruit bomb” alcoholic whammy of a typical West Coast cabernet sauvignon, these pinots are not to be confused with American jug wines labeled “burgundy”—a double misnomer, given that they (a) are not French and (b) are cheap blends that may contain no pinot noir whatsoever.

Sideways  (Alexander Payne (dir.) | film | 2004)
to  California Pinot Noirs

The film Sideways, based on Rex Pickett’s 2004 novel, concerns a pair of mismatched buddies—a depressed, wine-obsessed middle-school English teacher named Miles (Paul Giamatti) and a sexaholic, almost-over-the-hill actor named Jack (Thomas Haden Church)—who go off on a road trip to the wine-growing country of Santa Ynez Valley, just up the California coast from Los Angeles. Their intention to pack in some fun (wine tasting, golf and, in Jack’s case, getting laid) during the week before Jack’s wedding gets repeatedly foiled. As Sideways tells its hilarious, emotionally engaging tale, it dispenses a primer’s worth of information on wine, especially pinot noir, for which Miles has a nearly religious fervor. “Pinot needs constant care and attention,” he explains. “It can only grow in these really specific, tucked-away corners of the world”—among which are certain places in California’s Santa Barbara County, Russian River Valley, Los Carneros area and Anderson Valley. More than a dozen wines are imbibed and discussed in Sideways, including Santa Barbara pinots made by the Whitcraft and Sea Smoke wineries, as well as the Highliner pinot noir produced by the Hitching Post II restaurant in the town of Buellton, where several Sideways scenes take place.

California Pinot Noirs
to  Champagne

The sparkling wines of France’s Champagne region are mostly white. So it may be confusing to learn that the grape planted most extensively in Champagne, and the one that’s the major constituent in most champagnes, is pinot noir. The reason this black grape can be used to make white wine is simple: Because grapes’ pigment is concentrated in their skins, separating the juice from the skins during pressing will yield white wine. Two other grapes are used in champagne making—another black grape, called pinot meunier, and the white grape chardonnay—but it’s perfectly possible to make champagne from pinot noir alone. Champagne containing only pinot noir, or blending pinot noir with pinot meunier, is called blanc de noirs, French for “white from blacks.” Rosé champagne—call it pink champagne at your peril—usually incorporates a portion of (nonsparkling) pinot noir red wine in the blend. To make their own sparkling wines, California vintners in recent decades have adopted the painstaking traditional method of their French counterparts and are increasingly using the same three grape varieties. But don’t dare refer to an American bubbly, however delicious, as champagne. That term’s legally reserved for wines from Champagne.

to  Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée

Many American wines are identified by the grapes they’re made from. Thus, a wine made from pinot noir will generally be called a pinot noir. This is a varietal wine—one made solely or primarily from a single grape variety. The French wine industry, by contrast, uses an entirely different nomenclature—one based on the official agricultural certification system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (“Controlled Designation of Origin”). This identifies wines according to where the grapes are grown and how the wine is made. The AOC may name a wine for a large region or a smaller area within that region (a village, say) or even an individual estate. The system is complicated, but it has an undeniable logic, since wines made from the same grape in different places often have different characters. Conversely, wines from the same place made according to the same techniques may possess a strong familial resemblance even though they’re made from different grapes. That’s why the sparkling wines of the Champagne appellation—whether made from pinot noir, chardonnay or some combination of grapes—have a recognizable similarity, resulting from Champagne’s cool climate, chalky soil and traditional champenoise method for making sparkling wines.

to  Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée

Because the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée names wines according to where the grapes are grown rather than what they’re made from, French wine labels can be damnably difficult to interpret—especially for the wines of Burgundy. All red burgundies except those from Burgundy’s southernmost sector, Beaujolais, where gamay is the dominant red-wine grape, are made from pinot noir grapes. Knowing this basic fact—which you may not find out by looking at the label—is helpful, but only minimally. Guessing a burgundy’s probable quality requires that you also understand the information that does appear on the label: the commune, or village, producing the wine; perhaps the specific vineyard (some renowned vineyards have their own appellations); and—vitally important when choosing wines made from pinot noir, which is so sensitive to variations in weather—the vintage (that is, the year the grapes were harvested). And there are yet other variables to take into account, including the pace at which a burgundy of a particular vintage is likely to mature in the bottle and when it will “peak.” It’s no wonder some people spend their entire lives—albeit enjoyably—getting a grip on Burgundy.