Suddenly, pinot noir is the star attraction

Red Burgundies, the vast majority of which are made from pinot noir, have tempted wine connoisseurs for decades. And even though excellent pinot noir from Oregon, California, and, most recently, New Zealand has been increasingly available, it has remained a bit of a cult wine. Then came ”Sideways.” Since the release and success of the film, in which pinot noir plays a leading role, it seems that everyone is looking for wine made from this grape.

Winemaking aside, the problem with pinot noir is the cost of the grapes. Winemakers tell me they can make acceptable merlot from vineyards that yield 6 tons of grapes per acre of land. But for pinot noir, as yields climb over 3 to 4 tons per acre, the wine rapidly loses distinction. Hence, the same acre of land produces less wine. Since most of a winery’s expenses are fixed, they must charge more per bottle to compensate for the smaller volume.

Beaulieu Vineyards of Rutherford, Calif., known as BV, always has been — and still is — known for its superb cabernet sauvignons. Its Rutherford Cabernet (about $20) is consistently excellent. Its Reserve Cabernet, known as Georges de Latour Private Reserve (about $100), is one of California’s greatest wines. Even so, Andre Tchelistcheff, BV’s legendary winemaker who was responsible for the reputation of its cabernets, felt that his best wine was a pinot noir, the 1946 Beaumont, made from grapes grown in BV’s Carneros vineyards. (The 1946 Beaumont was not an anomaly. Both the 1947 and 1949 Beaumont, tasted during a celebration of BV wines in 2000, were spectacular.)

The Carneros district, which spans the southern end of the Napa and Sonoma valleys and abuts San Pablo Bay, is an ideal location for pinot noir. This cooler locale, a result of the ocean’s influences, slows ripening, which allows more flavors to develop in the grapes.

Beaulieu Vineyard’s 2002 Carneros Pinot Noir (about $18) may not evolve into the Beaumonts of the 1940s, but it is delicious now. Full of bright fruit and an attractive meaty component, it is flavorful and layered, without being heavy. It’s a great choice for roast chicken.

Beaulieu Vineyard’s wines are distributed by United Liquors, 800-445-0076.

February 24, 2005.