Pinot Noir: The World's Sexiest Grape
Pinot Noir is temperamental and high-maintenance, yet winemakers from Oregon to Switzerland to New Zealand just can't plant it fast enough. Wine Editor Lettie Teague explores its allure.
I'm not one for making predictions. Not astrological. Not agricultural. But when I was recently asked what grape I thought might take over the world, I answered: "Pinot Noir." Though even its fans describe it in such unflattering terms as temperamental, time-consuming and expensive—the proverbial date from hell—this famed red grape of France's Burgundy region is being planted by more and more wine producers all over the world.
Everywhere I've traveled, and plenty of places I haven't, winemakers seem to be turning vast tracts of vineyard land over to this flighty varietal. From California and Oregon to New Zealand to less likely locales such as Switzerland, Austria and Ontario, Pinot Noir is being planted with a single-minded furor that hasn't been seen since the boom days of Chardonnay. In New Zealand, one producer proudly informed me that his country now has as much Pinot in the ground as the entire state of California does—a remarkable development, considering New Zealanders really got started with the grape just a decade ago and their population of wine drinkers is probably smaller than a Los Angeles suburb.
Pinot's Inglorious Past
How is it that a varietal so congenitally unstable has gained such a following in so short a time? After all, only 25 years ago, outside of France Pinot Noir was considered useless (and its performance even in that country came under pretty regular criticism). In 1975, when Californian Josh Jensen founded Calera, specializing in Pinot Noir, "the standard wisdom was that American Pinot Noir was no good and never would be," he said. In those days, more winemakers in California were producing Barbera than working with Pinot Noir. Accordingly, a guide to American wine published in 1978 allotted one paragraph to Pinot Noir and four to Barbera. California Pinot Noirs, the author noted, tended to be "flowery," although he allowed that they were "superb with steaks." (This was long before Pinot became the proverbial partner for everything from roasted salmon to smoked duck breast.)
For Oregon's David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards, the dismissal of Pinot was an even more personal blow. Lett was all but deemed certifiable by his professors at the famed viticultural school of the University of California, Davis, when he announced his intention, in 1966, to plant Pinot in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The grape couldn't be grown in such a rainy climate, his teachers told him; it would never ripen. (Thirty-seven years, 180 wineries and more than 6,000 acres of Oregon Pinot later, it's likely they've reconsidered their position.)
But 25 years ago there were some very good reasons why Pinot wasn't planted much outside France, and they had a lot to do with those neurotic traits Pinot drinkers so admire. Although Pinot Noir is arguably the most aromatically gorgeous red grape in existence (the Guerlain of the wine world) and texturally the most sensuous, it is also the most challenging. It doesn't take well to a wide range of climates, soils or conditions—certainly not compared with, say, Chardonnay, which could probably be successfully cultivated in a terrarium. It took some time for winemakers to figure out how to get around this. (In France, it took the Burgundians about 500 years to do so, but then again they kept getting interrupted by revolutions and various kinds of wars.)
Pinot's Breakthrough Moments
Once winemakers realized that Pinot Noir did best in climates with long, cool growing seasons, they started exploring regions once considered too marginal for grapes to ripen properly—such as Sonoma Coast and Santa Maria Valley in California, Tupungato in Argentina, Central Otago on New Zealand's South Island and, of course, Oregon's Willamette Valley.
They also figured out the right way to handle the grape. Back then Pinot was often accorded the same muscular treatment as Merlot and Cabernet, even though it has a much thinner skin and is more delicate (one of Pinot lovers' favorite adjectives, much applied). The resulting Pinots often came out tasting "like an old boot," says winemaker Helen Turley, recalling her time spent at Robert Mondavi some 20 years ago. Turley, who now makes world-class Sonoma Pinots under the Marcassin and Martinelli labels, is famous for her gentle handling and fermentation techniques, and the elegant, nuanced wines they produce. (It's worth noting, by the way, that Mondavi Pinots are no longer footwear-flavored; the winery now produces some lovely bottlings, particularly its Napa Reserve.)
Another big development for the world's would-be Pinot makers was the discovery of new and better clonal material. Pinot Noir is not just temperamentally unreliable but genetically variable, too; it mutates easily, and its character can shift quite dramatically. Researchers estimate that well over 200 different Pinot grape clones exist, each possessed of a slightly different flavor profile, or number of clusters produced, or number of berries per cluster, each clone suited to a particular climate or soil. (By contrast, there are a mere 30 or so clones of the more stolid Cabernet grape.) Oregon's Brick House Vineyards, a big clone proponent, even puts the clone name on the label of its best wine, Les Dijonnais.
Fox Run Vineyards' Scott Osborne is also something of a clonal cheerleader. Osborne, one of the few hardy souls to try making Pinot Noir in New York State's frosty Finger Lakes region, has three vineyard acres devoted to different Pinot Noir clones. Fox Run belongs to the Finger Lakes Pinot Noir Alliance, a winemakers' support group and think tank. In fact, for all the advancements in understanding Pinot Noir, its makers seem to spend an inordinate amount of time commiserating with one another about their favorite varietal's elusive, high-maintenance character. There are Pinot Noir newsletters, Pinot Noir conferences and, of course, plenty of Pinot Noir winemaking alliances set up to promote better understanding—and perhaps to offer a shoulder to cry on—among producers all over the world. For as Osborne ruefully notes, "The more times we meet, the more we realize we don't understand."
Explaining the Pinot Noir Frenzy
This inscrutability seems to be one explanation for Pinot's enormous appeal; since it's not easy to understand and takes all kinds of time and money to figure out, there's a certain shared pride in daring to grow or even drink something so difficult. And then there's the continual uncertainty as to the final product. As longtime Oregon Pinot maker Dick Erath says, "You know when you're going to make a good one, but you never know when you're going to make a stellar one."
A second, and to my mind more convincing, explanation for the current Pinot Noir frenzy came from a Napa Valley winemaker friend of mine: "Anyone who makes Pinot Noir just wants to get laid." According to my friend, it's a macho thing "to be able to say you make Pinot"; though he added, in an acknowledgment of the grape's inconsistent nature, "Of course, it also has to be good." (My friend makes some very good wines, although, alas for him, no Pinot Noir.)
The more winemakers I talked to, the more it seemed like my friend might have a point. After all, just about every one of them described his attraction to Pinot in words more frequently associated with romance novels than wine labels: seductive, wily, feminine. In fact, I never realized how much time winemakers spend thinking about women until I broached the topic of Pinot Noir. Greg Crone, the brand manager of New Zealand's Brancott Vineyards, likened wine drinkers' developing appreciation of Pinot to a man's maturing taste in women. It was, he said, like graduating from Pamela Anderson to Grace Kelly. (You be the judge of which one would be more likely to guarantee a good time.)
Pinot Noir drinkers tend to talk in much the same terms. My friend Nikos Antonakeas, managing partner of Morrell's two restaurants in New York City and one of the most passionate Pinot drinkers I know, told me the reason he loves it is that "Pinot Noir is like a woman: You can devote your whole life to figuring it out." (Did I mention Nikos is Greek?) His appreciation for Pinot Noir is so great that his restaurants' Pinot sales are equal to those of America's most high-status grape, Cabernet.
When we had lunch together not long ago, Nikos naturally insisted on having Pinot Noir—three, to be exact. Not a single one was French. The first was from New York's Long Island and the second from a region near Argentina's Patagonian desert, while the third hailed from South Gippsland, Australia. It wasn't that Nikos was cheap (though there were plenty of triple-digit grand cru Burgundies on Morrell's wine list he might have chosen) but that he believes good Pinot Noir can be grown well all over the world. Even in the Patagonian desert.
While the first two Pinots were interesting wines that possessed some varietal character, the only bottling that really drove home Nikos's point, I thought, was the Australian wine, the 1998 Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir ($130). Famous as one of the few great Pinots made in a land celebrated for its Shirazes and Cabernets, this wine was big and juicy, in the Aussie style—but also possessed the beguiling Pinot Noir aromas and flavors of ripe strawberries and cherries, spice and earth.
Favorite Pinots: Below and Above $20
Nikos's lunchtime demonstration got me thinking. I'd talked to enough winemakers and wine drinkers about Pinot Noir. I needed to spend more time tasting it. So I decided to put myself on a monthlong Pinot diet. I would taste Pinot Noirs from as many parts of the world as possible to get a perspective on how well the global passion for Pinot was playing itself out—and how that translated into cost.
At first, I sought out reasonably priced Pinots, those costing $20 or less. This was a particular challenge, as the grape is expensive to grow (if yields are too big, the flavor becomes diluted rather than delicate) and the wine is expensive to produce (it cannot be made in large quantities without losing much of its charm). Consequently, there aren't as many Pinot bargains to be found at the lower end of the price scale as there are with hardier, heftier grapes like Cabernet and Syrah.
There were some notable successes, wines with pretty aromas and delicate strawberry-cherry flavors: the 2002 Saintsbury Carneros Garnet bottling, a standard-bearer for well-priced Pinot; the 2001 La Crema Sonoma Coast wine, from a promising appellation; the 2001 A to Z Pinot, a collaborative effort by two Oregon winemaking families; the 2001 Willamette designate wine from Siduri Wines, an emerging Oregon Pinot superstar; and a couple of New Zealand bottlings from the Wairarapa region—Matua Valley's 2001 Wairarapa Pinot and the 2001 from Te Kairanga.
Unfortunately, the disappointments mostly outweighed the happy surprises. By the 15th underwhelming bottle, I half considered calling that Pinot Noir support group—or perhaps opening a Syrah.
Thankfully, at twice the price (or more), the wines improved considerably, though quality did vary considerably. Several of the most interesting examples came from a few of the newest Pinot Noir appellations. In California these include the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Lucia Highlands near Monterey, where winemakers like Gary Pisoni and Siduri's Adam and Dianna Lee make incredibly rich, concentrated Pinot Noirs that start at about $34. I also tasted terrific wines from such unlikely locations as Austria and Switzerland. In fact, one of the most memorable Pinots came from a tiny boutique Swiss producer, Gantenbein, which sends perhaps 300 bottles of dense, ripe yet elegant Pinot to this country each year, according to its importer, Vin Divino. At $80 a bottle, it usually sells out right away.
Pinot Lessons Learned
When my monthlong Pinot Project finally ended (and the number of wines I tasted came close to 200), I had a better idea of what was happening around the world, though perhaps no clearer understanding of winemakers' true motives. Some had obviously met the challenge, perfectly synthesizing delicate and intense flavors of ripe fruit with underpinnings of earth and spice. Others, it seemed, had transferred their macho aspirations to the wines themselves, turning out Pinot Noirs that had much in common with high-octane Zins or Syrahs. Many, many more had produced red wines that were, really, just red wines.
Every bottle was, however, an adventure, an exercise in optimism, as any true romance must necessarily be. Perhaps, as with romance, the success rate wasn't particularly high. But still, I decided, it was (almost) always worth pulling the cork.