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The Challenge of The Princess Grape (May 21, 2003)

As a wine writer, the second-most-often asked question I get is "What's your favourite wine?"

I invariably answer, "Comte de Vogüé Musigny 1964." That was the wine I drank the evening of my son's birth on February 13, 1975.

You could argue that bilge water would have tasted good to me that night. Certainly, one's state of mind has a lot to do with the enjoyment of wine. Circumstances, ambiance and mood are, arguably, more important than the quality of the wine when it comes to your reaction to it. Example: you've been invited to dinner by your bank manager. He pours you a Château Lafite 1961. Just as you lift the glass to your lips he tells you the reason he has asked you to dine is that he's foreclosing on your mortgage. That wine will taste like vinegar to you. But even more depressing, on any future occasion when you are lucky enough to have Lafite '61 the memory of that fateful night will return to sour the moment.

But the reverse is also true. Imagine you are with someone you love on a summer picnic. The simple Beaujolais you chill in a stream to go with the Camembert and French bread will taste like nectar.

What is more significant is the fact that it was a red Burgundy that I chose to celebrate the birth of my son – not a red Bordeaux, an aged Barolo or an Hermitage, all wines of which I am inordinately fond.

Over the years the Pinot Noir grape has given me my most ecstatic and most expensive wine experiences; it has also given me my worst. No other grape can be so good and yet so bad. At its best it has the sleek silkiness of a Victoria's Secret model; at its worst it turns shrewish, mean, nasty and unforgiving.

In Burgundy they get it right four, maybe five, vintages in ten if they're lucky. Pinot Noir is the most fickle of grapes that only flourishes in marginal growing conditions. Too hot (as in most California efforts) and it goes jammy; too cool and it tastes green and weedy.

When you look around the globe where Pinot Noir can grow well, the regions are always cool – New Zealand, Alsace, Northern Germany, British Columbia and Ontario.

The most successful Pinot Noir region outside of Burgundy is undoubtedly Oregon. They can make very good Pinot Noir at least six or seven times in a decade. At a tasting of Oregon Pinot Noir in Toronto in March I had the opportunity to sample four vintages from 2001 back to 1998.

If Burgundy is the Aristotelian form of Pinot Noir then the nearest Oregon has come to replicating red Burgundy at its finest is the 1999 vintage. Mark Vlossek, winemaker-proprietor of St. Innocent, told me it was his best vintage in fifteen years. His St. Innocent Pinot Noir 1999 Brickhouse Vineyard had a spicy, vanilla, gardenia and cherry nose, firmly structured with lovely, elegant lines. I tasted this wine with chef Chris McDonald's Roast Quail with Black Trumpet mushrooms and Chestnut Fondue at Avalon restaurant in Toronto. It was an absolute triumph of food matching. I'm convinced that Pinot Noir is the most versatile of red wines when it comes to food pairings with diverse dishes from salmon and tuna to poultry, beef, pork, light game and hard cheeses.

The next day I attended a tasting of ten Oregon producers, where I concentrated only on Pinot Noir. The 1998 vintage offered fruitier, riper wines than 1999, as evidenced by Amity's Winemaker's Reserve (full-bodied, candied raspberry and red licorice flavours) and Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir (elegant, sweet raspberry, more Burgundian in structure).

The 2000 is an intriguing cross between the two previous vintages, sharing the fruitiness of '98 with more palpable structure of '99. My pick of those I tasted were Evesham Wood 2000 (peppery, spicy raspberry with a clovey finish), the unusual Holloran Vineyards 2000 (oak-driven, rhubarb and raspberry flavours), Panther Creek Freedom Hill Pinot Noir 2000 (elegant, very Burgundian style with a sweetness of fruit), St. Innocent Shea Vineyard 2000 (Volnay-like, spicy black raspberry, lilac, smoky) and Westrey Melrose Pinot Noir 2000 (smoky, toasty, sweet rhubarb and raspberry).

These wines are not inexpensive, ranging from $28.95 up to $65, but, then, have you checked out the prices of top-notch red Burgundy these days?

By the way, the question I'm most often asked is "What's a good wine under $10?"




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