IF it is accepted that Burgundy is Pinot Noir's first home, then it can also be argued that the USA provides the next best thing - a second home where the vine also flourishes and produces wines of reasonable quality. Certainly, there are few other contenders, particularly among the New World countries.
Pinot Noir is a notoriously fickle grape which many New World producers regard as a vinous Holy Grail - get it right and not only do you add a beautifully silky, fruity red to your portfolio, but you also enhance your reputation no end. Unfortunately, as the wine-makers of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have often discovered, it is more likely that your Pinot will be either jammy and confected, or green and stalky.
As Jancis Robinson points out in her Guide to Wine Grapes (Oxford, £8.99), Pinot Noir "demands much of both vine-grower and wine-maker". The impressive Pinot producers at Coldstream Hills and Pipers Brook in Australia, Hamilton Russell in South Africa and Martinborough in New Zealand might beg to differ, but the very reason we have heard of these wines is because good New World Pinots are so rare.
California, Oregon and Washington State have fared better, with more consistent Pinots coming from many more wineries. Americans claim that the cooler-climate regions of California - Santa Barbara County, Russian River and Carneros - are now regularly producing world-class Pinots.
Further north along the West Coast, Oregon's Willamette Valley, a cloudy, breezy stretch of land, was hyped in the 1980s and early 1990s for its potential to make great Pinot. Since then, Oregon's climate has proved almost as difficult to master as the grape, but Willamette continues to produce plenty of Pinot.
Finally, in the north-west corner of the USA, lies Washington State, where the wine-makers turn out Pinot from the cool, fog-bound vineyards of the Columbia Valley region.
Caterer decided to find out just how good American Pinot Noir really is. We wanted to discover whether the USA really had mastered this grape, and if so, where the best Pinots were made. We wondered how the styles compared with Burgundian Pinots, and whether any American Pinots were good value, bearing in mind the high price tags they often command.
We tasted 31 American Pinot Noirs, all from California, Oregon or Washington State. All the wines were made between 1992 and 1995, and prices varied enormously - from £234 per case to just £65.
Caterer's expert panel comprised Christopher Piper of Christopher Piper Wines; Nick Borst-Smith and Huibre Hoff of the Nobody Inn in Devon, which hosted our tasting; Paul Henderson from Gidleigh Park hotel, Chagford, also in Devon; Roger Hanley of the Wine Library, Exeter; Ian Aldridge of Lamb's restaurant, Exeter; wine writer Susy Atkins; and Caterer's wine editor, Fiona Sims.
The venue, the Nobody Inn in Doddiscombsleigh, Devon, is a pub that has won many awards for its extensive and exciting wine list. The wines were tasted blind in groups according to vintage, starting with the youngest.
In general, the panel were disappointed by the standard of the wines. "Ninety per cent of these are correct, but they are not well-balanced, well-structured Pinot Noirs," concluded Hanley. He added that many were sweet and cloying, with a "bubble gum" character. Piper complained that many were "over-extracted because the wine-makers were trying too hard to produce big, voluptuous fruit", and several panellists agreed that some wines were "over-oaked". Piper suggested that "some of these wine-makers were using the wrong sites - vineyards that are simply too hot."
"There were a lot of technically correct wines, but not many stars," said Henderson. Although our top wine, from California's Sanford winery, was excellent, it was also the second most expensive wine in the tasting. Other high marks went to wines from the reputable Saintsbury winery, working with Carneros fruit, and the extremely good-value Arciero Pinot from Paso Robles. All these were from California, although there were poor wines from each of our three regions.
Piper wondered whether we had been too hard on the wines: "They should be tasted with food," he pointed out. And perhaps Pinot Noir is a difficult grape to taste, as everyone looks for something different from this complex variety. Marks for certain individual wines did indeed range widely. And only one out of 31 wines was actually faulty.
That said, the consensus was that these generally expensive wines were not as good as the hype has suggested. Perhaps we should hurry back to Burgundy - there's clearly no place like home.