Tuesday, May 30, 2017

PINOT NOIR: Nobility in America

Pipeage, a French punch-down of noble pinot noir (Naked Winemaking, Palate Press)
"Wine quality is defined like pornography. We don't know what it is, but we know it when we see it." Francis Percival,  The World of Fine Wine.

It is a wine of kings and those famous dukes. In the world of Pinot Noir, there's just Burgundy, and then it seems there's everything else. Not Oregon, not Central Otago, not even the Russian River Valley or the Santa Rita Hills AVA's.  Not the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, and not even the pioneering remote hilltop locations of the broad Sonoma Coast.  Burgundy, the long established and historic home of the noble red grape is where it was born, where it was lovingly nurtured, and to this day arguably reaches its greatest heights.  But Burgundy estate wines are scarce and expensive, and only find a few great vintages in a decade due in large part to mother nature.  The rest of the pinot-loving world gets along with those second/third tier Village wines, and the wines of increasing quality being produced in the new(relatively) vineyards of the world.
Grape de-stemmer(prior to pipeage)
Currently enjoying unprecedented market and acreage growth over its long history, the red grape of Burgundy was introduced to California in the late-19th century(think Pierre Mirassou and Paul Masson), and today is the leading red grape in Sonoma County. Locally, it has evolved to earned for its patient and attentive growers the highest per ton pricing for red wine grapes here.  Growing the fickle, thin skinned orb has become increasingly consistent with ever developing recognizable styles as growers adapt, develop specific vineyard sites, apply new viticultural techniques and employ constant canopy/irrigation management across the many sustainable farmed vineyards while managing yields. The big players, those nationally distributed giants, have helped to move Pinot Noir into the mainstream, forging vineyard development, improved large scale winemaking, supported by focused marketing and broader distribution.  Our domestic Pinot Noir is finally coming of age.

Loaded with nuance, power and grace, the noble varietal is typically less astringent, less tannic than most other market leading reds, so that may make it easier to introduce to emerging neophyte wine drinkers. While cabernet is assertive and, in my opinion, takes years of bottle age to come into a balanced maturity, Pinot Noir is resonate and sensual almost from the outset. At times we find it voluptuous and velvety;  this is an aromatic variety, so it is often presented in a wide bowl glass so that more aromatic compounds can introduce it. Stylings of Pinot Noir can be generalized into two camps: ripe and sweet, as compared to complex and savory, which is the style I prefer. When ripe it can be highly extracted and fruit driven; when vinified as a savory varietal selection it tends to have more depth and nuance.  For me that makes it intrinsically a more interesting sipper.

In the cult road movie, Sideways, Miles offered, "quaffable,....but, uh, far from transcendent", when speaking about a south Central Coast tasting room sample.  In truth, that's the way it is for most of today's Pinot Noirs.  And it is that sentiment that keeps us pinotphiles searching for a taste that transports us to another place.  A consuming search that has many pinot lovers seeking out the latest crafting from a boutique producer that offers something more than just a glass of wine, just like in Burgundy.
Domaine Romane'e Conti, the gold standard
This increasingly popular grape seems quite adapted to reflecting its location, part of the reason we will never be Burgundy. With an estimated 200 - 1000 clones only adding to its unique complexity, Pinot Noir is today an important part of the growing demand in $10-20 wines that are driving the industry. Consumers will find that this category is mostly offering Pinot Noirs' that are ripe and sweet, industrial stylings, where it is more important to be consistent year after year than to reflect a site or season. Like a good novel, well executed Pinot Noir can bring you some place, it can evolve in the glass with contemplation, and can offer the taster a resonate, satisfying experience that is meant to share.

Critical pinot success stories seem to mushroom almost every week, from Oregon's cool Willamette Valley, to warm and fast ripening Santa Lucia Highlands, even as the industry is facing new challenges just as we are beginning to get it right. A recent Stanford University study has noted that a 2 degree increase in average temperatures could reduce  wine growing sites by 30 - 50 per cent, and considering the advancement of undeniable climate change pinot growers will have to adapt. Agri-laboratories are aiding the fight too by shuffling genetic material, but at what point is it no longer Pinot Noir?  But then, inbreeding can be berry noble!

"What makes a wine worth drinking is that it is honest and authentic" Terry Theise, The World of Fine Wine.