Pinot Noir is among the most finicky grapes that can be grown. It is high susceptible to disease. It is tricky in the cellar, and will absolutely react badly to rough handling, exhibits the worst aspects in many cases of bottle shock, and will easily go south at even the slightest miscalculation. In fact, the running joke inside the industry is that you either have to be an asshole or a crazy man (or woman) to grow and make your own Pinot Noir. And on the east coast you have to be absolutely certifiable – given how difficult it is to grow anything here. Admittedly, I qualify on ALL counts to be a member of the club. And I want badly to be a member of the club!
Pinot is a black wine grape variety of the species Vitis vinifera. The name may also refer to wines created predominantly from Pinot noir grapes. The name is derived from the French words for "pine" and "black" alluding to the grape variety's tightly clustered dark purple pine-cone shaped bunches of fruit.
Wine writers have long been obsessed with Pinot Noir. Jancis Robinson calls Pinot a "minx of a vine" and André Tchelistcheff declared that "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot noir." Joel Fleischman of Vanity Fair describes Pinot noir as "the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch that, like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic." And Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon calls pinot "sex in a glass".
Pinot Noir, when done right, is among the most fabulous wines I have ever tasted. As I have gotten older, my tastes have grown simple, pie (almost any kind of fruit), vanilla ice cream, and good pinot noir. Good Pinot Noir sparkles in the glass like a giant cut stone, a translucent red so gorgeous that it catches the light and plays with it like an infant is fascinated by long hair or glasses. The light dangles in the glass, it bounces, it fumbles, it tosses it up and down with ease and carelessness….but it never fails to fascinate.
Now, I said, when it is done right…and there is defiantly a wrong way to do Pinot Noir. I like I said, I’m getting older. I don’t need a super concentrated Pinot Noir. Admittedly, I have enjoyed a glass of Hanzell or Kistler Pinot Noir in my life time. One friend (Evan Dawson) even opined, I had “crossed over to the dark side.” Not quite Quasimodo. I can kick the wild side of town when I want to. But home is home. There’s Burgundy and then there’s east coast. And that’s my Pinot Noir.
The best Pinot Noir in the world comes from Burgundy. I have to admit, that the best of the best still come from Burgundy. But the quantities are so small, and some are almost legendary for their elusiveness even to the biggest Pinot collectors.
But here’s what really think – the best Pinots in the US come from the east coast. Now don’t get me wrong, I grew up on Hanzell, Patz & Hall, Kistler, and many others. And they are very, very good wines. And I recently spent a weekend in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, and the Santa Rita Hills, and I loved Foley, and Babcock, and one of my all time favorites Fiddlehead (in the Lampock Wine Ghetto).
The best Pinot Noirs come from the east coast. And there are reasons for that.
1. The weather. Now, I understand, the weather on the east coast is rough enough to wear you down like being locked in a room with an angry mother-in-law (I happen to love mine, so I don’t count). The weather on the east coast is rainy (compared in California) and cold, and severe, and hot and humid. The warm, moist, humid conditions in summer do their best to encourage disease, thereby killing your crop. And the cold, severe, cruel winters do their best to kill off the plant itself! Yet, capture just enough of the summer in a bunch of pinot noir grapes, and you’re in for a treat. Pinot likes cool weather. A warm summer, with some air coming from a body of water is the best protection. The Finger Lakes, the North Fork, and the Hudson Valley all qualify.
2. If you like big heavy Pinot, then this article isn’t for you. You’re a heathen. Find some raw meat, and grab some unsuspecting partner by the hair, and get your club, and go pick fleas out of each other’s fur while lying on animal skins. If you like fine Pinot Noir, light to medium bodied, they really can’t make anything else on the east coast. This is the correct way to make Pinot Noir. There is no variation. No one’s using a concentrator to catch up. These are nice food wines. Soft, approachable. Lovely. Elegant. Welcome to well balanced wines, with fruit, acid, tannin, that feature bright cherry and sour cherry and light raspberry. Everything a fine Pinot Noir should be.
3. Price point. Other than Patz & Hall, all the best California Pinot Noirs are relatively expensive. The best are astronomical. I would say the same thing about the best of Burgundy, but they are unobtainable anyway, so why bother complain about the price! However, no matter how “expensive” you may view the price of some east coast Pinot Noirs, they are nowhere near those massive prices. They are easily among the most affordable in the US market, among serious, quality wine producers.
James Beard award winning wine expert Steven Kolpan recently wrote an article in the June-August 2012 issue of Valley Table magazine entitled "Warm Wheather Reds: Chill Out," extolling the virtues of Pinot Noir from around the world. In the article Kolpan recommended wines from the Hudson Valley: "For a good local/aternative choice, look for Hudson Valley Pinot Noir produced by Millbrook, Robibero, Oak Summitt, Bashakill; Chelois from Hudson-Chatham, Genoa produced by Cereghino-Smith."
Gregory Dal Piaz of SNOOTH.com also liked the Hudson Valley noir-ish wines, liking the same Pinot Noirs as Kolpan, as well as Hudson-Catham Chelois and the Hudson-Chatham Baco Noir Old Vines and the Whitecliff Vineyards Gamay Noir.
Sommelier Journal’s Patricia Savoie also praised the same wines.
If they are good enough for Sommelier Journal, Kolpan, and Dal Piaz, they are good enough for me. Not in any particular order, here’s my list of the best in the east…and possibly the US. I'd stack anyone of these Pinots against a lot of other wines from the west coast.
Heart in Hands – Tom Higgins is the master of east coast Pinot Noir in the Finger Lakes. Neither the west coast nor Burgundy can look down their noses at Heart in Hands in the Finger Lakes. He only makes Pinot Noir and Riesling. This portfolio of best Pinot Noirs is some of the best anywhere…period! Fantastic stuff!
McGregor – The first time I tasted this Finger Lakes varietal, when I was much younger, well, I thought it thin and watery. But now I love it. The expression of fruit is light and super bright. Lots of fresh cherry. Absolutely a great food wine.
Red Tail Ridge Vineyards – This Finger Lakes winery continues to impress. This Pinot Noir by Nancy Ireland and her husband is some of the most amazing in the state. These are wine people from California, but they make Pinot Noir like they’re from Beaune! Wonderful!
Rooster Hill Winery – A nice, fruity, layered Pinot Noir from the Finger Lakes. A very nice red, with good color, texture, and taste. Lots of flavor. The fruit stays with you a long time.
Oak Summit Vineyards – Possibly the best Pinot Noir on the east coast. John Bruno is a master of Pinot Noir. This retired restaurateur is a farmer at heart, and tends to his vineyards like a momma bear watches over her cubs. The result is an impressive, gorgeous wine from the Hudson Valley with real umph and staying power. Marvelous!
Jamesport Vineyards – This North Fork Pinot Noir is an amazing bottle of wine. It begs for food – cheese, grilled or roasted chicken or pork….maybe even cassoulet. One of my favorites.
Unionville Vineyards – This stunner from New Jersey is made by former California winemaker Cameron Stark. The result of his work is a sophisticated, layered, medium bodied wine with nice fruit, good acids, and nice balance. A lovely, sophisticated Pinot Noir.
Ankida Ridge – One of my big finds of the year! This Virginia Pinot Noir tasted like something from the Cote D’Or. Amazing! A delicate wine with sophistication. Just enough bright fruit in a state whose reds much more resemble California than New York. An absolute winner!
Tousey Winery – This Hudson Valley wine is soft, with nice fruit, and incredibly well balanced with acidity and soft tannins. This wine is almost indecent, it’s so good. The wine has drawn incredible praise for far, and will continue to gather a large following.
Brotherhood Winery - Big fruit up front, lot's of fine cherry and a hint of plum and strawberry. It was bright, and fresh. with low acidity and low tannins. The wine finished dry and smooth. A very nice, light-to-medium bodied Pinot Noir. Perfect for spring and summer dishes, and great with some fresh, Hudson Valley cheese!
Shaw Vineyard – This Finger Lakes Pinot Noir is a multi-layered wine with lots of fruit, good acidity, and a wonderful finish. Nice aging to this wine allows layers to come through. Very complex. Lovely.
Anthony Napa Rose’ Pinot – A rose’ made from Pinot Noir? Wasteful? Decadent? A sacrelige? Possibly all. But nonetheless it’s a freakin’ winner. Bright acidity, lovely strawberry nose, and a fantastic finish! Wonderful!
Ravines Wine Cellars – Morten Hellegren is a master in the cellar. And actual transplant from Europe, there’s no mistaking where Morten draws his inspiration from with this incredible, sophisticated wine. Not too fruity, but an absolute experience. Delicate. Elegant. Hallgren makes the most of this Finger Lakes fruit, and transports you across the big pond. A few sips of this fantastic Pinot Noir, and you’ll be speaking French.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Old Vines – This is the grand daddy of all east coast Pinot Noirs, and it shows. A spectacular wine, with layers of fruits from medium to light. A hint of leather. You half expect this Colossas of the Finger Lakes to start speaking all by itself, it has so much character. Absolutely among the top wines.
Vetter Vineyards – Long a staple of the Niagara region, Vetter’s been making Pinot Noir a long time. And the western part of New York grows some lovely Pinot Noir, just southg opf Canada’s best know Pinot region….what a surprise. A light, lovely Pinot Noir.
Arrowhead Springs – Duncan Ross is easily one of the best winemakers of the western part of New York. His Niagara region Pinot Noir isn’t something you drink – you look forward to it, and you savor it. He’s another incredible winemaker, and this Pinot sings. Always a treat to pour for friends. Fantastic!
Billsboro Winery – Anthony’s Alberti has been making wine in the Finger Lakes a long time. An this Pinot noir is wonderful. Lots and lots of bright fruit up front, with just enough of an austere finish to render this wine an absolute knock out.
Loudon Valley – This Vorginia Pinot is among my new favorites. A medium-bodied dry red profile of cherry and a mix of exotic spices on the nose...vanilla, raisin and other more exotic spices. But the wine is all medium-to-black cherry, with layers of flavors underneath that. A lovely wine.
Millbrook Vineyards Block Five East- John Graziano knows how to make John Dyson’s Hudson Valley vines absolutely sing. Graziano hands Pinot Noir like Back knew how to play harpsichord – brilliantly. This wine has all the finesse of a lighter grand wine, but it has enough meat on its bones to pick a fight with lighter meats and charred meats. Amazing! Graziano also makes a larger, more popularly priced label which is just as humbling.
Heron Hill 2007 Ingle Vineyard Pinot Noir – This light, lovely wine from this Finger Lakes producer is an exceptional wine, with nice flavor and solid composition. Has all the fruit of a sunnier climate, but the acidity and structure of a cooler climate wine. One of the winery’s best wines.
McCall Pinot – This Long Island wine is so good, Salmon swim upriver just to be paired with it. Big lush fruit with nice acidity and solid tannins offer up a wine that is extremely well balanced, with nuances of flavor that make it simply put – spectacular.
Lamoreaux Landing – Almost a rosato, it is so light. It had strawberries on the nose and was quite quaffabe. Very nice. A lovely wine from this Finger Lakes producer.
Whitecliff Vineyard – A wonderful Hudson Valley Pinot Noir with a bouncy cherry upfront, but with all the pepper and finish you’d expect out of a classic Burgundy. A small wonder from winemaker Michael Migliore.
Chaddsford Winery – Eric Miller learned to appreciate wine while living in Burgundy with his legendary father Mark Miller, founder of Benmarl. Now in Pennsylvania, Miller’s keen understanding of winemaking (one of the best on the east coast) draws him near magical things – making an absolutely impressive Pinot Noir!
Damiani Wine Cellars Pinot noir – Very nice. Very light, with hints of strawberry and vanilla. Dry finish. Tasty.
Other honorable mentions: Benmarl Baco Noir (the oldest and best); Sheldrake Point Gamay Noir (light, zippy acidity, fabulous!); Warwick Valley Black Dirt Red (soft, chewy, juicy, delicious!); Afton Mountain Pinot Noir (I have never tried it but several Virginia bloggers like it a lot).Special thanks to New York Cork Report , Snooth.com, and cellar track for certain labels.