Is Pinot Noir the Most Interesting Grape in the World?

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This question may seem audacious, but it deserves serious consideration. The criteria for interest are (1) diversity of flavour, texture, and structural profiles; (2) that diversity derives from both site and climate and human decision making in farming and vinification; (3) a tremendous capacity to continuously improve in quality; (4) transparency; (5) a variety of outlets and price points; (6) intellectual and hedonistic capability; (7) serious ageability; (8) a plethora of small producers across multiple regions dedicated to it.

How many grapes meet the above criteria? Arguably there are no others besides Pinot Noir. Perhaps Syrah qualifies. Riesling and Nebbiolo meet many but not all criteria. As much as I love Chardonnay it can’t elevate to the same level of diversity of Pinot Noir. So here you have a grape that makes Champagne and still wine; is planted in the hallowed ground of Burgundy, but also all over the world: California, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Spain, Oregon, Canada, Chile, Argentina, Germany, Austria, not to mention the Loire, Alsace, and the Jura. Each of these countries and appellations can produce wine of interest. More than a few produce wines at the very highest level of quality and authenticity.

With this question in mind, I set up a special tasting event to blind taste Pinot Noir from around the world. The results were fascinating and inspiring, and there were more than a few humbling moments in the blinds.

Franz Haas Pinot Nero 2015

Grown in Italy’s Alto Adige region, this sub-alpine Pinot Noir presented herbal and foresty upon opening, with light red fruits. I was thrown on identification due to the lower acidity of a warm vintage in a cool region, making me think it was a warm region southern hemisphere wine. It changed considerably in the glass, revealing a bright and light wine. Though the region is interesting and can produce great wines I was not enamored with this example. The winery has a long, respected history since 1880, mostly for white wine. This particular wine is made from Pinot planted at high altitude up to 900m above sea level. Very Good.

Barda (Bodega Chacra)

A surprising Argentinian Pinot Noir from the southerly Patagonia – a continental climate with a cool growing environment. I found this wine charming and rustic, with crunchy black cherry fruit, and a wonderful sous bois quality. I had this pegged for an entry level village Nuits-St-Georges and so was surprised and impressed on the reveal. A completely different wine from the Haas. This is made from massale selected own-rooted vines planted in sand. Very Good+.

Littorai Sonoma Coast 2016 and Littorai Wendling Vineyard Block E Anderson Valley 2016

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Littorai is among the top 3 Pinot Noir producers in California. In my view, Ted Lemon understands the grape more than any other in the state and his wines show the most terroir and subtlety across regions I’ve experienced in California Pinot. The two wines we tasted demonstrated this – a light winemaking touch brought aromatics, silky tannin and freshness to both but also significant differences. The Sonoma Coast bottling showed the classic cranberry and orange blossom that is typical of that AVA with a mid-weight core. The Anderson Valley was denser and more powerful with more structured tannin and a wound up core of black fruit and far less of a citrus component. Both were outstanding wines, with the Sonoma Coast a bit more accessible today. Excellent for both.

Domaine Faiveley Aux Chaignots Nuits St. Georges Premier Cru 2012

The most elevated and refined of the group, with the clear modernist stamp of Faiveley and excellent source material from the Aux Chaignots premier crus. This didn’t present as a ‘rustic’ Nuits-St-Georges, but rather as quite a refined, cool fruited and developed bottle with well integrated very high quality oak. It presented as premier cru Burgundy blind given the obvious pedigree. Excellent+.

Grosset Pinot Noir 2015

A surprise and a wine I had not tasted in years. From the Adelaide Hills, this is a powerful but very pure wine. As I read my tasting note of the 2005 vintage I wrote back in 2010, it is consistent with this newer vintage: this is a wine “focusing on fruit freshness, a clean palate, and bright robust spicyness.” I found strawberry and red cherry fruit alongside impressive clarity and precision for such a big wine. Very Good+ to Excellent.

Conclusions

The tasting was consisting with my experiences and queries prior to it – there is no parallel to Pinot Noir among the world’s vinifera. The wines can range from light and quaffable, to mid-weight, spicy, earthy, fruity, complex, structured, etc. If you include rose and Champagne, there is a Pinot Noir for almost every type of food, and every type of mood. Quality is higher than it ever has been and the ‘new world’ is creeping closer to Burgundy in terms of quality and excitement. This is a good thing given that we are close to the end of accessibility in price and availability for the well-known Burgundy villages. I also believe Pinot Noir will continue to evolve as wine-makers dial in farming decisions and climate changes. Yes, Pinot Noir is the world’s most interesting grape.

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