The popular image persists that California Pinot Noir is a light, fruity wine of no consequence, but California vintners over the past 20 years have been improving the site and clonal selections, viticultural methods and vinification techniques to increase their record of success, especially in the Carneros, Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley regions.
Great Pinot Noir creates a lasting impression on the palate and in the memory. Its aroma is often one of the most complex of all varietals and can be intense with a ripe grape or black cherry aroma, frequently accented by a pronounced spiciness that suggests cinnamon, sassafras or mint. It is full-bodied and rich but not heavy and is high in alcohol but neither acidic nor tannic, with substantial flavor despite its delicacy. The most appealing quality of Pinot Noir may be its soft, velvety texture. When right, it is like liquid silk, gently caressing the palate.
Of all the classic grapes, Pinot Noir is the most difficult to make into wine. It is highly sensitive to climate changes and variations in soil composition and is unstable during winemaking, which makes Pinot Noir a riskier (and more expensive) proposition for the winegrower, the winemaker and the wine drinker than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Although Pinot Noir harmonizes well with a variety of foods and cheeses, the best matches to show off its delicacy and texture are grilled salmon, a good cut of plain roast beef and any dish that features mushrooms as the main flavor ingredient. Classic French cooking has creations based on Pinot Noir (Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourginon and Cassoulet). Other main dishes that match well with Pinot Noir include roasted and braised preparations of lamb, pheasant and duck as well as grilled meaty fish, such as salmon, shark and swordfish.
Cheeses that go well with Pinot Noir include Brick, Brie, Bucheron, Camembert, Cheddar (smoked), Cheshire, Chevre, Colby, Crottin, Dry Jack, Edam, Emmentaler, Epoisses, sheep-milk Feta, Fontina, Gouda, Gruyere, Jarlsberg, Mahon, Monterey Jack, Port L'Eveque, Raclette, Roquefort, Stilton, and certain washed-rind cheeses as Taleggio from Italy, Reblochon, Roquefort, Saint-Nectaire, Vacherin, Munster (not Muenster) from France and Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk from Point Reyes Station, California.