Thanks in no small part to the movie “Sideways,” pinot noir has enjoyed wild popularity during the last couple of decades. But of course the film cannot take full credit; it simply helped raise awareness among wine drinkers of pinot’s remarkable qualities. And it truly is a grape that has earned its venerated reputation.
While pinot noir is on the lighter end of the red wine spectrum, it’s typically bursting with flavor and beautifully textured, with notes that include ripe red fruits and fragrant flowers, as well as exotic spices and wild, earthy undertones. Pinot also possesses the ability to take on vastly different personalities depending on where it’s grown. For instance, the vineyards of Burgundy are known to produce rustic mineral-driven wines, while those in, say, the Central Coast of California give way to rich, juicy wines with lots of upfront fruit. It’s also an incredibly versatile food-pairing wine that perfectly complements a wide range of cuisines.
While many of us could happily drink pinot noir any day of the week, it tends to be more fun to sample a wider range of wines. And as a bonus, these lesser-known grapes and regions are often much more affordably priced than the highly in-demand pinot noir. Fortunately, whichever style of pinot you prefer, the grape serves as a perfect jumping-off point for further exploration. These wines are a great place to start if you want to get to know the world of lighter-bodied reds.
This dark-skinned Central European variety is known by many names—it’s blaufränkisch in Austria, but in Germany, it’s lemberger, and in Hungary it’s kekfrankos, to name just a few. Confusing, indeed, but the wine itself is much more straightforward. Much like a good cool-climate California pinot noir, it’s bright and juicy, full of delicious purple and black fruit flavor, with velvet-soft tannins and a piquant hint of peppery spice.
Amarone della Valpolicella is a celebrated and robust Veronese specialty made from concentrated grapes that have been dried on straw mats in the sun. But Valpolicella Classico, the region’s dry table wine, deserves attention as well. Both types of wine are made primarily from the corvina grape. The table wines of Valpolicella are an excellent and affordable alternative to pinot noir. Light on their feet and distinctly reminiscent of sour cherries, corvina wines will delight those who prefer a high-acidity and slightly herbal pinot noir like those found in France’s Loire Valley.
If you love pinot noir but want to branch out, gamay is the natural first step. A genetic cousin of pinot, gamay tends to grow in many of the same places—most notably, in France’s Loire and Beaujolais regions. In fact, Beaujolais is located at the southern tip of Burgundy, pinot noir’s ancestral home. Known for juicy, lively and fun light-bodied wines with varying degrees of seriousness, gamay typically is redolent of fresh flowers, dried herbs and tart red fruits, with an appealing streak of minerality on the palate.
If you’re a fan of the more serious age-worthy style of pinot noir for which Burgundy is known, nerello Mascalese might be your next favorite grape. This Sicilian variety is at its best in the area around Mount Etna and is often blended with nerello cappuccio in the region’s Etna Rosso wines. Firm and structured, yet still lush and approachable, these wines tend to have bright red fruit accented by a smoky, mineral quality derived from Etna’s volcanic soils.
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Found almost exclusively in France’s Jura region, poulsard is a light-colored, thin-skinned grape variety, rendering its wines pale in hue and light in tannin. In the glass, a poulsard wine will often resemble a rosé. Eminently drinkable and delicious, these wines are known for their delicate floral perfume, notes of juicy strawberry and cherry, and mouthwatering acidity, much like a cool-climate pinot noir from southern Germany or France’s Alsace.
If you like pinot noir that’s delicate and pretty, schiava might just be perfect for you. Light in color and full of floral potpourri, this northern Italian variety from the Alto Adige region is known for aromas and flavors of rose petal, strawberry and even bubblegum that give the wine an impression of sweetness while typically remaining completely dry.
The Jura region’s trousseau often goes hand-in-hand with poulsard. This dark-skinned variety adds depth, body and complexity to its lighter-hued neighbor. On its own, Trousseau is notable for its forest fruit and slightly wild, feral aromatics, as well as naturally higher alcohol that translates to a relatively fuller-bodied wine (compared to the delicate poulsard). Monovarietal trousseau is ideal for those who love the rich yet balanced pinot noirs from the Sonoma Coast.