Pinot noir is heading for superstar status. Starting almost from nothing 15 years ago, it now is the third-most-popular red wine in America, after cabernet sauvignon and merlot, according to the Demeter Group, industry consultants.
On the negative side, growers call pinot noir "the heartbreak grape." It must be grown in just the right soils, just the right climate, with just the perfect exposure to the sun; and if handled too brusquely in winemaking, it can turn dull and disappointing. For this reason it's often more expensive than other top red wines.
Many California and Oregon growers leave the grapes on the vine until they develop enough sugar to ferment into a hefty 14.5 or even 14.7 percent alcohol.
The pinot noirs of France's vaunted Burgundy red wines tend closer to 13 percent. Naturally, this leads to endless arguments over which is better. But it's an argument that doesn't need a winner. In the world of hedonism, there is very much a place for both.
Highly recommended: 2010 Archery Summit Premier Cuvee Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills Ribbon Ridge, Ore.: aromas of flowers, oak and earth, tart cherry, mulberry and mineral flavors, very smooth; $48.
2010 Bonterra Pinot Noir, Mendocino County: light and silky, with concentrated aromas and flavors of cranberries and earth, $16.
2010 Wild Horse Winery Pinot Noir, Central Coast: toasty oak aromas, flavors of tart cherries and spice, smooth; $25.
2010 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County: aromas of oak and spice, flavors of cinnamon, black cherries and black plums, powerful, with a hint of tannin; $44.
Recommended: 2009 Frank Family Vineyards Pinot Noir, Carneros: aromas of oak, earth and leather, flavors of black cherries, full-body; $35.
2010 Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Pinot Noir: aromas of vanilla and oak, flavors of black cherries and black plums; $19.
2010 Bridlewood Estate Winery Pinot Noir, Monterey County: aromas and flavors of black cherries and black pepper, full body; $20.
2010 Rodney Strong Estate Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: toasty oak aromas, red plum flavors, very smooth; $20.
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