Lesson 04 – Grape Talk : PINOT NOIR

Deep within Ground Zero of Pinot Noir territory, in a region known as Burgundy, wine producers coined a phrase “heartbreak grape” for the Pinot Noir grape. Wine makers have tried their luck planting this notoriously fastidious grape in Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, Italy and other regions. All ended up enjoying the same turmoil and frustration. So why didn’t everybody simply throw up their hands in disgust saying “the hell with it” and went on to plant something else instead? Get yourself a bottle of great Burgundy – a rare find to be sure – and there will be no need for words to answer this question.

It starts with the nose. The aromas of a great Pinot Noir – be it a Volnay or a Bonnes Mares for example -deliver the most complex bouquet second to none with notes of black cherry, strawberry then a myriad of spices starting with cinnamon and mint, followed by food aromas of tomato and mushroom.

But it is really what happens on the palate that gets everyone smitten. The wine is inundated with “impossible” combinations: rich but not heavy, full-bodied but elegant, vigorous but not acidic or tart, tannic but not astringent and intense but delicate. The clincher is still to come. It is impossible to forget the velvety texture of a matured Pinot Noir, a mouth-feel that we can’t experience with any other varietal, not even the great Cabernet Sauvignon.

Those are the reasons why perfectly sane and rational men put up with the agony of heartbreaks and the frustration of defeats for a whole lifetime. Remember that an average wine maker gets to make about 35 to 45 vintages in his lifetime. With Pinot Noir, it is conceivable that a wine maker gets no more than one or two winners in his entire wine-making lifetime!

So why is Pinot Noir so difficult to deal with?

For starters, the grape’s exceptionally thin skin provide little defense against rot and other diseases. Then its unstable genetic qualities often result in offspring bearing fruit that is nothing like the parents’. It loves cold climates but it leafs early in the season exposing itself to the threat of (Spring) frosts. Pinot also attracts the wrong sorts of company – sharpshooter leafhopper for example which carries the dangerous Pierce’s disease that can destroy hectares of a vineyard.

Even when the struggles in the vineyards are over and the harvest brings in some good ripe grapes, treachery still lurks. Packed with 18 amino acids, Pinot Noir tends to ferment in violent fashion, boiling over for no reason at all. A quick and hot fermentation doesn’t provide enough time for color and phenolics to be transferred (extracted) from the thin skins to the juice. There are many more hazards – prone to acetification for example, which turns wine into vinegar – too many to mention, but I’m sure you get the general idea by now.

A good bottle of Pinot Noir is really a rare combination of good climate, very good luck and mastery in wine making.

All we need now is some lucky bloke who sits on a cheap plot of land on a south-facing slope in the golden strip of Burgundy called Cote d’Or who is either myopic enough or has the insane tenacity to stick to growing Pinots and make great red wines, then we have a prayer of a chance to buy good Pinot Noir for less than US$50 a bottle. Of course, we have to keep Robert Parker from learning about his existence, and that takes more than luck and tenacity.

And would you believe it – Pinot Noir is the most “healthy” of wine, offering 3 to 10 times more resveratrol than Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and other reds, especially if it comes from harsh climates like Burgundy? You’ll have to excuse me now. My bottle of Chambolle-Musigny is properly aired for me to take a sip out of the decanter. Talk to you later!