There is some mysterious aspect of pinot noir that results in a degree of winemaker madness. It is difficult to grow and vinify, temperamental in the barrel and prone to closing down in the bottle for years before becoming really drinkable again. These very challenges seem to inspire rather than inhibit those winemakers who consider crafting a pinot noir the pinnacle of their profession.
Felt to be one of the oldest grapes cultivated, pinot noir is grown in nearly every wine-producing region but seems to do best in cooler locations. It is the principle red varietal in France’s Burgundy region and is one of the grapes permitted to be used when creating Champagne. Outstanding pinot noirs are also produced in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, New Zealand and California.
It is a finicky grape, prone to a host of horticultural issues and requiring special diligence in the vineyards and winery. Thin-skinned, susceptible to disease, genetically unstable and a challenge to ferment, pinot noirs can end up as thin and uninspiring wines. While it has lower levels of the flavor-producing compounds found in the more robust grape varieties, when handled correctly pinot noir produces some of the world’s most profound, nuanced and desirable wines.
Pinot noir became fashionable for a while after one of the leads in the movie Sideways declared, “Its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.”
It remains popular because it is generally lower in alcohol and very food friendly, matching well with roasted chicken, grilled fish, lamb and veal as well as mushroom-based dishes and a host of cheeses.
A kosher version from Israel is the Yarden Pinot Noir 2009, displaying prominent oak and red cherry aromas along with blackberry, cranberry, licorice and toasted herbs with some spice in the lengthy finish. Consider it for the upcoming holiday season.
The maritime malt
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d revisit the northernmost mainland Scotch whisky from the Pulteney Distillery in Wick, Scotland. They call their whisky Old Pulteney, but it has over time picked up two nicknames: the “manzanilla of the North” (after the variety of dry sherry that has a particular briny tang) and also, more recently, “the maritime malt”— because the marketing folks dislike nicknames that reference possibly obscure drink-products over which they don’t have any control.
The distillery stands on the northern shores of the Scottish highlands, in the once very prominent herring-fishing village of Wick, in the county of Caithness. Wick is an estuary town that straddles the River Wick and extends along both sides of Wick Bay, which opens out to the North Sea. The Pulteney Distillery was established in 1826 by James Henderson.
Henderson’s descendants continued to own and operate the Pulteney distillery until 1920, when they sold to a reputable blended whisky firm. In Wick, at that time, the temperance movement was gaining ground, and in 1922 the town voted to go dry and ban the public sale of alcohol. The pro-drink forces made a calculated error by reducing the price of booze on the day of the vote to encourage the thirsty to support the cause; alas the result was that most of their supporters never left the pubs to vote. Faced with falling demand, the Pulteney Distillery, which had already been resold to another firm, closed in 1930. Prohibition remained in place until May 28, 1947. Pulteney reopened after the repeal.
Inver House Distillers Limited, a subsidiary of Thai Beverages, one of the largest alcoholic-beverage companies in Southeast Asia, acquired the distillery in 1995. As part of its market strategy, Inver House reinvested into its various distilleries (they also own Balblair, Speyburn, Knockdhu and Balmenach), revamped and relaunched its single malts.
Old Pulteney 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (40 percent abv; $35): This lovely whisky, matured in ex-bourbon casks for 12 years, offers inviting aromas and rewarding flavors of freshly malted barley, honeysuckle, dried herbs, almonds and walnuts, toffee, sweet raisins, a hint of sour apple, traces of honey and a bit of slightly out of place caramel. The finish is medium long, but crisp and clean with soft spices, almonds, dried herbs, chamomile tea and salty brine.
Indeed, from nose to finish, one can smell and taste that distinct salty, briny, maritime quality. This wonderfully soft, tangy, easy-drinking whisky is different enough from most Highland drams that it might be jolting for some, but do give it an honest try. This delicious whisky is well worth it. L’Chaim!