Sunday, October 6, 2019

Pinot Noir Two Ways

Fans of red wine generally express their favoritism for either Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.  Cab fans like its angular structure, herbal/berry flavors and firm tannins.  Lovers of Pinot Noir prefer the wine’s softer rounded structure, minted cherry flavors and smooth tannins.

Although there is a recognizable sameness in Pinot Noir, no matter where in the world the grape is grown and wine is made, most Pinot Noir drinkers agree that the benchmark for both the grape and the wine is Burgundy, a region in east central France.  The region's limestone soils and cooler climate favor Pinot Noir, while the maritime climate and rocky soils of Bordeaux bring out the best of Cabernet Sauvignon and its five companion grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. 

Writing about Pinot Noir makes me think about a remarkable tasting I participated in...

(A Tasting to Remember) -- I started my wine writing career in, of all places, Colorado.  At the time, there was only one winery in Colorado, Ivancie Cellars, owned by a wild Austrian orthodontist who had his grapes, including Pinot Noir, shipped from California, across two mountain ranges. I was writing a wine column then for the Rocky Mountain News. One day, I got a call from Jack Daniels, a local wine wholesaler (now of Napa’s Wilson-Daniels) inviting me to join a tasting group called “The Grape  Nuts.” 

Who could refuse with a name like that?

The idea was that each “grape nut” would sponsor a tasting, hopefully of older unusual or esoteric wines. The tasting that I still remember was red Burgundies from the collection of Doctor Barolet, an early 20th century physician in the Burgundy area, who made his own wine and, in his spare time, was a negociant (wine merchant and grape buyer) and avid wine collector.  Dr. Barolet had amassed a huge cache of wine, mostly Burgundy, and was known for adding brandy (likely Cognac) to his own wines, to keep them fresh and promote longevity.

For our tasting that evening, Daniels brought a small collection of Barolet Burgundies, many from the 1930s. The wines were all healthy and packed with the soft voluptuous fruit that makes Burgundy great. It was a revelation, especially for someone with a love of Burgundy and Pinot Noir. 

I have long-since lost my notes from that tasting, but the structure, depth and complexity of the wines we tasted then linger in my memory. They were rich without being plumy, complex and soft on the palate but supported by good acidity and firm tannins. Could it have been the added brandy? 

Most importantly, the wines invited not just another sip but a second glass. We couldn’t tell if Barolet had dosed any of the wines, but if he had, it was a decision that paid benefits long after the wines were bottled.

Barolet wines are still available through such on-line merchants as Wine Searcher.  But be prepared to pay $500 to $1,000 a bottle for a wine that is now at least 80 years old and remember the buying experience comes with a caveat emptor.)

This wander down memory lane is not meant to make the reader envious, but is offered as a plea to not drink your red wine (and some select whites) too young.  If you value the wine and have invested a lot of money, then allow the wine to age and show its true potential. 

Also, I use the tasting here to illustrate the character and pleasures of fine Pinot Noir, or at least the expression of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and California.  In Dr. Barolet’s days there was only Pinot Noir from Burgundy.   

Since those days, the lure of Pinot Noir has grown in other parts of the world and I would like to think that the good doctor would have enjoyed them as well. 

While the Pinot Noir grape has gone worldwide,  the styles and character of the wines are different. Pinot Noir is grown in nearly every wine region in Europe, as well as such far flung places as New Zealand, Australia, South America, South Africa, Mexico, Canada and United States. 

The history of Pinot Noir in California is a relatively short one. Agoston Harazthy, a California wine pioneer, reportedly carried Pinot Noir vine cuttings back with him from one of his visits to his ancestral home in Hungary.  It was the end of the 19th century and Harazthy’s effort was a one-off with Pinot Noir languishing in California in favor of Zinfandel and Alicante Bouschet, as well as a little Gamay. 

By the mid-20th century, California Pinot Noir had made a mini-comeback, thanks to Villa Mt. Eden, Hanzell and Beauleu Vineyard.  Andre Tchelistcheff, then BV’s noted winemaker, was supposed to have said that Pinot Noir was his favorite red wine, even though he became known for BV cabernets.  

Clusters of Ripe Pinot Noir
In the vineyard, Pinot Noir is fussy about climate and soils, a difficulty that is often carried over to the wine making.  Nevertheless, Pinot Noir can be found throughout the Golden State, in the relatively warm areas of Napa and Sonoma counties, to the cooler regions of Mendocino County in the North, southern Monterey County in the central area and the cooler parts of Santa Barbara County in the south.

If you noticed that “cool” is the operative word for growing juicy Pinot Noir with lots of varietal character, then you are on the right track.  However, even those warmer growing regions have cooler spots, like the Russian River Valley and the Carneros Region that stretches across the southern edges of Napa and Sonoma counties. 

A whole separate column is necessary to tell of the successes of Oregon Pinot Noir, from the famous Willamette Valley. Suffice to say that while California was discovering that Pinot Noir should rightfully share the world stage with Cabernet Sauvignon, Oregon had already taken the stage.

A vineyard's proximity to water is another key factor in nurturing Pinot Noir. The cool moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean is important to growing Pinot Noir in Carneros (by way of San Pablo Bay), as well as Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, the Sonoma Coast of Sonoma County, Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey and Santa Barbara County.

The tempering influence of water on wine grape growing is not limited to the Pacific Ocean.  Consider the Rhone and Garonne rivers in France, Rhine and Mosel rivers in Germany, the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in South Africa and the Finger Lakes in New York State, to name just a few places.

Even in Burgundy, the character of Pinot Noir varies from the northern end of the region to the south.  In the north, south of the city of Dijon are the sturdy and fragrant pinots of Marsannay and Fixin. Little more than 80 miles to the south are the earthy pinots of Santenay.  Between those two are such noted red Burgundies as Vosne-Romanee, Gevrey-Chambertain, Pommard and Volnay. Those are but a few of the Burgundies that are distinguished one from the other by terroir and, of course, price.

Pinotphiles, especially those with an affection for California wines, will argue about where in the Golden State the best Pinot Noir is made. At the top of the list for some are the cool climate pinots from the Russian River Valley, with their concentrated plumy flavors. Others suggest you try pinots from cool niche spots such as Carneros and Mendocino's Anderson Valley and the Sonoma Coast. Still other pinot devotees prefer Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County and Santa Barbara County. 

I could go on and on about the pleasures of Pinot Noir, no matter where it is from in the world, but rather than reading about the many styles of pinot, taste for yourself. Start small. Buy a few pinots from different areas, invite in a few friends and have a comparative tasting.  Expect to pay $30 to $1,000 for Burgundy, with many at $50 or less. California Pinot Noir prices run the gamut, from $20 to $470 for the coveted Peter Michael Clos du Ciel; popular California pinots include Gary Farrel and Kosta Browne, both $90; Flowers, Calera and Lynmar Estate, $50.  Oregon Pinot Noir is mostly priced between $25 and $60.

There are so many good to great Pinot Noirs from France, California, Oregon and New Zealand, that a list of recommended producers would be long and incomplete.  Instead, I suggest a visit to your local wine seller.  Check the shelves and talk to the merchant, then start tasting.   It's the best way to learn what you like.

Next Blog: A Simple Guide to Tasting Wine

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