Pinot noir and the spicy history of peppercorns

By GARY ROBINS, Special to The Mirror

When comparing pinot noirs to other wines, they seem more expensive.

Well, this is true. On behalf of the wine, I would like to justify its price. Pinot noir grapes are very temperamental; they need to be nurtured to produce quality grapes. They can’t grow just anywhere.

Burgundy, France; Martinborough, New Zealand; and Willamette, Ore., are the only commercially successful growing areas.

A pinot vineyard needs a knowledgeable vineyard manager along with lots of labor to prune the vines and fend off the many diseases the grape is susceptible to.

The vines do not produce half as many grapes as other popular varieties (59 percent less than chardonnay and 42 percent less than cabernet sauvignon). The grapes have to be cut back (taking the grapes off the vine) so the fruits harvested have quality flavor. These all add up to a more expensive wine.

Fall food and pinot noir are the perfect match. Swiss steak, beef stews and the Thanksgiving feast can become magical with pinot noir’s sweet and mild earthy flavors. If you add good friends and family, you can create the perfect meal.

Pinot noirs from different areas of the world will have dramatically different flavors. French pinot noir (Burgundy) produces the earthy wines with less fruitiness.

New Zealand produces the most fruity pinot noirs. The Oregon wines have a great balance of both the fruit and earthiness that is very accessible and will go great with your Thanksgiving dinner.

If you’re just trying pinot noir, don’t break the bank. Oregon pinot noirs are in the $12 to $15 range and will give you a good idea if you like pinot or not. Have some fun! Invite five or six friends over and buy three or four different pinot noirs for a blind tasting.

Ways of purchasing the wines can be by the producer (four different wineries); four different regions: Oregon, France, New Zealand and California; four different price ranges ($13, $18, $25, $35) — that’s $91 divided by eight people.

When tasting your different wines, try to find what you do and do not like in each wine. Remember: Enjoy, have fun, and your opinion is the most important because you are the one drinking the wine.


Spicy history of peppercorns

Throughout history, peppercorns had been the most coveted of spices since they were introduced to the Western world.

Today, pepper is still the most widely used spice in the world. It was used to pay taxes, ransoms and was even included in the payment by Emperor Theodosius III when the barbarians took possession of Rome in 408 AD.

In the Middle Ages, peppercorns cost so much in France that a popular phrase was coined, cher comme poivre (“expensive as pepper”).

The average person in Europe would only have had pepper as medicine due to the exorbitant price.

The price of pepper finally dropped when in 1522, a price war broke out between the main traders of the revered spice, the Dutch and Portuguese.

Like many things in America, we use pepper every day without thinking of where pepper comes from. Today’s pepper comes mostly from Vietnam, followed closely by Indonesia.

They grow on a long vine, up to 18 feet, crawling up the trees of many Asian tropical rainforests. The flowers grow in bunches, and when the berries form (resembling grapes), they are called “spikes.”

There are three different forms of peppercorns in the marketplace (I am excluding “pink” peppercorns in this list).

There are black, green and white peppercorns. The green peppercorns are picked (green being before they are ripe) and are pickled in vinegar or brine. These are not so pungent and fruity.

Black peppercorns are the same green peppercorns, but instead of preserving in vinegar or brine, they are blanched, then dried in the sun where they shrivel and become black. Black peppercorns are very strong and very pungent.

White pepper is made from ripe peppercorns that have had their red hull removed by soaking in salt water. White pepper is subtler than either green or black pepper.

There is a fourth peppercorn, the “pink” or red peppercorn, but it is actually the berry of the baies rose plant.

The berries are grown in Madagascar, then shipped to France where they are packed in brine or freeze dried.

The pink peppercorn is pungent and sweet, not having any of the true peppercorn taste.

Since its introduction into European culture thousands of years ago, it has remained the king of spice and still reigns supreme.

Try not to take this culinary gift for granted.

Gary Robins is a Federal Way resident who loves food and wine. He is also the wine specialist at Top Foods in Federal Way. Contact him at

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