The Holy Grail Grape (April 16, 2009)
Marq de Villiers, a former publisher of Toronto Life, wrote a splendid book in 1994 called The Heartbreak Grape: A Search for the Perfect Pinot Noir.
If the book's title suggests that Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail for both vintners and wine lovers, that's not too far from the truth. No other wine arouses such passionate debate as Pinot Noir; it is the ultimate test of the talent and skill of grape growers and winemakers. Like the little girl with the curl, when it is good it's very, very good but when it is bad, it's horrid.
This thin-skinned, pernickety grape needs chalky clay soil in a cool climate to expresses its complex aromas and flavours of raspberries, strawberries, cherries, violets and a touch of the barnyard. Not enough sunshine to ripen the bunches and the wine will taste green and weedy. Too much heat and the wine turns to strawberry jam and tastes flabby.
Although Pinot Noir is now grown around the world, Burgundy, with its marginal climate, is its spiritual home and the yardstick by which every other region's Pinot Noir wines are judged. But Burgundy doesn't always get it right either. Really good red Burgundy is made in about four years of every decade. I recall the comment of an American wine merchant living in Beaune who told me, "Burgundy is a minefield. You can either be blown to heaven or blown to hell."
With Bordeaux you know what you're getting. If you purchase a First Growth claret like Château Lafite there is a certain expectation based on the price you paid and the historic quality of the wine. Your real concern is the quality of the harvest in the Médoc that year. But in Burgundy the name of the estate is no guarantee of quality even in a fabulous vintage. Take for example Clos de Vougeot, a walled vineyard half the size of Lafite's holdings; but eighty companies or individuals own rows or blocks of its vines. In theory, all eighty could legally produce and label a wine as Clos de Vougeot, yet there are parcels of vines that are not as favoured as others because of the lie of the land so the quality variation would be enormous. So, in Burgundy, it's not the name of the vineyard that is important; it's the producer.
There is an international brotherhood dedicated to the wines of Burgundy called the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Founded in 1933 by Burgundian merchants to help improve sluggish sales, it now has chapters around the world. I asked the former Grand Sénéchal of the Toronto chapter of the Confrérie, Dr. David Naiberg, What is the appeal of Burgundy? "A lot of factors," he replied. "I remember many years ago it was put to me when you drink a fine Bordeaux you get the reaction, 'Mmmm, this is great.' When you drink a fine Burgundy it's 'Wow!' That sort of sums it up. I find that Burgundies are friendlier, more forward, easier to drink. They're ready earlier. I find they're more luscious, more fruit-forward, which is a style I happen to like. But also there is a great variation from the very fully extracted to the ones that are a little more restrained, more complex and less extracted."
Robert Jull, the proprietor of the Toronto importing agency Vinifera Wine, is a Burgundy specialist. He made wine in Burgundy in 1986 before getting into the business of importing their wines in 1991. He offers this advice to negotiating the minefield that is Burgundy.
Recommended Burgundy Producers
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
Domaine Comte de Vogüé
Domaine Armand Rousseau
Domaine Jean Grivot
Domaine Anne Gros
Domaine Jean Gros
Maison Louis Jadot
"You have to know a little bit about producers. Buy some books and try to familiarize yourself with the best producers in the villages you like or in Burgundy in general. The trickiest part of Burgundy is that each village represents a different style. There is quite a broad range in the flavours coming out of Burgundy even though they're all Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. The character from the different villages is distinctly different. It's difficult to decipher that without tasting through them. There are villages making very delicate, lacy and feminine wines like Chambolle-Musigny in the Côte de Nuits and Volnay in the Côte de Beaune and likewise there's very masculine, full-bodied styles of Pinot Noir coming out of Nuits Saint Georges Côte de Nuits and Pommard in the Côte de Beaune. Distinctly different in character and unless you have the opportunity to taste them and make a decision for yourself it's pretty tough to know what you're going to
Burgundy maybe the first place you think about when you consider Pinot Noir but there are some delicious wines being produced from this grape in the New World.
Marq de Villers' book The Heartbreak Grape begins with a quest to learn about a wine he tasted at a dinner party at Mount Vernon New York – Calera Jensen Mount Harlan Pinot Noir 1987. Josh Jensen searched California until he found the limestone soil he knew that would be perfect for Pinot Noir. Inspired by Jensen's example other California producers began to plant the variety. Now the best examples are coming from Sonoma's Russian River region, made by producers such as Williams & Selyem, Rochioli, Kosta Browne, Merry Edwards and Macphail. The movie Sideways did more to thrust Pinot Noir into the public consciousness than any advertising campaign undertaken by the wine industry (and also to torpedo sales of Merlot after the protagonist Miles makes a derogative and scatological comment about the variety).
Oregon, too, makes richly flavoured Pinot Noir, closer to Burgundy in style than the California Pinots. Look for Archery Summit, Beaux Frères, Shea, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene and Roco.
New Zealand has ideal growing conditions for Pinot Noir in Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago. Some top producers are Craggy Range, Felton Road, Akarua, Ata Rangi, Valli and Staete Landt.
The cooler areas of Australia, especially in Tasmania, are making some first-rate Pinot Noirs. Look for Bindi, Coldstream Hills, Fooyong, Tapanappa, Wine Glass Bay and Frogmore Creek.
In Ontario the best producers of Pinot Noir are Le Clos Jordanne (very Burgundian), Flat Rock Cellars, Norman Hardie, Coyote's Run and Closson Chase. In British Columbia, Quails' Gate, Herder, Skimmerhorn, Church & State and Road 13.
Chile makes some very interesting Pinot Noir at very reasonable prices. Producers to watch for are Casa Lapostolle, Cono Sur, Amayna, Montes, Undurraga (Sibaris) and Casa Marin.
And last but not least, back to Europe to Germany, where they call Pinot Noir Spätburgunder. Germany's best producers of this variety are Meyer-Näkel, Stodden, Kriechel, Adenauer, Lingenfelder, Salwey, Kessler and Georg Breuer.