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by Kim Westerman

September 10, 2000

Wine drinkers chase Pinot Noir all over the world for the perfect drink. Some think there is none finer, more nuanced, more mysterious than the grape Burgundy made famous. But neither is there a grape as finicky, as difficult and expensive to transform into liquid poetry. Which country is responsible for making the best Pinot Noir? France? California? Oregon? And when you do find the perfect bottle, how will you know? Can you afford to taste it?

France is the standard-bearer, but it also produces Pinot Noirs (red Burgundies) with the lowest quality-to-price ratio. Thereís been controversy brewing for years over production methods, and rumors that certain well-known vintners routinely violate strict laws against chaptalization -- the adding of sugar to unripe grapes in the fermentation process to increase the final alcohol content -- a practice that is difficult to verify. This places more honorable winemakers under suspicion and, more to the point, it causes the drinker to have a vicious headache the morning after.

Nonetheless, Burgundy turns out some of the finest Pinot Noirs in the world. The most famous is Domaine de la Romanee Conti, but at upwards of $750 a bottle, most of us wonít see it in our lifetimes. My favorite Burgundy of late is the 1998 Domaine Phillippe Rossignol, a Kermit Lynch import. He produces five levels of Burgundy, from a simple table wine to a premier cru. The table wine, labeled simply Borgogne Rouge, is the best value. At around $20, itís more complex than many California Pinot Noirs at twice the price. Itís light, but loaded with fruit and it finishes long in the mouth. It would be delicious with grilled veal chops.

California has fewer affordable Pinot Noirs every year, but 1998 brought a wonderful bargain in the Edna Valley Paragon ($19). The usual strawberry and cherry flavors are forward, but theyíre undercut by a smoky herbaceousness that makes the wine a perfect transition from summer to fall. Serve it with a transitional food, like carne asada tacos, which evoke memories of barbecues by the pool, but can also stand up to the oncoming chill.

Oregon is the all the rage for affordable American Pinot Noir. The 1998 Edgefield Willamette Valley Vintage Select is a steal at $18, a price I doubt weíll see next year. Itís the spiciest Pinot Noir Iíve tasted in awhile, and it finishes with a nice tobacco flavor that is, well, almost Burgundian. I suppose thatís what many Oregon winemakers are aiming for. It will probably hold up until 2004. Pair it with pecan-grilled chicken or even roasted salmon.

Of the three, I have to say I favor the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. It tastes like a wine that would cost $50 in California and $80 in France (if you bought it through an importer in the US). But at $18 -- buy a case! This wine demonstrates that you donít have to be a part of the dotcom lottery to enjoy fine Pinot Noir.

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