Bettering Burgundy

These are dark days for American wine. On the quality/price front, the French are destroying us. For around $15, you can land a lush, full-bodied syrah-based Rh� a Bordeaux from the very good 2000 vintage, or fine white wines from the Loire. You can turn to Australian shirazes and encounter the same phenomenon. You don't see the same quality in American wines until you get into the $25-plus rangeand often you need to crack $30and you can still walk away disappointed. What's more, we aren't even putting out the quality right now. In a recent issue, Wine Spectator (finally!) drubbed the 2000 California cabernet sauvignons, even $150-plus cult wines such as Opus One. But when it comes to pinot noir, that most puzzling of varietals, the U.S. is leading the way. For those of you non-noiristas, pinot is much lighter than cabernets, merlots, and syrahs, yet can be packed with more flavor and nuancesit's got tar and roses on the nose and raspberry, cassis, and soft tannins on the tongue. Right now, there are excellent examples of moderately priced 2001 Oregon pinots trickling into the market (although rarely your local supermarket) that put French Burgundies to shame. Over there, in the grape's homeland, there are of course still godlike examples pouring out of the Côte d'Or and Côte de Nuits each yearlike a Chambertin that costs upwards of $400 a bottle and requires long cellaring. But it's just as easy to find lousy Burgundy priced at $80. More moderately priced examplesmoderate meaning under $30have routinely been thin, undeveloped, flavorless affairs in recent years. Two hundred miles to our south in the Willamette Valley, it's a different story. I've recently had good results with three different 2001 pinots in the $15 to $30 price range. The 2001 Les Cousins pinot noir ($25) is the second label of Beaux Frères, the winery owned by wine guru Robert Parker; as you'd expect from anything with the Nose's seal of approval, it is a bold, tannic wine, but nicely balanced with hints of pepper and berries. A 2001 Broadley Vineyards Reserve pinot noir ($23) is more reserved but just as authoritative and similar in character. The real find, however, was a 2001 Torii Mor pinot noir ($17) with far more firmness and developed fruit flavors, especially a delicate hint of raspberry, than you'd ever expect from a pinot in this price range. Other similarly priced offerings from Argyle, Stafford Hill, and Halloran's off-label, H, were decent but generally too flabby to merit excitement. The above is certainly not an exhaustive list. Keep in mind, there are several other good Oregon wineries that make fine pinot in the sub-$30 zoneChristom, Cameron, Rex Hill, and St. Innocent, to name a few. As always, your best bet finding a bargain is taking the advice of specialized wine merchants. They won't steer you wrong; they want to keep your business.

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