Pinot Noir: A Love Story (July 7, 2011)
My first dalliance with Pinot Noir was in 1970. I was working for the BBC in London and had been sent to Burgundy as a junior reporter to cover some event in Beaune, the circumstances of which I don't recall now. But I do remember vividly my first taste of a Geisweiler 1927. There was no appellation on the label, only the name of the shipper Geisweiler Monopole, one of the oldest firms in Burgundy; but I imagine the wine was a Gevrey-Chambertin. I had never tasted anything like it in my life – which, up to that time, had been mainly based on a diet of beer and pub food.
This seminal experience had echoes for me in a quote uttered nearly one hundred years ago, by the Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc. In an address to the Saintsbury Club at Vintners' Hall in London he declaimed: "When that this too, too solid flesh shall melt, and I am called before my Heavenly Father, I shall say to him Sir, I don't remember the name of the village, and I don't remember the name of the girl, but the wine was Chambertin." Pinot Noir can do that to you. (The Saintsbury Club, incidentally, was named for George Saintsbury, the English literary critic who wrote Notes of a Cellar Book, arguably the first book about wine appreciation.)
How to recapture the unique flavour of that Geisweiler 1927 in prose? A whiff of the barnyard strewn with violets, the taste of raspberries and cherries with nuances of rust, vanilla and tomato leaf. A contradiction, because who wants to drink a wine that smells like a stable and tastes like old water pipes and plant life? But that is Burgundy – what Shakespeare in King Lear called "the milk of Burgundy"; it's a total contradiction at every turn.
Like Proust's madeleine in reverse, the ethereal flavours of that venerable Geisweiler propelled me into a life-long love affair with Pinot Noir. And like all love affairs worth their salt the relationship has been nothing if not tempestuous.
Red Bordeaux enthusiasts are, at heart, dog lovers. They cherish loyalty and dependability. They are also optimists, not used to disappointments. Red Burgundy aficionados, on the other hand, are cat lovers who have no expectations at all and are mildly surprised when their pet curls up in their lap purring. They are anticipating rebuff at every turn. (In those pre-politically-correct days of yore I would have said that Bordeaux is a constant wife while Burgundy is a volatile and unpredictable mistress.)
You have to have a touch of the cynic to pursue Pinot Noir through the bewildering maze of the Côte d'Or domaines and shippers. Pinot Noir in Burgundy was summed up fittingly for me at the World Vinifera Conference in Seattle in 1995. Wine shipper Alex Gambal, one of the panelists, informed the assembled participants, "Burgundy is a minefield; you can be blown to hell or blown to heaven."
Trying to pin down on paper the essential nature of Pinot Noir wherever it is grown is a wine writer's worst nightmare. Perhaps the author Marq de Villiers has best captured the elusive charm of this grape that has become the winemaker's Holy Grail. He titled his book that tracks Pinot Noir production at Josh Jensen's Calera Wine Company in Hollister, California, The Heartbreak Grape.
Since a grapevine has the lifespan of Biblical man (four score years and ten) and the grape is 80 per cent water – almost as much as a human being – wine is very human. And none more so than the fickle, hypochondriacal, agoraphobic Pinot Noir. Like us, it can catch cold. It doesn't like bright lights, hates being shaken up or travelling great distances. It can live for 100 years but mostly dies younger. It has absolutely no sense of humour even when it's feeling good.
This kind of vinous anthropomorphism once got me into hot water with the Maria Callas International Club. On March 20th 1993, I received the following letter from Jeanne Handzic, the club's founder in Croydon, Surrey:
Dear Mr. Aspler,
One of my members in Toronto has kindly drawn your recent article to my attention, namely "'91 Was A Red-Letter Year" in the13th March 1993 edition of The Toronto Star.
I readily admit that I am far from being a wine expert so also admit that I cannot quite discern your various comments on wine and their vintages.
However, where MARIA CALLAS is concerned, maybe I do know a little more!
I wonder if you would put pen to paper and let me have an explanation of the relevance between 'Pinot Noir' and Maria Callas? You would probably say "...if you knew and tasted 'Pinot Noir' you would know." A fair comment, but I don't.
Were you intending the (to me at least) somewhat strange comparison between some grapes with one of the world's greatest opera singers of all times to be complimentary to the latter or not?
Hoping I may hear from you, I remain meanwhile,
I must confess I did not reply to this letter (she had inadvertently answered her own question – "if you knew and tasted Pinot Noir you would know.") I could not for the life of me explain to Ms. Handzic, the keeper of the flame of the Maria Callas shrine, that what I wrote nearly two decades ago in no way trivialized the soprano's talent, reputation or accomplishments; but in my lexicon, calling Pinot Noir "the Maria Callas of Grapes" was the supreme compliment to both parties.
In thirty-five years of chasing the grape around the world I have had many memorable trysts with Pinot Noir, but the one that leaps instantly to mind occurred on February 13th, 1975. I had been given a bottle of Comte de Vogüé Musigny 1964 by the late Gordon Bucklitsch, who taught me wine at Grant's of St. James' Wine School (I modeled my wine writer detective Ezra Brant on Bucklitsch). I opened the bottle alone on the evening of the birth of my son, Guy. It was the greatest wine I have ever tasted. But then I am convinced that 60 per cent of the enjoyment of wine has little to do with the label and everything to do with your mood, the company and the ambiance.
Since those early days when I was introduced to Pinot Noir from its sacred ground, Burgundy, I have explored the grape in its other terroirs – New Zealand (Martinborough, Central; Otago), Oregon (fond memories of the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville), California (love Williams Selyem and Merry Edwards), Chile (Cono Sur does a great job) and latterly in my own backyard – Ontario's Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County. Long live the heartbreak grape!