Much has been made of pinot noir's surge soon after Sideways, the 2004 buddy flick that touted the supple, berry-like red beloved by the pretentious protagonist Miles. Sales of the varietal in U.S. supermarkets jumped 18 per cent between October, 2004, and July, 2005, compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the U.S.-based Wine Institute. People wondered whether the pinot party would last. It did. California vintners crushed 147,732 tons of the grape in 2010 versus 70,062 tons in 2004.
That boom, which was played out to a lesser extent elsewhere, yielded lots of dreck, of course. Sadly, cheap pinot also distracted from a welcome stylistic shift at the upper end that had already begun in New World regions. The maligned, sappy profile that was once the norm is giving way to tighter acidity and lean elegance, traits typical of fine red Burgundy, the grape's ultimate expression. Mostly you'll see evidence of the evolution in expensive offerings from cooler regions, because, among other things, pinot needs crisp weather to develop its all-important acid spine. Recent releases below, all versatile at the table but particularly nice for grilled salmon and roast poultry, offer a small glimpse of pinot's progress (at a variety of price points) outside the hallowed borders of Burgundy.
Sequana Sundawg Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $64.95 Sequana Winemaker James MacPhail plays bagpipes and classical piano, as if fickle pinot weren't enough to keep him busy. I like to think of his small-batch wines as tender Chopin nocturnes versus the piercing wail of a Highland regiment at full tilt (though I do enjoy Amazing Grace on a well-tuned goat sack). Made with wild yeasts for added complexity, this offering from a cool ridge in California's Russian River Valley offers plum-jam, wild-berry and coffee flavours framed by spice and astringent, slightly dusty tannins. It should improve with up to 10 years in a cool cellar.
Seresin Raupo Creek Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $45.95 Cinematographer Michael Seresin of Midnight Express and Bugsy Malone fame maintains an organic estate featuring a horse-drawn wagon that sprays compost "tea" to ward off vine pests. There is often depth exhibited by wines grown in such an old-school manner. You'll find that here, not just in the chewy complexity of the primary, berry-like fruit but also the floral overtones and meaty essence of bacon that emerge in the second act, hallmarks of many fine pinots. It's crisp and lightly tannic, a good candidate for three to five more years of cellaring.
Cristom Sommers Reserve Pinot Noir 2008 (Oregon)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $49.95 The elegance of the Sommers Reserve, named after owner Paul Gerrie's grandmother Jessie Sommers, inspired famed U.S. wine critic Robert Parker to describe it as "Fred Astaire in a bottle (with Ginger Rogers in there, too)." Fermented with wild yeasts and lavished with considerable new oak, this offering from Salem in Oregon's Willamette Valley shows cinnamon-like spice and a dried-foliage character reminiscent of fine, slightly aged Burgundy. Attractive now, it could evolve well for a decade. Available for $48.25 in Quebec.
Gloria Ferrer Carneros Pinot Noir 2008 (California)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $25.95 Drive north from the Golden Gate Bridge, veer right and you'll come into Carneros, the gateway appellation to both Napa and Sonoma counties. The magical fog that envelops the bridge keeps things cool in Carneros, just beyond the shore of San Pablo Bay, adding lift to the sun-ripened fruit. This wine from a producer best known for bubbly delivers lusciously jammy fruit, a crowd-pleasing introduction to the grape for those with a hankering for body. But it finishes admirably dry and finds structure in a nuance of baking spices. $26 in Quebec.
Brandborg Bench Lands Pinot Noir 2008 (Oregon)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $28.95 Cool Pacific air and fog drift up to the vineyards of Umpqua Valley, a region that lives in the shadow of Oregon's big Willamette Valley to the north, breeding the crisp spine that good pinot demands. The colour is so light it's easy to misconstrue this wine as inconsequential. But the flavour is balanced and complex. A supple texture carries delectable berry fruitiness and whiffs of underbrush, earth and smoked herbs.
Joie Farm Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $40 Fruit achieved very good ripeness here despite a cool Okanagan growing season, with silky raspberry and cherry flavours enlivened by bright acidity and floral perfume. It bears a compelling resemblance to the cherry-like wines of Mercurey, the Burgundian village that provided Joie with stylistic inspiration. Available in B.C. (www.joiefarm.com).
Mirassou Pinot Noir 2011 (California)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.95 Mirassou got its start in the 1850s in what we now call Silicon Valley, though there's no longer a connection between the brand and the original winery. Gallo, the California giant, bought the name in 2002 and moved operations to its own facility. This is impressive for the money, one of few under-$15 pinots that doesn't taste like Kool-Aid. It's light-medium-bodied and fruit-forward, with flavours of cherry, vanilla and toasty oak and zippy acidity and spice. It's on the sweet side for a "dry" wine and engineered to be crowd-pleasing – good or bad qualities depending on your preference. $14.99 in B.C., $14.99 in Saskatchewan, $12.99 in Manitoba, $14.99 in New Brunswick, $14.99 in Nova Scotia, $15.99 in Newfoundland.