Thursday, January 7, 2016

Wine tasting: Union Wine Company's "Underwood" Pinot Noir, Oregon, 2014

(For all my wine writing this year, click the "wine2016" label at the bottom of this post, or just the "wine" label for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

So it looks like my two-bottle "head-to-head" wine tastings are over for now, soon after they begun -- and that's because I've officially started up my plans to start having dinner parties at my place on Friday nights, and it dawned on me this week how much wine I need to start stocking up in order to make it through all those dinners. (I'm having eight people over every Friday, and plan on pairing two types of wine each time with a "first half" and "second half" of dinner*; simple math shows that that's four bottles of wine I need to provide every single week, which means I need to start saving every other bottle I buy instead of drinking it myself.) But, since I follow the Mediterranean eating plan, I'm still having a glass or two of wine every night before bed; so I'll still be trying out new brands on a regular basis, slowly making my way from the heaviest types of grapes to the lightest, just now only one bottle at a time instead of cracking open two at once. (Live in Chicago and want to attend one of these dinners? Just drop me a line at and let me know -- the whole point is to bring together interesting strangers for fascinating conversations, so you're welcome too.)

(*I'm done serving courses at dinner parties; it keeps me so busy in the kitchen that I don't have time to actually sit at the table and enjoy the company. So for my dinner parties in 2016, I'm basically having a "first half" that consists of a handful of tapas-like small dishes paired with a white wine, then a "second half" of a main entree paired with a red wine, ending with sherry and dessert and beginning with cocktails and appetizers. Because if you're not getting your guests wicked drunk at your parties, you're doing something wrong.)

Tonight -- Pinot Noir from Oregon! This is the wine that was made really famous by the movie Sideways, namely because of the grape's fussiness -- since it has a thinner skin than most other dark reds, it's more susceptible to the rot and disease that come with cool and wet weather, but that's the same thing that lets it only really thrive in cool and wet weather to begin with, since it ripens early and has a hard time withstanding the blasting heat of a place like Australia or South America -- which means that when you come across a good bottle of Pinot Noir, not only did someone go to a lot of trouble to make sure it came out all right, but the nature of the wine means that it profoundly picks up the odors and tastes of the things that were around it when growing, something that wine lovers call a "complex" bottle. In fact, this is one of the big things that Pinot Noir is known for, that it can taste much more differently based on where in the world it was grown than, say, more stable grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. (And yes, "Pinot Gris" and "Pinot Blanc" are basically variations of the Pinot Noir grape; all three get their name based on the fact that their small grapes grow in tight spiral-like clusters, looking somewhat like a pine cone. Interestingly, this type of grape can be traced all the way back to Biblical times, and was one of the first types to do well in France back in 600 BC when they started making "fine" wine to begin with, although there it's generally known as "Red Burgundy" after the region where it's grown.)

Oregon is considered the number-two place in the entire United States for great Pinot Noirs, just behind their neighbors in northern California; Union Wine Company, for example, is located ten miles south of Portland, in the "Willamette Valley" region where the vast majority of Oregon's wine industry is located. Like many of the more modern "New World" (non-European) wineries, Union takes a cue off the beer industry and gives a brand name to each type of wine they make; the brand I tried tonight is called "Underwood," although they make other brands of Pinot Noirs as well. And an interesting piece of trivia too -- Union is the first company I've ever seen that also sells their wines in 12-ounce aluminum cans, and all their branding and graphic design unsurprisingly has a decidedly hipster bent.

“Underwood” Pinot Noir, 2014
13% ABV

Look: A bright and transparent red that catches the light well.

Smell: Lighter in intensity than the Shirazes and Malbecs I've tried in previous weeks, but still strong enough to be distinct. Like many others, this seemed to me to have reflections of cherries and cranberries in its odor, but I'm not sure if that's me detecting that on my own or me being influenced by what others have had to say.

Taste: Like “Cabernet Sauvignon Lite” – a full and sour taste like the dark reds I enjoy, but with not as strong an intensity, much like the difference between brewing tea three minutes versus six minutes. Still, like the Malbecs last week, this is not the “sweet sweet” we associate with a lot of fruit, but the “dark and barely sweet” of something like cranberries or blackberries.

After a Full Glass: After an entire glass that was drank at the same time as eating, it was easy to see why people are so in love with Pinot Noirs when they want to have a good red wine, because the intensity of its flavor almost magically receded into the background to let the food flavors instead shine through, unlike previous taste tests with Shiraz and Malbec where the wines generally maintained their own unique identity even when eating food at the same time. I mean, I myself don't mind that intensity in drinks – I also drink stout beer and unsweetened black coffee on a regular basis – but if your goal is to drink wine that blends seamlessly with the food you're eating along with it, it's hard to deny that Pinot Noir is exceptional for this purpose. (Also, perhaps this is such a popular wine because it gets you schnockered without realizing it; this has 50 percent more alcohol than a typical white wine you might drink with dinner, but without the intense and dark flavor of Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz that reminds you with every sip, "Don't forget, bub, you're drinking a hugely alcoholic wine right now," and I must admit that even after just two glasses I was feeling highly woozy from my Pinot Noir experience.)

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