CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I have a love affair with pinot noir. Among its many attributes is the wine's unique ability to pair incredibly well with an array of edibles -- fish, fowl, lamb, beef and many vegetables.
Pinot noir is a very difficult wine to produce. From vineyard to bottle, it is a perilous journey for this thin-skinned grape, which gained its world-class reputation in the fields of Burgundy. There, Mother Nature can be cruel and, on average, only 3 in 10 vintages escape the ravages of hail, cold temperatures or harvest rain to produce excellent wines.
Here in the U.S., the problem with pinot noir for much of the 20th century wasn't the weather, but the heavy-handedness of the few winemakers who grew the grapes usually in inappropriate soils and microclimates.
Now California and Oregon, along with other New World pinot noir producers like those in New Zealand and Chile, are getting the most out of this temperamental grape. While each country produces distinctive versions of pinot noir, the good news is the wines are now uniformly good.
To get my pinot noir fix, I once again attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Ore., in the heart of the Willamette Valley. The weekend event held in July is the Holy Grail of pinot noir gatherings.
While my affection for pinot noir was the primary catalyst for the return trip, I admit the incredible edibles prepared by talented chefs from the Pacific Northwest was an equal attraction.
We consumed wine and food at two multicourse dinners, two luncheons (one at a winery and all outdoors in perfect weather conditions) plus a champagne brunch. In addition, we attended and sipped wine at four seminars and two evening receptions, featuring more than 100 wineries from Oregon, Burgundy, New Zealand and California.
The northern Willamette Valley is where the most-famous Oregon wineries are located within several American Viticultural Areas, including Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill Carlton.
Within these AVAs, more than 200 wineries produce pinot noir in styles distinctly different from wines made from the same grape grown in different parts of the world. Not all pinot noir made in Oregon tastes exactly the same, yet there is an earthy taste in most not unlike the taste of fresh mushrooms.
California pinot noirs, whether from the Santa Rita Hills or the Russian River Valley, are generally rounder and seem to have more deep, dark fruit flavors and less acidity than their Oregon counterparts. Yet both states' pinot noir can be excellent accompaniments to a wide variety of dishes.
For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Wine Boy blog at thegazz.com.