I have a love/hate relationship with Pinot Noir. It's a damn complex grape -- in the growing, in the making, and in the drinking -- and so much can go wrong with it, it's a little alarming.
Sometimes I drink Pinot and all I taste is tart, sour cherry. No nuance, just bitterness. Other times, I notice that American producers have taken full advantage of the fact that in the US only 75% of the grape mentioned on the label has to be in the bottle. Hence my Pinot tastes a lot like Syrah or Merlot (which it often is given how cheap these grapes are). Another annoyance: the producers often leave the Pinot on the vine so long that it becomes jammy and full -- nothing like what I'd expect from this light-to-medium bodied Burgundy native, which should be replete with complex layers of earthy flavor. It's all a big turn-off for me and makes me want to drink something more reliable.
I've posted on Pinot before and have discussed the grape in detail, but as a quick refresher, Pinot Noir is a many-splendored grape that only the most dedicated (and crazy) of producers can handle. If ever there was a grape that I wish could have stayed lower down on the popularity list, it's Pinot. Why? Because this grape is incredibly picky, and production for the masses isn't this grape's core competence (look, I went to b-school so every now and then I've got to whip this stuff out).
Pinot mutates incessantly (and is responsible for Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meunier, to name a few) so if a winery isn't using a good clone, you can get bad wine that's akin to chewing on a plant stem. It's a weak vine, it's victim to pests, diseases, birds, and weather. Its quality depends on site selection and soil (limestone is best) -- you can really taste the flavor of the earth in this wine. You've got to get the right area for it, or fuggedaboutit. Oh, and did I mention that it only produces small crops? That means there is less raw material to work with in each vintage. Grow it in the wrong place -- you've invested lots of time and money and wound up with a small amount of bad to mediocre wine. Who wants to do that?
Well apparently many people. After Sideways came out, we all bought Pinot like dorks buying the iPhone 4 (even if they didn't see the movie. This is partly due to word of mouth, partly due to insane marketing from big wineries who pushed their crap Pinot to the mass consumer market, regardless of quality). Hundreds of versions came out. Newer producers under-cropped their vines to create big volumes of thin, flavorless wines. Many producers opted to make their Pinot in an overripe style -- jammy, and full-bodied -- to get Merlot and Cabernet lovers on board. Fewer and further between came the complex, earthy, exotic spiced Pinot Noir. You could get them but you were going to pay a big premium. It kind of sucked for pre-existing Pinot lovers.
Now Burgundy's gem, this rare and delicious wine, has suffered from over-exposure. You can never be too rich or too thin, but you can be too popular. For instance, California Pinot. Very popular wine and I can find very few that I still like these days. France has pumped out a bunch of crap Pinot (from and not from Burgundy) to fill demand and every country around the world is trying to get their piece of the action. I find few to be successful yet most sell. Since I can't afford fine red Burgundy (which is Pinot Noir, BTW), I now rely on two regions, from where I have yet to have a bad Pinot: New Zealand (love Picton Bay at Trader Joe's for $7.99, BTW) and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Today, I'll talk about the latter.
As my fellow blogger and friend the Surburban Wino points out, Willamette kind of sounds like "dammit" (he gives a great description of the Valley and wines here too so check it out after you finish with this post!). Will-AM-it Valley stretches from the Columbia River in the north, to south of Eugene, and from the western Oregon Coastal Range to the eastern Cascade Mountains. Most of the wineries in the state are here because, well, this is the best place for vineyards.
The climate of the Willamette Valley is great for Pinot. It's cool there -- temps don't really get above 90 degrees and don't get below zero. It's kind of mild year round, except for winter when it's cool, wet, and miserable. All in all, a climate not too far from Burgundy (or parts of New Zealand for that matter). It's no wonder that a few very prestigious producers from Burgundy have set up shop in the Willamette Valley (notably, Joseph Drouhin, one of the finest large winemakers/exporters in Burgundy).
So on to a wonderful wine that I was given by the winery owner, Margie Olson, while she was in Atlanta at the High Museum Wine Auction a few months back. My friend MH, who has one of the best palates I know and who is just all around fabulous told me told me to head over to the table. MH has 100% hit rate with me! I was so enamored of Torii Mor during the tasting that Margie offered a bottle for me to take home. This bottle is an '08 and just released so I held it to let it relax a bit (wines can get bottle shock, or temporary "stiffness" while getting used to being in the bottle. It can last a few months, so I just opened it last night). The results were great!
Before I move on to the wine, the name of the winery is a little different, so I thought I'd explain. To quote their Web site:
The name TORII MOR was chosen by Dr. Olson as he felt it conjured a feeling of unique elegance. Borrowing from the Japanese, the “Torii” refers to the ornate gates most often seen at the entrances to Japanese gardens. “Mor” is a word in ancient Scandinavian that means “earth”. By integrating these two distinct languages, the romantic image of a gate to an earth space, or passageway to beautiful things, is formed. We believe that Pinot noir, more than any other varietal, is that beautiful gateway to the earth.So there you have it. With that out of the way, let's get to the stuff in the bottle. Sourced from the northern Willamette Valley, the 2008 Pinot Noir is similar to a Burgundy in style, in no small part due to the fact that Jacques Tardy, experienced winemaker and native of Nuits-St.Georges in Central Burgundy makes these wines. With a terroir (a French word that means the land, soil, climate, general environment of the vineyard) driven philosophy and a light hand in the winemaking process, this wine is a quality Pinot Noir. Jacques did a nice job of integrating New and Old World styles here, and the wine is a winner. Here's the rundown:
The Wine: Torii Mor Pinot Noir
Where It's From: Willamette Valley, Oregon
The Grapes: 100% Pinot Noir
Color: Ruby in the center with a nice light, rose-colored rim and a shiny, reflective gleam. The darker color in the center made me think this wine would have rich flavor, but the lighter rim told me it wouldn't be overbearing or jammy. Great for a Pinot Noir.
Smell: This was like smelling dew in the morning in a mountain cabin. How do I know? I went to one last week and it smelled like this. A mix of fertile soil and dark dried flowers hopped out of the glass right away. Dried strawberry, boysenberry, and cranberry overlaid a really interesting bacon-y smell. There was a sharp spice in there too -- like white pepper (stronger than black pepper) and then a nutmeg, maple aroma. The wine was like a collection of random things that somehow flowed together seamlessly. It was like a bottle of perfume. My mouth watered at the smell.
Taste: 2008 was a challenging vintage for Willamette, but we benefit from it -- a smaller yield of grapes meant survival of the fittest. Only the best grapes made it into the bottle, and you can taste it in this wine. It is certainly a French-style wine -- dirt first. The wine was so earthy -- like a mushroom that had been in rich, damp soil but it was balanced by flavors like dried strawberries, sour cherry, black raspberry, and tea leaves. The wine had a pepper character, with a little pleasant bite. It had good mouth-drying tannins and lively and bright acidity. It's medium-bodied and a rich texture. This is what I want in a Pinot Noir and I was happy this delivered.
Food: I'm not gonna lie to you -- we didn't eat with this, we just drank it before dinner. We did discuss food though (do I get points for that at least?). MC Ice thought it would be a great match with grilled pork loin, I thought it would be great with a grilled portobello mushroom and eggplant tower with mozzarella and basil. Let me know if you find something more suitable. This is theory. Sorry about that... we really are normal people so sometimes we just drink the bottle without food. Is that so wrong?
Drink or Down the Sink?: Most definitely drink. This is a great Pinot Noir. $22 is a fair price, and it's well worth a try. That said, I do think the wine could use a little time to evolve and become less tannic and acidic. I'd get this and hold it until this time next year. By then it will have evolved into something magical -- and that's well worth the wait!
As a bonus, I'll be doing a shorter review of Torii Mor's Pinot Gris next week! Look out for it!
Thanks for reading!
***If you love Pinot and are on Twitter, put July 15th on your calendar! It's the Pinot Noir Twitter Tasting, where you can drink your Pinot with other Tweeters around the country, learn about the varietal from online friends and experts, and share your own opinions. I'll warn you that I find that these "tweet offs" are often chaotic and there are not a lot of normal wine people on them (they are really rude because they are hiding behind their computers...urgh), I always learn something so I think it's well worth at least observing the conversation! Check out the event at http://pinotnoir.eventbrite.com/