For the Love of Pinot Noir
Miles: “It’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention, you know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time… to understand Pinot’s potential… can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
In honor of National Pinot Noir Day (August 18th) this week’s blog is a personal one, because my entire life was changed, in one single moment, by a bottle of Pinot Noir.
And it’s like that for a lot of people. In one shining moment, they taste a Pinot that suits their value system, inspires poetry in their soul, or just tastes so damn good that they can’t stop thinking about it. One wine critic even described it as "the most romantic of wines, with so voluptuous a perfume, so sweet an edge, and so powerful a punch that, like falling in love, they make the blood run hot and the soul wax embarrassingly poetic."
Pinot Noir has an interesting history. Its name literally translates to ‘pine black’, because the tight bunches look like pine cones—well, sort of, anyway. It’s a very ancient variety, only one or two generations domesticated from a wild vine, and was described over two thousand years ago by Roman scholars.
It mutates easily, with hundreds of different clones grown around the world. It also changes color easily, giving rise to Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, and others of varying darkness and flavor profiles.
As Miles notes, Pinot is finicky and hard to grow: it’s not a very vigorous vine and it’s notoriously sensitive to wind and frost, and has huge swings depending on crop levels, soil types and training and pruning techniques employed by growers. It’s also very thin-skinned and susceptible to any number of fungal disease, molds and mildews. The legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff famously said "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir.” To put it into perspective, in a vineyard where a Cabernet vine might thrive and produce six tons to the acre, Pinot Noir might struggle to make lousy, pale wine at one ton to the
It’s not easy to quantify as fickle a grape as Pinot Noir, but in general the aromas are of raspberry and red (not black) cherry, along with other red fruits and sometimes floral notes. The color is garnet to ruby rather than purple or blackish-red. It tends to showcase certain thiol (sulfur-induced) aromas, giving rise to the famous French assessment, ‘ca scent merde’.
There’s no way to put this delicately, although wine writers often use the euphemism “barnyard.” Many people, all of whom have never worked on a farm, associate barnyards with fresh air and new-mown hay. Others, perhaps more familiar with the consequences of ongoing ungulate digestion know the truth: it’s a pungent whiff of decay layered over top of the fruit.
The tannins are unique in that they’re much softer than normal, delicate and sleek, making for a very sensual mouth-feel.
Lest you think the description is one of an indifferent wine, Pinot Noir can fetch the most amazing prices for a bottle of wine, with Romanée Conte, La Tache and Richebourg going for thousands—or ten thousand—dollars per bottle.
My Road to Damascus Pinot
It was the early 1980’s and I hadn’t been drinking wine that long, only a few years, and I’d run a gantlet from fairly friendly reds to more challenging and tannic examples and then smack-dab into highly-extracted oak-bomb monsters. But I’d read a lot about fine wine and thought that I should try a good Pinot Noir. All the writers had agreed that there was something special and different about them and that had me hooked.
On payday, I picked up a bottle of Vosne-Romanée from Les Chaumes. It’s the same general region as the famous wines mentioned above, but only cost a half-day’s pay instead of . . . all-of-my-year’s pay.
From the second I pulled the cork out of the bottle, I knew I’d never be the same. A wave of violets and raspberries suffused the room, even before the wine was poured. In the glass, it was only a pale red, easy to see through and limpidly clear, but the aroma got even more intense, filling out with wild strawberry, spice and oh gods, that barnyard.
It sounds awful. But think of blue cheese in a great salad or melting on top of a great steak: that deeply aromatic corruption underlies all the other flavors, giving a savouriness that’s like nothing else. In this wine, the bass notes of the barnyard were just the underpinning for the amazing layers of red berries and flowers.
The most amazing thing about it was the mouthfeel: at once it was gripping but silky, like having your tongue wrapped in the finest silk and then wrung out in a burst of fruit and elegance. And, most astounding, it went down like water—that doesn’t sound like a compliment on paper, but it gave you the impression you could simply gulp an entire pint of it if you were thirsty, and it would completely satisfy you.
But you wouldn’t, because the endless silky elegance and ghostly floral/raspberry/spice flavors made your head swim and your heart swell. This was truly wine, wine as only poets and philosophers had ever dreamed of, and I was suddenly both.
All too suddenly the bottle was empty, and so was my heart. I needed more! But I couldn’t possibly afford to drink French Burgundy by the case. I swore then that I’d make my own and ever since then I have: there’s nothing as smooth, as lush, and as satisfying as a truly great Pinot Noir. Sometimes you want a robust Cab, or a fruity Merlot, but you can’t go wrong when you reach for Pinot. Sometimes I think Shakespeare was actually talking about Pinot Noir, and not Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale. Her infinite variety. Other women cloy. The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry.”
If you’re hungry for Pinot Noir, check out our Master Vintner Kits below. Or even make a ‘fun’ version with Blackberry!