Pinot Noir is in trouble. A light-bodied, delicate wine, it’s a silky mouthful of warm spices, flowers, savory herbs, loam, and leather—not just fruit. Plus, natural acidity makes it delicious with a huge range of foods.
Lately, though, if you uncork a bottle, more often than not you’ll encounter something entirely different: lush, overripe fruit and high alcohol levels, pushing 15 or even 16 percent. These red wines might be yummy, but are they Pinot?
Frankly, we’re all partly to blame for the demise: Critics tend to score fruit bombs highly, and we wine drinkers buy by critic scores. To please the common palate, winemakers let the grapes hang longer on the vine.
The sweeter, riper fruit—and higher alcohol levels that result—overpower subtler flavors. Because Pinot is such a light red, too, many winemakers—gasp—add varieties like Syrah for darker color and more structure. It can still be labeled Pinot as long as other varieties don’t exceed 25 percent.
Here are six ways to know an honest Pinot:
1. Light color Don’t be afraid if you can almost see through your glass. Pinot grapes have less pigment than most other reds, so the wine is more transparent.
2. Complex flavor Sniff for cloves and cinnamon, violets and mint, mushrooms and loam under the fruit. And taste for licorice, olives, espresso …
3. Light weight While it’s impossible to know whether your Pinot has a little Syrah lurking in it (winemakers don’t have to reveal), go for delicacy over impact and silkiness over tannin.
4. Low alcohol level If winemakers end up with too much alcohol—a “hot” wine—they can lower the level using reverse osmosis or spinning cone treatment or by adding back some water. Trickery or no, lower-alcohol bottles capture the character of Pinot best.
5. Cool growing region Look to Oregon’s Willamette Valley; Northern California’s Anderson Valley, Carneros, and the chilly western edge of the Sonoma Coast; and Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley.
6. Flexible food pairing Real Pinot pairs well with many dishes that we typically drink white wine with. Test it out with scallops, black cod, salmon, spicy tuna rolls, roast chicken, and cheese—most red wines aren’t great partners for many cheeses. Pinot Noir is, especially for camembert and gruyère.