The Heartbreak Grape

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Its Not a Sin to Love Two Pinot Styles

The Pinot Noir grape is temperamental—that’s why it’s called the "Heartbreak Grape." Its inherent beauty and delicate nature are elusive. Winemakers will tell you that it’s immensely satisfying when they manage to coax a well-balanced and elegant wine from this difficult grape. Because Pinot Noir is considered one of the noblest varietals in the world, it is also the focus of much debate and opinion. Old World Pinot purists state that the only true Pinot Noirs are those that are grown and produced in France, while New World Pinot mavericks favor those from California, New Zealand and Australia.

In general, Pinot Noir manifests itself differently in Burgundy than in, say, California. Most sommeliers, wine critics and wine geeks would ascribe to red Burgundies the following traits: a certain pronounced, mysterious minerality; a distinctive note of earthiness and even mustiness; an attractive preponderance of violets and delicate floral notes; a subtle fruit note. Hand them a glass of California Pinot Noir, however, and you’ll most certainly hear such descriptors as “bright cherry nuances,” “hints of vanilla,” “strands of cranberry” and “hints of cracked black and white pepper.” 

Of course, these are generalizations. Indeed, I have enjoyed Pinot Noirs from the Santa Maria Valley of California that are notably earthy and minerally. I’ve also savored Pinot Noirs from California’s Santa Rita Hills and Russian River appellations that possess a distinctly Burgundian floral flavor profile, with nuanced notes of violets. Similarly, I have had young Burgundies that exhibit rich ripe cherry flavors. Is the Old World style of Pinot Noir better than the New World? Is one more credible, more legitimate than the other? In order to answer this, it’s important to ask two essential questions:  What is Pinot Noir supposed to taste like? Does the varietal possess certain qualities that are specific to it alone?

In assessing the true qualities of Pinot Noir, it is useful to refer to the benchmark wines that are reflective of true varietal character. Take, for example, the 1997 Denis Mortet Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru, one of the most coveted Pinot Noirs in the world. This sublime Burgundian wine boasts aromas of earthy truffles, cedar, old leather and violets. The mouth feel is refined, with soft, yet well-structured tannins. On the mid-palate, a pronounced note of chanterelles and crushed wet rocks prevails. The wine finishes bone dry with a lingering floral, almost rose-like, note. Tasting such a well-recognized and widely respected Pinot Noir, we can deduce that true Pinot Noir characteristics—at least those of Burgundy—are indeed earthy, floral, spicy and complex. But does this render them better? 

I have several young American Pinot Noirs in my cellar; well, about fifty bottles or so. I’ve collected them because I enjoy the vitality and freshness of the winemaking style. Some are very dark and rich, and almost lean towards Syrah in appearance and even flavor. I love these wines. Are they true to Pinot Noir? Not in a traditional Burgundian sense. Are they therefore unworthy? Absolutely not. As is the case with many things that hit the shores of the New World, whether it be food, music or literature, a fusion of cultures and creativity is bound to emerge. Put a traditional grape varietal like Pinot Noir in the hands of a twenty-five year-old winemaker from Santa Barbara and chances are that he’ll farm it and vinify it entirely differently than a forty-two year-old winemaker from Burgundy whose family has farmed the same vineyard for hundreds of years.

To suggest that one is better than the other is to discount personal tastes and preferences. On some days, I want nothing more than to enjoy a traditionally made Pinot Noir from Burgundy with a Piaf album spinning on the turn table and a leg of lamb in the oven. On other days, I crave a bright, bold California Pinot Noir with a breast of duck in a Pinot reduction sauce, while Miles Davis fills the airwaves in my living room. Both wines satisfy in their own way. To dismiss one style in favor of another would rob my palate of many potentially delightful enological journeys.


-by Sao Anash

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