Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The noble grapes: pinot noir

Pinot noir instantly brings to mind the movie Sideways: this is the grape and the wine that Miles loves, the sun and the moon and stars, as opposed to the dark matter he loathes (merlot). He rhapsodizes about pinot's delicacy and need for special treatment, and about its grace and subtlety in the glass, so different from the cabernet sauvignon's brawny power. "It's not a survivor," he says.

Of course he is also talking about himself and his friend Jack, but we need not pursue tired old sophomore year Lit. class analogies any further. The pinot noir grape is, it seems, not so much fragile as just weirdly difficult to grow. And, with apologies to Miles, it is a survivor. Oz Clarke in The New Encyclopedia of French Wines writes that pinot noir may have been among the first wild grapevines that mankind isolated and grew deliberately, at least two thousand years ago. It has kept its wildness, he says. It tends to mutate readily, and has a hard time "setting" fruit. The wine grower therefore prunes the vines not in order to reduce growth, as with other varieties, but to encourage it; but when he succeeds and gets lots of bunches on his vine, the grapes then lack distinction and give poor juice. The grapes themselves grow very tightly packed -- pinot comes from the word for pine cone, a reference to the look of the bunches -- which invites rot.

The prime underlying challenge for the pinot grower is that the variety ripens early. What he wants, then, is a steadily cool climate which will help make a sort of growing-season-in-miniature, slotted in to the early part of the agricultural year when other grapes are perhaps just flowering and fruiting, with a whole summer of flavor-inducing sunshine and rain, and then the fall harvest, in front of them. (Mind you, the information that "pinot ripens early" has come to me from books. At a tasting of rieslings and other German wines that I attended this past spring, I'm almost sure I remember a German wine grower telling me that pinot ripens late.)

In either case, what a cool climate does mean, for any variety it seems, is a grape high in acidity. (Heat plus sunshine equals sweetness and prolific growth. Hence, heavy, high-alcohol Californian and Australian reds, and lots of them.) This acidity is good for bottle aging, not so good for drinkability now. Pinot also happens to have a light body, little tannin, and shall we say "subtle" fruit flavors. Throw in the fact that the place where pinot eventually comes to perfection in spite of every obstacle, Burgundy, is also a quite small area capable of little production, and you have a combination of factors that can make an expensive, tart, "watery" disappointment to connoisseurs and ordinary wine drinkers alike. But they can also combine, and do, to make the most "glorious" and "fabled" wines in the world. They make not only solid good red Burgundies, but such legends as Vosne-Romanee, Romanee-Conti, Gevrey-Chambertin, and Pommard. The point used to be that you did your homework about the best vintages, bought them and laid them down, and kept your fingers crossed with regard to Burgundies' "notorious unreliability."

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Do any of us have the patience to buy a bottle of pinot noir and put in the basement for five years, or ten? The hard part would probably be just getting over the first few weeks, when the memory of the purchase is fresh. After forgetting it, we likely would not miss it, just as we don't chew a lip and think about all the other things sitting in the basement. After three or four years, rediscovering it would be a delightful treat; and having lived without it all that time -- and think how expensive such a purchase would be now! what a steal it was! -- we would certainly have the strength to wait another year or two, or even more. Especially if we had already had been treating ourselves to other, older bottles, which we had put away in just this spirit years before, giving us a never-ending supply.

If only. Well, one can always start. Besides, the good news is that the winemakers who grow pinot, amid all their difficulties, are nevertheless trying to make a wine that we can drink now. Jancis Robinson in How to Taste suggests Russian River or Central Coast California pinot noirs, and Oregon pinots of course. Cool climates are the common denominator in both places. And in Burgundy itself, the ancient grape's ancient home, a winemaker quoted in Eric Asimov's The Pour acknowledges he and his colleagues "have to respect" many consumers' love of "fleshy" wines with little astringency, and presumably vinify some pinot to be a little more such. Funny how he describes what the fabulous pinot noir is not.

I don't stagger under a weight of experience when it comes to pinot noir, and have certainly never tasted a Romanee-Conti. Of my most recent samples, I have liked a Blackstone and a Talus pinot noir. I should add that I've overheard wine wholesale reps laugh at Blackstone's quality, apparently because it is served in restaurants. And just in the last few weeks I was disappointed in a Robert Mondavi Reserve pinot, because it seemed tart and watery. So it seems I'm absolutely on the right track.

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