By Celia Strong
Isn’t a simple life what we all want? I’m sure the search for it makes us drink. Probably because we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that we can find it and somehow the wine, in our case, makes it seem easier. Actually, “the simple life” is the name of a wine. You really do have to wonder who thinks of all these names. Imagine what some of their inebriated brainstorming sounds like. If they’re anything like some of my “meetings” that include wine, we’re all in trouble. And if they are about wine too, all you have is a reason for another glass or two. No wonder it can take three meetings to get one thing done. And, if “the simple life” sounded like a good name for your wine at some meeting, just maybe you couldn’t face another meeting on “the name” subject. You might end up with something less acceptable. Leave it alone and get on to the next step. And, that’s what we’re going to do — move on to this week’s wine.
The Simple Life is the name for two “flavors.” We’re going to look at the red first — a Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is a great variety and grows in almost all wine producing regions of the world. It also comes in many quality levels and styles. The name for Pinot Noir comes from the French for “pine” and “black.” It refers to the pine cone shape of the grape clusters of this variety and their really dark purple, almost black, color. Even though it is grown around the world, this is a very difficult grape to grow and hard to ferment into good wine.
The leaves of the Pinot Noir are generally smaller than those of Cabernet or Syrah vines. This, over time, has caused the clusters of grapes to become smaller so that they are better protected under the smaller leaves. When growing, the Pinot Noir is sensitive to wind and frost, extensive cropping, or pruning, for small yields is needed to ensure better wines, and soil type can make tremendous differences. Even yeast strains used in the fermenting have to be chosen carefully. Pinot Noir grapes have extremely thin skins that make them susceptible to rot and fungus diseases. Besides the grapes being delicate and sickly, the vines and their leaves are also easily effected by rot, mildew and viruses. Sounds to me like we’re lucky if we ever see a bottle of Pinot Noir. But, it is the huge range of bouquets, flavors, textures and styles of Pinot Noir that make it one of the most popular wine grapes. Its wines are light to medium bodied with aromas of black and red cherries, raspberries, some currants, cranberries and blueberries. Under some growing conditions it also adds on some earthy and what are called barnyard flavors — mushrooms, coffee grounds, truffles and leather. More modern wine making conditions tend to enhance the lightness and fruitiness in their wines.
Looking at its history, Pinot Noir is an ancient variety but its origins are not clear. A similar variety was recorded in the first century AD in what is now France’s Burgundy region. Some wine geneticists think that Pinot Noir is very close to a species of grapes known as “Vitis sylvestris.” Pinot Noir is known to mutate very easily so this would make sense; it mutated from one specie of grapes into another (Vitis vinifera) and what we call its cousins (Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris/Grigio) are really just other mutations. Never thought of myself as drinking mutations, did you?
With all the Pinot Noir growing around the world and the grape’s natural tendency to mutate, all of what we know as Pinot Noir wines are not necessarily from the same exact version of the grape All of which means mutation, or clone, and “terroir” where it’s grown make for many versions of Pinot wines. It’s part of why Pinots are good and we love them and it’s part of why we love some and not others. And, that’s why we have to keep tasting more and more of them.
Pinot Noir in the United States is grown mostly in California and Oregon. In California, where our “Simple Life” comes from, there are several well known Pinot growing areas — Sonoma Coast, the Russian River Valley, the Central Coast AVA, Santa Rita Hills, Monterey County and its Santa Lucia Highlands, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, Carneros, Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, the Livermore Valley and San Luis Obispo County which includes Edna Valley and the Arroyo Grande Valley. Many good Pinot Noir wines are actually blends of grapes from two and sometimes three of these areas. Just like blending wines from more than one grape adds layers of flavors and textures, making Pinot Noir wines from more than one source gives them more flavors and textures.
The Simple Life Pinot Noir is made from 95% Pinot Noir almost entirely from the Merwin Vineyard in Clarksburg. This vineyard grows primarily Pommard clone Pinot that is known for its pure dark fruit flavor. The wine’s cherry red color gives way to rich, earthy notes of cherry, wild strawberry and forest floor. The flavors are bright and fruit-forward with strawberry, rhubarb and flecks of red raspberry. Fresh acidity balances with a hint of tannin to create an appealing juicy mouth feel. The finishing flavors of clove (my favorite in this list) and cranberry are long and linger well in your mouth. Five percent Merlot is blended into the wine as well to add a bit of structure. This is a great sipping wine and a wonderful food wine as well. I think this is one of the best new Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted in a long time. And, at a whopping price of $10.99, I can keep tasting it.
The Simple Life also makes a delicious Chardonnay. This is a more tropical style chard with honeysuckle and white peach flavors mixed in with Asian pear. Some aging in French oak for baking spice flavors and a creamy texture make it a terrific new find. A small bit of Viognier adds in a perfumey side that is just lovely. Interestingly, Alaska Airlines serves this wine. I know this because coming home from Napa a couple of weeks ago, it was the best part of the trip. I had two glasses on my 9 a.m. flight. (When the going gets tough, the tough get tasting!) And now you can have both these wines too! Tough times or not. Enjoy!